On the Democratic Relationship between State, Markets, and Civil Society: Bolivia and Venezuela

By Jerry Harris

(Race & Class, Vol. 49 #1, 2007)

Globalization opens the door on many possible futures. The fundamental changes taking place creates a host of contradictions played out at every level of society, all interlinked and simultaneously affecting one another. The integrative force of global production, finance and technology has qualitatively changed social relations along with culture, politics and the way we see the world and ourselves. Globalization, as a mode of accumulation and wealth has achieved a hegemonic position but its social structure and nationally defined characteristics continue to be formed. This is particularly true of its political expressions and the role of civil society.

Therefore far from a determined and certain future multiple alternatives exist, all dependent on human agency and struggle. On one extreme is the possible collapse of globalization into a world defined by reactionary nationalism, fundamentalist theologies and environmental collapse.  Another future may be a long period of relative stability punctuated by periodic crisis’ that are resolved by the institutional structures and relations that come to characterize the capitalist transnational era. The habits, ideas and relations formed by nation-centric industrialization may linger in various forms, only to fade with time, just as aspects of agrarian society continued to affect the world long into the twentieth century.

But there is another alternative that is mobilizing millions onto the historic stage, the construction of a world based on human solidarity and equality. This alternative is taking shape in the everyday life of common people in societies throughout the world. It entails the struggle against all forms of economic exploitation, social exclusion and political repression. At the same time these movements encompass new forms of organization and the construction of economic and institutional alternatives that counter the hegemony of capitalist globalization. Without an ideological center, vertical organizational structure or singular oppositional model, counter-hegemony is being built in a diverse, inclusive and non-hierarchical manner. We are beginning to see the emergence of a twenty-first century revolutionary movement, dialectically linked to the left of the industrial era, but with its own emerging character.

One important task for those engaged in creating counter-hegemony is to develop political theory and strategy based on the experiences of the new movements. A practice that encompasses the diversity of social forces and helps define the passionate commonalities in the struggle for justice. The Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, may offer the best theoretical framework from which to understand emerging oppositional movements. Gramsci recognized that capitalism rules with both coercion and consent.  It is only the most brutal dictatorships that rely primarily on repression and it is against such regimes that a frontal attack on the state by insurrectionary forces can be organized. Gramsci saw the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in such terms. But he also argued that in developed capitalist societies a complex set of social relations are built into everyday life. Under these circumstances coercion is often hidden behind ideological and cultural hegemony that produces willing participation and political support by absorbing the entire society into bourgeois culture and market relations.

Karl Marx was the first to analyze the methods by which capitalism maintains social and political cohesion.  Marx argued that a variety of mechanisms help to reproduce capitalist relations, only one of which was the use of open violence by police and armed forces. Additional methods include economic and social benefits such as today’s middle class wages, pensions and health care; the deferral of economic crisis by the use of credits for business and now its wide-spread use for consumers; and the development of imperialism whose privileges filter down to the working class. Marx also pointed to powerful ideological, cultural and political factors. These include the institutionalization of social conflicts into acceptable political forms, the domination of thought through a variety of ideological tools including education, religion, and particularly relevant for today, the ever present barrage of media. Another key element was the extension of market relations into every facet of human existence to the point that people accept capitalist social relations and crass materialism as the natural order of life.  Lastly there is the coercion of survival in a competitive environment coupled with the destruction of social solidarity. This creates numerous cleavages based on class, race and gender with resulting categories such a welfare moms, alien immigrants, gang bangers and a host of identities that make everyone else the “other.” (Gallas, 2003)

Capitalism needs to be challenge at everyone of these points and not just by an anti-hegemony protest movement.  Even a failing system can continue unless it’s opposed by a counter-hegemony movement that offers concrete alternatives and a vision rooted to real social practice actively developed at an institutional level.  The challenge for any revolutionary movement is to move from protest to power and it is here that Gramsci comes into play. Gramsci argued the multidimensional forms of capitalist rule would necessitate a long march through civil society. Therefore class struggle would be characterized by a transitional period in which the battle over politics, culture and ideology was key.  Gramsci termed this a war of position in which popular social forces need to build counter-hegemonic institutions that contend with capitalism and occupy autonomous social and political space. In this context a principal condition for winning power is to exercise leadership within civil society. This was counter poised to the war of maneuver, defined as a frontal or insurrectional attack against the state, as well as periods of intensive and active struggle such as strikes and mass protest.

A war of position also allows time to build a historic bloc of social forces capable of building a new society. This convergence of interests takes place between a diverse set of oppositional movements and class sectors building counter-hegemonic institutions. For Gramsci, the more extensive civil society developed the stronger capitalism became. Democratic and consensual characteristics strengthened the system so that even when faced by crisis the “defenders are not demoralized, nor do they abandon their positions, even among the ruins, nor do they lose faith in their own strength or their own future.” (Gramsci, 1971, 235) The idea, as Margaret Thatcher so well expressed, that “there is no alternative” becomes so deeply imbedded in social consciousness that even during a deep depression capitalism can survive and resist a frontal assault. To Gramsci the 1917 upheaval in Russia was possible because the “State was everything and civil society primordial.” But, he noted, “in the West, there was a proper relation between State and civil society (where) the State was only an outer ditch, behind which there stood a powerful system of fortresses and earthworks.”  (238) Gramsci concluded that after 1917 the science of politics would entail an in-depth understanding of the “whole organizational and industrial system” that composed civil society.(234-5)

Therefore political strategy necessitates deeply rooted and widespread counter-hegemonic institutions whose social forces, in a war of maneuver, can eventually take state power. In fact, Gramsci criticized Rosa Luxemburg’s theory that an economic crisis could create a general strike that “in a flash” would organize ones’ own troops and cadres with a common revolutionary objective as “historical mysticism.” (233) The struggle to delegitimatize capitalist hegemony was to take place over a prolonged period, and Gramsci even pointed to Gandhi’s passive resistance and use of boycotts as a war of position.

Alternative Globalizations

Using Gramsci’s analysis of oppositional movements we can look at today’s political landscape. Here it is important to distinguish between anti and counter hegemony movements. Globalization has set-off a prairie fire of grassroots social movements big and small. The majority of these are local struggles demanding the state or transnational corporations be more forthcoming in their distribution of resources and wealth. Such demands may include higher wages, better health care, sustaining welfare payments or anti-sweatshop campaigns. Other social movements have focused on the extension of democratic and human rights for oppressed minorities, women or immigrants often linking these campaigns with political reform. The environmental movement has also mobilized millions to protest the destruction and exploitation of earth on both a local and global scale.

