Chávez in danger

Chávez has little more than four months - perhaps even less - to come up with a solution to a very d

On 5 July, Venezuelans celebrated the 197th anniversary of their Declaration of Independence from Spain.

On that day in 1811, a group of rebel criollos (those born in the Spanish colonies but of Iberian descent), gathered in the Santa Rosa Lima Chapel in Caracas to found a new Republic, the American Confederation of Venezuela.

It would take another decade of bloody warfare war before the republican rebels, famously led by Francisco Miranda and Simón Bolívar, could declare victory over their Royalist foes.

Almost two centuries on, another kind of rebel is in charge in Venezuela, a mestizo (a person of mixed race) this time round, inspired as much by his criollo ancestors’ determination to rid themselves of foreign domination, through another, more recent ideal, also partly of European “descent”: Socialism.

However, victory for Chávez’ Bolivarian Project is by no means guaranteed. If anything, it is in more danger of being derailed, both from internal rifts and external pressures, than at any other time in its ten year existence.

Later this year, on 23 November, Venezuela will hold regional and municipal elections to elect state governors in 22 of its 23 federal states, 219 members of regional parliaments, 332 mayors, 2 city mayors, and 13 city councillors. These elections will be the most decisive since Chávez came to power in 1999.

In Venezuela, regional elections always carry great weight reflecting the extensive powers of state governors. In fact, what here is called “the old geometry of power” – the territorial divisions of a decentralised system of public administration going back to colonial times – is a core axis of political and economic clientelism. This is preoccupied with the capture of shares of Venezuela’s huge oil rent for regionally and locally based family clans.

One of the central objectives of the constitutional reform project, defeated in a referendum on 2 December 2007, was precisely to lay the legal foundations for a gradual replacement of the “old” with a “new geometry of power”, designed to hand power to a parallel structure of new communal organisations.

More importantly perhaps, the November regional elections come at a time, at which the internal tensions and contradictions of the Bolivarian Project to transform Venezuela from a rentist oil state into a productive and participative developmental state are coming to a head: Chávez has little more than four months (and perhaps even less than this) to come up with a solution to a very difficult equation.

One central variable in this equation is the private business sector. On 11 June, Chávez announced a series of economic measures to revive private sector participation in long-term productive investment projects.

Stopping short of “pro-market” measures, such as a devaluation of the Bolivar and a wholesale lifting of capital controls, his olive branch included the abolition of a recently introduced tax on financial transactions, a government finance initiative for public-private investment projects and a significant flexibilisation of capital controls for imports worth up to US$50,000 by already registered companies. In addition, Chávez also announced a wide-ranging programme of subsidies for small agricultural producers.

The smirking faces of the leading members of Venezuela’s business community – mainly bankers - lined up in a neat row to face their president, said it all: They are not falling over themselves to take up the offer, and they don’t have to. Sky-high profit rates in the financial and service sectors make relatively lower and much more long-term returns from productive investment unattractive.

For more than 50 years, per capita value added in the private-dominated agricultural and manufacturing sectors has remained stagnant. Private investment in high value added activities in the country’s oil and mining sectors remains foreign controlled.

That the local business community can content itself with siphoning off quick returns from the ever increasing oil rent and with profits from the distribution of imported merchandise, is down to its multi-fold political alliances with a very large and growing middle class, itself a product of the rentist oil state and deeply embedded in the day-to-day running of the state apparatus.

These powerful alliances change political colours, ranging from the varying colours of the old oligarchic political parties to Chavista red and military olive-green, with great ease. Whichever their predominant colour, these alliances have the organisational power to threaten the government of the day with political and economic destabilization, and to demand their share of the oil rent in return for not mobilizing.

Not only do these clientelist demands fuel inflation, in a context of low productivity and large redistributive programmes to the poor classes. This behaviour is also likely to result in a serious banking crisis in the coming months. For many years now, state revenue from oil exports has been mainly deposited in private banks who, instead of channelling this into producer credits, have engaged in often unsound and, at any rate, obscure financial investment strategies. These now threaten to backfire, exposing the banking sector to serious refinancing risks.

