The Alternative University: Lessons from Bolivarian Venezuela: An Interview with Mariya Ivancheva

A public mural in Caracas. Photo by Mariya Ivancheva.

Note from LeftEast editors: An early version of this interview on the monograph The Alternative University: Lessons from Bolivarian Venezuela (Stanford University Press, 2023) appeared in the journal Educational Philosophy and Theory, and in Bulgarian at the pages of our kindred ELMO member platform dVERSIA. We publish the pre-print with some modification. The book explores the educational reforms undertaken under late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavéz. Focusing on the University of Bolivarian Venezuela (UBV), it traces the revolutionary higher education experiments in Venezuela: their advancements and contradictions as a tool for social change and as a democratic socialist alternative to capitalist development. In her interview with Raia Apostolovafrom the dVERSIA collective, LeftEast editorial collective member Mariya Ivancheva outlines some key lessons from the book, and how they connect to topics that are relevant to social movements and alternative models set from the Left, even in times when hope for such alternatives seem foreclosed.

Raia Apostolova (RA): You are originally from Bulgaria, a former socialist country that has experienced devastating educational reforms since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Why did you go to study the Venezuelan ‘process’ and its educational reforms?

Mariya Ivancheva (MI): Indeed, I was born in socialist Bulgaria, which later became postsocialist Bulgaria. As a student at Bulgarian schools and the University of Sofia, I was expected to condemn socialism as totalitarian. My curiosity was cut short by teachers and faculty who held that I could not know anything about socialism if I never lived it. Initially, I complied with this position: when I first heard about the Bolivarian government and its socialist education reform, in London in the early 2000s, I was struck by a moral panic about what I thought was a new totalitarian regime using higher education for ideological indoctrination. Soon after, however, I landed at the Central European University (CEU) as part of a political generation from the former socialist world whose members were experiencing the effects of economic dissolution and the dismantlement of the socialist welfare state through the difficulties of finding a job or accessing decent living conditions. CEU’s Sociology and Social Anthropology Department provided a critical framework to understand these processes: Marxism. After an initial confusion, many of us adopted it as it helped explain our realities and express our frustrations. CEU, however, was itself a new experiment to produce the new Eastern European liberal middle class. Thus, my initial idea was to compare UBV and CEU as different experiments located in different parts of the global semi-periphery, aiming to produce social change through divergent processes of class formation in mind: mass and elite, respectively. Once in Venezuela, however, I dropped the comparison: I was in a very different insider/outsider position at the two places.

RA: Could you position UBV within the programme of the socialist-run government of Chavéz? What were the political, economic and educational intentions behind the establishment of UBV?

MI: Perhaps a good place to start is 1989. This year had two different faces. In Eastern Europe, where socialism fell dramatically and the ‘end of history’ and ‘there is no alternative’ dogmas were celebrated. 1989 in Venezuela experienced quite the opposite: the ‘first anti-neoliberal rebellion’ by the poor against austerity, the so-called Caracazo. While Eastern Europe headed towards an unconditional embrace of free market capitalism, Latin America experienced a democratic socialist Pink Tide. When Chavéz came to power after a democratic election in 1998, initially, there was not a clear-cut alliance between him and socialist intellectuals to whom previously university campuses had offered an autonomous territory relatively protected from police violence against the Left. It was only after the 2002 attempted coup d’etat that social programmes – misiones – were developed as a form of actual redistribution of Venezuela’s petrol wealth, including three education programmes Misión Sucre (university), Misión Robinson (alphabetisation) and Misión Ribas (school and vocational training). Misión Sucre opened UBV to the poor, traditionally excluded from universities.

RA: One of your entry points of historicising UBV is the contradictions emerging from Chavez’s decision to build alternative structures alongside traditional ones. This resulted in what you call ‘the paradox of academic autonomy.’ Can you elaborate on this point?

