Ifigenia II

Teresa de la Parra, Ifigenia

It turns out that writing can be addictive. Teresa de la Parra’s heroine, María Eugenia, finishes off her long letter to her friend Cristina de Iturbide, only immediately to then embark on a diary however much she thinks (as she tells us) that this is “a great foolishness, [. . .] a kitsch Romanticism, out of date and very much out of fashion” (83). For someone who values fashion and being fashionable as much as María Eugenia does, it’s quite something that she should take up a practice that’s so clearly unfashionable. She can barely even give a name to what she’s doing: “it will be like what in novels they call a ‘diary’” (83). But the urge to write is stronger than the desire to keep up with the latest trends. It’s as though she can’t help herself: once she’s taken up the pen, she can’t put it down. It’s not fully in her control.

What follows, and what therefore opens the diary, is a reflection on how what we think (our convictions) and what we do (our conduct) can get out of synch. You would have thought that conviction and conduct should go hand in hand: we think something, and then we act on our thoughts. But far from it. María Eugenia thinks to write a diary is kitsch and passé, but she does it anyway: writing has become a custom or “habit” (84), and habits are hard to kick. But there are other ways and other reasons for there to be a slippage between belief and behavior: our actions may be only “acting,” for instance; a performance that doesn’t necessarily reveal our true natures. We act otherwise than we feel for motives both good and bad, and at times it can be hard to tell the difference: we might be trying to deceive or merely trying to fit in; we may be being underhand, or simply polite. Or we may feel ashamed about some secret that we feel the need to hide, so as not to expose ourselves to ridicule or humiliation.

All these situations, and more, are explored in Ifigenia. For instance, María Eugenia confesses (if only to herself, in her diary) that lying has also become a habit, which has taken root in her with surprising “speed and reach” (97). Hence she has few qualms about telling her grandmother that she and her new friend, Mercedes Galindo, will be dining alone when in fact the whole purpose of the dinner is to meet the long-awaited Gabriel Olmedo, who has been set up as a potential suitor. One might ask, moreover, of the habit of dissimulating and the habit of writing are not connected in some way: however much María Eugenia began her letter to Cristina with the assertion that she couldn’t lie when she wrote (3), it has become clear that there’s nothing straightforward about putting something down on paper, not least when almost all the terms and feelings are somehow themselves borrowed from literary sources.

Take for instance the love letter that is embedded within María Eugenia’s diary. This is a missive that she spontaneously decides to compose, while out and about with her young cousin Pedro José (Perucho). She addresses it to Olmedo, whom she has now met and with whom she has, so she believes, almost instantly fallen in love. And she writes it (much to her grandmother and aunt’s later distress) en plein air, with her knees for a desk, and “feverishly [. . . with] the mad sincerity of all those ardent and silent love letters that are never sent” (164). In theory, this should be the most honest of missives, written in the heat of the moment and without regard for audience or schoolroom niceties. But it turns out to be extraordinarily stylized and affected, with extended metaphors that compare her putative beloved alternatively to Jesus (“You are the sweet Messiah of my soul” [165]) and Solomon of the Song of Songs. Or put this another way: if María Eugenia were trying to avoid kitsch Romanticism, here she spectacularly fails. This most sincere and honest of letters is in fact the creation of supremely literary habits of reading. What’s more, it’s clearly also the product of a rather hyper-active imagination and fantasy of what it must be like to fall in love. When it turns out that Gabriel has gone off and gotten engaged to someone else, we can’t but think that (for now, at least) María Eugenia has dodged a bullet.

So we have more than a mere slippage between thought and deed, emotion and expression, and more broadly essence and appearance. We have a thorough upending of all these overlapping distinctions. Performance and fidelity, fakery and authenticity, representation and the real, are all increasingly hard to tell apart, or rather increasingly seem to change places. Mercedes’s boudoir, to take another example, is both an intimate site for the exchange of confidences between women (such as Mercedes’s confession about her unhappy marriage) and also a cushion-filled imitation–or, better, fantasy–of some kind of Oriental antechamber. It’s a place where femininity is sacrosanct, but also where Mercedes and María Eugenia can try out otherwise “masculine” practices such as smoking a cigarette; it’s moreover a transitional space where femininity (and modernity) is itself constructed, through make-up and clothing and the like. In short, Teresa de la Parra is interested both in the psychic spatiality of transnational gender relations, trading off Paris with Caracas, writing and speech, public and private, ornament and utility, and so on, all around the basic division of inside and outside, essence and appearance. But she is equally concerned with the tipping points at which inside becomes outside, essence becomes appearance: the strategic moments when everything, however briefly, is turned inside-out, upside-down.