However, the majority of these movements limit their opposition within the dominant structures of property and global market relations. This is particularly true since the failure of industrial socialism left activists without a vision of a workable alternative society. As Fareed Zakaria comments, “The clash between socialism and capitalism created political debates and shaped political parties and their agendas across the world for more than a century. Capitalism’s victory left the world without an ideology of discontent, a systematic set of ideas that are critical of the world as it exists…In this post-ideological age, anti-Americanism fills the void left by defunct belief systems.” (Zakaria, 2004, 47-48) But simple anti-Americanism or anti-globalism fails to offer a counter ideology capable of building an alternative world or a new historic bloc capable of replacing the old system. This vacuum has been recognized by many activists and led to the founding of the World Social Forum with its slogan that “Another World is Possible.” The question of how to move the anti-corporate or anti-American agenda to one that articulates a counter-hegemony anti-capitalist project is now engaged at many levels and in many countries.

The immediate establishment of socialism is no longer even the demand of revolutionary insurgencies. The few remaining armed movements with some popular base as with FARC in Colombia, the Maoist in Nepal and the New People’s Army in the Philippines have all called for negotiations that would establish an expansion of democracy within a parliamentary republic. They may harbor dreams of a “People’s Republic” but none call for the establishment of socialism as a condition to end the armed struggle.  Thus they find themselves essentially in the same position as the FMLN in El Salvador, the guerrillas in Guatemala and the IRA in Ireland, all of who became a parliamentary opposition.

Broader mass based left political parties have also faced a crisis. In the 1990s the Workers Party in Brazil (PT) and the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa seemed to point in an exciting new direction. These organizations came together by merging numerous political trends and social movements. With historic roots in popular struggles and courageous and legitimate popular leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Lula de Silva, these parties pointed to a post-Bolshevik left which was mass and democratic, but more militant than the tired and compromised social-democratic parties of Europe. Combing grassroots social movements with an electoral challenge they offered a strategic political direction for a left demoralized by the demise of the Soviet Union and the victory of world capitalism that was portrayed as the “end of history.” But the acceptance of many neo-liberal policies, continued privatization of state held assets, the slow pace of meaningful reforms and corruption scandals has undermined the support and enthusiasm held by many core activists. This failure has renewed the debate over political strategies with particular focus on the relationship between social movements and the drive for state power.

Adding to the debate has been various government initiated experiments with the market.  Economic reforms in China have led to rapid growth, but the state has guided the process, with Chinese leaders proclaiming their new strategy as market socialism. In Venezuela the government of Hugo Chavez has used co-operatives in a mix economy to promote social justice. And in Brazil the democratization of city budgeting by the municipal government in Porto Alegre has stirred interest in the state’s interaction with social movements.

Debates over the market, state and social movements are also fueled by the economic engagement of grassroots organizations occurring throughout the world. This has grown in reaction to the neo-liberal abandonment of welfare and support services as well as the privatization of state industries that led to the lay-off of millions worldwide. This retreat from state led economics and the resulting social crisis of poverty pushed people to create their own solutions for survival. Concretely this has meant the development of rural and urban cooperatives, militant land seizures and factory occupations. In addition, there are the powerful historic experiences in the success of Mondragon in Spain and the cooperative movement in northern Italy led by the Italian Communist Party centered in Bologna. All this has created a broad discussion over the use of markets as a tool for social justice, its relationship to state planning and the role of autonomist movements.

Dialectical Democracy

As transnational capitalism becomes dominant, alternative globalization projects begin to play prominent oppositional roles. Resistance based on the old industrial Fordist social relations tend to recede and forms of struggle arising from the new contours of social relations become more visible and viable. This transitional dialectical has two major manifestations. The first takes place at the level of the world system as contradictions within transnational circuits of accumulation; the second set of contradictions takes place within each country as it rearticulate its local social structure for insertion into the global economy.

Conflicts that typify contradictions in global accumulation concern relations between nations and problems faced by transnational capitalists in their efforts to build a global system. These become apparent over issues such as fair trade, access to markets, political rights in determining the policies of global institutions and maintaining sovereignty in the face of transnational corporate power. Such issues create shifting alliances that often erupt in debates in the WTO or UN. Conflicts do not simply pit national class forces against transnational actors, but also contingents of transnational capitalists competing over specific concerns and interests.

One important manifestation of the first contradiction has been the growing alliance of Third World globalists in their attempt to gain greater power within the transnational economy and world political bodies. Their challenge to traditional Western domination is one form of alternative globalization that could lead to a major shift in the world system. (Harris, 2005a) But the strategy is unlike the twentieth century wars for national liberation or the Bandung era strategy of state led industrialization and import substitution. Rather it is a struggle for a fair share of profits and trade within the new circuits of global accumulation. Thus the struggle is not a desire to opt out of globalization and form an independent parallel structure, but an attempt to have greater influence within by changing the character and balance of global relationships.

The second contradiction is found within nation states as they struggle to adjust their social and political structures to accommodate globalization. This is conditioned by their own institutions, history and culture, and mediated through local forms of class conflict.[1] (Harris, 2005b)  But common to countries the world over are struggles that pit neo-liberalism with its low road economic model against movements demanding justice and social solidarity. Demands tend to focus on the means of social reproduction, control over state assets, and the protection of our environmental heritage. This covers a wide range of issues including education, health, employment, privatization and the use of natural resources.

These contradictions are manifested with particular force between the state, market and civil society. While these are closely linked in everyday life we can separate the relationships of state/market economics and those of state/civil society politics to develop a working theoretical framework to understand dialectical democracy. But key to this concept is that both the state and market are necessary for a functioning economy, that an independent civil society is essential for functioning democracy, and that together they constitute an organic and interdependent whole.

One of the great ideological accomplishments of capitalism is the belief that all markets are by definition capitalist. But markets existed before capitalism and certainly forms of post-capitalist markets will also exist. Another fallacy is the insistence from the traditional left that state directed economic planning is superior and more just than market socialism. But there is simply no historic proof for this position. One can certainly say there were important advances in the Soviet Union, China and other centrally planned economies. But these ultimately failed to survive and leave us no convincing evidence that state socialism is a better guarantor of equality or success than market socialism; particularly in light of anti-democratic practices by the socialist state.

