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The Role of the Infocenter in Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution

May 25, 2011

Just south of Maracaibo, the capital of Venezuela’s oil-rich state of Zulia, lies the municipality of San Francisco. It is a sprawling labyrinth of suburban neighborhoods, some respectably middle class, most quite humble, many abjectly impoverished. Among the latter is the barrio of Nuevo Amanecer, which has grown up, of its own accord, on the city’s outermost edge. The streets are unplanned and unpaved. The houses are generally in an unfinished state of construction, with concrete block walls and corrugated tin roofs. Kites and shoes dangle from the low strung web of improvised electric wiring. There are cows wandering here and there, but no wireline phone service or cable TV. One thing the residents of Nuevo Amanecer can count on, however, is access to internet connected personal computers, thanks to their local infocenter.

An infocenter is a public site that makes information and communication technologies (ICTs), primarily internet-connected computer terminals, available to the general population at no cost. Infocenters also provide instruction in how to utilize such technologies, and they provide space for the community to meet and participate in a range of other activites. They have been around since 2000, when the first infocenter was established in the Parque del Este neighborhood of Caracas. Over the course of the following year 239 infocenters were created, and today more than 700 are spread across each of Venezuela’s 24 states. Communities without an infocenter, including the most inaccessible corners of the country, are served by a fleet of 27 mobile units, called infomóviles.

In some ways, Venezuela’s infocenter initiative is representative of the Bolivarian Revolution as a whole. It is the product of an audacious and idealistic vision that has impelled precipitous development, the social benefits of which cannot be doubted, even if at times growth seems to outpace administrative capacity.  The infocenters  themselves make up just one of an increasingly integrated set of tools that the Chávez administration has offered to the Venezuelan people. After more than a decade of evolution, the project is solidifying and refining it’s role as a community-based ICT provider supporting the development of participatory self-governance.

In 2007 administrative control over the infocenter network was transferred to the newly created Infocenter Foundation (Fundación Infocentro), housed in the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Intermediate Industries. Funding for the infocenter infrastructure, however, continues to be provided by Venezuela’s Universal Service Fund, established in 2000 and controlled by the National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL).  The fund’s primary revenue source is a tax on commercial telecommunications  companies. Since 2009, Universal Service funding directed to the infocenters has been managed by the Venezuelan National Telephone Corporation (CANTV), which was re-nationalized in 2007.

Each infocenter is staffed by a team of facilitators, whose role is to create the conditions for the community to best take advantage of the technologies provided. As the infocentro’s official literature puts it, the facilitator “is not a clerk or a simple computer adviser” but “a community servant, committed to the revolutionary process and their community” whose “fundamental role is to guarantee that the commune can make effective use of the socio-technological space”. At the Nuevo Amanecer infocenter, the facilitators are Omer Moran, who has the morning shift, and Juan Martinez, who covers the afternoons. They work each day from Monday to Saturday and receive  Venezuela’s minimum salary, which is set to rise this September to 1,584 BsF ($368) per month, plus a package of food, health, and retirement benefits. In the interview below, Omer and Juan introduce us to their infocenter, which was established about two years ago:

As Juan makes clear, the infocentros make use of open software in order to save on licensing costs and avoid the viruses which plague Venezuela’s commercial internet cafés. Beyond those concrete motives, however, the Venezuelan government has implemented a plan for migrating to open software as one tactic to ensure the country’s sovereign development. Back in December 2004, presidential decree 3390 declared that the “National Public Administration will prioritize the use of Open Software developed with Open Standards”. Earlier this year Venezuela held its Seventh National Congress of Open Software and, according to one recent report, over 60 percent of online state services are currently offered by institutions that have migrated to open software.

Inside the infocenter, Omer and Juan go into a bit more detail about the open software programs available to the residents of Nuevo Amanecer, and they also touch on some other very important features of the infocentro initiative:

As Omer points out, since the Nuevo Amanecer barrio lacks wire line internet capabilities, the infocenter – along with almost 500 others across the country – accesses the internet vía Venezuela’s Simón Bolívar satellite (aka VENESAT-1), which was launched on October 29, 2008 from China’s Xichang Space Center. Venezuela had initially discussed its satellite ambitions with Russia, but withdrew from those negotiations when Russia refused to transfer the related technology and technical expertise. Venezuela then partnered with China, which provided technical training to approximately 30 Venezuelan engineers and helped construct two terrestrial control stations (one primary and one backup) on Venezuelan soil.

Today, the Simón Bolívar satellite is operated by the Venezuelan state and provides secure telecommunications services, including telephone, internet, and television, to even the most remote of Venezuela’s communities. The geostationary satellite’s footprint covers Latin America from southern Mexico to Patagonia, making service available to countries throughout the region. Uruguay controls a full 10 percent of the satellite’s capacity, having ceded to Venezuela its rights to orbital space since international agreements had left Venezuela without rights to space of its own.

As Juan acknowledges, satellite-based internet service is relatively slow (if he is indeed referring to average speeds of 256 kbps), but Nuevo Amanecer’s residents are nonetheless able to send emails, read the news, and conduct online research free of charge, without having to leave their community. Since CANTV has not yet installed wireline service, the only other option for those living in Nuevo Almanecer is to purchase a mobile device. Whether via a smart phone or USB modem (both operating on 3G networks), mobile service implies a monthly charge that generally doesn’t fit their budgets (not to mention, in the case of a USB modem, the need for a personal computer in the home).

No-cost internet access, however, is just one element of the multi-faceted Infocenter Foundation, whose flagship program is the National Technological Literacy Plan. In essence, the campaign provides one-week long workshops to community members interested in learning how to make use of the technology available in their infocenter. At the Nuevo Amanecer infocenter, Omer and Juan begin a new course as soon as 10 people have registered their interest. As they explained in the video above, the courses are free, open “to everyone, regardless of age, sex, political belief of any type”, and – so far – most popular among children.

Across the country, however, the Infocenter Foundation has had great success training adults. So much so, in fact, that in 2010 the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) awarded a Hamad Bin Isa Al-Khalifa Prize to the Infocenter Foundation for its project “Technological Literacy for Older Adults.” Since 2005, the prize has been awarded annually to two “individuals, institutions, other entities or non-governmental organizations for excellent models, best practice, and creative use of information and communication technologies to enhance learning, teaching and overall educational performance.” The winners of the 2010 prize, whose theme was “Digital Literacy: Preparing Adult Learners for Lifelong Learning and Flexible Employment”, were selected from among 49 candidates, nominated by 34 countries and one inter-governmental organization. In remarks acknowledging the award earlier this year, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez Frías announced that the Technological Literacy Plan had trained over one million people in its first year.

Among those who participated was Grace María Ortíz, a community leader from the La Polar barrio, not too far from Nuevo Amanecer:

When Grace talks about “phases” during the interview, she is referring to the “modules” that make up the curriculum of the technological literacy campaign. Each module is accompanied by a manual that contains the core information, practical exercises, a glossary, and a list of references where more information can be found. The manuals are also available for download in PDF format. There are at least 9 modules, beginning with Module I: An Introduction to Using Computers and also covering the Open Office suite of programs (word processing, presentations, spreadsheets), the internet (navigation, search, and social networks), image editing and advanced presentation techniques, and building a web site.

