February 10, 2007

On political common sense

Quico says: Political common sense is a bit like atmospheric pressure - omnipresent, terrifically important, but normally imperceptible to us. Political common sense is an implicit set of beliefs that sets the boundaries between views we need to defend and those so obvious they "go without saying." It structures the limits of what's politically conceivable to us, it defines what seems obviously right and obviously wrong. Its power is all the greater because it feels so natural, so self-evident to us that when we use it, we don't realize that we're using it.

After arguing in circles for eight years, I think it's pretty clear that what we have in Venezuela these days are two fundamentally opposed sets of political common senses; what critical theorists would call parallel discourses. For almost a decade, the two have been battling to establish themselves as the political common sense in Venezuela. "A symbolic struggle to re-signify democracy," was the way Oscar Schemel put it.

The funny thing about this struggle is that its taken place in a theoretical vacuum. We don't often wonder about underpinnings of our our own common sense, to say nothing of our opponents'. The outcome is a lot of confusion, and a fundamental misapprehension about what is at stake.

Constitutional Liberalism
The standard rap against chavismo is pretty straight-forward: chavismo is undemocratic. It's a charge we've repeated again and again in every forum available to us; it encapsulates what we find unacceptable about his way of government. It's also, on its face, absurd.

After all, Chavez has won election after election. According to a bare-bones, etymological understanding of democracy, it's just an oxymoron to call an elected leader undemocratic.

"Not so fast," we usually respond, "he might be a 'democrat' in some ridiculously reductionist sense of the word, but he doesn't respect the separation of powers, doesn't tolerate dissent, doesn't grasp that the republic's money is not his money, can't grasp that 'state' 'government' and 'Chavez' are not synonyms, violates the constitution every other day, etc. etc."

Turns out that what we mean when we charge chavismo of being undemocratic is a bit more complex than we realize. None of the objections we commonly level at chavismo points to a lack of democracy, understood as the legitimacy you get from winning an election. What we're really saying is that Chavez doesn't respect the arrangements we associate democracy.

When we say Chavez is undemocratic, what we really mean is that he doesn't practice Constitutional Liberalism, a specific institutional system that developed in a specific point in time in a specific part of the world. It's just that, in our common-sense usage, we see that system as synonymous with democracy. Our political discourse sees the two as self-evidently inseparable.

Now, the charge that Chavez doesn't practice constitutional liberalism shouldn't even controversial: after all, Chávez has explicitly distanced himself from constitutional liberalism ("representative democracy" as it's called in official phraseology) pretty much from day one. He threw a monumental hissy-fit at the Quebec City Summit of the Americas in 2001 when the rest of the hemisphere's leaders proposed to include a commitment to "representative democracy" in their declaration of principles. Rejections don't get much more explicit than that.

But what is constitutional liberalism? And what is it that rankles us so much about Chavez's rejection of it?

On one level, it's a system of institutions: a way of organizing the state and its relationship with society. On another level, it's the system of values necessary to make those institutions meaningful. But deep down, it's a view of humanity - or rather, human-ness. A political philosophy based on a given understanding of where human dignity resides.

The most basic institution of constitutional liberalism is the Constitution itself: an explicit set of rules that constitute and delimit the state, defining what it is and what it is not, what it can do and what it can't do.

The most basic value of constitutional liberalism is the commitment to the rule of law as such, the basic belief that, as Santos Luzardo puts it, "la ley obliga de por si" - "the law is binding in and of itself."

It's clear that, without a commitment to the principle of the rule of law, it doesn't do much good to have a liberal constitution. Surely, Venezuela's 1999 constitution is basically a liberal document, but chavismo's cavalier attitude towards the rule of law - its practice of behaving as though the constitution and the laws were compendia of helpful tips to be followed or ignored according to convenience - negates the values that make liberal institutions meaningful.

It's clear to us, and it's been repeated ad nauseam, that without a commitment to the rule of law, a formal constitution becomes "dead letter" - that evocative phrase, conjuring the helplessness of the written word in the face of the contempt of the powerful.

Beyond constitutional liberalism
So far, so banal: just a recapitulation of a thousand anti-Chavez screeds you've read here and elsewhere time and time and time again. Antichavista common-sense distilled. The relevant question is why does Chavez's contempt for the rule of law rankle so much?

The answer might seem obvious, but asking why things that seem obvious to us seem obvious to us is what this is about. Digging a bit deeper, what is it about chavista attitudes that so offends our political common sense, our notions of dignity and freedom and human-ness?

To answer this question, I think, you need to appreciate that constitutional liberalism is a political philosophy built on a particular moral philosophy, a specific understanding of human dignity.

Rooted in eighteenth century thinking, constitutional liberalism is the political expression of enlightenment rationalism. It's an attempt to give institutional form to an understanding of people as rational agents, beings who are free in the sense that we can apply reason to the problems of society.

