Latin America’s Left: Between Demos and Kratos

On March 5, 2013, the Venezuelan government announced the death of president Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías. In the New York Review of Books, Alma Guillermoprieto, one of the most perceptive commentators ...

On March 5, 2013, the Venezuelan government announced the death of president Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías. In the New York Review of Books, Alma Guillermoprieto, one of the most perceptive commentators on Latin American politics, wrote that he “mostly left behind a void.” It could not be otherwise, since Chávez “was All.” His loss, for those who mourn him, was not that of “a president or a politician or a great leader but something else: a father, a savior, a protector and soother of the orphan who lives in fright inside us all.”1

Five years earlier, a cab driver in Caracas, upon finding out that I was an American, asked, “Why don’t you guys just take out Chávez, like you did to Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy?” I parried with another question, “Would people not miss Chávez?” “Only for a few days,” he said. “Oh, they will cry and moan, but after a few months, no one will remember Chávez.”

One does not need to be a supporter of President Chávez or the Bolivarian Revolution to realize that something is not quite right with these portraits. Of course, Chávez himself declared on many occasions that “there is no Chavismo without Chávez,” and many of his deepest supporters have echoed the expression. At the same time, he has also declared that he was president only because “the people (el pueblo) awakened” and demanded change. The Chavismo of the pueblo has received far less attention, especially in journalistic accounts. A preference for top-down explanations also colors reports of other leftist leaders of “radical, populist, and 21st-century socialism” in the region, such as presidents Evo Morales (Bolivia), Rafael Correa (Ecuador), and, to a lesser extent, Cristina Fernández Kirchner (Argentina).

These leftist and socialist-leaning Latin American presidents have grabbed headlines, with journalists announcing a “Pink Tide” from Bolivia’s Burned Palace to Argentina’s Pink House. The more interesting story lies, however, with the change in the people—who “the people” is and what relationship “it” has to the state and democracy. The region has almost as long a history with democracy as North America, though this history has not always been exemplary. Latin American democracies have often been elite affairs with either limited suffrage or ineffectual protection of citizens’ rights. For example, even as the 1930s and ’40s saw the “masses” enter politics in unprecedented ways, popular support ensured the success of strongman politicians (like Juan Perón in Argentina) or powerful political parties (like the American Popular Revolutionary Alliance in Peru or Acción Democrática in Venezuela) more than democracy as a political form. Only in recent years has the notion that the strength and essence of democracy lies with the people been widely circulated, accepted, and vindicated in practice.

Latin America has not been alone in this development. Claims for greater democracy based in people power have resurfaced across the world in Tahrir Square (Egypt) and Taksim Square (Turkey), and with the Indignados (Spain), Aganaktismenoi (Greece), and the Occupy Wall Streeters (US). Whereas previous waves of left-inspired protest were led by vanguard parties who made claims based on popular interest, current protest movements are skeptical about leaders, parties, and the state. Ironically, by challenging—but not taking—power these movements have become all the more important and interesting.

On Constituent Power


Antonio Negri has emerged as a key thinker—and supporter—of these new movements of the people. His concept of “constituent power,” central to Insurgencies, and his work with Michael Hardt on “the multitude”2 are particularly important in understanding this new political reality. Negri and Hardt reject liberal democracy and capitalism, the idea of a vanguard party and party-led violence (seeing in them a tendency, à la Camus, toward totalitarianism and repression of liberty), and, most specifically, the idea that revolutionary change could come from a unitary power operating from above. The last point responds to Giorgio Agamben and other leftists who follow Carl Schmitt’s vision and argue for the unified and top-down nature of sovereign power and see it as something that can be used during a crisis to promote radical change.

Negri and Hardt aim their critique at political theory writ large as well. Since Plato and Aristotle, polities have been categorized on the basis of who rules (the one, the few, the many), and the “who” has always been seen as a unitary ruler. That is, whether the polity is ruled by a monarch, an aristocratic group, or the masses, political theory has always assumed that each ruler or ruling group could be understood as a singularity. Hardt and Negri are not alone in seeing a problem in this way of thinking. A unified people might be a convenient fiction for theorizing, but few believe that a unified people ever really existed. And yet, as Paulina Ochoa Espejo argues in The Time of Popular Sovereignty, most democratic theory assumes exactly that.

A unified people might be a convenient fiction for theorizing, but few believe that a unified people ever really existed.

