Interview: Michael Albert on the Communal Councils in Venezuela

November 21, 2008 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

In 2004, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez created a movement named the consejos comunales (communal councils) aimed at creating more responsive local governance by handing local budgetary and legislative power to the councils. This movement was seen by Chávez as one of the most important of the five motors of the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ in that they should influence policy from the grassroots upwards. Great interest in the councils was evident between 2004 and 2007 in that thousands formed quickly and $5bn was given to them by the central government during this period. Communal banks are a pre-requisite to receiving funds from the government so as to avoid clientalistic relationships of dependency.

Local councils have the power to vote on issues directly affecting their community and have used this to make significant changes. Major improvements have included building social housing and repairing roads. The local councils are formed by 200-400 families with members aged 15 and above and have an executive council and representatives of groups within the community.

I asked Michael Albert if he might be able to offer his opinion on this movement in Venezuela.

What do you feel the role of the Communal Councils is strategically and politically?

Well, I believe they are partly intended, in the present, to push forward the whole revolutionary process by increasing current participation, raising consciousness, etc.

But I also believe that for a great many folks in Venezuela, both inside and outside the government, the councils are the evolving infrastructure of a new polity. The idea is that people should govern their own lives, and in that context local councils are the proposed vehicles for doing it. As such, they are intended to become an alternative to rather than just being an adjunct to local governments of mayors and governors and the like.

Would you say the councils have created social change or more that their energies are being pulled in other directions?

I don’t feel very equipped to answer this question, and I am not entirely sure, in any case, what you mean by “other directions.” I can judge only from a very great difference and based on talks with only a limited number of people what the councils are up to.

My impression, and it is tentative, is that the councils are a vast and evolving experiment and project, by no means final in form and by no means fully up to speed, but coming along, though many problems still exist. First, for example, there is a population which – like our population in the US – has almost zero experience prior to this experiment with serious democracy much less participatory self management. So the councils and their members are learning in practice, and for many people that has ups and downs. But second, and less benign, there are obstacles as well having to do not only with past habits or current doubts, but also with real opposition, as in local governing and corporate elites not wanting this experiment to work.

Venezuela seems to me to be uniquely seeking a gigantic revolution in structures and relations – not just economically but also politically, socially, culturally – all non violently and even without much confrontation, none provoked by the agents of change. That is historically ambitious, to say the least.

So in one corner you have corporate media continuing, and corporate ownership in many realms, and governors and mayors and whatnot from the prior history of the country, all also still in place, nearly all still hoping to resurrect that prior history. In the other corner you have the Bolivarian activists, and Chávez, and a large proportion of the non-elite population, instead trying to escape that past into something fundamentally new.

Venezuela is, in other words, a daily economic, political, social, and cultural cauldron of experiment and opposition – and thus a site of intense struggle. Or that is how I see Venezuela, at any rate, and in that context the local communal councils are partly a tool of the struggle but are also partly seeds of a new future being built in the present.

Should Communal Councils be free of political party influence?

This depends, I think, on what you mean by party influence. So, for example, it wouldn’t make sense to say there should be no party influence. Imagine a council with people in it, of course. Some people are in one party, some people are in another party. The parties they are in influence those people’s desires (and vice versa). The people then bring their desires to the councils, so through their members the parties influence the councils as well. That much is fine, in my view. It would make no sense to say that shouldn’t occur.

So, for example, there are councils in communities that are very Bolivarian, and they have views and aims quite like those of the Bolivarian revolution. There are other councils in communities that are opposed to Bolivarian projects, and those councils reflect those opposition views. The parties are in part carriers of the views and the people form parties, in turn, influence the councils.

On the other hand, I think you might mean should parties as entities be able to themselves direct or otherwise impact councils, other than by the fact of their members indirectly doing so. Here I think the answer is no, they should not be able to do that.

Your question is a bit like asking, in the US, should local government (just imagine, for the sake of the discussion, that it was actually grassroots and participatory) be in any way at all subject to instruction or control by political parties (other than being impacted by the local members of the community who happen to be in parties)? Well, of course it shouldn’t, and ditto for Venezuela. A party should impact councils simply by impacting the population that composes the councils, but not by some sort of collective or structural authority.

Do you think that political movements still operate as clients of central governments?

In Venezuela, at present, the Bolivarian revolution is very much a manifestation of the ideas and will of President Chávez. We might prefer that the movement had bubbled up, instead, from the population, and that Chávez was merely one among many carriers of their intentions – but that isn’t the case. In fact, Chávez is constantly trying to impact what the population thinks and wants, not just to hear from it. The government is not only administering Venezuela, as it is seeking to use state power as a tool to build social involvement and activism. It is very unusual, of course.

