The Politics of Dewey and Chávez: Venezuela as Example or Evasion

The Politics of Dewey and Chávez: Venezuela as Example or Evasion 
 By Jesse Justin Cuevas

      Upon my return to New York from Venezuela, I sat down with my advisor, Lauren Kaminsky, to talk about my summer ventures. Because I am a striving activist for social justice, I think everyone was expecting me to return to the United States a full-blown Chavista1. For the first question Lauren asked me, jokingly of course, was, “So, have you gone over to the dark side?” Though I am certainly still a capitalist, my experience in Venezuela taught me more than I ever knew about the reality of my relationship with my government here in the United States.

      In my conversation with Lauren, I told her about the communal councils in place in Venezuela, the rising voter turn-out, the laws surrounding referenda, and the life for the poor people living in the barrios of La Vega, Caracas. When I spoke to her about my amazement in the efficiency of participatory planning—a group in the community writes a request for something involving health, education, safety, etc., and Chávez allocates money accordingly—she said to me, “Well, Jesse, that’s pragmatism.” We both agreed that it is a shame that the alleged arch-nemesis of the United States, Venezuela, is putting into practice a wonderful American political philosophy that is hugely neglected by the American political system.

      In the next several pages I hope to offer an account of successful participatory democracy (so far!) in a country where our own media fails to do so. The first portion consists of a brief summary of participatory democracy told through an array of Dewey’s works but mainly pulling from his response to Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion in The Public and Its Problems. The second portion applies Dewey’s theory of participatory democracy to Chávez’s presidency using mainly Dewey’s philosophy and the published works of Gregory Wilpert, a German-American sociologist, freelance writer, and internationally recognized analyst of Venezuelan politics. The question I ask—and cannot rightly answer—is the question that I struggled with throughout my travels in Venezuela and the question I still struggle with today. Can participatory democracy work in a top-down structured government? 

Participatory Democracy as the Dissolution of Spectator Politics

Dewey answers Lippmann 

      Walter Lippmann, an elitist to say the least, was one of the most influential men of his time. As a writer, he is known best for his book, Public Opinion, a piece denouncing the average citizen’s capacity to be accurately and publicly engaged in political affairs. His discredit of the common should come not as a surprise for at age nine, Lippmann was introduced to Theodore Roosevelt and Admiral George Dewey,2 and he continued in his young adult life to travel around the world meeting with affluent American political figures and leaders while still keeping a column in a local newspaper.3 In his well-known work, Lippmann asserts that it is no longer possible to believe in the “original dogma of democracy; that the knowledge needed for the management of human affairs comes up spontaneously from the human heart.”4 He believes, rather, that the defect of democracy can be overcome in the “abandonment of the theory of the omnicompetent citizen, in the decentralization of decision, in the coordination of decision by comparable record and analysis.”5

      In The Public and Its Problems, Dewey responds and strenuously disagrees with Lippmann’s discredit of the average citizen. While he concedes the empirical accuracy of Lippmann’s account of modern-day public opinion, and praises the democratic realists for exposing the shortcomings of democratic government and the bewilderment of the ordinary citizen, Dewey rejects the elitist solutions offered in response. Subjugating civic self-determination in the name of efficient government can never be consistent with true democracy, he declares. Dewey found Lippmann’s solution of a “machinery of knowledge” through the creation of intelligence bureaus an insult to true human capacity for knowledge and a backwards approach to democracy in and of itself.

      Dewey objects to the democratic elitists’ arguments, arguing both that their arguments against the masses’ intellect are contradictory and that their reverence of experts gives experts far too much credit. If the masses are as “intellectually irredeemable” as Lippmann implied they would in any case have too many desires and too much power to permit rule by experts. 6 “It could be made to work,” Dewey says, “only if the intellectuals became the willing tools of big government interests. Otherwise they would have to ally themselves with the masses, and that implies, once more, a share in government by the latter.”7 Dewey also posits that without the participation of the public in the formulation of policy, Lippmann’s expert rule could not reflect the common needs and interests of the society at large since only the public can define the public interest. Opposed to Lippmann's position that experts are wise and benevolent in serving the interests of society, Dewey argues that they become a specialized class, alienated from those whose interests they are supposed to enforce.

      Dewey's notion of democracy denotes neither the liberal democracy of free press and elections nor the representative democracy of delegation to officials. “He does not reduce people's government for the people; rather, he treats it in a more direct sense of participation in government that is a form of human self-realization,” Slavko Splichal writes.8 Dewey rallies for participatory democracy with an understanding of democracy as the chance for each person to achieve "fullness of integrated personality" in a community of others.9

      Unlike the democratic realists like Lippmann, Dewey asserts that direct participation in a democracy would foster an unexpected talent for thoughtful deliberation in ordinary citizens. Like Emerson, Dewey believes that “we lie in the lap of an immense intelligence. But that intelligence is dormant and its communications are broken, inarticulate and faint until is possesses the local community as its medium.”10 In his response to Lippmann in The Public and its Problems, he outlines an elaborate program of truly participatory democracy, one built around face-to-face interactions in “neighborly communities.”

