February 15, 2008

How low can you go?

Quico says: More than a movement, more than an ideology or a revolution or even a government, chavismo-in-power is turning into a kind of gruesome experiment. How debased can a group's discoursive standards get before it falls apart altogether? Having surrendered the tools it takes to process their differences in a minimally sane way, how long can they keep it together?

These are the questions that went through my mind as I read the genuinely weird story of Luis Tascón's final expulsion from the ranks of chavismo.

You remember Tascón, don't you? He's the National Assembly guy who pioneered Chavismo's use of IT to discriminate against millions of Venezuelan dissidents. That guy!

Turns out he's CIA. Or Microsoft. Same difference.

Tascón's now been tossed out of Chávez's budding Socialist Party. It's safe to say now that he will not be Mayor of Libertador like he'd wanted.

His crime? He put forward evidence of corruption (think of it as "El Caso de los Jeeps del Siglo 21") on the part of José David Cabello, the new Tax Superintendent who, by sheer coincidence, happens to be the brother of Miranda Governor Diosdado Cabello, a favorite Chávez protegé and revolutionary untouchable.

El Universal's writeup on this story beggars belief from start to finish. Cilia Flores, the Assembly Chairwoman, called for an overhaul of the National Assembly's corruption investigations arm, the Comptrollership Committee, over its excessive willingness to, um, investigate corruption...just one of the sorts of "details" that gets buried deep inside the story because the headline stuff is so deliriously over the top.

I mean, Diosdado thinks Tascón was conspiring directly with Bill Gates and muses that, while he was in Redmond, "maybe they injected a chip into his blood"...no bureaucratic shakeup in the Assembly can compete with that!

How did our public sphere get this far gone?

Faced with all this craziness, it's tough to organize your thoughts. But Habermas uses a concept I think is quite helpful in this context: "discursive standards".

A discursive standard is a taken-for-granted set of rules a group uses to judge whether an argument is persuasive or not. Discursive standards vary from one setting to another: what constitutes a "good argument" in a courtroom doesn't necessarily hold water in a school playground, or a Globovision studio, or a PETA meeting. In each of these settings, a different set of unspoken rules underpins the group's shared sense of what's reasonable, what's persuasive, and what's appropriate: it's those rules Habermas wants to get at when he talks about discursive standards.

The question, for me, is how chavismo's discursive standards got so freakishly warped.

Simple. The basic ingredient is just a supersized dose of Manichaeism. Reality, in this view, is a constant struggle between absolute evil and absolute good, with nothing in between. Chavista Manichaeism assigns absolute evil one label ("the US") and absolute good another ("Chávez").

Chavismo has crafted a discursive standard out of its iron-willed commitment to this worldview. Its discursive standard forces every single political, moral, diplomatic, personal, or judicial matter into that dualistic scheme. Within chavismo, arguments become "persuasive" only to the extent that they identify what's good with Chávez and what's evil with the US.

Taken to its logical extreme, this resolves into the view that nothing can be good unless Chávez did it, and nothing - not even Bolívar's death - can be bad unless the US did it. No case is exempt.

That's all there is to it, really. For chavismo, every debate must be conducted under these discursive rules. Straying is not allowed. A willingness to stray from the standard suggests the kind of disloyalty that, from the perspective of the standard itself, can only be interpreted as treasonous.

Luis Tascón, of all people, should've realized all this. But he fucked up. He said something bad had happened without saying the US was somehow responsible. Not allowed. So he got CIAed. Cabello Clan 1, Tascón 0.

Reading up on Tascón's defenestration, I couldn't help but think of Orwell's take on Stalin's trotskyite purges, and the inability of the PSFs of his age to get their minds around what was happening:
To get the full sense of our ignorance as to what is really happening in the USSR, it would be worth trying to translate the most sensational Russian event of the past two years, the Trotskyist trials, into English terms. Make the necessary adjustments, let Left be Right and Right be Left, and you get something like this:

Mr. Winston Churchill [i.e. Trotsky], now in exile in Portugal, is plotting to overthrow the British Empire and establish Communism in England. By the use of unlimited Russian money he has succeeded in building up a huge Churchillite organisation which includes members of Parliament, factory managers, Roman Catholic bishops and practically the whole of the Primrose League. Almost every day some dastardly act of sabotage is laid bare - sometimes a plot to blow up the House of Lords, sometimes and outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the Royal racing-stables. Eighty per cent of the Beefeaters at the Tower are discovered to be agents of the Communist International. A high level official at the Post Office admits brazenly to having embezzled postal orders to the tune of 5,000,000 pounds, and also to having committed lese majeste by drawing moustaches on postage stamps. Lord Nuffield ["the English Henry Ford"], after a 7-hour interrogation by Mr. Norman Birkett [who would become a lawyer at Nuremberg 7 years later], confesses that ever since 1920 he has been fomenting strikes in his own factories. Casual half-inch paras in every issue of the newspapers announce that fifty more Churchillite sheep-stealers have been shot in Westmoreland. And meanwhile the Churchillites never cease from proclaiming that it is they who are the real defenders of Capitalism and that it is the government that is no more than a set of Bolsheviks in disguise.'

Anyone who has followed the Russian trials knows that this is scarcely a parody. From our point of view, the whole thing is not merely incredible as a genuine conspiracy, it is next door to incredible as a frame-up. It is simply a dark mystery, of which the only seizable fact - sinister enough in its way - is that Communists over here regard it as a good advertisement for Communism.
Faced with Tascón's expulsion, what would Orwell think? In terms of violence, chavismo is surely far from the blood-soaked extremes of Stalinist paranoia. But in discursive terms, it's really not that far.

Every week seems to bring a new low in the Bolivarian republic, yet the govering clique limps along somehow. Each week's lunacy serves only to set a kind of "personal best" - a challenge to be out-lunaticked the following week. The discursive standards of the chavista governing elite get more and more detached from reality but, so far, the group's managed not to implode.

I'm amazed, awed even, by its neverending capacity to plumb new depths, to outdo itself for shrill craziness again and again, to keep surprising us even this late on in the game.

I sense that this can't go on much longer...but then, I've sensed at for a long time, and they keep proving me wrong.

Update: One of my better connected readers puts this befuddling possibility in my email. It may or may not be true: if anyone knows more, please share.
Here's a weird 'fact' (insofar as anything that comes via indirect sources can be regarded as a 'fact'): Jose David Cabello is not part of the Cabello clan ... apparently the two brothers, whose kleptomania and physical resemblance - not to mention their close family ties - suggest that they are as alike as peas in a pod, belong to a different power group. In fact, Jose David's recent appointment to replace Jose G Vielma Mora is the reverse of what most of us had thought ... because it's Vielma not Cabello who belongs to Diosdado's group. And this may be one reason for his mysterious ouster. All very strange.