December 8, 2009

Dictatorship means never having to say "the reason is..."

Quico says: One thing all critics of the Chávez regime seem to agree on is that democracy in Venezuela is pretty much dead. But what exactly do we mean by that?

When we talk about democracy we're usually talking about two separate but related ideas.

On the one hand, you have the institutions of democracy. We mean parliaments and banking regulations; election day rules and procedures; habeas corpus and constitutional principles of due process; decentralization, and all that. When we say that Venezuelan democracy has died, we mean that none of these institutional mechanisms is operating the way the constitution says they ought to. This, alarming as it is, is not all there is.

There's another level where democracy has been dying, a much more intimate level that manifests itself in the ways we communicate when political matters are at stake. I call it the "discursive level" in that it concerns itself with the kinds of arguments people in the political sphere find compelling at any given time. It's about the habits of thought of our political actors.

This distinction is not trivial.

One thing is the National Assembly and another is the quality and style of the debates that are held within its chambers. The question, from a discursive point of view, is what constitutes a "powerful reason to act" in the eyes of its members? Alongside any abstract principle and any formal institution there are the tacit rules actual people use to apply them the world.

Political systems are democratic to the extent that they maintain possibility of holding reasoned debates in the public sphere that tend to generate consensual understandings. On the contrary, they are authoritarian to the degree that appeals to straight-out authority - jefe es jefe - are enough to secure compliance from political decision-makers.

Venezuelan intellectuals tend not to distinguish clearly enough between these two levels, the institutional and the discursive. We tend to be much clearer, more explicit, and more eloquent talking about what has gone wrong institutionally than what has gone wrong discursively.

But if our institutional democracy has died it's because the discursive habits of mind that support it have been hunted to extinction. Chavista discourse was dictatorial long before chavista government.

In Venezuela, a return to democracy will entail much more than a return to institutional democracy. It will mean focusing on the discursive realm as well, on re-establishing a certain set of unwritten rules and expectations about what is "normal" behavior in the public sphere. These rules, which Habermas calls "discursive standards," are the criteria people use to decide if an argument is persuasive or not. When the rules of engagement in the public sphere are democratic, what you get is what Amartya Sen calls "government by discussion."

Discursive democracy is what you get when the main question asked of a given political argument is: "does that position make sense?" Discursive authoritarianism is what you get when the main question asked of a given political argument is: "who put that argument forward?"

An escualido?! Booooo! A chaburro?! Hisssss!!!

Democracy in Venezuela has collapsed in the face of a full frontal attack not just at the institutional level, but also in that deeper, discursive sphere. So subverting chavista hegemony requires liquidating the discursive standards that sustain its power.

Bringing discursive democracy back to life means putting in place policies hashed out in real debates, where ideas are grappled with, confronted and crafted into consensual roads forward by people more interested in the content of a position than the identity of the one expressing it.

This is not an easy thing to do. Building a discursive democracy runs counter to some very old habits. Throw yourself into a genuine discussion and, suddenly, you've made yourself vulnerable. In a genuine discussion, you go in without any guarantee that you'll come out on the winning side. Discussion requires humility, flexibility, a willingness to learn and an acceptance that you may be called on to alter your positions in the light of what the other side says. This may be one of the reasons true architects of democracy have, to some degree, possessed a healthy dose of greatness.

Dictators will not subject themselves to genuine debate, because genuine debate is risky, unpredictable, dangerous. A dictator will join no communicative interaction in which he (and it's usually a he, isn't it?) is not guaranteed the upper hand from the start. This is why Chávez simply refuses to be questioned by journalists who will throw anything but the softest of soft balls at him.

The sad fact is that unless the opposition shows it's better than Chávez at engaging with ideas, doing away with Hugo Chávez will do almost nothing to re-establish democracy in this deeper sense. If we fail to enshrine genuinely democratic discursive standards, the return to institutional democracy will be as shallow, fleeting, and incomplete as the system we had until 1998.

More than an adherence to constitutional standards, more than respect for the forms of the democratic game, what Venezuela's democratic movement needs to develop is the frame of mind needed to engage with an opponent (even chavista ones) in genuine debate, in the understanding that the power of the strongest argument will carry the day.

That's the habit of mind that creates the social underpinning of democratic government. Without that attitudinal bedrock, that basic predisposition to accept discussion as the arena where decisions are made, there is no possibility of democracy.

Faced with a government that experiences debate as a threat, merely creating spaces for genuine debate constitutes a subversive act. As long as Venezuelans sustain spaces where matters of public policy are subjected to free and open debate, chavista autocracy will never be complete and will never be secure.

The internet offers tremendous possibilities for this kind of subversion, possibilities that are not yet being fully exploited. The democratic movement needs to step up its game in this regard, creating spaces where genuine debate can take place. Who's up for it?