The Dictatorship of Democracy
I've written about the soi-disant "Bolivarian revolution," currently underway in Venezuela, previously (here, here and here) and I have neither the time nor the inclination to rehearse the very real (if oftentimes overstated) benefits it has brought so far, nor my concerns about the excessive identification of the various reforms with President Hugo Chavez. What I want to focus on is the news earlier this week, that Venezuela's Congress had given him authority to legislate by decree. According to AP:
"...We are convinced that liberty without socialism is privilege, injustice; and that socialism without liberty is slavery and brutality."
- Mikhail Bakunin
The law gives Chavez, who is beginning a fresh six-year term, more power than he has ever had in eight years as president, and he plans to use it during the next 18 months to transform broad areas of public life, from the economy and the oil industry in particular, to "social matters" and the very structure of the state.This hasn't gone down well with right-wing critics, who have been accusing Chavez of being a putative dictator for years. Vice President Jorge Rodriguez didn't exactly help matters in this respect when he opined, "Dictatorship is what there used to be. We want to impose the dictatorship of a true democracy," consciously or not, echoing Marx's "Dictatorship of the Proletariat." You don't need me to tell you that that particular notion has understandably (and quite rightly) been discredited in light of its application in the USSR. This is not to suggest that Venezuela is about to become a Stalinist dictatorship (although that seems to be the line being pushed by right-wing critics of the regime), which I think remains unlikely, but a descent into Stalinism is hardly the only conceivable basis for criticising the new powers.
Again according to AP, Chavez wants to use the new powers to nationalise "Venezuela's largest telecommunications company and the electricity sector, slap new taxes on the rich, and impose greater state control over the oil and natural gas industries":
The law also allows Chavez to dictate unspecified measures to transform state institutions; reform banking, tax, insurance and financial regulations; decide on security and defense matters such as gun regulations and military organization; and "adapt" legislation to ensure "the equal distribution of wealth'' as part of a new "social and economic model."The contradictions in the last paragraph are obvious, but it strikes me there is a more interesting point here. Lawmakers supported the "enabling law" unanimously, suggesting an astonishing degree of support for Chavez's policies amongst representatives. Blair could propose a Be Nice to Other People Bill and a large chunk of MPs would vote against it just to spite him. Given this level of support, it seems unlikely that Chavez would have any difficulty getting almost any reform through Congress, which surely renders the decree completely unneccessary, even from Chavez's perspective.
Chavez plans to reorganize regional territories and carry out reforms aimed at bringing "power to the people" through thousands of newly formed Communal Councils designed to give Venezuelans a say on spending an increasing flow of state money on projects in their neighborhoods, from public housing to potholes.
Anyone who still wants to give Chavez the benefit of the doubt on this would do well to bear in mind that this Presidential decree sounds an awful lot like something Blair tried unsuccessfully to sneak in last-year: the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill. Save Parliament who mobilised against the Bill, note that in its initial form, the LRRB "had the power to grant any minister the ability to amend, replace, or repeal existing legislation." The minister in question could have amended virtually any piece of legislation save the Bill itself and the Human Rights Act 1998. "So, as was pointed out in The Times by 6 law professors from Cambridge, a minister would have been able to abolish trial by jury, suspend habeas corpus (your right not to be arbitrarily arrested), or change any of the legislation governing the legal system..." Maybe Blair and Chavez aren't quite as different as their political allegiances and rhetorical styles might suggest, or maybe its further evidence in support of the essentially anarchist thesis that power corrupts.