October 4, 2007

On the sheer fucking hopelessness of the Abstentionist v. Participationist Debate

Quico says:

Dear Katy,

Thanks for your last post. I've been trying to think of a way to join the fray here, but it's been hard to think of a constructive way of doing so. As everyone realizes by now, the whole debate between "abstentionists" and "participationists" within the anti-Chávez camp is unbelievably stale, barren, an argumentative dead-end. In fact, even those words don't really do justice to the deep reservoir of politico-existential despair that wells up in me as I even think about the subject.

Yet, wish as you might, it just won't go away.

Where are we, really?

Well, from an economist's point of view, it's not hard to characterize the rut we're in: essentially, it's a Coordination Failure. Whether you're an abstentionist or a participationist, I think most of us can agree than either strategy only makes sense if everyone joins in. Tendentially, I'm a participationist, but I fully realize that having everyone abstain is better than having half of us participate and the other half abstain. Similarly, I imagine most abstentionists think it would be better to have everyone participate than to have half of us abstain. But we have no mechanism to settle the debate in favor of one position or the other, and so we seem inexorably headed towards the indescribably boneheaded Nash Equilibrium.

Why is this happening? The textbook answer is that we don't have coordination mechanisms sturdy enough to enforce convergence on one of the two positions. That's both right and not at all helpful. Why don't we have those mechanisms? And why doesn't debate lead us toward convergence? Come to think of it, why is the intra-oppo debate so vicious, so self-defeating? How exactly did we get into this mess? Those are the better questions...and it's here that the analysis gets really, really depressing.

First, we have to own up: there is something very, very wrong with the way the opposition deals with itself, how it talks internally and seeks to work problems out. That situation may have come about in the context of Chávez, but I think it's a cop-out to blame it on Chávez...even in the midsts of battle with the most ruthless of enemies, some wounds are self-inflicted. And the opposition's sheer inability to coordinate - or, to put it differently, to hold a conversation with itself that leads to coordination - is a self-inflicted wound.

I remember, some time in 2002, hearing Roberto Giusti argue explicitly that Chávez was so dangerous that journalists "could not afford" to be impartial towards his government. "I cannot be impartial between democracy and dictatorship," Giusti said. Lots of oppo journos were taking a similar line back then, and we all stood up and cheered for them. It all sounded ever so brave, so gallant, remember? We were so caught up in the drama of the moment, we didn't stop to think through how radical a position that was, and how dangerous its implications. We should have.

Why? Because decisions are only as good as the information that's available to those who make them. To the extent that that information is complete, impartial and accurate, it will give rise to decisions that produce the consequences intended. To the degree that it isn't, it will give rise to decisions that don't.

Now, what was Roberto Giusti really saying back in 2002? He was saying that the information the media publish should no longer be judged by the normal standards of journalistic ethics. Questions of newsworthiness, impartiality, confirmability and public interest would be set aside, and information would be judged by its usefulness in helping achieve an overarching, transcendent political goal: overthrowing the budding dictatorship. Henceforth, when a reporter arrived at a newsroom with a story, the first thing his editor would ask him would be not whether it was true, or whether it was new, or whether it had been confirmed, but rather whether it would help get rid of Chávez.

This new conception of the media's role meant that journalists would abdicate their responsibility to "hold up a mirror to society," to produce a space where society is able to see itself, warts and all, and to recognize its own reality as fully as possible. Henceforth, the media would serve as a trick mirror - reflecting only those parts of reality that it judged would further an ulterior end. That the image such a mirror produces is deeply distorted is tautological: in this context, the distortion is the point. And do notice that this isn't some wild conspiracy theory: this is the understanding of their own role that many of the nation's leading journalists proudly and publicly embraced.

That key figures in the oppo media openly endorsed this way of communicating should've given us pause. That they thought of their ethical obligations as a kind of "luxury", an added extra to be discarded when it proved inconvenient, should've put us on guard. How would we react, for instance, if a doctor took that kind of attitude towards his code of professional ethics?

But we're Venezuelans, so the passion of the political moment overcame us. And it's perfectly understandable. After all, Giusti and Colomina and the rest of them more or less announced, "from now on, we're only going to tell you what you want to hear." Who's going to object to that?

We should've realized all along that decisions made on the basis of a distorted understanding of reality can't be expected to produce the outcomes intended by those making them. We shouldn't be surpsied that the rise of openly partisan journalism set the stage for a series of catastrophic oppo own goals.

Back in 2002, we didn't stop to think through the risks, the potential costs involved in volunteering to be lied to. We didn't stop to realize that with every story puffed up out of all proportion because it made the government look bad, our understanding of our own country would diverge just a little bit from reality. We didn't think through the fact that, with every story buried or ignored because it made the government look good, the distance between the world as it is and the world as we think it is would grow.

