Bolivarian Revolution

Richard Branson, punk, and the Venezuelan crisis

Branson continues to play the role given him by Margaret Thatcher: 'the little Tsar' of neoliberalism, this time on a global tour
Photo: British High Commission, Ottawa
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It was a battle of the bands for the fate of the Bolivarian Revolution.

Billionaire Richard Branson — founder of the massive multinational Virgin Group Ltd. — squared off against embattled Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro last month with a spectacular Venezuela Aid Live concert in Colombia, to contest a benefit concert held by the Venezuelan government on the same day.

Among the wealthy businessman’s distinguished concert-going guests was none other than Juan Guaidó, Maduro’s rival. Guaidó’s bizarre exit from Venezuela while he was also trying to take it over in a foreign-backed coup underlines the absurd scrambling of national borders wrought by the histories of colonialism, capitalist imperialism, and neoliberal globalization.

Boredom, however, is a bourgeois privilege.

Branson’s mega-concert was nothing other than a skirmish in a border war defined by the projects of neoliberal expansion in Latin America. In this context, borders obstruct flows of human capital, and they can be selectively activated or deactivated for the flow of commodities (e.g., using sanctions, trade agreements, etc.) in order to maximize private profits.

By supporting Guaidó’s self-proclaimed presidency, and by assisting the U.S. in its efforts to force aid into the country, Branson continues to play the role once assigned to him by Margaret Thatcher: “the little Tsar” of neoliberalism, this time on a global tour.

The rise of Branson and punk

Brandon was unofficially appointed “little Tsar” of Britain in the 1980s. He rose to prominence by capitalizing on the disaffection and rebelliousness — resulting from years of austerity and social atomization — distilled in punk subculture. His label Virgin Records made a statement by signing controversial bands such as the Sex Pistols, and its stores became popular hangouts for hippies and rockers to burn their discretionary time smoking pot and ingesting new music.

The culture industry’s commodification of punk proved a profitable means of containing the otherwise diffuse dissent of a working class haunted by a loss of social cohesion. By 1984, the contradictions of culture and class in the U.K. were so intense that the airwaves were split between Thatcher’s battle against the nationwide miners’ strike and Billy Joel’s Live at Wembley. In June, Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Two Tribes” started a nine-week stay on top of the U.K. singles charts — just two days before the famous Battle of Orgreave saw a violent clash between over 6,000 police and 5,000 picketers outside a British Steel Corporation coking plant in South Yorkshire.

Only the very wealthiest could afford a cosmopolitan interest in rock or pop, while Caribbean rhythms remained more popular among the masses.

Police repression was the cornerstone of Thatcher’s strategy for dealing with the strike, coupled with the double imperative to stockpile as much coal and to keep as many miners at work as possible. Yet “the destruction of the miners — and with them the wrought-iron ruins of the postwar consensus — was only the most media-visible of the pacification strategies Kapital [capital] was deploying, and in many ways the least significant,” wrote Mark Fisher, the late writer and cultural theorist also known as K-Punk.

Punk in Britain was born as the reaction of a highly developed urban working class to the flight of its industrial backbone amid the implementation of new international export markets and global supply chains. This created a new class of workers paradoxically defined by lack of work — that is, by consumption, rather than productivity. British youth had more discretionary time precisely because they possessed fewer economic opportunities.

Boredom, however, is a bourgeois privilege. Frustration and anger were more characteristic responses from an alienated urban working class to the shrivelling up of the local industrial economy. In its inception, punk in Britain was as much an opposition to authority as it was the expression of a deep dissatisfaction with the emerging economic configurations.

Punk comes late to Venezuela

Punk in Latin America, on the other hand, emerged in a more complex fashion, both independently of and in response to punk as it is often framed.

It took off in the 1970s in countries such as Mexico and Argentina, where relatively higher levels of economic development allowed for the existence of a minority of young people wealthy enough to travel and bring back influences from abroad. Less developed countries, such as Venezuela, had fewer cultural contagions trickling down to the working class from abroad. Only the very wealthiest could afford a cosmopolitan interest in rock or pop, while Caribbean rhythms remained more popular among the masses.

Drugs were quickly stamped out due to the extreme militancy of the left permeating the punk scene.

