The semantics of 21st century socialism and the Venezuelan political system

Scientific Essay 2014 25 Pages

Politics - International Politics - Region: Middle- and South America




1. A brief introduction to the theory of social systems developed by Niklas Luhmann

2. Twenty-first century socialism as a natural self-description

3. The Venezuelan mega-state

4. Concluding remarks


The contemporary Venezuelan political system is observed through Luhmann’s social theory as analytical framework, following the systemic distinction between semantics and social structure. Semantically, the discourse of twenty-first century socialism stands out, promising not only better opportunities for the poor but also a new world order. Semantics of this kind works as a natural self-description identifying people with their leader. Tautological self-descriptions are typical of authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. From a socio-structural standpoint the Venezuelan political system is characterised by the inflation of power and money, causing the state to grow out of control as well as public expenditure. As oil prices increased the Bolivarian revolution could afford ambitious national and continental projects, but as the energy market became flooded with cheaper oil, the scarcity of dollars is choking not only Venezuela’s economy but the government’s legitimacy as well.

Keywords: power, self-description, inflation, money, twenty-first century socialism

Hugo Chávez was undoubtedly one of the most important leftist leaders in South America. Among his peers in the region, he also ruled his country for the longest period of time—after Fidel Castro, of course. What was the secret of his success? Personal charisma undeniably played a role, but his rhetoric and his will to give power to the people were likely far more important. His political project has been successively restated from that of a warrior’s oracle to, lately, a commune state.

Chávez initially refused communism as a solution for Venezuela’s social and economic crises. However, after resisting a coup d’état on 11 April 2001, and an oil strike organised by opposition parties in 2002, Chávez was able to strengthen his power during the negotiation process—mediated through The Carter Center and the Organisation of American States (OAS)—with the opposition coalition Coordinadora Democrática —Democratic Coordinator. Having time on his side and benefiting from increasing oil prices, in 2003, Chávez managed to recover popularity through public policies named Misiones and to seize the armed forces, the judicial power and the electoral power, winning on 15 August 15 2004, under very favourable conditions, the revocatory referendum summoned by the opposition leaders against him (Martínez Meucci, 2012). Once he had strengthened his hold on power, Chávez felt confident enough to speak openly about socialism for the first time. In November 2004, the Venezuelan President reinvented the Bolivarian Revolution by calling for twenty-first century socialism. Chávez’s turn to the left meant political and discursive radicalisation as well. Twenty-first century socialism has since emerged as a new world vision by leaving capitalism and representative democracy behind—the people themselves are empowered to change humanity’s destiny.

After Chávez’s death, Maduro’s policies were intended to deepen the Bolivarian Revolution, to implant the commune state and to safeguard his predecessor’s heritage. One way or another, the Bolivarian Revolution without Chávez continues.

What, therefore, is twenty-first century socialism? In order to explain socialism in contemporary Venezuela, semantics and socio-structural transformations must be taken into account. In this paper, I will argue that Venezuela’s new socialism is a restatement of an episodic historical demand for state reformation through a kind of rhetorical re-description of nineteenth-century reformist discourse. Socialism operates systemically, then, as a natural self-description (Luhmann, 1996) that denies the contemporary political system’s inherent paradox: self-governing people. In fact, natural self-descriptions in politics suggest that there is no contradiction at all when the leader affirms to incarnate the masses’ will. The unity is equal to the difference, the one with the many and the masses with their leader (see Lefort, 1990). However, this strategy of self-description supports political organisations’ riskier decision-making within larger states, which threatens the political stability it is meant to guarantee through economic growth. Twenty-first century socialism, therefore, has almost certainly dug its own grave.

This phenomenon is accompanied by some socio-structural processes. The modern world-society as a functionally differentiated system is characterised by the importance of success media (power, money, love and truth) (Luhmann, 1997), among which power and money have developed a stronger structural complexity and therefore more visibility. This trend is described by Luhmann as inflation (Luhmann, 1997). The inflation of power and money may be seen in the prominent role that politics, economics and financial markets play in the modern world. In the case of Venezuela oil rents permit the state to control a big part of the economy and to finance populist public policies that legitimate its domination.

The modern systemic approach developed by Niklas Luhmann represents a new research line in the study of the Venezuelan political system. According to Carlos Romero (2006: 78-83), there are five predominant approaches that explain the Venezuelan political system before Chávez. John D. Martz (1977) suggested that the stability of Venezuela was the result of the performance of the political parties and the democratic leaders. This idea was contested by Juan Carlos Rey (1991) who in turn affirmed that a kind of elite-conciliation populism ruled Venezuela. The Venezuelan political and social elites made a governmental deal that produced consensus, gave them negotiation capacity and restrained social mobilisation. There are also Liberal and Marxist approaches. For the Liberals organised around the COPRE, Comisión Presidencial para la Reforma del Estado —Presidential Commission for the Reform of the State—the democratic pact sealed in 1958 that re-founded democracy had degenerated. Consequently, it had to be replaced by the leadership of the civil society against the state and by promoting political decentralisation. The Marxists outlined instead that democracy had not brought welfare and that increased dependence on a capitalist and imperialist USA resulted in poverty, exclusion and a mightier state. Finally, on occasion, the issue of a rentier state remains a defining trait of the Venezuelan political system. Terry Lynn Karl (1997) suggested that oil rents change the behaviour of society; oil becomes of primary importance for politics, people get used to subsidies becoming change resilient and the state grows bigger. Diego Bautista Urbaneja (1991, 2013) argued that instead of society financing the state, the opposite is true.