Nevertheless, many on the left have dedicated themselves to attacking the market and call for its eradication or severe restriction. This has been true of traditional Marxists tied to state-centric forms of socialism, as well as anarchists who demand the end of the state for good measure.[2](Albert 2003, Hart-Landsberg & Burkett 2005, Keeran &Kenny 2004) Both traditional Marxists and anarchists see the relationship between the state and market in irresolvable antagonistic terms. For state orientated Marxists, government is the best site for economic planning and development. But central planning is continually challenged by the corrupting influences of the market where the rule of competition and profits can only end in the exploitation of labor and the rise of capitalist class forces. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union there is general recognition that far greater input from workers at the enterprise level is necessary, but the state is still seen as the guardian against the demon of market deviations. From the anarchist point-of-view market relations are the basis of social inequality and therefore worker co-operatives must coordinate their activities based on the exchange of equal values and equal efforts without competition or market pricing. The state should have no role since it can only lead to authoritarian bureaucracy and the destruction of participatory democracy.

The essential problem for both these radical strains of thought is their one-sided approach that ignores the historic ties that bind together the state and market in a dialectical relationship. They resolve the contradiction by attempting to destroy either the market or the state, rather than understanding the transformation of both and their continuing linked relationship. Both the state and market have necessary economic functions and both present problems and dangers to equality and democracy. Their relationship is dialectical, interconnected and in permanent tension, as well as historically defined by the level of culture, education, technology and class relations. There can never be a permanent balance or equilibrium because the relationship shifts depending on the needs of society and the demands and level of organization of different class strata. In fact, a dynamic disequilibrium characterizes the relationship, while periods of stability and smooth economic growth should be understood as temporary periods in which contradictions have yet to clearly manifest. Therefore those that make an eternal principal for the dominant role of a single social institution are not only idealistic in their concept of historical process, they also fail to understand the essence of politics is to accept the existence of contradictions and chart a course of progress that seeks to resolve them in a non-antagonistic manner.[3](Mao, 1977)

Each society faces a whole set of economic tasks that continually change depending on the level of development in a variety of areas. For example, the state of the infrastructure, energy sources, schools, health services, information technologies and scientific research are always temporal questions of historic development. In each area the balance of responsibility, planning, funding and work needs to be resolved between the best mix of state and market mechanisms. In addition, as soon as any policy is implemented it changes the conditions that brought it into existence, therefore shifting the balance between the effectiveness of the market or state. On top of this process is a complex matrix of local, regional, national and global relationships, each embedded in the market/state dialectic.

Policies tend to radiate through each of these interconnected levels with unforeseen consequences, sometimes with effective synergies, sometimes creating problems that create new conflicts and demands.

In building a post-capitalist society the key question becomes how can the market and state be used best to accomplish the social goals decided upon in the political process? In recognizing this we also acknowledge a shifting relationship and emphasis between the state and market that becomes reflected in political struggle and policy. The material and social interests of different class strata will tend to push political solutions that seek greater state control over the market or greater freedom for market forces. This is the central tension that needs to be accepted as a fundamental aspect of social reality and resolved through non-antagonistic democratic political struggle. Whether we use the Marxist terminology of socialism, the environmental language of sustainability, or a different formulation, democracy needs to encompass the dialectical tension between the state and market and the social interest inherent in each. By recognizing both these aspects there exist the possibility that the market can limit tendencies toward an authoritarian bureaucracy and state corruption, and that the state can impose limits on market inequalities and prevent the destructive exploitation of labor and the environment.

The anarchist argument that the continued existence of the state inherently leads to corruption, or the Marxist argument that the continued existence of the market inevitably lead to capitalism, elevates historical determinism over human agency. But there is nothing inherent in the structure of the state or market that makes this historical fate, particularly so in post-capitalist society. They thereby abandon dialectics for dogmatism in their defense of ideology, making the suppression of the market or state a predetermined necessity outside of historic context. This leads to the distortion of dialectical democracy and the suppression of institutions and social interests that need to be part of an alternative capitalist society.  Historically this path has lead to conceiving socialism as the victory of one class, or one party, and the disjuncture of democracy from political practice.

David Schweickart has done some of the best current work on the relationship between the markets and state in post-capitalist society, or what he prefers to call “economic democracy.”  Schweickart combines three essential elements; grassroots democracy through worker self-management, the flexibility and initiative of the market and the social control of investment through the use of national, regional and local levels of governmental banks. As the author argues, “Worker self-management extends democracy to the workplace. Apart from being good in itself, this extension of democracy aims at enhancing a firm’s internal efficiency. The market also aims at efficiency, and acts to counter the bureaucratic overcentralization that plagued earlier forms of socialism. Social control of new investments is the counterfoil to the market, counteracting the instability and other irrational consequences of an overextended market—what Marx calls the “anarachy” of capitalist production.” (Schweickart, 2002, 56-57) It is important to note that Schweickart doesn’t abandon a role for the state, far from it. What he does accomplish is to conceive of an open relationship between the market and state mediated by a democratic political process.

If the dialectic between the state and market is characterized by dynamic disequilibrium so too is the dialectic between the state and civil society. The only way to contain this tension within the framework of non-antagonistic political struggle is with a flexible and plural democracy. Contradictions must be accepted as a normal functioning of political society in order to maintain social cohesion and prevent the suppression of differences through authoritarian use of state power.

An important lesson can be learned by looking to the American Revolution that enclosed state authority within the framework of institutional checks and balances that separated the three main branches of government into the presidency, the courts and congress. This was a historic political advance and has been a key element in maintaining constitutional democracy for over 200 years. While space was provided for public input through the Bill of Rights, society was structured as a representative democracy with real power always dominated by the elite. Nonetheless, the concept of checks and balances can be extended to include civil society through the formal inclusion of grassroots organizations in the decision making process that oversees social wealth and assets. Such an arrangement will extend the space for democracy and create autonomist centers of power.  Political struggle over policy direction would certainly take place within these institutions as well as between these institutions and the state, extending the field of political competition. Creating plural political territory can also help avoid the stagnation of ideologies that become trapped in the justification of privilege or cornered by a pope or chairman. The key is to give institutional expression to civil society in the praxis of power. This concept of checks and balances can also be applied to the relationship between the state and market.

