July 17, 2007

Torres in Bethlehem

Quico says: Everybody knows Jesus of Nazareth wasn't from Nazareth at all: he was born in a barn in Bethlehem. But what on earth was Mary doing gallivanting around Galilee nine-months pregnant? Luke's gospel explains the Romans had ordered everyone back to their hometown for a census, so Joseph had to go back to Bethlehem to register.

It's a detail I've always found extraordinary: a census in the ancient world? Can you imagine the logistical challenge? Why on earth would they go to all that trouble?

The answer, when you think about it, is not at all surprising: for tax, of course!

The Roman empire ran on tax. The Romans understood that if you're going to tax people, you need to know who lives where and how much money you can take from whom. There was no way to keep track of all that information without writing it all down. So the ancient census was really more like a huge tax assesment drive - a technological solution to a pressing political and administrative problem.

And it wasn't just Rome: all over the ancient world, empires came to realize that if they were going to levy taxes, they would need records of people and their property. The Persians held a tax census as far back as 500 BC, the ancient Indians starting from 288 BC, and the Chinese from at least 140 AD. Japan had its first tax census in 670 AD; England's Norman conquerors set about raising a census almost as soon as they'd defeated the natives in 1066. I guess it seemed obvious that if you're going to call yourself a conqueror, this is one of the first things you have to do.

The tax census was, in that sense, one of the fundamental institutions of civilization.

Through the census, relationships of subjection and tribute that had always lived "out in the open air of the spoken word" came to be embodied in paper, set down formally for the first time. In this way the written word came to mediate that most basic sphere of the individual's relationship with the state: his monetary obligation to it.

If you accept the image of state making as organized crime - the idea that the mafia don is the best contemporary analogy for the earliest stages of state building - then the tax census marks a step-change in the nature of the State. Because writing down a tax obligation, implicitly or explicitly, builds a safeguard into the individual's relationship with authority. Once Joseph's property had been registered in Bethlehem, once he'd "done his taxes," it became much harder to come back and try to charge him more arbitrarily. His obligations had, after all, been set down, affixed for posterity through writing, that artificial expansion of memory.

Census taking, though designed to extract money from people, had deeply subversive implications for the way a state and its subjects would henceforth interact. The tax census ensnared the state and the individual in ties of mutual obligation that couldn't have existed in an earlier era stage, when tribute was set by people rather than paper, and looked more like protection money than tax.

That citizen-state relationship would come to be dominated more and more thoroughly by the written word, the odd embodiment of authority in shards of dried tree pulp. As Briceño Guerrero puts it, that relationship would grow exponentionally, coming to envelop more and more aspects of each citizen's life until, by the twentieth century, it had metastasized into a tangle of:
ID cards, contracts, property titles, diplomas, protocols, mortgages, appointments, wills, dismissals, permissions, receipts, bills, decrees, resolutions, authorizations, sentences, letters, safe-conducts, credentials, resumes, work records, court briefs, payrolls, black lists, bank cards, credit cards, military cards, hanging folders, memos, forms, applications, notices, citations, agreements, bulletin boards, orders (of payment, arrest, eviction) certificates (of birth, marriage, death.)
At the root of it all, though, was the tax nexus: that primordial point of contact between power and the individual, as codified in the tax census: that original blueprint for all subsequent mechanisms of routinized bureaucratic control.

Nothing fascinates and mystifies me more than the gaping chasm we see in Venezuela between the laws as written and the society they are supposed to regulate. My documentary, Law of the Land was really an extended meditation on the subject, as is much of what I've written over the years.

It's a feeling that's both hard to explain and impossible to miss if you spend any length of time in the country. We have layers and layers of laws and regulation, and then we have reality - never the twain shall meet. I've been asking myself why that is for a long long time.

More and more, I think it has to do with the tax nexus. Or, rather, with the way oil distorts it, and along with it, the whole principle of authority-embodied-in-text.

See, for the ancient Romans and Indians, for the Chinese and the Normans, making written authority work was a necessity. They didn't make a census out of sociological curiosity: they saw it as a pragmatic solution to a pressing problem. They had to do it if their empires were to operate at all - that's where the money came from!

The written word had to have authority - not on some abstract level, but in the nitty-gritty business of regulating each individual's obligation to the state. It wasn't enough for power to flow through paper notionally - making the system work was a fiscal necessity.

Fast forward a couple of thousand years to Venezuela's contemporary history and you realize that making sure power flows through paper has never been a necessity here. Not counting the rump statelet we had in the 19th century (which was rarely able to extend authority effectively beyond Caracas itself) the rise of the Venezuelan state coincides quite precisely with the onset of massive oil revenue. When we talk about the petrostate in the Venezuelan context, we're not talking about the transformation of a pre-existing state: we're really talking about the only state we've ever had.