The people, obviously, do not rule anywhere, but theorists can take comfort in the idea that the people give (or, at least, once gave) consent to the system. Other than the existential problem of a unified people never existing, and therefore not being able to give consent (or to do anything else for that matter), there is a chicken-and-egg problem. Can a democracy be produced in a non-democracy, by non-democratic means? Even if democratic means are used, can a demos be prior to the government that collects people into a demos? And what happens over time? Is the demos frozen while time moves forward—the ancients gave consent and their heirs follow orders—or is the population required to continually offer consent?

For Ochoa Espejo, the problem is ontological. Traditionally, political theorists have thought of the people as being something, as having an essence (i.e,. it is the working class, the notables, the wretched of the earth). Ochoa Espejo prefers process philosophy (Bergson, North Whitehead, Rescher) and accordingly favors thinking, instead, through becoming—identifying a people based on what they do. In fact, her people are not human beings but “an unfolding series of events coordinated by the practices of constituting, governing, and changing a set of institutions. These institutions are the highest authority for all those individuals intensely affected by these events and these institutions.” For example, Mexicans in the US and Mexicans in Mexico might form part of the people involved in immigration reform in the US. Ochoa Espejo uses this example to show how a people could be formed without necessarily changing citizenship (though the people’s politics could, obviously, lead to a change in citizenship requirements, rights, and so on). Of course, the reverse is also possible. American citizens (and perhaps French and British citizens) could be part of people-making politics in, say, Iraq, Afghanistan, or Libya (although she does not consider this possibility).

As Ochoa Espejo suggests, democratic theory relies upon the idea (or myth) of a people acting in concert—demonstrating its constituent power—and establishing a government. After that moment (the constitution is signed, the monarch is hanged, the dictator is happily playing backgammon in Paraguay), the people cede their power to their regents and the government that will rule in their name. For scholars within the Atlantic tradition of constitutionalism, this is how it should be. Democracy founds the state, and then liberalism protects the citizens from the state and each other. For Negri, this is all wrong. As he has it in Insurgencies, constituent power is democracy, and it is its power; it is “unlimited” and “unfinalized” and it “resists being constitutionalized.”

Constituent Power in Venezuela


Traditional Venezuelan historiography identifies a pact made by leaders of political parties in 1958 as the starting point of the country’s new democracy. Such readings suggest the presence of a constituent power emerging in the protests against the dictatorship of Marco Pérez Jímenez, only to recede as the party leaders agreed to power-sharing arrangements and out-of-bounds markers (the left would respect elections; the right would be secular) for the new democracy. George Ciccariello-Maher, in We Created Chávez, challenges this idea, insisting that the people were active pre-Chávez, during his reign, and remain active after his death. He demonstrates this by studying how the people in the highly political La Piedrita neighborhood of Caracas have tried to establish their constituent power.

A bastion of left-wing resistance and political activity, La Piedrita has long insisted on its autonomy. When a Venezuelan captain entered La Piedrita territory without permission, a contingent of locals took him captive. Even if he were doing the bidding of “our commander Chávez,” they made it clear that “here La Piedrita gives the orders and the government obeys.” The ambiguous space of La Piedrita, which is fighting both to maintain its autonomy and to protect the Bolivarian “process” (the word revolutionaries use), offers interesting insight into the tensions and challenges of a subaltern people’s politics.

Ciccariello-Maher’s book, important in its own right, is part of a new stream of scholarship that downplays the role of Hugo Chávez the man and gives greater attention to the supporters of the Bolivarian Revolution.

One informant told Ciccariello-Maher, “We created Chávez” (and he wisely chose this as a title), expressing a sentiment shared by many supporters, that a poor and politically subversive people made a politics of radical change possible by exercising, over time, constituent power in different ways. In Ciccariello-Maher’s telling, they stood behind the insurgencies during the early democratic presidencies (1958–1973) and the anti-neoliberal protests (1983–). They buoyed the junior-officer-led coups (two in 1992), forced the impeachment of President Carlos Andrés Pérez (1993), and championed presidential candidate Chávez (1998). In other words, they existed and were politically active before Chávez.

