Friday, November 11, 2005

A Parallel Commons

My first and arguably most personally surprising encounter with the Bolivarian Revolution was at the Ministry for Popular Participation, which was created in accord, I was told, with Chavez's desire "that the people should take power."

I asked the officials we interviewed, "What does that mean, that the people should take power?" After noting thousands of years of "empires obstructing people from participating in politics," all culminating in "the North American empire," the official said the "U.S. has had 200 years of representative government, but in your system people turn over control to others." Instead, in Venezuela, "we humbly are proposing a system where people hold power in a participatory and protagonist democracy. We want a new kind of democracy to attain a new kind of society."

On the wall was a diagram of their aims. It had lots of little circles, then other larger ones in another layer, and so on. The idea, they said, "was to establish numerous local grassroots assemblies or councils of citizens where people could directly express themselves." These local councils would be the foundational components of "a new system of participatory democracy."

The bottom layer of the vision focuses on communities with "common habits and customs," the officials said. "We define them as comprising 200 to 400 families, or 1000 to 2000 people each." One could of course imagine sub units within each local unit, as well, but that wasn't immediately on their agenda, nor was it in their diagram. The local units would in turn send "elected spokespersons" to units another layer up. Units in this second layer would "encompass a broader geographic region," and then from there, "spokespeople would be elected to another layer, and so on," creating a network covering "parishes, municipalities, states, and the whole society."

The participation officials, explaining their diagram and their goal, said the smallest units were meant to become "the decision-making core of the new Venezuelan polity." Chavez and this ministry hoped to have, they said, "3,000 local assemblies in place by the new year." Their goal was to have "enough in place, throughout the country, in 4 or 5 years, to account for 26 million Venezuelans."...

...These Bolivarians, entrusted by Chavez's administration with building a new, parallel polity, didn't want any more representative decision making than absolutely necessary. They wanted the proposal from one assembly to go up not so that it could be decided by representatives, but so that it could be discussed by spokespeople and then be brought back to other local assemblies by their spokespeople, eventually to all of them, to be decided at large. "If support came," I was told, "then the goal is that it would yield a new voting age, whether Chavez or mayors or the legislature or anyone else wanted the change or not."

I said surely there must be many elected or just appointed mayors, governors, or bureaucrats who would obstruct this vision, not wanting their power reduced or that of the populace increased. Yes, I was told, "many bureaucrats have held positions for twenty or thirty years and about sixty percent of them are putting breaks on the proposal."

"Even among ministers in the Chavez administration," I asked, "do some resent that they would go from having power to just obeying the public? Cuba's poder popular began with many of the ideals you express," I noted, "but never got to the point where the national power was participatory. Do you believe that the Chavez government will help the assembly system reach its full development, or that after awhile the assembly system will have to push against the government to get full power?"

The answer was "only the organized population can decide. We are on a path to invent a new democracy. We have gone forward from what we had before. There are no guarantees, but we are trying to go further." There was no need, however, the officials said, to remove or otherwise forcefully conflict with the old structures. Rather, the new system would be built alongside what now exists and would prove its worth over time, in parallel. Many in the old would come around, others wouldn't. But either way, in time the old forms would be replaced by the impressive reality of the new forms' success, not by fiat or by force.
- Michael Albert

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