By expanding democratic space we open the possibilities for a Gramscian war of position and a transitional period in which oppositional forces can progressively develop institutional power. This would happen in both the political and economic realm, locally as well as globally.  The struggle for a new society not only begins in the space of the old, but also continues to consolidate and expand in building the new. Revolutions are too often seen as a total break from the past. Both the French Revolution and Pol Pot in Cambodia officially reset the calendar to Year One thinking to immediately recreate their worlds. But new class relations need time to take hold and create forms of cultural hegemony that permeate all social relations. Capitalism didn’t consolidate its social structures until after World War I and the fall of the Russian Czar, Ottoman Empire, Austrian-Hungarian King and German Kaiser. Even after such tremendous upheavals the codification in laws, habits and culture of capitalist relations took years to fully develop. The same should be expected in post-capitalist societies. Social transitions take time, even when punctuated by wars or revolutions. With this context in mind, we see Gramsci’s emphasis on wars of position rooted in the historic material process of change, a surer foundation for revolutionary transformation.

Alternative Globalizations: Autonomy from Below

Far from the “end of history” the twenty-first century has witness the birth of widespread alternatives to neo-liberal capitalism. These new political struggles create the mass experience, practice and consciousness that will help determine the future course of global society.  If we hope to develop a relevant theory of social change we need to study the important battles of today that have raised the banner of alternative globalizations.

One such battle has been taking place in Bolivia. Neoliberalism came to Bolivia in 1985 with the government privatizing most state owned industries to foreign interests, cutting social services, and all but destroying the once powerful unions. Although manufacturing grew it became fragmented and decentralized into small workshops, permanent jobs dropping from 71% to just 29% of all employment between 1989 and 1996. As self-employment, temporary labor and subcontracting grew, wages were cut to half their previous value. (Olivera, 2004, 111 -113) The IMF, typically blind to the human toll, praised Bolivia as one of Latin America’s best examples of globalization. Writing on Bolivia’s submersion into global capital Alvaro Garcia Linera explained, “Today transnational capital, which has become the principal agent promoting a modern economy, controls the economic areas representing the greatest capital investment, the highest rate of profit, and the fullest articulation with the world market.” (Linera, 2004, 66)

When the government sold Bechtel the municipal water rights of Bolivia’s second largest city, Cochabamba, the people erupted in what became known as the Water Wars.  The types of resistance that developed in this mass mobilization, and the following political battles over gas resources, are rich examples of alternative forms of democracy and social organization.  The battle over Bolivia’s resources was not lead by the old industrial unions or a united front of political parties, but by the Coordinadora, a representative body of social movements and popular sectors organized through grassroots and participatory methods.  Oscar Olivera, a key leader of the movement, points out, “The formation of the Coordinadora responded to the political vacuum uniting peasants, environmental groups, teachers, and blue and white-collar workers in the manufacturing sector…there could be no individual salvation. Social well-being would be achieved for everyone, or for no one at all.” (Olivera, 28)

The Coordinadora responded to the fragmentation of the working class with a new type of diverse and plural social solidarity, one that reflected the change of social relations under globalization. Industrial capitalism had massed workers into concentrated work sites creating a common experience and consciousness expressed through their unions and classed based political parties. Having lost these affiliations and common identities new collective forms arose in civil society based on neighborhood groups, small businessmen and market vendors, rank and file labor groups, peasant and craft unions, and professional and student associations. The Coordinadora acted as the central node, building a horizontal network of these groups. Each sector was organized into assemblies that met and sent spokespersons to represent their viewpoint in the Coordinadora. The meetings of representatives decided on strategy and wrote up communiqués, which were then presented at large-scale town meetings that at times were attended by fifty to seventy thousand people and finalized the decisions. After a number of mass mobilizations and intense street battles the government retreated and broke their contract with Bechtel. The Coordinadora had succeeded in creating an autonomist democratic space in civil society based on assembly-style communal politics. In Gramsci’s language the Water Wars were a war of maneuver with the diversely represented sectors creating a new historic bloc of actors.

But large collective actions and common decision making is often an aspect of mass, but temporary, social rebellions.  The task now was to turn this newly won space into an institutional form with a permanent position in civil society. As intellectual activist Raquel Gutierrez-Aguilar wrote, “How could we sow the seeds of full autonomy in relation to the state through our proposals to regulate water…reclaiming decision-making and through it, of recovering alienated ‘social wealth’.’’(Gutierrez-Aquilar, 2004, 55) Fellow activist Alvaro Garcia Linera was also concerned about the transitory nature of the mass movement. As he noted, “sometimes the Coordinadora consists of half a million inhabitants; at other times it can claim no more than one hundred active and permanent members. Perhaps the way of overcoming this organizational weakness is to consecrate, institutionalize, and symbolically ritualize the local and regional assemblies as institutionalized assemblies of the Coordinadora.” (Linera, 83)

This was accomplished with an ambitious plan to create water committees in every neighborhood, independent of any political association. Creating more than 100 committees these groups, working with technical staff, solve a multitude of problems arising over services, sanitation, maintenance, environmental concerns and costs. In addition, as formal ownership of the water reverted back to SEMAPA, the municipal water company, the Coordinadora named the general manager and created room on the executive board for union representatives and professional organizations. As Gutierrez-Aquilar explains, the effort is “to convert SEMAPA into a socially owned and self-managed enterprise in which its property form would transcend existing legal provisions in order to make room for new means of management, decision-making, citizen participation, and social control.” (60)

This process went on in a continual battle with the government that sought to bring SEMAPA under more formal state control. The social movement in Cochabamba understood this as a strategic battle, viewing the market as a question of democracy and a space to contest transnational power. The object is not to simply demand more resources from the state, but to occupy autonomist institutional positions that democratize decision-making power over social wealth. In this manner participatory management over state run services was connected to civil society and popular participation in the economy.

Another important aspect of the Water Wars was breaking free of the culture of cynicism, apathy and defeat. Neoliberalism had achieved ideological hegemony, isolating people by destroying their belief that people could change and manage society. But the successful mass mobilization and victory in Cochabamba created a counter-consciousness that spread throughout Bolivia, helping to mobilize further battles over the recovery of gas resources and the extension of democracy.  This is a vitally important aspect of the war of position, wherein autonomist space creates a new confidence and self-awareness that propels people to organize and become agents of change.