Ciccariello-Maher’s book, important in its own right, is part of a new stream of scholarship that downplays the role of Hugo Chávez the man and gives greater attention to the supporters of the Bolivarian Revolution.3 Where Alma Guillermoprieto might see people manipulated by messianism, Ciccariello-Maher sees a people who demanded a change and created an opportunity for Chávez, or for another like him. Though Ciccariello-Maher does not frame this people in terms of constituent power, it is clear that he considers its support for the Chavista project (and its rejection of other policies) sufficient to deem the revolution authentic. Ciccariello-Maher’s criticism of the armed revolutionary efforts of the early 1960s displays a similar kind of judgment: the problem with these efforts stems not from the use of violence but from the inability and unwillingness of revolutionaries to develop relations with the people at the base who did and/or might support their causes. A more positive shift comes in the 1980s, when revolutionary politics became less elite and more a politics of a multitude, the constituent power of the democracy. The move away from elite vanguard parties coincided with a greater effort to build support within popular communities. That shift, coupled with the collapse of Communism, encouraged greater sensitivity to plurality among the people and apprehension about efforts to speak for a unified people.

Peoples and Multitudes


Hardt and Negri’s refusal to use the term people emerges from this earlier shift. The “people” is tainted, for them, because it moves too easily toward a unitary concept and, in that, toward vindicating some forms of tyranny and oppression. Indeed, even genocide has been justified in the name of “the people.” More fundamentally, the idea of a people misunderstands politics, a process that does not collect the already like-minded but develops a group united by a not-yet-determined commonality. The “multitude,” their riposte to the concept of a people, does not rely on any false a priori commonality; instead, the multitude “is composed of innumerable internal differences that can never be reduced to a unity or a single identity … different forms of labor; different ways of living; different views of the world; and different desires.”4 Politics is unfinalizable and must remain open, because the work of politics is to discover the common.

In addition to rejecting the idea of a predetermined people, the multitude inverts another key idea of 20th-century communism, that of a centralized revolutionary dictatorship. Instead, internal democracy must hold sway. In the world beyond political theory, this has been a prominent mark of recent Latin American leftist movements; the preeminence of the people and the need for internal democracy is de rigueur.

Supporters of Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution admit that there is corruption within the current government; they insist, however, that the source is the old elite who have yet to be removed, or “false” Bolivarians who have infiltrated the people’s struggle. There may be some truth to this, but it also obscures the complex political reality, and the heaviness of the language used can be disconcerting. While doing fieldwork in 2008, I asked a number of pro-Chávez activists what they thought about a then-important Bolivarian politician denouncing high-level officials for corruption, and they all repeated the same narrative. The politician who made the denunciation (not those accused) was an “infiltrator,” someone who was never a real socialist, and the proof of this was that he never militated in the streets like the rest. He was part of the old, party-style politics, concerned only about election.

Prior to his allegations of corruption, of course, the politician was a member of the people. His removal and subsequent party-inflicted punishment may stem from his disloyalty or his leveling of false allegations (if they were false), but it is unlikely that insufficient militancy was the reason. After all, most of the people who Chávez considered to be the “people” have engaged in relatively minimal militancy. In fact, Chávez’s insistence that Chavismo and Bolivarianismo existed before he became president, or attempted a coup, suggests his need to emphasize a “people” before Chávez, in order to legitimate his own charismatic presidency. But most of the pre-Chávez people who wanted change never militated for it.

Ciccariello-Maher follows Enrique Dussel in considering the pueblo “a category of both rupture and struggle, a moment of combat in which those oppressed within the prevailing political order and those excluded from it intervene to transform the system, in which a victimized part of the community speaks for and attempts to radically change the whole” (emphases in original). Ciccariello-Maher’s people in La Piedrita do just that. But this raises two important questions: What, then, of the rest of the citizens, including those who oppose the pueblo’s struggles? And, if the people are such a minority, can they legitimate the actions they demand in a democratic context?

Why does the resistance of
one group establish it as the normatively good “people” while that of the other does not?

Ciccariello-Maher’s concern, ultimately, lies with revolution, not democracy (though his preferred revolution aims to be more democratic than liberal democratic). Still, these questions suggest potential problems for his conceptualization of the people. His people are justified in their heroic defense of their community against outsiders (usually neoliberal governments, sometimes the Chávez government) and he lauds their resistance even when it involves violence. But the struggles for autonomy and against state power—efforts to change a political status quo—are also the hallmarks of political activists who oppose the Bolivarian Revolution. This is somewhat problematic. Ciccariello-Maher admirably presents the differences among supporters of the Bolivarian “process.” He may choose to ignore the possibility of heterogeneity among opponents for strategic and political reasons (to present a unified oppressor), but this makes less sense analytically. Why does the resistance of one group establish it as the normatively good “people” while that of the other does not?

