Editorial note: While we support constructive criticism especially in the economic field and are aligned with most of Salas-Rodriguez positions, we dislike the way he presents what he calls (Maduro’s) pragmatic decisions as if they came out of the blue or in other words without having tried more progressive economic measures that -actually- have taken us to the economic situation we are currently facing. And we also dislike the diminished weight he gives in his analysis to external factors that are affecting Venezuelans, specially for the last 2 years.
By Luis Salas Rodríguez
“Sir,” I said, “I nailed my knee and my forehead, but how do I get out of the painful night?” And he replied: “In your night, all morning lies: the exit from every labyrinth is from above.
The basic principle of the shock doctrine, that described by Naomi Klein from her study on the creation of the conditions of collective and subjective “acceptance” of neoliberalism, is that people and societies, after being subjected to very large impacts that radically change their way of life, are so unarmed, interpersonally and / or traumatized, that they become incapable of reacting and resisting the occurrence of things that, under normal conditions, they would hardly accept.
The most famous example used by Klein is that of Chile after Pinochet’s coup d’état: directly supervised by Milton Friedman, guru of neoliberalism, the military hand created by blood and fire conditions accepting of the brick, that is, the set of measures applied by the Chicago boys in order to impose the “invisible hand of the market” in Chile. It was literally the use of state terrorism in order to promote a great economic and therefore social transformation towards an economy of “free” market. It is worth saying that the technocrats of the IMF and the World Bank, then changed the brick for the most and consumable name, “packet”, that was how we met it here in Venezuela in February 1989.
But the slaughter unleashed in Venezuela by the landing of neoliberalism in 1989, produced in the technocratic imposition of neoliberalism other procedural reforms, the most important being the need to graduate the measures to be taken and accompany them with certain shock absorbers that, while they did not disappear its effects, at least made them more bearable by the population.
This being the case, what differentiates the Agenda Venezuela of 1996 (the second neoliberal package, during Caldera’s second term) of El Gran Viraje of CAP II (Carlos Andres Perez’s second term), is precisely that: it was made with shock absorbers, or as they say in the hood, was applied with petroleum jelly: that is, at the same time as progress was made in privatizing companies and services, precarious working conditions, increase inequality, etc., milk glasses, uniforms and school supplies were distributed, family food bags and even a relatively important salary increase was given before releasing the prices and the exchange rate. Strictly speaking, the effects on the pockets and conditions of the working majority of the country were stronger in 1996 than in 1989; but the political impact was less in the sense there was not a big outbreak. Surely also, the collective fear of the 1989 massacre (Caracazo) that left more than three thousand dead and disappeared. But without any doubt, the use of these observers of the “social cost of the measures” played a role.
From resilience to resignation: the boiled frog syndrome.
In the literature of self-help we find a term from which, although we can doubt its scientific status (as it happens with all self-help literature), it has a great heuristic and descriptive power: the boiled frog syndrome .
The boiled frog syndrome is presented as a fable according to which, if a frog is suddenly submerged in boiling water, it will immediately jump out of the container to save itself. If, on the other hand, we immerse it first in water at room temperature, which we then slowly bring to a boil, it will not perceive the danger and it will be cooked to death.
The basic premise established is that in the case of gradual adjustment of the water temperature, the frog will adjust its body temperature in parallel given its capacity for thermoregulation (ability of an organism to adapt its body temperature according to the environment). Of course, once the boiling point is arriving, the moment will also come when the frog will not be able to adjust its temperature more and will feel the need to jump. However, it will not be able to do so, because it consumed its strength by adjusting its temperature, and consequently, it does not have enough energy to escape.
From the subjective point of view and also, of course, political, the analogy is clear: the energy we use to adapt to intolerable conditions is usually a double-edged sword, which on the one hand allows us to make things more bearable and even, perhaps, to take advantage of them, but on the other, it diminishes our final capacity for reaction, since the wear produced by resilience inevitably leads us to resignation, and in this way, to the acceptance and normalization of the unacceptable and the counterproductive.
Returning to the subject of economic and social adjustments, it seems clear that the 1989 reform responded to the classic format of the doctrine of shock described by Klein. But 1996 is more reminiscent of the case of the boiled frog, because of the shock absorbers and their gradual application, which made it more bearable in the sense that they reduced the response capacity of the population, even though most of us were burnt by the adjustment.
Closer in time, although outside our borders, we can say that in the Greek case, after the shameful capitulation of Tsipras, the adjustment was also orthodox and sudden, which is partly explained by the mood of revenge of the troika before the results of the referendum. While that of Macri in Argentina has had a gradual dose, due among other reasons to the conditions of Argentine politics, which is irrelevant here. Now, what can we say about our current case?
How to avoid the conventional adjustment of law, we are adjusting informally and cruelly by the way of fact.
As a rule, economic adjustments arise as part of an overt political decision. That is, governments, at a certain moment, decide to do it and communicate it. CAP did as soon as he became president. Caldera, on the other hand, took a little while, because he came in with an anti-neoliberal discourse and an alternative plan that was later abandoned by the Venezuela Agenda, which, in any case, was presented to the country and was public knowledge at the signing on with the IMF. Macri in the campaign said there would be no adjustment, but it was what he immediately did as soon as his government took office, always justifying it with that of “the heavy inheritance” received. Tsipras came to the Prime Minister with an anti-troika speech but then implemented its orders, betrayed the popular will of the 2015 referendum, divided Syriza and took charge of administering the package.
In that sense, what until now had never been seen is that the adjustments be given by way of fact or unofficially. And I say “until now had never been seen”, because that is exactly what we Venezuelans have been going through: a hellish economic and social adjustment applied through the de facto and not decreed route.
