Today’s salad

We have a small garden and grow fruit a few vegetables and a variety of salad crops.  Most days we can pick a salad (sparsely in December and January) and this is always a combination of cultivated and volunteer crops, including many regarded as weeds.  In summer we grow tomatoes in a small greenhouse. It is poorly located for winter (too shaded) but autumn sown rocket, claytonia, mustards and leaf beet provide early salads.  To give a flavour of the kind of salads we eat, rich in vitamins and minerals, here’s what we had for lunch today.  Note some of the wild and unusual species will not be to everyone’s taste.  Some people might not tolerate some of them (try a very little of anything new first) and its best to avoid large quantities of anything.  The two unusual Italian ones, Stridolo and Erba stella, are particularly recommended and seed can be located easily enough with an internet search.

Salad, 8 April

Sorrel *

Rocket *

Young hawthorn leaves (once known as “bread and butter” by many country children)*

Hairy bitter cress *

Land cress *

Water cress (from a 1 m. long stream fed by pump from small pond) *

Various oriental mustards *

Chives *

Wild garlic *

Nipplewort (Lapsana communis not usually a great option but volunteer plants inthe greenhouse produce quite soft leaves)

Dandelion (young leaves) *

Stridolo (aka Sculpit,  silene vulgaris) *

“Salad plantain” (Erba stella or bucks horn plantain – Plantago coronopus) *

Claytonia (miners’ lettuce) *

Sweet dock (red sorrel)

Young kale leaves (Cottagers’ and Cavolo nero) *

Babbington leek (Allium ampeloprasum babingtonii – young shoots from a cluster of bulbils) *

V young “Perennial Buckwheat” (Fagopyrum dibotrys) (invasive)

V young ground elder (or Bishops’ Weed, Aegopodium podagraria) (invasive) *

  • = recommended for flavour and/or texture
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Notes for the New Year from Plague Island

Apocalypse vasnetsov
Four Horsemen of Apocalypse, by Viktor Vasnetsov.
Painted in 1887.
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Today, in the UK we live on a plague island (with some of the highest rates of Covid infections and deaths, globally), politically isolated from our neighbours and with an import-based economy.

Graph showing Civid cases per million, UK and world

Via Our World in Data.

Cumulative Covid-19 deaths per limmion UK and various countries and world

Via Our World in Data

Brexit happened, in the hardest possible way. This graphic shows just how isolated Britain is.

However, the European Union is not without its problems. It is a capitalist alliance, functioning largely as part of the capitalist core that exploits the poorer countries, and ruthlessly acts to maintain its position. At this point, rather than going on about Brexit being a mistake and arguing for re-entry, which is unlikely to happen soon, and would be pointlessly divisive, it is necessary to establish an adequate response, from today’s reality.

The problems of this country are compounded by having a far right, kleptomaniac, lying clique in government and an official opposition led by centrist opportunists bereft of ideas adequate to the ecological, social and economic challenges facing us all.

Those challenges are, above all, those of a colonialist/neocolonial power in a world that has overshot its ecological and planetary systems’ capacities to support the scale of material and energy usage that capitalism has led to, and requires, while seriously contaminating the biosphere with carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, heavy metals, antibiotics, nerve poisons, radioactive residues, plastics and other novel substances.

Yet the economic framework that approximates to providing for our needs is extremely vulnerable to the necessary reductions in flows of matter and energy to restore ecological balance, and also the reductions needed in the extraction of value required to cease exploitation and expropriation, and hence arrive at social and economic justice.

“The lifestyles of people in the richest nations are heavily dependent on resources extracted from poorer countries.”

United Nations Environment Programme 2019.

Addressing that conundrum is out of scope and out of the reach of the UK’s political system.

To pretend otherwise is delusional. For a while it looked like a renewed Labour Party might just (if it could drop the religion of economic growth and stick to a radical action-critique of capitalism’s commodification of everything) offer a way out. But even that slim chance was murdered, almost at birth, by the centrist opportunists in whose broad church the Labour Party has always kept some pews. It wasn’t just from within, but also from outside, with a relentless campaign against the then left leadership by nearly all the mass media, including the BBC. Only the small circulation socialist daily, the Morning Star was consistent in its broad support.

So we end up in a situation of crisis and emergency with no obvious political way of fixing it. Electoralism has proved to be largely a waste of time and effort, while extra-electoral social movements haven’t achieved the breadth of concern nor the persistence and politically intelligent creativity needed to force the change.

At this moment there are no satisfying overall answers, although there are some positive developments. The Welsh Labour government, now with Plaid Cymru support, does show signs of taking environmental and social justice issues more seriously than the UK party leadership. The new Leader of the Unite union appears to grasp the need to build an alternative via workplace and community campaigning and she links this to the wider agendas of climate and livelihoods. A variety of academics, practitioners and campaigners do understand the multiple dimensions of the pancrisis and the measures needed to confront it. However, all this is a long way from the kind of transformative capacity and mobilisation that is needed. Meanwhile it is vital to keep explaining what’s going on, and to support those who are trying to join the dots, the elements of resistance and transformation that we, and our sisters and brothers across the globe all need.

Mark H Burton

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Mismanagement or corruption? (Not the ) NHS Test and Trace

The UK government has spent £37,000,000,000, that’s 37 Billion Pounds, on what they call NHS Test and Trace. This is not provided by the National Health Service but by private companies under contract. It only covers England.

Until April this year, “Not the NHS Test and Trace” was headed by one “Dido” Harding, that’s Diana Mary Harding, Baroness Harding of Winscombe, a businesswoman and Conservative life peer.  She has been chair of “NHS Improvement” since 2017.  She has held a number of senior posts in retail organisations and was Chief Executive of the telecoms firm Talk Talk where she was criticised for poor response to a data breach that released personal information on millions of customers.

In May 2020, the Health Secretary M. Hancock put Harding in charge of the “track, test and trace” programme (later given the name NHS Test and Trace) to monitor cases of COVID-19 and trace the contacts of infected people, a function that is a major plank in reducing the impact of an epidemic or pandemic.  The legality of this appointment was challenged in November 2020 by the Good Law Project and the Runnymede Trust.

Not the NHS Test and Trace has a number of components, a veritable mosaic of privateers:

The contact tracers are employed by Serco, which subcontracted te work to 29 firms.

The US firm Sitel operates the call centre.

Test administration, processing samples in laboratories, and contact tracing are similarly all contracted to private companies. Deloitte is responsible for logistics, and statistics.  It subcontracts to the outsourcing privateers Serco, Mitie, G4S and Sodexo, as well as the Boots chain, to run the test centres.

In October 2020, over 1,100 Deloitte consultants were reported to be engaged. In March 2021, the UK Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee disclosed that 2,500 management consultants were being used at an average cost of £1,100 per day.  128 mobile testing units were established by the army and handed over to undisclosed private contractors after July 2020. 

Here I am concerned with the scale of money awarded to this privatised entity.  The initial budget for the service was £15 billion, rising to £22bn in November 2020, and a further £15bn was allocated for 2021–22 to bring the total for the two years to £37bnThe Public Accounts Committee was damning in its conclusions, as late as March this year.  After nearly a year of operation, Not the NHS test and Trace had had no clear impact and the level of spending was “unimaginable”. It questioned the over-reliance on consultants, with some paid more than £6,600 a day, the failure to be ready for the surge in demand for tests seen last September, that it never met its target to turn around tests done face-to-face within 24 hours. Contact tracers only had enough work to fill half their time even when cases were rising.  There had been a splurge on rapid tests with no clear evidence they would help.

Some simple arithmetic reveals the extraordinary cost of this abject failure.  The failure of test and trace was one reason for the spread of the virus in the UK with one of the highest per capita death rates globally.

Cost of Not the NHS Test and Trace:  £37,000,000,000.  However, to be fair, the figure for the first year was £22,000,000,000  Let’s use this latter figure, and the government’s own data on the activity of the programme over the first year.

