Black Chronicles are a series of interviews conducted to different anarchists currently living in Venezuela, narrating the struggles the face living in one of the few socialist regimes. These interviews deal with the everyday lives of men and women and highlight the precarious situations in which they are forced to live in.
Interview with Salvador Mendez, a university teacher and anarchist economist who forms part of the collective editing team of El Libertario.
–How are you surviving as a university teacher in a country with such a high cost of living?
Look, this is what I ask myself everyday…As a person I used survive having several jobs at the same time, giving lectures and private lessons so that the cost of living wasn’t too expensive. However there is a huge problem when you start doing this:
When you stop being a professor in the sense that most of your time is dedicated to your survival, by hunting food or filling up your workload and reducing your social life to enhance your role as a professor, you stop reinventing yourself as a public worker and start lacking the drive and motivation to conduct meaningful activities like investigating more, finding forms to innovate the teaching towards newer generations, spend more time in the Academia to criticise or defend it… You ultimately risk being a university teacher that only performs his job for the pay-check, instead of attempting to save the university. Additionally, if you have another job that pays better, your work at the university starts to become more of a hobby to obtain a status. In other words, as the university quickly deteriorates, nobody will worry about rebuilding it. Instead most teachers will find ways to obtain a better paid job, whilst the university collapses in front of them. You also have to take extreme care of yourself in these times because if you get ill or have an accident you will struggle to find any adequate services.
As a professional it is increasingly frustrating to watch the situation unfold, to see how young people lack education and the desire to become teachers. They prefer escaping from the country, whilst local students are forced to find a full-time job and work all the time in order to survive instead of just embracing their lives as university students by conducting academic activities like discussing philosophy, appreciating art and debating sociology.
You also feel like your knowledge isn’t valued as a teacher anymore, as there are no incentives to study and investigate or grow academically. Therefore the quantity of people that want to develop a critical thinking approach decreases because our state will lead you to believe that you “will die of hunger” if you do not dedicate yourself to something that is profitable in the country. Anyways, let’s leave it at that, well… this is how I survive and what I am witnessing.
–Does a general feeling of contempt exist towards anarchists within the academia? Is it necessary to return to the university as proposed by anarchist David Graeber?
Yes. The university as we know nowadays is an institution with extensive bureaucratic and authoritarian roots of a wide-range of political ideologies opposed by anarchists. Some of these include elements like obedience, the way in which knowledge is measured and qualified, the topics students study, the function of education for providing slaves for the system, the relations amongst the community, among many others…Most of the people within the university, whether they like it or not, end up consumed by the vices of the system, as they constantly teach and ingrain these values onto students because according to them it is the only way to succeed in the academia.
I am unaware of Graeber’s thoughts on university. I am not sure whether he refers to the fact the we must fight universities bureaucracy from the inside to get rid of the hierarchal power or to eradicate the culture that shares the idea of graduation as merely a mean to compete in the workforce; or to transform the relationship between teacher-student or create humble academics in the sense that students shouldn’t use their diplomas to humiliate intellectually other people. In any case, we should aim to build intellectual capacities for the construction of an alternative social system.
What people don’t realize is that the university as a foundation is a tool with the potential to transform the world, as we need different disciplines for the complex problems we have. We must revise the contemporary conception of what is and how a university functions, as nowadays Academia’s develop their culture and science based upon political and cultural values of our capitalist pyramid scheme. Thus, Academia’s are a reflection of our dominant culture. We must impose a new method for studying based around universal knowledge to break the dominant paradigms inside and outside the academia which have consolidated our unequal, violent and oppressive society. Instead, we should strive for one that allows the development of the university to build a new type of society that is free, self-sufficient, solidary and convivial, where the classrooms are a space where knowledge and solidarity are encouraged, along with respect for classmates and tolerance. Classrooms where students are not merely students to be evaluated. Classrooms to build a utopia. In any case, send me Graeber’s text to see what I can rescue…
–How are universities autonomies progressing in the current situation?
