Venezuela: Why a Philosophical Summit of the Poor?


I interviewed Juan Manuel Mendoza of the Cayapo Collective at the Philosophical Summit of the Poor on Friday.  In this interview, Mendoza talks about the importance of thinking together, discussing and asking questions.  He asserts that together, we are very clear about the problems of capitalism but that when it comes to building another culture, another system, we have many questions and few answers.

The Philosophical Summit of the Poor was held at Caracas’s prestigious art university, a space that, prior to the revolution would have never been available for grassroots gatherings of the sort.  Mendoza sees the popular uprising of 1989, called the Caracazo, as an awakening for Venezuelans and as a break with the past.

Mendoza gave permission to print this interview in full, with the stipulation that we reiterate that these are not his ideas alone; that everything that he says comes from years of discussing and thinking with others.

Introduction and interview conducted in Spanish by Cory Fischer-Hoffman. Translated and adapted for

The philosophical summit of the poor was born when we realized—in  the middle of a revolution—there should be another way of thinking than that which is constituted in our culture and our society; which is that, as the poor people that we are, we do not even exist.  In the whole history of humanity, we have been used as merchandise, armies, and slaves. And then there are the others who have designed policies, made decisions, and given orders.  And they have said that they have done it for us but if that were true than many rich people would have died in wars, not poor people; the only ones that die in war are the poor.  The only ones that suffer from the tragedy of capitalism are the poor.  The only ones that go to prison are us, the poor.

When we realized this, thanks to this revolution, thanks to 1989, when there was a break in our history, and Chavez appeared, and we won the elections, and the story that followed, we realized that we are not alone in Venezuela and that 99% of the population of the whole planet is poor.  Because to define poor is very simple, the poor are those who are not the owners.  And, as the poor, we are not owners of anything. When you look and you realize that you are not the owner of your clothing, of your food, you are not the owner of absolutely anything, in that instant you realize your class position.      

Evidently, they have taught us our whole lives, that as a class we have the possibility to grow, to climb up the social classes, but this is a lie.  My grandmother always said “the rich are complete” and its true, they are very few.  There are those who say that only 700 people enjoy the wealth of this planet, if that were true, than each of these rich people would need 700,000 poor people to support them.  This is an outrage, this is a tragedy.  But it is a tragedy that we have only recently realized as a people.  As poor people, as a class of tragedy we have only realized this recently. Before, we died in their wars, thinking that it was true that we were fighting for “equality, fraternity, and liberty.” Now we realize that the “equality,” “fraternity,” “solidarity,”and all of that crap is bourgeois. Because how is it that a slave would fight in the same war as a master, and they are both fighting for freedom, how do you explain this?  No, it was freedom for the master.  

One of the things that we say is “neither slavery, nor freedom,”  we must construct another concept.  Because to be free then, requires slaves.  Now, if we say “we do not want to be slaves,” and so, the people say, “well, then, you want to be free,” we say “no.”  Because to be free, means to not be slaves, and we are the slaves.  So, it is absurd to try to create another culture, another society based on the [old] concepts of “freedom” or “democracy.”  

People get scared when you say these kinds of things, or they get worried, or bothered because they think that we are pushing this conversation so that these things happen tomorrow, but they won’t happen tomorrow.  Capitalism has been constituted as a model, as a system through at least the last 500 years, to be what it is today.  Building another society will not be possible to do in a hurry, it is capitalism that tells us that we need to hurry; we need to give ourselves time to think, to discuss, to experiment, to discuss the concepts that we produce as a consequence of our experiences.  So, we need to look for this time, this is something historic that this revolution has given us.

And as a result of this revolution today, the army, the police, they no longer persecute us, murders us.  In fact they protect us, they care for spaces, give us spaces like this.  Look, we, as a class would have never been able to enter a room like this.  And, it’s not that we wanted was to be able to enter this room.  These are not the most ideal spaces to discuss, but they are what we’ve got and so, we are going to discuss things, because it is necessary to do so.  But our spaces are the patios, the stoops.  The patio of a house, that is where we discuss.  Wherever there are two people discussing the anguish of the system which we inhabit in this moment, there is a philosophical summit of the poor.  

Even though we are organizing this, we are not the owners of anything, let alone this gathering. We are doing this with the goal of calling others and saying, “hey, brother, let’s get together and think because we don’t have answers.”  Because every time we do this, we realize that we have many doubts, many questions, that we are very ignorant about what this “other society” is. We know absolutely nothing about this “other society”, but we are very wise when it comes to capitalism, we have all of the answers.  You don’t have to go to a university to be very wise about how capitalism works, but we are all very ignorant in what we call “socialism” but we could call it “kachicamazul”(nonsense), we can call it whatever we want to call it, but it doesn’t exist, it doesn’t exist and there are so many things we need to do.