Number of test conducted over 12 months, 28/5/2021 to 26/5/2021: 121,939,769

Cost per person tested (not the cost per test but cost of the scheme per test done): £180

Number of people who tested positive that were contacted: 3,236,492

So the cost of the scheme per contact (not the cost of contacting a person): £6,797

Close contacts reached and asked to self-isolate: 6,913,587

So the cost of the scheme in terms of cost per contact asked to self-isolate: £3,182 (£3,439 if we excluded those traced by local health protection teams)

These are incredibly high costs as the Public Accounts Committee noted.

There was a better way, as a number of public health experts and campaigns have argued. The track record of local public health teams is much better than for the centralised, privatised Not the NHS Test and Trace.  Again, the government’s own data makes this clear, as this graph, using the weekly data, shows.

Not the NHS Test and Trace has improved since the beginning of this year, but it still underperforms the tried and tested local public health teams.  Everyone knows that to trace contacts and win the confidence of people to cooperate with tracing and taking precautions, local knowledge is needed.

It remains to ask the question whether this is monumental mismanagement, or whether there is corruption involved in doling out money to a gallery of privateers, many with links to the conservative party.  There is a smoking gun.

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More “Development” in Manchester: Hough End Fields

During the pandemic lock-down one of the places we rediscovered for local walks is the large area of Hough End Fields. Curiously, this was the site of Manchester’s first airport. It is a wide open space with playing fields for competitive sports. What we call “the other room” or the North Field, is smaller area bounded by trees and a stream.

Recently, the council built a brand new leisure centre there, with entrance on Princess Parkway, a commuter route into the city from the wealthier regions of Cheshire. For us in Chorlton, the centre replaced the local swimming paths, with gym, and this has made it harder for many people in the Chorlton area to access swimming and the other activities. The tramway goes past it but it is no longer a short walk and the tram isn’t cheap. Buses, pending the Mayor’s plan for re-regulation, provide an uneven service.

But with its position on the busy Princess Road artery, it is in a good position to capture “passing trade”. Now the council wants to extend the centre and “upgrade” the fields. Some aspects of the plan are reasonable: improving the pitches, which tend to get waterlogged, and adding a cafe to the building. There is poor quality changing room that it is proposed to replace with an extension to the new building. So far so good, but there are also proposals for all weather pitches, more car parking, and new pitches for rounders – sorry baseball and soft-ball. There is no recognition of the non-competitive uses of the fields. The biodiversity of the area is dismissed as poor, rather than planning to improve it but habitat restoration and creation. The all weather pitches potentially constitute a pollution problem, and increasing car parking is the last thing you would expect a city council that has declared a “climate emergency” to do.

One of those “done deal” consultations is in process – done deal in the sense that there appears to have been little or no involvement of the local community prior to drawing up the plans, but rather, a comprehensive proposal is offered with no scope for citizens redesigning it.

I have made comments and I share them here in case others would like to make use of some of the arguments and evidence that I have assembled.

My response to the proposal – CLICK HERE.

Direct link to the planning proposal: CITY COUNCIL DEVELOPMENT Erection of a two-storey extension to form sports field changing rooms, cafe facilities, flexible club/social/training rooms and gym space following the demolition of the existing building on site, formation of 3G football turf pitches and associated floodlighting and fencing together with associated park and an additional 100 space overflow car park

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The Green Man

The Green Man, and also sometimes the Green Woman, is a persistent figure in European folklore, although similar figures appear in other regions too. The Green Man, typically a face, surrounded by, or even sprouting, leaves, was a traditional carving found in churches. Yet the idea of the Green Man, a nature deity, is pre-Christian. He, or she, may represent the power of nature, of natural regeneration, and the foundation of the natural world on which we rely. He represents the cycle of nature, with leaves sprouting forth anew. In the story of Gawain and the Green Knight, written in the Cheshire dialect around the time of Chaucer, he is overlaid with Christian and chivalric symbolism but at root, literally at root, the story tells of the felling of forest, or of the fall of leaves in autumn, and the re-sprouting of trees after felling, or in coppicing, pollarding or hedge laying. That Green Knight can be none other than the Green Man.

My Green Man was noticed in Kenworthy Wood, itself a new stretch of woodland, regenerated even, on the south side of the Mersey as it flows, constrained by levies, through South Manchester. He is a natural pattern in the bark of a maple or sycamore tree, the moustache being one of the leaf scars made when the stem is young but remaining as it grows into a mature trunk. I cut out the face digitally from the photograph of the tree trunk and printed it onto watercolour paper. I then surrounded him with iconic leaves from the English woodlands, painting in acrylics, relying on leaves in our garden or from books. It was too early in the season for oak and hazel, and there was no elm to be had.

Leaves, clockwise from the top.

Holly Ilex aquifolium (upper leaves)

Holly is traditionally considered to be a plant with powers, which, since it is evergreen, persist in winter. Planted outside the house to protect against witchcraft, it was brought in to protect against demons and goblins. Holly was assimilated into Christian traditions (the thorns and the blood-red berries helped), especially over the Christmas period. And we atheists still bring leaves into the house to adorn the Christmas pudding. Its stems were favoured for walking staffs. Every winter, a flock of redwings, visiting here from Scandinavia, strip all the berries from our holly trees: first a scout or two come and then the rest of the flock.

English Oak Quercus robur

Oak has a particular association with the Green Man; it is oak leaves that are most commonly depicted in church carvings, surrounding him and sometimes coming out of his mouth. I has long been a tree of particular importance in Indo-European belief systems. It was associated with Thor, perhaps because oaks were often struck by lightening. It was valued for its timber, right up until the industrial age, and its acorns were of great importance for the feeding of pigs, allowed to forage in the forest, an important common right before the enclosures. The woodlands of cork oak in Spain and Portugal are pork-cork forests. Oak timber is hard to work when seasoned but pliant when still green. The trees, climax vegetation over much of England, are host to more kinds of insects than any other native tree.

Ivy Hedera helix

Like holly, ivy had magical powers, particularly during the shortest days of the year. It was always the associate of holly, being brought in to decorate the houses and churches. In early depictions of Father Christmas, he was dressed in green, not red, and wreathed in ivy. In the Highlands and Islands of Scotland ivy was thought to protect milk, butter and farm animals. Ivy flowers late, giving the bees a late feast, and the black berries are bird fodder over winter.

Hawthorn Crataegus monogyna

Geoffrey Grigson lists a whole page of local names, while we also know it as May and as Bread and Butter, on account of the taste and texture of the young leaves, a fine salad ingredient. It is Quickthorn because of its value for making a living fence, or hedge (quick meaning alive, as in the archaic usage, “the quick and the dead”). Its “quicksets” are its cuttings thrust into the ground. Throughout Europe it has been an important supernatural tree, perhaps due to the prominence of its red haws, the effusive May blossom, its thorns, and its ability to grow in most places. It also had a number of medicinal uses. As Thorn, it gave its name, like Ash, to one of the letters of the Scandinavian runic alphabet, still present in Icelandic, while as Huath it was equivalent to the letter E of the Celtic Ogham alphabet. In Ireland it is a “fairy tree”: we had one in an inconvenient place but no labourer would take it down. It was also known there as a famine food: “If all else fails, haws”, which taste rather like apples. A lump of the wood made a fine handle for my hazel walking stick.

English Elm Ulmus procera

Unlike the other classic trees of the English countryside (the oak and ash), the elm appears to have had little in the way of supernatural powers and beliefs associated with it. However, it was valued for its timber which resisted rot, and was therefore used for pipes, gutters, foundational piles, and coffins. “Was”, not only because other materials have superseded these uses but because of the devastation wreaked by Dutch Elm disease in the 1970s. I literally grew up “under the elms”, which were so prominent in the Worcestershire countryside before the disaster: a row of then lined our street, opposite the new houses, flanking a drainage ditch at whose edge we played, “under the elms”. As a boy I made a whistle out of an elm twig, and would have made a magazine rack at school from elm (I got as far as cutting out the pieces) had my wooodwork course not been cut short by our move to Ireland.


See above.

Holly (lower leaves)

The lower leaves are prickly but the upper leaves are not. The transition takes place between 3 and 6 feet, depending on the tree. It is as if the tree conserves its energy, only making spikes where they will be needed to defeat browsing animals.