Significantly, the Infocenter Foundation has attempted to integrate the Technological Literacy modules with Venezuela’s burgeoning system of community councils. Enacted by a 2006 law, the community council system is designed to increase local level control over state resources. Community members form assemblies made up of a minimum of 200 households in urban areas, 20 in rural areas, and 10 in indigenous zones. All community residents 15 years of age or older can participate in the assemblies, which elect representatives to form a community council. (These councils are then grouped into higher level units, called communes.) The councils include executive, financial, and oversight committees, as well as leaders (voceros) who are assigned to specific areas of concern, such as food, health, land, or communications. Members of the community can then submit project proposals to the council for grant or loan funding. The infocenter modules are designed to empower community members to participate in this process.

The opening section of the second Technological Literacy module, which covers the word processing application Writer, begins as follows:

Before beginning the course… We invite you to imagine the following situation:

The Communal Council of your area is currently soliciting resources for various projects that will improve the quality of life of the community, for which it is inviting all of its inhabitants to present their ideas in project form as a digital document, to solve local situations and problems.

You are continually concerned for your community and have innovative ideas, you want to participate, but you don’t know how to create a project, how to create a document, nor what tools to use.

The infocenter, of course, is suggested as the necessary resource, and the module includes four exercises, interspersed throughout, that invite readers to apply what they’ve learned about word processing to the creation of a project proposal directed to their communal council. The same structure is used in subsequent modules. This effort to integrate the infocenters into a broader national project of community-level self-governance is what sets the Infocenter Foundation apart from most (if not all) other ICT access projects.

In fact, the Infocenter Foundation committed itself, in February of 2010, to a “reboot” (reimpulso) of the initiative with the explicit goal of “transferring the management of the infocenters themselves to the organized communities”. At this point, however, there is no clearly articulated strategy for handing off control. A preparatory document for the First National Meeting of Coordinators of the Infocentro Network, held in February and dedicated to envisioning the “route of transference”, states that “[t]he transfer of the infocentros is a policy in construction” and that “we are not talking of an absolute transfer but of co-management, practicing in the infocenter a relationship between government and community”.

What is clear, however, is that the Foundation envisions infocenters as playing a crucial role in not only the administrative activities of communal councils, but the daily social and economic activity of the entire community:

Social appropriation of ICT by popular sectors means […] going beyond the knowledge of digital tools, to organize themselves in networks, resolve concrete problems and transform reality, empowering organization, mobilization, coordination, and socio-productive capacity.

If the Foundation is indeed going to achieve this vision, however, it must work through a complicated set of concrete problems of its own.

As with many of the Bolivarian Revolution’s projects, the infocenter initiative is the product of rapid growth achieved through (and stunted by) a series of trials and errors. Publicly accessible internal documents suggest that the massive apparatus remains unwieldy and prone to inefficiency.  Central administrators do not appear to have thorough and current information regarding the status of the infocenters, which hinders preventative and necessary maintenance as well as human resources management. One progress report for the first trimester of 2011 shows a concerted but incomplete effort to remedy these problems. For example, the internally developed, networked software called SiRFa (Sistema de Registración de Facilitadores / Facilitator Registration System), whose objective is to “automate the registration of facilitators working in infocenters across the nation”, is only 80 percent developed and entering testing. Adaptations to another program, Sigefirrhh (Sistema de Gestión de Recursos Humanos / Human Resources Management System), which would allow for the management of pension funds, vacation and sick days, and social security payments, are listed as “in production”.

The effect of these administrative shortcomings – no matter how valiantly the Foundation may be attempting to overcome them – seems to be taking its toll. In October 2010, the Foundation’s administration felt compelled to send a general bulletin to the facilitators in response to rumors suggesting that the facilitators’ contracts would be terminated at the end of the year and complaints that some facilitators had not been justly paid for their work. At the very least, this episode seems to indicate the need for better communication across the network.

Probably more significant, however, is another preparatory document for the National Meeting of Coordinators, entitled “Open, Active, and Community Integrated Infocenters”. This document was designed to address a series of shortcomings that the administration feels will reflect poorly on the infocenter initiative, and the government generally, in the crucial run-up to the 2012 presidential elections. (The Infocenter Foundation makes quite clear that it sees its work as part and parcel of the larger goals of the Bolivarian Revolution, led by the United Socialist Party of Venezuela.)  The list of 10 “Detected Problems and Proposed Solutions” includes the absence of facilitators (due to their failure to appear when scheduled, attendance at meetings or workshops, and sickness), a lack of internet service in some infocenters, technical problems (temporarily out-of-service equipment, air conditioners, and internet connections), closures due to routine maintenance, and legal problems related to unfulfilled construction and installation contracts. That the cumulative effect of these problems appears to have diminished the overall capacity of the network sufficiently enough to require national level attention suggests that the root causes lie as much or more in the administrative capacity of the Foundation as they do with the everyday realities of operating a large, technologically-based enterprise in a country with significant infrastructural and educational deficiencies.

Even where the local infocenter is up and running, with dedicated facilitators, as in Nuevo Amanecer, it has not always been easy to generate community participation. As Juan points out in the first part of the interview, the majority of users at the Nuevo Amanecer infocenter have been children. Off camera, the facilitators explained that they had personally invited the teachers of the local elementary school to integrate the infocenter technology into their classwork but, even though the elementary school is located right next door to the infocenter, only three of twelve teachers had done so, and those to only a limited degree.

Meanwhile, those adults that do make use of the Nuevo Amanecer infocenter have so far tended to use it for simple internet access. Some, like Grace and her classmates (who study special education), use the infocenter to complete assignments within state sponsored, no-cost secondary and post-secondary education programs, like the Bolivarian University of Venezuela. This must surely be celebrated as a concrete success and is one example of the way that Venezuela’s multiple and extensive social programs work together to increase opportunities for citizens. It is hardly an isolated case – the Foundation has recently published a collection (click here for part 2) of 100 different examples of communities making use of infocenters, including self-governance, education, community health, prisoner outreach, small enterprise creation, community media, local history, and environmental activism. These examples form part of the Foundation´s ongoing effort to register and deseminate success stories that can be emulated by other infocenters. Nonetheless, the goal of fully integrating the infocenters into a dynamic and thriving system of coordinated and participatory self-governance remains distant.

As witnessed by the intertwined development of the Infocenter Foundation, the Universal Service Fund, CANTV, the Simón Bolívar satellite, the open software initiative, the Bolivarian University (and other educational programs), and the communal council system, Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution is constructing an increasingly impressive array of infrastructure and institutions for social improvement and citizen empowerment. The government and, especially, the people must continue to refine and integrate those tools as they are placed in the service of a sustainable, dynamic, and widespread practice of radically democratic political and economic action. Regardless of the ultimate role that the infocenter initiative will play in this matrix, it is an experiment that should inspire and inform participatory technology initiatives around the world.

