Review of "Venezuela: Revolution as Spectacle"

Venezuela: Revolution as Spectacle presents a highly critical account of the Chavez regime as populist, militarist, and collaborationist with international capitalism. Uzcategui utilizes Guy Debord’s concept of spectacle as a means of explaining how it is that the Venezuelan population and leftists on the international stage buys into the “protagonistic” democracy. The thesis is at time very compelling, though at times not so much. In the latter case, it’s usually not for the information itself but due to the context of Uzcategui’s analysis.

One of the main reasons for Chavez’s categorization as a “spectacular fool” for international capital is his decision to pursue mixed ownership enterprises, as per Article 112 of the Constitution, within the extractive sector rather than outright nationalizing the process. While the, it seems to overlook Chavez’s basic recognition that to outright nationalize the industry would lead to the type of bloating that dragged down the company previously. Allowing market logic, albeit partially controlled by Chavez’s appointment, thus allows for Chavez to have greater amount of profits with which to spend on discretionary projects rather than increasing the membership of “the state within the state”. Chavez does, however, seem foolish in Uzcategui’s accounts of the ridiculous floating-monetary policy with it’s various prices, thus allowing some people with government access to make large amounts of money for doing no real “work”. A relation of this to the need for the government to stem capital flight would have made this section more compelling.

Uzcategui criticisms of the mission is some of the most compelling writing of the book. The missions are not novel but replicate many of the former spending pattern prior to the lost decades of the 80s and 90s, have duplicated processes, obfuscated formerly clear issues and have often not matched up to their aspirations. With regards to the housing problem, simply put not enough has been made. To address this issue, the government has passed out accumulated leaflets on how to “properly” build barrios – a rather poor option considering the potentially non-informal jobs that could give a boost to the economy. As regards Mercal, there have been a number of irregularities found in distribution lines, there’s been shortages of food, the workers there are still without contract and there’s been little investment in the facilities thus leading to spoilage. The Mission Barrio Adentro has not kept up with it’s goals for creating primary health care modules and has often faced shortages of medicines and supplies.

In regards to Chavez’s populist, militarist character Uzcategui lays out the appointment of many members of the armed services within both the PDVSA and various government enterprises. While Richard Gott saw this as a means in which Chavez could maintain a certain level of oversight over potentially opposition-sympathetic political actors, Uzcategui sees this as an atavistic return to the militaristic tradition in Venezuelan culture with its cult of Bolivar. Because of this, the language against perceived enemies is very antagonistic (or in the usage of Chavistas “protagonistic”) and polarizing, has lead to an organization of society along military lines (seen in the various popular militias). These are issues that are important in the assessment of the Chavez regime, however they are then placed along with claims that a brief increase in the armed forces budget signifies that the government prefers military expenditure to social enterprises. This is done so by making comparisons between national defense spending and sports and also not contextualizing the region. As a percentage of expenditure of GDP, Venezuela is behind Peru, Paraguay, Brazil and Bolivia. This wrong emphasis should not, however, take away from the Uzcategui’s insight on how it is that Chavez’s strong role in the delegation of duties and delineation of policy had a negative effect on the political culture. By the overwhelming polarization which occurred and his enlargement of political power through quasi-legal means has meant that the PSUV has a certain level of disconnect from it’s base. Steve Ellner’s Rethinking Venezuelan Politics complicates this simplification, but the general co-optation of the social movements by the state and subsequent prioritization of the states needs over previous organizational actions seems valid as other commentators point this out.

The constitutional planks recognizing Venezuela’s indigenous population and their allowance of them to organize politically at a movement was widely seen as being a positive, progressive aspect of the new Bolivarian constitution. Uzcategui, however, shows how it is that these people have at times been forced to face relocation in order to fulfill various extractive or transportation endeavors. While the Wayuu were not forced to move from their homeland, they were offered large buyouts, an allowance not likely to have been given to them under previous regimes, and their

A particularly amusing and insightful section included the author’s recounting of a visit by “parecon” economist Michael Albert. I, like Diogenes Laerties was, am very much interested in the “lives” of modern thinkers and so found Uzcategui’s description of Albert insisting that his brief period with the government gave him more insight into the goings on in the country than the activists he was with and that his book being widely distributed in Venezuela would assist in the revolution. For one, it’s a compelling scene of the manner in which international leftist activists have turned the heart of the matter into a tabula rasa in which to read their own aspirations and as it shows the intellectual febrility of Albert when faced with counterfactuals.

One of the recurring problems of Uzcategui’s analysis is the placement of subjective factors normally attributed as outside the realm of government control as emerging from their authorship. For instance the high number of trade unionists killed in the country for reasons speculated to emerged from workplace issues is seen as he fault of Chavez’s government. He alludes to this but does not specifically say that this is a conspiracy. This is just one of several examples of the contrast between the how objective information to be found in the book about circumstances in Venezuela is often shown through a decontextualized, anti-statist prism that gives too much credit to the government in causing some of the problems that are functionally explained in other ways. Considering the author’s embrace of Bakunin’s theoretically model of the state this isn’t surprising, however one can’t help but wonder what the old plotter and revolutionist would actually say about Chavez.

A final thought, unrelated to Uzcategui’s general take on Venezuela, is the idea that the author seemingly wants to “investigate and punish those materially and intellectually responsible for these crimes” (45). While the point made in the quite relates to workplace crimes, it’s mentioned earlier as it related to the Amparo massacre. In there two places the punishing of those “intellectually responsible” for the crime is a legalistic burden of proof, that for an anarchist, is a rather strange one. The case of the Haymarket martyrs ought to come to mind, being that all those that were placed under indictment and later judged guilty were all known to not be involved in the actual bombing but were the bombers “intellectual inspirers”. While the author likely means that those that are acting against the interests of el pueblo should be held accountable, as a legalistic doctrine it is of course very dangerous and something the other should consider jettisoning given it’s historical misuse.