Hazel Corylus avellana

Hazel was valued both for its nuts and its ability to produce strong poles when coppiced- cut down to ground level to regrow multiple stems. It was also used, often with willow, for making wattle hurdles, the infill of timber framed construction and also valuable fencing material. Like most other native trees it had sacred associations, still honoured today in its use for divining rods, a technology that might actually have a material basis. With its pagan associations it was a candidate for Christianisation, in its case via St Philibert, founder of Jumierges abbey in Normandy, where we went on bikes in 1979. From St Philibert we get filberts, though the English name for the nut is cobnut. Like Ivy and Holly, Hazel is a girl’s name but Hazel is occasionally a boy’s too.

Mark Burton

April, 2021

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Leaving Labour, again

I’ve just left the Labour Party, again.  I wasn’t at all active but did pay my sub, contribute to policy fora, and did some foot slogging and door knocking in the 2017 and 2019 general elections.

I originally left in disgust when Neil Kinnock announced the embrace of nuclear weapons, yes weapons of mass destruction, after years of association with CND.  After that, things went from bad to worse with Kinnock’s sell-out of the miners, and then the years of what came to be called neoliberalism under Blair and Brown.  I rejoined when Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader, a decent man but not a great choice to lead a mass party while undergoing attacks from both outside and inside.  He of course is suspended from the parliamentary party’s whip after making the factual statement that anti-Semitism in the party has been greatly exaggerated. (I am not denying its existence within the party, by the way – it is there, just as it is there across the whole of society).

Why leave now?  I despair of the current leadership, not just Starmer but most of his team, taking the party to the right, purging leftists on pretexts, purging members, interfering in selections of candidates, affirming support for NATO and nuclear weapons, and Britain’s role as international cop, and taking the line of the Board of Deputies as the only legitimate viewpoint of the Jewish communities.  Its economic policy has become unimaginative and timid, and it has failed in its duty of opposition to the Tories’ mismanagement of the Covid pandemic, which has led to some 130,00 excess deaths, and counting.  I had reservations about the “Green Industrial Revolution”, and the “Green New Deal” on which it drew, but at least it was an attempt to address the climate emergency through transformational actions.  I can see little of that in Labour’s current offerings.  I cannot realistically see this situation improving in the near future, even if and when Starmer, trailing the Tories in the polls despite the carnage, gets replaced.

I could stay and fight but I’ve never been one for political parties’ internal struggles and I’ve other things to focus on.  I wish those that stay and continue to work for a socialist Labour Party all the best but I seriously doubt whether that is a feasible proposition.  Labour has always worked largely for mitigation of capitalism, not for its replacement.  The current predicament of humanity, with the pancrisis that combines climate change, biodiversity loss, a pandemic and an economic crisis (to mention just four of its headline features), makes that project futile.  Capitalism has to go or it  takes us with it.  I don’t know how you make that happen but, despite my respect for many party members, including many dedicated councillors and some MPs, I can no longer see the British Labour Party as part of the solution.

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Theses on the 2019 General Election

Here is my attempt to cast some light on the General Election defeat.  I’ve written it as a set of “theses” to try and make the fairly complex argument concise.  I haven’t covered everything and some of this has already been said (I’ve linked some of those pieces), but here I’m trying to put together a number of frameworks for understanding.  I also suggest three things that Labour will simultaneously need to do to rebuild.  Insights from community psychology, decolonial thought, and ecosocialism should be obvious enough.  It does need a more thorough Marxian grounding, and I’ve not covered the economics of Labour’s policy platform, but that’s for another day.

  1. Labour lost because of a combination of factors.

  2. The Tory victory was a resurgence of the dominant English nationalism, what Tom Nairn, in a prescient article from 1977, called “Patrician Liberalism”.

  3. That resurgence was made possible by the steady erosion of the Labour movement’s industrial base, which led to the weakening and loss of labour movement institutions, together with the ways of living that created and maintained approximations of socialist consciousness. As Paul Mason summarises it (and you don’t have to accept his entire argument,In the end, we lost because part of the former industrial working class in the Midlands and the North has detached itself from the values that are now core to our party. That is the result of a decades long process, which began under Tony Blair,and was never going to be turned around in six weeks.” Callum Cant and Aditya Chakrabortty make similar arguments.

  4. The capture of the Labour Party by the insurgent left, meant that an internationalist, metropolitan, and largely University educated movement became the dominant culture, identity and activist membership. That constituency found it difficult to communicate to the “patriotic” (English nationalist), small c conservative, working class of the de-industrial areas. Instead, the simplistic, nationalist messages of the Tory/Brexit party machine, the illiberal, Patriotic right, the patrician (economic) liberals, of whom the paradigm example is “Boris” Johnson, found an easier resonance. Corbyn himself, the accidental leader, who also represents that internationalist socialist orientation, came unstuck in just the same way; this was why there was the typically unarticulated rejection of the “unpatriotic” man as future Prime Minister – the same thing that I experienced with regard to the more emollient Michael Foot (a left liberal / moral socialist if ever there was one), canvassing in 1983, again with an impressively transformative, and largely unread, manifesto.

  5. In that competition of ideologies, the easy option of blaming the foreigner, of pulling up the drawbridge, won out over the more complex, evidence-based and nuanced internationalist socialism of the revived Labour Party. In this way, it was indeed the Brexit election, not the Climate election, nor even the economic justice election.

  6. Despite this, this election was fought less on an overt racist platform than the EU referendum. That does not make the underpinning dynamic any less racist: the racism was unspoken. To examine this a little more, the assumption that England is somehow superior, is well ingrained. It depends on a history of colonial pillage and subsidy, that from the second half of the C19 benefited even the industrial proletariat. The erosion of the UK’s industrial base was possible, in part because of the subsidy from the colonies, and via the financial transactions of the City of London. The temporary subsidy of North Sea Oil also masked the decline in the UK’s industrial base. Sad to say, the colonial imaginary is also present, in a muted form, in Corbynite economic thinking too: Tony Norfield’s concept of national welfarism is relevant here, as are recent decolonial critiques of the Green Deal, for example that from Asad Rehman.

  7. The erosion of the industrial base was also facilitated by reforms enacted by the neoliberal turn, which exacerbated the foot-looseness of capital in general and UK capital in particular.

  8. The electoral difficulties of the British Labour Party also reflect the decline in support for social democratic parties across Europe, and beyond. Those difficulties have been masked by the First Past the Post system and by the leftward turn which meant that young militants in England joined labour whereas in continental Europe they would likely have joined Die Linke, Podemos, la France Insoumise, or Syriza.

  9. The counterfactual cases of Scotland, and Merseyside, are consistent with the Nairn thesis on English nationalism and the dominance of patrician liberalism. In Scotland there is an alternative yet broadly social democratic nationalism, one that is not attached to the imperial project of the England-Britain. The Merseyside case is different, but still live traditions of working class struggle (and a rejection of the Murdoch press) combine with a distinctive not very English cultural mix, making this struggling city more similar in political consciousness to that of the metropolitan progressive cities London, Bristol and Manchester.

  10. Labour is fundamentally an electoral machine. That does not mean that there aren’t good branches doing excellent campaigning and community-strengthening work. Nor doe it mean that there aren’t excellent examples of Labour administrations with innovative approaches to building resilient communities and local economies (Preston Labour’s community wealth building is a well known example. Hackney’s ambitious and well thought out work on greening the borough is less well known). However, Labour is still overwhelmingly an electoral machine, with its activists foot soldiers for winning elections. Of course elections are vitally important but the disillusioned voters of the former “Red Wall” postindustrial towns can hardly be blamed for thinking “it’s all very well you coming and asking for our votes but where have you been in the meantime?”

  11. In order to rebuild its mass support, Labour needs to simultaneously do several things. I suggest that these can all take place together, mutually supporting one another. That is the simultaneous construction of movement and counter-hegemonic ideology: that is, an organising set of understandings and a vision that re-interprets the world, making sense to people with diverse starting points, because it builds on what they know and experience already, adding in an organising narrative that is binding and hopeful. That has a number of components.

  12. It must be rooted, or grounded, in practical solidarity, basically community work, helping people, finding solutions, fighting exploiters.