The Whitewashing of Criticism Caused Much Damage to the Revolution (interview w/ Reinaldo Iturriza López)

March 1, 2011

The United Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela / PSUV) retained its majority in the National Assembly after the latest elections in September of 2010. Nonetheless, the opposition made major strides, taking 67 of the total 165 seats, thus (barely) preventing the PSUV and the allied Communist Party of Venezuela (Partido Comunista de Venezuela / PCV) from holding the 3/5 absolute majority needed to pass an enabling law. Perhaps more significantly, the PSUV won only a plurality – not a majority – of the popular vote.

Though the PSUV celebrated its victory, the message to party leaders was clear: after over a decade in power, support for officially recognized representatives of the Bolivarian revolution had fallen to uncomfortable levels. This realization led to a process of introspective debate that resulted, in January of this year, in the articulation of five key strategic lines to be implemented over the next two years with the goals of reestablishing trust and retaining the presidency in 2012.

The following interview with Reinaldo Iturriza López provides an insightful analysis of the causes of the PSUV’s diminished support and some of the changes needed to reverse the trend. Iturriza López lives in Caracas, blogs at saber y poder, is regularly featured on, and has appeared on Venezuelan state television. He is a respected critical voice within the Bolivarian Revolution. The interview, which is available in spanish at saber y poder, was conducted by Vanessa Davies and published on February 6 in La Artillería [Artillery], the Sunday supplement of the state-run Correo del Orinoco newspaper.

The Whitewashing of Criticism Caused Much Damage to the Revolution

Do you feel partly responsible for the review undertaken within the PSUV?

  • Yes, but only so far as the public posture that I’ve assumed tries to summarize and transmit the criticisms, proposals, and also unease of the very many compañeros that are active in the party, or that are active in the bolivarian revolution without belonging to the party, and for whom the necessity of this review was so evident, that they couldn’t understand why it continued to be put off. Which is to say, my voice is only one of many, and only carries importance to the degree that it contributes to the multiplication of voices.

In your judgment, had the PSUV moved away from the people?

  • Yes, definitely. In the first place a dangerous distancing was produced between the directive bodies and the party’s bases. Then, between the party and the people. The party/machinery ended up imposing its logic, according to which the fundamental purpose of the party is to win elections, even if it resorted to patronage or simply demagoguery. The tendency towards the bureaucratization of policy was accentuating. The party was progressively delinking itself from popular struggles, neglecting the existence of the popular movement. Here it came to pass, for example, that the popular movement would be organizing a demonstration, and the party was trying to persuade its militant base to not attend, or organizing some parallel mobilization. That arrogance, that blackmail, this sort of drive to monopolize revolutionary politics terribly damaged the popular movement, and produced the results that we now see: demobilization, disarticulation and even disdain for politics. All of that was done in Chávez’s name. The worst part is that the party/machinery has demonstrated that its not even capable of winning elections, and that’s normal: the people that follow Chávez rose up more than once against that form of politics, and they’ll keep doing it. I don’t share the opinion that our electoral results, in the cases where they’ve been adverse, can be explained by the people’s lack of political formation. On the contrary, I think that the majority of the people are quite clear about which politicians they reject and which politics they want. It’s the party that has to rise to the height of the people.

Can we speak of a resurrection of the political parties of the fourth republic due to the errors of the revolutionary party? [Venezuela’s fourth republic lasted from the fall of Pérez Jiménez in 1958 until the approval of the 1999 constitution and the beginning of the fifth, “bolivarian” republic.]

  • As far as I’ve advanced in the analysis, the loss of support for the bolivarian revolution hasn’t translated into an increase in support for the old political class. That’s the opposition’s big problem: that none of their parties enjoy true popular support. Up to now there’s been nothing like a migration from the social base of chavism to the ranks of the opposition, and if it exists, it’s hardly significant. However, it’s also certain that the vote against Chávez is slowly, but surely, growing. These aren’t absolutely contradictory data: you have to remember that in each electoral competition the number of votes increases. The opposition vote is constant, and rises with the voter roll, while the chavista vote is variable: it goes up, goes down, goes up again. This picture of forces, so to speak, is what explains the effort made by part of the opposition to spread a social discourse, trying to appropriate some of the ideas/force of the chavista discourse: participation, people power, etc. After the parliamentary elections, part of the opposition is convinced that it can win the support of a part of the social base of chavism, [which is] essential for defeating Chávez in 2012.

Do the strategic lines of the PSUV capture what you had suggested in your reflections?

  • Yes, they capture part of what I’ve been suggesting, but beyond that coincidence, the document develops other vectors of analysis that I consider essential. In the fourth point, for example, one reads that the party “can’t be identified as a sort of State appendage, but an instrument that accompanies the people in their struggle.” Not demarcating a clear, impassable line between party and State is the source of many political vices: clientelism, “assistencialism” (asistencialismo), sectarianism, nepotism, and corruption. A party that confuses itself with the government is a party unable to boost popular control of administration. We’ve seen it with the primary elections: candidates imposed for governor or mayor positions, when candidates of a revolutionary party should come from the base. The important point is that conditions must be created so that the base really has a voice and a vote.

You allude to original chavism. What is, in your opinion, original chavism? Can it be recuperated?

  • The idea of “original chavism” lends itself to many errors. I don’t think, and it has never been my intention to suggest that there exists something like an “essence” of chavism that we’d have to recuperate in order to resolve all our problems. In any case, I was referring to the necessity, for example, of remembering that the chavism of the first few years didn’t hide it’s profound distrust of parties. Chavism rose up against the party-ocracy (partidocracia), including against the traditional left, against its dogmatism and shortsightedness. Therefore, when I spoke of “original chavism” I wanted to call attention to the risks implied by a single process of “party-fication” (partidización) of chavism, especially from 2007 onward, that in my judgment ended up expressing itself in the forced disciplining of a group of really fierce and unsubmissive subjects. Many compañeros feared this result, and didn’t join the party. An infinity of accusations rained down on them: traitors, anarchists (anarcoides), etc. At this point, I think it’s been sufficiently clear that chavism isn’t a uniform mass that dresses in red to attend a rally, which is the dream of those who assume the logic of the party/machinery: chavism as a manipulated mass (masa de maniobra). It’s also been clear that there’s chavism beyond the party. There are compañeros that even prefer to not talk of chavism, which doesn’t imply that they aren’t revolutionaries, and I think that they are well within their rights.

You speak of re-politicization? How do you understand this re-politicization? Is it good for the PSUV, is it good for the opposition?

  • Re-politicization primarily has to do with the administration of the government, more than the party. There is much evidence of an important shift in oppositional discourse since 2007, after Chávez’s overwhelming triumph in the presidential election of 2006. From then on, and progressively, a good part of the opposition left aside the confrontational and violent discourse, and concentrated, above all, on a critique of government administration. This discursive tactic acquired greater force in 2008, after the frustrated attempt to approve a constitutional reform. For the opposition, what had been defeated was socialism. According to the oppositional discourse, socialism implied an ideological “excess”, an abstraction, that didn’t contribute in the slightest to the resolution of the population’s concrete problems. If you add to that ideological “excess” a denouncement of government inefficiency, you have the nucleus of the oppositional discourse from then on. What’s the problem? That the government took a long time to decode this important tactical shift in discourse. On the contrary, it responded by “administrating” (gestionalizando) politics, concentrating almost all its efforts in “demonstrating” the successes of the bolivarian revolution, but above all, and here is the key, making popular criticism invisible, the popular demands and struggles. It’s absolutely certain that the government has an obligation to disseminate its achievements, and it’s just as certain that the opposition is incapable of recognizing any government achievement, of which there happen to be many. What can’t be done, in any case, is to condemn and dismiss popular criticism, under the argument that it provides ammunition to the enemy. Making criticism invisible really damaged the revolution. To the degree that Chávez takes up the popular challenge, promotes, stirs up, and instigates popular criticism of government administration, to that degree he will be re-politicizing administration.

