VENEZUELA: END OF THE MAGICAL STATE? REVIEWING FERNANDO CORONIL

VENEZUELA: END OF THE MAGICAL STATE? REVIEWING FERNANDO CORONIL

Like history, writing is a battle of positions.

Fernando Coronil

Near the end of the 20th century, the Venezuelan social scientist Fernando Coronil published the first edition of the book The Magical State. Nature, money and modernity in Venezuela at the University of Chicago. [1]  One of the most fundamental texts (if not the most relevant) ever written on our political history in recent years. This is an extensive investigation that, although analyzes the constitution of power during the 20th century, its narrative is not limited to a traditional approach that includes the relationships between political actors organized into parties, and their struggles to gain access to the different government instances, and then from there, in the best of cases, to shape society. Although Coronil’s perspective contains this dynamic described above, it also makes explicit the nature of power in Venezuela within the framework of world capitalism, its historical articulation at the time of the dictatorship of Juan Vicente Gómez at the beginning of the 20th century, and its profound crisis towards late 1990s. This political history deals with the structuring of the Venezuelan Nation State, seen by Coronil as transcendent and unifying agent of the nation. Here we see the State as the benchmark for a specific historical story, as the administrator of oil revenues, for its ability to capture and distribute huge resources becomes the central actor of a fantastic plot, a transcendent agent that has nothing to do with the life of Venezuelans; hence its magical character.         

What could be the tracing of a style of thought is rather oriented towards a comprehensive construction that historicizes at the same time that it denatures the logics of social power. Therefore, it does not establish an empathic relationship with a give historical configuration commonly perceived as natural or historically necessary. Consequently, it is a story that, although gives a specific character to a nation based on a territory, at the same time its processes do not occur exclusively within the space of the nation, but take place within the framework of a capitalist global system and by that a modern system. His analysis moves from one place to another, as the inherent logic of his own approach demands. In his own words:

By showing how the labyrinthine history of Venezuela unfolds within a larger labyrinth, I hope to contribute to discouraging the false idea that its history can be contained within fixed boundaries of a territorial, temporal or cultural order.

(CORONIL, 2013:29)

Coronil wrote at a time when the country was witnessing the exhaustion of a project founded on the premises of the mineral economy, the strength of which had given the nation a consistent historical viability. The neoliberal reforms carried out by the second government of Carlos Andrés Pérez at the end of the 80s and the beginning of the following decade, compromised the ideologically transversal agreements that were created after the death of the dictator Gómez in 1935, from where the democratic development of the nation was supposed to be possible through a distributive State of the wealth that the Venezuelan subsoil contained. As a consequence of that commotion at the end of the 20th century in all respects, the mobilized popular sectors shaped a response that came to embody the Chavism. The issue I want to draw attention to, (as an updated reading of the Magical State), has to do with what I believe is the cardinal core of the deep and painful crisis that is now shaking Venezuela. Such a crossroads is not confined to the errors of a hazy 21st century socialism, but to the very structural limits of the oil economy. At least this socialist experiment that Hugo Chávez and the social movements that accompanied him tried to develop, should not be understood as a post-capitalist systemic transition. None of that happened.         

Coronil’s holistic approach (to get back to the point), is made up of what he calls the forgetting of nature for social theory. Starting from one of Marx’s central approaches, which argues that the labor / capital / land trinity must be considered in the social process of production, in practice Marx himself tends to depart from this premise. Coronil maintains that in order to account for the generation of wealth within a national society, Marx ends up privileging the capital / labor relationship. This theoretical interpretation then had significant implications in the social sciences, when it came to understanding our modern world.  

One of the implications had to do with the relegation of the category of space for the primacy of time in theoretical constructions. This means abstracting from nature, resources and territories in the evolution of historical capitalism. But it also brings another consequence. It supposed the concealment in the different analytical traditions of the social sciences, of the colonial experience as a strategic space for the historical constitution of the modern social system. Rather, with the disappearance of the order of nature, the central nations are conceived as self-generated and self-propelled products, as Coronil calls them. In this way, the author will build a unified field of analysis capable of configuring a totality no longer focused only on an international division of labor, (making abstraction of its material bases), but in a more complex way, on a global division of nature. In Coronil’s words:   

Remembering nature – theoretically recognizing its historical significance – allows us to rethink the dominant stories of the historical development of the West and to challenge the idea that modernity is the daughter of a self-propelled West. A reconceptualized nature allows us to include in our historical accounts not only a more diversified set of historical actors, but also a more complex dynamic.

(CORONIL, 2013: 44)

One of the distinctive aspects associated with the nature-exporting peripheral states has to do with the type of relationship that they maintain with the societies on which these entities overlap. It is worth recovering this premise from Coronil’s text because it establishes a peculiarity of the political history of the long Venezuelan 20th century. While in central States the holding of the value collected in taxes constitutes an immanent dynamic where the State establish forms of interdependencies within their societies, in nature-exporting peripheral States these processes occur differently. In the interstices of the neocolonial world, the States establish policies to fundamentally capture the resources of the income revenue of the international trade of their exported nature. This creates States that have established forms of autonomy with regard to their own societies. However, this peculiarity does not dispute the principle according to which it is a question of States that historically position themselves in the capitalist world-system as subalterns, but whose structural relations with respect to their own social dimensions have been radically asymmetric. This is one of the characteristics that explains the distinction of what Coronil calls the wealth of poor nations (Coronil, 2013: 75). The visualization of a hitherto unalterable economic physiognomy is strategic for thinking about the Venezuelan history of the long 20th century.   

