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So-Called ‘Civil Society’ in Post-Chávez Venezu ela

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  • Cort Greene
    So-Called ‘Civil Society’ in Post-Chávez Venezuela Apr 5th 2013, by George Ciccariello-Maher- Center for Economic and Policy Research [image: The Isaías
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 6, 2013
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      So-Called �Civil Society� in Post-Ch�vez Venezuela

      Apr 5th 2013, by George Ciccariello-Maher- Center for Economic and Policy
      [image: The Isa�as Medina Angarita Communal Council (Luis Laya)]

      The Isa�as Medina Angarita Communal Council (Luis Laya)

      There is a powerfully dangerous and condescending myth circulating about
      so-called �civil society� in Venezuela, which goes something like
      this: as Daniel
      Levine put it<http://venezuelablog.tumblr.com/post/46672313494/radio-discussion-with-daniel-levine-jennifer-mccoy-and>
      a recent radio program, �there�s just not independent groups as we conceive
      of civil society� in Venezuela. Focusing above all on the Communal Council
      phenomenon, Levine portrays these directly democratic institutions not as
      the radically participatory experiment they claim to be, but instead as
      little more than a cynical ruse by the late Hugo Ch�vez and his movement to
      enforce political objectives from above.

      I can trace my interest in moving to Venezuela to this very question of
      civil society. As a young Ph.D student, I clearly remember reading a number
      of academic articles<http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/latin_american_research_review/v041/41.1hawkins.html>
      attempted to clumsily impose the pre-established conceptual framework of
      civil society onto the development of participatory institutions in
      Venezuela. First with the nascent Bolivarian Circles and later with the
      Communal Councils formally established in 2006, U.S. academics have held up
      the template of civil society, scratched their heads as to why it doesn�t
      fit, and then concluded that since it does not, something must be wrong
      with Venezuela and not with their own concept. The Circles and the
      Councils, it was and continues to be argued, are not truly independent of
      the state, and therefore cannot be civil society �as we conceive.�

      Firstly, the concept of civil society *as we conceive it* emerged and was
      cemented in struggles against dictatorship in the Southern Cone and against
      Soviet bureaucracy in Eastern Europe, displacing the far more critical
      variant associated with Gramsci. This new version privileges autonomy from
      the state as *the *criterion, systematically obscuring other crucial forces
      from which organizations might want to remain autonomous: imperial powers,
      the capitalist market, etc.

      As a result, many accept as nominally �independent� many forces that are
      nothing of the sort: private economic interests, NGOs with powerful
      funders, and foreign-backed political parties. Such forces constituted the
      bulk of the organized Venezuelan opposition, whose �civil� credentials are
      questioned by few. Some have therefore described the 2002 coup against
      Ch�vez (which was reversed after 48 hours) as a �civil society
      and rightly so. It was this appropriation of an uncritical concept of civil
      society more than anything else that led many Venezuelan Chavistas to
      abandon the language of civil society at the same time that the
      anti-Chavistas seized upon it: this concept doesn�t describe what we�re
      doing, so *let them have it*.

      Secondly, however, and more importantly, this idea that independent
      organizations do not exist in Venezuela contains a willful neglect of and
      indeed contempt for the many thousands of popular organizers who have been
      struggling and continue to struggle autonomously and independently to
      determine the future of the Revolution. In my recently released book, *We
      Created Ch�vez: A People�s History of the Venezuelan
      *, I buck this trend of conceptual imperialism by talking to these
      organizers directly and researching their decades-long struggles.

      Speaking to those revolutionaries who are ironically shunned by critics not
      for being *against* the government, but for being *for *it, I found an
      oft-overlooked sector of *internal* critics of the Bolivarian process,
      those demanding more solutions, less corruption, and above all a deepening
      of the very same directly democratic institutions that �civil society�
      academics deny exist. Contemporary Venezuela is veritably bursting with a
      proliferation of grassroots organizations: from revolutionary collectives
      that do not even let the official police enter their neighborhoods
      (colloquially known as �Tupamaros�), to popular media outlets that are
      radically critical of governmental policies, to those combative collections
      of workers, peasants, urban dwellers, and students who occupy their
      factories, land, housing, and universities *against* the explicit demands
      of the Chavista leadership.

      More importantly, whereas the critics focus on official institutions like
      the Communal Councils, which are admittedly groundbreaking and important, I
      unearth the pre-history that gives content to their form. In their
      historical struggles against a corrupt and violent two-party representative
      democracy, those who would become radical Chavistas experimented with and
      developed popular assemblies and neighborhood militias. But when Ch�vez
      emerged, more important for them than simply rejecting the state to
      maintain their status as properly �civil� society was figuring out a way to
      use that state as a mechanism for transforming society (and the state
      itself). Refusing power to conform to the academic standards of �civil
      society� was not a luxury that these organizers could afford.

      But it seems as though, simply for supporting and identifying with a
      project of political transformation, these radical organizers have been
      disappeared with the stroke of a pen from the north, condemned to
      non-existence, and excluded from a concept of civil society that was not
      theirs to begin with. To dismiss as �dependent� on the state those who
      struggled for decades *against* the state as they struggled against
      capitalism, earning their political independence often at the expense of
      imprisonment, torture, and even death, is a misrepresentation at best and
      an insult at worst. And here is the irony: it is also an *internalization*,
      disguised as critique, of the worst caricatures of populism and
      clientelism, in which poor people are defined as simply too dumb to know
      any better.

      *This post was written by a guest blogger, George
      is a professor of political science in the Department of History and
      Politics at Drexel University. To contact the author, please email gjcm(at)
      *Source URL (retrieved on 05/04/2013 - 11:48pm):*

      [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
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