What the Crisis in Venezuela Tells Us About Populism in Today's Time

There is an intense similarity between the Venezuelan crisis and what we find in some other democracies – the same populist response to crisis and the same hesitation of the Left to take note of the class basis of this response.

Opposition demonstrators on February 12. Armed pro-government groups attacked and shot at people protesting against Maduro's government late last Tuesday in the Andean city of Merida in western Venezuela, injuring five, activists said. Credit: Reuters

Opposition demonstrators on February 12. Armed pro-government groups attacked and shot at people protesting against Maduro’s government late last Tuesday in the Andean city of Merida in western Venezuela, injuring five, activists said. Credit: Reuters

In India, through the last decade or little more, populism has become a matter of interest to those who study and practice politics. The neoliberal monetarists denounce any expenditure on relief and welfare of the people as populist. On the other hand, the Left remains wary of the idea and the reality of populism.

The Oxford Dictionary of Sociology defines populism as any political movement which seeks to mobilise the people against a state which is too powerful or controlled by vested interests. Too often, states have been captured by populists towards furthering a particular set of interests in the garb of the interests of the people. In this sense, no democracy is complete with its quota of populism. Indian democracy is no exception. Populists have become the ruling strata in many countries with nationalist-populist, ethnic-populist, racist-populist and masculine-populist with high degree of xenophobia and anti-immigrant rhetoric buttressing the stance. Populists have attacked institutions that have come in their way. They have made votes work in their favour because they know how to rouse frenzy on issues and mobilise the votes. The recent events in Haryana only reinforce this point.

In this way, populism has returned to the menu of political analysts. They are trying to make sense of the recent seismic shifts in the politics in democracies. There is populism of the National Front’s Marine Le Pen in France and populism of US President Donald Trump veering the support of angry white men towards him in the presidential election. The term is thus pejoratively used: Populism is irrational; it is against liberal ideas, values and institutions. But the looseness of the usage of the term hides a complex reality. The reality is also one of crisis. This crisis is in the normal liberal functioning of the state, democracy and politics.

In the crisis, also as a response to the crisis – often involving economy, society and politics – there is populist response – both of Left and Right variety. However, the differences between the two are fundamental. Left populism blames the system and seeks a systemic change. It wants to end austerity by increasing social spending. It rejects ultra nationalism, racism and religious fanaticism. On the other hand, Right populism blames the political elite – but not the economically ruling class – and a political system that shuts the “the people” out. They embrace nationalism and religious fundamentalism. They blame “cheap labour” from abroad for “stealing” their jobs. Yet there is a common link between Right wing and Left wing populism. It is the question of class and classes. The rhetoric, analysis and proposed remedies – all reflect the discontent of the underclass in their respective ways.

In this specific way, class and class struggle has returned to political contestation in today’s age of neoliberal capitalism, thanks to the dismantling of the welfare state and the cruel, remorseless exploitation of lower classes. As one commentator has noted, we are witnessing the return of class struggle politics in the 21st century, the re-engagement of extra-parliamentary popular movements, and the disenfranchised, in electoral contests and other contests for political power. Only time will tell how this new wave of class struggle politics will shape in the long run.

Crisis in Venezuela

During the last three months, a wave of violence swept over Venezuela which resulted in nearly 100 deaths. Schools were ransacked, buildings and public transportation destroyed, shops burnt and hospitals emptied. The mainstream media channels engaged in virulent denunciations of the government. As if a dictator was ruling the country and suppressing the opposition democrats. On the other hand, supporters of President Nicolas Maduro rallied round the idea of convening a National Constituent Assembly to come out of the deadlock.

At the same time, it was found out that a major part of the deaths over which the mainstream media was crying hoarse had nothing to do with the police force and some had died in looting or shoot-outs within the opposition mobilisations, mostly linked to Rightist paramilitary groups who enjoy local protection of the municipalities governed by the opposition. In a few cases, individuals associated with Huge Chavez were set on fire. This is the trend in several countries in Latin America – Colombia, Honduras and Mexico, like Venezuela, have also seen killings of social movement leaders and progressive journalists. In Mexico, students, teachers, political activists and social movement leaders are regularly murdered. Often, the environment is one of social warfare imposed by the so called anti-drug trafficking actions.

Through the disturbances, social dislocation and the persistent media coverage of the so-called authoritarianism of Maduro, a coup was being planned in Venezuela like the ones in Honduras (2009), Paraguay (2014) and Brazil (2016). The reason for fomenting social dislocation is that the Right still lacks military force. But social troubles and clashes will be instigated and police stations will be set on fire so that the army can come down heavily on the society. The criminal underworld has started terrorising the society, particularly the small and medium traders.