At the same time, punk music began to take shape in Latin America during the 1970s as a response to shared histories of exploitation and repression, U.S. imperialism and foreign-backed dictatorships. Brazil, Mexico, Colombia and Argentina — each of which had active circuits in the early days of Latin American punk — all share such histories. Of course, this is a truism in Latin America, where almost every country has been subjected to the destructive foibles of U.S. imperialism at some time or another. Under the Pérez dictatorship (1952–58) in Venezuela, the strong GDP growth buoyed by a petroleum-based export economy exacerbated existing economic inequality. Poor and working-class Venezuelans eventually saw dividends in the form of increased social spending throughout the 1960s and 1970s, especially on health care, transportation, education and food programs.

However, the overreliance on oil caused a complete reversal in the country’s economic fortunes once prices collapsed in the 1980s, causing mass inflation and social upheavals over the course of the decades to come. This collapse was the result of a crisis of overproduction in the newly globalized oil sector, which ensured both that Venezuelans would lack any real political or economic sovereignty over key national resources and industries and that the Venezuelan economy would remain precariously overdependent on oil and foreign investment.

Thus, Venezuelans were in the midst of an economic upsurge at the time that punk was taking off in other Latin American countries. Venezuelan punk got off to a slow start. The first punk festival in Venezuela was held in Caracas in 1983, featuring bands like La Seguridad Nacional (National Security), Enigma, PP’s, El Oso William (Bear William), and Dead Feeling. The first foreign punk or metal band to play in the country was Garrote Vil, based out of Barcelona, in 1996.

Fighting the system, and each other

Yet the lack of an economic basis analogous to that which gave rise to punk in the U.K. and elsewhere didn’t mean that Venezuela was without its own proto-punk influences.

La Seguridad Nacional, formed in 1979, is considered to be the pioneer of punk in Venezuela. Taking their name from that of the militarized police force under Pérez, they surrounded themselves with an aura of rebellion, scandal and excess. Their sound was experimental, with tones ranging from hardcore (what members of the group referred to as “organized noise” or “anarcho-porno”) to post-punk. The group recorded only a single album together, Documento de actitud (Document of Attitude), in 1991, but continue to be regarded as underground pioneers of punk in the country, having paved the way for the first wave of Venezuelan punk bands in the 1990s.

First-wave punk bands in Venezuela, mostly coming out of East Caracas, formed much in the same way as those in countries like Mexico and Argentina had in earlier decades: youth who had the means to travel were the first to become aware of the punk genre, and the first to be able to buy musical instruments and practise with them. Ultimately, the projects of neoliberal expansion stifled punk in Venezuela, at the same time that the music was growing in popularity in neighbouring countries and abroad, precisely by keeping the country underdeveloped and heavily repressed. Punk music was typically a response to various forms of repression, as seen in the U.K., but it still required enough economic development in the country for there to be a significant proportion of the working class with both an interest in culture (and subcultures) and sufficient free time to be able to pick up musical instruments and learn a few chords.

It is easy to see how the rhetoric surrounding “humanitarian aid” obfuscates that it is only intended as “aid” for global financial markets — not Venezuelans.

If punk in Venezuela struggled to be born against the unlikely odds of economic underdevelopment and political repression, then it would take a decidedly different shape than its counterparts by the end of the 1990s. Drugs were quickly stamped out due to the extreme militancy of the left permeating the punk scene, and punks who attended university during the ’90s participated in clashes against the police over the implementation of neoliberal economic reforms, known as the Caracazo uprisings. In one such clash, on June 2, 1992, José Gregorio Romero, known by the alias “Flecha,” was killed by police. Flecha was later memorialized in a song by the same name, written by Oktavo Pasajero.

Fewer subcultures under the punk umbrella existed in Venezuela due to the diminutive stature of the scene. But those that did exist — punks, skinheads, metalheads and Goths (los “darks”) — expended nearly as much energy on music as they did fighting each other, veiling personal conflicts with thin ideological justifications.

Because the scene remained small and tainted by infighting, punk in Venezuela naturally failed to manifest any substantial political opposition at the cultural level. Obviously punk music doesn’t lead directly to political opposition vis-à-vis working-class consciousness. But one can still compare the “combined and uneven” development of punk in the U.K. and in Venezuela as an instructive example of how class consciousness stuttered and started to develop in countries across the world, through and against the projects of neoliberal expansion and the left-wing governments supposed to serve as a bastion against them.

