February 23, 2007

On political common sense, Part 2: Their side

Quico says: Two weeks ago, I wrote this long piece on the deeper reasons why chavismo is so profoundly unacceptable to those of us in the opposition. I argued that Venezuela is currently caught between two competing sets of "political common senses." Here, I want to address the other side's common sense, its deeper roots, and the reasons it contrasts so strongly with our own.

By "revolution," Chávez seems to mean an attempt to establish his political common sense as the only valid basis for political discourse in Venezuela. The old political common sense, rooted in enlightenment thinking and committed to constitutional liberalism, has been under constant attack for eight years now. As a replacement, chavistas offer a radical alternative that discards liberal rationalism's entire conception of human dignity, upending its values and recasting reasoned debate as a mechanism of domination.

The distinguishing characteristic of chavista common sense is its radical rejection of deliberation as a way of arriving at political decisions and its flat out refusal to engage critically with those who dissent. We will not find an intellectual defense of this stance in the chavista movement itself, since any such defense would amount to engagement with the criticisms leveled, and the principled refusal to engage in that kind of back-and-forth is what chavista antirationalism is all about.

Is that all there is to say about it, then? Not at all. A coherent, even powerful defense of chavista antirationalism is possible, even if chavistas themselves will not put it forward. To grasp it, I think you need a bit of a detour through the work of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu.

Bourdieu made a career out of examining the difference in tastes between rich people and poor people in France, whether in art, literature, music, food, film, or hobbies and building a radical sociological theory on his observations. He noted the way richer people systematically preferred more "difficult" forms of art (think Bracque, James Joyce, Bach, caviar, Lars von Triers or bridge), while poorer people prefered "easier" forms (think dogs playing poker, Dan Brown, Top 40, McDonald's and Hollywood.) He noted the way we tend to associate aesthetic refinement with difficulty, whereas we find "easy" art crass and distasteful. And he asked himself why.

Bourdieu didn't think this was just about conspicuous consumption. Surely refined tastes are more expensive than crass ones, so having them signals your privileged economic position, but he thought there was much more to it than that. He noted that the things we consider refined are nearly always much more abstract, while popular tastes tend to the concrete. An abstract painting, a passage from Ulysses, a Bach fugue, an artsy Danish film - these are items that set out, self-consciously, to appeal to our minds, not to our senses.

Elite tastes revel in their own difficulty. For Bourdieu, the pleasure of consuming refined cultural items is to be found primarily in the act of deciphering them - of demonstrating that you have the intellectual and cultural capacity to understand them. Their sociological role is to distinguish you from those who don't have that capacity, the unwashed masses who are content with appeals to the senses, to raw emotion unmediated by reason.

As we have seen, in the enlightenment tradition, it is precisely the capacity to reason, to embrace abstraction, to think in universal categories and and to transcend our immediate sensory experience that forms the basis of human dignity. But, lo and behold, in liberal societies, it's mostly rich people who consume, value and share the aesthetic experiences associated with that capacity to reason.

And here, all the old Enlightenment dichotomies come back into play. Liberal rationalism is built on a series of contrast - abstract vs. concrete, conceptual vs. sensory, rational vs. emotional, hard vs. easy, spiritual vs. animal - and locates human dignity in the supposedly universal capacity to move toward the former and away from the latter. For liberal rationalism we can all become more spiritual and less animal, we can all rise through the ranks if we fulfill that potential. This, in the end, is what makes us human.

What Bourdieu stresses is that, as an empirical matter, we don't all have the same ability to decipher refined cultural goods. Some of us do, some of us don't. And it's not a matter of chance which of us do and which of us don't: those of us who are rich generally do, and those of us who are poor generally don't. In liberal societies, then, human dignity is not nearly so democratically distributed as liberal ideology likes to imagine.

What Bourdieu is getting at is that the sense of refinement, of distinction, of what is crass and what is sophisticated, helps configure a system of domination, a mechanism the rich can use leverage their capacity to reason abstractly not for some exalted end, but merely to assert, protect and maintain their position of dominance in society.

Now, for a far-left French intellectual, Bourdieu makes some pretty un-PC noises. He doesn't follow these arguments, as you might expect, with an impassioned rebuttal, an explanation about how the dominated poor are just as capable of abstraction as anyone else.

