May 12, 2007

The Comments Section Diaspora

Quico says: So y'all still occasionally give me shit about shutting down the comments section here. It's a decision I struggled with for years (no, literally, years), and I think it made the blog better. People obviously disagree, though: my hit count is down 40% from its commentin' days.

There were lots of reasons I did it: the deteriorating signal-to-noise ratio, the ineluctable law of internet discourse that makes cranks more willing to comment than sane readers, the draining effort it took to keep the discussions polite, but also - and more importantly, really - this vague sense of not being able to hear myself think over the hubbub. I wanted to step back and write broader, more reflective pieces this year, and the comments kept distracting me away from that style.

One unintended consequence of the shutdown is that some of the more prolific contributors had to go out and start blogs of their own.

Most notably, DBC - whose hyper acid tongue was the highlight of every comments thread he touched - started Little Venice, and has been plying his inimitable trade more and more often over there. There's always something fun to look at on Microvenice: DBC's especially good at picking out YouTube clips, and he had a particular bit of fun going through Marx's writings on Bolívar. He is the master of the tangentially-topical rant: urbane, piercing, funny, ever so slightly unhinged, and always entertaining. Formatting, though, is not DBC's strong-suit: man, you need to give the crazy colors a rest!

The other comments' section diaspora site I ran into - totally by accident - the other day is Calvin Tucker's (a.k.a. Democratic Deficit's) 21st Century Socialism. Calvin got himself some SWANK web design there - I'm totally jealous - but, erm, well...that's the nicest thing you can say about the place. It's PSFery run totally amok, of course. The thing that struck me - beyond the super-slick template - is something I'd sort of suspected but never quite fully grasped about the guy: just how much of an old Soviet Block nostalgic he is. We get "aw shucks now really the Stasi wasn't so bad" pieces (complete with fawning appraisal of the "deepest complexity of Lenin's character"), we get detailed retrospective apologetics for the Soviet economic model, and of course we get lots and lots of drooling over Fidel. Man, to think the hours I wasted trying to argue with this guy.

Anyway, those are the two comments diaspora sites I'm aware of - am I missing any others? (Sorry, Feathers, yours doesn't count cuz you started it long before I closed down the comments section...)

May 10, 2007

The Stockholm Syndrome of the 21st Century

An open letter to Julia Buxton...

Dear Julia,

I read your piece on and felt I should respond. I didn't agree with much of what you had to say, but I do think you're really on to something when you note that the major fault-line between chavistas and their critics is all about whether "democracy [can be] judged through reference to the procedural mechanics of liberal democracy."

I think that's an elegant, concise formulation. Too often, chavistas and their critics talk past one another simply because the first lot are talking about outcomes and the second lot are talking about procedures, and neither side seems quite wise to this dynamic. So kudos for calling that particular agricultural productivity enhancement implement a spade: there'd be a lot less muddle in this debate if everyone was as clear on this as you are.

The funny thing is that this didn't use to be a problem. Time was when socialists were perfectly forthright in dismissing our petty-bourgeois procedural hangups (y'know, checks and balances, an independent judiciary, human rights and the rest of it) as the cultural detritus of the capitalist suprastructure, epiphenomena in a larger system of exploitation to be swept away by the dictatorship of the proletariat. Marxism had explicit, worked out position on these matters, which prevented much of the confusion we see in the Chávez debate.

Now, such impolitic talk may not be a part of the 21st century socialist's rhetorical arsenal, but anyone with open eyes can see they still think that way. We remember the sight of our Supreme Tribunal magistrates, decked out in their robes inside the TSJ main chamber, on their feet, clapping their hands and chanting pro-Chavez slogans for the cameras. We remember the time when an opposition National Assembly member (back when there was such a thing) asked the government bench - rhetorically - whether what they wanted was a society with just one TV channel, one political party, one approved way of thinking and they replied, in unison, "¡Síííííííííííííí!"

