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Forum Post: The Communal State: Communal Councils, Communes, and Workplace Democracy

Posted 10 years ago on Oct. 16, 2013, 9:22 a.m. EST by sabokitty (6)
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For full article (this is 1/4) and footnotes: http://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/9787

Jun 30th 2013, by Dario Azzellini – NACLA

The particular character of what Hugo Chávez called the Bolivarian process lies in the understanding that social transformation can be constructed from two directions, “from above” and “from below.” Bolivarianism—or Chavismo—includes among its participants both traditional organizations and new autonomous groups; it encompasses both state-centric and anti-systemic currents. The process thus differs from traditional Leninist or social democratic approaches, both of which see the state as the central agent of change; it differs as well from movement-based approaches that conceive of no role whatsoever for the state in a process of revolutionary change.

The current transformation in Venezuela is thus the product of a tension between constituent and constituted power, with the principal agent of change being the constituent. Constituent power is the legitimate collective creative capacity of human beings expressed in movements and in the organized social base to create something new without having to derive it from something previously existing. In the Bolivarian process, the constituted power—the state and its institutions—accompanies the organized population; it must be the facilitator of bottom-up processes, so that the constituent power can bring forward the steps needed to transform society.

This approach was elaborated on various occasions by former president Hugo Chávez and has been confirmed by his successor, Nicolás Maduro, during the recent electoral campaign. It is shared by sectors of the administration and by the majority of the organized movements. Both from the government and from the rank and file of the Bolivarian process, there is a declared commitment to redefine state and society on the basis of an interrelation between top and bottom and thereby to move toward transcending capitalist relations. Although not free of contradictions and conflicts, this two-track approach has been able to uphold and deepen the process of social transformation in Venezuela.

Constituent power, being comprehensive and expansive, has been the fundament for every revolution, democracy, and republic; it is the greatest motor of history, the most powerful, innovative social force. Historically, however, we have seen constituent powers silenced and weakened after barely carrying out their role of legitimating the constituted power. In a genuine revolutionary process, however, the constituent power must maintain its capacity to intervene and to shape the present, to create something new that does not derive from the old. This is what defines revolution: not the act of taking power, but rather a broad process of constructing the new, an act of creation and invention.1 This is the global legacy of the Bolivarian process.

In Venezuela, the concept of constituent power arose at the end of the 1980s as the defining trait of a continuous process of social transformation. The main slogan of the neighborhood assemblies was “We don’t want to be a government, we want to govern.” This idea, understood in increasingly radical terms, came to orient the revolutionary transformation, acquiring a hegemonic status in the political-ideological debate of the 1990s.2

The Bolivarian process began by calling for a strengthening of civil and human rights and for the building of a “participatory and protagonistic democracy” in search of a “third way” beyond capitalism and socialism. Starting in late 2005, however, President Hugo Chávez described socialism as the only alternative for bringing about the necessary transcendence of capitalism. The presidential election of 2006 was defined by Chávez as a choice between capitalism and a path towards socialism. The onset of the era of Chávez’s presidency expanded and reinforced participatory possibilities and council structures and created new ones. The idea of participation was officially defined in terms of popular power, revolutionary democracy, and socialism. Because of the obvious difficulties of defining a clear path to socialism or a clear concept of what socialism can be today, the goal was defined as “socialism of the 21st century,” which is an ongoing project. The name also serves to distinguish it from the “real socialisms” of the 20th century. The process of seeking and building is guided above all by values such as collectivity, equality, solidarity, freedom, and sovereignty.3 It is embodied in the construction of councils.

In January 2007, Chávez proposed to go beyond the bourgeois state by building the communal state. He thus picked up and applied more widely a concern originating with anti-systemic forces. The main idea was to form council structures of all kinds (communal councils, communes, and communal cities, for example), as bottom up structures of self-administration. Councils of workers, students, peasants, and women, among others, would then have to cooperate and coordinate on a higher level in order to gradually replace the bourgeois state with a communal state. According to the National Plan for Economic and Social Development 2007-2013, “since sovereignty resides absolutely in the people, the people can itself direct the state, without needing to delegate its sovereignty as it does in indirect or representative democracy.”4

The notion of a separation between “civil society” and “political society”—as expressed, for example, by NGOs—is thus rejected. The focus is rather upon fostering the potential and the direct capacity of the popular base to analyze, decide, implement, and evaluate what is relevant to its life. The constituent power is embodied in councils, in the institutions of popular power, and in the basic concept of the communal state. As was proposed in the constitutional reform that was rejected in the 2007 referendum, the future communal state must be subordinated to popular power, which replaces bourgeois civil society.5 This would overcome the rift between the economic, the social, and the political—between civil society and political society—which underlies capitalism and the bourgeois state. It would also prevent, at the same time, the over-centralization that characterized the countries of “real socialism.”6


The communal councils are a non-representative structure of direct democracy and the most advanced mechanism of self-organization at the local level in Venezuela. In 2013, approximately 44,000 communal councils had been established throughout the country. Since the new constitution of 1999 defined Venezuela as a “participative and protagonistic democracy,” a variety of mechanisms for the participation of the population in local administration and decision-making have been experimented with. In the beginning they were connected to local representative authorities and integrated into the institutional framework of representative democracy. Competing on the same territory as local authorities and depending on the finances authorized by those bodies, the different initiatives showed little success.

Communal councils began forming in 2005 as an initiative “from below.” In different parts of Venezuela, rank-and-file organizations, on their own, promoted forms of local self-administration named “local governments” or “communitarian governments.” During 2005, one department of the city administration of Caracas focused on promoting this proposal in the poor neighborhoods of the city. In January 2006, Chávez adopted this initiative and began to spread it. On his weekly TV show, “Aló Presidente,” Chávez presented the communal councils—consejos comunales—as a kind of “good practice.” At this point some 5,000 communal councils already existed. In April 2006, the National Assembly approved the Law of Communal Councils, which was reformed in 2009 following a broad consulting process of councils’ spokespeople. The communal councils in urban areas encompass 150-400 families; in rural zones, a minimum of 20 families; and in indigenous zones, at least 10 families. The councils build a non-representative structure of direct participation that exists parallel to the elected representative bodies of constituted power....



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[-] 1 points by GirlFriday (17435) 10 years ago

Do you live in a commune? Have you ever?

[-] 1 points by sabokitty (6) 10 years ago

This is not communes in the counterculture sense. It is just a phrasing for local participatory democracy in urban and rural communities.

[-] 0 points by GirlFriday (17435) 10 years ago

Great, then could make a comparison between what is in existence in the urban and rural communities now?

Secondly, how is this different from the ........we are going to continue to gut public institutions call?

Can you define, precisely, what it is that you hope to achieve?