For the last 90 years or so, for as long as we've had a state worthy of the name, we've had a state that didn't really have to tax us to sustain itself. Making authority flow through paper has never been a matter of state survival, codifying authority's relationship with individuals has always been an ideal fondly to be wished for, never a need. When politically expedient, the Venezuelan state has always been quite comfortable letting laws and realities drift happily apart.

Now, in a sense, there's nothing new about this argument: Terry Lynn Karl has spent a distinguished career discussing the way oil pries apart the taxation nexus in rentier economies and de-links the state from society. But I'm trying to get at something slightly different here. While Karl focuses on the macro-social, high-politics of the petrostate's alienation from society, what grips me is the microlevel, the way the petrostate patterns each Venezuelan's individual relationship with authority.

In a normal country, citizens are keenly aware that the wealth the state spends is wealth they created. The hackneyed gringo letter-to-the-editor writer's catchphrase, "as a tax-payer, I..." captures it nicely. Citizens feel they own the state for the same reason they feel they own their toothbrush: they paid for it.

The petrostate turns this symbolic nexus on its head. The state doesn't depend on the citizen for money; the citizen depends on the state for money. The state has no prod, no pressing need to formalize and codify its relationship with citizens: why go to all that trouble, when you can just pump cash out of the ground?

I think this fact explains much of the mystery of the gap between the world of "papel sellado" and real life in Venezuela. The citizen is perpetually placed in the role of supplicant, continually conscious that he needs the state much more than it needs him. Seen in this light, it's not at all surprising that the state comes to see written authority as superfluous. Why bother?

The question, then, is what can be done about it? And here is where having extremely persistent commenters comes in really handy: those of you who read the comments section know that Torres has been pushing the solution to this morass for ages.

His idea is disarmingly simple: Take all the oil revenue, divide it by 26 million, and hand it out to people. That's it. Torres sees this as a poverty-alleviation scheme, and there's no doubt that many, many Venezuelans would be lifted out of poverty if his idea was implemented.

Now the main objection to Torres's plan is also pretty straightforward: you can't just deprive the state of all that oil revenue because the state needs that money to pay teachers, and road builders, and everything else the state does. The fiscal hole you would create would be far too dire for any politician to seriously entertain the idea. Indeed, when Manuel Rosales proposed a version of the plan, he didn't dare promise to distribute more than 20% of our oil revenue. I mean, you'd have to be crazy to go any higher than that, right?

It seems like a knock-out blow, at first - but like most good ideas, the apparent simplicity of Torres's plan conceals layers of possibility.

Certainly, if his idea was implemented, the state would find itself seriously short of cash in the short run. One way or another, the state would have to make up the shortfall simply to guarantee the minimal level of service its constituents have grown used to: people wouldn't stand for mass hospital closures and the like.

But where could the state possibly find the money to make up a shortfall on that scale?

In the same place every normal state in the world finds it: in its citizens' pockets!

This, I think, is the concealed genius of Torres' idea.

Yes, the state would need to claw back much of the oil money it gives out in the form of new taxes. But that, to my mind, is not a drawback: just the opposite, it's the idea's biggest selling point.

Distributing the nation's oil money and then clawing back a portion of it in tax would completely reverse the direction of dependence in the state-individual relationship. It would turn Venezuela into a normal country.

Suddenly, you would see tax become what it has never been in Venezuela - a major political issue. People would become keenly aware that the money that funds the state is money that comes out of their pocket. In one fell swoop, individuals would be transformed from supplicants into citizens. Demands for accountability would soar. The idea would drive a wooden stake through the heart of the petrostate model.

In time, the proposal could help mend the traditional chasm between the world of official paper and real life that has marred Venezuelan public life for so long. Forced to get serious about codifying its relationship with its citizens once and for all, the cavalier attitude of the state elite towards the authority of the written word would have to yield.

I don't think the process would be fast or dramatic - cultural change never is - but within two or three generations the habits of mind of petrostate dependency could be substantially weakened and something like the rule of law could start to take hold for the first time ever in our country.

I sat on the fence on Torres's idea for a long time, but I can't really think of another way of achieving these kinds of results. No amount of speechifying, no system of education, no volume of grassroots activism could achieve a fundamental shift in the individual's attitude to the state (and the state's attitude to the individual) so long as money and power in our society continues to flow in pretty much the same pattern as they did in the Gómez era. The template for state-individual relationships needs a violent shake-up. And Torres's idea, well, it would certainly do that.