Book Review: "Building the Commune: Radical Democracy in Venezuela"

Book Review of George Ciccariello-Maher's Building the Commune: Radical Democracy in Venezuela, Verso Books, London (2016), paperback, 138 pp.

It is perhaps fitting that George Ciccariello-Maher's Building the Commune: Radical Democracy in Venezuela has a lot to say about racist right-wing social movements in modern Venezuela. Ciccariello-Maher's name was probably spoken for the first time outside of left circles when he was targeted by Breitbart and their legion for a satirical tweet. Liberals came to his defense when Drexel University, where he is an associate professor of history and politics, issued a statement calling his tweet "utterly reprehensible," seemingly validating Breitbart's attempt to censure Ciccariello-Maher. With an audience generated by the rally behind him, now seems a good time for Leftists to speak about his recent book about the communal state developing below the bourgeois state in Venezuela.

Building the Commune is an engaging report from the frontlines of "21st century socialism." The book begins with a consideration of Chavez and Chavismo's role in the state of affairs that has allowed communes to develop. Ciccariello-Maher then takes social housing in the cities as a microcosm for the forces at play in the broader fight for the communal state, showcasing the privileged elite's condemnation of the state's acceptance of the poor claiming unused buildings and land for housing. Chapters three and four consider the composition and actions of Right and Left social formations, respectively. "The Commune in Progress" reports how individual communes are functioning and producing, and how they are expanding in the spaces afforded to them by the state. Chapter six notes that communes without the means to produce goods can contribute to producing a non-consumerist culture and the communal spirit, and offers some documentation of such communes. The conclusion features a striking argument that the communal state might benefit from the crisis of the bourgeois state, because "as the crisis deepens and the corrupt import sector continues to prove untrustworthy, the communes might begin to look increasingly attractive as a stable, productive foundation for the Bolivarian Revolution."

Ciccariello-Maher situates the Bolivarian Revolution as a response to the neoliberal restructuring of Venezuela in the 1980s that came to a head in the Caracazo of 1989, when workers burned buses and bus stations in response to a drastic increase in the cost of fuel and bus fares. The Caracazo sped up the development of the Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement, which attempted to depose then-President Perez. The coup failed, but Hugo Chavez, though imprisoned for two years, was made a national hero from his leadership in it, and he was elected president in 1998, running on reform and rewriting the constitution.

The Venezuela constitution was rewritten to "expand both social welfare and participatory democracy," but while social welfare programs were developed the revolution did not get under way until the state reclaimed the national oil company, PDVSA. In the process of nationalizing PDVSA Chavez was deposed in a coup by right-wing forces in 2002 and the new constitution abolished, but Chavez was reinstated by mass mobilizations of workers inspired by the call for the Bolivarian Revolution. Ciccariello-Maher takes this last point as quite representative of Chavismo: militant struggle, long part of the Venezuelan character, made and guided Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution, not the other way around.

As evidence, Ciccariello-Maher notes that with ninety percent of the Venezuelan population living in cities, lured by wealth of the oil economy but working in the informal sector, workers "confronted not a physical boss but the market itself, and their political demands centered not so much on where they worked but where they lived." City-dwellers' demands created "new instruments of community control," with the effect that self-defense militias and neighborhood associations governed and protected themselves. "It was these participatory, grassroots assemblies that served as the prototypes for what would come to be known as communal councils -- officially recognized institutions for directly democratic self-government on the local level. And it was these councils -- with the grassroots energy and territorial identity they embodied -- that would later come together under the aegis of the broader units known as the communes."

Communal councils and communes were enshrined in law in 2006 and 2010 respectively, but by 2012 not a single commune had been formed. Ciccariello-Maher contends that while Venezuelans were participating in informal communal councils, they were not inspired to form communes until Chavez's 2012 Golpe de Timon speech, when he called for a radical change in course. "By dedicating his last major speech to the expansion of what he called the -- communal state," Chavez was making perfectly clear that this legacy was the commune, giving radical organizers the leverage they needed to insist that to be a Chavista is to be a comuero, and that those who undermine popular power are no less than traitors.