In view of this state of affairs, another economic policy of recent Chávez governments looses much of its apparent radicalism: Many of the nationalisations carried out since early 2007 and announced with great pomp and scare in the international press, simply reversals of economically and/or socially disastrous privatizations of the 1990s. Not only did the private owners of telecommunication, electricity, cement, some strategically central foodstuff companies as well as most likely of Latin America’s largest steel plant – Ternium-Sidor – receive generous pay-offs for their troubles. More importantly, governments saddled with the kind of unproductive, yet powerful, alliances between the local business community and a large consumerist middle class, have little choice but to nationalise, if productivity performance and reasonable working conditions are a serious concern.

The second vital variable in the equation Chávez has to solve is “el bravo pueblo”. The Spanish word “bravo” means both “fierce” – as in courageous – as well as “angry”. This very aptly describes the situation: The poor and lower middle classes of Venezuela, Chávez’ traditional constituency, are both empowered by his decade-long rule as well as profoundly outraged by the inertia of the Bolivarian Project, blocked by those colourful private sector – cum – middle classes alliances, and in danger of falling prey to decades-old mechanisms of rentist corruption.

Perhaps ironically, their protest vote through abstention (rather than migration to the opposition) in the referendum on a socialist constitutional reform on 2 December 2007 was essential for its marginal defeat, and thus, for the current sense of empowerment of those very alliances.

This tension between, on the one hand, a strong determination not to give way, and a lack of orientation, organization and immediate purpose, on the other, in the rank-and-file of Chavista supporters finds its clearest expression in the travails of the foundation of a new political party in Venezuela, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).

Between April and May of last year, more than 5.7 million people – equivalent to 36 per cent of the national election registry and close to 80 per cent of the votes Chávez obtained in the 2006 presidential elections – inscribed themselves as “aspirants” to join the new socialist party.

This broad mass of Chavistas of very varying degrees of militancy were subsequently organised in more than 14,000 local organisations, called “battalions”, with up to 300 members. Between January and March 2008, the founding congress of the new party, constituted of close to 100,000 spokespeople and commissioners of the “battalions”, drew up the party’s constitution and elected its National Directorate.

The first signs of tension between radical grassroots groups and the “new Chavista elite” – one more of those private sector/middle class alliances mentioned above – surfaced during these elections for the National Directorate of the PSUV: Big names popularly associated with Chavista corruption did not make it.

Subsequently, these very names pushed their way into the party leadership, not by popular support, but by means of appointments “from above”. The wide-spread disaffection and outrage caused by these appointments amongst the Chavista base forced a truly democratic and bottom-up party-internal election of candidates for the regional elections scheduled for 23 November. This has produced a mix of truly popular candidates and some rather less popular candidates who were backed because of a lack of suitable rivals.

To date, the dinosaurs of the “new Chavista elite” can declare victory in terms of their control of the state apparatus, shared with other rentist alliances, and in terms of their control of government. They have not managed to take control of the newly founded socialist party.

Whether this party will manage to rebuilt popular confidence in the Bolivarian Project and a sufficient degree of determination of the “bravo pueblo” to carry it to victory in the November elections, remains to be seen.

The final variable in Chávez’ difficult equation concerns foreign relations. The recent liberation of Ingrid Betancourt, along with 15 other hostages of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), has a profound effect on Venezuela’s negotiation powers in an international context.

The operation is the culmination of a long-standing process of infiltration of the FARC high command, carefully planned and prepared by French, Israeli and US secret services, working along-side Colombian military. Following on the assassination, death and defection of core members of the FARC high command over the past months, this operation signals the final decline of the FARC. Whatever one’s ethical views on the legitimacy of guerrilla warfare and kidnappings, the final dismantling of the FARC beyond a peasant resistance army does away with a guerrilla force that, for decades, engaged the US to the extent of limiting its immediate control of Latin American territories to the space ranging from the Northern Frontier of Mexico to the Southern Colombian boarders.

