January 25, 2007

The impossibility of Scandal...

Quico says: Scandal is not possible in the Chávez Era. I don't mean that there's any shortage of scandalous behavior in the country - au contraire! - or of people eager to call attention to it. I mean that Scandal no longer operates as a mechanism for holding the powerful to account. Revelations of official misconduct no longer create a political problem for the government. Without Scandal, society loses its prime lever for holding the powerful to minimum standards of decency.

What does it take to make a Scandal? It takes scandalous behavior, sure, as well as someone to bring it into public view. That still happens in Venezuela, though as control over the media intensifies, it happens less and less. But there the process stops. No consequences of any kind seem to flow from revelations, large or small. And a scandal is only a Scandal if it forces the powerful to alter their behavior in some way.

The puzzle is that the social and political conveyor belts that once turned the disclosure of scandalous behavior into Scandal have broken down. And nothing has stepped in to replace Scandal's social function.

The opposition's last, best attempt to force a scandal - over the crass cover-up of Danilo Anderson's murder - floundered on the shores of official contempt. The closest we've come is the Chávez-approved purge-cum-manufactured-scandal over the CAAEZ affair. By now, even the opposition seems resigned to life in a Scandal-less polity.

A big part of the reason, no doubt, is down to the chokehold chavismo has over all of the country's oversight institutions. It's quite clear now that political loyalty to the regime buys you tacit immunity from legal sanctions for scandalous behavior. But can that really be the entire story?

I think there's more. Disclosures might generate scandals even without the separation of powers, so long as the powerful are capable of shame. Scandalous behavior would have to elicit some raised eye-brows among wrongdoers' own peers in the circles of power. Some things would have to be beyond the pale for Scandal to take root. Nothing, short of disloyalty to Chávez, seems to rise to that level.

Even more fundamentally, for Scandal to take root the clique in power must inhabit the same discursive universe as those who blow the whistle. They have to be ready to engage allegations on the evidence, or at least acknowledge that serious allegations have been made and call for an explanation, even when accusations are made by political opponents.

It's these two preconditions for Scandal that are missing in Venezuela these days. The powerful are no longer, in principle, shamable. And they long ago discarded the possibility that allegations coming from dissidents may, at least in theory, be true. As far as they're concerned, the fact that it is an opponent making an allegation is enough to demonstrate its falsehood. More often than not, allegations are simply ignored. When their existence is acknowledged, it is not to rebut them but to attack the oligarchs who leveled them. In fact, the principled refusal to engage with the substance of opponents' allegations has come to be seen as a sort of badge of revolutionary purity.

The outcome is a hermetically closed circle - a governing caste that is restrained neither by formal/legal sanctions nor by a diffuse, socially-enforced set of norms that make some actions beyond the pale.

Thing is, democratic societies need Scandal; it's the ultimate tool of accountability. Without at least a possibility that serious wrongdoing might debilitate the government, shorten their careers, cause them social embarrassment, or land them in jail, the powerful are liable to run amok.

I bring it up because I think the impossibility of Scandal in the Chávez Era gives us a way into a deeper discussion about the unravelling of the public sphere in the Chávez Era. It's a theme I'll keep coming back to in coming weeks.

January 24, 2007

One of my heroes passes...

Quico says: It's a sad day for me: Ryszard Kapuscinski passed away in Warsaw yesterday.

He was an inspiration for a generation of aspiring journalists, myself included: something about his writing made me want desperately to be a journalist. He made flawless writing look easy, and journalism itself seem incredibly romantic. His bravado, his insouciance in taking crazed risks, was exhilarating. But it wasn't all swashbuckle-and-dash: his reportage was also tender, suffused with understanding, even a kind of warmth, towards the people he wrote about, even - especially - the loathsome people he wrote about. The delicacy of his evocative passages could bring tears to your eyes, and how many journalists can claim to do that?

Kapuscinski brought something close to nobility to this sordid little profession of ours. In his hands, reporting became art. If you haven't had the pleasure yet, you owe it to yourself to have a look at his books. (Starting with The Emperor, of course.)

January 23, 2007

Killer fact!

Since 2005, Venezuela has spent more on weapons than China.

January 21, 2007

Oil, econophobia and the staggering intellectual bankrupcy of chavismo

Quico says: Miguel points to this lovely Chávez quote...
"A President shouldn't listen to economists."
A fine sentiment, no doubt, as long as you can get away with it. If 100,000,000 dollars just happen to gush out of the ground beneath you every day, say. Yes, I agree, economists are pretty superfluous then.

I've been thinking more and more about the lack of intellectual seriousness in chavismo, about its active hostility to specialist knowledge in general, and economic knowledge in particular.

More and more I think econophobia is at the heart of chavismo, of its popular appeal, its arrogance, its basic anti-rationalism and also its tendency to authoritarianism. Chávez holds specialist knowledge in deep, deep contempt - and the more power he amasses, the more contemptuous he gets.

And here, again, oil is a curse. Chávez can get away with it only because money is kind enough to ooze out of the ground in Venezuela. The basic resource constraints that end up persuading a Lula that, y'know, maybe it's not such a bad idea to talk to an economist now and then just don't come up in Venezuela...well, not during an oil boom, anyway.

Thanks to the petrodollar flood, chavismo can just skirt the questions that dog any normal, earthly government - left, right or center - on any normal day: how do we ensure we have a good enough revenue stream to fund public services? how can we sustain a decent living for our people? how can we generate more wealth using the limited resources at our disposal?

Nobody cares. Nobody has to.

Oil is our magical elixir...the solution to all economic conundrums, the guarantee of the irrelevance of economists and their dreary, dense theories and dehumanizing categories and soul-sapping concern with, y'know, work. Who would want any of that? The money's free...

It's easy to forget it now, but socialists used to have serious answers to the problems posed by economic life in industrial society. They were the wrong answers, sure, but they were serious.

Nationalization was supposed to reduce wasteful duplication of investments, lead to economies of scale, and cut out the bourgeois dead-wood from the production process. This would enable living standards to rise more quickly than was possible under capitalism. It didn't quite work out that way, but the proposals were the outcome of detailed analysis on the basis of meticulous reasoning. (Leaf through Das Kapital if you don't believe me.)

20th century socialism never shied away from intellectual engagement in economic debates. Socialists from Clement Atlee to Joseph Stalin understood that socialism had to outperform capitalism in solving the basic problems of economic life. When Khrushev banged his shoe on the podium at the UN, saying "we will bury you!" he meant that the superior Soviet economy would so decisively out-produce the west's that capitalism would wither and die. That was supposed to be the whole point, the reason socialism was supposed to be better than capitalism as a way of organizing society. If it was to take its own claims seriously, 20th century socialism had to have the better solution to the problem of production.

What I find remarkable, unprecedented really, is the way 21st century socialism simply dispenses with any kind of economic reasoning whatsoever. Nationalizations are announced without reference to any kind of abstract discourse setting out the logical links between means (nationalization) and ends (higher productivity, or lower costs, or better service, or anything really.)

It's not even that chavistas are wrong in the causal claims they make. It's that they don't feel the need to put forward causal arguments at all. In their place, we get denunciations of greed and glorifications of solidarity - gut-level appeals to raw emotion - as the sole basis for economic policy-making. Public good, private bad. Collective good, individual bad. That's as sophisticated as Chavonomic reasoning gets.

In the end, 21st Century Socialism is just the hollowed out husk of 20th Century Socialism. The headline grabbing moves - Nationalization! - haven't changed, but they've been completely stripped of the reasoning that once made them meaningful.