Experiments with Truth: Analysis

The legacy of Hugo Chávez’s ‘communal state’

Since January 2007, Chávez proposed going beyond the bourgeois state by building the communal state. He applied more widely a concern originating with antisystemic forces, meaning the movements and political forces that assume that the state form has to be overcome. The basic idea is to form council structures of different kinds, especially communal councils, communes and communal cities, which will gradually supplant the bourgeois state.

Communal Councils

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. The most active agents of change in Venezuela have been–and continue to be–the inhabitants of the urban barrios and the peasant communities.

Communal Councils began forming in 2005 without any law and as an initiative ‘from below’. In January 2006 Chávez adopted this initiative and began to spread it. 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. At the heart of the Communal Council and its decision-making body is the Assembly of Neighbours. The councils build a non-representative structure of direct participation which exists parallel to the elected representative bodies of constituted power. In 2013, more than 40,000 Communal Councils had been established in Venezuela.

The Communal Councils are financed directly by national State institutions, thus avoiding interference from municipal organs. The law does not give any entity the authority to accept or reject proposals presented by Communal Councils. The relationship between Communal Councils and established institutions, however, is not exactly harmonious; conflicts arise principally from the slowness of constituted power to respond to demands made by Communal Councils and from attempts at interference. The Communal Councils tend to transcend the division between political and civil society (i.e., between those who govern and those who are governed). Hence, liberal analysts who support that division view the Communal Councils in a negative light, arguing that they are not an independent civil-society organization, but linked to the State. In fact, however, they constitute a parallel structure through which power and control is gradually drawn away from the State in order to govern on its own.

Socialist Communes

At a higher level of self government there is the possibility of creating Socialist Communes, which can be formed from various Communal Councils in a specific territory. The Communal Councils decide themselves about the geography of the Commune  These Communes can develop medium and long-term projects of greater impact while decisions continue to be made in assemblies of the Communal Councils. As of 2013 there are more than 200 communes under construction.

The idea of the Commune as a site for building participation, self-government and socialism traces back to the communitarian socialist tradition of the Paris Commune, and also to Venezuelan Simón Rodríguez, who proposed local self government by the people, calling it ‘Toparchy’ (from the Greek ‘Topos’, place) in the early 19th century,  to traditional forms of indigenous collectivism and communitarianism and the historical experiences of the Maroons, former Afro-American slaves who escaped to remote regions and built self administrated communities and settlements.

Various Communes can form Communal Cities, with administration and planning ‘from below’ if the entire territory is organized in Communal Councils and Communes. The mechanism of the construction of Communes and Communal cities is flexible; they themselves define their tasks. Thus the construction of self-government begins with what the population itself considers most important, necessary or opportune. The Communal Cities that have begun to form so far, for example, are rural and are structured around agriculture, such as the ‘Ciudad Comunal Campesina Socialista Simón Bolívar’ in the southern state of Apure or the ‘Ciudad Comunal Laberinto’ in the north-eastern state of Zulia.

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