So in that context, the recently created revolutionary party Chávez is in is certainly affected greatly by him, as are the social movements whose members typically consider him a repository of valuable ideas and plans, as is the government. Again, this is arguably not an optimal picture, and it is certainly an unusual one – a president seeking to build movements that will replace authorities, including the old government structures, including himself – at least that’s the current agenda – throughout the country – but that is what is happening, or so it seems to me, from my admittedly limited contact.

Can the Communal Councils in your opinion, become the only form of local government in Venezuela? What obstacles do you perceive to be happening now and possibly in the future?

I certainly think that is possible, and that that is the goal, not just conceivable, at least in many people’s minds, including in the relevant political ministries. I sat in offices and heard them explain their hopes for these councils becoming the seat of governing power throughout the country, describing the 50,000 councils that were needed – with about 30,000 currently formed – and describing the gains in confidence and methods also needed within the councils, and explaining that yes, these would be above majors and governors and even the President. So, yes, having them be the primary locus of government power is the aim. Might that aim be swept aside as a goal? Sure, it might. But it also might come true as a reality.

As Communal Councils are the constitutional embodiment of popular power in Venezuela, do you think President Chávez would respect this power if the popular mandate was against one of his policies?

I don’t have to guess. He already has. And so have the most left Bolivarian mayors, for that matter. In contrast, of course, the opposition simply ignores democratic desires unless they happen to match the opposition’s agenda.

A very Bolivarian Mayor, in response to my asking a similar question, described a long interaction with the communal councils in his town, overturning what he thought was a local priority and imposing, on him, a different agenda. He also described turning over to the council full control over the local government budget, not just a little part of it, so now he has to act their permission for projects, rather than vice versa.

As far as Chávez is concerned, for the most part so far there is no precise test because the local councils are addressing local issues, and Chávez pretty much stays out of that. But I asked your question in a slightly different form – what would happen if the councils proposed an electoral change Chávez didn’t want. The answer was that their will would override his. And I see no reason, so far, to doubt it, because Chávez has given in to plebiscites and votes – which are far less seriously participatory then something decided in the councils would be, so why wouldn’t he give in to institutions he is struggling so hard to empower? We don’t know, but that is my guess.

What is the potential for the Communal Councils’ power in the future?

I believe their potential is to become the infrastructure of government in a transformed Venezuela. Whether there would even be such things as mayors, governors, etc., still existing in that case, I don’t know. You would certainly various organisations and structures for political tasks, but perhaps not those particular ones. But if they did continue to exist, they would be subordinate, as some already are.

Do you think that we as Westerners, could learn from the Communal Council experience and is direct democracy the only or best way forward in local and even national politics in tackling local and global issues like global climate change and economic crises?

This is a big question but yes, of course I believe we could learn a tremendous amount from Venezuela, both about the struggle and in particular one way – not the only way – to wage it, and also about the goals, of course.

I know your emphasis here is on the councils, and they are critically important, I very much agree, and they are also arguably the part of the Bolivarian project that is most solidly and fully conceived, even as they are also still developing – but I would say there is also much to learn in other realms of society, too, and that dealing with economics and ecology has much to do with those other realms, not just the political structures.

Is Venezuela more progressive than other countries in terms of representation of its people or could it be that it is more historically tied to relationships of reliance, politically and in its extractive economy?

Of course it is greatly focused on oil, but I don’t see how that is contrary to being more progressive. Rather, the oil revenues have created room to move, and provided a degree of protection, ironically, against incursions, on the one hand, but, agreed, on the other hand, they also impose complicated problems. I don’t know what you are referring to when you say reliance politically – unless you mean on world exchange and, in the past, on the US Well, yes, that is a history that matters but Venezuela is doing incredible things on that score too, seeking to not only diversify its international relations, but even to establish new structures and norms outside typical market logic.

In terms of the development of communes in Venezuelan communities and proposed networks of community ownership (as mentioned in the April 13th Mission), would you say that collective ownership could be one of the best ways to consolidate Socialism?

Well, yes and no. Getting rid of private ownership is certainly one important thing to do. But if you mean having collective ownership as in some group owning a workplace instead of some set of stockholders owning it – say the workforce or the surrounding community being the new owners – then, no, I don’t honestly think that has much to do with real socialism.

Yes, to escape from capitalism includes escaping from stockholders owning workplaces and industries. That much is true enough. But to decide more than that, it depends what the aim is. If we would be satisfied with a new economy that didn’t have private owners but in which the behaviour of collective owners was still mediated by market competition and still driven by seeking their own personal profit – then the change you note to groups owning could be called critical to that overall goal.