Ifigenia I

Teresa de la Parra, Ifigenia

Teresa de la Parra’s Ifigenia: Diario de una señorita que escribió porque se fastidiaba gives us women’s writing twice over: not only is de la Parra herself a woman writer, so is her protagonist, María Eugenia Alonso. Indeed, almost the entirety of the book is presented as María Eugenia’s writing, in diverse genres, the first section being a letter from Venezuela to her friend, Cristina de Iturbe, whom she last saw in France. Or, as the section heading has it, it is “a very long letter in which things are told as they are in novels” (3). Which, however, interestingly distinguishes protagonist from author: if Teresa de la Parra is writing a novel, her heroine by contrast writes something that is (only?) like a novel. She is, in short, a woman writing but perhaps not really a “woman writer” or “author,” someone defined by and recognized for what she writes. As the novel’s subtitle suggests, writing is important and yet also somehow only a phase for María Eugenia: she is a “young lady who wrote because she was bored.” This indicates that writing is some kind of psychological escape or relief. But on the other hand, if she had not been bored, perhaps she would not have written; and the use of the past tense implies that she no longer writes. In short, the novel offers the possibility of an investigation into why (Latin American) women write, and why they don’t, and what stops them from becoming “writers” or authors (authorities?) in the fullest sense of the term.

María Eugenia opens her long letter to her friend by apologizing for the fact that she has not written. Her first line is: “At last I’m writing to you,” as though writing were the culmination of a lengthy process, here much delayed. She then refers immediately to a long letter that she had “thought to write you from Paris, and which I already began to draft in my head” (3). So the letter we’re reading is a delayed compensation or replacement for a letter that was never written (except in its would-be author’s head). In lieu of that letter, Cristina has so far written no more than postcards–and it’s clear that for María Eugenia, these don’t really count; we certainly have no idea what they may have said. We do, however, have a sense of what an earlier letter might have contained: if she had written while she was still en route between Paris and Venezuela, it would have been full of the optimism she felt at the time. And though María Eugenia claims she doesn’t know how to lie when she writes, arguing therefore that writing is somehow more honest than the spoken word, an optimistic letter would have been profoundly deceptive.

For the surprising truth that María Eugenia has discovered on her return home to the land of her birth is that her riches and privilege were all illusory: everything has been spent and/or stolen; she is dependent on the generosity of her family; and she finds herself practically confined to her grandmother’s house in Caracas, her only possible salvation a good marriage to an eligible bachelor. This is the situation she has now to confess through writing, though she also recognizes that there is something entertaining about the tale of her decline and fall: it’s “not so much humiliating as picturesque, interesting, and somewhat medieval” (3). In short, her life has come to approximate a Gothic romance: a classically feminine (and often derided) genre in which defenceless damsels routinely find themselves incarcerated in an unfamiliar environment, hoping for a dashing young man to save them. María Eugenia can write the story of her life as though it were a novel because there is now something novelistic about it. It is as though she were acting out a script, something that has already been written down, and yet the disappointment of economic distress is tempered, if not redeemed, by its aestheticization, by the fact that her plight can at least be represented and recorded, albeit in a derivative language and structure, borrowed from popular culture.

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.

Adiós Presidente!

Hugo ChávezHugo Chávez was perhaps the most influential figure in Latin American politics over the past twenty years. Not only did he have an immeasurable impact on his own country–to the point of changing its name, from the “Republic of Venezuela” to the “Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.” He was also the first of the left-wing presidents that comprise the so-called “left turns” in the region. And to the end, nationally and internationally alike, he was no doubt the most divisive of figures. In the reaction to his death we see the intense popularity that he enjoyed among significant sections of the Venezuelan people, as well as the inspirational role he played for many as a standard-bearer for a fairer alternative to neoliberalism and US supremacy. But we also see Venezuelans celebrating his demise (albeit less openly in Caracas than at a distance, in Miami) and a more mainstream assessment of his legacy that stresses ambivalence at best if not outright hostility to Chávez’s excesses and idiosyncracies.

