We Created Chávez

George Ciccariello-Maher, We Created Chávez

George Ciccariello-Maher’s We Created Chávez, which styles itself as “a people’s history of the Venezuelan Revolution,” is a valuable contribution not only to our understanding of the contemporary Venezuelan government and its origins, but also if more indirectly to debates over the so-called Latin American “left turns” and indeed to our thinking about the relationship between social movements and the state in general.

Ciccariello-Maher positions his book as a response of sorts to the debate initiated by John Holloway, whose influential Change the World Without Changing Power was inspired by the experience of the Mexican Zapatistas. Holloway argues that the Zapatistas, who famously opted out of and even argued against participation in the electoral process with their “Other Campaign,” offered a vision of what we might call constituent power trumping a constituted power that only ever repeats all-too-familiar structures of domination. A few years later, drawing on the Venezuelan case in which Hugo Chávez was merely the first in a series of often stunning electoral victories by the Latin American Left, Gregory Wilpert followed with a book whose title is an explicit rebuke to Holloway: Changing Venezuela by Taking Power. In trying to bring together these perspectives, refusing to choose in any simple fashion between social movements “from below” and the role of the state “from above,” Ciccariello-Maher’s contribution is broadly in line with the account given by Sujantha Fernandes’s Who Can Stop the Drums? Urban Social Movements in Chavez’s Venezuela, the main methodological difference being that where Fernandes provides a more thorough-going and textured anthropological account focussed on the urban poor, We Created Chávez is more broadly historical, examining a range of groups and organizations across the country from the 1950s to the present. Unfortunately, Ciccariello-Maher provides what is only a response “of sorts” to this debate in that specific references to this previous work is muted, most often found buried in footnotes.

Moreover, there are other references that are simply missing. For instance, on another, more theoretical level, this same debate about Venezuela and the contemporary Latin American Left is to some extent replicated in the exchange between Simon Critchley, author of Infinitely Demanding, and Slavoj Zizek, who like Wilpert turns to Chávez (as elsewhere he turns to Lenin) to justify the importance of seizing the “commanding heights” as much as the grassroots in any serious effort to effect social change. Invocations of constituent and constituted power also suggest the controversies surrounding Michael Hardt and Toni Negri’s theorization of Empire and (more recently) Commonwealth or even Negri and Giuseppe Cocco’s GlobAL, on “biopolitics and struggle in a globalized Latin America”; and one might have thought that (for instance) Bruno Bosteels’s reflections on the similar situation of Bolivia, addressed in The Actuality of Communism, deserved a mention. But while Hardt and Negri are mentioned in passing (and again, in footnotes), these other names are absent.

Ciccariello-Maher’s main points of reference are, instead, Régis Debray (as antagonist) and Frantz Fanon, CLR James, and Enrique Dussel, mixed with a little Gramsci and Ernesto Laclau where occasion seems to merit. At the very end, Lenin comes to save the day and resolve the apparent “paradox” that despite their “militant autonomy and rejection of the Venezuelan state,” so many social activists and ordinary people alike “nevertheless pledge their loyalty, however temporarily and contingently, to the man currently [as Ciccariello-Maher was writing] sitting atop that state” (5-6). The problem remains that there is very little explicit dialogue in this book with other contemporary critical approaches to Latin American politics and culture. Translating both that paradox and Ciccariello-Maher’s proposed solution into the terms of broader debates in the region and elsewhere is left, then, as an exercise for the reader.

One possibility is a turn to the dialectic. For if one were in a dialectical frame of mind (and Ciccariello-Maher very often is, on occasion finding even a “dialectic within a dialectic” [236]), one might suggest that We Created Chávez resolves the apparent antagonism between the positions outlined by Holloway and Wilpert in terms of the triumphant synthesis of a Revolution whose revolutionary nature is constantly asserted and never questioned. This is the synthesis of the constituent process and the constituted fact of institutional organization; this is the negation of the negation that presents us with the revolutionary state incarnated in “an individual, Chávez, as an expression of [. . .] alternative power ‘from below’” (242). Hence the need to support Chávez and his government: he is after all (as the book’s title reminds us) the creation of popular energies that long predate him, and that the narrative Ciccarielo-Maher presents dates back to the 1950s and the origins of Venezuelan democracy.