  13. It must be imaginative: the ways of doing this won’t be the same as those of yesterday. The patterns of community life, the economic, social and environmental challenges are different and so are some of the tools that are now available.

  14. It must respond to the new challenge that will become ever more dominant, that of the climate and ecological crisis. That means tackling cold houses while expending less energy, building economic alternatives close to where people live, shock-proofing provisioning, particularly food and heat, and finding ways to use less and less energy. If we stumble into a civilisational collapse, then at least make it less dire than it might be otherwise.

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Things I’ve written lately, mostly elsewhere.

I’m rather aware that I’ve been neglecting this blog lately.  It’s not because I’ve been inactive, the opposite, in fact.  So here is a list of the most important things I’ve written over the last year and a bit.

“Properly” published stuff:

Kagan, C. M., Burton, M., Duckett, P., Lawthom, R., &Book cover
Siddiquee, A. (October, 2019). Critical Community Psychology: Critical Action and Social Change. (2nd Edn.). London: Routledge.

Burton, M. (2019). Degrowth: The realistic alternative for Labour.
Renewal, 27(2), 88–95. (now open access)

NLR 115 coverBurton, M., & Somerville, P. (2019). Degrowth: A Defence.
New Left Review
, (115), 95–104. Versión En español.

Burton, M. and Guzzo, R. (in press). Liberation Psychology: origins and development.
In L Diaz Comas and E Torres (Eds.) Liberation Psychology: Theory, Method, Practice, and Social Justice. To be published by Springer, North America.  Copy on request

Other pieces:

Six problems for Green Deals (12 September, 2019) Steady State Manchester.   A talk given as part of the panel session on The Economics of Climate Emergency, at Manchester Metropolitan University’s launch event for the Future Economies Research Centre.  Also available here at
Spanish translation here /Traducción a castellano-enlace

The new municipalists defeated in several Spanish cities. Posted on 27 May, 2019, here on Uncommontater.

Do More, Faster! Greater Manchester Climate campaigners call for serious climate action. Posted on 25 March, 2019 ,Steady State Manchester.

Steady State Manchester’s response to the 2019 Greater Manchester Spatial Framework  Posted on 15 March, 2019  Steady State Manchester.

What Kind of a Green Deal? The implications of material and monetary flows. (28 February, 2019)  Steady State Manchester.  This article has been syndicated at
This article has been syndicated at, and Enjeux énergies et environement

What’s gone wrong in Venezuela? Posted on 11 January, 2019, here on Uncommontater.

Manchester’s Climate Change Strategy: All CO2 and mirrors? (12 December, 2018) Steady State Manchester.

An economy that does not grow?(9 November, 2018) Steady State Manchester.
Also at and in Spanish at Revoprosper.

Earlier but significant work:
We need to end growth dependency, but how? 23 February, 2018 (A Critique of Positive Money‘s proposals). Steady State Manchester.
This article is now also available at Resilience and in Spanish translation, in two parts at Revo – prosperidad sostenible: Part 1, and Part 2.

After Peak Capitalism: The livelihood challenge.  On Uncommontater. November, 2017.



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The new municipalists defeated in several Spanish cities.

Updated re Barcelona, Sept 2019.

Here is a summary of the major results for the “Cities of Change” (or Fearless Cities / cover of book on the global movement of new municipalism - Fearless Cities, Spanish editionCiudades sin Miedo), where the insurgent, new municipalist, left gained power, in 2014. Most of these innovative coalitions have been defeated by the more traditional Spanish Socialist Workers Party, the PSOE (somewhat similar to the UK Labour Party) or in the case of Barcelona by the forces of the nationalist left (Catalan Republican Party, ERC) and the PSOE allied Catalan Socialist Party (PSC). In Madrid, although the radical Más Madrid grouping got the largest share of the vote, this was insufficient, even with the support of the PSOE and Podemos, to yield a majority of councillors. So the right, led by the Popular Party will now take over with support from Ciudadanos (opportunistic centre right) and Vox (neo-Falangists).

Against this disappointing set of results, the new municipalists in Cadíz and Valencia increased their support, despite the advances of the PSOE.

There are many reasons for these results, and they differ from place to place. In Madrid, the advance of the PSOE, together with in-fighting on the left is mostly responsible. A disastrous decision of Podemos was to support leftists who split from Carmena’s coalition and campaigned separately as Madrid en Pie, gaining no seats but 2.6% of the vote. That’s not to say Carmena’s city government was free from mistakes but factionalism has yielded defeat for the left. In Barcelona, Ada Colau and Barcelona en Comú’s principled stance on Catalan independence against both Catalan and Spanish nationalists (that people have the right to vote on the matter but BeC did not support the secessionists) and calls for dialogue will not have helped her.  However it remains unclear whether she will have to relinquish to position of mayor (see below).

In all the cities, the newness of the PSOE government and the (somewhat) leftward and green turn under Pedro Sánchez will also have led to former PSOE voters returning to the fold.

A summary of the principal municipal results is given in the table below.

Meanwhile in the European election, of those parties gaining representation, the PSOE gained 32.56% of the vote, the PP 19.95%, Ciudadanos 12.06%, Podemos and allies 9.96%, Vox 6.14, the republican left 5.56, right wing secessionists 4.54 and the liberal CEUS 2.8%.

City Change Comment
Madrid Más Madrid lost to the right.

Mayor Manuela Carmena unseated.

While Más Madrid gained most votes, the left vote was split by the candidature of former aliies now in Madrid en Pie which gained no seats. The seats of Más Madrid and PSOE together were insufficieint to prevent an unholy alliance of PP, Ciudadanos (Cs) and Vox unseating the radical mayor, Manuela Carmena.
Zaragoza Zaragoza en Común lost to the PSOE.

Mayor Pedro Santiesteve unseated.

Competition between Zaragoza en Común and Podemos led to ZeC getting just 3 seats, and Podemos 2 ,on the council. As the largest party PSOE will now take the city, although with support from the smaller left groupings.
Barcelona Barcelona en Comú pipped in terms of votes by the ERC.

Ada Colau congratulated ERC leader Maragall but could still retain the mayoralty.

UPDATE:  Ada Colau was able to form a minority administration with the  PCS and the passive support of Manuel Valls, former French Socialist Party PM who allied with Cs for the elections but subsequently broke ranks with them to enable Colau to take the mayoralty while blocking the independentistas (he was also appalled by Cs alliance with the far right elsewhere).

The Catalan nationalist left party ERC might takes over the city, on the basis of a slightly greater number of votes, though the same number of seats as BeC.  However its leader gave a victory speech that emphasised Catalan independence which is not supported by either BeC or PCS (the Catalan Socialist Party, allied to the PSOE).  As Colau says, Barcelona is a city of the left, not of independence.  Maragall wants to ally with the neoliberal secessionists but can’t form a majority. So the situation as of 28 may is unclear.  Colau could form a minority administration with PCS but would need tacit support from outside the coalition from Ciudadanos. BeC stood for dialogue in the Catalan independence conflict, against both Catalan and Spanish nationalists.
Santiago, A Coruña, Ferrol Marea Galicia lost all three cities to the PSOE.
Martiño Noriega, Xulio Ferreiro and Jorge Suárez unseated.
Valencia Compromís retained the city.

Joan Ribó continues as mayor.

Compromís strengthened its position despite increase in vote for PSOE
Cadíz Adelante Cadíz retained the city.

José María González ‘Kichi’ continues as mayor.

Adelante Cadíz strengthened its position, to one short of an overall majority. Podemos was part of this alliance.


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What’s gone wrong in Venezuela?

What’s gone wrong in Venezuela?

Mark H Burton1

pdf version

[Update, 3 Feb, 2019: Some additional recent English language sources appear at the end – not in the pdf version yet.]

This piece is intended as a guide to what’s gone wrong with Venezuela’s “Bolivarian process”. That process, associated with the leadership of the late Hugo Chávez Frias, has divided opinion, not just in Venezuela but also beyond. Too often commentary has fallen into one of two camps, either uncritical support for what appeared to offer hope to progressives and leftists, that a democratic process could lead to a just transformation, or opposition to what is seen as the imposition of a near dictatorship with economic, civil and political freedoms severely curtailed. The truth is more complex and I will try to cut through the ideological polarisation, to explore what has happened, and indeed what has gone wrong.