During the last three months, a wave of violence swept over Venezuela which resulted in nearly 100 deaths. Credit: Reuters

During the last three months, a wave of violence swept over Venezuela which resulted in nearly 100 deaths. Credit: Reuters

This war has begun in the context of the crisis in Chavismo politics now marked by the lack of food, medicine and money for the people. If this were not enough, the global Right now has called for ending the country’s access to credit. The Leftist populist Maduro government also contributed to its own weaknesses by following an inoperative system of currency exchange rates, incurring unacceptable level of external debt and failing to control prices and smuggling, though one can argue that in the first place the rich in Venezuela manipulated currencies and caused inflation. The government never went for deep reforms of the society and the economy, but only went for redistribution of wealth. This policy was not enough for the government to face the assault of the Right. Instead of learning from mistakes, the government has been unresponsive to the difficulties of the people. It has been inefficient and has tolerated corruption by the millionaires. As if support of the people was enough; no deep change of society and economy was needed.

Yet the fact at the end of the day is that Maduro along with Chavismo as a movement is resisting the rightist assault. Maduro is not surrendering unlike Syriza in Greece. He has abolished the Ministry of Colonies. The country has withdrawn from the Organisation of American States (OAS). But as said, the populist government committed several mistakes. Now, in self defence, it has to suppress those who oppose. Perhaps this will see Maduro through for the time being. But soon, a new dialogic policy through the National Constituent Assembly will have to begin while reforms towards dismantling the old structure of the capitalist economy must commence in earnest. That will be the way to permanently avert the possibility of a Rightist coup while following a steadfast policy of singling out those responsible for the crisis and punishing them.

Left and the populist government

Corruption is a big problem and like all other left-populist governments, the Maduro government too has treated the issue lightly, given the fact that the oil industry is crucial to Venezuela. Oil is laced with easy money produced from the rental dimension of extraction. As pointed already, it did not diversify its economy much. Besides, the government did not have any dialogic policy. Dialogue has also been stifled by the elite who discourage mobilisations and treat the rank and file as only foot soldiers of governmental politics. The elite do not want to lose their privileges.

But the biggest problem is the ambivalence of the Left towards the Maduro government. The Left cannot oppose it, it cannot digest it either. Thus, they say that the Maduro rule is an authoritarian rule based on rental income from oil. Venezuela’s problems are due to populist politics which means squandering away the country’s resources. This logic then leads the Left to argue that it is oversimplification to blame the Right for the ills. By arguing in this manner, the Left is behaving like the Right. It is not pressing for actions against the bankers and the cartels. It is not demanding direct popular controls over a process of restructuration of economy. What is then the difference that remains between the liberals and the Left which is as much enamoured with bourgeois institutionalism as the former? They have forgotten the words ‘class’ and ‘class struggle’.

In Cuba, when Castro led the revolution, there was a communist party by the name of the Popular Socialist Party. Through intense dialogues, Castro’s July 26 Movement, the Popular Socialist Party and the student based Revolutionary Directory Party merged to become the Communist Party of Cuba. The Cuban Left did not behave as today’s Left. The latter vis a vis the Leftists-Populists poses as holier than thou.

Hugo Chavez, in better days. Credit: Reuters

Hugo Chavez, in better days. Credit: Reuters

The history of engagement of the Left with populism is long and tortuous. There have been no people without an ideology of the people (often representing the worldview of the petty bourgeoisie and the associated unorganised sections of society), which we can term as populism. The dominant characteristic of populism has been its political expression – certain political specifics. Its economic content is often meagre and when not hollow, it tries to reach welfare to the people without seriously disturbing property relations. Yet while its economic possibilities are limited, its political possibilities have been quite noticeable. Populism has various forms; agrarian populism being one of the widely prevailing ones.

Neo-liberal capitalism thrives by incorporating all that is known as the informal, colonised, the South, gendered, non-productive, etc. Neoliberal economy practises internal colonialism based on core-periphery relations, accumulates national debt, ruthlessly imposes taxation, ensures flexibilisation of labour and along with that, financialisation of economy, primarily of land and other extractive commodities and facilitates new forms of credit capital, variegated supply chains, zoning of production activities and corridors of supply. In this milieu of extreme dispossession, the world is witnessing populism whose social basis is the lower order of society. In other words, while populism can be right wing, it can be of the poorer classes also. It is important not to suspend the class criterion and ignore the social basis of the populist response to the crisis. In many ways, we shall see a remarkable similarity between populisms of the 19th century and the ones of our time. Is it then not strange that populism is often treated with sweeping observations (such as populism is fascism and Nazism or charitably, it is nihilism) without making concrete historical investigations?

In a situation marked by the collapse of all welfare functions of the state, populism signifies the intense craving of the poor masses for public protection, public authority, public assistance and public power – a kind of displaced site of social justice. Therefore, do not be surprised if you notice an intense similarity between what has been described above and what we find in parts of India – the same populist response to crisis and the same hesitation of the Left to take note of the class basis of this response.

Ranabir Samaddar is Distinguished Chair in Forced Migration studies, Calcutta Research Group. He can be contacted at [email protected].