How to Change the World: Institutions and Movements Both Matter

Gabriel Hetland

It will take well-designed alternative institutions and robust popular movements to create a better world. Gabriel Hetland explores the complicated relationship between institution- and movement-building that has taken place in Venezuela’s “Bolivarian Revolution”, highlighting the lessons activists and scholars in the US might learn from this. 

Participatory Budgeting in Torres, November 2010. Credit: Gabriel Hetland

Over the past decade and a half, activists, civic and political leaders, and ordinary citizens in Venezuela have gained considerable firsthand knowledge about the difficult process of trying to enact radical change. One of the main challenges is how to reconcile two processes that both seem necessary to this task but obey quite different logics: creating durable institutions, which are linked to the state and political parties, while maintaining the vitality of popular movements. The challenge of reconciling these processes is not unique to Venezuela, with this essay examining what activists and scholars in the US—where the processes of institution- and movement-building have, at times, been seen as conflicting goals—might learn from the contradictions of the “Bolivarian Revolution.”

Two Ways of Thinking about Change: Occupy Wall Street versus the Real Utopias Project

The Occupy Wall Street movement (hereafter OWS) and the Real Utopias Project (hereafter RUP), whose principal exponent is Erik Olin Wright, are similar in several important ways.[1] Both grow from a deep dissatisfaction with the world as it is, and in particular with the deleterious effects of capitalism, and the inability of the institutions of representative democracy (as they are currently set up) to adequately deal with these effects. OWS and RUP also share a commitment to finding alternative ways of being that are rooted not in the profit-driven logic of the market or the bureaucratic logic of the state but in emancipatory values of participatory democracy, egalitarianism and social justice.

Notwithstanding these similarities, OWS and RUP represent two quite distinct ways of thinking about radical change. Many within OWS were not only less concerned with, but actively opposed to, specifying the movement’s endpoint. This was partly a strategic decision: given that the movement had attracted massive support from many diverse sectors of society, it seemed precipitous to try to figure out precisely what the movement wanted. The point of OWS was, to a large extent, to say “No” to the vision of unconstrained greed and corruption that Wall Street represented in the wake of the 2008 financial crash. Figuring out what the movement wanted, in a positive sense, was a collective task, but in the eyes of many, not the most pressing. The key was to keep the movement alive and growing. At the risk of reifying a diverse and complex movement, the OWS model of radical social change could be categorized as “movement for the sake of movement”, a sort of “if you build it [the movement] they [the goals of the movement] will come.”

The Real Utopias Project shares the moral outrage and critical spirit that fueled OWS but comes at the question of radical change from a very different angle. Coming out of the academy, RUP is well grounded in theory, in particular the Marxist tradition.[2] One of the central concerns of RUP is the question of the institutional design, and the principles underlying the design, of existing and plausible-but-yet-to-be-achieved experiments that both create the world as it should be within the confines and constraints of the world as it is and also help us move towards this better world. RUP does not ignore the question of strategy: the final part of Wright’s Envisioning Real Utopias discusses three distinct and (in Wright’s view) overlapping strategies of radical change: ruptural, symbiotic and interstitial. But apart from illustrative examples of real utopian experiments (participatory budgeting, cooperatives, Wikipedia, etc.) the book does not (nor, given its purpose, should it) discuss the concrete popular movements that have been, or would be, necessary to make these utopias “real”. If OWS suffered from a movement bias, in which goal setting and institution building were seen as secondary and, for some, un-useful and perhaps even dangerous tasks, RUP could perhaps be seen as suffering from an institutional design bias, with significant attention devoted to thinking about both the principles underlying alternative institutions and the specific institutional mechanisms of existing and plausible real utopian institutions but with much less attention given to the question of how to connect these promising institutions to on-the-ground movements.