I write from the position of an ecological leftist, with an interest in social movements as a transformative force and resource for moving to a better society. I have some direct knowledge of Venezuela, having visited twice, before and after the election of Chávez, and more importantly having friends and colleagues there. My involvement with colleagues has included collaborative work that has included an analysis of disability policy in Venezuela and writing a commentary on a collection of articles on community social psychology in the country. Many of these people have been at best sceptical of the government’s “Bolivarian revolution” and in many cases altogether hostile. Some of these people have now left the country, chiefly for economic reasons. I have also had contact with supporters of the process, from inside and outside the country, largely as a result of my own commitment to solidarity with the Cuban revolution. I also wrote a study (in Spanish) of the coverage of Venezuela in the liberal Western press, commissioned by supporters of the Bolivarian revolution for a project that never saw the light of day.

With this background, then, we can immediately say two things. One the one hand, I am no friend of the Venezuelan right and the middle classes who have supported it, who have implacably resisted any encroachment on their privilege, resorting to violence and illegal means to try and overthrow the elected government and its attempts at social transformation. On the other hand, I do not take at face value the claims of those on the left who (at least in public) see nothing wrong with the Venezuelan government and its Bolivarian revolution, defending all its moves.

I will assume some basic knowledge of the Venezuelan process and the key events.

The Bolivarian project

The Bolivarian project of Chávez was significant because after the collapse of alternatives to the capitalist system, and the triumph of the neoliberal version, under a unipolar US-led global settlement (the Washington consensus2) not least throughout Latin America (with the exception of Cuba), it showed the possibility of a democratically elected government making broad transformations that contradicted and reversed the premises and impositions of that system. Venezuela had, under the “punto fijo” system that followed the dictatorship of he 1950s, had alternating rule by centre-right and centre-left parties with a system of patronage and corruption, dependent on oil revenues, that left some 80% of the population marginalised: this could be seen in the cities with the majority living in shanty towns, the barrios composed of “ranchitos”, shacks, very often perched perilously on unstable hillsides, without basis amenities and services. The dominance of the oil industry led to productive and agricultural capacity of the country being seriously limited, a manifestation of the so-called “Dutch disease”.

On his election in 1998, Chávez implemented his promise to re-write the constitution via a Constituent Assembly. This new constitution was envisaged as refounding he republic (with its new name, the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela). It strengthened democracy, for example by instituting the provision for the recall of elected representatives, including the president. It enacted legislation to recognise the country’s indigenous peoples and their rights, including their lands. Environmental protections were enacted. Land titles were made available to squatters. An alliance was created with Cuba whereby thousands of health workers and educationalists began to work in the poor barrios throughout the country, providing access to health care and supporting the “Yo Sí Puedo” literacy programme, and Cuba was able to purchase oil at advantageous rates. Later on, the government initiated a house building programme and invested in co-operatives. In addition to the reform of representative democracy, with a new National Assembly, community and participative democracy was also promoted.

Edgar Lander3 sees the significance of the Bolivarian process of the early Chávez years, for the rethinking of the socialist project, in terms of four signals, also reflected in parallel developments under the progressive governments of Ecuador and Bolivia:

  1. The political dynamic that led to these new governments was not led by political parties but by a wide and heterogeneous diversity of social movements, peoples and communities.

  2. A debate was opened about development, and concerning other ways of relating human beings to nature or Mother Earth. In Ecuador and Bolivia, the rights of nature were recognised for the first time constitutionally or legally.

  3. Plurality of nations and cultures, the recognition and celebration of the rich diversity of peoples, communities, traditions and of memories present in these societies, despite five centuries of authoritarian monocultural colonial States.

  4. In Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia, the concepts of participative and community democracy were included in the constitutions. It is significant that these modes of democracy are not conceived as alternatives (or substitutes) for representative democracy, but as forms for deepening, for radicalising democracy.

Particularly once Chávez was temporarily ousted by a coup and then restored by loyal sections of the military, supported by popular mobilisation, his cause became popular in broad sections of the international left. The implication of the Bush regime in the coup, and in continued covert attempts to undermine the legitimate government, only strengthened this support. With the arrival of apparently leftward leaning governments in many American countries, it looked like this wave could be unstoppable, giving the oppressed across the worked great hope. However, there were voices, from those whose commitment to community empowerment and social justice was unquestioned, who saw Chávez as an authoritarian bully and who questioned the degree to which the supposed changes were being reflected on the ground. Personally, I was prepared to give the Bolivarian revolution, and the associated developments in other countries, the benefit of the doubt. Even when I visited Bolivia in 2012, I was unconvinced by the criticisms of the government there from some sections. However, it was explained to me that the MAS, the ruling party of Evo Morales, and the alliance of social movements, were split between two orientations, the fairly standard, desarrollista (developmentalist) current, which saw the expansion of the economy, harnessing Bolivia’s mineral wealth, as the route to social and environmental justice and even environmental sustainability, and the Pachamamista (Mother Nature) current, that took seriously the commitment to the rights of nature and the indigenous-influenced concept of vivir bien (suma qamaña in Aymara, translated as living well, but closer to the idea of “right livelihood” or “commonweal”). The desarrollistas were increasingly dominant. Subsequent events have clearly demonstrated this. Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador have all abandoned their earlier commitment to the protection of the ecosystem and infringed their own constitutions, emblematically in the Arco Mineral del Orinoco, Tipnis and Yasuní, respectively.

Up until 2014, it was possible to hold on to the idea that Venezuela would “come through” as a possible, if flawed, model. By now, only the most delusional supporters can believe that. The evidence is clear, the Bolivarian process has failed, leading to economic collapse, authoritarian and unconstitutional rule, and real suffering for the mass of the people who supported the revolution.

What went wrong?

It is not easy to find detailed and critical analysis of the Venezuelan collapse. An article by the LSE’s Asa Cusack in English is one of the few4 (Cusack is also the author and editor of two forthcoming books on ALBA, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, the alternative regional alliance established by Venezuela and Cuba). A more detailed analysis, in Spanish, is provided by the Venezuela Central University scholar, Edgar Lander in a series of articles. I have used his analysis in what follows5, supplementing it with other information and perspectives. It contains elements found in Cusack’s paper but is located within the critical post-development and decolonial tradition, allied to the Pachamamista tendency in the Andean countries and to the international degrowth movement too. It is therefore informed by an opposition to the extractivism that has characterised Latin America from the colonial period to the present day. I will set out the key points of the analysis. I have reworked the points made by Lander and others into seven categories, but these inevitably overlap and influence one another; this complicates the search for final causes of the failed experiment. Much of this analysis is critical of the Bolivarian process, especially as it has evolved under Maduro but I am far more critical of the right wing opposition within the country and the USA’s efforts from the start to defeat the Bolivarian experiment (see section 7).

1) The failure to escape dependence on oil extraction.

Venezuela is a “petroState” and has been so from long before the Chávez presidency. In 1998, oil exports were 68.7% of total exports. By 2013, they had reached 96%6. Over the same period, the value of non-oil exports has fallen, as has the contribution of non-oil industries to the economy.

Oil revenues have been the means to fund redistributive social policies and to maintain support for the government: it seems likely that these priorities have eclipsed the alternative of reducing dependence on oil, and restructuring the economy. While maintaining a radical discourse in the UN negotiations on climate change, the country has tried to increase its oil production (although it has failed in this). In the Plan de la Patria, presented by Chávez for the 2012 elections, objective 5 is To preserve life on the planet and save the human species, while objective 3 is To consolidate the role of Venezuela as a world energy power.

Chávez did have the idea of diversifying the economy, relying particularly on the construction of micro-enterprises and cooperatives but as the above figures indicate, little was actually achieved. The attempt to replicate “mechanically” the achievements of existing cooperatives, that had evolved over decades, had little success and the presence of corruption and clientalism and a lack of management capacity on the part of State institutions were further factors7.