How do you understand re-politicization in the context of a society in which supposedly there is chavism-antichavism and neither-one-nor-the-other?

  • When I speak of re-politicization, of the need to recognize, in order to be able to overcome, the crisis of chavista polarization, I’m referring to the group of tactics designed to recuperate the mechanisms of mutual interaction (interpelación) between Chávez and the broad social base of chavism, but also between the government, the party, and the people. Why crisis of polarization? Precisely because, for quite some time, the weight, the importance of popular interaction, was underestimated. Criticism was silenced, many problems were made invisible, and this produced unease, tedium, popular demobilization. Contrary to the biased interpretations made by the opposition, the idea of re-polarization doesn’t imply the promotion of “class hatred”, nor anything of that style. It has to do, in the first place, with anchoring democracy inside chavism: Chávez should rule by obeying, the government should open up to popular interaction, the base should hold greater prominence in the party. It’s in this sense that I speak of democratic radicalization: chavism constitutes, without a doubt, the principal political force of the country, and everything that leads to its democratization will contribute not only to its consolidation as a political force, but also to the democratization of Venezuelan society. Anti-chavism, or a part of the opposition, knows this very well, and as a result it’s launched its own tactic of re-politicization: adopting a “social” discourse, even re-vindicating “popular power”, or the necessity of “dialogue”, in contrast with the “class hatred” that Chávez supposedly promotes. In that manner it tries to unite forces, capturing a part of discontented chavism. Don’t be surprised if we see them talking, very soon, of popular interaction.

You say that it’s an error to become immersed in a fight against the party-ocracy (partidocracia). Can a political party like the PSUV not be part of the party-ocracy?

  • In the first place, conflict with the party-ocracy is inevitable. In the second place, the PSUV is obligated to not reproduce the same old exclusive and anti-popular logic of the old political class. What I’ve referred to in various opportunities, is the need to not immerse ourselves in a deaf and useless fight with the opposition. The fight has to be in the first place against the people and together with the people. To illustrate it, with could talk about our public media: for a long time we’ve concentrated too much effort on taking apart the “matrices” of anti-chavista media, while meanwhile making invisible popular demands. Now let’s talk about the National Assembly [ie. uni-cameral congress]: so many expectations for the first intervention of María Corina Machado, and it ended up a complete fiasco. No one, or a small amount of people, is paying attention to what the representatives of Acción Democrática have to say. The Assembly makes sense to the degree that it functions as an echo chamber for popular struggles and demands. Which means that the priority of our representatives can’t be to respond to copeyanos [members of Copei] – I don’t even know if they have representatives in the Assembly – but to make the slogan, “the people as legislator” (pueblo legislador), a reality. If it doesn’t happen, our population will pay as much attention to our representatives as it does to Andrés Velásquez: none. The same thing happens with the public media: talk to me about Leopoldo Castillo [a television journalist at Globovisión], all right, but first about the barrio, the youth, jails, police, judges, and corrupt prosecutors. Let’s take for example a possible debate over the Tenancy Law (Ley de Arrendamientos): millions of Venezuelan families live in rented spaces. That debate would, without a doubt, awaken their interest. Beyond just holding the majority, our representative should have the debate. Be the majority. But that’s only possible if you listen to the popular majorities, and that includes the Venezuelans that are against Chávez.

The media cliché and other pressing worries (by Carola)

February 22, 2011

Carola Chávez, who blogs at Como te iba contando (As I was telling you), posted a thoughtful critique of Venezuela’s state-run  television broadcaster, Venezolana de Televisión (VTV), that I felt worthy of English translation. I know little to nothing about Carola, but my understanding – based solely on her blog posts – is that she is a well educated, upper-middle class Caraqueño (ie. Caracan, one who lives in Caracas) who is generally supportive of Chávez and the Bolivarian revolution. If I’m correct, this would make her a somewhat rare specimen. I think it also makes her criticism worth noting. [UPDATE – Feb. 23: Carola let me know by email that she lives on Margarita Island, that there are more middle and upper-middle class Chavistas than it seems – since social pressures induce some to keep their votes secret (votan rojo calladitos) – and that her critiques of the Bolivarian process are read, noted, and generally well-received by PSUV supporters.]

The media cliché and other pressing worries

Lately I have the feeling that watching VTV is, at moments, like reading, for the thousandth time, a book of phonics, a little book directed to naïve beginners that repeats, over and over, the same perfect little phrases, all chewed up, all perfectly explained…

I don’t know how long they’re going to explain to us that Globovisión manipulates and lies, because we’ve understood that for awhile now. What many of us don’t understand is why our channel retransmits the lying channel that we decided not to watch. What, you missed what some failed Peruvian said on a channel in Miami that nobody watches? No worries, here we do the loser a favor and broadcast it, meanwhile there are so many things happening across the country that, due to time restrictions, we’re not going to broadcast for you.

Moreover, in that eagerness to take apart the mediated lies that, in the end, are only believed by those who want to believe them, we silence legitimate complaints, we relegate investigative journalism to a single side of history, where the same old bad guys are always the bad guys, and we already know which side they’re on. That’s why in the case of building fraud the scoundrels are the contractors and other private companies, but never the state institutions that spent years, maybe out of indolence, ignoring the claims of the victims and thus fertilizing the ground so that the fraud epidemic might vigorously prosper. In that eagerness to take apart lies we forget that it’s also possible to lie by omission.

We have a television where clichés flourish like a voracious vine that gropes words, concepts, and authors to the point where Galeano’s “upside down world”, out of weariness, ends up hollow.

And Vladimir Acosta no longer tells us stories that go beyond a few lines regarding “this day in history”, and of Luís Britto’s head, with luck, we see a hair once a year, and nobody even remembers the teacher Francisco Rivero that suddenly exited the airwaves “without contemplations” and without answers because not even Chávez himself knew what had gone on.

Meanwhile those who prosper are the audacious know-it-all analysts that don’t know anything, those true gurus of mediocracy that jump from the screen to the presidential press box where nobody called them, and there they encyst, always focused on the camera so that it’s known, so that you see that the showoff has arrived. So that you’re eaten up by the anxious certainty that something is going very wrong.

And if this deficient television is converted into a factory of candidates and a recycler of PSUV leaders, the anxious certainty becomes an unbearable nausea, especially when, in those crucial moments of the game, you encounter friends that, like members of the MUD [Mesa de la Unidad Democrática], believe that the revolution is made on TV like someone making a reality show.

