January 12, 2008

Party time

Si mi muerte contribuye a que cesen los partidos y se consolide la unión, bajaré tranquilo al sepulcro.

Simón Bolívar

Katy says: I once knew a family who lived in a house with no windows, and they were a singularly dysfunctional bunch.

The mother was terribly nice but always seemed to be medicated; the father announced one day that he was leaving her and his seven children to go live with a woman he had been seeing for twenty years, and was the mother of his other kids, aged 15 and 12.

I always thought their fate was tied somehow to that strange house. It had no yard and only two doors linking it directly to the street: the front door and the service door. Somehow, the fact that daylight never entered clouded their ability to see inside themselves and the ongoing problems within their house.

Someone once said to me that a democracy without political parties is like a house without windows. I guess it's not a huge leap to say that a house with bad or disfunctional political parties is like a house with only a very small window.

At any rate, the point is that if you lived in a house like that, you would want to move. Likewise, societies that live in democracies with bad political parties are societies that will tire of democracy quickly.

I bring this up because of the undeniable fact that our political parties are not what we would want them to be. The deserved disappearance of AD and Copei paved the road to what we have now: a military "movement" of sorts headed by a caudillo and financed by oil money, and a bunch of new-ish political parties trying to get some traction.

Building a political party from scratch is incredibly complicated. Putting the crucial issue of marketing aside, parties are incredibly expensive to put together. You need to find a bunch of people from all walks of life (students, older people, women, etc.) who, somehow, think alike, without having defined exactly what it is that binds them together. These people will probably have hidden agendas which will undermine the party's goals. Rivalries emerge out of nowhere, and newish parties are not well-equipped from an institutional standpoint to withstand crises caused by clashes of leadership.

These complications have led parties in Venezuela to follow the caudillo model: group a bunch of people together whose only reason for being there is that they believe in or are under the patronage of a specific party "leader." Each and every party that has existed in Venezuela has suffered from this to a certain extent.

Those of us who've been around the block a few times carry an attitude toward political parties that is naturally suspicious. We have been trained by years of scandals to mistrust parties and politicians in general.

However, some people take this too far. They replace healthy skepticism with downright aggression. They not only expect little of political parties, they see them as the enemy and hope for nothing short of their disappearance. They are genetically programmed to not believe in anything politicians say or do, and automatically assume that whatever they are doing, they are always screwing up.

This attitude is curious, and one that we should not take lightly. Many of the voters in the opposition base - heck, many of our readers - fall into this group. What to make of them? Are they simply mistaken? Is this an attitude where we simply have to agree to disagree?

I see people who take skepticism too far as anarchists. According to Wikipedia - apologies beforehand for the citation - the modern anarchist theory proposed "spontaneous order." This is a theory that believes in "the spontaneous emergence of order out of seeming chaos." Anarchists "tend to believe that spontaneous order is superior to any kind of order that can be created by a plan or design."

Anarchism rejects organized action - the government being their main enemy - and instead calls for a world without central authority, where everybody acts according to his or her own wishes and where social order emerges from business transactions between individuals.

French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon saw anarchy as "a form of government or constitution in which public and private consciousness, formed through the development of science and law, is alone sufficient to maintain order and guarantee all liberties. In it, as a consequence, the institutions of the police, preventive and repressive methods, officialdom, taxation, etc., are reduced to a minimum. In it, more especially, the forms of monarchy and intensive centralization disappear, to be replaced by federal institutions and a pattern of life based on the commune."

People who actively hate current political parties, who jump at the chance to point out their numerous failures, seem to me wishing for them to disappear. It's as if they thirst for politicians to be punished for the mere fact that they are politicians, that their stated goal is to achieve power and to exercise it.

However, these people also want some change in the social order. They are not apathetic about politics; quite the contrary. They are willing to support any "spontaneous" movement that arises, and to support specific individuals who lack organization just because they may agree with his or her positions and, most importantly, because the emergence of alternative leadership undermines political parties.

But this is not a good thing per se. Those of us who put in time to talk about Venezuelan politics, who follow it with interest, should ask ourselves to what extent we are replacing healthy skepticism and lowered expectations with irrational attacks against organized political parties. We should wonder about that schadenfreude we feel when we see parties make mistakes, the joy we feel when we think the people have "punished them" for one thing or another.

Our parties are deficient, but if we fail to grasp the many difficulties they face or continue placing unreasonable expectations on them, we may be fostering anarchy. And let's face it, having bad political parties is better than having no political parties at all but rather "movements" centered on "individuals."

Perhaps you don't think this is true, in which case you should revisit the anarchy theories. But if you believe in democracy, you have to believe in parties, in which case you should try to temper your criticisms. Otherwise, by pushing for the death of political parties, you may be throwing out the baby along with the bath-water.

(Disclosure: The author is a registered member of Primero Justicia, an opposition political party).

January 10, 2008

Rules of engagement

Katy says: A New Electoral Year has begun. The main focus right now on the minds of local politicos is - or should be! - the State and Local Elections of October 2008.

