Dangerous People

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Photo from AP.

Over the past ten years, I’ve been conducting research on several Venezuelan social groups whose politics originate from a position of extreme marginality. These groups include bikers, inmates, street performers, and squatters. Their practices, often deemed pre-political or even lumpen-proletarian, are in fact the complex expression of new political subjects that have acquired visibility in the context of the Bolivarian Revolution.

Before the Bolivarian Revolution crystalized, when these heterogeneous groups expressed themselves through contentious action in the public sphere—ranging from traditional street protest to looting—they were described as mobs or hordes. More recently, however, some of them have been referred to as collectives. The transition from one term to the other is misleading but it might mark a subtle acknowledgment of their organized nature, notwithstanding the continued negation of their political rationality. In fact, the latter term has become the latest catchword among members of the opposition who speak about the “illegitimate” presence in the streets of mobilized popular sectors that align themselves with the chavista government. The recurring idea is that these groups constitute pre-political subjects instrumentalized by the state to instill terror in those who oppose their hegemony.

Several of the groups I study developed alongside the informal labor markets that neoliberal reform brought about in the 1980s; these groups are neither peasants nor unionized workers. Their collective articulation has also been shaped by the popular revolt of 1989, known as El Caracazo, and the coup d’état against Hugo Chávez in 2002. The recent soft-coup that started in February of 2014 contributes yet another layer in their ongoing formation.

I am interested in what kind of political rationality operates among emergent political subjects, what kind of relationship they establish with the Bolivarian Revolution, and how they are represented by the state and by diverse sectors of an intelligentsia that perceives them as “dangerous people,” the title of my current book project.

Contradictions seem to run deep in the Bolivarian Revolution, not to mention those present in the economic realm. One of the most noticeable is the coexistence of a bottom-up model of participatory democracy alongside the verticalism of el líder único (the only leader) and el partido único (the only party). The viability of political transformation hinged heavily on Hugo Chávez, while, at the same time, a significant grassroots effort has lead to the development of numerous structures for hands-on, popular politics—as seen in community councils, worker-run factories, community health centers, and other less traditional social movements. One slogan, “¡Abajo el gobierno, viva Chávez!” (Down with the government, long live Chávez!), uttered in the context of el barrio among a diverse audience (including stay-at-home mothers and youth, as well as those described by the media as mobs or collectives), might hold some clues to understanding this paradox, while also speaking to the promises and limitations of the Bolivarian Revolution.

Given the ambiguity and contradictions of such a battle cry—which embodies the larger issue of the relationship of the charismatic leader with his constituency—the dynamics of populism have generated significant although extremely fragile spaces for radical politics in Venezuela. Moreover, these dynamics have given visibility to social actors whose political rationality and agency seemed dubious if not impossible, cast as they were as lumpen, scum, criminals, or mobs—even by the so-called progressive left.

Further, the protagonism of new political subjects within the Bolivarian Revolution derives from a long history of struggles that transcend the current government, while intersecting and profiting from its policy of participatory democracy. The current interpellation of the popular masses, manipulative or not, has lead to a transformative tension between co-optative politics and empowerment. Within or beyond current hegemony, there is a surplus of agency that cannot be fully subsumed by the constituted power. The mob plays (along) with the capture machine (or the state) in terms rarely envisioned by the old Venezuelan left, so entrenched in the notion of an enlightened (often middle class) leadership, and so distrustful of the pacifying (or co-optative) tendencies of populism.

Drawing on examples of collective organizing in contemporary Venezuela, my work aims at a preliminary exploration of the intertwining of agency and co-optation, revolution and reform, and solidarity and criminality among radical alterities. I do not focus on a revolutionary vanguard at the forefront of the masses, as in a Leninist variant, but rather on the potential of a frequently despised sector of those masses. Nor do I wish to follow the path of recent research on civil society and social movements, generally devoted to middle- and working-class initiatives, labor, environment, or identity politics. My main interest is what has been deemed an expression of an “uncivil society,” “anti-social movements,” or simply, “dangerous people.” These are neither proletarians nor peasants, but the unemployed or underemployed who generally participate in the informal economy. I deal with a heterogeneous group whose social and political practice might coincide, on occasions, with illegal activity and violence. They are also the subject of intense criticism and fear from the opposition, as they are identified with the so-called dangerous classes, instrumentalized by the revolutionary state to intimidate their adversaries. On the other hand, many of them have become organized collectives with significant bargaining power in relation to the state and the media, while endorsing the higher goals of a more just and equitable society (see Schiller 2013, Fernandes 2011, and Ciccariello-Maher 2013).

While some of the criticism might not be far-fetched, the flat and moralist notion of mob politics has erased the complexity of the paradigm shift that has taken place in Venezuela. These groups constitute expressions of non-traditional social movements, and it would be erroneous to reduce them to a co-opted mass of violent subjects. Beyond the narrow and often fearful readings of their social practice, beyond the moral panic that their mere presence generates, there is ample evidence of a sophisticated rationality towards collective empowerment and social transformation.

Luis Duno-Gottberg is Associate Professor of Caribbean and Film Studies at Rice University.

References

Ciccariello-Maher, George. 2013. We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Fernandes, Sujatha. 2011. “Radio Bemba in an Age of Electronic Media: The Dynamics of Popular Communication.” In Venezuela's Bolivarian Democracy: Participation, Politics, and Culture under Chávez, edited by David Smidle and Daniel Hellinger, 131–56. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Schiller, Naomi. 2013. “Reckoning with Press Freedom: Community Media, Liberalism, and the Processual State in Caracas, Venezuela.” American Ethnologist 40, no. 3: 540–54.