What are the tasks of Revolutionary Communication? (by Fernando Buen Abad Domínguez)

February 21, 2011

Fernando Buen Abad Domínguez

Fernando Buen Abad Domínguez (b. 1956) is the Vice-Rector of the Open University of Mexico [Universidad Abierta de México], where he is also Director of the Image Research Institute. He holds a PhD, has worked as a filmmaker and artist, and has authored at least 17 books, including Philosophy of Communication (Filosofía de la Comunicación, 2001), Philosophy of the Image (Filosofía de la Imagen, 2003), and Image, Philosophy, and Creation (Imagen Filosofía y Creación, 2004) [all published in Spanish].

Abad Domínquez has conducted research in Venezuela and taught in the Bolivarian University of Venezuela (Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela / UBV). He has written on TeleSur and been interviewed regarding the Venezuelan model of communications. His book, Philosophy of Communication, was republished by the Venezuelan Ministry of Communication and Information (Ministerio del Poder popular para la Comunicación y la Información / MINCI) in 2006.

The following essay, authored by Abad Domínguez, was published on January 4, 2011, in Spanish, on It is a strong though nonspecific statement backing a notion of revolutionary communication that I’ve found to be generally consistent with that expressed by Venezuelan communications practitioners as well as United Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela / PSUV) politicians and party-members. I therefore expect that it will serve as a useful touchstone for some of my upcoming writings on Venezuelan communications, especially the development of the community media sector. With this expectation, I’ve translated the entire piece into English, so that I may link to the text when necessary:

What are the tasks of Revolutionary Communication?

“(…) I’ve had occasion to observe many times how powerful organizations with a powerful press broke apart under the impact of events, and how, on the other hand, small organizations with a technically weak press transformed themselves in a short time into historic forces.” – Leon Trotsky

Assuming the challenge of democratically planning content

Without understanding, in depth, what a Revolution is, it will be difficult to understand the dialectic of its communicational tasks. There is no correct practice without correct theory. A revolutionary situation has its own contents, rhythms, and priorities determined by force, and advances, that the working class wins to expropriate power from the bourgeoisie. Revolutionary communicational tasks can’t come from pure subjectivity, punditry, from a few “enlightened ones”, priorities are derived from the objective necessities of each front in combat against capitalism. Content, ours, emerges from class struggle. It doesn’t hide it.

These necessities are democratically detected and the concrete, as well as the subjective, is taken into account, with the revolutionary idea that the truth serves to elevate the level of conscience, to perfect the struggle and guarantee the triumph of permanent revolution. In a situation of clear class confrontation, in which the dispute does not admit of euphemisms, and the evidence of a war is overwhelming, revolutionary communication media have a supreme role as organizing tools to help multiply the revolutionary forces beginning with establishing a common program of emancipatory action. Not one resource can be wasted. Not one minute can be lost. The best ideas are emancipatory ideas.

Many people are quick to set themselves up as messianic intermediaries, ready to rewrite the commandments of reformism, taking advantage of the media. One has to stay alert, reformists are a chameleon-like poison that drain stealthily in more than a few places. Some disguise themselves as “erudites” and travel the world pontificating a “revolutionary” knowledge pulled from their saliva (or from some elite bourgeois manuals). There are also the jealous, the mediocre, the petulant and the traitors that infiltrate revolutionary fronts to sow confusion while they milk some privilege or appointment obtained through trickery. One must be very careful. Everything that doesn’t help to guarantee, accelerate, and entrench the Revolution, in the short, medium, and long term… must be submitted to open discussion. By all media. This is an inescapable repertoire of content.

It’s indispensable to try to use all the languages necessary to make visible and palpable the triumphs of the revolution that are the fundamental source of moral fortitude. With revolutionary happiness, humor, [and] imagination in order to not repeat the bourgeois pattern of stultified discourse. It’s indispensable to communicate problems, armed with the most proactive self-criticism and the most consensual programs of advance. Elevating revolutionary morals and ethics is vital. To enrich responsibilities and assure creativity to win the territory of content, invigorate formal experimentation, and amplify reception with dialectic feedback. [sic] There’s no time to lose. Emancipatory content demands its place in the battle of ideas.

Some object to certain revolutionary communications for being “officialist”. They believe that some revolutionary media get carried away with “propaganda” tasks and forget self-critical tasks. It is a valuable debate that can’t remain two sides talking past one another but, on the contrary, must become a tool, of debate and work, constant[ly] open. But don’t confuse the bourgeois concept of “propaganda” with the revolutionary urgency of making visible our achievements in order to fortify battle morale. No bourgeois advertising evangelical is going to silence us no matter how scientific or holy they proclaim to be. The contents of revolutionary communication are conceptual achievements whose mission, beyond elevating the level of conscience, lies in multiplying itself dialectically. And that requires networks and planned systems.

The battle of Revolutionary communication is waged, in one of its phases, principally against the ideology of the dominant class that has metastasized in the entire fabric of social relations. It’s a very difficult struggle that allows no rest. We find it everywhere. We see it in our pleasures and our beliefs, it’s in our education and culture, it’s in our traditions and imaginations. Capitalism’s ideologic plasma has even inoculated its gravedigger’s thinking so that he laments the moment of the hangman’s death. That’s called alienation and it’s now become big business. A terrible problem. But the most arduous part is a creative revolution that must contribute to the foundation of a new universe of ideas, emotions, enthusiasms and morale… emancipated and emancipating. And in this framework one of the most arduous and neglected tasks has been the Revolution of Content.

Our communicative battles are asymmetric. We lack training, we lack organization, and we lack unity. We’re clear on who the class enemy is, we know the damage that it has caused, we know that it must be expropriated and defeated, and we know that we can’t lose the communication battle. We know that this struggle must be waged internationally. We know that only the workers will save the workers. We know much and we’ve done little. For now. Why haven’t we been able to defeat them yet, if we are the majority? Because, in terms of communication, we’ve also got to emancipate the emancipators. This is a top priority task. All hands on deck. It wouldn’t be a bad idea if every day, orderly, each revolutionary carried out their socialist responsibility to disseminate 10 news items with the achievements of the Revolution. Achievements of the working class. We must become communication combatants on a daily basis. Pay attention to the content. Let’s not let the class enemy set the agenda.



why did Alcatel-Lucent win the ALBA-1 fiber-optic cable contract with Cuba and Venezuela?

January 14, 2011

As I mentioned in a recent post, Venezuela, Cuba, and Jamaica are jointly installing an undersea fiber-optic cable, dubbed ALBA-1, that will, according to Cuba’s Prensa Latina, “break the communications blockade imposed by the United States” and improve internet connection speeds in Cuba by a factor of 3,000. Earlier this week, the first 994 miles (1,600 kms) of cable (of a total 3,125 miles / 5,000 kms) began a trans-Atlantic voyage from Calais, France to Venezuela aboard the Ile de Gatz. The connection between Cuba and Venezuela is projected to become operational in July at the earliest. Prensa Latina lists a cost estimate of $70 million, though it’s unclear to me if that is the total cost or just the Cuban investment. (UPDATE: The initial cost estimate, from October 2006, was $55 million: $35 million for the undersea portion and $20 million to extend the cable to the Cuban and Venezuelan networks in Havana and Caracas. I assume, therefore, that $70 million is the current estimate for total cost.)

map showing La Guaira, VenezuelaVenezuela’s CVG Telecomunicaciones C.A. (CVG Telecom) and Cuba’s Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba S.A. (ETECSA) signed a preliminary accord for the project in October 2006, at which point Jamaica was not involved. The Venezuelan connection will be made at Camurí, near the country’s main port of La Guaira, just north of Caracas. The cable will connect to Cuba’s national network at Siboney, roughly 9 miles (14 kms) from Santiago de Cuba on the southeastern coast.