      Indeed, Dewey’s faith in ordinary citizens—in “the public”—is roundly criticized by the democratic realists as excessive idealism. Yet Dewey is not wholly an idealist. His understanding of democracy, though different from Lippmann’s colleagues, seeks out democracy from a different angle that made the participatory vision of democracy a very real and inherent part of the ideology. As he writes in Ethics, democracy, rightly conceived, is not so much a goal as it is a process. “[Democracy],” Dewey writes,

“involves constant meeting and solving of problems -- that is to say, the desired harmony is never brought about in a way which meets and forestalls all future developments. There is no shortcut to it, no single predestined road which can be found once for all and which, if human beings continue to walk in it without deviation, will surely conduct them to the goal.”11 

      Dewey insists that most of his contemporaries fail to properly distinguish between democracy as a way of life and democracy as a system of government. Though the two are perhaps closely related, the idea of democracy in the former sense was, in Dewey’s words, is,

“a wider and fuller idea than can be exemplified in the state even at its best. To be realized it must affect all modes of human association, the family, the school, industry, religion. And even as far as political arrangements are concerned, governmental institutions are but a mechanism for securing to an ideal channels of effective operation.”12  

As such, democracy is an inherently participatory ideal, and the “realist” proposal for democracy with a limited degree of self-government is, for Dewey, a contradiction in terms. “Whatever his weaknesses as a political theorist and strategist,” Robert Westbrook notes, “Dewey was never guilty of shortchanging democracy as a moral ideal.”13

      While two of Dewey’s major works of the 1920s—Experience and Nature and The Quest for Certainty—are not directly about democracy, they are, in part, an effort to establish that the world we have is one in which a faith in democracy is possible. In Experience and Nature, for instance, Dewey declares that, “shared experience is the greatest of human goods.”14 Since the ability to reason and communicate is what makes human beings distinctive, men and women can realize their humanity only insofar as they are able to participate in the experiences that language makes possible.

“To learn to be human is to develop through the give-and-take of communication an effective sense of being an individually distinctive member of a community; one who understands and appreciates its beliefs, desires and methods, and who contributes to a further conversion of organic powers into human resources and values.”15 

For Dewey, metaphysics, epistemology, psychology, and ethical theory were all means toward the same end: securing the conditions of a viable participatory democracy.

Venezuela and Top-Down Participatory Democracy

Does it work? 

      “The old saying that the cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy is not apt if it means that the evils may be remedied by introducing more machinery of the same kind as that which already exists, or by refining or perfecting that machinery,” Dewey tells us. “But the phrase may also indicate the need of returning to the idea itself, of clarifying and deepening our apprehension of it, and of employing our sense of its meaning to criticize and re-make its political manifestations.”16 Dewey calls for a re-democratization of democracy, a changing rather than refining of the democratic machinery, “to make the interest of the public a more supreme guide and criterion of governmental activity, and to enable the public to form and manifest its purposes still more authoritatively.”17

      This is precisely the kind of “re-machinizing” Chávez is doing with his vision of 21st century socialism. Gregory Wilpert, in his Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The History and Politics of the Chávez Government, takes readers through a brief account of the way democracy has worked in Venezuela’s and Latin America’s history. Neo-liberalism between 1980 and 1990 signified the privatization of state assets, free trade, state fiscal austerity, and deregulation of labor markets, and the results were “far from as good as neo-liberalism’s apostles had claimed the would be...During the height of neo-liberalism in Latin America, per capita economic growth of the continent was a paltry 11% compared to an 80% per capita GDP growth in the previous 20 years…between 1960 and 1979.”18 Despite state socialism, social democracy, and neo-liberalism’s devastating ups and downs, however, Venezuelans were willing to give the left another opportunity.