From 3 July, this is no longer the case, and Chávez’ Venezuela is very obviously on top of the list of US officials concerned with the defence of their country’s hegemony in the Southern Hemisphere. From June, after almost 60 years on standby, the Fourth US fleet has once again been reactivated and dispatched to the Caribbean Sea, sending a clear signal that has not been missed. The most persistent rumours are of plans to “do a Noriega” on Chávez, meaning a design to kidnap him to face trial in the US – for what exactly is not as yet clear.

Finally, with Ingrid Betancourt at last and thankfully escaping from capture, and only negligible Venezuelan oil exports to Europe, there is no hope for an “enlightened Europe” stepping in to offer a pragmatic helping hand.

It would be deeply unfair to blame Chávez for this state of affairs. His hero – Simón Bolívar – failed, certainly in terms of his ideal vision of a united and egalitarian Latin American continent but not because of any specific mistakes he made.

Two centuries on, Chávez has, and always had, limited options. So far, he has played his cards impressively well, if not always elegantly.

But, perhaps inevitably, by now the game is up and the cards are on the table: Today´s equivalent of the powers of reaction of the Vienna Congress of 1815 are calling in their debtors. The poor of Venezuela and their revolutionary leader are largely on their own, backed only by idealist internationalists, the poor of Latin America, and some of its lesser influential nations.

As with their ancestors, they might not make it, and today’s Simón Bolivar will find himself hauled up before the modern equivalent of the Spanish Inquisition. However long the list of mistakes committed and of confusions incurred, it is worth remembering that a failure of the Bolivarian Project will be to the detriment of ordinary people in Latin America and all around the world.

Dr Stephanie Blankenburg is Lecturer in International Political Economy in the Economics Department at the School of Oriental and Social Studies (SOAS), London. She is currently on secondment to Venezuela as an economic advisor and analyst. This article reflects her personal analysis and is unrelated to any government views or policies.

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What Marx got right

...and what he got wrong.

1. You’re probably a capitalist – among other things

Are you a capitalist? The first question to ask is: do you own shares? Even if you don’t own any directly (about half of Americans do but the proportion is far lower in most other countries) you may have a pension that is at least partly invested in the stock market; or you’ll have savings in a bank.

So you have some financial wealth: that is, you own capital. Equally, you are probably also a worker, or are dependent directly or indirectly on a worker’s salary; and you’re a consumer. Unless you live in an autonomous, self-sufficient commune – very unusual – you are likely to be a full participant in the capitalist system.

We interact with capitalism in multiple ways, by no means all economic. And this accounts for the conflicted relationship that most of us (including me) have with capitalism. Typically, we neither love it nor hate it, but we definitely live it.

2. Property rights are fundamental to capitalism . . . but they are not absolute

If owning something means having the right to do what you want with it, property rights are rarely unconstrained. I am free to buy any car I want – so long as it meets European pollution standards and is legally insured; and I can drive it anywhere I want, at least on public roads, as long as I have a driver’s licence and keep to the speed limit. If I no longer want the car, I can’t just dump it: I have to dispose of it in an approved manner. It’s mine, not yours or the state’s, and the state will protect my rights over it. But – generally for good reason – how I can use it is quite tightly constrained.

This web of rules and constraints, which both defines and restricts property rights, is characteristic of a complex economy and society. Most capitalist societies attempt to resolve these tensions in part by imposing restrictions, constitutional or political, on arbitrary or confiscatory actions by governments that “interfere” with property rights. But the idea that property rights are absolute is not philosophically or practically coherent in a modern society.

3. What Marx got right about capitalism

Marx had two fundamental insights. The first was the importance of economic forces in shaping human society. For Marx, it was the “mode of production” – how labour and capital were combined, and under what rules – that explained more or less everything about society, from politics to culture. So, as modes of production change, so too does society. And he correctly concluded that industrialisation and capitalism would lead to profound changes in the nature of society, affecting everything from the political system to morality.

The second insight was the dynamic nature of capitalism in its own right. Marx understood that capitalism could not be static: given the pursuit of profit in a competitive economy, there would be constant pressure to increase the capital stock and improve productivity. This in turn would lead to labour-saving, or capital-intensive, technological change.

