What Class Rules Venezuela?

Thanks to Chavismo’s bot armies, “Class Consciousness” was a trending topic on Twitter in Venezuela this week. How about we have a real conversation about it, minus the bots?

Thursday April, 27th. I rush into the office after several days off due to protests and Metro closures. The National Assembly calls an open session in Parque Miranda (not a march) and I suppose that our Metro Stations might not be shut down today and my students will be able to get to class. We haven’t met and our schedule is starting to look utopia.

As I set things up for my last lecture on Marx’s analysis of capitalism, I take a few minutes to look through the news and an exotic TT grabs my attention: “class consciousness”. Of course I click. And I find this article written by former vice-president and presidential yerno Jorge Arreaza: “Hoy más que nunca: conciencia de clase.”

Private property hasn’t disappeared either: we just have new owners.

The post sets out a simple summary of Karl Marx’s definitions of social class and then tries to explain how Venezuela’s bourgeoisie ruled until 1999, in a political and legal system designed to enforce a set of unfair economic relations that ensured that wealth could be monopolized by a small elite. This changed when Hugo Chávez was elected: the bourgeoisie lost its political power and the working class started building new political institutions and slowly began to transform economic relations.

The Venezuelan bourgeoisie, Arreaza argues, has a strong social consciousness and therefore fights to maintain its privileges. The struggle now takes place on different battlegrounds, and the most important one is online: digital media and web 2.0. There is no way to make the interests of the working class compatible with those of the bourgeoisie but, according to Arreaza, Venezuela’s working class’ consciousness needs to be strengthened to sustain the Bolivarian revolution.

Many criticisms could be levelled here. Maybe Mr Arreaza would do well to read contemporary academic Marxists discussing class and social consciousness in our times, but perhaps that’s too much to ask. Let’s begin from Marx’s own concepts and ask: who is the ruling class today? Is it the working class?

Every attempt since 1999 to promote “social property,” such as cooperatives or enterprises based on worker’s co-management, has failed. Many businesses have been nationalized, but state property does not mean the end of social classes, as shown by sociological research on social stratification within the USSR.

Of course, private property hasn’t disappeared either: we just have new owners, usually dubbed bolichicos and boliburgueses. Venezuela’s working class is still facing great deprivation and injustice, and las misiones haven’t changed our social situation, however much government propaganda tries to say they do. The idea that, today, the workers are the ruling class doesn’t stand up to a bit of critical scrutiny.

… According to Arreaza, Venezuela’s working class’ consciousness needs to be strengthened to sustain the Bolivarian revolution.

The truth is that the PSUV elite is our new ruling class: a motley crew picked out of what Marx would’ve called the petite bourgeoisie that spent the 80s and 90s as leftist academics, full-time rabblerousers, disgruntled military officers and small-time bureaucrats, educated on the public dime and now mixing a voracious apetite for public resources with a pathological contempt with those who dissent.

This class controls our means of production, has set a political system to sustain its privileges, also enforced by our armed forces. What’s shocking is Arreaza’s lack of self-awareness as he writes about the miseries of the old regime and…unwittingly presents an almost perfect definition of the current one:

Unas Fuerzas Armadas que actuaban como ejército de ocupación, para proteger los privilegios de los pocos y reprimir a las grandes mayorías, que reclamaban su parte de esa riqueza, riqueza que ellos producían, y que también reclamaban los derechos sociales que les eran negados permanentemente.

An armed force that acted like an occupying army, to protect the privileges of the few and repress the broad majority which clamored for its share of the wealth, of wealth they produced, and that also clamored for social rights that were permanently denied to them.

For many years, left wing discourse has been an important political resource for this new ruling class. But, reading Arreaza, I couldn’t help but think back to Manuel Caballero‘s classic take on this:

(…) el conservatismo, el establishment, el status quo, o si se prefiere, la derecha, no necesita precisiones ni definiciones, y poco importa que la ubiquen a la izquierda o a la derecha si con eso logra disimular que donde en realidad está es arriba.

Conservatism, the Establishment and the status quo or, if you prefer, the right wing, doesn’t need precisions or definitions, it hardly matters whether you situate it on the left or the right, just as long as you’re able to conceal its real location: up on top.

Lissette González

Is a PhD sociologist and researcher at Instituto de Investigaciones Económicas y Sociales and Sociology Professor at Escuela de Ciencias Sociales, Universidad Católica Andrés Bello. Blogger and collaborator of SIC Semanal and ElUcabista.com.