In the early ’90s, punk militancy fluctuated from support for the Marxist-Leninist parties to insurrectionary anarchism. By the end of the decade, and after Hugo Chávez won power in 1998, many former punks who had been Chavistas began working for the state. Chávez’s government even started to promote its own punk shows, with security provided by the military. Flying in the face of its DIY culture and anti-state tendencies, this cooptation of punk subculture by the governing forces would seem to many to be nothing short of a cruel joke.

Aid and economic warfare

While there is certainly something “punk” about Venezuela’s staunch opposition to U.S. imperialism and neoliberal globalization, matters aren’t so simple as to be able to say that the Maduro regime is “punk,” while Branson and his ilk aren’t.

Indeed, the attempted cooptation of punk by the Chavistas is in many ways a warped reflection of the very same tack that made Branson famous (and famously wealthy).

Above all, neoliberalism requires consensus. Against this, punk manifests as a radical dissensus. In a world where everything political is depoliticized in the name of the economy, which is governed by rational calculation, punk is the ineliminable anger that festers the more it is systematically ignored in the decisions made by technocratic elites. As Fisher argued, the proletariat is the disgruntled scream or fuzz of a distorted guitar in an otherwise “noise-free polis.” When it moves, it creates waves of interference in the form of positive feedback loops that resonate through the destruction of existing systems, like the eardrum-splitting wail of a guitar pickup run back through an electric amplifier. Above all, punk is a cry of creative affirmation, which threatens to cancel all systems of power, degradation and economic exploitation.

As things stand currently, Guaidó is back in Venezuela, where he has incited further anti-government protests by cynically taking advantage of the recent blackouts in the country.

While Colombians and Venezuelans may “dance to the same rhythm,” they remain a people divided by the contradictions of the capitalist system.

Ultimately, from the neoliberal perspective, it doesn’t really matter who’s in power, so long as the country remains in a state of permanent instability. Rather than needing to put troops on the ground in order to extract oil for the global market, the U.S. can simultaneously conduct economic warfare while pilfering profits from PDVSA — Venezuela’s state-owned oil and natural gas company — using sanctions. PDVSA accounts for about 95 per cent of the country’s national revenue; since U.S. sanctions, its exports have plummeted by 40 per cent, while $7-billion in U.S. assets owned by the company remain inaccessible (with a projected $11-billion loss over the next year).

It is precisely this kind of warfare that has plunged the country into such a deep economic crisis. Furthermore, these tactics are continuous with decades of devastating policies imposed on the country by the projects of neoliberal expansion. Taking this into account, it is easy to see how the rhetoric surrounding “humanitarian aid” obfuscates that it is only intended as “aid” for global financial markets — not Venezuelans.

‘To hear a new sound’

Branson is a seasoned veteran in the manipulation of such rhetoric.

Just weeks before Venezuela Aid Live, he gained plaudits in the mainstream media for stating his support for progressive taxation; however, his home in the British Virgin Islands is a recognized tax haven. Branson has often touted an “employees first” policy for his businesses, but the business model for Virgin Group Ltd. has been to seed competition in key industries under the Virgin brand before flipping those companies and licensing rights to the very domestic competitors whose industries those companies were ostensibly intended to “disrupt.”

And The Elders, a human rights organization, was born partly as the result of conversations in the ’90s between Branson, Nelson Mandela and Peter Gabriel. Critically speaking, the organization’s animating ideals are not the advancement of human rights but rather the substitution of anger by expertise, of mass forms of political organization by technocratic elitism, characteristic of the neoliberal model.

Today, the punk thing to do would be to follow Bolívar’s example.

The respective concerts held by Branson and the Maduro regime in Colombia and Venezuela, respectively, played out as a virtual who’s who of artists intersected by the national and ideological contradictions that have long scarred the landscape of Latin America. While Colombians and Venezuelans may “dance to the same rhythm,” they remain a people divided by the contradictions of the capitalist system.

Before the era of U.S. imperialism, Simón Bolívar liberated the colonies of Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Panama from the Spanish Empire. Today, the punk thing to do would be to follow Bolívar’s example — not by falling on either side of national borders or post-ideological political ideologies but by calling for their dissolution.

Punk points us beyond the political oppositions of the day by refusing to accept the conditions presented by each side of a given power hierarchy, whether capital and the working class or peoples on either side of a national border. The promise of punk today is to see past the impasses of the end of history, to hear a new sound in the anarchic noise and screams of an absolute dissatisfaction: a possible space of creativity, or organization.

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