I could multiply the examples ad infinitum - Chavismo hasn't been particularly subtle in its disdain for even the mildest checks on executive power - but there's no point. After all, you are explicit in saying that, in principle, such incidents are just not relevant: democracy is only about what happens in the barrio, not at all about what happens in the institutions of state. Which is a smart move on your part - by dismissing all of the liberal procedural stuff in one bold declarative sentence, you exempt yourself from having to actually think through and justify each and every outrage against constitutional norms chavismo has perpetrated in the last eight years; a dismal, punishing task that has been known to make perfectly good apologists insane.

If I follow you correctly, you think it's Chávez's mass appeal and his followers' empowerment that make the revolution democratic, and elites just can't grasp that. For instance, while we elite procedural fetishists see his special powers to rule by decree on practically all important matters as a sign of "authoritarianism," (such a queer interpretation!) you explain that, since regular Venezuelans are perfectly happy with it, there's simply no case to answer. "Put simply, many Venezuelans think they are getting more and better democracy through '21st-century socialism', not less."

And so
vox populi, vox dei...and, if I may mix my latinazos, Q.E.D to boot! Because that really seems to be the end of it as far as you're concerned. In terms of versatility, that argument sure is a winner: da para todo.

But lets take you at your word. First off, we ought to reappraise the story of those four tragically misunderstood Swedish bank clerks from Norrmalmstorg Square. You know the ones: back in 1973, after they were kidnapped by robbers for four days, the police were shocked to find they were perfectly happy with their captors, protective even, and deeply emotionally bound up with them.

As you'd expect, the machinery of capitalist domination wasn't about to take that sitting down. Fundamentally hostile to the clerks' liberation, the eggheads went to work, labeling their empowerment "Stockholm Syndrome", treating it like some kind of disease.

And on what basis? After all, those big city intellectuals hadn't been in that bank with them, they hadn't lived through it. But that didn't stop the Stockholm Establishment from performing that act of deepest epistemological violence: labeling their liberation a syndrome.

OK, so yes, I'm having a bit of fun with some reductio ad absurdum tomfoolery here. I'm sure you think it's a totally senseless comparison. The question, though, is why? What exactly is it that makes it senseless?

Well, obviously those bank clerks found themselves in exceptional circumstances. Their very survival was at stake, they were under extreme psychological pressure. In short, the pre-conditions for their consent to be meaningful didn't obtain. In such circumstances, the fact that a majority of them sided with the robbers is not really the point, is it? The point is that even if their support was heartfelt, it was not free.

You can see where I'm going with this. Obviously, not all majorities are created equal. Majority opinion attains democratic legitimacy only when certain conditions are met. To obviate this point is to advocate crude majoritarianism, not democracy. And while I hate to confirm Godwin's Law, I suppose the standard reference to Hitler's unquestionable majority support after 1933 is apt here.

(Actually, this whole line of argument is one of the oldest in political philosophy, so I feel a bit strange "teaching" a professor of political science about it, but there you go.)

My point, Julia, is that sooner or later serious people have to wrestle with the question of what it is that makes some majorities democratically legitimate and others not. And providing a coherent set of answers to that question is what the procedural mechanics of liberal democracy are all about.

Now, given the direction chavismo has taken lately, it's not exactly surprising that y'all would prefer to avoid a forthright discussion about these issues. But ultimately you can't assess Chávez's democratic legitimacy without serious consideration of his active hostility to the procedural mechanics of liberal democracy any more than you can assess the Norrmalmstorg Square incident without serious consideration of the procedural mechanics of a bank robbery.

Because the element of coercion is clearly - indeed explicitly - there. As RCTV has found out, refusing to toe the government's line can cost you your broadcast license. As military unit commanders are finding out, ordering your soldiers to shout partisan slogans isn't something you really have a choice about: you either do it, or your career is over. And these kinds of mechanisms of enforced ideological consent are proliferating throughout society, precisely because the state institutions set out in the constitution to hold such abuses of power in check have been progressively gutted.

So, in a country where millions of poor people depend for their livelihood on access to state money that is only guaranteed if they remain politically docile, and where no part of the state will stick up for them if they dare to dissent, the question for me is what can we really take away from Chávez's popularity? What does it tell us for sure?

