February 23, 2007

On political common sense, Part 2: Their side

Quico says: Two weeks ago, I wrote this long piece on the deeper reasons why chavismo is so profoundly unacceptable to those of us in the opposition. I argued that Venezuela is currently caught between two competing sets of "political common senses." Here, I want to address the other side's common sense, its deeper roots, and the reasons it contrasts so strongly with our own.

By "revolution," Chávez seems to mean an attempt to establish his political common sense as the only valid basis for political discourse in Venezuela. The old political common sense, rooted in enlightenment thinking and committed to constitutional liberalism, has been under constant attack for eight years now. As a replacement, chavistas offer a radical alternative that discards liberal rationalism's entire conception of human dignity, upending its values and recasting reasoned debate as a mechanism of domination.

The distinguishing characteristic of chavista common sense is its radical rejection of deliberation as a way of arriving at political decisions and its flat out refusal to engage critically with those who dissent. We will not find an intellectual defense of this stance in the chavista movement itself, since any such defense would amount to engagement with the criticisms leveled, and the principled refusal to engage in that kind of back-and-forth is what chavista antirationalism is all about.

Is that all there is to say about it, then? Not at all. A coherent, even powerful defense of chavista antirationalism is possible, even if chavistas themselves will not put it forward. To grasp it, I think you need a bit of a detour through the work of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu.

Bourdieu made a career out of examining the difference in tastes between rich people and poor people in France, whether in art, literature, music, food, film, or hobbies and building a radical sociological theory on his observations. He noted the way richer people systematically preferred more "difficult" forms of art (think Bracque, James Joyce, Bach, caviar, Lars von Triers or bridge), while poorer people prefered "easier" forms (think dogs playing poker, Dan Brown, Top 40, McDonald's and Hollywood.) He noted the way we tend to associate aesthetic refinement with difficulty, whereas we find "easy" art crass and distasteful. And he asked himself why.

Bourdieu didn't think this was just about conspicuous consumption. Surely refined tastes are more expensive than crass ones, so having them signals your privileged economic position, but he thought there was much more to it than that. He noted that the things we consider refined are nearly always much more abstract, while popular tastes tend to the concrete. An abstract painting, a passage from Ulysses, a Bach fugue, an artsy Danish film - these are items that set out, self-consciously, to appeal to our minds, not to our senses.

Elite tastes revel in their own difficulty. For Bourdieu, the pleasure of consuming refined cultural items is to be found primarily in the act of deciphering them - of demonstrating that you have the intellectual and cultural capacity to understand them. Their sociological role is to distinguish you from those who don't have that capacity, the unwashed masses who are content with appeals to the senses, to raw emotion unmediated by reason.

As we have seen, in the enlightenment tradition, it is precisely the capacity to reason, to embrace abstraction, to think in universal categories and and to transcend our immediate sensory experience that forms the basis of human dignity. But, lo and behold, in liberal societies, it's mostly rich people who consume, value and share the aesthetic experiences associated with that capacity to reason.

And here, all the old Enlightenment dichotomies come back into play. Liberal rationalism is built on a series of contrast - abstract vs. concrete, conceptual vs. sensory, rational vs. emotional, hard vs. easy, spiritual vs. animal - and locates human dignity in the supposedly universal capacity to move toward the former and away from the latter. For liberal rationalism we can all become more spiritual and less animal, we can all rise through the ranks if we fulfill that potential. This, in the end, is what makes us human.

What Bourdieu stresses is that, as an empirical matter, we don't all have the same ability to decipher refined cultural goods. Some of us do, some of us don't. And it's not a matter of chance which of us do and which of us don't: those of us who are rich generally do, and those of us who are poor generally don't. In liberal societies, then, human dignity is not nearly so democratically distributed as liberal ideology likes to imagine.

What Bourdieu is getting at is that the sense of refinement, of distinction, of what is crass and what is sophisticated, helps configure a system of domination, a mechanism the rich can use leverage their capacity to reason abstractly not for some exalted end, but merely to assert, protect and maintain their position of dominance in society.

