We here at Philosophyhelmet bring you the latest in democracy! Venezuela’s communal councils, assemblies of hundreds of citizens for the administration of their own neighborhoods, are at the forefront of democratic rejuvenation in the world. Communal councils originated in the attempt of the Venezuelan government to institutionalize participatory budgeting after adoption of Venezuela’s new democratic constitution in 1999. The government sought to establish administrative organs in municipalities called Local Public Planning Councils that would be the site of participatory budgeting. However, you can’t legislate democratic participation, only cultivate it. By 2005, the Planning Councils had been conquered by municipal bureaucracy. Yet already existing were a multitude of community organizations – local committees for health, education, etc. In 2006, the National Assembly provided legislation for “communal councils” to unite all of the diverse local committees into singular self-managing neighborhood assemblies of citizens. Today, (perhaps) one-third of all Venezuelans have organized themselves into communal councils.
A directly democratic element at the most fundamental base (the smallest unit above the family) of society is not a new idea. The direct self-government of the people in their towns and cities is as old as ancient Athens, the panchayat village-system of India, or the medieval commune. Of course, The New England states are to this day largely divided into townships governed by the annual assembly of all its citizens. Thomas Jefferson attributed the energy and success of New England’s defiance of his embargo to the township» . New England continues to be administered today by townships, even though the townships have grown to sizes beyond the means of an effectively deliberative mass assembly.
The radical democrats of history have recognized that if electoral representation is to be effectively democratic, then representative democracy requires the existence of direct democracy at the base of society. During the American, French, Russian and many other Revolutions, society became effectively governed by mass assemblies of ordinary persons. The French and Russian revolutionaries inscribed such popular assemblies into their constitutions.
What is new is that these directly-democratic organs of Venezuelan neighborhoods have been adapted to the conditions of the greatly urbanized modern world. The modern city has grown beyond the means of direct self-government without any reconsideration of its democratic structure. New England townships are governed by a handful of residents who can actually manage to attend the meetings of the assembly. Even if everyone in the township could make the journey to the church or hall where the assembly is held, there would be no place for them to stand or sit, or time for everyone who wanted to speak to speak. The modern industrial city has outgrown the infrastructure of traditional mass deliberation that could govern municipalities. The Venezuelan communal council reduces the scale of democracy to the urban or rural neighborhood, or the indigenous community. The people become organized at the scale most directly meaningful to their needs, while being able to scale upwards by making connections with other popular organizations.
Structure of the Communal Council
Communal councils are composed of at least two hundred, and at most, four hundred families in urban areas. In rural areas, owing to the greater dispersal of the population (one surmises), communal councils are composed of at least twenty, and at most, forty families; among Venezuela’s indigenous peoples, communal councils may be even smaller. Neighborhood organizers are responsible for organizing at least 20% of the population of a self-defined territorial community.
Once registered with the state, the communal council is founded upon a citizens’ assembly of all those community members over the age of fifteen. The assembly then forms committees dealing with the administration of any of the many subjects confronting the community. Article 9 of the 2006 law establishing the form of communal councils specifically mentions “health, education, land management…, housing, social protection and social equality, popular economy, culture, security, communication and information, leisure and sports, food, technical guidance on water, technical guidance on energy and gas, services, and any other matter the community may decide useful to proceed with.” Finally, each committee sends spokespersons to the executive committee. Other committees include, by law, those for auditing and those for finance (formerly “communal banks”). Each person may sit on only one of any committee at a time. All work done for the communal council is volunteer labor – no one is paid. This is sometimes offered as a criticism of the communal councils, for some baffling reason.
Uses of the Communal Council
Communal councils are becoming a major locus of community planning. Popular organization of citizens allows them to throw their weight around. The organized community is able to make demands of the state the mere voter for a representative is unable to make known. Communal councils articulate common needs and develop projects that they can then acquire financing to enact. The communal councils have many sources of money, including the states and municipalities in which they reside, the Chavez government, state-owned companies, et cetera.
The advantage of the communal councils is their capacity to formulate a common will and interest that can then be represented to other communal councils or organizations through delegation. Delegates, unlike ordinary representatives, are tasked with being the spokespeople for the explicit will of the communal council. Common delegations of communal councils are becoming the basis for social and economic organizations in Venezuela. Communal councils have organized themselves, in some cities, into communes for the organization of specific public services by cooperative enterprises. The stated goal of many radical Chavistas is to reform municipal governments into unions of communal councils as “commune-cities”. The Torres municipality of northwestern Venezuela has replaced its traditional municipal government with an assembly of delegates from communal councils. Most recently, the National Assembly created a “Federal Government Council,” composed of not only state-governors and city mayors, but also delegates of regional congresses of communal councils. The ultimate aim is for the entire Venezuelan state to be subsumed by the “communal state,” in which all state organs are in some way founded upon the communal councils. Communal councils, and other “councils of popular power” that may be founded in the future, are the cells of a future democratic society.
Once organized, a community has a power to make demands of society that no individual can make heard. Individuals cannot hold public entities to account, but organizations can marshal the people, resources, and attention to effectively discipline wayward officials. The organization of democracy at the base of society, where people actually are, will, if the momentum of democratic change is maintained, invert the relationships of power in society. Then those we consider to be “at the top” really will be “public servants,” a phrase which at the moment seems pretty sarcastic.