January 25, 2007

The impossibility of Scandal...

Quico says: Scandal is not possible in the Chávez Era. I don't mean that there's any shortage of scandalous behavior in the country - au contraire! - or of people eager to call attention to it. I mean that Scandal no longer operates as a mechanism for holding the powerful to account. Revelations of official misconduct no longer create a political problem for the government. Without Scandal, society loses its prime lever for holding the powerful to minimum standards of decency.

What does it take to make a Scandal? It takes scandalous behavior, sure, as well as someone to bring it into public view. That still happens in Venezuela, though as control over the media intensifies, it happens less and less. But there the process stops. No consequences of any kind seem to flow from revelations, large or small. And a scandal is only a Scandal if it forces the powerful to alter their behavior in some way.

The puzzle is that the social and political conveyor belts that once turned the disclosure of scandalous behavior into Scandal have broken down. And nothing has stepped in to replace Scandal's social function.

The opposition's last, best attempt to force a scandal - over the crass cover-up of Danilo Anderson's murder - floundered on the shores of official contempt. The closest we've come is the Chávez-approved purge-cum-manufactured-scandal over the CAAEZ affair. By now, even the opposition seems resigned to life in a Scandal-less polity.

A big part of the reason, no doubt, is down to the chokehold chavismo has over all of the country's oversight institutions. It's quite clear now that political loyalty to the regime buys you tacit immunity from legal sanctions for scandalous behavior. But can that really be the entire story?

I think there's more. Disclosures might generate scandals even without the separation of powers, so long as the powerful are capable of shame. Scandalous behavior would have to elicit some raised eye-brows among wrongdoers' own peers in the circles of power. Some things would have to be beyond the pale for Scandal to take root. Nothing, short of disloyalty to Chávez, seems to rise to that level.

Even more fundamentally, for Scandal to take root the clique in power must inhabit the same discursive universe as those who blow the whistle. They have to be ready to engage allegations on the evidence, or at least acknowledge that serious allegations have been made and call for an explanation, even when accusations are made by political opponents.

It's these two preconditions for Scandal that are missing in Venezuela these days. The powerful are no longer, in principle, shamable. And they long ago discarded the possibility that allegations coming from dissidents may, at least in theory, be true. As far as they're concerned, the fact that it is an opponent making an allegation is enough to demonstrate its falsehood. More often than not, allegations are simply ignored. When their existence is acknowledged, it is not to rebut them but to attack the oligarchs who leveled them. In fact, the principled refusal to engage with the substance of opponents' allegations has come to be seen as a sort of badge of revolutionary purity.

The outcome is a hermetically closed circle - a governing caste that is restrained neither by formal/legal sanctions nor by a diffuse, socially-enforced set of norms that make some actions beyond the pale.

Thing is, democratic societies need Scandal; it's the ultimate tool of accountability. Without at least a possibility that serious wrongdoing might debilitate the government, shorten their careers, cause them social embarrassment, or land them in jail, the powerful are liable to run amok.

I bring it up because I think the impossibility of Scandal in the Chávez Era gives us a way into a deeper discussion about the unravelling of the public sphere in the Chávez Era. It's a theme I'll keep coming back to in coming weeks.