Currently, Cuba depends on costly and relatively slow satellite service. According to the Cuban government, this is largely the result of the US State Department’s refusal to permit Cuba to connect to a fiber optic cable linking Cancún, Mexico and Miami, Florida, despite its passing only 20 miles [32 km] from Havana. In addition to increasing data and voice connection speeds, ALBA-1 is expected to reduce Cuba’s satellite costs by 25 percent.

The cable is being shipped from France as a result of the project contract having been awarded to Alcatel-Lucent. According to (my interpretation of) a document made available on WikiLeaks, Alcatel-Lucent bid on the project via their Chinese subsidiary, Alcatel Shanghai Bell (ASB; now Alcatel-Lucent Shanghai Bell / ALSB), and in conjunction with a French subsidiary, Alcatel Submarine Networks (ASN). The document indicates that ALSB’s main competitor was China’s Huawei, which created a Venezuelan subsidiary (Huawei Technologies de Venezuela) in 2001. Huawei cell phones are common in Venezuela and the company was selected by Venezuela’s dominant telecommunications corporation, Compañía Anónima Nacional de Telefonos de Venezuela (CANTV), to upgrade its national fiber-optic backbone in 2004. (CANTV was re-nationalized in 2007.)

Given the close relationship between Venezuela and China, generally, and Huawei’s significant Venezuelan footprint, why would the Venezuelan and Cuban governments select Alcatel-Lucent, a French/US transnational? (Alcatel and Lucent merged on December 1, 2006. Nonetheless, the bid document made available on WikiLeaks, copyrighted 2007, uses “Alcatel-Lucent” only once; all other instances, including the copyright, use “Alcatel”.) The answer may be that Alcatel-Lucent offered better technology without subcontracting any major elements of the project. As Alcatel Shanghai Bell  put it, “ASB is the only Chinese partner able to provide turnkey submarine solution with inhouse field proven products and total independancy” [sic]. For example, Alcatel-Lucent billed its cable as resistant to 7,000 meters versus only 1,500 meters of resistance for Huawei’s line. Alcatel-Lucent also committed to in-house “dry and wet” maintenance, as well as using its own “vessel fleet” for installation. According to Alcatel-Lucent, Huawei would have had to outsource these and other operations. It might also be the case that Alcatel-Lucent simply bribed the requisite officials, as Alcatel is alleged to have done in Costa Rica, Honduras, Malaysia, and Taiwan between December 2001 and June 2006. Whether Alcatel’s claims of superiority or the SEC’s claims of bribery are true, I can’t say, but I suspect that another set of factors was more influential.

ASB claimed to be “fully compliant with Venezuela Cuba technical specifications” and listed “[f]ull repesct of Embargo regulation” [sic] among them. The document goes on to state that:

Alcatel, Alcatel Shanghai Bell, Alcatel Submarine Networks are committing to deliver the project while respecting Embargo policy

  • Alcatel group and ASN are french registered companies
  • Alcatel Shanghai Bell is a chinese registered company
  • Specific embargo clauses will be part of the T&C’s [terms and conditions] to ensure our commitment for the whole life of the project [sic]

Of course, Huawei, being a Chinese company with an established Venezuelan subsidiary, should not have had any problems in avoiding the US embargo. Their supposed subcontractors,  however, did pose some potential problems. Global Marine Systems Ltd. (GSML), for instance, was to handle the cable installation and maintenance. Based in the UK with representation in Singapore, Florida, and Boston, GSML itself may have avoided the embargo, but – according to the Alcatel-Lucent document – it was offering power-feed equipment from Spellman High Voltage Electronics Corporation, “an American company headquartered in NY state, USA [that] may cause Embargo enforcement issues in Cuba”. Alcatel-Lucent also pointed out that it would be using ASN repeaters, which have no US components or patents. Huawei, on the other hand, was said to be offering repeaters from UK-based Red Sky Telecom, which rely on a US component and make use of 41 patents registered in the US.

So, were Venezuela and Cuba “forced” to select Alcatel-Lucent due to the US embargo? To be clear, that conclusion is merely speculation based on a single leaked document. If  any reader has additional information, one way or the other, please post a comment. If my speculation is correct, however, then we have an odd case in which the socialist states of Cuba and Venezuela chose a French-US transnational over a “communist” Chinese corporation precisely in order to avoid the US embargo! Such, perhaps, are the intricate paradoxes of intellectual property in a neoliberally globalized world.

UPDATE: An Executive Technical Summary, dated October 8, 2006, contains a section entitled “Analysis of the Political Environment”  (“Análisis del entorno político“), that provides considerable support to my suppositions. The full text of that section follows:

The regulations imposed by the blockade against Cuba and the regulations imposed on the rest of the world through extraterritorial laws, hinder enormously negotiations with companies interested in constructing an undersea cable that connects to Cuba. If the possibility of direct aggression against the cable itself is added to that situation, it will be essential to seek all possible protection in international law.

As such the proposal is for a submarine cable constructed and operated by legally established international telecommunications operators, that should count on maximum protection from international organizations. See Appendix 1.

Furthermore for the Venezuelan State, the materialization of an international undersea cable system represents the fortification of the Nation’s communication infrastructure.

Political premises will be present when defining the geographic configuration of the undersea cable.

Appendix one lists the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and the International Cable Protection Committee (ICPC). Here’s the original text in Spanish:

Las regulaciones impuestas por el bloqueo contra Cuba y las regulaciones impuestas al resto del mundo a traves de leyes extraterritoriales, dificultan enormemente las negociaciones con las empresas interesadas en construir un cable submarino que amarre en Cuba. Si a esa situación se le suma la posibilidad de agresiones directas contra el cable mismo, sera imprescindible buscar en la legislación international toda la protección posible.

Por tanto la propuesta es un cable submarino construido y operado por empresas operadoras de telecomunicaciones internacionales legalmente establecidas, que debera contar con el maximo de protección de las organizaciones internacionales. Ver Anexo 1.

Por otra parte para el Estado Venezolano, la materializaci6n de un sistema de cable submarino internacional representa el fortalecimiento de la infraestructura comunicacional de
la Nación.

Las premisas políticas estarán presentes al definir la configuración geográfica del cable submarino.

UPDATE (1/18): Cuba’s state-owned Juventud Rebelde newspaper reports that the cable installation is being handled by “the french-chinese company Alcatel Shanghai Bell” (“la empresa franco-china Alcatel Shanghai Bell“) without making any mention of ASB’s French-US parent company, Alcatel-Lucent.