The book begins with the various guerrilla groups that sprang up in the wake of the 1958 overthrow of dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez, tracing the effects of their misjudged vanguardism and the relative ease with which they were routed by the state, only for the masses to grow in power and finally show the bankruptcy of “Venezuelan exceptionalism” in the Caracazo, whose consummation was Chávez’s electoral victory of 1998. On a somewhat shorter timescale (and perhaps another dialectic within the dialectic), if the violent protests of 1989 were “a mass charge without a vanguard” and Chávez’s 1992 coup attempt were then the actions of “a vanguard that was not able to immediately coordinate its masses” (101), Chávez in power represents their sublation or Aufhebung.

But once the long view is introduced, a somewhat different story emerges. In rather less dialectical manner Ciccariello-Maher’s book is also about the varied and torturous paths taken by a vast range of social struggles, some of which become unified under the name of Chávez and the umbrella of the Bolivarian revolution (at least for a time), but others not. Even at its best, this is less the negation of negation than a long, slow consolidation of forces more reminiscent of Laclau than of Zizek or Hegel. At its worst, in Ciccariello-Maher’s account the dialectic is replaced by a sometimes rather teleological narrative of progress. More to the point, what we mostly see as the book guides us through an alphabet soup of acronyms (FALN, LCR, MAS, PCUV, M-28, CFPs, CTV, FRETECO, and many more) is a complexity that is not well served by the proliferation of appeals to dialectical thinking, however fast and loose our conception of the dialectic may be. Any unity appears fragmentary at best, and yet there are even uncanny moments (in the history of the student movement, for instance, or in official reaction to lumpen self-organization) at which the line between chavismo and the anti-chavista opposition becomes awfully blurred, despite Chávez’s (and this book’s) consistent attempts to distinguish as clearly as possible between revolutionary Bolivarians and reactionary escuálidos.

What becomes evident instead is a multiplicity that remains stubbornly resistant to any final unification or even neat divisions. A tension remains, then, to trouble over-confident declarations of synthesis or loyalty. When the book (like Zizek) reaches for Lenin, it is now the Lenin of “dual power,” of the sometimes uneasy, often downright contradictory, cohabitation of popular power and state command, local councils and sovereign institutions, constituent and constituted power in an equilibrium that can only ever be provisional. From this point of view, as the book’s last line has it, support for Chávez can only be “por ahora” or “for now” (255). Theory is abandoned in favor of a pragmatism that sits somewhat uneasily with the radicalism that Ciccariello-Maher otherwise wears rather ostentatiously on his sleeve. And the fact that this watchword of enduring suspicion is taken from Chávez himself–from his brief televised address in the aftermath of his failed coup attempt of 1992–is but a further irony or twist in the tale. It is as though we can go beyond the gran comandante only by mimicking his own rhetorical strategies.

But if there is no tidy synthesis at the end of the story, the excessiveness of constituent or popular power cuts both ways. On the one hand, Chávez can never fully represent the Venezuelan people, however hard he tried (and nobody, frankly has tried harder), because ultimately there is something that always resists and overpowers such representation. But then there are also the aspects of social struggle that are somehow left behind along the road, that are never fully incorporated into chavismo or that are dropped or drop out. Emblematic of the other side or failures of chavista populism, its failure to construct a “people,” is the fate of Douglas Bravo, long-term revolutionary and now disillusioned ex-chavista. Bravo bookends We Created Chávez: he is introduced early, in part to establish Ciccariello-Maher’s credentials, in a book that is very concerned with the bona-fides of the anthropological “I,” with its possession of the passwords and “magic words” (83) that enable and guarantee the authenticity of its and our entry into Venezuelan reality. We are told that Bravo himself checks the author out and ultimately approves: “I can work with you” he “abruptly announces” (25). But it turns out that Ciccariello-Maher cannot work with Bravo, who is twice described as “seething” (28, 253), as in some sense out of control; this is a word otherwise only applied to an anti-Chávez journalist’s denunciation of the “lumpen.” In a final scene, moreover, Bravo is portrayed with “his mind clearly moving quicker than his words” (whatever exactly that means) and depicted with more than a smattering of condescension as “an isolated former guerrilla who cannot accept the reality of the battle ahead, a comandante without troops” (253).

