We Are the State! Barrio Activism in Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution 

Cristobal Valencia has managed to write a rich and entertaining ethnography about the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela while only sparsely mentioning Hugo Chávez throughout the text. Based on extensive fieldwork between 2003 and 2013 in some of toughest neighbourhoods of South Central Caracas, We Are the State! describes the participatory political practices of barrio residents (Chavistas) in the Bolivarian Revolution. Often overshadowed by party politics and the mediatisation of its charismatic leader, Valencia accounts for the role played by grassroots and neighbourhoods organizations both in outlining unexpected forms of political participation and challenging unequal relations of power raising a series of doubts about often-trite analyses and naturalised connections between populism and the Bolivarian Revolution.

The book is composed by an introduction and four ethnographic chapters. In the introduction, after briefly describing the institutional attempts within the Bolivarian Revolution to transfer state power to popular and local political instances, Valencia mainly addresses the relationship between state and social movements while analysing the latters varied contributions to state formation. Highly critical of journalistic interpretations representing spontaneous, unsophisticated and pre-political masses responding either to the orders of the leaders or the gasps of the belly, the author proposes a reterritorialization of the state as a contested and varied domain of ordinary subjectivities and citizens.

In Chapter One and Two, drawing alternatively from historical and ethnographic materials, the author describes the “class politics” and the historical exclusion of grassroots movements from Venezuelan politics while drawing a tension between Venezuela’s “model” democracy and the unorganised, riotous and politically delegitimised barrio residents. Such narratives and tensions come to be -only apparently- shattered by the Caracazo uprising and the reform processes that institutionalised popular power, mostly through concejos comunales (community councils), during Chávez administration. Here Valencia begins signalling a tension that runs throughout the book between the institutionalised revolution attempting to co-opt and reshape grassroots organizations according to the logics and forms convenient to the state and the simultaneous emergence among barrio residents of counterintuitive ideas of state and politics enabled by their new role as “priority” subjects in the Bolivarian Revolution.

In Chapter Three, Four and Five, the author addresses the tensions and contradictions between the official apparatus of the Bolivarian Revolution and the grassroots movements self-identified as structuring elements of the revolution in their role as poder popular (popular power). Focussing on three different areas, the parish of El Valle, Barrio Metropolitano and the Afro-Venezuelan movement, the author describes the barrio residents as the driving force in the process of transferring state power to civil society, in replacing the state in the everyday practices and their constant struggle with the same revolutionary institutions to be the state. Often represented as the obedient executors of political decisions coming from the top, Valencia outlines the own political agenda of grassroots movements and the clash in the control of power this engendered with left-controlled local governments and revolutionary officials that seemed to reproduce a hierarchy of class, race and political background. He portrays the reticence of the neighbourhood organizations to be redefined as community councils perceived as bureaucratised, party-like political instances interfering with the neighbourhood participatory system of networked actors. Not only could community councils be manipulated by state authorities, but also the latters showed a reluctance to rethink state power even when allied in a counterhegemonic project with grassroots organizations.

Valencia’s guiding argument throughout the book is focused on barrio residents’ recursive aspiration to become the state within the Bolivarian Revolution. He contrasts such stance of barrio organizations with contemporary interpretations of social movements as concerned with autonomy and/or the vindication of differences -from race to gender- rather than taking state power. The author describes this state impulse among Venezuelan organizations not so much as an endeavour to be integrated into the hierarchical mechanisms of state institutions but as a struggle with the unequal relations of state power in order for local organizations to position themselves as legitimate political instances to enunciate own policies and destinies for the country.

Drawing on extended, repeated and instructive quotations from informants’ interviews rather than from illustrative practices and examples, Valencia outlines important although somehow underexplored conceptualizations among barrio residents such as the idea of “politics as social work” or “each of us is the state” reflected in the title of the book and fostering a concept of collective institutionality where the state is the domain of each and every citizen. Building on these concepts, the author attempts to redefine political participation as something that is produced from outside the structures of political parties, their ideological and material forms. The aspiration of the grassroots organizations to be the state does not crystallise in the book into a clear political “project” as the political forms, logics and ideas of power of barrio residents lack definition and conceptualisation. The “project” to be the state remains overshadowed and curtailed by a dialectic and reactive struggle with official institutions aiming to reproduce traditional and vertical relations of power.

Although Valencia draws on Gramsci’s idea of “the state=civil society” which he uses as a framework to interpret barrio residents’ claim to be the state and to reclaim official institutions as the domain of ordinary citizens, the author does not engage in great depth with existing theories of anthropology of politics. I don’t take this as a downside of the book as throughout the text the author is busy dodging a series of categories and narratives through which the Bolivarian Revolution has been conventionally interpreted. What I take as the most original contribution of this book is the engaged, intimate and successful attempt to tackle and expose the characterisations and shortcomings of dominant understandings of one of the most mediatised political processes in the world. While narratives of the Bolivarian Revolution from both the government and the opposition have often wiped out the Venezuelan popular sectors from the political scenario, We Are the State! outlines refreshing dynamics, forms of political participation and popular power which are repeatedly concealed in a time when state and official power are connoted for its overarching and oppressive nature.

The book makes for an engaging and entertaining read with plenty of fresh voices of the residents of the barrios of Caracas. It is suitable for multiple audiences and it can work well beyond the boundaries of anthropology.

Nico Tassi, UCL

Valencia, Cristobal. We Are the State! Barrio Activism in Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution. University of Arizona Press, 2015. Read more at University of Arizona Press.

 

 

 

 

 

  

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