Now, for a far-left French intellectual, Bourdieu makes some pretty un-PC noises. He doesn't follow these arguments, as you might expect, with an impassioned rebuttal, an explanation about how the dominated poor are just as capable of abstraction as anyone else.

Just the opposite, he argues that the system of domination itself deprives poor people of the ability to reason abstractly. Poor people's experience is dominated by the need to come up with practical solutions to the problems of survival - getting enough for food, shelter and clothes are exhausting tasks that you don't achieve through abstraction. Economic precariousness, the need to scrabble together a living in a hostile environment, lock the poor into a mindset where "practical reasoning" is essential and "abstract reasoning" nearly impossible.

This, he argues, is the way domination reproduces itself from one generation to the next. Liberal societies imprison one class of people inexorably in an animalistic existence, all the while insisting that abstract reasoning is the common patrimony of humanity - and, thereby, implicitly scorning those who cannot or will not attain it.

For Bourdieu, liberal constitutionalism's promise of a public sphere where the only thing that matters is the strength of your arguments is inherently part of the system of domination. The poor, pressed by the need to make a living, don't have the luxury of developing the social and intellectual skills needed to participate in political deliberation. The formal equality so careful enshrined in liberal constitutions are meaningless when faced with these social realities.

In fact, Bourdieu goes even farther and argues that the poor, as a class, are incapable of forming truly independent political opinions. They cannot have a political position, because the system of domination bars them from the cultural capacities it takes to formulate one.

Deliberation - that most sacred practice in the liberal constitutionalist imagination - presupposes the capacities that domination denies to the poor. So the stress constitutional liberals place on the practice of deliberation is just one move in a broader strategy by the dominant class to permanently establish its dominance.

Locked away in their individual struggles to make a living, the poor cannot reason in the broad, abstract, universal categories needed to assert themselves politically. The poor, for Bourdieu, are unable to speak for themselves. Somebody, therefore, must speak for them. That someone in effect constitutes the poor into a political actor. It is in being spoken for, in having their interests articulated politically by someone else, that the poor acquire a political existence.

Chávez es el pueblo. Or, more precisely, el pueblo es Chávez.

As far as I'm aware, Bourdieu - who passed away in 2002 - never wrote specifically about Chávez. But I do think his views preconfigure pretty precisely what Chávez has tried to do. Like Bourdieu, Chávez sees deliberation as thinly disguised cover for the exercise of class domination. In a very Bourdieuian way, he sees the poor as having no independent political existence apart from the one they derived from being led by him. Like Bourdieu, he sees liberation largely as a matter of reversing the structure of symbolic hierarchies in society - of valuing that which has been devalued, and devaluing that which has been valued.

Seen from this perspective, chavismo's refusal to engage critically with the arguments of dissenters makes perfect sense. That refusal is, in a sense, the central node of the revolution. To deliberate is unacceptable because it would mean treating arguments as though they are disembodied, disconnected from the people making them, valid in their own terms only and therefore open to refutation in terms of their internal merit only. Chavismo implicitly accepts a kind of Bourdieuian analysis where arguments never stand on their own, and are always valid (or invalid) only by reference to the people making them.

It's in this context that we should understand chavismo's dogged determination not to engage critically with dissenting arguments. Ad hominem attacks on those who criticize the government are not, as we so often suppose, simply a matter of chavismo's intellectual poverty: they are also the expression of a certain view of society and political power where the messenger - and his socio-political position - is always more important than the message. That, I think, is chavista political common sense condensed.

Lots that is otherwise opaque about chavismo becomes clear once you appreciate this dynamic. Specialist discourses of every kind must be rejected out of hand if the revolution is to take itself seriously. Any line of reasoning based on a specialized understanding of a subject comes to be seen, ipso facto, as an attempt to reassert the old regime's system of domination. For chavismo, privilege always comes cloaked in a powerpoint presentation.