Look, we have to discuss our homes, we have to discuss love, we have to discuss sex, we have to discuss health, we have to discuss how we feed ourselves.  For example, in our homes, we have to even discuss the furniture in our houses, because today, the way in which furniture is constituted is as property. In another society, for example, private property should be considered prehistoric because private property has been the justification for all of the crimes that we know today.  Property should disappear from our lexicon.  
OK, this is not going to happen tomorrow, which is why we say to people, we have time to discuss because we are not in a hurry.  And we are not in a rush because we know that our biological time, our skin, our body, our fluids, won’t sustain us long enough to finish these historic conversations, this will take us generations.  And, we are not just talking about our children and our grand children, we are talking about generations of people that have to come together to discuss, that have to look for the time to discuss things together.

For example, today they are discussing the communal culture.  But the communal culture is not something that we can produce because we spend 14 hours as day as slaves to this system. Of each  24 hours, 14 are for being slaves of the system, and 6 hours, at least, we spend sleeping to recuperate and gain energy to once gain be slaves to the system.  How much time does this leave us to discuss the construction of another society?  It doesn’t give us time, hardly an hour or two hours in our homes.

It’s like our houses, people say “these barrios are ugly.”  But the bricklayers who made the most beautiful houses in all of Caracas live in these houses.  But, clearly after investing 5-6 days a week, making other people’s houses when it comes to making their own they no longer have the energy and so they end of living in a makeshift house. This is what we are.  As Ramón’s poem says “we are the magicians that generate wealth, but we do not have anything.”  We are not owners of anything, and that is what makes us poor.

Now, we do not want to be rich.  It might seem like a contradiction, but we do not want to be rich.  Because being rich implies the exclusion of millions of poor.  We are saying, let’s think, let’s discuss, let’s talk, let’s get together, let’s look for one another to discuss all of this anguish with the goal of understanding ourselves as a class, because if we can disappear ourselves as the poor, the rich will disappear too, because they are only possible because of us, the poor. And so, this is what the philosophical summit of the poor is, planting this collective anguish.  But it is not the anguish of being in a hurry, it is the anguish of having no answers, and having so many questions and looking for a way to generate answers along the way that can contribute to the theory and practice of the construction of another society.  

How would this other kind of house be? How might we eat in this other society?  How would we make love in this other society? Would it be the same as it is now?  The exchange of goods, like a commercial transaction?  Because, however you look at it, this is what sex is today.  Or thinking about health, what is health? This doesn’t exist. Throughout the world, there are ministries of illness, but no one is really talking about health.  We are going to talk about what we eat; everything that we eat today kills us.  It kills us; it only works to give us energy to go and work at the factory.  We are going to discuss what we eat.

We have millions of questions, millions of things to interrogate, millions of anxieties, but individually, we don’t have answers; we don’t have solutions; we don’t have an exit.  We only have questions, we only have solutions as a collective, coming together. Because if anything is clear, it’s that a million brains think better than one.  

The things that I am saying, for example, are not my discourse. This is fifteen years of discussion.  I am here speaking for millions of people that have spent time on this planet, that have contributed an idea, that have now been concentrated into my brain.  So, how is it that one individual could produce a solution when there are millions of people who contribute to any thought that one person has?  So, for this reason, we are finding one other to discuss in whatever spaces, discuss even the sadness and the pain because yes, these are painful conversations.  Because when someone pulls the rug out from under you, when they say the statues are not what you thought they were, when they say to you this path isn’t how you imagined, it is hard.  When they say that these 20 years of education were not what you thought, when you realize that you have been dying for years and that you were never fully living, fuck, this generates a great sadness. But it is also a moment of contradictions, because it also generates a great happiness where you say, “Shit, I have to think, I have to discuss.  I have to ask, I have to question.”  And this is what generates the paintings that you see today.

They have said that the artist is an individual, and it is a lie.  Individuals do not produce art.  It is collectives that produce art, it is the poor, above all, who produce what they call “art.”  Because art is part of misery.  This is the art that we know, misery.  When you hear a song form the industrial musical, what you hear is misery.  Misery produced by us, by our pain, by our rage, so then we need to discuss another culture.  Are we going to continue making music of misery?  If so, it is because we are going to continue being miserable. This can’t be. We have to dream of the inhabitants of another society, even though we are not them.  We have to dream. We have to dream of the others who will not live in the tragedy that we live in today.