One of the most suggestive approaches has to do with what Coronil calls the two bodies of the nation. The author comments that national memories are articulated as memories that are superimposed on convenient forgetfulness when it comes to imagining a historically viable national community. This is the case of the dictatorship of Juan Vicente Gómez (Coronil, 2013: 114). Conventional narratives have emphasized the idea that Venezuela under Gomecism had plunged into a time of militaristic and personalist barbarism, while affirming that civil governments represented the assumption of political modernity. The crucial point here has to do with the fact that these assertions hide, as Coronil shows, the deep structural continuities between the Gomez dictatorship and subsequent governments. Continuities founded on the creation of an oil-state whose cohesive force through income is finally capable of imposing an effectively national domain that culminates in the archipelago country of the 19th century.     

The dominant accounts, determined to indicate a rupture between the Gomez dictatorship and the latter established regimes, have concealed the extent to which the contemporary state relies on a structure built during the former. However, Venezuela’s “modern democracy”, feverishly constructed in opposition to Gomez’s “primitive dictatorship” is, in fact, its antithesis, the other side of the same coin. Despite the significant differences between the dictatorial government of Gómez and the liberal regimes erected as a contrast, one and the other were formed as states of an oil nation.                

(CORONIL, 2013: 115)  

One of the culminating moments of this labyrinthine story that Fernando Coronil built, places the focus of his attention on the crisis of an idea of ​​democracy that the leadership of political parties had raised since the mid-1930s, when consensus had been reached basic principles capable of mainstreaming the ideological principles of the nascent actors who were to star in the 20th century. Coronil specifically points to the rupture in relation to previous history, when he identifies a set of macroeconomic adjustment policies that the neoliberal government of Carlos Andrés Pérez was promoting without properly preparing the population. Specifically, the content of a national project was coming to an end (or so it seemed), the significance of which was assured by the ability to distribute the wealth that came from the international trade of oil. A project that materialized in the preexistence of the two bodies of the nation mentioned above.  

But in the Venezuelan petro-democracy this initiative (the increase in the price of gasoline, the cheapest in the world, as part of a comprehensive macroeconomic program), broke the bond that united the political body as the collective owner of the natural body of the nation; By violating what people considered to be their birthright, they broke a protective moral bond between State and people.    

(CORONIL, 2013: 455)

One of the aspects best achieved by Coronil has to do with the visibility placed on the constitution of some subjects formed as a result of the increase and mobility of resources from oil income, accentuated especially during that first government of Carlos Andrés Pérez since 1974 It is about a reconfiguration of political and business power, extended downstream to the whole of society. The emergence of the constitution of oligarchies around the interest in privatizing a public income supposed a break in normality that was going to produce criminal practices and an idea of ​​the hierarchies that distinguished a good portion of the subjects who were part of the political world at that time. Coronil comments: honesty was a practical matter; It wasn’t so much about not being dishonest as about knowing how to deal with dishonesty (Coronil, 2013: 381). This last notion of hierarchy, for its part, was expressed not only in the existence of a peculiar relationship within the political-criminal field, but in the ways in which these subjects related to their own society. Here the metaphor of the existence of an indigestible national body, composed of a deformed society made sense for the analysts of the moment. (Coronil, 2013: 432)      

Coronil’s enormous intellectual contribution is transcendent, since it reveals the keys for a comparison, for example, between the moments during which the country witnessed a fundamental rise in oil prices in the scope of the long 20th century, and its lethal effects in is respective socio-political orders. Considerable effects that have ended up limiting the framework of an entire social order, thus in the frustrated democratic experience of the 1945-1948 triennium, in the deepening of the military dictatorship of the 1950s, in the decomposition of party democracy towards the end of the 1970s, and in the conservative and corporate drift during the last stretch of the Chavism governments (2007-2013). The Bolivarian process was conceived precisely within this historical-structural reality. Although with some frequency the Chavist leadership registered the need to transcend the limitations of the petro-state, very soon the determination was made according to which the radical transformations in Venezuela and the region should be promoted by the strengthening of the mineral economy. This conclusion was reached after the certification of the largest hydrocarbon reserves in the world in the so-called Orinoco Oil Belt. The finding was finally going to repower an idea of ​​modernity founded on unlimited progress now in a “socialist” key, from which Venezuela could suddenly conquer prosperity and abundance. As industrialization had been imagined, for example, during the first government of Carlos Andrés Pérez towards the second half of the 1970s, with the establishment of improvised development plans.   

The social deepening of the present catastrophe based on the crisis of the oil state, its accentuation with the consequent fall of an extraordinarily incompetent government management, the criminal imposition of North American sanctions , (which can be seen as a reprimand to the previous period associated with the regional scope of the Chavist project), the lethal growth of the COVID -19 virus in the context of a ruined health system as well as the rest of the collapsed public services, and a fanatical and depoliticized confrontation of two twin leaderships both reactionary, obscurantist and delusional, that have systematically blocked any possibility of a political solution, make up a definitive situation that compromises the viability of the territory. In the midst of this highly variegated panorama, interpersonal relationships, (even the psychological configuration of people themselves), have been subjected to significant transformations. The apparently definitive fall in oil production may herald the end of the Magical State and with it, the decline of the long Venezuelan 20th century. But for this to happen it requires a sustained political will interested in establishing the foundations of a productive society. This last determination is not even on sight for now.     


[1] For this we used the 2013 edition. El Estado mágico. Naturaleza, dinero y modernidad en VenezuelaCaracas, Alfa, 2013.    

Leonardo Bracamonte

Historian, professor from the Universidad Central de Venezuela, researcher asociated to Centro de Estudios Latinoamericanos Rómulo Gallegos

Share this