June 8, 2007

June 7, 2007

Catatumbo Chronicles

Quico says: The rural municipality of Catatumbo in southern Zulia State just had a by-election for mayor. The result? The Un Nuevo Tiempo (opposition) candidate got 7,699 votes against the government candidate's 4,284. Contrast that with last December's election, when Zulia Governor Manuel Rosales got 6,673 votes in Catatumbo vs. Chávez's 6,071.

But it's Teodoro Petkoff who latched on to the really telling detail about this story: a few weeks ago, in a progress report on recruitment for PSUV - Chávez's new party - Vice-president Jorge Rodríguez announced that 11,000 people in Catatumbo had applied to join the party: that's two and a half times the number that actually voted for the chavista candidate. ¿Qué tal?

Either the PSUV recruitment figures are puffed up or Catatumbenses realize that, in the current climate, it's a practical necessity to have a PSUV card in your pocket, so they signed up even though they don't really support the party.

June 6, 2007

Your ideas are not your ideas

Quico says: I've been fascinated by the responses to Chávez's detailed invocation of Gramsci the other day. Most of the opposition is slightly dazed and confused by all this. Mostly, I think, it's because we just don't know that much about Gramsci - it's a names that crops up now and then in intellectualoid circles, but who really has the time to slog through some half-forgotten Marxist's musty old theories? Well, apparently Chávez does, and now we have to as well.

Probably the most common opposition reaction to this episode has been a sneering dismissal, something like:
"So he's a Gramscian now? Right, just like he was a Trostkyite after somebody gave him a few snippets of Trostky to read. When he went to the US in 1999 he said he was a Jeffersonian, two weeks later in China he said he was a Maoist. A few months after that he was quoting from a New Ageish gay self-help book during cadenas. His reading is a mile wide and an inch deep: there's no need to pay any attention."
Usually I would tend to agree, but not this time. Why? Because when Chávez runs out and "discovers" he's a great follower of, say, Mao, the claim is ridiculous because nothing Chávez has done shows any similarity with Mao's ideas or Mao's actions.But when Chávez talks about Gramsci, he lays out a kind of road-map to his communication strategy over the last eight years.

Chávez has always shared Gramsci's fundamental insight about the role of ideology in supporting capitalism. Gramsci's whole point was that, under capitalist hegemony, your ideas are not your ideas. They may feel like they're yours, but in fact you've unwittingly absorbed them from the hegemonic system all around you - from the radio and Hollywood movies and Radio Rochela. That cultural system exists precisely in order to pass off the interests of the ruling class as "common sense," to swindle the oppressed into siding with the interests of the oppressors. That's hegemony.

This interpretation is chavismo distilled. How many times have we heard Chávez attack a journalist posing a difficult question by telling him he's only advancing the interests of his newspaper's owners? How many time, just in the last week, did we hear chavistas dismiss the student protests over RCTV, saying they are "manipulated," that - in effect, their ideas are not their ideas?

Whether Chávez knew that this view was associated with Antonio Gramsci, I can't tell. But I am sure that, for the last eight years, his refusal to engage substantively with those who disagree with him has been implicitly based on this kind of understanding: a gut level sense that those who agree with him "get it" and those who disagree with him are, consciously or unconsciously, advancing the class enemy's agenda, carrying water for the Big Lies of the bourgeoisie.

So I do think there's more to Chávez's Gramscian tirade than there was to similar tirades in the past. Gramsci puts some theoretical meat on the bones of Chávez's intuitive understanding of hegemony, one that has always made a sharp distinction between the legitimate (revolutionary/socialist/liberated/patriotic) speech of his friends and the illegitimate (reactionary/capitalist/manipulated/pitiyanqui) speech of his foes.

The Gramscian turn helps explain chavismo's quizzical contention that the RCTV shutdown is a conquest for freedom of speech: certainly, if you see revolutionary speech as fundamentally free and dissident speech as fundamentally manipulated, you will think a fully free media is one where only revolutionaries get to speak.

And so chavista Manichaeism reductios itself at absurdum.