Organizers were emboldened to initiate the transition to a formalized local democracy. Existing informal communal councils gained legal recognition, and came together with other local communal councils to call referendums among the local population to form communes. A commune is composed of the local communal councils and social property enterprises (EPS). The enterprises are frequently, "directly owned and managed by the communes themselves," as "socialist spaces," which means that they aim to produce the things that people need locally. Each communal council and production unit sends an elected delegate to the communal parliament -- the commune's highest decision making body. The communal parliament, "debates and decides what is produced, how much the workers are paid, how to distribute the product and how best to reinvest any surplus into the commune itself."

Ciccariello-Maher emphasizes that the goal is not to decentralize power; the neoliberal experiment revealed decentralization to be to the benefit of capital. Rather, Chavez and other revolutionary Venezuelan theorists argued that communal power "could not remain dispersed; it needed to unify into a broad horizon for national struggle, becoming in the process a power, an alternative." Such a "dual power" is in the early stages of formation. "Communes now elect delegates to state-level confederations with their own parliaments, which in turn send delegates to a national presidential council that interfaces directly with [president] Maduro." Radical organizers have taken the first steps to building a structure that can lead to coordination independently of the Venezuelan state by directly transferring products and ideas between communes. When some of the strongest opponents of communal expansion are Socialist Party mayors and local officials who fear loss of influence, building associative power among the communes becomes paramount.

Indeed, in the chapter "The Commune in Progress" Ciccariello-Maher details the uneasy alliance communes have with the Venezuelan state. Ciccariello-Maher takes the story of El Maizal commune as representative. The 2001 Land Law gave the state the power to redistribute idle and unused publicly and privately owned land for productive purposes. El Maizal, a large corn plantation, was expropriated from its private owner, but was placed in the hands of the state-run agricultural corporation, Corporacion Velezolana de Alimentos (CVAL). "In El Maizal, local farmers were ecstatic when Chavez expropriated the land, but quickly disappointed to find that CVAL had no intention of hiring them, except as menial wage laborers -- hardly different from when the land was in private hands."

As el Maizal's local commune expanded by connecting with more communal councils, its political power grew, and it continually demanded access to the land. To appease the commune they were granted a small plot of unproductive land. Their growing political power and agricultural success with the land led Chavez himself to visit the commune and declare the land should belong to the commune. Local officials dragged their feet on the transfer and it took a long-term occupation of the plantation and Chavez's commune speech to give el Maizal the strength to finally claim the land, according to Ciccariello-Maher.

Even with this confrontational relationship with the state, el Maizal relies on it to empower other communal councils to form communes. Ciccariello-Maher quotes an el Maizal delegate as saying, "we urgently need allies everywhere and to promote more communes because if El Maizal stands alone, hermano, or if this experience isn't born elsewhere, if it doesn't reproduce, the tendency will be toward failure, because there are just too many attacks."

Ciccariello-Maher describes the actions and conditions of other communes, and the book is worth the read for details of their variety. But the central question that frames the author's remarks on the various communes is how these communes associate with the Venezuelan state, and the bearing this will have on the creation of a communal state to displace the bourgeois state.

In the conclusion, "A Communal Future?" Ciccariello-Maher suggests that the transition from the bourgeois state to the communal state is possible because "organizers are using the Commune Law ambitiously to demand the transfer of power from private and state hands directly to the communes themselves." Beyond growing communes, communes must be connected over wide distances to share goods and ideas, and Ciccariello-Maher notes that this process is informally being built now, when members of the revolutionary youth organization Otro Beta, "travel constantly throughout the region, facilitating exchanges between communal councils and socialist enterprises, helping local organizers navigate the formalities of state bureaucracy, and raising consciousness about the communal project."

Ciccariello-Maher concludes that the communal state is a real possibility, that at some point the balance between the communal state and the bourgeois state will break towards one of the two, that the current crisis in Venezuela is such a tipping point, and hopefully, he says, it will tip towards a communal future.

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