A review of Venezuela: Revolution as Spectacle, by Rafael Uzcátegui, translated by Chaz Bufe, (See Sharp Press ISBN-13: 978-1-884365-77-5/ISBN-10: 1-884365-77-9)
Rafael Uzcátegui has a bone to pick with Leftists (and even some Anarchists like Noam Chomsky and Michael Albert), for their support of the government that he has been fighting for over ten years. This is the government of Hugo Chavez, the charismatic exponent of “21st Century Socialism”, and leader of what has been described as the “Pink Tide” that has swept through many Latin American countries in recent years.Ecuador,Bolivia,Nicaragua,Argentina,Uruguay,Chile andBrazil now have Leftist governments, which to greater or lesser degrees are all influenced by Hugo Chavez’s “Bolivarian Revolution” inVenezuela.
If you ask most people of the Left around the world aboutVenezuela, you will be told that there is a Socialist Revolution going on there. You will probably be told that Hugo Chavez is standing up toUSimperialism and challenging the power of transnational capital by nationalising Oil reserves. You may even be told that real participatory democracy exists inVenezuela: that workers control their own factories and people’s assemblies run their own communities.
For those of you reading this article who will not feel inclined to read Uzcátegui’s book, there’s one key fact you should grasp: Bolivarian Socialism is BS – Bull Shit.
But I encourage you to read the book, not least because it makes the point far more eloquently and convincingly than I’ve just done. In fact I want you to read it so much that I’m going to give you all my criticisms of it first, just so you end the article feeling like you want to read it. Sneaky, eh?
In fact this is fitting, as my main criticism is that the book starts badly, and only gets better towards the end. The first two important sections, which make up the first half, are overloaded with facts, figures, lengthy quotes and specific details which are often fairly boring, and this all combines to make the overall arguments in these chapters quite hard to follow. Only in the second half of the book does a consistent narrative and logical chain of argument seem to develop. In fact if I had been the editor of this book I probably would have put the first section at the end, as much of what is discussed in it would make a lot more sense after the explanations and context given by the second half. As it is, you are plunged into the deep end straight away.
This is unfortunate, and not only because it may put some people off reading past the beginning (though I would say that it’s definitely worth persevering, especially given that the whole book’s only 200 pages). It is also unfortunate because these sections make powerful and crucially important points, and the very fact that they are so detailed is testament to what must have been years of painstaking research and analysis by Uzcátegui. Indeed the bibliography and lists of references at the end of each chapter stretch on for pages.
To be fair some of the sections that are difficult to understand may be more the fault of the translator, Chaz Bufe, than Uzcátegui himself. The book is full of spelling and grammatical mistakes, especially misuses of parentheses, switching between [ ] and ( ) almost at random, so that is impossible to tell which comments are made by Bufe, which by Uzcátegui and which by whoever is being quoted at the time. The book is also full of English words that are quite rarely used, and it’s possible that Bufe could have made more of an effort to find simpler language. But over-use of jargon and poor quality of proofreading are common problems in Anarchist literature, so perhaps I am being unduly harsh.
With his extensive use of quotations, statistics and references from a wide range of sources, Uzcátegui seems desperate to be taken seriously and not merely dismissed as an Anarchist crackpot shouting unsubstantiated rubbish from the sidelines. This is most likely because, as the book describes, opposition to the Bolivarian regime of any form is generally dismissed as right-wing propaganda by supporters of Chavez, both inside and outside ofVenezuela. Indeed, throughout the book Uzcátegui relates several anecdotes of himself and his comrades arguing with foreign activists who refuse to accept what the Venezuelans say about the realities of life in their own country, and instead arrogantly repeat to them pro-Chavez propaganda (the encounter with Michael Albert is a particularly scathing example).
As someone who has travelled and met activists in Bolivia, Ecuadorand Nicaragua, I myself am somewhat familiar with the Orwellian nature of “21st Century Socialism”. I have seen malnourished homeless people begging underneath signs that declare: “the Revolution is Marching On”, and heard tales of students and indigenous people attacked with bullets and teargas by their “Socialist” governments’ police for demonstrating against privatisation. But these experiences pale into insignificance as a condemnation of Bolivarian Socialism compared with the wealth of knowledge possessed by Uzcátegui. He has been editor of the well-respected independent Anarchist newspaper El Libertario since 1995 and the chief investigator of one ofVenezuela’s biggest human rights organisations (PROVEA) since 2006. This guy knows what he’s talking about.
The first main section in the book is prefaced by the following brilliant quotation from Raoul Vaneigem’s Situationist classic The Revolution of Everyday Life:
“Those who speak of revolution and class struggle without alluding explicitly to daily life, without understanding what’s subversive in love and what’s positive in the refusal of duties, have a cadaver in the mouth”.