But change in social consciousness is a long drawn-out process. Popular organizations always face the danger of becoming an appendage of state clientelism as mass participation withers. Under such circumstances leaders are often incorporated into the state as local mediators with the power to distribute resources. Another problem is organizations based on specific social sectors often fail to develop lasting solidarity and a united political strategy. This can result in growing isolation and competition over social resources based solely on their immediate needs. This makes it easy for the state to incorporate some and attack others, controlling certain social movements to strengthen the state’s hold over civil society. These are dynamics that need to be recognized as points of continuing conflict, particularly by those who tend to portray social movements as the only pure representation of grassroots democracy. In fact, under certain circumstances a popular democratic government may be the best vehicle to maintain a strategic plan for social justice and overcome the petty squabbles that can dominate local and regional groups.

In order to expand counter-hegemonic space from the local to the national level the Coordinadora proposed a Constituent Assembly. The Assembly would be as a mass participatory democratic challenge to the traditional state apparatus composed of “citizen representatives elected by their neighborhood organizations, their urban or rural associations, their unions, their communes.”(Olivera, 136) According to Olivera the “Constituent Assembly is basically an instance of the political organization of civil society…not based on the reform of the political constitution of the existing state…but a general transformation of political institutions” for self-government. (136-7) The use of democratic means to fashion revolutionary  institutional space differs significantly from twentieth century socialist strategies that focused on the seizure of the existing state by armed struggle.  The effort here is to reapropriate democracy from a restricted and statist form with an expanded and participatory model. In part it is similar to worker councils or soviets that appeared in the early stages of previous socialist revolutions, before these grassroots structures became absorbed by the state. But without the existence of a single leading party there is greater emphasis on the independent role of the social movements.

But the autonomist strategy does not encompass all the social movements in Bolivia. Movement To Socialism (MAS) under the leadership of Evo Morales has a powerful presence and became focused on winning the presidency of the country. MAS developed out of the cocalero struggle against the militarized anti-drug campaign brought to Bolivia by the US. The coca growers symbolized a peasant movement fighting for economic survival, and came to occupy a militant and historical cultural position within Bolivian society. As an important sector in the social movement MAS launched electoral campaigns in 2002 that won the second most seats in congress and in the presidential race placed Morales just one percentage point behind winner Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. Lozada was consequently   run out of office by the gas war rebellion, setting the stage for a new presidential campaign. While continuing to take part in the mass social mobilizations Morales concentrated the efforts of MAS on an electoral strategy for power. With Alvaro Garcia Linera as his running mate, Morales won a historic and decisive victory in December 2005 that many saw as the culmination of the mass movements that had forced two governments from office. El Alto, the poor and highly organized community sitting above La Paz, was an important stronghold of Morales support. As one resident commented, “We have all supported Evo. It is not just what he says. It is that this is his base and he knows us.” (Forero, 2005)

But the social movements were not fully united behind Morales’ campaign for president. There were serious debates over the best form of ownership of Bolivia’s gas resources, as well as questions over electoral strategy and political alliances. As Olivera commented, “What the social movements need to do now is to continue accumulating popular forces, as we have been doing since 2000, to build up our ability to pressure whatever government that comes. A Morales government would be less difficult to move, but it will still be difficult.” (Schultz, 2005) Therefore the social movements act as a necessary counterbalance on the government, pressuring the state to with stand the demands of transnational capitalism.

The lack of a common and coherent political project for the seizure of power is not isolated to Bolivia. In many countries there are clear tensions between those focused on creating autonomous space in civil society and those intent on winning political power by building mass electoral parties. In Mexico, the Zapatistas have sought to build democratic autonomy without competing for state power. As pointed out by Neil Harvey, “Their strategy is not to seize power and wield it over others, but to democratize power relations in every sphere of life.”(Harvey, 2005, 14) Their efforts have been twofold; to build over 30 autonomous municipalities among their base communities in the Chiapas jungle known as the Juntas de Buen Gobierno (Councils of Good Government); and to seek alliances and dialogue with other social movements to create a diverse but common democratic agenda for social change. Meanwhile on the electoral front, the Party of Revolutionary Democracy (PRD) was set to win the presidency with the populist mayor of Mexico City, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, as their candidate. The left-center party was formed in a merger of the Mexican Communist Party, two socialist parties, and the left-wing of the traditional ruling party, the PRI. The PRD has had their greatest success in states with large indigenous populations, winning governorships in Guerrero, Michoacan and in the Zapatista’s own backyard of Chiapas.

Yet the autonomist movement remains skeptical of the PRD’s progressive legitimacy. As Zapatista spokesperson, Sub Comandante Marcos has stated, “Yesterday they were on the left, today they are on the center, where will they be tomorrow?” (Ramirez, 2005) But the Zapatista’s have their critics too, as activist and writer Tariq Ali has argued  “the Zapatistas have failed to make serious gains, because the proposal to ‘change the world without taking power’ is only a ’moral slogan’ that does not pose any threat to dominant groups in Mexico or their foreign allies.”  (Harvey, 14) The call to boycott the election by Marcos may have been enough to give a razor thin margin of victory to the conservative candidate Felipe Calderon. While millions of Mexican workers and poor mobilized to contest possible electoral fraud, Marcos and the Zapatistas were left standing in silence on the sidelines.

This same tension is seen in Brazil between the Landless Rural Worker’s Movement (MST) and Lula’s Workers Party (PT).   The MST may well be Latin America’s most powerful social movement with hundred of thousands of members. Founded in 1984 with the help of liberation theology church activists the MST is focused on the collective struggle for land and cooperative farms, having won 20 million acres for 350,000 families. They maintain a grassroots organization starting with groups of about ten families that constitute a “Base Nucleus,” participatory local general assemblies, on up to regional, state and national levels. MST members voted in large numbers for the PT when Lula won the presidency, but the organization never joined the Party. As founding member Joao Pedro Stedile explains:

From all we have learned from history, we realize that the health of the social movement depends on a large degree of political and ideological independence. We have always understood that only they who travel on their own feet and think with their own heads can go far. Therefore, we always insist that the MST and other social movements have to be autonomous in their relations with political parties, the government, the state, the Church and all other institutions…We are in permanent negotiations with the governments in search of our objectives. But we always set our own goals and methods. (Stedile, 2005, 25)

The MST has good cause for caution, land distribution under Lula’s government declined sharply to the lowest level since the military government of two decades before.  Although the MST extended tactical support to Lula and limited their number of land occupations, after his first year in office they resumed widespread activities mobilizing in 20 states and marching on the federal capital demanding action.