Putting these two insights together gives a picture of capitalism as a radical force. Such are its own internal dynamics that the economy is constantly evolving, and this in turn results in changes in the wider society.

4. And what he got wrong . . .

Though Marx was correct that competition would lead the owners of capital to invest in productivity-enhancing and labour-saving machinery, he was wrong that this would lead to wages being driven down to subsistence level, as had largely been the case under feudalism. Classical economics, which argued that new, higher-productivity jobs would emerge, and that workers would see their wages rise more or less in line with productivity, got this one right. And so, in turn, Marx’s most important prediction – that an inevitable conflict between workers and capitalists would lead ultimately to the victory of the former and the end of capitalism – was wrong.

Marx was right that as the number of industrial workers rose, they would demand their share of the wealth; and that, in contrast to the situation under feudalism, their number and geographical concentration in factories and cities would make it impossible to deny these demands indefinitely. But thanks to increased productivity, workers’ demands in most advanced capitalist economies could be satisfied without the system collapsing. So far, it seems that increased productivity, increased wages and increased consumption go hand in hand, not only in individual countries but worldwide.

5. All societies are unequal. But some are more unequal than others

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an increasing proportion of an economy’s output was captured by a small class of capitalists who owned and controlled the means of production. Not only did this trend stop in the 20th century, it was sharply reversed. Inherited fortunes, often dating back to the pre-industrial era, were eroded by taxes and inflation, and some were destroyed by the Great Depression. Most of all, after the Second World War the welfare state redistributed income and wealth within the framework of a capitalist economy.

Inequality rose again after the mid-1970s. Under Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the welfare state was cut back. Tax and social security systems became less progressive. Deregulation, the decline of heavy industry and reduction of trade union power increased the wage differential between workers. Globally the chief story of the past quarter-century has been the rise of the “middle class”: people in emerging economies who have incomes of up to $5,000 a year. But at the same time lower-income groups in richer countries have done badly.

Should we now worry about inequality within countries, or within the world as a whole? And how much does an increasing concentration of income and wealth among a small number of people – and the consequent distortions of the political system – matter when set against the rapid ­income growth for large numbers of people in the emerging economies?

Growing inequality is not an inevitable consequence of capitalism. But, unchecked, it could do severe economic damage. The question is whether our political systems, national and global, are up to the challenge.

6. China’s road to capitalism is unique

The day after Margaret Thatcher died, I said on Radio 4’s Today programme: “In 1979, a quarter of a century ago, a politician came to power with a radical agenda of market-oriented reform; a plan to reduce state control and release the country’s pent-up economic dynamism. That changed the world, and we’re still feeling the impact. His name, of course, was Deng Xiaoping.”

The transition from state to market in China kick-started the move towards truly globalised capitalism. But the Chinese road to capitalism has been unique. First agriculture was liberalised, then entrepreneurs were allowed to set up small businesses, while at the same time state-owned enterprises reduced their workforces; yet there has been no free-for-all, either for labour or for capital. The movement of workers from rural to urban areas, and from large, unproductive, state-owned enterprises to more productive private businesses, though vast, has been controlled. Access to capital still remains largely under state control. Moreover, though its programme is not exactly “Keynesian”, China has used all the tools of macroeconomic management to keep growth high and relatively stable.

That means China is still far from a “normal” capitalist economy. The two main engines of growth have been investment and the movement of labour from the countryside to the cities. This in itself was enough, because China had so much catching-up to do. However, if the Chinese are to close the huge gap between themselves and the advanced economies, more growth will need to come from innovation and technological progress. No one doubts that China has the human resources to deliver this, but its system will have to change.

7. How much is enough?

The human instinct to improve our material position is deeply rooted: control over resources, especially food and shelter, made early human beings more able to reproduce. That is intrinsic to capitalism; the desire to acquire income and wealth motivates individuals to work, save, invent and invest. As Adam Smith showed, this benefits us all. But if we can produce more than enough for everybody, what will motivate people? Growth would stop. Not that this would necessarily be a bad thing: yet our economy and society would be very different.