Because, when you get right down to it, who is the arbiter of whether an idea is liberated or not, revolutionary or not, counterhegemonic or not? Who gets to decide whether you are a patriot or a (conscious or unconscious) enemy of the people? Who's entitled to judge the acceptability of what is said? To pose the question is to answer it: only Chávez gets to make those kinds of judgments.

If you disagree with him, you demonstrate, by that very act, that you've not yet managed to shake off the last vestiges of hegemonic thought. You show the world that, even if you fancy yourself a revolutionary (here's looking at ya, Ismael García), you still carry the seeds of capitalist oppression within you. You demonstrate, in short, that your ideas are still not your ideas.

For chavismo, your ideas only become fully yours, only become fully free, when they are exactly the same as Chavez's. Until you've achieved that mystical union of views, your ideas are manipulated. You are only free once you submit.

June 5, 2007

Who would've thought it would come to this?

Quico says: It's incredible that it's come to this, but you can't even talk about Venezuelan politics anymore without reading this.

The petrostate revisited

Quico says: Turns out David Frum liked my petrostate essay. Looking back, it's probably the single post I'm most proud of.

June 3, 2007

Chavez vs. The Constitution

Quico says: These days it's easy to forget, but in 1998 chavismo was all about the constitution. Hugo Chavez built his pitch to the nation around calls to convene a Constituent Assembly to "refound the republic" by writing a new constitution. Not a revolution, not socialism: a new constitution.

The Assembly that ensued was dominated by his supporters. They held over 90% of the seats and wrote a constitution made to measure for the president. For several years afterwards, Chavez carried it in his shirt pocket, displaying it like a kind of talisman, citing it incessantly, calling it "the best constitution in the world" again and again, saying it was "his only project," and repeatedly demanding that his opponents recognize it and play by its rules.

What has come of that project? Well, speaking to his supporters yesterday, Chavez attacked his opponents saying:
They elaborate their system of ideas, their ideology and their ideas are those of bourgeois democracy: the separation of powers, alternation in power - they use that stuff to manipulate - representation as the basis of democracy: big lies! That's the ideology of that hegemonic philosophy that exercised hegemony here in Venezuela for 100 years, and has exercised it in much of the western world as well for 100 years.
With this little riff, Hugo Chavez comes out explicitly against the constitutional order he used to call his "only project." Because hearing him, you'd think the opposition got this stuff about alternancia out of some CIA briefing book. But we didn't, we got it out of article six of the 1999 constitution. It's right there, tucked away in a chapter labeled - preciously enough - "Fundamental Principles."

By the same token, time was when chavismo was so keen on separate and independent branches of government that the Constituent Assembly did Montesquieu two better, inventing an "electoral" and a "citizen" branch to supplement the traditional three.

Provisions affirming the autonomy and institutional independence of the five branches of government are strewn throughout the 1999 text. In Article 254 we read, "the judicial branch is independent and the Supreme Tribunal shall enjoy functional, financial and administrative autonomy." In Article 201, "National Assembly members represent the people and the states as a whole, they are not subject to impositions or instructions, only to their conscience." Article 273: "the Citizen Branch is independent and its institutions shall enjoy functional, financial and administrative autonomy." Article 294: "the institutions of the Electoral Branch shall follow the principles of organic independence, functional and budgetary autonomy, non-intervention by political parties, impartiality and citizen participation."

Hearing him straightforwardly saying he doesn't actually believe in any of that stuff, you almost feel relieved: at last the cards are on the table. Chavez supporters who've spent the last few years telling us Venezuela really does have a functioning separation of powers (it's just that, somehow, the opposition hasn't noticed) can finally stand down. In fact, they better, lest they be accused of carrying water for the hegemonic ideology of bourgeois democracy.

It's good to clear that mass of bullshit out of the way, it lets us focus on what we're really up against here. What we're facing is not some guy who sporadically waltzes that little bit too close to the edge of legality. What we're dealing with here is a man who explicitly attacks the fundamental principles of Venezuela's constitution.

In fact, as Teodoro Petkoff mordantly notes, the 1999 constitution reads more and more like a subversive pamphlet, so wide is the gulf between the principles it enshrines and the government's practice.