Portraying the Venezuela Conflict: From Partial to Full Conflict Theory

Photo by Carlos Garcia Rawlins, Reuters.

Anyone who writes on Venezuela’s polarized politics knows there is no position above the fray. Pro-government commentators become targets for the clever insults of anti-government activists; and anti-government commentators become targets for ad hominem attacks of pro-government activists. This is to be expected in any acute political battle.

In this essay, I argue that the guiding social theories most commentators use to understand Venezuela only partially capture the Venezuela conflict. Most political commentary on Venezuela comes from partial conflict theories that critically examine some areas of social life but systematically ignore others. I put forward a neo-Weberian alternative, a full conflict theory more suitable for understanding contemporary Venezuela.

Sympathetic treatments of chavismo are typically based in contemporary variants of Marxism. Neo-Marxist writers provide insightful critiques of the inequality and injustice caused by capitalism, incisive denunciations of imperialistic international relations, and useful portrayals of the achievements of the Chávez and now Maduro governments. Yet incredibly, they become Pollyannaish when it comes to the concentration of power typical of a revolutionary state.

This is especially striking in the Venezuelan case given that the key metaphor for the chavista project at the beginning was the idea of participatory democracy. Chavismo was a response to an elite, “pacted,” representative democracy and proposed to return power to the people. Yet power has increasingly become centralized in a government that rejects as “liberal” any push for separation of powers, transparency or accountability. Commentators working from a Marxist perspective often suggest that the assumed difference between citizens and the state is a bourgeois idea that misunderstands the new emerging form of democracy. They systematically ignore, however, how similar this concentration of power is to the centripetal forces that plagued twentieth-century socialist projects.

In this sense, neo-Marxism provides what I would refer to as a partial conflict theory. Sociologists use the term “conflict theory” to distinguish those theoretical perspectives that emphasized conflict and change instead of consensus and stability. While neo-Marxists incisively critique economic, social and cultural inequalities as well as the struggle for political power, they humbly hold their caps in their hands when faced with the injustices typical of revolutionaries in power. For example, Juan Carlos Monedero (2012), one of the leading theorists of twenty-first-century socialism, identifies problems such as “hyper-leadership,” centralism, clientelism, and corruption in chavismo. Incredibly, rather than blame a government that has been in power for a decade and a half, he portrays these phenomena as holdover results from Venezuela’s neoliberal 1990s.

Most commentary on Venezuela comes not from neo-Marxism but from a contemporary descendant of classic liberalism: pluralist political theory. This perspective focuses on multiple sources of social power that compete for dominance—such as religious, legal, ethnic or labor groups—and looks at the way political systems can ensure a polyarchy, a relative democratic balance of interest groups. Scholars and commentators working from the pluralist perspective have been remarkably insightful in critiquing the progressive concentration of power occurring during the Chávez and Maduro governments.

Yet they also tend to be tone deaf to social, economic and cultural inequalities. Pluralists ignore inequalities as causes for the rise of chavismo and likewise ignore chavismo’s achievements in reducing them. Instead they provide analyses that begin and end with politics.

A recent article by the leading political scientist Kurt Weyland (2013), for example, perceptively traces all of the ways in which liberal democratic institutions have declined under Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales, Rafael Correa and others. But this deterioration is not portrayed as the unintended or even secondary consequence of policies intending to address the inequalities of the globe’s most unequal region. Rather these leaders’ “progressive rhetoric” is simply a means to justify a “quest for personal power.” Weyland’s analysis begins with a will to power and ends with a concentration of power.

The pluralist perspective, then, also provides a partial view of the Venezuela conflict. While its leading proponents incisively and forcefully denounce the concentration of power in Venezuela, they suddenly become obtuse bystanders when faced with the issues of inequality swirling around the political struggle.

In my view, a neo-Weberian perspective can provide a fuller version of conflict theory. Its centerpiece is the idea of multiple, conjunctural causality. Of course most social theories include the idea of multiple causality: John Locke spoke of the state, economy, and public opinion; Karl Marx analyzed state, economy, and culture; Max Weber’s classic, if brief formulation looked at party, class, and status. 

Where these social theories differ is on the issue of causal primacy. Marxism tends to see mode of production as the most basic cause. While some variants of neo-Marxism give the state and culture relative autonomy, they still give production ultimate primacy “in the last instance” or through the notion of “totality.” Liberalism, especially in its contemporary pluralist variant, doesn’t really provide a clear theory of causal primacy but in practice it clearly regards state institutions as having primacy, as being the most fundamental factor for understanding social and political life.

Neo-Weberian conflict theory is different in that none of the sources of social power is most fundamental. In this sense, it is a truly multi-causal perspective. The contemporary neo-Weberian Michael Mann has modified Weber’s formulation to include four basic “sources of social power”—political, economic, ideological, and military—and argues that no single source is ultimately decisive in human history.

Another important aspect of neo-Weberian theory is the idea of conjunctural causality—that the causal efficacy of a factor depends on particular historical conjunctures. For example, in one context or period economics can be decisive. In another, ideology (or military power, or political machinations) can be more fundamental.

Using a perspective that eschews causal primacy allows us to benefit from the critical edges of both the pluralist and neo-Marxist perspectives while avoiding their blind spots. We can appreciate the way the dramatic inequalities of Venezuelan society have led to a demand for change at the same time that we understand the ironies whereby robust efforts at using the state can lead to a concentration of power. We can criticize the deterioration of civil and political rights at the same time that we praise improvement in social, cultural and economic inequalities.

David Smilde is the Charles A. and Leo M. Favrot Professor of Human Relations at Tulane University. He moderates the blog Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights.


Monedero, Juan Carlos. 2012. “Venezuela: El Discurso Mágico de una Revolución Particular.” In XV Encuentro de Latinoamericanistas Españoles, edited by Heriberto Cairo Carou, Almudena González Cabezas, Tomás Mallo Gutiérrez, Esther del Campo García, and José Carpio Martín, 558–71. Madrid: Trama editorial.

Weyland, Kurt. “Latin America’s Authoritarian Drift: The Threat from the Populist Left.” Journal of Democracy 24, no. 3: 18–32.