MI: In contemporary debates, probably since the 1980s, academic autonomy has been utilised by movements fighting autocratic regimes; hence, the term has been connected to politics but never to the market. The Venezuelan case epitomises the pitfalls of such approaches. Prior to the attempted coup d’etat, a very small Venezuelan elite benefitted from public higher education, while working primarily to place Venezuela’s crude oil and the related knowledge infrastructure at the service of international corporations. The 2003 general strike of petrol workers clearly exposed this alliance. At that point, socialist intellectuals, who promoted educational reforms to tackle the massive inequalities, encountered resistance from the same elite that weaponised academic autonomy to defy reforms. This episode created a chasm as those who had previously resisted academic autonomy – during the Venezuelan episode of 1968, Renovación Academica, when progressive students faced police violence from the ‘democratic’ conservative government – were now instrumentalising it to undermine the government’s reforms of public institutions for the benefit of the poor. This episode is a reminder that even in advanced capitalist democracies, where academic autonomy is allegedly untouched, universities often prioritise market principles and place education at the service of businesses. Within this conjuncture, the concept of academic autonomy played a somewhat perverse role in Venezuela: socialist academics were very reluctant to go against it and to infringe upon university autonomy, while opponents of the reforms utilised autonomy to protect their privileges. So, the paradox: the decision to create a second tier of institutions instead of intervening at traditional universities meant abandoning key sites of struggle against capitalism.

RA: Speaking of sites of struggles, you start the book with an ethnographic account of the campaign for constitutional amendment (Enmienda) to allow for the eternal reelection of President Chavéz. You very vividly describe the ways in which Chavista activists mobilised by painting graffiti over public buildings: a practice well encouraged by the government and paid for by public budgets. What do these instances of activism supported by the government reveal about the ways the state functions vis-à-vis its citizens?

MI: Having chosen a university as a fieldwork site, I thought I would be sitting in classrooms and interviewing students and faculty. But I encountered a very different reality. The Enmienda campaign took place early in my fieldwork, which meant that all my interlocutors did not spend much time in classrooms. Many classes were suspended. Instead, students were gathering at UBV’s parking lot and joining caravans of happiness (caravanas de alegría) organised by revolutionary DJs and cultural collectives to canvas around town. I quickly realised: I was doing educational ethnography at a very political university, and the campaign was not only promoting the president but also a different way of relating to the public and to the state. Because, while there was a progressive government in power, that did not necessarily mean that it had power over the state. This was so because the structures of the state were still serving big businesses and foreign corporations and the elites in the country. A tactic that the government adopted in this limiting situation was, in a way, to ‘squat’ the state. Chavistas would come, paint over buildings, change facades but often did not have the structural power to produce a profound reform. Yet, the government had another weapon – revolutionary art and community organising were two effective ways to relate politics to the people, for people to start seeing the government as present in everyday life. Chavismo had at its disposal the bodies of activists of all ages who were part of, present at, and engaging with poor communities. They would freely redistribute leaflets, books, music CDs, T-shirts, bags, baseball caps, shoes and other paraphernalia as part of the symbolic redistribution of the petrol rent and access to the affective world of the revolution. I stopped thinking of universities solely as providing classroom education and now see them as expressions of larger political processes: capitalist universities also promote a specific type of politics by recruitment fairs and commercial services on campus.

RA: Talking about producing ‘affective realities’ in marginalised communities, you rely on Samuel Hurtado’s notion of matrisociality (matrisocialidad) to discuss the ways in which women’s bodies were integrated into the revolutionary process. Could you elaborate on the link between the state’s affective reality and the social reproductive and political work of women community organisers?