This essay argues that people committed to the task of changing the world should pay greater attention to the possibilities and challenges inherent in trying to combine OWS’ and RUP’s distinct, but potentially complementary, logics of movement- and institution-building. This essay will also argue that changing the world requires paying greater attention to class and politics, something OWS and RUP both fall short on. After outlining a model of prefigurative politics that could do this, this model will be illustrated by examining a case of radical transformation in contemporary Venezuela.

Thinking about how to Reconcile Institution- and Movement-Building

Building movements and building institutions are in many ways distinct tasks, as scholars like Robert Michels, and more recently Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, have shown. Movements depend upon mass mobilization. To sustain mass mobilization over time requires energy, creativity and, above all, flexibility. The beauty of OWS and similar movements such as the indignados of Spain was the explosion of spontaneous rage and creative energy that refused to be contained or channeled within existing institutions, such as political parties, trade unions or NGOs. The heart of OWS was the assembly, a democratic space par excellence in which what Antonio Negri calls constituent power—people’s collective power to determine the very rules and structures that guide their future lives and decision-making—is supreme. To many within OWS, the idea of institutionalizing the assembly form would amount to the domestication of constituent power.[3] The formulation of long-term (and even short- and medium-term) goals is dangerous since these goals can then become the movement’s raison d’etre, sapping the movement of its creative potentiality and vitality.

RUP’s concern with institutional design and institution building grows from a different concern: that unless people are shown examples of practical experiments that both embody radically alternative principles and actually work in practice, the already difficult task of generating support for a movement to radically transform the world will be even more challenging. An additional concern is practical: beyond building support for an alternative future world, RUP is concerned with understanding what makes for good alternative institutions. Institutional design and institution building—processes that require the formulation of (short-, medium- and long-term) goals and the establishment of relatively durable and predictable rules, routines and structures of decision-making and leadership—are integral to this project.

Combining movement and institution building is hard under any circumstances. Bringing party politics into the mix adds an additional challenge. Parties are potentially useful vehicles for constructing institutions but not necessarily the type of radically democratic institutions required for building a movement for thoroughgoing transformation. Parties carry several dangers, namely oligarchization, party domination over civil society, and rigidity. OWS and RUP both emerged, in part, due to activists and scholars’ awareness of, and attempts to overcome, these dangers.

Notwithstanding these dangers, which cannot be ignored or wished away, parties provide a way to combine movement and institution building. Electoral competition forces parties to organize and engage in regular mobilization of their social bases. To the extent that they are electorally successful, parties provide a way of linking the creative energy, flexibility and constituent vitality of movements to the resources, administrative capacity and symbolic legitimacy of the state (the seat of constituted power in Negri’s terms). But how can parties avoid the dangers outlined above, with the logic of institutionalization and constituted power trumping that of movement and constituent power? To avoid this scenario requires certain conditions: parties must be internally democratic and horizontally connected to movements that are organically tied to the popular classes. This scenario, which is admittedly rare and hard to achieve, offers significant potential for successfully combining movement and institution building. To illustrate how this can work I draw on a case from contemporary Venezuela.[4]

Torres: Venezuela’s ‘First Socialist City’

Torres, a semi-rural municipality of 185,000 inhabitants located in the central western Venezuelan state of Lara, has been referred to as “Venezuela’s first socialist city” and is arguably the site of the country’s most extensive experiment in participatory decision-making. Since 2005, Torres has had an impressive participatory budget, in which 100% of the decisions are subject to control by popular assemblies. These assemblies have attracted support from all political parties and party factions and all sectors of society; while there is a clear predominance of the popular sectors, the wealthy have participated as well. Torres’ participatory budget has been well administered, with many hundreds of projects approved and executed from 2005 to the present. This has led to considerable political success for the politicians overseeing the process. Julio Chávez, the mayor who started Torres’ radical participatory budget, was elected with 35.6% of the vote in 2004. In 2008, after joining the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) Chávez (who is not related to Hugo Chávez) was elected to Lara’s state assembly and in 2010 he was elected to Venezuela’s National Assembly with 55.6% of the vote, one of the highest totals for any PSUV candidate this year. Edgar Carrasco, whom Chávez endorsed as his successor in 2008 when he decided to run for state assembly, won in 2008 with 48.3% and was re-elected in 2013 with 54.7% of the vote. In addition to participatory budgeting, Torres was the site of an innovative municipal constituent assembly in 2005, in which residents from around the municipality gathered in popular assemblies and re-wrote Torres’ ordinances. Torres has also been the site of land reform attempts, and various “socialist enterprises”. Research conducted on one such enterprise in 2010 suggested that it was moving in the direction of worker and community control, although the central state was putting up a major fight.