Just the opposite, he argues that the system of domination itself deprives poor people of the ability to reason abstractly. Poor people's experience is dominated by the need to come up with practical solutions to the problems of survival - getting enough for food, shelter and clothes are exhausting tasks that you don't achieve through abstraction. Economic precariousness, the need to scrabble together a living in a hostile environment, lock the poor into a mindset where "practical reasoning" is essential and "abstract reasoning" nearly impossible.

This, he argues, is the way domination reproduces itself from one generation to the next. Liberal societies imprison one class of people inexorably in an animalistic existence, all the while insisting that abstract reasoning is the common patrimony of humanity - and, thereby, implicitly scorning those who cannot or will not attain it.

For Bourdieu, liberal constitutionalism's promise of a public sphere where the only thing that matters is the strength of your arguments is inherently part of the system of domination. The poor, pressed by the need to make a living, don't have the luxury of developing the social and intellectual skills needed to participate in political deliberation. The formal equality so careful enshrined in liberal constitutions are meaningless when faced with these social realities.

In fact, Bourdieu goes even farther and argues that the poor, as a class, are incapable of forming truly independent political opinions. They cannot have a political position, because the system of domination bars them from the cultural capacities it takes to formulate one.

Deliberation - that most sacred practice in the liberal constitutionalist imagination - presupposes the capacities that domination denies to the poor. So the stress constitutional liberals place on the practice of deliberation is just one move in a broader strategy by the dominant class to permanently establish its dominance.

Locked away in their individual struggles to make a living, the poor cannot reason in the broad, abstract, universal categories needed to assert themselves politically. The poor, for Bourdieu, are unable to speak for themselves. Somebody, therefore, must speak for them. That someone in effect constitutes the poor into a political actor. It is in being spoken for, in having their interests articulated politically by someone else, that the poor acquire a political existence.

Chávez es el pueblo. Or, more precisely, el pueblo es Chávez.

As far as I'm aware, Bourdieu - who passed away in 2002 - never wrote specifically about Chávez. But I do think his views preconfigure pretty precisely what Chávez has tried to do. Like Bourdieu, Chávez sees deliberation as thinly disguised cover for the exercise of class domination. In a very Bourdieuian way, he sees the poor as having no independent political existence apart from the one they derived from being led by him. Like Bourdieu, he sees liberation largely as a matter of reversing the structure of symbolic hierarchies in society - of valuing that which has been devalued, and devaluing that which has been valued.

Seen from this perspective, chavismo's refusal to engage critically with the arguments of dissenters makes perfect sense. That refusal is, in a sense, the central node of the revolution. To deliberate is unacceptable because it would mean treating arguments as though they are disembodied, disconnected from the people making them, valid in their own terms only and therefore open to refutation in terms of their internal merit only. Chavismo implicitly accepts a kind of Bourdieuian analysis where arguments never stand on their own, and are always valid (or invalid) only by reference to the people making them.

It's in this context that we should understand chavismo's dogged determination not to engage critically with dissenting arguments. Ad hominem attacks on those who criticize the government are not, as we so often suppose, simply a matter of chavismo's intellectual poverty: they are also the expression of a certain view of society and political power where the messenger - and his socio-political position - is always more important than the message. That, I think, is chavista political common sense condensed.

Lots that is otherwise opaque about chavismo becomes clear once you appreciate this dynamic. Specialist discourses of every kind must be rejected out of hand if the revolution is to take itself seriously. Any line of reasoning based on a specialized understanding of a subject comes to be seen, ipso facto, as an attempt to reassert the old regime's system of domination. For chavismo, privilege always comes cloaked in a powerpoint presentation.

The radicalism, the rigid dogmatism with which the government has stuck to this position, has been startling to say the least. Dismissing all deliberation and all specialist discourse as a way of managing society, chavismo is left to rely on the will of the leader alone. Under normal circumstances, such insistence would've brought massive economic chaos long ago. But the last few years have not been normal. The oil boom has provided the government with more than enough money to cover up the consequences of the myriad contradictions such a stance has produced. Surfing a massive wave of oil profits, the government has not yet had to confront the more unseemly consequences of its dogged anti-rationalism. For now, all we can do is wonder how long its luck will last.