MI: Samuel Hurtado’s work on the matrilineal connections and the ways in which poor communities are reproduced through a cluster of households of single mothers was very insightful for me. He shows that as there is no private property available around which patriarchal relations and nuclear families can be formed, fathers are present mostly through their erotic role. Not serving as breadwinners, they often disappear, shift between women, produce offspring but do not engage in social reproduction processes. He claims poor women are left to provide for and take care of their own and each other’s children in a shared matri(lineal)sociality. I started encountering such single women as central to the revolutionary process on a local level. At the main UBV campus and at the aldeas universitarias alike, knowledge production was organised by blending more traditional teaching with a central curricular component: ‘outreach’ (extensión) with poor communities, called Bolivarian Project for a New Citizenship (proyecto bolivariano de nueva ciudadania). Extensión comes from an old Latin American tradition of putting university studies into practical application for the benefit of the public. After becoming central in progressive education in the early 20th century, extensión was often coopted by businesses and used to secure internships for the elite or free labour through apprenticeships. The Bolivarian government brought it back to its origin. The students of each UBV classroom would do it as collective community organising; they would all go either to a barrio up the hills over Caracas or to some remote rural community. That required a lot of logistical preparation and was sometimes dangerous, as these are communities historically living in precarious and violent conditions, so sometimes accidents, road closures or mudslides prevented students from going. While students would visit such places, there was not always a developed methodology of how to engage with the communities. Some faculty knew how to engage either because they were from the community itself or because they were experienced social workers, but most were not. Thus, UBV students and faculty would be completely at the mercy of the community brokers. These organisers would be the spokespeople (voceros), who would more often be men, supported by female community activists. These women were carrying a lot of the actual work in the community: they would be knocking on doors, setting up community kitchens, local cooperatives to sew revolutionary T-shirts, urban gardens, community media, and would be active at local branches of the socialist party (PSUV). They would also be receiving groups from UBV and other Bolivarian institutions. These women were busy with the revolution 24/7 while also being mothers, grandmothers, daughters, taking care of children and elderly parents and working part- or full-time jobs. The revolution brought them a huge symbolic gain as many felt empowered as political agents of change. Yet – and this is one of my concerns expressed in the book – the slow and, at best, piecemeal economic redistribution did not correspond to the needs base among or the absolutely central role that these women played. They incorporated the revolution in their community. Unlike before, when the state came into these communities with police or army, it now came with the body of your relative or neighbour, in her red T-shirt, speaking to you in a comforting, familiar tone, and active to change the shared social conditions. This was an extremely powerful tool to keep communities, if not necessarily politically engaged, at least not alienated from the state.

RA: I would like to turn to another type of ‘workers of the revolution’ – the radical academics. The notion of the ‘radical nobility’ kept my attention while reading your book. This notion is central to your analysis of both everyday practices within the university and of the structural limitations that the figure revolutionary academics illuminates regarding the workings of the reforms. You rely on a Bourdieusian framework to develop this term throughout the book, explicitly or implicitly at times. Could you please explain the notion and how it relates to larger questions that guide your book?

MI: ‘Radical nobility’ comes from Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of ‘state nobility’ – as it relates to members of the French upper class, who go to specific institutions of higher learning (grandes écoles) and form the state elite. Bourdieu also speaks of a small number of radical theorists who come from this trajectory and utilise the relative autonomy of an academic position to criticise the state from within these public universities but hold little actual power. What both groups shared as a privilege was time: time to accumulate symbolic capital from an early age and to be immersed in networks of privilege. The question of time was interesting in the Venezuelan case, where radical intellectuals came to power. The Venezuelan ‘radical nobility,’ then, were former student activists, especially in the academic renovation (Renovación Academica) – the 1968 chapter of Venezuela. They studied at universities in the 1960s and often stayed in academia or public services but were politically marginalised after the violent demise of their movements. When Chavéz came to power, some of these activists joined him and headed the higher education reform. At that point, they combined two privileges which blended into what I call ‘revolutionary capital.’ On the one hand, many had the privilege of elite origin and education at traditional universities, from which the rest of society was excluded. On the other hand, they also had more ‘time in the revolution’: as revolutionary students and faculty, they participated in episodes of campus unrest such as 1968, 1987 and 1998. Both these were privileges that faculty and students who entered the Bolivarian system as recent graduates and first-generation students did not possess. This became problematic when the new UBV faculty were expected to show both academic and radical credentials. A two-tiered functioning of the revolution emerged. And while first-generation faculty had to work full teaching shifts while also expected to defend postgraduate degrees, produce publications and apply for research funding, they could not catch up on the traditional academic credentials of the ‘radical nobility’ used by the Bolivarian government to justify the accreditation of the new universities. At the same time, the new faculty lacked the time in the student movements active in an era when members of poor communities were excluded from universities. This contradiction became even more apparent when UBV students started protesting about the conditions of studying. Members of the ‘radical nobility,’ who otherwise complained that UBV students did not mobilise, were paradoxically extremely critical of their students and young faculty who supported them. They reasserted the importance of their own past struggles at traditional universities’ in the belly of the beast’ but called their own rebel-students’ clients who treat university education as a service provision.’ There is a lesson to be learned for revolutionary movements, to be mindful of such ‘revolutionary capital’ as a privilege to be critically redressed.