UPDATE (8/22): Reuters is reporting that the ALBA-1 project has been delayed due to technical difficulties and is under investigation as part of a larger attempt to deal with corruption within Cuba’s state-owned telecom monopoly, ETECSA. (Thanks to for pointing me to this info.)

UPDATE (5/21/12): The AP has run a story with speculation regarding the reasons why the cable does not seem to be operating and is not mentioned by the Cuban government. Suspicions revolve around corruption and the threat that internet access would pose to the state.

Venezuela’s Infocentro wins UNESCO prize for facilitating adult computer literacy

January 12, 2011

Given the recent spate of coverage in the mainstream North American press, the average reader would think that Venezuela is a totalitarian state hell bent on depriving its citizens of access to the internet. (The NY Times, WSJ, and CNN are all in on the action.) While I do have some concern regarding recent changes to the Law of Social Responsibility in Television and Radio, I’m more concerned that the presentation of the case has been biased and thoroughly misconstrued by a corporate “free press” that so often fails its audience. So file this one under “news you’re not likely to see in the mainstream media”:

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has awarded a 2010 Hamad Bin Isa Al-Khalifa Prize to Venezuela’s Infocentro Foundation (Fundación Infocentro) for its project “Technological Literacy for Older Adults.” The prize has been awarded annually, since 2005, to two “individuals, institutions, other entities or non-governmental organizations for excellent models, best practice, and creative use of information and communication technologies to enhance learning, teaching and overall educational performance.” The theme of the 201o prize was “Digital Literacy: Preparing Adult Learners for Lifelong Learning and Flexible Employment”. The United Kingdom’s National Institute of Continuing Adult Education was the other recipient. The winners were selected from among 49 candidates, nominated by 34 countries and one inter-governmental organization, the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization (SEAMEO).

The Infocenter Foundation was created in 2007, under the auspices of the Ministry of Popular Power for Science and Technology, in order to assume control over and reinvigorate Venezuela’s Infocentro initiative, which itself had begun in 2000 with the establishment of a community technology center (known as an infocenter [infocentro]) in the Parque del Este neighborhood of Caracas. An infocenter is a site that makes information and communication technologies (ICTs), primarily internet-connected computer terminals, available to the general population at little or no cost. Infocenters also provide instruction in how to utilize such technologies. 239 infocenters were created in 2001 and over 700 exist across Venezuela today.

The Infocenter Foundation is tasked with “providing physical infrastructure (infocenters, mobile infocenters [infomóviles], and infokiosks [infopuntos]), technological infrastructure (computers and other devices, connectivity, and software applications), human capital (foundation staff, coordinators, supervisors and facilitators of the social network), [and] networks that coordinate the operation [que articulan el engranaje] of the foundation and the community for socio-technological education.” The goal is to facilitate:

… the appropriation of information and communication technologies by the popular sectors, via the consolidation of community technological spaces that facilitate collective construction and transfer of knowledge, collaboration and coordination, [and] creation of networks and popular communication, in order to convert this technological platform into a tool for the solution of problems and the transformation of reality.

… el proceso de apropiación de las tecnologías de información y comunicación por parte de los sectores populares, mediante la consolidación de espacios tecnológicos comunitarios que faciliten la construcción colectiva y transferencia de saberes y conocimiento, las relaciones de colaboración y de coordinación, la generación de redes y la  comunicación popular, para hacer de esta plataforma tecnológica una herramienta para la solución de problemas y de transformación de la realidad.

According to the Venezuelan government, citizens paid 10,971,345 visits to Infocenters in 2010. Also, in February, the project entered a new stage, the goal of which has been to transfer the management of the Infocenters to organized communities, presumably via the mechanism of communal councils. Of course, given that the vast majority of US citizens have no idea that such a radical experiment in participatory democracy is even underway, it would be sheer folly to expect any analysis of its progress from a market-oriented press establishment. UNESCO’s Hamad Bin Isa Al-Khalifa Prize might spur the requisite curiosity, perhaps even a broader sharing of ideas directed at overcoming the ever-persistent digital divide, but that would require making the knowledge available in English. Although the Venezuelan News Agency (Agencia Venezolana de Noticias / AVN) has published at least two articles in English (as did the Venezuelan Embassy in the US, after the winners were made public in early December), as of this writing a Google News search for articles containing the words Venezuela, UNESCO, and Infocenter returned precisely zero results.

the young Marx on press freedom – part 3

January 5, 2011

[Note: This is the third in a series. You may want to read part 1 and/or part 2 before continuing. Links to subsequent entries follow this post.]

The third of Marx’s articles concerning freedom of the press in Prussia, entitled “On the Assembly of the Estates” , was published in the Rheinische Zeitung (Rhenish Newspaper / RZ) on May 10, 1842. As the title indicates, Marx uses this entry to tie his discussion of the free press to a broader interrogation of the legitimacy of the Prussian Provincial Assemblies. His entry point for this interrogation is a speech made by a member of the knightly estate who viewed the royal edict pronounced in April of 1841, which authorized the publication of the Assemblies’ proceedings, as non-binding: “Let it be in the hands of the Provincial Assembly to make a wise use of the permission granted…. The extension of this permission could only result from inner conviction, but not from external influences.” (Marx’s emphasis). The knightly speaker goes on to suggest that the assembly should restrict the publication of its proceedings when that publication is deemed “purposeless or even harmful”.

Marx, of course, offers a different interpretation of the edict:

The province believes that the Provincial Assembly will be under its control only when the publication of the debates is no longer left to the arbitrary decision of the Assembly in its wisdom, but has become a legal necessity. We should have to call the new concession a new step backwards if it had to be interpreted in such a way that publication depends on an arbitrary decision by the Assembly of the Estates.

Marx is driving at the nature of political representation in general. He labels the knightly speaker’s position “medieval”, in that it “upholds the privilege of the estate against the rights of the province”. Once again, Marx is engaging the still coalescing ideological positions that arose, according to Wallerstein, in the 19th century. His attack on the “medieval” conservative position is launched via the medium of a liberal newspaper, though already there are hints of the more radical socialist position that he would, for better or worse, come to define. The liberal position, manifested in the US and French revolutions, viewed political representation as a right of (some of) the people. Marx points out that this conception is entirely absent from the knightly speaker’s framework:

Privileges of the estates are in no way rights of the province. On the contrary, the rights of the province cease when they become privileges of the estates. Thus the estates of the Middle Ages appropriated for themselves all the country’s constitutional rights and turned them into privileges against the country…. the rights of the Provincial Assembly are no longer rights of the province, but rights against the province… The influence of the province on its Assembly is characterised as something external to which the conviction of the Assembly of the Estates is contrasted as a delicate inner feeling…

Further below, Marx adds:

One must acknowledge the tact with which the speaker has perceived that by unabridged publication of its debates the Assembly would become a right of the province instead of a privilege of the Assembly of the Estates, that the Assembly, having become an immediate object of the public spirit, would have to decide to be a personification of the latter, and that, having been put in the light of the general consciousness, it would have to renounce its particular nature in favour of the general one.