The radicalism, the rigid dogmatism with which the government has stuck to this position, has been startling to say the least. Dismissing all deliberation and all specialist discourse as a way of managing society, chavismo is left to rely on the will of the leader alone. Under normal circumstances, such insistence would've brought massive economic chaos long ago. But the last few years have not been normal. The oil boom has provided the government with more than enough money to cover up the consequences of the myriad contradictions such a stance has produced. Surfing a massive wave of oil profits, the government has not yet had to confront the more unseemly consequences of its dogged anti-rationalism. For now, all we can do is wonder how long its luck will last.

February 20, 2007

Breaking up is hard to do

Katy says: A few days ago Primero Justicia, Venezuela's third-largest political party, suffered a public split. A group led by Chacao mayor Leopoldo López (pictured right) and former assemblymen Gerardo Blyde and Liliana Hernández resigned from the party alleging a lack of internal democracy, saying in the process that the party had "aged quickly" and questioning its internal democracy mechanisms. In this post, I will argue that their claims are baseless, and that their decision amounts to a group of media-friendly politicians putting their individual interests ahead of their party's, and the country's.

The group's claim could be summarized in three points: they wanted the party to have an "impartial" electoral referee, a trustworthy electoral roll and they called for party members to directly choose their national authorities. What they really wanted was control over the party's institutions, and since they did not get it, on February 3rd, the day of Primero Justicia’s internal elections, they announced they were abandoning the party.

The rulebook

As in every organization, elections procedures are stipulated in the rulebooks. In the case of Primero Justicia, these are quite clear: the party is a legislative body, in which the main decisions are made by the National Political Council (NPC). This body is elected by party members directly, and it is responsible selecting the party's national "executive" authorities. Regional and local bodies all have a say in the NPC's composition. The party structure resembles more closely a parliamentary system rather than a presidential one, which in itself, as any rational person would agree, does not make the party un-democratic. Lopez, Blyde and Hernández were all, until recently, members of the NPC.

This rulebook was the product of a consensus reached when the party was formed, and it is legally registered and signed by all of its founders, including López, Blyde and Hernández. The book also includes an article naming Julio Borges as National Coordinator of the party, whereby the signees (again, including López, Blyde and Hernández) grant Borges the legitimacy to guide the party and assume its top leadership position.

In spite of this, the NPC and Borges have a history of clashes. The most famous one occurrred after Borges announced he was running for President, when the NPC famously sided with Accion Democrática and agreed to withdraw from the 2005 Legislative elections. Borges saw this as a mistake and a challenge to his leadership, yet he accepted this democratic decision and moved on. The NPC was clearly in the hands of the radical opposition segment, and López, Blyde and Hernández were calling the shots.

Borges then used his presidential candidacy as an opportunity to tour the country, establishing close links not only with ordinary Venezuelans and swing voters, but with regional party representatives that were beginning to feel neglected by the Caracas wing of the nascent organization. After having publicly rebuffed its leader and presidential candidate on the issue of the Legislative elections, Borges's slow and steady work ensured that, at present, the NPC sides with his issues most of the time.

Getting in touch with the party base would seem like the basic thing one has to do in order to win an internal party election. Sadly, this is something the dissenters have not done enough of, and it is one of the main reasons why their decision to leave the party is deeply linked to a desire to avoid a humiliating defeat in a national party election.

The conditions

Back in July, the dissenters decided to withdraw from all party activity, alleging that they were a separate current within Primero Justicia and that were not represented by current authorities. That particular feud was sparked by the NPC's decision to remove Blyde from the General Secetariat for having gone to Rosales to negotiate certain elements of the campaign when, at the same time, the party's presidential candidate and legitimate leader was negotiating a coalition with Rosales.

Blyde's reckless attitude not only hurt Borges's standing within the nascent opposition coalition, it also put in jeopardy the opposition's unity around the Rosales candidacy. To add injury to insult, Manuel Rosales incorporated people from both tendencies in his campaign leadership team, thereby granting legitimacy to the dissenters' complaints. This was clearly something he should not have done if he had any respect for the party's institutions.