But that isn’t my goal, and from talking to people in many different venues in Venezuela, I don’t think it is the most advanced Bolivarian goal, either. Rather, I think they want, as I want, an economy that seeks to fulfil and develop its citizens rather than to pit them against each other and, even more, an economy that is classless rather than still class divided. This would take time to discuss more fully, but I would say that moving away from any idea of ownership at all is critical, yes, but so too is escaping the logic of market competition, and also escaping the logic of corporate divisions of labour.

When interviewing someone very active in trying to transform a major workplace, an aluminium factory, he expressed a very similar perspective, arguing that getting rid of the old capitalist owners was a nice step forward but what would really indicate success was redefining the structure of work which meant not only democratising it, but changing the division of labour so everyone could fully participate, and then also changing remuneration and the ties among workplaces.

What are the pros and cons of direct democracy over representative democracy in your opinion?

First I don’t think our choice is all of one or all of the other. Suppose we want to attain as much as possible, short of silly perfectionism that costs way too much in time and effort, that each person in society has an influence on decisions in proportion as they are affected by them. If that is our aim then we will choose a mix of political structures and methods to attain it. The method – representative or direct – isn’t the principle, it is self-management that is the principle. My expectation is that with that mindset we would likely sometimes utilise overwhelmingly local direct council decision making, but other times we might utilise, as well, recallable representatives, and sometimes something in between.

The Venezuelan government officials I have talked to lean in their preference, I think, even further toward decisions always being taken at the base than I do. They make that pretty much a principle, whereas I think it is a method, often worthy, but sometimes not really viable.

Suppose, for example, to be crass about it, that it turns out that in a revolutionized Bolivarian Venezuela there are just a couple of hundred national political decisions a year to be made. Okay, if so, maybe every one of those national legislative or executive decisions could be voted on in local councils by all citizens. But what if there are 10,000 such decisions that address the whole country? Then it seems rather obvious that you can’t have every citizen voting on each issue. So the question arises, how do you delegate, or do other things, to best convey self-managing say in such circumstances.

What I think is arguably most exciting about Venezuela so far is that it is not doctrinaire. They don’t think that if something is written somewhere, in some text, that that makes it so. They instead test ideas, learn from the results and refine their view. My guess is they will learn pretty quickly that you can’t have everyone making every decision, and then they will adapt their structures to maintain participation and what I hope will be self management, given that reality.

Are the people better qualified to make the ‘right’ decision when in the West we are taught to trust in our ‘leaders’?

Expert knowledge matters. But it should not convey excess votes in deciding outcomes. Suppose you and two friends are deciding on a restaurant. If someone knows something relevant about a possible place to go, it matters. The knowledgeable party will put it into the discussion. But you don’t then all say, okay, since you had that knowledge, you get to decide. Rather you all cooperatively decide in light of the knowledge.

Why shouldn’t the same hold true in a country. It makes no sense to say we should all together make decisions about what to invest in, or about most other matters, without paying very close attention to expert information. But, even so, there is no reason to give experts who provide useful information the right to make decisions for us.

So the polarity between consulting good insights and distributing influence among those affected is simply false. We can do both, and we should.

There have been reports of opposition groups, mayors and governors hindering the process of changes that the Communal Councils have made and have been reluctant to hand power to them too. How many mayors will obstruct the power transfer over the coming years and what will the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) do to manage this situation do you feel?

It is more than just reports. It is of course what the opposition does, period, and it is also the approach of most mayors and governors, as far as I can determine. The exceptions are exemplary, but are still few. They are mayors and governors who are organising and facilitating their own loss of power and loss of elite standing whereas the folks you talk about are trying to instead obstruct new ways to preserve old ways.

To guess what will be done, from outside, is limited to a few simple observations, I think. So we can reasonably predict that the truly Bolivarian elements will keep trying to amass popular support and movement activism including growth of the councils, until whatever mayors and governors remain opposed to the transformation are simply voted out. That is the aim, I think, non violent and largely non confrontational. But what happens if mayors of governors resist and try to subvert change even more aggressively, preventing elections or cheating, and so on? I don’t know. But as long as Chávez is pursuing the Bolivarian agenda and is President, there are many tools a the disposal of change.

How do you imagine the opposition will position itself as a movement if the only way to change local issues is in forming Communal Councils?

In some places it will, as it has already, form such councils and dominate them and try to use them to get outcomes it favours. That is a kind of struggle that is going to proceed for some time to come, even in best-case scenarios, I think. But I think there is a bigger issue because I don’t think the opposition can succeed in this type contest, in the long run. So the bigger aim they will have, if they are to persist, is to get Chávez out of office and if need be, as they have already tried, to do that by coup, or by external intervention, so as to prevent a democratic process from unfolding.