Under Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, the attempt to capitalise on the country’s natural resources has accelerated with the Orinoco Mineral Arc programme. This designates a region of Venezuela’s largest State, Estado Bolivar, 111.843 sq km, or 12.2% of the national territory, the size of Cuba or Portugal, for the exclusive extraction of minerals, under the overall control of the army. It was anticipated that, with the invitation to mining companies from around the world to exploit the reserves (which include coltan, aluminium, diamonds, radioactive minerals and especially gold) there would be enormous investments: these have not materialised and the project has become a drain on the country’s oil revenues. The region falls within the international pan-Amazon region, a region of enormous biodiveristy and strategic significance for moderation of the planet’s climate. The socio-ecological (including the economic) value of the region’s resources is far greater than the value of the minerals that could be exploited (70% of the country’s hydroelectic power depends on the waters from this region). It is also home to the Warao, E ́Ñepa, Hoti, Pumé, Mapoyo, Kariña, Piaroa, Pemón, Ye ́kwana and Sanema peoples whose livelihoods would be devasted by large scale mineral extraction: it means that they are threatened with ethnocide. Established by an unconstitutional presidential decree, opposition to extractive projects in the zone is largely prohibited. It has also become a lawless zone, where illegal mining of gold and coltan has expanded vertiginously, with the recruitment of thousands of miners. Armed groups, originating from both sides in the Colombian conflict, and criminal bands control different sectors and fix the prices for the miners. All this is with the complicity of members of the country’s armed forces. The risk (likely already a reality) is of a link up between illegal mining interests and government officials. The large scale use of mercury by miners working with no protection has been documented in the extraction of gold, and mercury has been found in harmful concentrations in the bodies of mothers and children in the region8.

The Orinoco Mineral Arc illustrates the bankruptcy of the extractivist model, that far from enabling a transition from primary materials production for the global market while maintaining redistributive policies, deepens the country’s dependence on global commodity markets while destroying the country’s most important assets and precipitating sections of the population into a criminalised, impoverished and unprotected labour force.

That dependence of the extractivist economy on global commodity markets, and its vulnerability to their vagaries can be seen in the impact of global oil prices on Venezuela’s economy. Oil prices, however, while an important factor, do not account for the economic crisis that the country finds itself in. The price per barrel, around $100 from 2012-2014, fell to an average of $41 in 2015. However, as the following chart9 illustrates, prices are now in the range that they were during the first 6 or 7 years of the Chávez administration. It has, however, been estimated that Venezuela needs an oil price of around $117 to break even10.

World crude oil prices, corrected for inflation.11

Venezuela has tried to pump more and more oil to get over this problem, but it has failed in this, with production continuing to plummet. The goal for 2019 is for production of 6M barrels but production has fallen from a peak of 3.39M barrels in 2008 to an annualised rate of 1.14M by December 201812. Lander explains the collapse in these terms:

As well as external factors [a portion of the State oil company PDVSA’s income is being used to pay off debts incurred, principally to China and Russia] … the following are notable: the managerial incapacity that leads to inefficiency and improvisation, corruption, the scandalous overpricing in its operations, the continued drain of qualified staff and the limited investments in maintenance and technology. The distribution of petrol almost free of charge in the internal market, and the massive smuggling and pilfering of its products that this generates, implies national budgetary losses of millions of dollars per year. The process of de-capitalisation to which the national executive has subjected PDVSA has been systematic, obliging the company to deliver its hard currency to the Central Bank at an exchange prate that represents an extraordinary and unsustainable overvaluation of the bolivar [the national currency]. To continue operating, from 2017, the company began a process of increasing external borrowing. In 2017 it already owed a total of 71 Million dollars, debt that the company has no capacity to pay, which means a default is dangerously imminent which would put at risk its installations overseas, especially its USA subsidiary CITGO.”13

This risk to overseas assets has already been encountered, with seizure of PDVSA facilities May 2018 when in U.S. oil firm ConocoPhillips won court orders releasing the Venezuelan company’s key Caribbean operations, where PDVSA used to ship large consignments to Asia. This loss of access has led to congestion at Venezuela’s ports14, compounding the export problem.

Meanwhile the government’s investment priority ha been in heavy oil in the Orinoco region. The return on investment ratio is poor, since it requires such large inputs to process this oil – a problem already affecting Venezuela’s mainstream production (although to a lesser degree).

So the country has not escaped oil dependency, instead increasing its reliance on primary resource extraction. As such it is subject to the vagaries of international commodity prices, in any case a problem given the relatively high break-even price for Venezuelan oil15. This has been compounded by corruption and the mismanagement of the national oil company, both by the government and by its own management meaning that production and exports have slumped restricting investment and maintenance, meaning that the country’s income from oil has also slumped, just as its reliance on it has increased.

2) Mistakes in financial management.

A key problem has been that of exchange rates. The bolivar is seriously overvalued. This means that home production is expensive, so production for export is disincentivised while imports have been cheap. Although there are controls on access to foreign currency, there is an incentive to circumvent these, leading to a black market in dollars. Local businesses were thereby undermined while corruption increased, affecting both individuals and organisations. This leads to the phenomenon of “currency arbitrage”. Cusack explains it in this way:

The wider the gap between the official and black-market exchange rates, the greater the incentive to get hold of cheap official-rate dollars and resell them on the black market (“currency arbitrage”). The wider the gap between the prices of oil or foodstuffs in Venezuela and neighbouring countries, the greater the incentive to smuggle these products across the border for resale.
Differences in price are captured privately at the state’s expense while producing nothing, which in turn leaves fewer resources available for the everyday business of running the country16.

Chávez had devalued the bolivar temporarily when faced with this problem of divergence of black market and official exchange rates. Maduro has not countenanced doing this. Moreover, there are multiple official exchange rates affecting different sectors of the economy. The criticism of these policies has not just come from the right wing opposition. The finance minister Jorge Giordani resigned due to Maduro’s economic mismanagement and the left opposition Marea Socialista has also called for changes to monetary policy, as well as other reforms17. In their own investigation, covering the years 1998 to 2013, Marea Socialista estimated rates of between 12.3 and 46.7% annual flight of oil revenues, equivalent to ten times the loss sustained during the right wing sabotage (the lock out) of 2002/2003, lost to the country’s budgets18. Giordani estimated the loss of approximately $300bn in the 7 year period to 2012 from currency arbitrage19. Hector Navarro, a founder of the ruling Unified Socialist party but expelled in 2014, was a minister under Chávez. He joined Giordani in the criticism of the Maduro regime’s corrupt rule.

Of course it does not help that Venezuela’s foreign debt is denominated in the US dollar20: this is not Venezuela’s choice and it has been involved in a number of alternatives to create an alternative. It also gives the US immense power over the country’s economy.

3) Political weakness: the reliance on charismatic leadership and the weakness of popular democracy.

The fatal political weakness of the Bolivarian experiment has been its reliance on a single charismatic leader. That is not to say that social movements have been absent, but it was the extraordinary ability of Chávez to bring currents together, overcoming lethargy and apathy and articulate the direction of travel. The downside was the marginalisation of critical voices and the consequent lack of open debate: this was undoubtedly reinforced by the intransigent and delinquent opposition from the right and their international allies, supported by the world’s liberal media. But the consequence was an impoverishment of the revolution’s political culture and the loss of the ability to identify problems and self-correct strategic mistakes. The untimely death of Chávez in 2013 coincided with the deepening of the economic crisis when oil prices fell. Maduro lacks both the personal charisma of his predecessor and the popular affection Chávez enjoyed. This has accentuated the recourse to authoritarian rulings including the sacking of judges, the unconstitutional replacement of the National Assembly (when the government lost its majority), postponement of State elections, imprisonment of opposition politicians (not all of whom are clearly criminal) and rule by decree. The liberal press used to accuse Chávez of dictatorial tendencies. This was untrue: democracy was initially strengthened, with a variety of innovations for participative democracy, including community councils and transparency in elections. The claim has in the case of Maduro. However, it is arguable that there was always a tension between the democratic impulse and the left “caudillismo” exercised by Chávez while the bureaucratic and corrupt nature of the State, impaired by the unwillingness of some of its functionaries to implement reforms, meant that these new institutions were frustrated from delivering for their constituents.