Leopoldo López then became the Rosales campaign's de-facto general manager. Rosales picked López to chair the campaign’s organization in Caracas, confident that Lopez’s apparent charisma would translate in a convincing victory for him in the capital. Borges took all this as a slap in the face but said nothing for the benefit of unity.

The facts showed that Lopez’s charisma was overblown. Rosales managed only 962,020 votes in Miranda, Vargas and the Capital District, 15,000 fewer votes than the opposition had gotten according to the disputed results of the Recall Referendum, when the voter electoral roll was much smaller. It was a bona-fide disaster for the opposition, yet López never took full responsibility.

Since the dissenters had decided to withdraw from the party that July, acting authorities went ahead with plans for internal elections in the first trimester of 2007, something none of Venezuela's major political parties have done in the past 10 years. The NPC named an Electoral Commission mostly comprised, as was natural, of supporters of the party’s leadership, the only ones who were actively participating in the party’s move to get out the vote and, frankly, the only ones who were even going to the meetings.

The irony is that, as Primero Justicia was becoming the only major Venezuelan political organization to hold internal election, dissenters were shamefully calling the party "autocratic" and "undemocratic," even hinting that they might be better off participating in Un Nuevo Tiempo, a party that has never held internal elections. López, Blyde and Hernández rarely, if ever, asked voters to cast their vote for their own party, and they were seldom seen wearing the party’s colors during the presidential campaign.

This period also coincided with a growth in the registered party activists who were eligible to cast their votes in internal elections. This, combined with dissenters' withdrawal from party activity, is the reason why the first two of the dissenters’ demands ring so hollow. Nobody would dispute that an impartial arbiter is necessary, and party authorities showed generosity in negotiating with the dissenters a committee everyone could agree with. Yet what the dissenters wanted was a commission where they had the majority, something that clearly went too far.

Furthermore, the electoral roll was made available so that it could be audited, only to be told by the dissenters that the roll of party activists had grown suspiciously over the past year and that they could not agree with it. Ultimately, what the spat boiled down to was a voluntary withdrawal from the party for the past year on the part of dissenters. Their posture demanding that Primero Justicia had to do what they wanted after they had abanoned their party many months ago was hypocritical, to say the least.

The third aspect of their requests was even more absurd: the dissenters simply demanded the party change its internal structure, just because. After agreeing to a federal parliamentary system, something perfectly democratic and new in Venezuelan politics, they decided that they would prefer if the system was more tailored to their own electoral possibilities. In effect, their demands were so outrageous, the only way the party could come out with any hint of integrity was for the institutions to stay put and for ordinary procedures to be followed.

Venezuela has a long history of caudillismo, of “personalities” commanding their own armies and wanting existing institutions to submit to their own interests. Primero Justicia is an attempt to break that mold. If the dissenters were serious about changing the party from a parliamentary to a presidential structure, they should have worked within the party structure to change that. They should have gone to the NPC meetings they stopped going to a year ago and put forth a proposal to change the party’s internal structure. They should have participated in internal elections and tried to win a majority of seats in the NPC to change the way the party was handled. They couldn’t have seriously expected the party to agree to every one of their demands, or else.

What people think

Ordinary opposition voters are dismayed at seeing a promising political party break into factions so early in the game. Some people think the exit of López, Blyde and Hernandez is a severe blow to the future prospects of Primero Justicia, and an ominous sign for the opposition movement as a whole. They are wrong on both counts.

The opposition movement will not suffer greatly due to this split. We were divided in factions before, and we remain divided in factions now. The fact that López and company are forming their own group will not make an opposition coalition any easier or any harder to maintain, given that a big chunk of it is already in Manuel Rosales’ party Un Nuevo Tiempo, and another huge chunk is unaffiliated to any political parties.