Will the electoral battles serve to break down the opposition through education or fuel the anti-Chávez sentiment?

I think without greatly increased US intrusion, the opposition will steadily crumble. Honestly, I do not see them, perhaps I am wrong in this but it is my impression, as the real abiding problem for the Bolivarian revolution. Rather, the problem is the US, or the opposition as a vehicle for the US, on the one hand, and also, the possibility of devolution of the revolution from within (which might look superficially like the opposition growing, but it would really be the revolution losing its roots).

If communities of opposition Communal Councils grow and form opinions that are against the government, do you think that they too would be listened to and respected as equally as those who tow the party line?

That is the formulation that is in place, yes, true participation and true democracy, and I believe it would be followed, at least so far. But you have to be careful in what it means. If there is some council in some neighbourhood or region which says we are entitled to own the oil below the ground here, or own the aluminium factory that sits here, or whatever, then no, that won’t be abided, nor should it be, because it affects everyone and most everyone will be on the other side of the issue.

Take the mainstream media. It represents, I think, a relatively small sector of the population, yet it monopolises the flow of information and entertainment. Some people think that democracy and participation means the elites who run media, own it, bias it, should be free to do what they choose. Well, that isn’t my view – I think a democratic media isn’t one that is overwhelmingly dominated by the will of a small percent of the population. In this case, I suspect, though I don’t know, that the Bolivarian revolution doesn’t for a minute think the reactionary and vile media manipulators who routinely lie to the population, deserve to control so much wealth and information. Rather, I suspect Chávez and his allies are so wedded to a non violent and a participatory approach, that they do not want to provoke even the appearance of any divergence from that path.

So the point is that so far, not only do opposition groups get heard, but they get heard disproportionately much more than they ought to, even when they demonstrably serve only narrow interests.

Some of the people I have interviewed in Venezuela feel that the national government is using Communal Councils and the proposed communes to do the jobs that they cannot persuade local mayors to do for them. Linked to this is that some people feel that the Communal Councils are a way that central government can ‘keep an eye on’ movements in Venezuela.

This too I asked a lot of questions about. The first point is odd and moot, I think. Asking the population of an area, and that is what the local councils are, to pursue some course that their mayor and governor are obstructing is not misusing the councils, but is, instead, simply overcoming autocracy. So that is okay. Using the councils to keep watch on things is a bit different. That could be horribly, a kind of foreshadowing of police intrusion. But there is, as I was constantly told, another side to the issue in a country where external intrusion is also possible. So reasonable people can disagree. I would not like to see this aspect utilized much, if at all, but others would say with free speech and free press and such oversight only looking for external coup planning, it is worth doing.

Do you feel that Communal Councils are a more secure form of local politics for the PSUV than mayors and is there a surveillance element to their role?

I think they are a vastly better form for local politics because I think they foreshadow real political self-management. The councils are the local population. That the councils hear about a bad thing and try to fix it is okay. That they do it as a kind of assignment carried out for the national government, in my opinion, would not itself be a bad thing. Whatever this is happening, or to what extent, I don’t know.

How can the Communal Councils overcome these obstacles especially due to the fact that although some mayors may wear red on the outside, they certainly do not act in line with the PSUV?

Once again, I think most mayors, not a few, are obstacles to the Bolivarian project, not its allies. The councils simply have to grow in confidence and numbers, to develop internal means of addressing pressing issues, and to federate. That, plus the national level support, would be more than enough to not just persist, but become the heart and soul of Venezuelan political decision-making, I suspect.

Ok Michael, thank you for your time and valuable insight into such an interesting and rich movement. I do however have just one final question; what do you believe is the future for the Communal Councils taking into account the benefits and also the obstacles facing the movement?

I think their future is the future of the whole movement for a new society.

The opposition, with external aid, could reverse the project, stalling change and resurrecting capitalism. In this case the councils will be destroyed and pass away.

Alternatively, the project could become derailed internally, yielding not a classless and egalitarian, self managing society, but a one party state with a dominant economic class of managers, lawyers, etc. This would not be capitalism, but what I tend to call co-ordinatorism, and what many folks also call 20th century socialism or market socialism or centrally planned socialism. In this case, the councils might continue to exist, but as conduits of surveillance and tools of elites, only.

Finally, third, the project could arrive at its preferred destination, call it 21st century socialism, as Chávez does, or participatory society, as I would – but, mainly, a self-managing, classless, highly participatory new system. If this happens, then the councils will morph into the new polity, whatever precise shape it winds up taking.

I hope, and have cautious confidence, the last will occur.

Adam Gill is a PhD researcher at the Institute of Latin American Studies, University of Liverpool, UK. His research focuses on direct democracy in Venezuela, especially on the Communal Council movement.

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