These different strategies for social change between state and civil society naturally create tensions, and at times bitter disagreements. Activists in civil society often label those involved in the electoral arena as untrustworthy reformists or worse, as traitors to the mass democratic project. On the otherhand, party militants getting out the vote see autonomists as unwilling to confront the real problems of power and responsibility.  Meanwhile, millions of mobilized people participate in multiple forms of social organizations as well as vote for left candidates in local and national elections.  Perhaps more pragmatic than their ideologically driven leaders, a vast majority of workers and poor see no problem with participating in both forms of activism.  In fact, this is an essential aspect of the democratic dialectic.

The tension between the two strategies, state power versus autonomous civil society and what can be accomplished in either political realm, will and should continue to be a contradiction within any truly dynamic democratic society.  Establishing counter-hegemonic positions within the state and society are both necessary, with both having their strengths and dangers of co-option and corruption.  Sometimes they will compliment and strengthen each other; sometimes their interaction will reflect different needs, perspectives, pressures and strategies. Since the ultimate goal is to restrict the state until society can be govern by the producers themselves, the dialectic is solved in the long run by a synthesis to a fully democratic and participatory civil society that ultimately replaces the state. Or as Gramsci put it, “the State’s goal is its own end, its own disappearance, in other words the re-absorption of political society into civil society.” (Gramsci, 253) That, to say the least, is a very long-term project, the results of which are unknowable. So in considering the historic transition, understanding the dynamics of the democratic dialectic becomes a strategic orientation for guiding social change.

The State and Change from Above

The most exciting example of change from the top is the government of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, which has pushed a radical agenda at home and abroad. Chavez was elected with the overwhelming support of the countries’ poor, which constitutes 80% of the population. His party, the Fifth Republic Movement (MRV), has won a large majority in congress and most of the provincial governors and local offices throughout the country. One of the government’s important first acts was to rewrite the nation’s constitution. While private property was protected, the constitution extended fundamental political, social and economic rights in favor of the poor. In a campaign of political education, committees were formed throughout working class barrios to study the new constitution. This was an important opening in the political culture of Venezuela, convincing many that they held a personal stake in the government.

When Chavez was overthrown in a coup it was the massive mobilization from the urban barrios that saved his government and brought him back to power. A radical awakening of consciousness over questions of democratic inclusion and defending the constitution propelled people into the streets. Rather than overthrowing the state, (as in Russia, China and Cuba), people fought to defend the state and save legally structured democracy. This experience is mirrored in Bolivia where the demand for a constituent assembly to rewrite the countries’ laws and create a new democratic framework is a strategic aim of the social movement. People’s aspirations for social justice are being articulated through structural participatory democratic forms that create institutional positions of strength and act as a convergence point for a new historic bloc. Unlike the vanguard parties of the twentieth century whose platforms and manifestos sought to speak for the entire working class, the movements in Bolivia and Venezuela still retain a broad diversity of groups and programs.

The temporary coup, followed by a hard fought two-month strike in the oil industry, radicalized Chavez and his movement.  This process was similar to the effect of the US sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion that radicalized Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Revolutionary paths are always defined in part by the opposition, the two opposing sides linked in a process of action and reaction. It was only after the failed invasion that Castro declared a socialist direction for Cuba, as Chavez did after three attempts to oust him from office. His intent was made clear at the World Social Forum in Brazil where Chavez stated, “We must reclaim socialism as a thesis, a project and a path, but a new type of socialism, a humanist one that puts humans, not machines or the state, ahead of everything.”  (Ellner, 2005a, 24) But the process in Venezuela is significantly different from the Cuban experience. Most capitalists have not fled the country but continue to operate their corporations and make profits, and Venezuela is firmly linked to the transnational economy rather than niched into some socialist bloc. In fact, Chavez signed a new contract with Chevron-Texaco in the middle of the oil strike provoked by his pro US opposition. Furthermore, there have been no nationalizations nor is socialism mentioned in the new constitution.

As Latin American scholar Steve Ellner explains, the “approach envisions an extended process of revolutionary change which is without precedent in history and which some claim may take several decades to complete. The end result will be a complete replacement of old structures created by the Chavista government and movement…replacing the current capitalist system with a mixed economy or association of medium-sized cooperatives.”  (Ellner, 2005b, 171-72) Clearly this line of march is Gramscian, rather than an insurrectionary strategy as advocated by Lenin or Che Guevara. Ellner adds that the Chavistas are committed to a “peaceful democratic revolution (and) have ruled out the suppression of the existing institutions controlled by their adversaries in economic, political and state spheres and instead opted for parallelism.” (187)

But a war of position is far from a static process. In fact, the opposition has plunged the country into repeated crises initiating confrontations that they continue to lose. In response, participation and mobilization have been keys to the continuing battle for change, with an expansion of programs and goals after every major confrontation. This is the dialectic in Gramsci’s concept of position and maneuver, one state leading to the other in a process of advance. In consolidating the transformational process, radical forces in state positions have united with social movements to help build counter-hegemonic space throughout civil society. This is where the PT and ANC failed, causing severe political contradictions to develop between the state and organized social sectors. But in Venezuela the link between the state and social movements have for now a revolutionary character and expanded potential lacking in countries where autonomist power remains isolated from the government.

Of course autonomist activists have cause for caution, twentieth century revolutions used unions, community organizations and peasant associations as transmission belts for state led projects and party control. As University of Havana professor Jorge Luis Acanda Gonzalez explains, “With the advent of the ‘institutionalization process’ (civil society) was transformed into a paternalistic top-down political system based on the all-embracing presence of the state. The state occupied nearly all aspects of social life: livelihoods were inextricably linked to its presence, and it played a key role in ideological production displacing the (church and the market).” (Gonzalez, 2006, 35) As in Cuba, there is a danger that the Venezuelan state may come to dominate and consume the independent role of the social movements. But the thrust of the revolutionary project so far has been to decentralize state power into the hands of civil society, using the state to guard and guide the process.