Chávez Reaching. Drawing by Anthony Spanakos

Chávez Reaching. Drawing by Anthony Spanakos

However, the notion that resistance constitutes a people only if that people want revolutionary change disregards both the role of the processes that produce change and the necessity for that change to be based on bottom-up politics. Such a view places ends before means and ignores one of the lessons that 21st-century socialism ought to have learned from 20th-century socialisms, namely, that a government of the people needs ways to prevent infiltration by the wrong people. It should be clear by now that coercion under such circumstances is always harmful, whether this implies harassment, dismissal from employment, or gulags. Hardt and Negri’s warning about the need to keep a multitude open is crucial.

A perennial criticism of President Chávez was his regular disqualification—both electorally and rhetorically—of his political enemies. In presenting the language of La Piedrita’s revolutionaries, Ciccariello-Maher reproduces this disqualification. He follows his informants in insisting that the Bolivarian Revolution has enemies. Though he shows little sympathy for naysayers, he writes that the true enemy is “the utmost expression of state power … that, by dint of [the enemy’s] tendencies toward inertia and the power-sharing privileges it enjoys, [it] has proven the most resistant to change.” If the people is understood as heterogeneous and recognized through its acts of resistance against a political system that excludes or constrains it, the people might very well include the opposition to the revolutionary process. After all, while some members of the opposition may have privileged access to certain modalities of power and exclusion, many do not. Certainly, after 15 years in government, the Bolivarian Revolution has been able to alter the political system and now excludes and constrains others. In fact, in my conversations and interviews with Venezuelan activists and ordinary citizens, I am always struck that the various sides (pro-Chávez, anti-Chávez, neither one nor the other) regularly self-identify as victims of structures dominated by opponents.

Reading between the lines of We Created Chávez, enemies proliferate: the inert citizen who does not struggle, the citizen who fights back against the revolution, and those in state power who play politics as usual. Although Ciccariello-Maher seems sympathetic to Negri’s work on constituent power and his and Hardt’s idea of the multitude, his people are more unified and homogeneous than one would imagine, particularly as they are oriented toward a common (though still inchoate) project. This may partially explain his informants’ (and his) simultaneous praise for autonomy from a state and support for a revolutionary state.

One concern is that, like other sympathetic scholar-activists writing about the left in Latin America,5 Ciccariello-Maher rejects communist totalitarianism and is suspicious of a powerful state, but nonetheless has a very instrumental view of government power. If the state advances the needs and demands issued from autonomous popular collectives, then it should be used to accomplish those goals. La Piedrita’s autonomy is present when the state does not encroach on its power. The concern is not the state’s use of coercion, but its incursion into the territory of La Piedrita without permission. This utilitarianism appears elsewhere. Most of Ciccariello-Maher’s informants support President Chávez, but he often reminds the reader that they only support Chávez so long as he does what they want, so long as he represents them. After all, they “created” him because other governments, reformers, and revolutionaries failed to deliver on their promises. There is value in emphasizing the rationality of pro-Chávez citizens, since they are often depicted as zombie hordes following their great leader to their own disadvantage.

Ciccariello-Maher’s corrective, though, also leads to exaggeration. Between 1999 and 2002, large numbers of Chávez supporters “defended their president” in the streets (in protests, in rejecting the coup) long before there were any meaningful and visible improvements in their material conditions. At that point, many leftist political activists did not feel that he was advocating for their agenda; besides, as people who favored community autonomy, they could hardly have supported a set of policies that led to greater centralization of authority, as was expected of a Chávez administration. Many of the policies of the Bolivarian Revolution that La Piedrita supporters defend did not emerge until later. Yet the people went into the street to demand his release from prison. Moreover, the overly rationalist account also overlooks the language that some supporters use in describing President Chávez, not to mention his depiction in murals, or, indeed, the shrines to him.

Their sense of democracy does not have any sense of a state, or political institutions for that matter; the multitude acting out of its constituent power is both demos and kratos.

Hardt and Negri worry more about the state than Ciccariello-Maher does because of its connection to totalitarianism and its role in supporting empire. In fact, their sense of democracy does not have any sense of a state, or political institutions for that matter; the multitude acting out of its constituent power is both demos and kratos (a steering or ruling body). Because it has no preexisting common, it must discover one in order to govern. The multitude, then, is both people and process, content and form. For Hardt and Negri, the multitude is between sovereignty (as top-down unitary imposed authority) and anarchy; it is the creative force of the people as constituent power.