If nothing else, the Venezuelan President was also the most colourful figure we have seen in Latin America for a good long while. Literally as well as figuratively: in his bright red beret or his jumpsuits the vibrant shades of the Venezuelan flag, as well as in his political invective or his apparently impulsive gestures and mischievous antics. What other world leader would, from the UN rostrum in New York, describe the sitting US President (George W Bush) in these terms: “Yesterday the Devil came here. Right here. And it smells of sulphur still today.” Or who else would leap at the chance of an international summit to present the subsequent US Commander in Chief (Barack Obama) with a copy of that classic leftist history, Eduardo Galeano’s The Open Veins of Latin America? Chávez was exuberant, unpredictable, tireless, and both charming and annoying in equal measure. As Lula puts it in a fascinating homage, “he didn’t allow people to fall asleep.” Many of us, however, like a quiet life and King Juan Carlos of Spain surely spoke for many when he asked in frustration: “Why don’t you shut up?” But where the King is now enmeshed in scandal as the Spanish monarchy’s ratings plummet, Chávez seems to have had the last laugh, with even former foes grudgingly paying him their respects.

The Venezuelan opposition hated and despised Chávez. They barely understood why anyone would vote for him–which is one reason why he beat them soundly in every election he fought. Despite coming late to the democracy game–famously, he came to public prominence with an attempted coup d’état in 1992–Chávez quickly got the hang of it. For all the criticisms that he was some kind of autocrat, it’s best to see his continual efforts at mobilization (of his base) and antagonism (of his opponents) as part of a permanent democratic campaign. Indeed, far from the anti-politics of either technocratic neoliberalism or traditional authoritarianism, Chávez is perhaps best understood as the most consummate of politicians. He thrived on politics, in its purest forms: he was energized by its spirit of antagonism; he separated friends from enemies and sought to expand the ranks of both. The middle classes who saw him as such a threat to their livelihoods took the bait all too easily. They’ll find they miss him.

For if anything unites the rancourous Venezuelan opposition–and little does–it is their visceral distaste for the Comandante. Now that their bête noir is gone, they’ll have to face up to the fact that chavismo without Chávez is a little more complicated, and perhaps a little more robust, than they have assumed.

More soon…


The fiction of hegemony is more threadbare than ever. The myth of the social contract is over. In place of coercion or consent, both of which depend upon granting transcendence to the state, posthegemony substitutes affect, habit, and an immanent multitude. Politics is biopolitics: in fact, it always has been, but today more clearly than before neither civil society nor the state are sites of struggle or objects of negotiation. At stake is life itself. One the one hand, increasingly corrupt forces of command and control modulate and intervene directly on the bodies of ordinary men and women. On the other hand, everyday insurgencies of constituent power reveal a multitude that betrays and corrodes constituted power from the inside, overflowing and escaping its bounds. The outcome of this confrontation is uncertain: constituent power may still fold back against itself; the line of flight that escapes may become suicidal; the multitude may turn bad and become monstrous; or perhaps, just perhaps, Exodus may lead to what Negri terms “the time of common freedom” (The Porcelain Workshop 161).

Read more…. (long .pdf file)


Commentary on the recent Venezuelan referendum, particularly among foreign observers, has turned into a rather tiresome to and fro between self-satisfied opponents of Chávez, who like to think that the Bolivarian revolution has been stopped in its tracks, and equally self-satisfied supporters, who think they have refuted the claims of Chávez’s dictatorial tendencies.

The referendum has also been interpreted as a weathervane for the region’s Left Turns as a whole. With the Bolivian constitutional process also stymied, Lula quiescent, Bachelet unpopular, and the Kirchners apparently reinstating Peronist husband-and-wife politics as usual, have we reached the high water mark for Latin America’s renascent left movements?

But in all this discussion, the central point has been lost: that the process of setting constitutions registers a balance of forces between constituent and constituted power.

In fact, the referendum’s obvious winner was Chávez, as the President himself observed when he termed the wafer-thin margin a “Pyrrhic victory” for the opposition. The escuálidos would have been much happier had the poll gone the other way: they were apparently already handing out t-shirts that declared the result was a “fraud,” and even now a week later they continue to propagate conspiracy theories, fuelled for instance by pillars of social democracy such as Jorge Castañeda, alleging that the military had to persuade a reluctant premier to accept the will of the people. Denied the outrage they had counted on, they have had to manufacture it for themselves. As always, the anti-chavistas are such a pitiful sight that, were I Venezuelan, they would almost inspire me to go out and sign up for a PSUV party card out of spite.