4) A overly statist model of transformation: the emptiness of the supposed “21st Century socialism” alternative.

On the left, in Venezuela and worldwide, there have, since the 1960s, been wide-ranging debates about the nature of socialism. One theme has been the limitations of identifying socialism with the State, and of the implementation of socialism from above. At the same time, it is clear enough that an over-emphasis on bottom-up governance and innovation is likely to fail. In the Bolivarian process, there was a tension between,

…the imaginaries and practices of popular power and self-organisation from below, one the one hand, and Leninist-inspired politics of control from above and the taking of all the principal decisions from the centre of the party-State, which are then communicated to the population via simultaneous radio and television broadcasts. In this way confidence in the capabilities of self-government by the organised people has been undermined. In this period there has been a strong contradiction between the setting up and promotion of multiple forms of popular base organisation and the establishment of structures of vertical control of these organisations, and by the same token, the generation of a permanent financial dependency on the State, undermining the autonomous possibilities of these organisations.”21

Thus, despite a genuine desire to develop a different model, a 21st Centrury socialism, a more traditional, centralised Statist approach has predominated. A contributory factor was the obstruction of the Chávez reforms by those in the State apparatus inherited from the previous governments. This led the government to establish, often in a somewhat improvised and informal manner, parallel institutions, strengthening the rule of the centre without checks and balances while failing to address the incapacity of the government bureaucracy to implement and monitor policy implementation. In a society where corruption was widespread, it also strengthened the practice of clientalism – the distribution of services and benefits according to loyalties. As a result, some social policies did not reach those that they were intended to.

The idea of 21st Century Socialism became something of a rallying cry, particularly in Latin America. What it meant was somewhat more difficult to pin down but it could be thought of as a kind of leftist Third Way: neither the State socialism of the former soviet block nor capitalism. It would combine a participative democracy and economic democracy, with an emphasis on cooperatives and community-based enterprises. However, its lack of clear definition led to its use as a slogan rather than as either a theoretical framework of strategic orientation. At this point in time it seems a somewhat empty slogan, despite the validity of its critique of previous social models. More worryingly its vagueness allows it to be used to justify a variety of dubious political arrangements.

The situation is further compounded in Venezuela by the involvement of military personnel at all levels of government activity: in early 2017, 34% of Maduro’s cabinet were serving or retired military officers. This was partly attributable to the background and networks of Hugo Chávez but also again to the obstruction to the reform process by the right wing opposition.

5) An accelerating corrosion of the social fabric.

The extreme polarisation of Venezuelan Society was a reality long before Chávez, but has been reinforced by both sides during this period. The economic collapse undermines collective resolve and the two features have meant a corroded social fabric, that is, the values and norms that enable a society to function, securing safety and support for its members, irrespective of formal State and market arrangements. In the struggle to get by, al manner of practices occur from pilfering and resale of subsidised products to involvement in violent crime. The inconsistency of distribution of State benefits makes matters worse, so people fall back on individual and competitive tactics. A study by the Encuesta Nacional de Condiciones de Vida de la Población Venezolana, an initiative of three Venezuelan Universities in the absence of reliable government statistics22, found that 87% of the population (the same proportion now in conditions of poverty, according to the same study) have access to subsidised food (mostly carbohydrates) and 67% get this at least once a month in Caracas. Elsewhere more than 50% receive it with an “undefined” frequency. As the proportion of those receiving food support has increased, the other social missions have declined. For example the primary care programme, Barrio Adentro, largely staffed by Cuban and Cuban-trained doctors served 2.6M people in 2015 but by February 2018 was only serving 0.2M. They concluded that by 2017, to all intents and purposes there was only one effective mission, the CLAP23, supplying subsidised foodstuffs. There is a striking difference with the experience in Cuba. After the counter-revolutions in the former soviet countries, Cuba lost some 80% of its foreign trade and suffered extreme hardship, yet the population were, if anything healthier during that period and there was little or no collapse in social solidarity. This is in part due to the greater political consciousness there, a legacy of the revolution, and a far more organised, effective and self-reflective government, supported by broadly democratic mass organisations. While corruption was a problem, it tended to be manifest at a petty level, so need to resolver, whereby pretty much everyone was involved in some way in activities of dubious legality, did not lead to the kind of corrosion and collapse of social fabric that Venezuela experienced.

6) A lack of reflection and self-criticism and an increasing and unconstitutional authoritarianism on the part of the government24.

Lander argues that over the course of the governments of Chávez and Maduro, there has been an increasing marginalisation and rejection of critical voices. This is evident in the Leninist model of the ruling party (with democratic centralism as one of its principles) and in the practice in expelling critics. This is counter-productive since it reduces the scope for learning from friendly critics and from experience.

Under Maduro, there has been an increasingly authoritarian approach that has now crossed the line into unconstitutionality. In the 2015 National Assembly election, the opposition MUD gained a two thirds majority (with 56.26% of the vote). This meant that the opposition could nominate members of the Supreme Court, the National Electoral Commission and approve legislation without negotiation with the government. This meant a potential duality of powers, presenting something of a constitutional crisis. The Maduro government, rather than accepting this situation and negotiating with the opposition, opted to maintain its power, and this meant both resorting to unconstitutional means and failing to recognise the inconvenient electoral result. Firstly, a few days after the election, the government nominated new magistrates. These new appointees then declared the results of the elections in Amazonas State invalid, depriving the opposition of its majority. Months passed without new elections so the National Assembly decided to accept the representatives whose election had been questioned. At this point the Supreme Court, declared the National Assembly in contempt, rendering any of its decisions invalid. This meant a concentration of powers in the Executive without the checks and balances of the legislature. In February 2016, Maduro declared a state of economic emergency, giving him the power of rule by presidential decree. This was what enabled the declaration of the Orinoco Mineral Arc, discussed above. The government was able to succesfully impede the call for a predidential recall referendum in 2016, despite the petitioners having complied with the constitutional requirements. Finally, in May, 2017, Maduro convened a new “Constituent Assembly” with what could be described as a gerrymandered government majority, to replace the National Assembly. The opposition refused to participate in the elections to it and it has the role of approving government decisions, normally by acclamation and unanimity.

7) A relentless campaign of destabilisation from external and internal opponents.

If the analysis presented here has been critical of the Venezuelan government and the Bolivarian process in general, we must be far more critical of those who, from the start, have sought to demolish what was, after all, a brave experiment in achieving social justice at national scale. Moreover, the Western liberal press has been unfairly critical of the Bolivarian process and indulgent of the far right throughout25. Even generally left of centre newspapers like the Guardian have joined the fray, publishing de-contextualised and one-sided pieces, most notoriously in the case of the reportage by their one time Latin America reporter, Rory Carrol26.

The Venezuelan upper middle class has been unwaveringly hostile, resorting from the start to illegal and violent means to overthrow the government. The unsuccessful 2002 coup, supported by the USA, actually strengthened Chávez but they did not stop there, using the new democratic provisions of Venezuela’s constitution to try to recall the President and failing miserably. Then they cried Fraud! but every election during the Chávez years has been conducted with a transparency and fairness that puts US and UK representative democracy to shame. The Carter Foundation and other international observers have concurred with this. It is true that the government controls the State broadcaster, but private channels dominate the airwaves and they have broadcast unceasing anti-government propaganda. Even when the opposition stood a good chance of defeating Maduro, in April 2018, they decided not to contest the presidential election, whose date had been negotiated with them, under the auspices of former Spanish Prime Minister, José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, leaving the field to Maduro and a former Chávez ally, Hector Falcón.27

There has been hoarding and disruption of supplies on the part of business interests, tactics reminiscent of the lead up to the 1973 coup in Chile. The opposition forces have also mounted violent acts, including assaults on government premises and the widespread use of barricades and intimidation in the streets. Individuals who are apparently Chavista, on grounds of colour, dress, mode of transport, have been beaten up and in some cases killed. During the upheavals of 2017, a majority of deaths were the result of opposition violence28.

