[News] ‘Learning to Govern Ourselves’: Venezuela’s National Network of Commoners

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Wed Jan 2 13:32:46 EST 2013

     *‘Learning to Govern Ourselves’: Venezuela’s National Network of 
Commoners * 	

Written by Rebecca McMillan and Calais Caswell
Tuesday, 01 January 2013 13:37

News of the deterioration of Chávez´s health has Venezuelans 
increasingly worried. While top government officials and opposition 
members were meeting behind closed doors in early December to discuss 
their next steps, other important discussions were taking place amongst 
grassroots activists on the future of the Bolivarian Process.

Far from the hustle and bustle of Caracas in the lush mountains of the 
Sierra de San Luis, Falcón State, some 200 Venezuelan community 
organizers and activists met November 30-December 2, 2012 to debate 
proposals for the future of the revolutionary state. The occasion was 
the first congress of the National Network of Commoners (Red Nacional de 
Comuneros, RNC).

Formed in 2009 with the goal of uniting 16 already-existing communes, 
the RNC today encompasses over 80 communal ‘processes’ including 
communes, communal cities, communal territories, direct social property 
enterprises, direct exchange markets, political training schools, 
community media groups, revolutionary collectives, and individuals. The 
network aims to connect and expand the participatory experiences and 
provide the movements with a space to articulate their vision of socialism.

The objective of the first congress was to debate this vision and 
develop a proposal to present to the Chávez government in early 2013.

Reinventing the commune

Communes are a structure of community self-government. Adopted into law 
in 2010, they are the latest part of the Chávez government’s efforts to 
build a separate, participatory state apparatus referred to as the 
‘communal state.’

The idea of the commune is inspired by the experiences of indigenous and 
Afro-Venezuelan people, as well as socialist ideas and the work of Latin 
American Marxist thinkers such as Peru’s José Carlos Mariátegui.

In theory, the ‘communal state’ is supposed to eventually replace the 
bourgeois state. The new state will be subordinate to ‘popular power’ 
and overcome the division between ‘civil society’ and ‘political 
society’ that underpins the capitalist system. The emphasis on 
grassroots participation is also seen as a departure from the 
undemocratic, centralist tendencies of some previous socialist 
experiences [1].

In practice, the communes group together all communal councils and other 
community organizations in a given geographic territory. Communal 
councils are community planning bodies that encompass 150-400 families 
in urban areas and about 20 in rural areas.

The communes aim to prioritize and address community needs. The national 
government transfers funds directly to the communes to execute projects, 
without the intermediation of state or municipal governments.

The communes also advance the socialist economy by bringing production 
and services under direct community control. Many communes operate their 
own banks and community enterprises. For example, El panal 2012 in 
Caracas’s militant 23 de enero neighborhood is packaging and 
distributing sugar and grains. The Juana Ramírez commune in Antímano 
parish runs its own bakery and condiment and cleaning-supplies 
factories. These initiatives ensure that prices remain affordable and 
that goods reach the people. (In Venezuela, opposition-dominated 
distribution cartels have frequently withheld supplies of essential 
products as a form of leverage against the government).

Communes in the states of Lara, Portuguesa, and Yaracuay are also 
tackling the challenge of food self-sufficiency. They are constructing a 
Communal Network for the Production and Distribution of Food, which also 
promotes organic production.

Finally the communes are seen by the comuneros as a ‘classroom’ for 
political ideology and learning about self-government.

“No government wants to destroy itself”: Top down vs. bottom up 

Given that bureaucrats in the bourgeois state are not interested in 
reducing the state’s power, the creation of the communes hasn’t been 
easy. Debates rage on the relationship between ‘top down’ and ‘bottom 
up’ initiatives in the Bolivarian process.

As social theorist Dario Azzellini [2] explains, those who embrace the 
top-down view see the state as the primary agent of change and the 
‘popular power’ (communal councils, communes, etc.) as part of its 
administration. Most within the National Network of Commoners would 
subscribe to what Azzellini calls the ‘bottom-up’ perspective, which 
views the Chávez government as creating the enabling conditions for 
building popular power, but sees the ultimate goal as moving beyond the 
(bourgeois) state form.

Several community orgainizers told us that the government moved too 
quickly in mandating the creation of the communes; it would have been 
better to wait until the communal councils were stronger and activists 
had had a few more years of political and ideological training.

The ultimate problem, however, is that “no government wants to destroy 
itself,” as noted by Atenea Jiménez, one of the network’s most active 
militants [3]. The relationship of the communal organizations to the 
existing representative institutions remains an open question and even 
many Chavista mayors and governors are critical of the communes because 
they are threatened by the prospect of ceding power to the communes.

As Jiménez explains, since the autonomous forms of organization they are 
advancing in the network pose a threat to people in power, they are 
often overlooked, for example by local and state media.

Drawing strength from a revolutionary history

Many of the longest-running and most successful of these experiences are 
in Falcón state, where the conference was held. There, the communes have 
self-organized into a ‘confederation’ as a way of connecting and 
extending popular participation in the state.