      During his first three years in office, Chávez’s anti-poverty, anti-corruption and redistribution measures “were actually quite modest” compared to his radical speeches during campaigning.19 Chávez clearly wanted to lessen the disparity between the poor and the rich in Venezuela, and his intent to raise the lower classes from utter poverty economically and politically threatened the rich and elitist Venezuelans who had reaped the benefits of neo-liberalism in the past. Chávez uprooted the constitution, calling for a “re-legitimation of all branches of government and the resulting complete removal of the old elite from state power.”20

      Clearly causing uproar among the upper classes is not what Dewey had in mind when he wrote about conflict-resolution, but Chávez’ actions don’t stray too far from Dewey’s theory of re-democratization. In “Creative Democracy—the Task Before Us,” Dewey speaks about the American democratic crisis,

“I emphasize that the task [to re-create by deliberate and determine endeavor the kind of democracy…worthy of our heritage] can be accomplished only by inventive effort and creative activity…in part because the depth of the present crisis is due in considerable part to the fact that for a long period we acted as if our democracy were something that perpetuated itself automatically.”21  

The same things could be said for Latin American politics. During the Fourth Republic, citizens did not participate in their government because representative politics made spectators out of them. Prior to Chávez’s presidential election and the 1999 constitution, citizens were called to vote every five years and were expected to stay out of politics otherwise. The consequence to the Fourth Republic’s representative democracy was that “politicians were free to do as they pleased, since there was no one looking over their shoulders,” making “corruption and the abuse of power almost…necessary.”22 To make the democratic government more open to participation from all citizens from varying classes, the machine has to be reconstructed in an “inventive” and “creative” fashion, like deconstructing the Venezuelan National Assembly and remaking it from the top down.

      Article 62 of the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela reads,

“The participation of the people in the formation, execution, and control of public administration is the necessary means for achieving the involvement that ensures their full development, both individual and collective. It is the obligation of the State and the duty of society to facilitate the generation of the most favorable conditions for putting this into practice.”23 

It goes without saying that participatory democracy in Venezuela is a national and governmental initiative that explicitly is directed from the top-down. Adopting the language of Tocqueville, the constitution’s “Elucidation of Reasons” “strives to change the political culture, which so many decades of state paternalism and the dominance of party heads generated and that hindered the development of democratic values.”24

      Dewey describes the American democratic mentality as “a habit of thinking of democracy as a kind of political mechanism that will work as long as citizens [are] reasonably faithful in performing political duties.”25 Alas, this is not enough. Rather, Dewey asserts, democracy is a way of life, and “we can escape form this external way of thinking only as we realize in thought and act that democracy is a personal way of individual life; that it signifies the possession and continual use of certain attitudes, forming personal character and determining desire and purpose in all the relations of life.” 26 His direction is precise: “Instead of thinking our own dispositions and habits as accommodated to certain institutions we have to learn to think of the latter as expressions, projections and extensions of habitually dominant personal attitudes.”27

      Participatory democratic theory in Venezuela follows Dewey’s orders. Wilpert divides the participatory venues where change is most geared towards, where institutions are “expressions, projections and extensions of habitually dominant personal attitudes,” into six arenas: referenda, local public planning councils, social oversight, citizen assemblies, civil society involvement in state institutions, and cooperatives.

      The first practice, the frequent use of referenda, is the thing we hear most about in the United States, but it is the practice that Wilpert calls both the most central and the most superficial. He deems it central because referenda “represent the most visible and dramatic difference from the previous constitution and are potentially the most powerful means by which ‘partyarchy’ and ossified representative democracy are subverted.”28 The practice allows for citizens to directly petition for nation-wide referenda, and if these petitions meet necessary requirements, citizens can “impose their will between regular elections and against the will of the political parties and those who are in office.”29 Wilpert calls this practice the most superficial because it is “bound to be used fairly rarely because it is difficult to implement.”30

      The Local Public Planning Councils (CLPP, or Consejos Locales de Planificación) and the Communal Councils (CC, or consejos comunales) consist of Wilpert’s second practice, and they are, he says, “the most far-reaching transformation of Venezelan political life on the day-to-day level.”31 Modeled after the participatory local budgeting model of Porto Alegre, Brazil, the CLPP are formed by each municipality and are constituted by the mayor, the municipal council, the presidents of the district councils, representatives of neighborhood groups, and representatives of other civil society organizations coming from sectors such as healthcare, education, sports, culture, ecology, security, business, women, transportation, etc. Participation in the councils is on a volunteer basis, and their purpose is, among others, to gather and evaluate proposals for community projects, to work on the municipal development plan, to develop a map o the community’s needs, and to coordinate with other municipalities and with state authorities.