On the contrary, the dissenters’ exit is a victory for institutions, for playing by the rules and not yielding to the illegal demands of a rich, good-looking mayor who is popular with the Globovisión crowd but is unknown outside Eastern Caracas. While López, Blyde and Hernández resorted to ridiculous name-calling, Capriles, Borges, Ocariz and Briquet mainly stuck to the high road and refused to fall in their trap, openly asking dissenters to come back to the party and showing flexibility in willing to meet them half way. In preserving its integrity and refusing to meet the demands of opposition radicals, Primero Justicia becomes a party better positioned to win over the crucial Ni-ni vote once reality bites and Chavenomics comes falling down like a house of cards.

In the meantime, some people bemoan the loss of López, Blyde and Hernandez, arguing they were the most charismatic bunch in Primero Justicia. To them I ask: if they were so charismatic, how can you account for López’s ultimate failure in securing a win for Rosales in Caracas? If they were so popular with the PJ crowd, why not participate and prove it? It's not like Primero Justicia was relying on fishy voting machines casting doubt on the results - the voting was manual, the voter roll was open to auditing, and they would have been able to place witnesses in every voting center.

Primero Justicia wished the dissenters luck upon learning of their departure. Their nascent political movement is going to need all the luck it can get, and one hopes their charisma is powerful enough to overcome the fact that its superstar leader (López) is prevented from holding elected office ‘til God knows when.

The most radical segment of opposition public opinion, including media outlets such as Globovisión, seems to have sided with the dissenters. This is regrettable because the dissenters are wrong. Their claims were illegal, unsubstantiated, overly dramatic and were seeking to harm the party that first gave them a platform. Furthermore, the way this split has been playing out in public, and the allegations being hurled at current Primero Justicia authorities, says volumes about the bitter ego trips some of the dissenters are engaged in. To this day, López continues to attack his former party in ways that are harmful to the opposition movement as a whole, seeking to build up his own movement on the ashes of his previous one.

Hopefully, all this infighting will end soon. In the meantime, one can only hope that, in going their separate ways, each side shows some restraint in how they characterize the other in public so that a future coalition remains viable, something the country desperately needs. Current Primero Justicia authorities seem to have made a fresh start and have turned the page. Will the dissenters do the same?

February 18, 2007

By the end of this post you will know more about economics than the Venezuelan government...

Quico says: There's something vaguely embarrassing about the whole debate about food shortages taking place in Venezuela these days. Because, really, there's nothing to debate: the way price controls lead to shortages is one of the best understood phenomena in all of economics. This is stuff undergraduates learn within the first week of their first microeconomics course. All you need is a very basic grasp of supply and demand: concepts rooted in the sort of "well, duh!" economic common sense that you really can't refute.

If you haven't had the pleasure of a formal course in economics, no worries! I can show you in just six slides:

Now, this isn't really a line of reasoning you can refute. I mean, you could refute it, but you'd have to argue that the demand curve is upward sloping - that the higher the price of something, the more of it people will want to buy.

I'll buy that the minute you show me a store running a 1-for-the-price-of-2 sale.

It boggles the mind that we have a government that can't wrap its mind around these six slides. A government so primitive that it thinks it can legislate away scarcity is a government that has elevated its contempt for common sense to the level of official ideology.

Nor will this problem be alleviated by nationalizing the food sector. There's a reason why shortage management - whether through interminable lines or ration books - is a mainstay of controlled economies: the dynamics of supply and demand operate regardless of the ideological label you affix to the regime that flouts them. Even the Soviet Union - a fully state-controlled economy backed by the threat of deportation to the gulags - failed to bully sellers into supplying enough to meet demand at controlled prices.

It's not surprising - slapping the word "socialist" on a country doesn't magically make its people want to pay more for the things they buy.

For Chávez, though, such talk is just a defense of capitalist deviations like "individualism" and "greed" - moral failings the revolution means to stamp out. And so we get Utopian plans to forge a socialist "new man," which is just a fancy term for a sucker willing to plump for a pay-2-get-1 sale. A mythical being who enjoys his poverty and actively seeks to deepen it.

It breaks my heart to see such economic obscurantism empowered in Venezuela. Like the proverbial slow-motion train wreck, it's too easy to foresee where this is all heading. And it's just plain chilling that our country is run by people who refuse, as a matter of principle, to grasp it.