The State and the Agrarian Public Sphere in Venezuela

Sunday, 10 July 2016: 15:30
Location: Elise Richter Saal (Main Building)
Oral Presentation
Simeon NEWMAN, Sociology, University of Michigan, USA
Laura ENRIQUEZ, Sociology, University of California-Berkeley, USA
Does socialism eviscerate civil society? Theories of the transition from absolutism to bourgeois society identify several factors that impel or at least facilitate the emergence of the public sphere of civil society. Theories of 20th century totalitarianism suggest that state socialism annihilates, suppresses, or at least fails to allow the emergence of civil society. Yet “21st-century socialism”—pursued most stridently in Venezuela—has witnessed an efflorescence of civil society organizations among the popular sectors. This paper contributes to a growing critique of the totalitarianism literature by incorporating this anomaly into, and thereby extending, the Habermasian theory of the emergence of civil society and the public sphere. Focusing on agrarian civil society, we reconstruct Habermas’s theory—which argues that vertical contradictions between the state and the public sphere were characteristic of the transition from absolutism to bourgeois society—by showing that horizontal contradictions within the public sphere characterize the transition to 21st century socialism in Venezuela. This is due to two factors: as Habermas noted, (a) the state establishes the conditions in which public sphere participants develop their positions; but, as Habermas failed to consider, (b) the state’s communicative and economic activities have not coincided in the Venezuelan case.  That is, the state there has pursued an increasingly radical-socialist agenda as articulated in its words, and a moderate-nationalist one maintained in political-economic policy implementation. The organizations in the agrarian public sphere have defined their political perspectives against the state, but differ due to referencing discrepant aspects of it. This has given rise to myriad mutually-conflicting positions in the agrarian public sphere. We support these arguments by analyzing laws and presidential discourse; lending practices, the land structure, and marketing support for farmers; and agrarian civil society organizations in the key agrarian state of Portuguesa.