Ochoa Espejo is critical of Hardt and Negri’s multitude because it is only bound by what it struggles against, generating a negative form of identity. She herself avoids this by tying a people to the state and its institutions. But it is not clear why the people must be in a state of becoming when institutions are relatively stable, especially since institutions may fundamentally change (think of, perhaps, offering amnesty to immigrants without documentation or granting them citizenship outright). If people-making involves considerable changes in the composition and abilities of the people, there may similarly be changes in institutions. But then to what is the people bound? The people can only be a moving target tied to another moving target that both moves it and is moved by it. While social scientists may be unhappy about an A changing a B that in turn changes A (in an infinite loop), it is easy to see how a people and a polity constrain and generate change in each other.

Ochoa Espejo gives brief attention to the 2000 presidential elections that brought an end to one-party domination in Mexico. She sees this event as engendering democracy in the country, which, of course, meant considerable institutional change. The change happened in 2000, but did a democratic people vote in a non-democracy to establish democracy? In her analysis, the people effected a change in the government and legitimated a democracy while they were not yet a democratic people, even as they were engaged in democratic people-making policies. Complex, but it makes sense. But why not, then, look to the 2006 presidential elections to extend the observation? These were followed by a mass mobilization, in which protestors occupied Zócalo Square for months, demanding recognition of the victory of left-wing candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO). These events staged changes in the people and the polity. Do the 2006 demonstrations mean that the earlier people-making process was illusory or foreclosed? How might challenges to the highest institutions of the country be conceived? After all, not only did the protestors reject Felipe Calderón’s victory, AMLO declared himself president of Mexico and proceeded to name a cabinet. Such symbolic events performed in front of and in conjunction with this multitude-style support must have some meaning in legitimating a democracy. Did these events make a new people, one distinct from the people visible following the 2000 elections? Or were they a natural progression of such a people?

The making of the people—composing it and establishing it as the fundamental actor in politics—has been central to the language of the left in Latin America. When asked about President Chávez, even opponents will generally concede that he, more than anyone else, was capable of seeing, recognizing, and raising the self-esteem of Venezuela’s disenchanted poor and lower-middle class. Although Guillermoprieto (and my cab driver) are clearly incorrect that Chávez’s legacy can be easily erased, there is something important in the statement. A new radical left that praises autonomy and is suspicious of institutionalized forms of power is troubling.

Even among supporters of the Bolivarian Revolution, there is a sense that cracks have opened since the death of Chávez. The candidates fielded by Chávez’s PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela) for the municipal elections in December 2013 were selected by current president Nicolás Maduro, not chosen through primary elections or even in consultation with the base activists. At the same time, many policies and, more importantly, the mode of political engagement that emerged during Chávez’s terms in office continue. The activists who remain committed are more convinced than ever that constituted power (i.e., Maduro and the PSUV) must regularly be reminded that only the organized people hold constituent power. But they have lost an important champion, someone who helped remake the people through rhetoric and by creating spaces where disparate people could become the people, someone who responded to the grassroots politics of radical activists. There remains very little clarity about how the people should rule—there is, for example, a debate about whether a strategy that relies on electoral victories should be abandoned—and what institutional forms should be used to further Bolivarian social democracy.

Democracy itself remains undefined by theorists like Negri and Hardt. This makes sense philosophically, if a common is constantly being discovered by the multitude. But practically, there is something unsettling in voting for policies and institutions knowing that many are ephemeral and that the revolution has no end. icon

  1. Alma Guillermoprieto, “The Last Caudillo,” NYRBlog, March 6, 2013.
  2. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (Penguin Books, 2004).
  3. For more scholarship on this, see: Sujatha Fernandes, Who Can Stop the Drums?: Urban Social Movements in Chávez’s Venezuela (Duke University Press, 2010), and Alejandro Velasco, “‘We Are Still Rebels’: Founding Acts, Revolutionary Change, and the Challenge of Popular History in Bolivarian Venezuela,” in Venezuela’s Bolivarian Democracy: Participation, Politics, and Culture under Chávez, edited by David Smilde and Daniel Helliner (Duke University Press, 2011), pp. 157–185.
  4. Hardt and Negri, Multitude, p. xiv.
  5. Roger Burbach, Michael Fox, and Federico Fuentes, Latin America’s Turbulent Transitions: The Future of Twenty-First Century Socialism (Zed Books, 2013).
Featured image: Argentinas Casa Rosada, or Pink House. Wikimedia Commons