Those who warned about this process were dismissed as cryptochavistas or, at the very least, as spoil-sports for busting our vibe at a time when all we wanted to do was sing "y decimos síííííí a la esperanzaaaaaaa..." So, it's true, we were systematically deceived...but it's also true that we practically begged to be systematically deceived.

In the systematically distorted mirror the Giusticialista media put in front of us, everything was the way we wished it to be. We wished to live in a country where everyone hated Chávez's guts, the media showed us a country where everyone hated Chávez's guts. We wished to believe everything the government did would backfire due to incompetence and venality, the media showed us a country where everything the government did backfired due to incompetence or venality.

That our decision-making came to be dominated by wishful thinking shouldn't surprise us. As the Globovisión mindset colonized the opposition consciousness ever more completely, decisions come to be made on the basis of means-ends relationships that found no correspondence in reality (having generals camp out in Plaza Altamira will destabilize the regime! refusing to vote in assembly elections will delegitimize the government!)

All along, the oppo journo-punditocracy believed that the key to getting rid of the regime was to establish, beyond any possible doubt, that the public overwhelmingly rejected Chávez. For a while, from 2001 to early 2004, that wasn't so hard to establish: it was true.

But then reality threw the punditocracy a curve ball it was entirely unprepared for: it changed. In the second quarter of 2004, when the misiones started to make themselves felt and Chávez's popularity started to pick up, the punditocracy found itself up a political creek without an ethical paddle.

Their reaction when faced with these changed circumstances shouldn't surprise us: people like Giusti had been perfectly frank about it for years. This guerra was most definitely avisada. They lied. In the way that journalists and editors lie: not so much by telling outright untruths, but by puffing up those elements of truth that suit their objectives and playing down or ignoring those that don't.

So the polls that showed Chávez gaining in 2004 weren't reported, or were reported in a box on page 29, while any hint that the Si campaign was doing well was an automatic six columns above the fold on page one. The startling impact that the misiones had on barrio life became more familiar to readers of The Guardian or The New York Times than to readers of El Nacional or Notitarde. The ongoing passion that many poor people felt for Chávez was systematically downplayed. And little by little, day in and day out, we as opposition supporters were deprived of the informational tools we needed to understand what the hell was happening in our own society, in our own country.

This whole juggernaut of distortions came to an explosive head in the wee hours of the morning of August 16th, 2004, when the Recall Referendum results were announced. Now, I want to be clear here: what follows is not an argument about whether there was or wasn't fraud in 2004, a question that I remain agnostic on. What follows is a reflection about how and why the vast majority of opposition supporters became totally convinced, beyond the slightest shadow of a doubt, that there had been massive fraud and the election had been stolen long before any evidence to back this up was available.

Because, in the end, that was what was striking, wasn't it? We may look back now and retroactively bolster our conviction that there was fraud on the basis of analyses that were published much later, but the reality is that we were just as certain at 5:10 a.m. on August 16th! When it came to fraud allegations, the certainty came first: the evidence we could wait for. So what interests me, more than the underlying question, is the conditions for the production of that certainty, the mechanisms that managed to convince us that something we had no proof of had to be true, that our conception of the world didn't make any sense otherwise.

Looking back, it's hardly surprising that oppo leaders rushed out to cry fraud on the spot: nothing in their conceptual arsenal prepared them for the possibility that they could lose fairly. Hundreds and hundreds of hours of political propaganda - much of it mascarading as journalism, the rest of it self-avowed - had been invested to convince anyone who opposed Chávez that what was happening couldn't happen, not fairly, anyway. So the claim of fraud was a necessity to preserve our whole understanding of our social reality, and that understanding that had been carefully crafted over years by people who had told us explicitly that they considered impartial information a luxury we could not afford.

We've been living with the consequences of these choices ever since. Obviously, we didn't manage to overthrow the bastard: all we did was fatally undermine our own ability to understand the society we live in, to "think straight" about the political moment, and to agree on strategies of resistance that make sense. Five years on, Roberto Giusti's pledge doesn't look so gallant: turns out that what we couldn't afford was systematically distorted communications.

What's sad, though, what's really dismaying is that we don't even recognize the situation we're in, because the people who brought it about - and here I'm thinking much more of Miguel Henrique Otero and Alberto Federico Ravell than of R. Giusti - are still in charge of our communications. They have yet to issue anything like a mea culpa, possibly because, having bought their own propaganda, they're the most dissociated of the lot and genuinely can't grasp the scale of the cognitive havoc their editorial lines have wreaked.

Five years after Giusti's declaration of (the abandonment of his) principles, we've pretty much lost our ability even to talk to each other without biting one another's heads off. After half a decade of systematically distorted communications, we can't even agree on a single version of our contemporary history. We can't produce a shared understanding of the reality around us that can serve as a platform for our political action toward the future. And that, I think, is the real reason we can't coordinate: if we can't agree on what is to be done, it's because we can't agree where we are, or how we got here.