It might tell us that, as you believe, Chávez has radically empowered the poor, or it might tell us that he's merely paid off and/or cowed enough people into quiescence to solidify his hold on power. But the point is that we can't tell for sure, because having dismantled the procedural mechanisms of liberal democracy, Chávez has ensured their choice is made under coercion.

The thing, Julia, is that in such circumstances even if the majority's support is heartfelt, it is not free.

You dig?


May 9, 2007

How many damn horsemen are there in this apocalypse, anyway?

Quico says: Here's a crushingly obvious but seldom made observation about chavismo's decision to shut down RCTV: the claim that the move is about the station's coupsterism in April 2002 rather than about its current editorial line is patently - almost self-parodically - bogus.

It's not just that this is really a confession masquerading as a justification: little more than Chávez saying "hey, I didn't like the political content they broadcast five years ago, so I'm shutting them down" - as though that was, somehow, less of an affront to freedom of speech than saying "hey, I didn't like the political content they broadcast five minutes ago, so I'm shutting them down."

It's that even this white flag is patently false, if you stop to think it through for a second. Because RCTV was hardly the only mass market TV network that aggressively took sides in April 2002. Venevisión and Televen took pretty much the same line back then. As did Globovisión. The four colluded in the April 13th news blackout. The private TV stations had collective ownership of the coup.

Remember that stuff about the four horsemen of the apocalypse? Slowly, imperceptibly, they dwindled down to just one, all the easier to isolate and pick off.

Now, Globovisión can be safely ignored since only a bunch of middle-class obsessives watch it. And the other two? Well, Televen has drastically toned down its criticism of the government, while Venevisión more or less openly parrots the government line these days. Their newfound loyalty cleanses the sins of April 2002, while RCTV's pigheaded editorial independence deepens its share of blame.

Out of the channels normal people watch, only RCTV couldn't be cowed. But chavismo is no longer willing to allow dissident messages on mass-market media - so RCTV had to be silenced. More and more, our media landscape looks like Russia's, with the mass market tightly - if indirectly - controlled and dissent ghettoized into a outlets only a small, politically marginal demographic consumes.

May 8, 2007

RCTV as Information Shortcut

Quico says: One thing is clear: RCTV's impending closure has been a public relations Waterloo for Chávez, an unmitigated disaster. The move has undone years of carefully spun ambiguity about his government's democratic credential. It finally puts some meat on the bones of our charge of authortarianism, it substantiates it in a way institutions like the ICHR and the Chilean Senate can't ignore and Chávez can't bullshit his way out of.

The decision to shut down RCTV hands the opposition a crushing information shortcut. Because your average international newspaper reader has limited time to devote to Venezuela, and even more limited interest. He will not make judgments based on anything close to complete information - he'll rely instead on shortcuts, on a few symbolic markers to help him skip a lot of the dreary, time-consuming work of gathering information about a subject he doesn't care that much about in the first place.

Now, until this year, the Chávez regime has been a masterful manipulator of this situation. In the era of American hyperpower, ranting against George Bush is the ultimate information shortcut: it allows people to place you in their universe of likes and dislikes immediately, viscerally, costlessly. For a startling number of people abroad, the fact that Chávez hates Bush and takes the piss out of him in public is all they know and all they feel they need to know about the Bolivarian Revolution. Chavismo has garnered a shocking amount of international good will through this trick alone.

For all our abstract ranting about dawning authoritarianism, those of us who oppose Chávez hadn't had a similarly effective informational shortcut at our disposal...until Chávez handed us this one.

Slowly but surely, the fact that Chávez is the kind of ruler who'll shut down a TV station to silence dissent is seeping into international public opinion. And just as our protests about hypocrisy, about the way Chávez was still doing tens of billions of dollars worth of business with the US even as he denounced gringo imperialism, could not blunt the effectiveness of his anti-Bush rant, no amount of gab is likely to stanch the damage Chávez has done himself by deciding to shut down RCTV. It's a fight he can't win.