In fact, Chávez’s dignified response to defeat enabled him to appear statesmanlike (not an adjective usually applied to a mercurial figure who won recent headlines for trying the King of Spain’s patience) and, more importantly, sovereign, as Stephanie Blankenburg observes in one of the few decent articles to have appeared in the past few weeks.

For constitutions are all about defining and upholding sovereignty. Any alteration to the constitution is also potentially a threat to constituted power: in the passage between constitutions, the state is temporarily ungrounded. Everything is up for grabs, however briefly. There’s no better example of that than the crisis currently affecting Bolivia, where even a hundred-year grievance over the site of the national capital has been thrown into the mix.

Meanwhile, the ongoing deadlock in Belgium, let alone the slow-motion catastrophe that is the process of European integration, both demonstrate that threats to constituted power abound as much in the North as in the South. We’re living in an era of global reconstitution.

And so the defeat of Venezuela’s proposed constitutional changes could be read as an affirmation of the country’s current (hardly any less chavista) constitution and current head of state. Indeed, that’s precisely how Chávez’s defenders have portrayed the situation: as an endorsement of the institutional mechanisms cemented in place by the 1999 constitution, from the National Electoral Council (Consejo Nacional Electoral or CNE) to the clauses that regulate constitutional amendment itself.

In other words, at least at first sight, the rejection of the referendum is a victory for constituted power, and a defeat for constituent power.

Chávez concedes, constitution in hand.
But the situation is rather more complicated. For the proposed constitutional reforms were very clearly generated within the state apparatus, rather than from outside and against it. Heinz Dietrich blames an entire “New Political Class” that he argues has sprung up and accreted to an increasingly sclerotic Bolivarian revolution. More revealing still are the complaints from Chávez supporters that the electoral defeat resulted from a failure to explain the proposals clearly and persuasively enough to the movement’s base. Not only is this an unrepentant admission that the process was conceived as a top-down campaign to court consent. It also shows that what is at stake is a project for hegemony. And the mass abstention that led to electoral downfall is a sign that Chávez’s hegemonic project is seriously frayed around the edges.

That the same result should be a victory for constituted power and at the same time a demonstration of the failure of hegemony should be no surprise. Constituted power has never depended upon hegemony.

What then of constituent power? Perhaps the fact that some three million people failed to vote shows a new development in Venezuela: an Exodus from the mechanisms designed to consolidate the Bolivarian state. Chávez’s relationship with this subaltern excess has always been precarious and contingent, as he himself is fully aware. Hence the President is always in campaign mode, endlessly trying to reconstruct the political by insisting on the classical distinction between “friend” and “enemy.” If the force of this interpellation is now fading, if people are happy not to vote or to vote “no” even when the choice in terms of the defense of national sovereignty, then chavistas have reason to worry.

But it’s the anti-Chávez camp that has most to lose. For if the current president is no longer to keep the forces of constituent power in check, then who can?

Cross-posted to Left Turns? and Long Sunday.


I suspect that this will be the place for all your Venezuela referendum news: Radio Venezuela en vivo. They promise full coverage in multiple languages.

Otherwise, the best source for Venezuela analysis remains venezuelanalysis.com.

And I’m looking forward to reading Greg Wilpert’s Change Venezuela by Taking Power, not least for its implied polemic with John Holloway’s How to Change the World without Taking Power. Anyone serious about the issues raised by Zizek’s “Resistance is Surrender” should probably read these two books. Sadly, too much of the hoo-ha around Zizek’s article has been far from serious.


The Oil Wars blog reminds us of the seventeenth anniversary of the Caracazo.

The Caracazo is the name of a massacre, carried out on the orders of then President of Venezuela Carlos Andrés Pérez, in which hundreds most likely thousands died. As “Oil Wars” comments, “This vicious massacre forever changed politics and in many ways can be said to have paved the way for Chavez’s rise to the presidency.”

We shouldn’t forget, however, that it is also the name of an insurgency, a near-spontaneous protest against neoliberal “reform,” a series of riots against the IMF. A multitudinous insurrection.

Here’s a question: has Chávez’s Bolivarianism more in common with the insurgency or the counter-insurgency? Is chavismo a continuation and expansion of that multitudinous energy? Or does Chávez rather re-establish a social contract otherwise broken in the Caracazo, thereby re-legitimating state power? Or both, of course.

For more on this, see also my friend Juan Antonio Hernández’s article, “Against the Comedy of Civil Society: Posthegemony, Media and the 2002 Coup d’Etat in Venezuela.” Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies 13.1 (March 2004): 137-145.