After years of systematically distorted communications, of decisions we were sure would have one effect and had another, of misplaced allegiances and squandered reserves of trust, it's not surprising that a kind of all encompassing nihilism has taken over opposition discourse, a kind of quiescent, polymorphously disgusted but imprecisely directed wrath based on a kind of existential disorientation that expresses itself in an ironclad refusal to believe in anyone or anything again. That is the legacy of Giusti's gallantry.

If it was just that we didn't understand what's been happening in Venezuela, well, that would be bad, but we could work it out. It's actually much worse than that. It's not just that we don't understand what's been happening in Venezuela, it's that we don't understand that we don't understand what's been happening in Venezuela, and when you don't understand that you don't understand something you're well and truly fucked, because you have no clear path towards gaining an understanding of it. You don't see the need for it!

To tell you the truth, Katy, that's the reason why I haven't been writing much about politics, - or, at all, since that Oppo Harikiri post. Together with Escualidus Arrechus's shrewd observation on how screwed our political culture is, that poll knocked me into a state of near catatonic depression about the state of our public sphere. The mountain ahead of us just seems larger and more daunting every day: more and more, chavista insanity seems more than fully mirrored by the craziness on our side. It's kind of too much for me.

October 2, 2007

The state of the fight

Katy says: Six weeks have passed since the introduction of a proposal to reform the Constitution by Venezuela's President, and now is as good a time as any to size up the debate. The players have positioned themselves for what is sure to be an intense campaign period toward the end of the year, and their recent actions say a lot about what their strategies are.

As usual, the Venezuelan political scene can be divided into three largely heterogeneous groups. On the one hand we have chavismo and its reluctant allies, the radical-light Podemos party. On the other we have the opposition sector which we can divide into two: abstentionists and participants.

Chavismo's strategy so far has been to, by and large, confuse the debate. There are so many proposals included in the Constitutional reform that it makes it hard to classify it as an X-type proposal, which is exactly what the government wants. Instead of people discussing it for what it really is - a proposal about indefinite re-election and a whole lot of things that are either already in place or perfectly do-able without including them in the Constitution - the debate has ranged from issues such as the reduction in the number of working hours to whether we should be allowed to enjoy what we own. XXIst-Century Socialism appears like an all-encompassing term that boils down to one thing: Chávez.

Making the proposal about Chávez himself works to the government's advantage, as it usually does. By engaging in the formalities of a debate with certain sector of society, by threatening to continue changing the proposal and adding, removing or modifying other articles, chavista deputies hope voters will end up deciding their vote on Chavez himself. Whether it will work remains to be seen.

The opposition's participant wing has followed parallel and not entirely contradictory strategies. UNT's approach has been to simplify the proposal to "Chávez is going to ruin the country." Although they do press the issue of Chavez's indefinite re-election, they also highlight some of the other aspects of the proposal reform such as the attack on private property and the diminishing status of town halls and state governments. The message seems to be that this sucks through and through.

Primero Justicia's approach has been slightly different. While they have said they like some of the aspects of the Constitutional Reform and dislike others, they have not dwelled much on the details. Their main focus is on getting the Supreme Tribunal to say that the reform proposal must be voted on as a block instead of in parts, which is what most Venezuelans seem to want.

Primero Justicia obviously knows that voting the proposal in parts is a non-starter, so their goal is to show that it's the government, and Chávez himself, who refuse to allow people to vote for the proposals in a separate fashion. PJ seems to be thinking that, without driving up Chávez's negatives by making him look undemocratic, the message about how the reform is all about Chávez perpetuating himself in power simply won't stick.

The strategies being followed by the opposition's two main parties is not contradictory and should not be interpreted as a sign of disunity. Each party seems to be focusing on their relative strengths - UNT on the radical anti-Chávez group, and PJ on the moderates. Both groups are needed to win the referendum - this election, after all, is different in that we do not run the risk of losing one group of voters by pandering to another. Due to the "referendum" style of the election, all efforts to get people on the "No" boat are win-win.

Yet in the midst of all this rhetorical positioning, it's abstentionists who hold the key. If recent polling data is to be believed, a majority of the country rejects the reforms but only a minority is willing to vote on the issue. That minority is heavily biased toward approving the reform, so right now the government has the upper hand.

Turning out the opposition vote is a major challenge. On the one hand, abstentionists have to be convinced that their vote will have relevance and that we won't simply be run over once again. The government will try and keep abstentionists unmotivated by, for example, tempering down some of the most controversial proposals like the elimination of certain attributes of private property.

The date for the referendum is likely to be December, when people will be awash in cash thanks to hefty Christmas bonuses and other handouts. The challenge we face is a major one, and while I find people overstate the stakes involved, it promises to be one hell of a fight.