Literature about the Venezuelan political system under Chavism is predominantly descriptive and deals with the definition of Chávez’s regime. The Venezuelan regime has been called a hybrid regime (Corrales & Penfold, 2010) a populism (Braig, 2007), a neo-fascism (García Larralde, 2008), (Lechín, 2011), an illiberal democracy or totalitarianism (Martínez Meucci, 2011; 2012) or totalitarianism tout court (Kohn & Rico, 2009; Rivera, 2009; Capriles, 2011). There are also other studies that reflect on twenty-first century socialism, some of them critically; for example, Guerra (2007, 2007) views it as economically absurd, while Salazar (2007), who though defends the revolution, considers that the creation of a one-party system is undemocratic. Others, additionally, try to promote its implementation in Venezuela (Dieterich, 2006; Acosta, 2007; Biardeau, 2007; Ellner, 2007; Esté, 2007; van der Djis, 2009; Sanoja Obediente, 2011).[1] From a psychoanalytical perspective, the historical study of Ana Teresa Torres (2009) stands out for its focus on the Chávez phenomenon.

Thus, the approach put forward here is intended to open new theoretical perspectives on the study of the Venezuelan political system. To develop my thesis, I will divide it into three sections. First, I will provide a brief theoretical background of Luhmann’s system theory. Second, twenty-first century socialism will be analysed in its discursive contexts and its consequences in relation to the decay of democratic politics in Venezuela. Third, the threat to democracy of the inflation of power and money will be considered.

1. A brief introduction to the theory of social systems developed by Niklas Luhmann

Communication is a key concept in Luhmann’s theoretical arrangement; for the Bielefelder sociologist, society evolves out of the self-catalytic, recursive and complexity increasing communication process. Sociocultural evolution is the result of the differentiation and acquisition of structural complexity of communication media, such as language, success media, such as power, love, money and truth, and diffusion media, such as writing, printing and modern electronic media. This is why society is made up of various strands of communication (Luhmann, 1997).

What is radically challenging from this point of view is that, epistemologically, it leaves behind ontological assumptions departing instead from an observer’s theory (Fuchs, 2008). In short, there are no essences but forms, that is, distinctions made by an observer which divide the world twofold: a marked space (where the distinction is made) and an unmarked space (that room that cannot be observed). There are no hypostatical system elements, but happenings that fade away as soon as they occur, so they must give room immediately to other events for the system to keep on reproducing itself. This repeated and recursive linking of events is called autopoiesis (Luhmann, 1984).

From an autopoietical perspective, linking capacity (Anschlussfähigkeit) and observation remain as two important directives in the system’s reproduction. This is where sense-making (Sinn) plays its part.[2] Without sense-making there would be no chance for social systems to connect event with event. It is also sense-making—generalised and stabilised in social artefacts such as symbols and alphabets—which makes redundancy possible. Redundancy backs up autopoietical reproduction by producing identities (that is, observations) which help to orient the system’s operations (Luhmann, 1984).

Language plays a leading role in sociocultural evolution. There are two traits of this communication medium that account for it. First, language is binary codified, offering the possibility of expressing the same statement either affirmatively or negatively. That is, a yes/no code. The second trait concerns denial. Denying condenses sense-making; although a statement is refused, by denying it, it is not fixed what is to be accepted, instead, leaving room for new sense-making fixations (Luhmann, 2005a).

However, denial is also problematic for social evolution. It is needed for communication to be accepted, which means that previous communication could be taken for granted for the communications to follow. Otherwise, autopoiesis would collapse. This is where success media come into play.

Success media achieve selection in the field of action and experience by devising binary preference codes. By remaining invariant, such codes can duplicate all of the information a system processes into a positive and a negative value. A positive value indicates the side on which the system links itself autopoietically, while a negative value allows us to observe the contingency of each selection. This confers flexibility on the system and, above all, gives the system the opportunity to operate self referentially. Programs are able to introduce what was excluded from the code, making it possible to fix the situations and the sense-constellations the code relies on for its claims of validity and exclusivity. Coding and programming mix variance and invariance together, a combination from which success media has developed complex semantic devices (Luhmann, 2008: 50-60). Success media transform personal confidence—the most widely observed form of complexity reduction in simple societies—into system confidence, so that future expectations no longer (or no longer totally) depend on the calculus of personal and psychological expectations but can instead be stabilised on a more general basis (Luhmann, 1968).


[1] For a brief discussion of twenty-first century socialism see Blanco (2010).

[2] In the English translations of Luhmann’s works the German word Sinn is often translated as “meaning,” even in the texts that Luhmann himself wrote. Nevertheless, I consider the expression “sense-making” more accurate since it depicts not only semantic meanings but also a whole range of semiotic phenomena. More importantly, it makes it possible to make precisely that difference.


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Title: The semantics of 21st century socialism and the Venezuelan political system