Human Rights and Radical Social Change: Liberalism, Marxism and Progressive Populism in Venezuela

By Tillman Clark
2010, Vol. 2 No. 03 | pg. 12/13 |
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Conclusion: Prospects for the Future of Chávismo

The bulk of this paper has been written in order to delegitimize, deconstruct and make inviable the political ideology and project of Chávismo and the Venezuelan state’s idea of socialism. The reason for this is because of the aforementioned recognition of the violent nature of the state. If one is to support a political ideology and project, it must be viable, worthy and legitimate--especially if it functions as a radical, progressive and emancipatory one. While currently Chávismo does not fit this criterion, it is not impossible that this will change.

As mentioned earlier, populism’s positive aspect lies in how it often ushers in a new mass that transcends the old, traditional, and oligarchical , providing a new sense of dignity and self-respect for lower class sectors of society, who are encouraged to recognize that they possess both social and political rights. The negative aspect of traditional populism was its effect on democratic citizenship. Populism requires the “privileged link” between the masses through electoral functions and acclimations, but once in power, this leadership provided few institutional means by which citizens can participate in the functioning of government or hold it accountable. were thus merely delegative formalities where the masses choose who to give authority and then retreat to a paternalistic position. It is in this regard that the unique nature of Chávismo populism holds hope. The 1999 constitution and constant mandates from Chávez himself provide the institutional groundwork for the possibility of multiple forms of democratic participation from citizens. These include, but are not limited to, communal councils that have the potential for legitimate allocative responsibilities and political power, participatory budgeting in which citizens can take part in their local governments by auditing them for records, and attempts at forms of workplace democracy where forms of co-management act as a check to government influence in nationalized firms.74

The question regarding these new forms of democratic participation is; to what extent are these new forms institutionalized and how will they play a concrete role in decision making and influence upon the state. It is one thing to have these idealistic proposals put down on paper, and another to have them work efficiently within the state and civil apparatus. The overarching positive aspect of populism is that it can open up a rift in ideological hegemony and ossification, creating space for democratic thinking and control that goes beyond the limitations of populism. It is not beyond hope that the discourse of democracy and participation is taken more seriously by the people it affects, thus turning them against the populist bureaucracy, discourse and its limiting configuration.

Laclau’s theory of populism employs a hope of this sort; an analysis of populism that sees its most progressive aspects being re-articulated into a form of socialism. Laclau’s conclusion of populism, from a decidedly Marxist position, is that; “...the highest and most radical form of populism, is that whose class interests lead it to the suppression of the State as an antagonistic force.” Moreover;

In socialism, therefore, coincide the highest form of ‘populism’ and the resolution of the ultimate and most radical of class conflicts. The dialectic between ‘the people’ and classes finds here the final moment of its unity: there is no socialism without populism, and the highest forms of populism can only be socialist.75

In this sense, it is not impossible for a populist movement to change into a radical project that employs a more systemic analysis of the antagonisms of a given society. But Laclau’s mistake is to suggest that populism is an aspect of radical movements that is inherent and continuous instead of initial and something to be overcome. Again, Zizek acts as a corrective to Laclau, drawing attention to the vastly critical and eclipsing point about populism that overwhelms its other aspects:

[T]here is a constitutive mystification that pertains to populism. Its basic gesture is to refuse to confront the complexity of the situation, to reduce it to a clear struggle with a pseudoconcrete enemy figure. So not only is populism not the area within which today’s emancipatory projects should inscribe themselves, one should go a step further and propose that the main task of today’s emancipatory politics, its life-and-death problem, is to find a form of political mobilization that, although (like populism) critical of institutionalized politics, avoids the populist temptation.76

And, to employ an earlier quote from Zizek again, furthermore:

[T]he ultimate difference between true radical-emancipatory politics and populist politics is that authentic radical politics is active, imposing, enforcing its vision, while populism is fundamentally reactive, a reaction to a disturbing intruder.77

Accordingly, as long as the discourse of populism employs the of the “disturbing intruder” or the “alien element” that affects social unity, it can never truly be a bearer of emancipatory radical politics or a be an element within it. It lacks a long term vision or unitary ideology with which to actively impose itself. It is reactive in the sense that it waits for the contradictions of society to emerge and creates attempts at solutions based on these reactions. Chávez’ “reaction” to the 2002 coup attempt and the 2003 strike is an unparalleled example of this tendency. Faced with a major contradiction, he first attempted a policy of moderate conciliation and when that did not work adopted a radical rhetoric and policy that was fundamentally a “reaction” to a “disturbing” element.

In very direct terms, there is a question of whether Chávez and the Chávista government has the ability and ideological fortitude to grapple with the difficult organizational, sociological, economic and political issues that arise from populism and come out the other side with something workable. It may be that Chávismo does not have the tools necessary to construct a viable and sustainable political and economic framework, and that an alternative is imperative. Additionally, there is the danger that Chávez has been caught in a cycle that leads him to believe that governance is not complicated and that he is a leader of the people whose large and vague ideas are all that is needed to radically transform society. The simple truth may be that despite the limitations of populism, there are few obstacles to the ability to lead a movement and a country with some degree of popularity if you have an expensive resources that are in massive demand. But the obverse and hopeful hypothesis is that populism is inherently unsustainable and that eventually its limitations will be overcome. In regards to the contemporary developments in and Venezuela, building on this hypothesis continues, and will continue, to be of the utmost significance and importance.

On Theory: The Future of and the Radical Project

To answer two of the questions posed in the introduction; if the discourse of human rights cannot incorporate a theory of radical social change, what justification, if any, is there for abandoning it? and; if the horns of “human rights violations” are to be sounded every time a society attempts to move beyond the institutions connected to liberal human rights theory, can it be legitimate to ignore them?; It depends on the viability, worthiness and legitimacy of the political project and ideology. It is here that I should be clear; in no way does this imply that my own personal opinions of such qualifiers on a global basis. What determines viability, worthiness and legitimacy can only be based on a case by case study of a movement or country, and depends on the organic conditions of the struggle within that situation.

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