Although we are at least twice as rich as we were half a century ago, the urge to consume more seems no less strong. Relative incomes matter. We compare ourselves not to our impoverished ancestors but to other people in similar situations: we strive to “keep up with the Joneses”. The Daily Telegraph once described a London couple earning £190,000 per year (in the top 0.1 per cent of world income) as follows: “The pair are worried about becoming financially broken as the sheer cost of middle-class life in London means they are stretched to the brink.” Talk about First World problems.

Is there any limit? Those who don’t like the excesses of consumerism might hope that as our material needs are satisfied, we will worry less about keeping up with the Joneses and more about our satisfaction and enjoyment of non-material things. It is equally possible, of course, that we’ll just spend more time keeping up with the Kardashians instead . . .

8. No more boom and bust

Are financial crises and their economic consequences part of the natural (capitalist) order of things? Politicians and economists prefer to think otherwise. No longer does anyone believe that “light-touch” regulation of the banking sector is enough. New rules have been introduced, designed to restrict leverage and ensure that failure in one or two financial institutions does not lead to systemic failure. Many would prefer a more wholesale approach to reining in the financial system; this would have gained the approval of Keynes, who thought that while finance was necessary, its role in capitalism should be strictly limited.

But maybe there is a more fundamental problem: that recurrent crises are baked into the system. The “financial instability” hypothesis says that the more governments and regulators stabilise the system, the more this will breed overconfidence, leading to more debt and higher leverage. And sooner or later the music stops. If that is the case, then financial capitalism plus human nature equals inevitable financial crises; and we should make sure that we have better contingency plans next time round.

9. Will robots take our jobs?

With increasing mechanisation (from factories to supermarket checkouts) and computerisation (from call centres to tax returns), is it becoming difficult for human beings to make or produce anything at less cost than a machine can?

Not yet – more Britons have jobs than at any other point in history. That we can produce more food and manufactured products with fewer people means that we are richer overall, leaving us to do other things, from economic research to performance art to professional football.

However, the big worry is that automation could shift the balance of power between capital and labour in favour of the former. Workers would still work; but many or most would be in relatively low-value, peripheral jobs, not central to the functioning of the economy and not particularly well paid. Either the distribution of income and wealth would widen further, or society would rely more on welfare payments and charity to reduce unacceptable disparities between the top and the bottom.

That is a dismal prospect. Yet these broader economic forces pushing against the interests of workers will not, on their own, determine the course of history. The Luddites were doomed to fail; but their successors – trade unionists who sought to improve working conditions and Chartists who demanded the vote so that they could restructure the economy and the state – mostly succeeded. The test will be whether our political and social institutions are up to the challenge.

10. What’s the alternative?

There is no viable economic alternative to capitalism at the moment but that does not mean one won’t emerge. It is economics that determines the nature of our society, and we are at the beginning of a profound set of economic changes, based on three critical developments.

Physical human input into production will become increasingly rare as robots take over. Thanks to advances in computing power and artificial intelligence, much of the analytic work that we now do in the workplace will be carried out by machines. And an increasing ability to manipulate our own genes will extend our lifespan and allow us to determine our offspring’s characteristics.

Control over “software” – information, data, and how it is stored, processed and manipulated – will be more important than control over physical capital, buildings and machines. The defining characteristic of the economy and society will be how that software is produced, owned and commanded: by the state, by individuals, by corporations, or in some way as yet undefined.

These developments will allow us, if we choose, to end poverty and expand our horizons, both materially and intellectually. But they could also lead to growing inequality, with the levers of the new economy controlled by a corporate and moneyed elite. As an optimist, I hope for the former. Yet just as it wasn’t the “free market” or individual capitalists who freed the slaves, gave votes to women and created the welfare state, it will be the collective efforts of us all that will enable humanity to turn economic advances into social progress. 

Jonathan Portes's most recent book is “50 Ideas You Really Need to Know: Capitalism” (Quercus)

Jonathan Portes is senior fellow The UK in a Changing Europe and Professor of Economics and Public Policy, King’s College London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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