Torres’ transformation is due to a process that has combined movement- and institution-building. The central, but by no means sole, figure in this process was Julio Chávez, who has supported and been supported by a number of important social movements and two political parties during this time. In 2004, Chávez won election as Torres’ mayor with the support of Patria Para Todos (Fatherland for All, PPT), a radical Left party that had an on-again, off-again relationship with the Fifth Republic Movement (MVR), the ruling party of Hugo Chávez until 2007. During the 2004 mayoral campaign, the MVR fiercely opposed Julio Chávez’s candidacy. Luis Reyes Reyes, the MVR governor of Lara state (where Torres is located) pushed hard for a different candidate (whom he controlled). The local agrarian elite, which ruled Torres for centuries (essentially until the 1990s), local commercial media and the conservative Catholic Church all opposed Chávez as well. In addition to the small PPT, Chávez’s supporters were urban and rural movements, trade unions, student activists, liberation theologians, and a number of frustrated MVR supporters, who were betrayed by the previous mayor (who was elected with the MVR’s support in 2000, but joined the anti-Chávez opposition in 2003).

A grassroots backlash against the MVR helped usher Julio Chávez into office. He immediately convoked a municipal constituent assembly, followed by the launch of participatory budgeting, which became the centerpiece of his administration. City council (which was controlled by mainstream MVR politicians loyal to Lara’s governor), local commercial media, and state- and national-level bureaucrats opposed Julio Chávez and both of his signature initiatives (the municipal constituent assembly and participatory budgeting). According to Chávez, “The MVR said that this was anarchy. They [i.e. members of his own party] said that I was crazy to give up my power” (Author’s fieldnotes, August 2007). This resistance from above stimulated mobilization from below, which is the key factor that has kept Chávez and the parties he has belonged to from succumbing to the dangers (of rigidity, oligarchization and domination of civil society) outlined above. To overcome the resistance of local and regional political and economic elites Chávez mobilized his supporters, who occupied City Hall on multiple occasions—first when MVR councilors refused to approve the municipal constituent assembly and again when the council refused to approve the participatory budget. In 2007 Chávez joined the newly created PSUV (at the president’s request) and in 2008 decided to run in the party’s primary as a candidate for governor of Lara. The PSUV regional leadership fiercely opposed this move, which they feared could weaken the support of their preferred candidate (a much more mainstream politician). The PSUV initially refused to allow Chávez to register as a candidate. Chávez responded as he had in the past: by mobilizing hundreds of supporters, who successfully pressed the party leadership to let Chávez run in the primary. This worked, though Chávez ended up losing the primary by a large margin. Edgar Carrasco, who became Torres’ mayor in 2008, has continued and in some cases deepened his predecessor’s radical reforms, prompting more resistance from PSUV leaders. It is important to note, however, that President Chávez and a few other important party leaders (such as Marta Harnecker, the Chilean-born intellectual and activist) praised Torres as a model of what Venezuela should look like if it were to become a socialist country. One example of President Chávez’s support is the fact that in 2006 he appointed Julio Chávez to a presidential commission on popular power, making him the only mayor to receive this distinction. Harnecker, in turn, wrote a book praising Torres, and its participatory budget.[5]

Torres’ achievements—the creation of participatory institutions that have subjected more and more spaces formerly controlled by the state and parties to robust and effective popular control—demonstrates what can be achieved when the logics of movement and institution building are fused. In addition to the citizens of Torres, who have played an extremely active role in these processes, the key “agent” of these transformations has been a radical Left party (the PPT from 2004-2006 and the local PSUV, which was controlled by essentially the same ex-PPTistas from 2007 on) that has been closely linked, in a relatively horizontal manner, to robust popular movements. This party and its leadership have stayed rooted to the party’s base because of the resistance Julio Chávez and his administration faced from local, regional and national political and economic elites. By forcing Chávez (and his successor, Edgar Carrasco) to repeatedly mobilize his support base, this resistance from above created and then reproduced its opposite: organization and mobilization from below.

