December 21, 2009


Quico says: I'm still not over Chávez's speech in Copenhagen last week. It's been a long time since Hugo Chávez has sent my blood pressure to those lofty levels. I know I shouldn't be surprised, but the speech’s mass of contradictions grabs me, calls at me. It is Exhibit A in this blog’s raison d’etre for the future.

Chávez's speech in Copenhagen was no ordinary one. More than a mass of contradictions, it was a kind of discursive black hole: a bulging heap of inconsistencies so unfathomably dense, so tightly entwined and pure, it actually traps truth. It's as though, once past the Chávez Event Horizon, no logic can escape.

If contradicting yourself is an art, COP15 was Chávez's Mona Lisa.

Sheer cynicism is not an adequate explanation for what happened in Copenhagen. While an inborn gift for demagoguery certainly helps, I just can't believe that any thinking human being who is consciously aware of what he is doing could have the chutzpah to deliver such a deliriously self-defeating speech.

The only convincing explanation, for my taste, is that Chávez was genuinely unaware that the industry that keeps his revolution in place is also primarily responsible for anthropogenic climate change. Nobody put those dots together for him, and he failed to put them together himself. It's a thought the man has apparently never been exposed to.

And that's the scary part, because it suggests that, in Venezuela, the mechanisms that normally keep a world leader from making a flaming ass of himself on the world stage have irretrievably broken down.

Here, I'm not talking about "constitutional government," formal checks and balances or any of that. I'm talking about the simple, human process that takes place when you think of an idea, discuss it with the people close to you, weigh up its pros and cons, and refine it to make it better, more useful, more fit-for-purpose. It's the sort of thing you do, unconsciously, all the time.

-"Honey, I was thinking about making chicken for lunch...alright?"
-"Nah, your mom is coming, she hates chicken..."
-"Ah, ok, maybe pasta then."
-"That's a better idea."
By now, anybody willing to engage in the kind of communicative process that might help Chávez avoid evident pitfalls has been purged. Those guys are, for the most part, whiling the years away in Ramo Verde or Miami.

That's communicative action: one of the primary mechanisms human beings have to protect themselves from making really bad decisions on a daily basis. The Chávez entourage appears to have given it up altogether.

Picture that plane ride over to Denmark. At some point, Chávez must have turned to his foreign minister and said something like,

-"So Maduro, I was thinking of giving a pretty tough speech to the conference. Bit of red meat. Blame this whole climate thing on the rich countries, on capitalism and such. Think that'll go over?"
At that point, if anything even remotely approaching Government by Discussion operated in Venezuela, Maduro might have turned to him to suggest that perhaps that wasn't the best tack to take in this occassion, considering Venezuela's deep involvement in the oil business. He might have suggested a different line - perhaps something about the way capitalism had forced countries like ours into the role of primary commodity producers, pigeonholing us into an earth-raping link in the international value chain. He might have suggested to just let Evo do the fire-breathing. He might, in other words, have helped Chávez save himself from himself, in a cooperative process where the two men, together, moved passed the initial, hopelessly flawed idea and onto more defensible territory.

That Chávez gave the speech he did suggests that, in his inner circle, nothing remotely resembling this type of communicative action takes place. Maduro cannot, will not consider suggesting a change in rhetoric to the Comandante Presidente. That, in fact, is the main reason Maduro is where he is now.

What's left is a coterie of people who sustain their positions by treating the president with the unending deference he fantasizes the rest of the country - or the rest of the world - gives him. It's the kind of deference that leaves Chávez totally exposed to the ravages of, possibly, the single most destructive element in Venezuela today: his own mind.

The implications of this state of affairs, on a more abstract level, are far from trivial.

In Chávez’s Venezuela, power’s refusal to hold itself accountable to reasoned debate has become its own Achiless Hell. Power is now its own worst enemy, continuously undercutting itself, fanatically devoted to depriving itself of the safeguards it needs the most. The cult of personality this attitude engenders provides the guarantee of its own failure.

There is a reason why the Spanish version of this site is going to be called What we're seeing in Venezuela today is a form of exercise of state power that can only be sustained where the Public Sphere is critically wounded, marginalized, and shut out of any ability to hold power to account.

The liquidation of the democratic public sphere in Venezuela preceded the establishment of the dictatorship we now have. And unless something like a democratic public sphere can be re-established, unless the habits of thought that sustain Government by Discussion can be re-enshrined, any return to institutional democracy will be precarious.

In a comments link a few days ago, somebody said they were glad there was some kind of initiative to create some space for "rational thinking" about Venezuela. At the risk of picking nits, I have to say I think that's the wrong way to look at it.

Rationality is not a quality of thought, it's a feature of deliberation. Where ideas are presented vigorously, debated openly and adjudicated on the force of the better argument, rationality ensues. Where power and identity trump reasoned deliberation, rationality withers away and dies, no matter how many brilliant individual thinkers may be around.

Reason is the province not of any one intellect but out of the collaborative process that is communicative action.

The goal here is to start making spaces, online, for the kind of public sphere able to sustain the deliberation democracy depends on. Without such a public sphere, democracy is helpless and hopeless, and reason cannot flourish. With it, it's unstoppable.

Feliz Navidad, people. And a happy new year.

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