It's not only that people can think; it's that we can also talk. Because we have the capacity to communicate as well as the capacity to reason, constitutional liberalism sees human beings as able to deliberate, to reason collectively, on the basis of arguments, as a means of reaching agreements on how to further our collective interest.

What happens when we deliberate? What happens when we argue about political matters?

Ideally, it goes something like this: one side puts forward a claim about the world, a view about how it works and how we can make it better. If the other side is not persuaded, he can challenge it logically, by noting contradictions between the claim and reality, for instance, or by exposing logical flaws in it. The other side takes these objections and, once again, subjects them to critical scrutiny. Both sides continue in this way, advancing towards a common understanding.

With each iteration, this process allows the sides to come to new understandings of what is true, of what is in their interests both individually and collectively, and of how best to further those interests. Ideally, deliberation leads to agreement. When it doesn't, the two sides can settle the matter by recourse to a previously agreed decision-making procedure - majority voting, for instance. The key is that, by deliberating, participants aggregate their capacity to reason through communication.

Now, for an argument to count as a real deliberation and not just a shouting match, some conditions are necessary. We have to agree to see debate as a confrontation of ideas, not of personalities. We have be equal, in the sense that anyone must be able to put forward a claim, or to rebut one, and that both proposals and rebuttals must be judged on their own merits, not on the merits of the person putting them forward. We have to seek to persuade the other side, but we must also be persuadable if we find, after critical scrutiny, that the other side has the better argument. We have to treat public engagement over political matters as a co-operative exercise where our common goal is to reach reasoned agreement on our response to our collective problems.

Of course, we all know that this is a highly idealized representation of what goes on in the real world. (In fact Jürgen Habermas, the German philosopher whose argument I'm following here, called it an "ideal speech situation.") We all know that parliamentarians, judges and voters have particular interests, we know people are often corruptible, pig-headed or just plain stupid. Still, when we argue, we implicitly act as if we believe these conditions hold. Arguing would be a meaningless pantomime if it didn't envisage, on some level, the possibility of an ideal speech situation, where claims are put forward and rebutted as if the only thing that matters is who has the better, clearer, more persuasive argument.

The political institutions of liberal constitutionalism make sense only in this context. Having a parliament only makes sense so long as we see its members as thinking agents, able to engage in reasoned deliberations as a means of arriving at reasoned outcomes. Elections make sense only insofar as voters are seen as thinking agents, able to engage in reasoned deliberation on their way to reasoned voting decisions. The decisions of juries are legitimate precisely they are the outcome of reasoned deliberation based on evidence, the decisions of judges are legitimate because they are the outcome of explicitly reasoned engagement with precedent and the law. It's people's capacity to reason collectively in this way that gives legitimacy to the outcomes of the institutional structures of liberal constitutionalism.

Here, I think, we start to get closer to the underlying reasons chavismo provokes such virulent rejection from its critics. On its own, chavismo's rejection of a liberal institutional order would not provoke the intense reactions it does. It's chavismo's rejection of liberal institutional values, and of the understanding of human-ness that they are built on, that so deeply offends us.

This is most visible, I think, in chavismo's principled rejection of deliberation as a method for reaching political decisions. As we have seen with the enabling law, Fonden's unwillingness to share its accounts with the Central Bank, or any of the dozens of little outrages detailed on this blog over the years, the problem is not merely that Chavez rejects deliberation with his opponents, it's that he will not even deliberate about the nation's future with his supporters. He refuses even to couch the decisions he makes unilaterally within the frame of reasoned argumentation, opting for emotive speech again and again. Since 1998, chavistas have systematically responded to criticisms by disqualifying those who make them (viudas del puntofijismo! oligarchs! escuálidos! Gringo imperialists! etc. etc.) rather than by reasoned engagement with the critical ideas. In fact, the refusal to engage with criticism on its merits is one of the discursive hallmarks of chavismo, a kind of ideological badge of honor government supporters use to bolster their revolutionary credentials.

Chavez plainly does not see deliberation as a reliable basis for political decision-making: another point that, when you think about it, shouldn't actually be controversial at all.

Our political common-sense can scarcely imagine a more ominous situation. From our point of view, deliberation and argument are the collective forms our individual capacity to reason takes, and our individual capacity to reason is the basis of our human dignity, the decisive dividing line between human beings and animals. But more than this argument or that argument, it's the practice of arguing itself that chavismo rejects. By systematically refusing to talk to us by reference to an ideal speech situation, by consistently attacking the messenger rather than refuting the message, chavismo strips us of what enlightenment rationalism takes as the basis of our humanity and our dignity.

This, I think, is the underlying reason for the sense of urgency many of us feel in speaking out against the government. Our passions would not be so roused if Chavez's was merely a bad government, or a corrupt government, or an incompetent government. What riles is that Chavez treats us like animals.