All the US regimes since Chávez was elected have sought an end to the Bolivarian experiment29. Among other reasons, Venezuela has been a lifeline to Cuba and it also supported other left governments in the region. As a major source of oil, it was of great strategic interest to the US. Tactics have included the funding of opposition groups through USAid and a variety of front organisations – imagine if a socialist country were to fund opposition groups and parties in a Western democracy. It is arguable that the US fracking boom, which has contributed to the oil price drop, was part of a geopolitical strategy to undermine key oil producing states that the US disapproved of. And who knows whether the conspiracy theories about the poisoning of Chávez and other leftist leaders have any foundation. In August, 2018, Maduro was the target of an unsuccesful assassination attempt by drone. The New Yorker magazine gave some credence to the claim that the USA was involved30.

However, it is the sanctions against Venezuela that could prove the most damaging. Just before leaving office, Obama renewed an order that declared “a national emergency with respect to the situation in Venezuela”31. Trump has speculated on the possibility of a military invasion32 and the White House then refused a telephone call from Maduro. In August 2017, sanctions were declared. These, like those of the blockade of Cuba are extraterritorial in nature, constraining financial institutions and companies in third countries. This means, for example, that Venezuela has had its accounts with banks in a number of countries closed in fear of US fines and other sanctions. This obviously makes it difficult for Venezuela to get the necessary credit for purchases, even of vital things like food and medicines. The object is to make the country ungovernable and create unrest among the population. This, of course, is the usual practice of the USA when any country demonstrates independence, especially when it is seen as a potential good example for others (not that Venezuela can any long claim such a status).


The Bolivarian process launched by President Hugo Chávez showed that it was possible to pursue the goals of social and economic justice in the context of representative democracy. The new constitution increased democracy and recognised the country’s indigenous peoples. It also stated the goal of environmental protection. In the early years there was significant investment in social programmes that brought real benefits to Venezuela’s poor. Venezuela’s example was also an inspiration to social movements and progressives across Latin America and beyond. New international institutions were established and poorer countries’ social programmes were subsidised. This was all in the face of relentless opposition that extended to illegal and violent acts, including the failed 2002 coup and the PDVSA lock-out. The popularity of Chávez and the Bolivarian process among the majority of the population was confirmed by his victory in the recall referendum and in a series of elections.

However, the Bolivarian process rested on the continuation of Venezuela’s dependence on oil exports. This distorted economy predated 1998 by decades but the skew towards oil was intensified under Chávez. No serious attempt was made to secure a transition to a more balanced economy and the country benefited from the high oil prices of the first decade of the century. However, Venezuela’s oil was increasingly a liability, with a high break-even price and a declining return on investment. Despite its leftist image the government’s policies were largely social-democratic in nature, using the oil revenues to fund ameliorative programmes but not changing the fundamental capitalist economic and social relations, except through a series of nationalisations, typically of failing enterprises and the promotion of co-operatives, at the margins.

The failure to address the structural weakness of the economy and its dependence on extractivist exports became apparent when the global oil price dropped from 2013. This coincided with the untimely death of Chávez. Poor policy choices in financial management with an overvalued Bolivar at a series of fixed exchange rates, exacerbated the problems and contributed, along with the almost free supply of petrol (which benefited middle class car drivers more than the masses), to the diversion of resources into contraband trade. The government increased its attempt to ramp up the extractive economy with disastrous consequences for the environment, indigenous peoples and an upsurge of organised crime, linked to informal and dangerous mining.

The economic crisis deepened from 2014 onwards and Maduro’s lacklustre leadership was indecisive and ineffective in responding to it and to the political haemorrhaging of popular support. Authoritarian tendencies, already identifiable under Chávez, were intensified and the government engaged in a series of unconstitutional moves. Meanwhile a humanitarian crisis, characterised by shortages and the collapse of health and social services, took root.

Throughout, the right wing opposition, with support from the USA, has taken every opportunity to sabotage the country, and it appears that they will only be satisfied with its total collapse and the end of the Bolivarian experiment.

There are a number of lessons for socialists, and not just in Latin America.

Firstly, constitutional reform is of no value unless it is then respected and followed through with a deepening of democracy.

Secondly, dependence on globalised chains of extraction and supply means a vulnerable economy: every effort has to be made to ensure a diversified and resilient economy, and one that does not destroy the natural world on which all life depends.

Thirdly, socialism must be more than the paternalistic distribution of part of the surplus of an undisturbed capitalist accumulation process: it is necessary to change the fundamental model of accumulation and distribution, and this means finding an appropriate balance between State, market and the social economy.

Fourthly, a sound financial strategy is vital given the vulnerability of national economies and currencies to global shocks and the machinations of hostile governments and financial interests33.

Fifthly, the international left needs to balance its solidarity with fair criticism. We have to oppose the imperialist destabilisation and internal oligarchic sabotage without falling into the trap of turning a blind eye to abuses by left governments.

1 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. See

2 In Latin America, the term “pensamiento único” is used to capture the idea of the ideological conformity of this US-dominated system at the supposed “end of history”.

5 In these two articles: Lander, E. (2018). Venezuela: el fracaso del proceso bolivariano. and Lander, E. (2017). Venezuela: la experiencia bolivariana en la lucha por trascender al capitalismo. and
For an older article in English, see Lander, E. (2014). Venezuela: terminal crisis of the rentier petro-state? , from
Lander does acknowledge the positive achievements of the Bolivarian project, especially before 2014. He was initially more supportive : Lander, E. (2011). The discourse of civil society and current decolonisation struggles in South America. In J. Heine & R. C. Thakur (Eds.), The dark side of globalization. New York: United Nations University Press. Retrieved from

6 Central Bank of Venezuela statistics, cited by Lander, 2017.

7 Also see for a criticism of both the government’s failure to move beyond the oil rent model and the bureaucratic barriers faced by agricultural coops.

10 e.g. Fahey, M. (2015, December 3). Oil prices and budgets:The OPEC countries most at risk. Retrieved January 3, 2019, from

12  OPEC. Monthly Oil Market Report December 2018, Vienna, December 2018.

13 Lander (2017) – see note 5.

15 For a fuller analysis of the traps of the neo-extractivism of he Latin American left governments, see Acosta, A., & Brand, U. (2017). Salidas del laberinto capitalista: decrecimiento y postextractivismo. Barcelona: Icaria.
Brand, U., & Wissen, M. (2018). The limits to capitalist nature: theorizing and overcoming the imperial mode of living. London ; New York: Rowman & Littlefield International.
Gudynas, E. (2017). Value, Growth, Development: South American Lessons for a New Ecopolitics. Capitalism Nature Socialism, 1–10.

16 Cusack, see note 3.

20 As Richard Murphy, a post-Keynesian economist, critical of Venezuela points out:

21 Lander, 2018. See note 5.

23 Comités Locales de Abastecimiento y Producción. (Local suppply and production committees. These function primarily through institutions of the governing Unified Popular Socialist Party such as the Unidades de Batalla Bolívar-Chávez (UBCH) and the Frente Francisco de Miranda.

24 The account here draws on Lander’s two articles cited at note 5.

31 The White House, Office of the Press Secretary. Notice. Continuation of the National Emergency with Respect to Venezuela, Washington, 13 Jan., 2017. []

33 This latter has been a significant issue in Argentina. One thing that can be learned from the Ecuadorian experience is the use of the citizen’s debt audit to make transparent and resist this injustice:

Postscript: additional sources following Guaidó’s self proclamation.

  1. Venezuela’s collapse is a window into how the Oil Age will unravel. By Nafeez Ahmed.  Patreon/Medium  31 January.
  2.  What Is Going on in Venezuela? By Aaron Bastani. Novara Media, 28 January.
  3. The Making of Juan Guaidó: How the US Regime Change Laboratory Created Venezuela’s Coup Leader.  By Dan Cohen and Max Blumenthal. Gray Zone, 29 January.
  4. In support of a democratic solution, by and for the Venezuelan people. Les invités de Mediapart with 120 initial endorsements from intellectuals, journalist, activists and others from across the continent. Mediapart, 29 January.
  5. Do Right-wing Governments ‘Have the Stomach’ for Post-Coup Chaos in Venezuela? Interview with Guillaume Long, former Foreign Minister of Ecuador.  TeleSur, 29 January.
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