(Further links: various articles from Bitbiblioteca; “El Sacudón” by Rafael Rivas-Vasquez; “27 de febrero de 1989” from the Círculo Bolivariano 17 de marzo; “Venezuela después del Caracazo” (.pdf) by Margarita López-Maya; a personal account from priest Charles Hardy; and photos from the Agencia Bolivariana de Prensa.)


Hugo Chávez is in the news again, now thanks to Pat Robertson’s outrageous call for his assassination. The Venezuelan president is no stranger to the headlines, of course, nor does he shirk them. He takes on his (many and vociferous) opponents directly and publicly, whether by baiting the so-called “escuálidos” who are his domestic opposition, or by taking on the US government, most recently accusing DEA agents of international espionage.

I’ve never been a great fan of Chávez. His personalist style is deeply problematic. In typical populist manner, he deploys his charisma to conjure away the fact of state domination. I have been ambivalent about his regime despite recognizing that anti-chavista forces are far more unsavory. I remember asking a friend, who was at the time editor at the excellent Caracas-based Nueva Sociedad, whether the military might come to power if Chávez were overthrown. “Ah, but the military is already in power,” was his response.

And it’s true that Chávez is an ex-paratrooper, who came to attention first as head of an unsuccessful coup attempt in 1992. Also, if the 2002 effort to unseat him failed in part because of the multitudinous uprising that ensued, another reason was the loyalty shown by the military rank and file, most of whom still see him as one of them.

Ironically, in that he depends so much on television to construct and maintain his popular appeal, complete with his own talk show, Aló Presidente, and given his direct, over-dramatic, evangelical style, Chávez is in some ways the mirror image of his latest critic, the tele-evangelist Robertson. And Chávez’s tele-populism undoubtedly depends upon and engenders the power of popular belief.

But is there anything more to chavismo than its faith in a leader?

I was (quite by accident) in Venezuela during the 2002 coup and counter-coup. It was an extraordinary week. And one thing was obvious: Chávez’s supporters, who constitute, as has now been repeatedly demonstrated, the majority of the population, expected a lot of his government; but it had yet to deliver. The regime had not made much of a difference to Venezuela’s poor. It was long on rhetoric, but short on results. It had proposed a number of creative and controversial foreign policy initiatives (from seeking to resuscitate and reorient OPEC to improving links with Cuba), but had been mostly on the defensive domestically.

That may now be changing. The fact that populism still figures the people as expectant (and so dependent) on a power alien to them remains its great limitation. But at least the people are no longer simply waiting. And the reforms that the government is effecting, in the wake of the counter-coup, suggest further change may be on its way. In the space of a few months, Venezuela has come to attention for its empowerment of workers on the shop floor, its education and health programs, and its ambitious land reform initiative.

One could draw a contrast with the government over which Brazil’s Lula presides. Unlike Chávez, Lula has long been the darling of the international left. His Workers’ Party grew out of struggles against military repression in the 1970s and 1980s, his personal biography is compelling, he has made all the right noises in terms of regional solidarity, and has hosted and encouraged the Porto Alegre gatherings of the World Social Forum. But, also unlike Chávez, his government has become mired in a corruption scandal that, if it doesn’t reach to the very top, goes pretty close to it. Meanwhile, Lula’s much vaunted social programs, particularly the “Zero Hunger” program, have so far proved insubstantial and ineffectual. And his economic policies have been a continuation of the neoliberal orthodoxy already in place, which have kept the markets happy but done little to reduce his country’s appalling wealth and income inequalities.

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs has two useful articles detailing how the mess that Lula finds himself in contrasts with Chávez’s status as Latin America’s rising superstar.

I’ve always found it strange that Venezuela, despite its strategic importance and economic weight, has commanded so little attention outside its borders. (The number of prominent Latin Americanists with expertise on the country can be counted on the fingers of one mutilated hand, compared to the myriads studying, say, Argentina, Mexico, or Peru.) It’s time for us to take a little more notice. A good place to start is www.venezuelanalysis.com. And Gregory Wilpert, as evidenced in articles such as this one, has for some time been among the more astute commentators on the so-called Bolivarian Revolution.

“We are the expression of the multitude”, declare Venezuela’s community media association. Well, maybe. Chávez continues to hog the headlines, but there may indeed be something rather interesting going on within the organizations that have been established under his regime’s aegis, or in parallel with the regime itself.