One good example of this dynamic is to compare the autonomist cooperative movement in Argentina with the state facilitated cooperative movement in Venezuela. When the Argentine economy collapsed after being looted by neo-liberal speculators there were protests and mobilizations by almost every sector of society. One result was the takeover of about 200 factory enterprises turning them into worker-run and managed cooperatives after they had been abandon by their owners. This movement encompassed about 10,000 workers. In addition self-managed neighborhood and food cooperatives arose in different communities as a means of survival in an economy that had all but ceased to function. While workers quickly proved they could profitably operate their factories the former owners and government challenged their efforts. Some enterprises won legal recognition from the state, but this was never an easy process. Other worker cooperatives had to defend themselves from police attacks and fought to remain operating their factories. As for the community cooperatives, many had a more difficult time surviving. Not operating in the market with self-sustaining well paid jobs they lost many activists to regular employment as the economy recovered. (Monteagudo, 2006)

As examples of courage, initiative and solidarity the worker cooperatives have been inspiring, but they have failed to develop into a widespread movement within the working class. When anarchist activist and intellectual Michael Albert interviewed the president of a glass manufacturing cooperative about the possibility that workers in traditionally owned plants would take over and run their factories the president “without hesitating said no.” Pursuing the point by asking members of the cooperative council why they couldn’t convey their experience and motivate others to act, Albert writes, the president “shrugged, he didn’t see it as likely. Worse, it wasn’t on his agenda. His horizon of interest was his own plant and not beyond. Others agreed.”  Albert, who visited many of Argentina’s enterprise cooperatives, writes “Perhaps the weakest feature of the Argentine movement, is the insularity of each firm and the workers’ seeming lack of desire to organize non-recuperated firms by demanding changes in them too.” What Albert found was not a mass autonomist movement for revolutionary change, but worker’s turning to each other and relying on their mutual efforts in their common fight for survival. (Albert, 2005)

On the otherhand, in Venezuela there are 83,769 cooperatives active in every sector of the economy with some 946,000 members.  The new constitution defines cooperatives as key economic institutions for mass participation and state decentralization. Taking advantage of state run educational missions over 195,000 students have been trained in technical and managerial subjects and upon graduation created 7,592 new cooperatives. These cooperatives join together to design projects and become part of Endogenous Development Zones where they receive credit, technical support and physical space.  Newly formed lending agencies such as the Women’s Bank and the People’s Bank help to facilitate this process.  As of 2005 there were 115 active zones covering 960 cooperatives, 75 percent in agricultural, 15 percent in industrial enterprises and ten percent in tourism. The cooperative enterprises are not state run employment programs, but are expected to make profits and pay-off their loans. While most production is geared towards providing for a stronger and sustainable internal market, the Ministry of Popular Economy facilitates the integration of cooperatives with small and medium size companies to create production chains that can contract with foreign buyers linked to regional and global markets. Thus a parallel economic structure is being created alongside the traditional market.(C. Harnecker, 2005)

In addition to the new cooperatives in the Development Zones, many state run industries have moved to co-management or cooperative management forms. Efforts have also included urban neighborhood organizations in the planning and decision making process over municipal public services similar to SEMAPA in Cochabamba. This includes supervision, prioritizing projects and hiring cooperatives to carry out the work. To promote the social economy the government also hands out land titles and work contracts to those who self-organize into cooperatives, promoting collectively owned production capacity. All this is directed towards generating wealth in an egalitarian and internally sustainable fashion in a country where oil makes up 30 percent of the GDP, 50 percent of the state income and 80 percent of exports.

Oil wealth, as in many countries, created a corrupt political culture in Venezuela. Although owned by the state, the petroleum industry only benefited the elite, wealth flowing into the hands of those who controlled the industry and government. As Jorge Giordani, Minister of Planning and Development noted, “Everything has been ‘Mama State, Papa State, give me oil money.’ To organize people is extremely hard.” (Parenti, 2005) Creating a counter-hegemonic culture will be a long transformative struggle that must be based in an alternative economic project. The strategy of the Bolivarian revolution is to support the cooperative movement to build economic strength and develop a counter ideology and culture. From this position of strength the popular movement can contest and eventual replace the neo-liberal capitalist model with a decentralized system based on a social market economy. Those who believe the Chavez government will fall when oil prices drop fail to perceive the rich web of organizations sinking roots in civil society.

Of course there are many old habits in both the state and market that can undermine the revolutionary process. The state may turn the cooperatives into a cliental relationship demanding political support in return for economic support. Easy credit and poor technical and managerial skills may lead to economic failure or state support that turns into debt and deficits. And problems of unlawful accounting, undemocratic decision-making and managers excluding members from their share of profits have occurred.  Such internal contradictions are not uncommon in the history of cooperative movements. And debates always exist over internal organization, membership and market strategies.

But what is also evident in Venezuela, as throughout Latin America, is a strategy by social movements to become producers rather than just groups marching to demand more services. Both social and state actors have made the market contested territory to develop an alternative model. Counter-hegemony needs to be based in a different set of labor relations as represented in the cooperative movement and by economic democracy. Not only is there a need to build an alternative economic vision, but alternative economic activity that generates new social relations. Social movements need to go beyond the political struggle between civil society and the state to include the market, while state actors need to use their institutional power to decentralize economic decision making into a participatory democratic process.


Venezuela presents a new form of dual power, unlike the 1917 Bolshevik majority in the Soviets or Mao’s liberated guerrilla zones. Chavez is attempting to use the state to transform the relations of production and the ownership of the means of production within a dominant capitalist economy. But how long can a Gramscian war of position go on under such conditions without a definitive resolution in which the socialist economy becomes primary? The capitalists will not fail to react. Already they have launched their own war of maneuver in the failed coup and oil strike, and more is sure to come.

But perhaps this is where the dialectical link in the Gramscian strategy will play out. Building counter-hegemonic space rooted in mass organizations of popular democracy prepares the working class to defend itself and advance during times of crisis. Therefore the war of position sets the stage for rapid advances during wars of maneuver that result in the consolidation of greater social territory. Each prepares the conditions for the expansion of the other until a qualitative revolutionary leap occurs. Once socialist relations become primary the complex web of counter-hegemonic institutions networked in  civil society and the economy continue to function as autonomous centers within the new project, thereby setting the stage for the proper democratic relationship between the state, market and civil society.