The universities sense of autonomy is a complex topic because it can refer to several things. The most evident factor within this topic is in regards to the budget. The universities budgets are being rejected, which is a strategy started by the government in order to control all forms of secondary education and bring us to a state of desperation.
The budget this year has been the hardest due to factors like the lack of input, lack of updates on libraries… Every time there are more teachers renouncing their miserable conditions, ridiculous salaries and lack of any kind of functional future for their professional and financial lives.
Employers are also suffering pay delays, I’m unaware of the situation in the trade unions; however from overheard conversations in the halls and casual conversations you begin to realize the extent of the precariousness of the situation. Meanwhile students are suffering from the decreasing quality of teaching, leading many to abandon this helpless situation, whilst the university furthers its own decay.
Of course, we can’t blame all of this entirely on the government, in the sense of neglecting to place responsibility on our own universities, as on an internal level universities have not managed to articulate themselves to solve their problems or pressure the government. For instance, during the end of last year, studies were published which showed that the quality of our institution in regards to aspects like infrastructure, security and budgets were abysmal on an educational level.
Thus, classes are taught in an unstable environment full of apathy because it is evident that these are not conditions to continue teaching. Instead of organizing ourselves to find sufficient resources to change this problem, we decided to start lowering our political pressure and organization. It’s almost as if the energy in regards to this lack of political articulation is further delayed when you begin teaching a lesson, as you give the impression to the students that you are under no conditions to teach but start anyways, which creates discontent due to the lack of coherence and compromise. Careful though, I am not referring to the fact that we must organize strikes and abandon the university entirely, we should instead organize ourselves to solve the situation.
All the different trade unions lack organization and the universities don’t build a rapport with the local communities to legitimise and claim their battle. For instance, universities can offer answers to problems that local Venezuelan communities face and ultimately show them that we all face similar problems on different scales. We can then show them that to solve these problems it is necessary to solidarize and support ourselves mutually. That way we can create networks of action to pressure the political power and start to generate answers to these problems. The people on the streets will tell you that it is important that they give an adequate budget to universities, but from there on they will not bother defending and fighting for these proposed rights, as that person suffers from their own problems. Given how the university doesn’t practice solidarity with the community there will be no communication because we don’t try to build alliances with different people and communities across Venezuela.
-Has anybody stolen from you during these difficult times that Venezuela is facing? Could you elaborate on these experiences?
(Starts laughing) Yes, I am part of the robbery statistics that have been happening across universities. It was an absolute disgrace. I used to work in my spare time on a project review for each course with my personal computer. One day I left the computer in my office, as I didn’t want to carry too much weight inside my bag and didn’t want to get mugged in the streets due to the late hour I was leaving the university. When I returned the next day, I enter and after looking desperately for my computer, I realized that they must have stolen it without leaving a single trace of how they had opened my door.
-Do you queue to buy regulated products?
Yes, but I can only queue for a few hours due to my job. My parents have much more time and have to do it to survive. I try to help out with the little money I earn and I also sell off to our Colombian neighbours these products for some profit (bachaqueo). I don’t like the word bachaqueo because it is a term created by the government. This has been a true success for the power of Venezuela by declaring many terms to be of a pejorative nature when we use things like #legadodechavez. We use our own language, as the government restricts our language and therefore limits our own thoughts. Essentially, I queue to buy regulated products when I can, and I sometimes resell them for a profit.
-How is the rationing situation in regards to water and electricity where you live?
Water: here we have a good tank that allows us to have a stable source of water, even though in parts of my house there isn’t a connection and the tank has problems working in certain rooms. The water also comes out very weak and sometimes doesn’t even work. In regards to electricity, there are often several blackouts, and when these occur we have no access to water because the tank is turned off.
-Do you have access to internet? How is the connection?
Yes, but it is garbage.
