January 12, 2008

Party time

Si mi muerte contribuye a que cesen los partidos y se consolide la unión, bajaré tranquilo al sepulcro.

Simón Bolívar

Katy says: I once knew a family who lived in a house with no windows, and they were a singularly dysfunctional bunch.

The mother was terribly nice but always seemed to be medicated; the father announced one day that he was leaving her and his seven children to go live with a woman he had been seeing for twenty years, and was the mother of his other kids, aged 15 and 12.

I always thought their fate was tied somehow to that strange house. It had no yard and only two doors linking it directly to the street: the front door and the service door. Somehow, the fact that daylight never entered clouded their ability to see inside themselves and the ongoing problems within their house.

Someone once said to me that a democracy without political parties is like a house without windows. I guess it's not a huge leap to say that a house with bad or disfunctional political parties is like a house with only a very small window.

At any rate, the point is that if you lived in a house like that, you would want to move. Likewise, societies that live in democracies with bad political parties are societies that will tire of democracy quickly.

I bring this up because of the undeniable fact that our political parties are not what we would want them to be. The deserved disappearance of AD and Copei paved the road to what we have now: a military "movement" of sorts headed by a caudillo and financed by oil money, and a bunch of new-ish political parties trying to get some traction.

Building a political party from scratch is incredibly complicated. Putting the crucial issue of marketing aside, parties are incredibly expensive to put together. You need to find a bunch of people from all walks of life (students, older people, women, etc.) who, somehow, think alike, without having defined exactly what it is that binds them together. These people will probably have hidden agendas which will undermine the party's goals. Rivalries emerge out of nowhere, and newish parties are not well-equipped from an institutional standpoint to withstand crises caused by clashes of leadership.

These complications have led parties in Venezuela to follow the caudillo model: group a bunch of people together whose only reason for being there is that they believe in or are under the patronage of a specific party "leader." Each and every party that has existed in Venezuela has suffered from this to a certain extent.

Those of us who've been around the block a few times carry an attitude toward political parties that is naturally suspicious. We have been trained by years of scandals to mistrust parties and politicians in general.

However, some people take this too far. They replace healthy skepticism with downright aggression. They not only expect little of political parties, they see them as the enemy and hope for nothing short of their disappearance. They are genetically programmed to not believe in anything politicians say or do, and automatically assume that whatever they are doing, they are always screwing up.

This attitude is curious, and one that we should not take lightly. Many of the voters in the opposition base - heck, many of our readers - fall into this group. What to make of them? Are they simply mistaken? Is this an attitude where we simply have to agree to disagree?

I see people who take skepticism too far as anarchists. According to Wikipedia - apologies beforehand for the citation - the modern anarchist theory proposed "spontaneous order." This is a theory that believes in "the spontaneous emergence of order out of seeming chaos." Anarchists "tend to believe that spontaneous order is superior to any kind of order that can be created by a plan or design."

Anarchism rejects organized action - the government being their main enemy - and instead calls for a world without central authority, where everybody acts according to his or her own wishes and where social order emerges from business transactions between individuals.

French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon saw anarchy as "a form of government or constitution in which public and private consciousness, formed through the development of science and law, is alone sufficient to maintain order and guarantee all liberties. In it, as a consequence, the institutions of the police, preventive and repressive methods, officialdom, taxation, etc., are reduced to a minimum. In it, more especially, the forms of monarchy and intensive centralization disappear, to be replaced by federal institutions and a pattern of life based on the commune."

People who actively hate current political parties, who jump at the chance to point out their numerous failures, seem to me wishing for them to disappear. It's as if they thirst for politicians to be punished for the mere fact that they are politicians, that their stated goal is to achieve power and to exercise it.

However, these people also want some change in the social order. They are not apathetic about politics; quite the contrary. They are willing to support any "spontaneous" movement that arises, and to support specific individuals who lack organization just because they may agree with his or her positions and, most importantly, because the emergence of alternative leadership undermines political parties.

But this is not a good thing per se. Those of us who put in time to talk about Venezuelan politics, who follow it with interest, should ask ourselves to what extent we are replacing healthy skepticism and lowered expectations with irrational attacks against organized political parties. We should wonder about that schadenfreude we feel when we see parties make mistakes, the joy we feel when we think the people have "punished them" for one thing or another.

Our parties are deficient, but if we fail to grasp the many difficulties they face or continue placing unreasonable expectations on them, we may be fostering anarchy. And let's face it, having bad political parties is better than having no political parties at all but rather "movements" centered on "individuals."

Perhaps you don't think this is true, in which case you should revisit the anarchy theories. But if you believe in democracy, you have to believe in parties, in which case you should try to temper your criticisms. Otherwise, by pushing for the death of political parties, you may be throwing out the baby along with the bath-water.

(Disclosure: The author is a registered member of Primero Justicia, an opposition political party).