So, we can’t dream of another society in which there are prisons, for example.  Because the prison is a tragedy, it is something horrible. Beyond security, we have to dream of another society in which the violence of capitalism does not continue generating what we are today.  And this is the discussion. We have had other summits. There are millions of people having these summits all over the country every day.  At one of the gatherings, the first person to stand up to speak was sick, but they came anyways.  They said,  “Here we are all chavistas, because the only ones that are not a chavistas are the rich, and here no one is rich.”  Shit, this was the perfect definition. We go to the gatherings to find things like this.

Marking the III National Congress of Communal Culture, where our government and revolutionary directives, has planted communal culture as a topic to discuss, and they are proposing the conuco [subsistence farming] as a form of production, these are not concepts that enter into the cultural elite in any other country on the planet.  So, we are not participating in the congress because the dynamics don’t give us the space that we need but we want to be here because we too, have something to say.  We have questions that we would like to present, and there are tons of answers that we still do not have.

Because there is another myth that we have to topple, people think that culture is just painting, or that culture is just music, or that culture is singing, or that culture is someone who produces some masterpiece. No.  How we conceive of culture is health, our homes, sex, food, how we raise our children, how we eat; this is culture.  We are trying to present another culture.  So, we think that it makes sense to have our summit prior to the Congress of Culture, but we have another perspective about what culture is.  This is not the point of view of the artists, of the bourgeois artist, we are working with culture as everything.  Culture is everything.  Because music is produced at work, when a fisherman sings, it isn’t because they studied singing. Farmers sing as they work, they are working the earth and signing.  This is all culture.  Culture is how you eat, how you prepare a plate of food.

Today we eat how people in the United States eat.  How do you explain this?  We have very different climates.  But now we eat hamburgers, this is culture, this is an imposed culture.  Shit, we have millions of flavors that we enjoy, and we end up eating like gringos, like Europeans, because this is the culture that has been imposed on us.  We too need to look for how we are going to eat, what is the flavor that we will give to food. For example, the flavors that we add to our food has its origin in hunger.  When you locate the regions that eat spicy food, they are the regions that have experienced the most hunger. This is cultural, are we going to reclaim spicy food or are we going to get rid of the historic hunger that we have survived.  We think, sure let’s keep the spices but let’s not keep carrying the historical hunger that we have.  All of this is culture.

So, we said, let’s go to the Congress of culture, let’s see what happens. So, some strange things have happened, that can only be explained by an occurrence like the revolution; [the fact] that nurses, that bricklayers, that formerly incarcerated people, farmers, and soldiers end up singing together as they put pictures up on a wall in a space that doesn’t belong to us.  This can only happen in a revolution.  If there hadn’t been a revolution, we wouldn’t have been able to even get close to the stairs here because the police would have beaten us.  But, in a revolution, we take a space like this.  It isn’t the best space, but it is a space.  

People say to us, you all criticize academia, so how are you going to enter into a university?  Well, what a good place to debate about academia.  Here we are and all of these pictures were done by people who have not studied painting.  This was the idea, and before it was an idea, it was a conversation and before it was a conversation, it was anguish.  And then, it was a brush stroke, we are going to paint what we said about the factory.

We have just recently learned that the factory is responsible for 75,000,000 deaths directly and indirectly. Well the painting of the factory came out of a conversation we had when we realized that all of us have fucked-up backs.  All of us.  I have back problems, this guy, that person, all have fucked-up backs.  So, what happened?  In what moment did all of us end up with a disability?  And what we came to learn was that it came from working in the factory, from manual labor, from being a shopkeeper; the system fucked us over, it made us have disabilities.  And who is it that works in the factories?  The owners?  No, it is us, the poor.  And this is what the painting came out of.
At this university, they study art, technique and all of that.  But, you won’t see this painting.  Because this painting only came out of an anguish, an idea, a conversation, a rage and boom- this thing comes out.  And it isn’t pretty, none of these paintings are pretty.  If you look at these paintings, you will find sadness because by looking at them you have to stare in the face of what we are. That is what you see in the picture when you walk in, how you enter the factory and then get spit out by it because that is what sustains the factory, what gives the city energy, because the rich live off of our energy, of what marxists call the work force. That is what they live off of, our work force.

When do we discuss this?  That is culture, and from that, these paintings were born, the rap that the young people do is born from this. They are not just singing that I am more badass than you are, no, they are singing the tragedy that we are.  So, when we don’t sing about the tragedy that we are- it is because we are headed to another society, we are on our way towards that.  To get there, the people birthed Chavez, and they killed him, and so the people birthed Maduro and if they kill him, the people will birth another.  And that is it.