Given the difficulties of autonomist, state and market strategies for social transformation we can see that no easy answers exist, no silver bullet, in the quest for a just society. The relationships between state, civil society and market are deeply complex, each having its own dynamic while interconnected and modifying the others.  The idea that any one theory or strategy can encompass and account for the whole of these complexities assumes a narrow and reductionist approach.  Only views that recognize the constant interchange and overdeterminations of social forces can hope to offer the tools for a fruitful analysis. Once we recognize the dialectical character of the relationships we can begin to develop political strategies that make room for historic transformational processes that encompass broad social forces that condition each other. This allows us to see the necessary ebbs and flows between institutional structures and social movements, each with strength and weaknesses, each with their historic moment of influence and importance. The democratic dialectic is recognition of this process.


Albert, Michael. 2003. Parecon, Life After Capitalism. London: Verso Books.

Albert, Michael.  December 2005. “Argentina’s Occupied Factories, Practicing Participatory democracy in the workplace.” Z Magazine On-line, 18:2. http://zmagsite.zmag.org/curTOC.htm

Ellner, Steve. September/October 2005a. “Venezuela: Defying Globalization’s Logic.” NACLA Report on the Americas, 39:2. 20–24.

Ellner, Steve. 2005b. “Directions of the Chavista Movement in Venezuela.” Science & Society, 69:2. 160-190.

Forero, Juan. December 19, 2005. “Coca advocate Wins Election For President in Bolivia.” www.nytimes.com/2005/12/19/international/americas/19bolivia.html

Gallas, Alexander. 2003. “A review of Entfesselter Kapitalismus: Transformation des europaischen Sozialmodells, Joachim Bischoff, VSA Hamburg, 2003.” Dialectical Materialism.

Gonzalez, Jorge Luis Acanda. January/February 2006. “Cuban Civil Society, Reinterpreting the Debate.” NACLA Report on the Americas, 39:4, 32-36.

Gramsci, Antonio. 1971. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. New York: International Publishers.

Gutierrez-Aguilar, Raquel. 2004. “The Coordinadora, One Year After the Water Wars.” Pp. 53 –64 in Cochabamba! Water War in Bolivia. Cambridge: South End Press.

Hancock, Matt. 2005a. “The Cooperative District of Imola, Forging the High Road to Globalization.” University of Bologna, School of Economics.

Hancock, Matt. 2005b. “The Communist Party in the Land of Cooperation.” University of Bologna, School of Economics.

Harnecker, Camila Pineiro. May 12, 2005. “The New Cooperative Movement in Venezuela’s Bolivarian Process.” http://mrzine.monthlyreveiw.org/harnecker051205.html

Harris, Jerry. 2005a. “Emerging Third World Powers.” Race & Class, 46:3, 7-27.

Harris, Jerry. 2005b. “Globalization and Class Struggle in Germany.” Nature, Society, and Thought, 18:3, 383-412.

Hart-Landsberg, Martin and Paul Burkett. 2005. China and Socialism: Market Reforms and Class Struggle. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Harvey, Neil.  September/October 2005. “Inclusion Through Autonomy: Zapatistas and Dissent,” NACLA Report on the Americas, 39:2, 12-16.

Keeran, Roger and Thomas Kenny. 2004. Socialism Betrayed: Behind the Collapse of the Soviet Union. New York: International Publishers.

Linera, Alvaro Garcia. 2004. “The Multitude.” Pp. 65-86 in Cochabamba! Water Wars in Bolivia. Cambridge: South End Press.

Mao TseTung.  1977. “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People, (February 27, 1957), Pp. 350 – 421 in Selected Works of Mao TseTung, Volume V. Beijing: Foreign Language Press.

Monteagudo, Graciela. 2006. “Autonomism in Argentina Under A New Governmentality.” Paper delivered at the Global Studies Association Conference, May 2006.

Olivera, Oscar. 2004. Cochabamba! Water Wars in Bolivia. Cambridge: South End Press.

Parenti, Christian. March 24, 2005. “Hugo Chavez and Petro Populism.” www.thenation.com/doc/20050411/parenti/8

Ramirez, Vladimir Escalante. November 2005. “Why Does the PRD Lose?” http:// db.uwaterloo.cal/~alopez-o/politics/prdlose.html

Schultz, Jim. November 2005. “Bolivia’s Unplanned Elections.” www.democracyctr.org/newsletter/vol67.htm

Schweickart, David. 2002. After Capitalism. New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Stedile, Joao Pedro. March/April 2005. “Memories of Struggle in the MST.” NACLA Report on the Americas, 38:5, 21-26.

Zakaria, Fareed. September/October 2004. “Hating America.” Foreign Policy, No. 144, 47-49.

[1] For a detailed analysis of the second contradiction using Germany as an example see Harris, Globalization and Class Struggle in Germany, 2005.

[2] Michael Albert offers such a complex array of managerial committees and social organizations in his effort to replace the state that his ideas can be labeled “ bureaucratic anarchism.” For his full view see Parecon, LifeAfter Capitalism, 2003. For a traditional Marxist critic of the inevitable “slippery slope” of market socialism see Martin Hart-Landsberg and Paul Burkett, China and Socialism: Market Reforms and Class Struggle, 2005. And for an argument that still defends the Soviet statist model refer to Roger Keeran and Thomas Kenny, Socialism Betrayed: Behind the Collapse of the Soviet Union, 2004.

[3] I am using the term non-antagonistic contradictions not to argue for an absence of political struggle, but as contradictions to be solved among social class and forces whose common goals are to build a post-capitalist society. This is to be distinguished from contradictions between the people and counter-revolutionary forces. Although Mao articulates this in his 1957 essay “On the Correct Handling of the Contradictions Among the People,” the failure to carry out this policy led to the disaster of the Cultural Revolution.


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12 11 2017
O experimento bolivariano e as ingerências imperialistas na Venezuela – Jornal A Pátria

[…] J. (2007). On the Democratic Relationship between State, Markets, and Civil Society: Bolivia and Venezuela, Network for Critical Studies of Global Capitalism. Available at: […]

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