Leftist visitors and international observers often ask of the Bolivarian process, “What does 21st century socialism mean? What is it?” Those same leftists must be wary of answering that question. To interpret events is to participate in them, to define events is to exercise control over them. It is about time that observers recognised the virtues of an undefined, uncertain, creative and rebellious movement; where ends remain a swirling vortex of values and passions and our means are less readily sacrificed to them. We leftists must not forget the lessons paid for in blood and sweat in “slave camps under the flag of freedom,”[i] in Russian Gulags and in the prison camps of the Khmer Rouge.
Nowhere has domination by categorisation been felt stronger than in the Middle East. Edward Said’s groundbreaking Orientalism examines the historic process by which Europeans codified the “Middle East” into an exotic, sensual, chaotic, and immoral Other. The constructed Other, authored by European experts, was juxtaposed against the Occidental European reason, order, and Christianity, grounding a European identity that is still very much alive today. This process in the words of Said robbed the region’s peoples of the chance to be “free subject(s) of thought or action.”
Quite simply the history of nations such as Egypt was up to relatively recently excavated, categorized, exhibited, and incorporated into world capitalism as a commodity for export by white men. Orientalism was used in tandem with what historian E.H. Carr terms the myth of an “identity of interests,” where a liberal economic model is presumed to be in the interests of both the developing colony and the colonial power, to secure the moral foundations of imperialist projects and the opening of markets, access to strategic resources, and repatriation of capital generated in the process, normally associated with them.
Post-colonial elites in the region, frequently little more than puppet governments of Europe, and, as the 20th century marched bloodily onwards the United States, gladly assimilated this created image of the Orient, aspiring to a reformist path towards “modernity.” As the Suez crisis indicated the beginning of the end of European domination, and the rise of American hegemony, the heart of Occidental cultural image migrated westwards. Images of the “angry Arab” and talk of “Arab street” saturate American popular media, serving again as complement to the mythological “identity of interests,” this time propounded by neo-liberals.
Their prior suffering not withstanding, the codification and appropriation of female Afghani voices has played a key role justifying the current war, which has served to make their lives dramatically less secure. Let us not forget Lt. General James Mattis, who bravely declared, “I’ll be right up front with you, I like brawling. You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for 5 years because they didn’t wear a veil. You know, guys like that ain’t got no manhood left anyway. So it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them.” External definition and objectification was, and is still in many places, a part of the very domination felt by subaltern peoples.
We may be excited Venezuela’s path and the tantalising realisation of many values we hold as Western leftists; we may, worried by governmental abuses, be inclined to help by adopting the role of external, constructive critic; we may simply be unconsciously obeying the dictates of our educational climate, its conception of knowledge, and almost irresistible tendency to categorization; yet foreign observers must resist the temptation to also codify this process, the Bolivarian process.
Critiquing the power relations embedded in knowledge, and as such the production of it concerning Venezuelan politics, need not lead to the post modernist abyss, the death of international solidarity and understanding. Observers must simply try to situate themselves within Venezuela, remain vigilantly self critical, make use of endogenous conceptual frameworks, and concentrate as much on assisting the articulation of Venezuelan voices as expressing their own analysis. Though post-modernists will insist that neutrality is unattainable, measures can be taken to prevent the tendency to imposition held by efforts at cross cultural discourse and understanding. Chiefly, as anti-imperialists, we must always remember Venezuelans are partners, not students or subjects of study in concerns of justice. Such a perspective indeed reveals the ambiguity of the Bolivarian movement to be a real strength.
With victory secured for now, the ranks of Venezuelan leftists have paused to debate between what are labelled paths of reformism and paths of revolution. Radical elements of the Bolivarian process reject the apparently conciliatory politics they name “reformism.” They rightly eye declarations of intent to peace and democracy with suspicion from signatories of the Carmona decree, that for the 47 hours in which Chávez was deposed in the 2002 coup attempt dissolved both the Supreme Court and the National Assembly. But they also reject reformism per se, in favour of a revolution, which some members of the PSUV boldly tell you will see blood in the streets. It would indeed be naïve to claim that capitalism will roll over considering the murder of unionists and campesinos as they struggle for land redistribution and in factory takeovers.
Consenting to risk of one’s own death in realising social justice is the heart of the Bolivarian rebellion for its most radical followers, the fateful result of a simple “no” to exploitation and exclusion. Yet consenting to the possibility of one’s own death does not demand the life of another, thus, this “no” does not in itself lead us to the means-ends reasoning that marred the utopian projects of the 20th century. It does not lead to “the day when crime puts on the apparel of innocence, (and) through a curious reversal peculiar to our age, it is innocence itself that is called on to justify itself.”[ii] It is indeed uttered with the innocent indignation of those who suffered on February 27th 1989, when poor Caracas residents were massacred by police forces during and in retaliation to popular protest against IMF led “structural adjustment.”
The ill-definition, spontaneity, improvisation, good intention and diversity of Bolivarianism are some of its greatest strengths, they allow the means and ends implied by its “no” to co-exist without outright conflict. Without the Soviet style deification of history, without a codified ideology born of a cry against oppression and then divorced from this same humanist content, and without the identification of a dignified utopia with a bloodstained door, the Bolivarian movement does not require murder in life’s name.
The only concept to be found in all definitions of socialism of the 21st century offered by Venezuelans is participation, and thus democracy – extending to the economic sphere. Codification of a rigid economic doctrine would itself be a violation of this concept, it would be self-defeating. A participatory society cannot be imposed, only built by a people, each individual with a single brick in hand. In affirming the value of participation, codification by isolated foreigners is rendered absurd – codification of a participatory movement in a non-participatory fashion.
In such a “participatory socialism” one concept must reign, a socialist kingdom of ends where all is permitted by an ethic of acceleration or expediency, or a still rebellious, still participatory democracy. In such a democracy social justice still can, and must, be pursued. To the extent it is pursued through socialism, such as socialism is to be legitimated by the voice of the people, not the inevitability of historic determinism or an anguished cry for utopia. Indeed the only non-contingent elements of such a project are those required for participation itself: an end to poverty, free and universal education, endogenous development, anti imperialism, and the freedoms of speech, association and expression. To undermine these bases would be to betray the Bolivarian rebellion, paving a return to the exclusion of the past, or marching onwards to a bloody utopian future.
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