In certain respects Torres is a unique case. It has been home to some of Venezuela’s strongest social movements, which date to the early 20th century and extend through guerilla struggles in the 1960s and 1970s, a cooperative movement in the 1970s and 1980s, a cultural movement that was created in the 1980s and continues today, land struggles in the 1970s and a long tradition of progressive Catholicism. The changes in Torres have occurred, above all, because this movement (in its different, but closely interconnected iterations) successfully connected itself to electoral politics (due, in large part, to the political opening created by Hugo Chávez’s “Bolivarian Revolution”). It then managed to resist various pressures from above: from agrarian elites who sought (unsuccessfully) to coopt Julio Chávez; regional elites who sought to crush the Chávez administration by supporting his rivals and lavishing them with cash; and bureaucratic pressures that sought to undermine radical initiatives through bureaucratic red tape.

Broader Lessons

Torres is hardly alone as a model of combining movement and institution building to create radical change. Other prominent examples include Porto Alegre, with its famed Participatory Budget (which Julio Chávez was clearly inspired by, though he has at times dismissed it as being “social democratic”) and Kerala, India where the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has engaged in numerous exercises in participatory institution building and base mobilization over the years.

For activists in the US and elsewhere, Torres, Porto Alegre, Kerala and similar cases demonstrate the fruit of trying to merge the movement-centered politics of the Occupy movement with the institution-building focus of the Real Utopias Project. There are obviously different challenges in different contexts. In Venezuela a key, and still-present challenge, has been finding ways for social movements to link to the state without succumbing to political party and bureaucratic pressures. In the US radical activists face the challenge of trying to organize third parties (a task that has been tried repeatedly but with little success thus far) or trying to work within the often-stifling confines of the Democratic Party. (The resistance of both parties to the creation of a third party is quite pronounced in the US. Another challenge is the lack of proportional representation.) In other countries (e.g. South Africa, India) the challenges are distinct. Regardless of local specificities and differences, the analysis presented in this article suggests that activists, intellectuals, politicians and ordinary citizens seeking to find ways to subvert the logics of capital and the state and to create a new and better world that embodies emancipatory principles would do well to concentrate on two tasks: building alternative institutions and finding ways to link these institutions to robust popular movements.

The key lesson of Torres is one that goes against scholars such as Robert Michels. Under certain circumstances—namely those in which resistance from above stimulates widespread and sustained mobilization from below—it seems possible for radical political parties to avoid the ‘iron law of oligarchy’ and stay true to a commitment to change the world, by serving as a link connecting (state) institutions and popular movements.


Gabriel Hetland is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. His research examines participatory democracy in Latin America and the US, focusing on the relationship political parties, the state and social movements. He has also been involved with efforts to bring participatory budgeting to the US through the Participatory Budgeting Project.


References and Footnotes

  1. On RUP see Erik Olin Wright. 2010. Envisioning Real Utopias. New York and London: Verso.
  2. As Wright discusses in the preface to EVR, RUP is part of the project of reconstructing Marxism, which Wright and Michael Burawoy have been engaged in for a number of years.
  3. This was not, of course, the only view within OWS. See, for example, OWS participant Jonathan Smucker's article in this forum.
  4. The following account is drawn from fieldwork I conducted in Torres between 2007 and 2011.
  5. Marta Harnecker. 2008. Transfiriendo poder a la gente: Municipio Torres, Estado Lara, Venezuela. Centro Internacional Miranda.