What benefits has Hugo Chávez’s populist administration brought to the Venezuelan people? In a controversial 2008 Foreign Affairs article, “An Empty Revolution,” Venezuelan economist Francisco Rodríguez argues that the regime has not improved the quality of life in the country in any substantial way, it hasn’t actually given greater priority to welfare than past governments had done, and its claims of poverty reduction are overstated. Human development indicators have improved in some regards, he writes, but this has always been the case during commodity booms. Rodríguez even disputes the most frequently lauded achievement of the Bolivarian Revolution, the Barrio Adentro health services program that aims to provide cradle-to-grave medical services in poor communities. In rebuttal, Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research criticizes Rodríguez’s use of statistics and points to massive decreases in extreme poverty, gains in literacy, declining unemployment, and a general reorientation of state priorities toward public welfare under Chávez.
Weisbrot and Rodríguez’s dispute is not unique. Debating the success of Venezuelan social programs and the methodology used to measure economic and social indicators has consumed many observers. But though the establishment of new social and economic rights and the security that might be afforded to the Venezuelan poor by an effective welfare system should not be dismissed, socialism—in the Marxian mold, at least—has historically been more about redistributing power than wealth. It is this fundamental altering of human relations and the social structures that mediate them that intrigues many defenders of Chávez’s “Bolivarian Revolution.”
Like Lincoln Steffens, who on return from the newly formed Soviet Union declared, “I have been over into the future and it works,” some have seen in Venezuelan cooperatives, community councils, and co-managed firms the seedlings of a socialist society. The type of intervention needed for a detailed analysis of these new institutions is beyond the scope of this article, but one particular claim—about the explosion of Venezuelan cooperatives and their anti-capitalist character—deserves examination. It provides insights relevant to the entire radical populist experiment.
Cooperatives have long captured the imagination of the Left. The Mondragón Corporation, a network based in the Basque territory and often held up as a model of the cooperative movement, is a well-known example. It represents what is perhaps the best that can be accomplished in a worker-controlled archipelago surrounded by a capitalist sea. Since its founding in 1956, the federally organized corporation has sprawled far beyond the town of Mondragón; today, it employs over 85,000 and is one of the leading business groups in Spain. The complex is proof that efficient enterprises, even corporations with tens of thousands of employees, can be structured democratically, and it suggests that a dynamic economy can thrive without capitalists. With the success of a worker-owned management research center (Saiolan), the entrepreneurial role of “productive” capital has been socialized. The corporation’s banks provide capital and technical expertise for expanding the existing cooperatives and adding new affiliates. The whole enterprise is a prototype for civic investment at a time when so many are discontented with the global banking system.
Yet it is impossible to ignore the limits of this venture. As Sharryn Kasmir notes in The Myth of Mondragón, there is something striking about the way Mondragón fits with the spirit of post-’68 capitalism. She sees the cooperative’s workplace complementing, not challenging, a flexible, “team oriented,” post-Fordist capitalist order. Kasmir cites survey data indicating that the majority of workers don’t feel that their firms actually belong to them. And, not surprisingly, the corporation as a whole remains hostage to the world market. Still, the experiment suggests that the masters of industry are replaceable after all.
Venezuela, a country with state funding and logistical support for the cooperative sector, would seem poised to replicate the success of Mondragón on a large scale. The number of cooperatives registered in Venezuela has risen from the hundreds to the hundreds of thousands over the past decade. Analyses from the Western Left have designated them an anti-bureaucratic form of socialization far superior to state directed nationalization. They constitute, from this view, a cornerstone of socialist construction in the country.
However, the reality beneath the rhetoric of “endogenous development” is less than inspiring. Out of the more than 220,000 registered cooperatives, only 70,000 are active—a failure rate of 70 percent. The ones that have survived, far from serving as vehicles of worker empowerment, have in some respects institutionalized underground-economy work without improving conditions. Since they are supposedly equal “partners” in a firm, groups of cooperative members who feel exploited within their workplace cannot engage in industrial action. This status as “self-employed associates” rather than “workers” also means they are exempt from national labor laws governing basic protections such as minimum wage requirements. These features are attractive to large capitalist firms that outsource work to cooperatives—many of them staffed by unemployed ex-union members—in order to minimize their reliance on combative permanent workers.
The trend is not limited to the private sector. Many cooperatives rely on state contracts, replacing public sector unionized jobs with more precarious contracted labor. In a widely cited case, the Foucault-quoting former mayor of Caracas, Juan Barreto, allowed cooperatives to compete for municipal contracts. Several unions were forced to dissolve under the competitive pressure and reorganize as a series of small cooperatives with no collective bargaining rights. This is post-Fordist “flexibility” at its finest.
For all its contradictions, the Mondragón initiative grew from below. The Chávez government has promoted cooperatives from above through a restrictive legal framework that undercuts existing working class organization and closes off opportunities for self-emancipation. Nor is this project a novel one. Stripped of their relationship to an independent workers’ movement, cooperatives were welcomed by Franco in Spain and Mussolini in Italy, regimes that found non-confrontational relations between labor and management a complement to corporatism. Presently they subsist happily in large swathes of the capitalist world, sometimes offered up by “third way” think tanks as a half-way house on the road to privatization.
But the relationship between Chávez and his supporters is complex and dialectical. Even though—through an influx of state credit, training programs, and moral exhortations—the cooperative project has been initiated from the top-down, the momentum pushing the wider Bolivarian movement has come from struggles from below—political activity that had reached a nadir before Chávez’s election. This is an important difference between the classical and radical populist eras. Juan Perón—with whom Chávez is inevitably compared—and his cohorts co-opted a rising Left. Chávez has seemingly resurrected one and has at times struggled to keep up with the forces he helped unleash. The Bolivarian Circles represent with exquisite precision the ethos of the Revolution: these community councils were organized in an attempt to bury the state deep into civil society, to bypass potentially hostile local elected officials, and to dole out patronage directly from the center. They are, as Nikolas Kozloff puts it, at once “anti-democratic, creating a kind of vertical dependency around the cult figure of Chávez” and a real terrain of democratic deliberation. Acknowledging this paradox is key to a sober understanding of radical populism and its contradictions.
In failing health, facing an emboldened opposition, Chávez’s hold on power is precarious. The question now is whether Chavismo can survive after he is gone. Millions have been politicized, but to what end? Latin American populism has grown from poverty and inequity. But even in its newest form, whatever the utopian rhetoric, it remains incapable either of efficiently managing the capitalist state or offering a post-capitalist alternative.
These words will likely draw the ire of those who, like Steffens, see the future at work. Indeed, the Bolivarian Revolution and its sister movements in Ecuador and Bolivia have already taken on a mythic quality in many progressive circles. Criticisms of the process have been derided as academic, ideological, or “objectively counterrevolutionary.” These claims bring to mind Leszek Kolakowski’s assertion that “the Left strives to base its prospects on the experience and evolutionary tendencies of history; whereas the Right is the expression of capitulation to the situation of the moment. For this reason the Left can have political ideology, while the Right has nothing but tactics.” Accepting populism as a stand-in for twenty-first-century socialism shows how much of this ideology has been lost.
Bhaskar Sunkara is the editor of Jacobin.