In the Sierra de San Luis, the congress site, the idyllic scenery and 
tranquil ambience belie a radical history. The area is birthplace to 
José Leonardo Chirino, a black revolutionary who led the first 
insurrection against the Spanish and fought to abolish slavery.

In the 1960s, Falcón was also a locus of guerrilla struggle.

Today, one of the Falconians’ most powerful weapons against oppression 
is the trueke. Trueke is an alternative economic system based on direct 
exchange of goods, services, or knowledge. Some 150+ pro-sumidores 
(pro-sumers or producer-consumers) participate in the money-less market. 
They also created an alternative currency called the zambo to kick-start 
the exchange.

The important thing is not the lack of currency, as some Falconian 
commoners explained to us. The objective of the trueke is to foster 
non-capitalist social relations by eliminating wages and the generation 
of profit.

Learning to govern by doing

Through these, and other experiences, the Network of Commoners is 
learning to govern by governing.

“We are new political subjects, attempting to govern ourselves” explains 
William Gudiño, a long-time militant active in the network.

The model the commoners strive for is, to the extent possible, 
horizontal and collectivist, breaking the division between those who 
plan and those who execute the community work.  “The network is very 
important,” said one of the facilitators, “there are no leaders, and 
it’s important that everyone shares the information.”

This philosophy informed the structure of the congress itself. 
Participants organized themselves into ten working groups to 
collectively debate the themes and put forward proposals. “We have 
created a real communal space,” exclaimed Jiménez, “Everyone is even 
sharing cooking and cleaning responsibilities!”

They nominated a committee to compile the proposals, which will then be 
debated in each commune. The final proposals will be presented to the 
government in early 2013.

Rumbo towards the communal state

It is the afternoon of Saturday, December 1, and the relaxed atmosphere 
seems somehow incoherent with the urgency of the subject matter. Around 
the discussion circles children are playing and stray puppies hang 
around, hoping for a fallen treat from a distracted debater. Several 
participants munch pensively on mandarins.

They have saved one of the congress’s most pressing topics for last: the 
creation of the communal state.

The facilitator begins by explaining to the group that the historic role 
of the state has been as a vehicle for one class to oppress the other. 
Their challenge, he explains, is to think about a new kind of state that 
embodies different social relations.

The diversity of the group becomes immediately apparent in the 
discussion that follows. Indeed, the network’s membership is 
ideologically heterogeneous, with members identifying with Marxism, 
anarchism, and various strains of socialist thought, as well as 
representing different sectoral interests, such as environmentalists, 
labour organizers, and  indigenous rights activists. So, participants 
have different views on the role of the state in the transitional 
process, and of the necessity of representative government.

“Why are we talking about the state to begin with?” argues one 
participant, gesturing at the bag of mandarins in the centre of the 
circle. “It’s like this bag of oranges. Are we trying to tie up 
something that should be free?”

But there are limits to horizontality, explains another debater. “At the 
national level some kind of representation is going to be necessary to 
bring the people’s proposals forward.”

Most of the congress’s proposals centered on the creation of a national 
assembly of commoners, which would unite one spokesperson from each 
commune, as well as possible representation from sectoral organizations 
such as labour federations.

They also discussed the creation of a communal state department to 
articulate with other organizations in the region and globally, with the 
goal of combating imperialism and working to create socialism at the 
global level.

Another proposal was for a national council or commission to examine 
what they term ‘integral security.’ Insecurity and police corruption are 
perennial concerns in Venezuela leading many participants to call for a 
new model of security based on the people ‘protecting themselves,’ 
rather than the police and military defending the people. They 
highlighted the importance of prevention and expanded their definition 
of insecurity to include threats to local and national sovereignty.

The two days of debate concluded with participants agreeing to bring the 
proposals back to their communities.

“We have a historic responsibility right now,” said William Gudiño. “We 
don’t know how President Chávez is. We remain alert, but we need to keep 
moving forward rapidly and efficiently. We need to go back to our 
barrios, to our communal councils, to our communes, and keep the process 
moving forward.”

For more on the National Network of Commoners, visit their blog 

Rebecca McMillan and Calais Caswell are graduate students in 
International Development and Globalization at the University of Ottawa. 
They were in Venezuela from August-December 2012 researching water and 
sanitation politics and the role of the technical water committees 
(mesas técnicas de agua, MTAs) in Caracas. Their research is sponsored 
the Social Science and Humanities Research Council, the North-South 
Institute, and the University of Ottawa.

[1] Dario Azzellini: “2012 Venezuelan Elections and the Future of the 
Bolivarian Process” Historical Materialism Conference, November 11, 
2012, London, UK.
[2] Dario Azzellini: “2012 Venezuelan Elections and the Future of the 
Bolivarian Process” Historical Materialism Conference, November 11, 
2012, London, UK.
[3] See this article by Atenea Jimenez (Spanish 
English translation <http://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/7392>). 
Following the October 2012 elections, Chavez reprimanded his cabinet for 
the lack of progress on stimulating the construction of the communes and 
asked his newly nominated Vice President, Nicolas Maduro, “Where are the 
communes?” In this piece, Jimenez responds that the communes are alive 
and well but that their work has been under-recognized for various reasons.

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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