Opinion: The giant school’s emancipatory lessons

Mike Cole and Sara C. Motta defend the record of post-Chávez Venezuela, a country that offers a vision of genuine participatory democracy in stark contrast to the West’s cynical politics

January 14, 2011

Venezuela’s president Hugo Chávez has no “ideology of his own”, claims Felipe Fernández-Armesto in his latest Times Higher Education column (“Lack of laughter is no joke”, 6 January). But in reality, “socialism in the 21st century” has a very distinctive set of underlying principles that differentiate it from its 20th-century European counterpart.

The latter’s predominant features were strong connections with the (white male) organised working class; lines of vertical authority as Stalinism became entrenched; antipathy to religion; lack of ecological awareness; and a general belief that the end justifies the means.

The former, on the other hand, has women of colour playing a central role; the involvement of the informal economy; genuine attempts at participatory democracy; a central focus on the spiritual, in particular indigenous cosmologies and traditions of liberation theology; ecological awareness; and central processes viewed as ends.

The West has declared pre-Chávez Venezuela as the exceptional democratic success story of the postwar period in Latin America; but this democracy was premised on an elite political pact from which large sections of the urban poor were politically delegitimised, socially excluded, culturally silenced and territorially denied. Only since the election of Chávez in 1998 have all the country’s communities found a place on the political map.

Pre-Chávez, Venezuela’s higher education system was notoriously exclusionary and elitist, reproducing a culture of clientelism and personalism. Not surprisingly, it developed frameworks of education and learning that were heavily influenced by the dominant ideas of the West, and the US in particular.

To counter this, one of 21st-century socialism’s central features is the extended role of the educative society, accompanied by mass intellectualism from birth to death (Chávez has described Venezuela as “a giant school”). A central objective of this is to develop the conditions for the production of autonomous and relevant ideas for the development needs of the majority of Venezuelans. It is also a means to overcome the traditional division of labour present within Venezuelan society and politics, in which there were thinkers (the dominant economic and intellectual elite) and doers (those who produced, yet were unable to control or receive the fruits of production).

Such educative processes are clearly apparent in the Bolivarian University of Venezuela (UBV), where one of us taught. As part of a major attempt to extend access to higher education, UBV is free to all students and seeks to fundamentally challenge the elitism of many traditional universities. Social justice and equality are at the core of its educational content and delivery, and all courses taken there use Participatory Action Research methodology – a multidisciplinary approach linking theory and practice. PAR methodology bases UBV students in their local communities, working on community projects that form a core part of their formal studies.

Mission Sucre is another example of 21st-century socialism’s democratisation of higher education. The programme provides free, ongoing education to the 2 million adult Venezuelans who had not completed their elementary schooling under the old system. The Mission is an attempt to popularise, reform and expand Venezuelan higher education beyond its traditional elitist role. The programme is geared especially towards the most marginalised segments of society and is based in their communities, embedding education in the concrete needs and desires of Venezuela’s poor majority. Yet many professors among the traditional intellectual elite in Caracas’ main universities have refused to go to the barrios to teach in the Mission.

In the absence of any real acknowledgement of the many achievements of the Chávez era, let alone any appreciation of the merits of 21st-century socialism, Fernández-Armesto has joined in the depressingly extensive discourse of “othering” aimed at Venezuela and the popular politics at its heart. He accuses the “regime” of “poverty of spirit” while suggesting the replacement of Simón Bolivar as the nation’s hero with the yellow fever-bearing mosquito; he charges “the noisy little leader” with threatening to waste the country’s resources while bandying around the usual accusations of “tyranny”.

Such discourses serve to minimise the rationality and political agency of Venezuela’s majority and in so doing obfuscate both the emancipatory potential of participatory democracy and the serious shortcomings of representative liberal democracy as historically practised in Venezuela and the global North.

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