RA: The making of cadres for a socialist-run government was one of the purposes of UBV. We learn from the book, however, that upward social mobility for such cadres, or a transfer of economic and cultural capital from the elite ‘endowed’ with such capitals, did not quite take place in Venezuela. Why?

MI: Thinking about cadre production is charged with contradictions if it still means transferring rather than dismantling capital forms. Perhaps upward mobility should not be the one thing that the revolution provides to its cadres, as upward mobility already means working towards social difference. But then what other ways do we have to produce equality: elevating the position of those in economic and cultural disadvantage, or lowering the position of those in privilege? Does access to certified expert knowledge about itself serve such a process, or does labour or democratic participation play a role in supplementing it? Whatever way we answer such questions, in Venezuela, the situation was complicated because the old structures of privilege were never really dismantled, and no real structural redistribution of expert positions happened in certain key sectors. The private sector continued growing, but the new Bolivarian graduates were not seen as ready for ‘high-skilled’ positions even within the public service, such as national TV stations or the national petrol company PDVSA where they only accessed certain ‘low-skilled’ low-paid jobs. An employment structure was not in place that could allow them to grow within the educational system and statehood. Yet, when I inquired why this was the case, Bolivarian policymakers and university leaders saw my questions about the job market for UBV graduates as instrumentalist and unappreciative of the revolutionary rationale. As I came to understand, UBV’s ‘hidden curriculum’ was not aimed at training state cadres but community workers. However, UBV graduates could only sponsor such type of work through microcredits from community banks. Yet, even if low- and fixed-interest credits from community banks could perhaps serve as a solution, it was often middle-class people who mastered the language of grant applications and bureaucratic forms of management that succeeded in microcredit bids.

RA: What are some of the conclusions that you draw from this experience for future attempts to create alternative higher education structures? Are there any ways in which this book informed your studies on contemporary neoliberal academia?

MI: In 2008, when I started fieldwork, the traumatising experience of the global financial crisis had started affecting a whole generation of people in the Global North. Higher education saw the introduction of fees, rapid privatisation and a lack of prospects for graduates in a job and housing market that was falling apart. Sadly, the 2011 wave of student protest did not have a utopian impulse. Part of the problem, perhaps, was that some of the worse assaults against public higher education had started from progressive critique, e.g., the employability dogma started with calls for useful knowledge, and the call for public accountability of academia was translated into market language and now pushes all academics to produce ‘value for stakeholders’ and ‘policy impact.’ In such a vacuum of ideals, the socialist experiment helped me ask about what alternative ways of thinking of community engagement, collective knowledge production, alternative assessment of students and evaluation of faculty could be that transgress modern, Western knowledge forms put at service to advanced capitalism. I found the Bolivarian experiment a very valuable confirmation that working toward these not only in microcollectives but also on a mass scale is doable. Sadly, it also demonstrated the limitations of democratic socialism. Immersed in capitalist and neo-imperial structures, hierarchies or gendered divisions of labour in society and on a world system level, no socialist experiment can live up to its own ideals. The Venezuelan experiment still instructs us to expose and work against the contradictions that can subvert even the most benevolent efforts or egalitarian design. It pushes us all, hopefully, to delve back into socialist histories, reading the mistakes and achievements in a more nuanced way to inform future experiments.

Raia Apostolova is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, Department “Knowledge Society: Education, Science, and Innovations”, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. Her current research explores political theories of socialist internationalism and migration developed in the context of socialist and postcolonial encounters, their social effects on international labor and educational relations, and their subsequent eradication from the social fabric following the capitalist restoration in Eastern Europe. Raia is also an editor at the magazine for political analysis dВЕРСИЯ.

Mariya Ivancheva is an anthropologist and sociologist of higher education and labour, working as a Senior Lecturer at the University of Strathclyde. Her academic and research-driven advocacy work focus on the casualisation and digitalisation of academic labour, the re/production of intersectional inequalities at universities and high-skilled labour markets, and the role of university communities in broader processes of social change especially in transitions to/from socialism. She is a member of the LeftEast editorial collective, and the Bulgarian left feminist group LevFem.

By Raia Apostolova

Raia Apostolova is from Sofia and a Ph.D. student at the Central European University, Budapest.