Marx is pointing out, in other words, that the knightly speaker ignores entirely the assembly’s duty to represent the people of the province. He makes himself quite explicit on this point:

The Assembly of the Estates has a province to which the privilege of its activity extends, but the province has no estates through which it could itself be active. Of course, the province has the right, under prescribed conditions, to create these gods for itself, but as soon as they are created, it must, like a fetish worshipper, forget that these gods are its own handiwork…. We are confronted here with the peculiar spectacle, due perhaps to the nature of the Provincial Assembly, of the province having to fight not so much through its representatives as against them…. A representation which is divorced from the consciousness of those whom it represents is no representation.

While Marx seems correct in his indictment of the knightly speaker, we should note that he speaks only in broad terms of representation. As a result, he raises more questions than he answers. Nowhere does he suggest how an assembly, once selected (by whatever “prescribed conditions”), might go about personifying the “public spirit”. Why, in fact, does Marx assume that there exists anything like a singular “public spirit” or “general consciousness”? Is not the point of a representative system to adjudicate between the multiple spirits and consciousnesses that exist amongst a heterogeneous public?

To be clear, I am not saying that the Provincial Assembly of Estates as established in Prussia’s Rhine Province in 1842 was adequately enough composed to even begin carrying out this task. As Marx would argue convincingly later that year, the multiple restrictions on membership in any of the three estates, beginning with ownership of land, prohibited anything other than a partial representation of elite interests. Nonetheless, Marx seems to be appealing to a very idealistic model of representation in which the “spirit” of a people – or at least a class of people – can be intuited, articulated, and defended. This foreshadows, of course, his later socio-economic theorization of inter-class struggle, not to mention the (still ongoing) debates over the “proper” form of organization for political-economic decision-making that have hampered the socialist project.

That said, we should remember that Marx was all of 24 years old when he wrote these articles and that his primary focus was on the press, not the organizational structure of a representative democracy. We can hardly fault him for not being more precise regarding the latter issue. In fact, we should rather recognize that the close pairing of these two subjects suggests that Marx accepted, on a fundamental level, that the press plays a vital role in the determination and articulation of the “public spirit”. For example, whereas his series of articles on press freedom (especially the article under consideration here) touches on questions of political representation, his contemporaneous series of brief articles on representation (published in December 1842 under the title “On the Commission of the Estates in Prussia“) touches on issues of press freedom:

The conservative press, which continually reminds us that the view held by the critical press should be rejected as being merely an individual opinion and a distortion of reality, continually forgets that it itself is not the object in question, but only an opinion on that object, and that therefore to combat it is not always to combat that object. Every object that is made a matter for praise or blame in the press becomes a literary object, hence an object for literary discussion. What makes the press the most powerful lever for promoting culture and the intellectual education of the people is precisely the fact that it transforms the material struggle into an ideological struggle, the struggle of flesh and blood into a struggle of minds, the struggle of need, desire, empiricism into a struggle of theory, of reason, of form.

For Marx, the press ensures representation only when it is free, ie. when no outlet is deemed to have an a priori claim to validity. Only when all outlets are treated as participants in an open “struggle” for validity can a society begin to make any claims to having achieved political representation. As Marx says in the article under review here: “A truly political assembly flourishes only under the great protection of the public spirit, just as living things flourish only in the open air.” Here, at least, Marx’s equation of the “public spirit” with “open air” implies that he does not, in fact, view it as monolithic, but always a swirling mass of competing views that, at best, must play themselves out within the untidy space of a free press: “… why should precisely the free press be perfect?” Marx’s answer is that it should not. The imperfect, contested nature of the press is precisely what makes it free.

There are some other interesting points to draw out of this article. The first of these hinges on the knightly speaker’s rationalization for the desire to refrain from publishing the assembly’s proceedings. Marx quotes him at some length:

Just as it seems to him desirable that here in the Assembly there should be freedom of discussion and that an over-anxious weighing of words should be avoided, it seems to him equally necessary, in order to maintain this freedom of expression and this frankness of speech, that our words at the time should be judged only by those for whom they are intended…. From many years’ acquaintance, a good personal understanding has developed among most of us in spite of the most diverse views on various matters, a relationship which is inherited by newcomers. Precisely for that reason we are most of all able to appreciate the value of our words, and do so the more frankly as we allow ourselves to be less subject to external influences, which could only be useful if they came to us in the form of well-meaning counsel, but not in the form of a dogmatic judgment, of praise or blame, seeking to influence our personality through public opinion.

Here, the conservative appeal to tradition is laid bare: Though they affect the province as a whole, the proceedings of the assembly are intended only for those with “a good personal understanding” and only those with such an understanding should judge them. Moreover, the requisite personal understanding can only be acquired upon admittance to the assembly, which, as pointed out above, is restricted to elites. Though patently absurd in the Prussian Assembly’s case (at least to the degree that the assembly was meant to represent the people of the province), such arguments are still advanced today in relation to issues of secrecy. Witness, for example, the ongoing conroversy over the Wikileaks cables, in which the US State Department and its defenders have maintained that disclosure of the secret cables will diminish the effectiveness of its diplomatic corp by limiting its ability to communicate frankly. This line of argument, exemplified in the following extract from an article published by Foreign Policy magazine, echoes that of the knightly speaker quoted above:

[The cables] release will negatively affect the business of diplomacy conducted by America’s foreign-affairs professionals, inhibiting the candor, frank assessments, and policy recommendations that its decision-makers need. An ambassador in the field who is involved in providing the secretary of state and the president with sensitive insights in the course of delicate peace negotiations must have the confidence and trust in the system that what he is reporting in a cable will not be disclosed publicly. And embassies must be able to report candidly on the internal political situation in a given country without fear of unauthorized disclosure harming official state-to-state relations. Self-censorship by U.S. diplomats and intelligence personnel will diminish the country’s capacity to engage in foreign affairs immeasurably.

Similar arguments are advanced in favor of lawyer/client or doctor/patient privilege. Context is key, therefore, when balancing what one commentator has called, in reference to Wikileaks, “the irreconcilable values of secrecy and accountability”. In relation to a supposedly democratic representative assembly, arguing over that balance may strike us as quaint, but in the Rhine Province in 1842 the debate took place on the cutting edge of political thought. Perhaps one day we will find the Wikileaks debate just as quaint?

Finally, it’s worth noting a comment that Marx makes, seemingly in passing, regarding the medium vis-à-vis the message:

Indeed, can even daily, unabridged publication by printing be rightly called unabridged and public? Is there no abridgement in substituting the written for the spoken word, graphic systems for persons, action on paper for real action?

I’m not sure exactly what Marx intended here. Certainly there was no other medium available for feasibly conveying the proceedings of the assembling to a mass public, à la CSPAN. I suspect, therefore, that he meant to suggest that the Assembly should be open to reporters who could observe the various speakers and add context to verbatim transcripts. Such issues were hot topics at the time. For instance, the question of journalistic access to and verbatim reporting of congressional proceedings had long been the subject of considerable debate in the US and remained so in Marx’s time.  Nonetheless, we should recognize that the phrasing of Marx’s questions invite philosophical considerations that would not be foreign to 20th century luminaries like Marshall McLuhan or Jacques Derrida.