      Wilpert outlines five problems with the CLPP: size, equal allocation of financial resources, lack of sufficient power, lack of publicity, and threat poised to mayors and city councils.32 These problems, however, are alleviated with the communal councils in place all over Venezuela. Spearheaded by the Ministry for Popular Participation and Social Development, 3,700 experimental small-scale citizen assemblies that mirror the CLPP were put into place. What started out as 3,700 experimental communal councils turned into over 16,000 communal councils throughout the country’s 335 municipalities.33 These communal councils have had overwhelming success, having several advantages over the CLPP. Firstly, they are decision binding; when a council makes a decision, the mayor must abide by it. Also, they exist on a much smaller scale of 200-400 families in urban areas and 20+ families in rural areas.34

      A large concern over deliberative democracy in the Porto Alegre, Brazil case was the potential for inequality, or as Gianpaolo Baiocchi says, “a fiction of rational deliberation that is in reality elite rule.”35 There certainly is potential for inequality in the CLPP, but the communal councils seem as of yet to eradicate that potential. The communal councils have been very successful, resulting in $1.5 billion in government funds to implement projects designed during weekly councils.36 Earlier this year, Chávez stated he was going to increase the funding to $5 billion over the next year.37

      The third participatory practice is Social Audit and Control, or Contraloria Social. The social audit, the right to request an accounting—financial or non-financial—of all activities of any public administration, is a right that any Venezuelan citizen can exercise. Wilpert suggests that this is a key to Venezuela’s participatory democracy because it “forms the basis of direct citizen involvement in and oversight of the public administration.”38 Not only can citizens propose and implement projects and programs, but also they can make sure that those projects and programs are being run properly.

      The fourth practice is that of Citizen Assemblies, constituted assemblies giving citizens a forum in which they can address frustrations like inadequate utilities, insecurity, or lack of attention from governmental authorities. In article 70 of the constitution and a currently proposed but not yet passed law, citizen assembles may be convoked by at least 1% of a district’s or municipality’s registered voters. All decisions made in citizen assemblies, like those made in communal councils, are binding, and the authorities must implement those decisions within ninety days of being made.39

      The fifth practice Wilpert discusses is the Civil Society Involvement in Government, a very successful practice thus far. Basically, different organizations of civil society have the right to become heavily involved in a wide variety of government organizations, ranging from public institutions to nominations processes for Supreme Court judges and members to the National Electoral Council.40 These organizations have been widely influential in making real change around the country. For example, Caracas water company, Hidrocapital, encouraged communities to set up “technical water committees” that help the water company determine where there is a need to improve service.41 I had the chance to visit one of these very meetings up in the Barrio 70 of La Vega, Caracas. This particular barrio organized and received irrigation systems that flowed to the very top of the barrio, a good fifteen minute drive from the main street, where water had never before been accessible in a movement referred to as both, “Todos Somos de Agua”42 and “Mesa Técnica de Agua, Una Herramienta de la Revolución.”43 According to an interview Wilpert conducted with the Minister for the Environment, Jacqueline Faria, the water company expanded its service from 60% of the population to over 90% in six years.44

      The last practice Wilpert comments on is that of cooperatives. Chávez has been very supportive of cooperatives, instituting legal framework for cooperatives with the help of technical advice and small business loans. Over 100,000 cooperatives have been founded since Chávez first became president.45 There is a law being discussed currently that would create workers’ councils in all public and private workplaces that, according to Oscar Figueroa of the Communist Party of Venezuela, would allow workers “processes of control over production, planning, and the efficient use of resources.”46

      Despite all of these movements to make participatory democracy widespread and successful in Venezuela, Wilpert asks the same question I ask, is participatory democracy something that can be decreed from above? Wilpert thinks it is too much to expect a national government to implement, and I still have no answer though I disagree with Wilpert when he says that, “participatory democracy has to be the result of political struggle.”47 I think Dewey would disagree as well. Though it is arguable whether or not Chávez believes, like Dewey does, that “the process of experience is more important than any special result attained,” he seems to be creating venues where the process of “free interaction of individual human beings with surrounding conditions…which develops and satisfies need and desire by increasing knowledge of things as they are” is actually happening.48

      Had Chávez not come into office and made drastic changes to the constitution and the consistency of the National Assembly, participatory democracy probably would not have come onto the Venezuelan political landscape for at least another twenty-five to fifty years considering the country’s elite majority and mainstream neo-liberal candidates prior to 1999. Whether or not the rise of important projects to increase citizen participation in a wide variety of state institutions and the simultaneous increase of the importance and strength of the presidency can work together and facilitate one another, I know not definitely. I truly believe that Chávez is increasing his power as president to create significant infrastructure in the participatory model so that it can continue after he is gone, but the Venezuelan population has spoken. On December 2 of this year, in a nation-wide referendum, citizens voted against Chávez’s bill for unlimited consecutive presidential terms and increased presidential power. Clearly the citizens feel confident that the constitutional structures already in place successfully foster citizen participation on a large scale. Hopefully the vote means that the citizens can carry on Chávez’s—and Dewey’s—hopes for widespread participatory democracy as the political ideology of Venezuela