-Give us a small diagnosis of why the crisis is happening. Being an economist anarchist, how would you get out of this crisis and reactivate the real economy?
For economist anarchists, where opinion widely differs in the firstly place, I think that we have to bet further away from the measures to stabilize a mechanism that we consider perverse to cohere economic relations. The mass-media and academia seem to be moving towards the notion that the debate is between A vs B, market vs state, and from anarchism we must break this dichotomy of “god vs devil”, as the state and the market are both oppressive tools and are based on false contradictions. Thus, the market and state know when to work together to maximise profits to impose their power. Additionally, in our modern state they have mutually fed of each other even if they represent the exact opposite. Therefore, we must search for a way to activate the economy under alternative means of production. We need to rethink the four basic principles of the economy as a scientific formula: what to produce, how to produce it, how much to produce and why to produce it.
We have to change the structure of our economy. This is obviously the most complex part of the utopia, however this is where we can begin to unlock the puzzle by breaking the taboo of attitudes like “work is sacred” or that we have to work in order to obtain money to survive. No! We can produce and distribute profits without the necessity of condoning to our society society our unstable work market, along with changing other attitudes like that if you don’t work you won’t be able to eat. In that sense, we should strive for technological alternatives that can generate a lifestyle devoted to enjoyment rather than work as a monotonous and stressful activity. This must require a technology featuring an eco-friendly relationship with natural resources for future generations. The environmental impact is inevitable, but we can create a balance to exit this destructive model by building a more sustainable civilization with less waste, where the contradiction between city vs countryside lifestyle ends.
We must push for this society by applying solidarity, mutual support and self-sufficiency in order to develop technologies that do not have an oppressive nature, which lack the goal of producing profits. We need technology for free men and women, in fact the last speech in “The Great dictator” by Charlie Chaplin describes beautifully an ideal for this alternative technological state. In that way we will be able to create leisure time that we can use to build personal wealth connected to collective wealth, cooperating rather than competing… I highly recommend a chapter in one of Greaber’s books, where he talks about the history of trade, for those who want to start an anarchist economy. This text is capable of breaking paradigms of the current dominating economy –it blew my mind- in order to build a utopian economy. Well, that’s my opinion…
-Can you explain from an economic perspective what we are going through? Which must be the answer for anarchists in regards to hyperinflation?
The solution is to not attack inflation, but attack the structure and create economic relations. The solution is to have an economy that doesn’t get sick from inflation, where money doesn’t go hand in hand with hardship brought by price increases for those who can’t pay because their time isn’t worth it. We can’t boycott inflation, in fact we suffer from doing so. We could as anarchists live without it but we wouldn’t be able to escape from it because inflation will always catch up, and currently in this country it is very difficult to win against it.
-How do you see the process of nationalization during the Bolivian process? What are your thoughts on price controls?
Nationalization of what exactly? It seems that the state is involved even in our soaps (if your water works). Nationalization has failed on such a disastrous level that they have given the capitalist ideology tremendous strength and legitimacy, which it had lost during the 80s. For our own history I think that it was a change of leader that probably was for the worse because the levels of corruption have increased from the previous governments, as they have lowered worker’s rights, destroyed infrastructure and submerged us into a generational crisis.
-How do we escape from this situation? What is the next move for anarchists? Is there any formula we can use?
No fucking clue. Anarchism must stimulate social discontent, but not action from a mere reaction, as we have to promote discussions. Anarchist ideals have the power to liberate us, to create legitimacy in discontent, filled with reason and sense, proposals and alternatives, because if not we will lose another act in our continuous volatility. I don’t think that any magic potion exists, we can take the ideals of anarchism to build and reinvent an alternative to exit this system by changing its structure.
PS: Bachaqueo is a Venezuelan term which refers to the illegal practice of the distribution of contraband at a much higher price
Text taken from Venezuelan anarchist newspaper “El Libertario”
Originally written by Rodolfo Montes de Oca
Translated into English by Pietro Casati