Indeed, as we said on another occasion more than a year ago, if we had in the presence of a government with an express neoliberal agenda, it would be obvious that we are in the midst of an adjustment of anthological proportions: wage costs, for example, have not only been taken to the minimum possible (meaning that at present the monthly minimum is the lowest in the world only surpassed by Uganda and that the minimum family wage income is at least eight times below the cost of the Basic Family Basket), but it is also happening that the State subsidizes the salaries of private companies, which is totally unprecedented. Tax exemptions are proceeding at the same pace as privatizations. And it is clear that the government delivered the trench of price control and (what was left of) the exchange rate, all under the premise of fiscally balancing the accounts and creating conditions of “confidence” for local and national investors, what constitutes the crux of neoliberal logic. So obvious is this that even a medium like Banca y Negocios (unofficial spokesman of the Banking Association) dares to talk about the mutation of the economic model. And even, old ideological enemies of the government salute many of the measures recently adopted, although they are dismissed as untimely in the sense that they arrived too late.
The only thing that has not happened yet, but surely it will happen sooner than later to follow things as they are going (in and of itself, official and informal spokesmen are coming up), is the privatization of services such as electricity, water and surely telephony and it is even possible that transport, in the case of the metro system. It will be argued that they can not continue paying, since that corresponded to a time of an oil bonanza that will not return. And before the chaos and deterioration in which it has been allowed to reach them, a good part of the population will see it with clear eyes, or in any case, it will assume that it is better than to do nothing. Of course, militant speeches that ensure tactical movements that do not imply sacrificing the strategic horizon, in the midst of the war in which we find ourselves, etc., etcetera, will not be lacking.
But while the above is true, it is also true that this mutation of the government’s economic model, to use the significant expression of Banking and Business, although it had been shaping up for some time, it is not until the middle of 2018 and especially after the application of the correction factors to the Recovery Plan last November, which has been applied openly although never announced explicitly or explicitly (in fact, it is symptomatic that it coincides with the disappearance from the scene of the economic voices, now reduced to brief press reports and tweets of the BCV). And in this sense, it must be said that everything suggests that before the government adjusted it ex profeso, it was the object of a programmatic adjustment, probably partly due to the way in which internal programmatic disputes were resolved, but also clearly as a consequence of its inability to reverse the effects of economic war and political conflict.
From this point of view, although this will surely be the subject of future study and is more complicated than it seems at first sight, it should be said that the adjustment did not begin with the government. But a point has been reached where it has joinedæ itself to the same messily and confusingly (in what we sometimes call a disordering) a bit like following the thermoregulation principle of the frog that is dead, that is, adapting to the context and being “resilient” within the same, very probably assuming in that way it can survive.
Perhaps in this strategy there is an ideological conviction or perhaps a response like “we can’t do anything else”. To me in particular it seems that there is a mixture of both. But whatever the case, the effects – which is the important thing – are the same: certainly, the government remains in political power and avoids a civil war or a military invasion, which is no small thing to say. However, the price you have to pay is to act as administrator by commission or omission of an adjustment that was not originally yours, and in such situation, recipient of the collective malaise. Which would not necessarily be serious if it were “only” a government and not a much broader political project, which must now bear that responsibility, being that its origin arose by raising the anti-adjustment flags and with them came to power in 1999. Otherwise, it remains to be seen if that is a survival strategy that will work. So far it has worked for it because it is still in power. But if we refer to historical experience, each time a progressive or left government chooses the pragmatic way to survive, it may gain time, but not win the game.
While that happens the opposition from “failure to failure” has already snatched CITGO from the country, has taken public resources fraudulently and now even makes arbitrary use of them, as is happening with the case of the payment of the PDVSA bonds. Maybe it’s already so close to the boiling point that we are not aware as a society of how serious this is, of the crime that is being committed against the nation. But in fact the government is the first that does not seem to be. And in any case, it seems unable to get out of the victimizing discourse and the irrelevant denunciation, sometimes as if thinking that the struggle to position labels in trends within social networks changes the tendencies of real reality.
Last but not least, in and of itself the most important thing: and in the meantime we and the ordinary people, what do we do? In principle, at this stage of the game we should be clear and, clear that only adapting is not enough, because that way we will end up the surviving majority in the absolute bad weather while some minorities maintain their standard of living, some of them setting an example that there is no crisis and others denouncing it from the comfort of their exclusive bubbles. And as far as Chavismo is concerned and progressivism and the left in general, understand that, as Chavez once said, paraphrasing Marechalof, all labyrinths are exited from above. If for the government it is too difficult, too late or just does not want to do it, that does not have to be the luck of all the chavismo. And in this case, it will be necessary to return to the natural order of the terms of political exchange originally proposed within the Chávista coordinates that society gave itself so far this century, according to which, however exceptional the moment may be and threatening the juncture, the government can not act as a corporate guild for which the “organized people” is reduced to VTV edited interviews or a wildcard for phrases to use as long as it does not bother with its complaints, as recently a high official said in a tweet that he later erased in the face of widespread disapproval. Otherwise the opposite is to finish submerging ourselves in a loop of darkness from which there is no return.
About Luis Salas
Sociologist (Central University of Venezuela). Master in Sociology of Development UARCIS-Chile. Professor and researcher at the Bolivarian University of Venezuela (UBV). Researcher CLACSO. Political Economy and Human Rights Prize University of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo 2011 (Argentina). Gustavo Machado 2015 Socio-Political Essay Award (Venezuela). He was Minister of Productive Economy and Economic Vice President of Venezuela.
Translated by JRE