So who, I wonder, created Bravo? Why is he a comandante without troops, while Chávez by contrast has so many battalions to call upon? If we are to blame Bravo for being left behind by history, then why not in turn praise Chávez for his astuteness in figuring out the way the wind blows? Why, in short, ascribe agency only to the losers (here, Bravo) while so resolutely denying it the victors (Chávez)? There are some strange choices at work here. Or perhaps not so strange, merely overdetermined. Everyone likes a winner, after all.

In the end, my problem with Ciccariello-Maher’s purported resolution of the conflict between constituent and constituted power is that it comes down to something of a truism. Of course in some ways the “people” created Chávez–though one would have thought that a dialectician would also point out the ways in which Chávez likewise created his people, not least through his consistent politicization of the social field, his insistent division between the people and the escuálidos who fall outside and beyond any attempt at representation. But more to the point: didn’t the “people” also create Betancourt, Carlos Andrés Pérez, and the like? Isn’t constituted power always a result of constituent processes, even when the results don’t turn out quite how we (or the people) might want?

In other words, the simple gesture of pointing to popular creativity and productivity doesn’t in itself legitimate their resultant representatives. Suggesting that it does risks repeating the dual festishism that Ciccariello-Maher sets out to abolish: it fetishes the state and the people at the very same time. Here, indeed, it might have been helpful to consider the distinction between people and multitude upon which Hardt and Negri (among others) insist: it is surely better put to say that it is the multitude that creates Chávez, while he in turn constructs them as a people. Sadly, the very notion of multitude is here dismissed in the tersest of footnotes for its supposed “abstract implausibility” (275). Far from it: Ciccariello-Maher had the chance here to investigate the concrete and quite particular attributes and activities of the Venezuelan multitude, and perhaps also then to complicate Hardt and Negri’s faith that the multitude is always good, always to be trusted. It is this faith that is abstract and implausible, not the category of the multitude itself. But to employ the concept of the “people” so loosely and so uncritically is no great improvement.

In short, this is an important–indeed vital–book that does much to rectify the often short-sighted and shallow accounts of the Bolivarian process by its detractors and defenders alike. By pointing to the centrality of the Caracazo, and beyond that of struggles that originate as far back as the 1950s (and one could go further still, of course, as Margarita López Maya suggests, back to the 1930s or even the 1900s), it displaces the rather sterile debate about Chávez’s (now, Maduro’s) mindset or personality. Along with Who Can Stop the Drums? (as well as the work of others, such as Luis Duno’s important forthcoming contributions), We Created Chávez usefully shifts our attention from the symbolic figure of the sovereign himself, who has otherwise beguiled even those (such as Richard Gott or Tariq Ali) who pledge themselves to him.

But in its tendency to characterize both Chávez and sovereignty more generally simply as product, simply as the result of popular power, this book proposes a new version of Venezuelan exceptionalism, as though the Bolivarian state were unique or somehow singularly organic in its authentic expressiveness of a popular base. It plays down therefore all the various tactics of the chavista state, not least its novel use of media, and utterly ignores the effects of the construction of transcendence, the ways in which constituted power, by folding constituent power back on itself, converts multitude into a delimited people, creating a new range of subalterns and a new set of exclusions. It ignores the ways in which Chávez proved the last gasp of puntofijismo in ensuring some kind of stability for rich and poor alike (“the only leader capable of staving off the threat of civil war” as one of Ciccariello-Maher’s informants rather regretfully puts it [87]).

In sum, and despite all the hedges and provisos that it offers, We Created Chávez runs the risk of re-enchanting the chavista state all the more firmly: no longer as simply the agency that more or less arbitrarily redistributes oil rent, but as the only one that can do so legitimately in the name of its constituents.

2 thoughts on “We Created Chávez

  1. Pingback: We Created Chávez | The Double Register / El doble registro

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