In a stroke of genius, Uzcátegui transforms this from a somewhat romantic sentiment into a powerful materialist critique of the “Bolivarian Revolution”. The reader is bombarded with a huge mass of information which more than convincingly makes the point that under Chavez “daily life” for most Venezuelans has gotten a hell of a lot worse than it was before the “revolution”. This is based on well-sourced information on several indicators such as: crime rates; fear for personal safety; access to education, healthcare and jobs; cost of living, and others. Basically, the argument goes, if this was really a people’s revolution, we would expect the opposite. If we accept Vaneigem’s logic, this section is the most important in undermining Chavez’s claims to revolutionary legitimacy, which perhaps explains why, as I said above, Uzcátegui lays it on a bit thick so early in the book.
He then moves on somewhat disjointedly to a completely different topic, but one which some would consider equally important- Oil. This section (the “Devil’s Excrement”) is complicated, but then there’s probably no way it couldn’t be given that it’s a political-economic analysis of the history of Venezuelan oil policy, which also requires discussion of quite technical aspects of the processes of oil extraction.Venezuelais one of the world’s biggest oil-exporting countries and this fact has shaped its society and history more than anything else.
There is a widespread belief amongst Leftists around the world that Hugo Chavez is a Socialist because he has nationalised the oil industry and used the profits for the benefit of the people. Uzcátegui shows that this is a complete myth.
In fact almost the opposite is true. The oil industry was already nationalised, decades before Chavez came to power, and Chavez has opened it up to the influence of foreign capital. This has been done through “mixed enterprise” schemes with transnational oil companies such as Chevron and BP, not known for their socialist credentials. Uzcátegui explains how in the case of the oil industry, as with other industries such as the construction of massive infrastructural projects, Chavez has been a champion of capitalist globalisation to the detriment of the environment and indigenous people’s rights. The fact that he has managed to do so despite claiming to be a Socialist Anti-Imperialist is perhaps the most shockingly Orwellian aspect of his rule, especially as his claims have been believed by so many around the world.
The remainder of the book explains how Chavez cannot even be understood as a social-democrat, let alone a Revolutionary Socialist, but merely a Populist in the tradition of many other leaders throughout Venezuelan and Latin American history. In proving this point Uzcátegui takes us on a historical journey through Venezuelan politics, including an inspiring account of the birth of autonomous social movements in the 1990’s after a nationwide popular uprising in 1989 known as the “Caracazo”. He shows how Chavez’s movement did not organically emerge from these social movements but rather opportunistically adopted their demands to get himself into power, before almost completely co-opting them. As an authoritarian populist with a socialist rhetoric Chavez has polarised public opinion and used underhand, repressive techniques to silence criticism.
The overall picture that Uzcátegui paints of life under Chavez is bleak to say the least. But his reflections on the nature of autonomy and the challenges that lie ahead for Venezuela’s anarchists are thought-provoking, inspiring and at times even beautiful. Much of the rest of the analysis he uses throughout the book is credited to other people, often with lengthy quotations, which to me is a sign of a remarkable intellectual humility. He doesn’t want you to think he’s a genius coming up with original ideas all by himself, but instead wants to turn you on to the writers who have influenced him. The most obvious example of this is Guy Debord, who’s book The Society of the Spectacle, another Situationist classic, inspired Uzcátegui’s title. But there are many others who I had never heard of before.
Even more striking than his promotion of little-known theorists who inspired him, are the lengths he goes to make the voices of even less well known Venezualan revolutionaries heard. In this he is amazingly non-sectarian, always giving the Anarchist opinion last, almost as an afterthought. This underlies the severity of political repression inVenezuela, as the many of people interviewed are Socialists and Marxists who were once supportive of the regime but who have turned their back on it due to their experiences of repression.
The overall picture of this story, though not the specific details, will be familiar to those who have studied the history of the Russian Anarchists and non-Bolshevik Socialists after the October Revolution. Those of them that escaped from theSoviet Unionand fled to other countries were faced with an outside world that had an oversimplified and false view of what has going on there. The writings of Emma Goldman, Peter Arshinov, Alexander Berkman and others on the Bolshivik Revolution were a warning to the revolutionaries of the world not to fall into the same trap.
In this sense Uzcátegui is an heir to their legacy, as his book will serve as a warning to our generation of the perils of “21st Socialism”. The reason that Leftists around the world talk so much BS about Bolivarian Socialism is not just because they want it to be true. It’s also because they want to convince others that it’s true, in order that they might say “vote for us and we’ll do the same here”. Many voters in other Latin American countries have fallen for this, and I have seen with my own eyes the awful consequences, that mirror the Venezuelan experience.
If we don’t want to live under an authoritarian state-capitalism that hides itself behind a spectacle of Revolutionary Socialism, we must warn others that the claims of Leftist State Socialists are false. Luckily for us, they don’t really have that many claims going for them anymore: everyone knows thatChinaandCubaare not places we want to emulate. But many are still confused aboutVenezuela, and the other Bolivarian Socialist countries, because of all the BS.
This book is a powerful weapon against that bullshit, and therefore in the struggle for genuine socialism, which is of course, Anarchy.