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?