Candidates for governor, mayors, councilmembers and state assembly-people have to be registered by April of this year. Undoubtedly, the opposition will have to come to some sort of agreement over who to run where. So before they hunker down to negotiate, here are my tips for things each party should keep in mind before negotiating, for everyone's benefit.

1) Before you begin, think of one big position you would be willing to give up. All negotiations entail compromise. It would be nice if every party thought of one sure-fire candidate, one juicy prize they would be willing to give up on for the sake of unity. If you cannot think of a single high-profile post you would be willing to cede to a different candidate, then you are in no position to negotiate. This doesn't mean you have to make it public, but it does help put you in a negotiating frame of mind.

2) Don't feel the need to compromise on everything. Compromise is good but it entails costs. The public doesn't want total unity, they just want to win. So in places where we are assured to win - either because the electorate is heavily opposition or because chavismo is weak - don't feel the need to overdo it. For example, we don't really need a unity candidate in Chacao, Baruta or the Zulia and Nueva Esparta governorships. Who knows, it may even be healthy to let the parties compete in those places so we can focus on others. Which would be...

3) Focus on the big states where you can make high-profile gains. These would be the states that combine poor governance by regional leaders with a high profile and, most importantly, a high budget and a large population. Winning Delta Amacuro would be nice, but it doesn't hold a candle to getting back the Carabobo governorship. States to focus on also include Lara, Mérida, Táchira, Miranda and Anzoátegui. Cities to focus on include Maracaibo, Barquisimeto, Valencia, Mérida, San Cristóbal and all the municipalities in Caracas, including the Mayor-at-Large.

4) Send a heavyweight to a swing state. After the "No" win last December, we realized there was a red-state blue-state dynamic in Venezuela as well. Yet while it would be simple to simplify thing this way, some states are actually caught in the middle. For example, chavismo eked out a victory in Falcón for fewer than 800 votes. Even though it is still technically a chavista state, it is up for the taking if the right person comes along. Why not ask Rosales to run for the governor's office?

5) Reward regional leadership, but don't reward history. The movement that led to the December victory included people who may not be part of a political party but who certainly don't want to feel left out. Furthermore, there are many people that have been working the grassroots for years in getting out the vote. These upcoming elections would be a great opportunity to reward them for all the hard work they have put in by supporting them and getting them elected. However, there are some politicians who feel entitled without having earned it. I'm talking about people who may have ruled a long time ago but have either been missing in action for the past few years (Enrique Mendoza or the Salas family) or were openly calling for abstention just a few weeks ago (Ledezma). These people are a liability to the opposition movement, and in no way should opposition groups feel they owe them anything. It would simplify the process if they were kept in the sidelines.

If the goal is to win, then we have to negotiate. But if negotiate we must, let's try and do it succesfully.

January 8, 2008

Obama, Chávez and the politics of change

Katy says: Here are some random musings on the fascinating, rapidly changing U.S. election.

1) The two best pieces on the election I have read recently are by Christopher Hitchens on Slate and Gloria Steinem in the New York Times. Hitchens is crazy and Steinem is an over-the-hill radical, but they are both making a lot of sense to me. Have I, too, gone bonkers?

2) I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that Obama will win New Hampshire, the nomination and the White House. He has tapped the current of change when the U.S. was ready it. Chavez, on the other hand, wanted to push radical changes through the country when the country felt things were going fine. The lesson is: don't push change too much when people don't want it, and push it relentlessly when people do. Tailoring your message to the mood of the electorate works.

3) What lessons does this hold for the upcoming regional elections in Venezuela? People want governance, they want solutions to their problems and they want somebody who is willing to work to make it happen. They want the inefficient chavista bureaucrats out, but they don't want Chávez himself to go. Candidates for governor and mayors should pledge to work *with* the government *for* the people, focusing on the specific needs of the people in their jurisdiction. Anything more radical than that would be seen as too dangerous, and pave the way for chavistas to hold on to their seats.

4) Opposition candidates lacking the backing of other opposition parties will be seen as divisive. They will not be able to make the case that they can work with the government if they can't show they can work with their natural allies. This is why some sort of unity agreement is needed.

5) Obama has said that he would be willing to meet with Chavez face-to-face, along with a list of other rogue ne'er-do-wells such as Iranian President Ahmadinejad. On another occassion, Obama called Chavez an "oil tyrant". Obama has supported the Cuban embargo but pledged to make it more flexible. However, his website does not mention Venezuela or Latin America, and on the rare times when he has talked about Latin America, his comments have been strikingly vague.

6) It's nice to see a candidate understand the power of words, charisma and symbols. It's troubling to see who this election's real kingmaker is.

January 7, 2008

Reading the Magical State

Quico says: The Magical State, the 1997 monograph on Venezuelan petrocracy by University of Michigan anthropologist Fernando Coronil, is a magisterial, bone-headed, brilliant, infuriating, path breaking failure: a book that gets a stunning number of things right on its way to leaving you basically unsatisfied.

That, at any rate, is how I felt after re-reading it for the first time in ten years. Coronil's book teems with fresh insights weighed down by the kind of trendy, post-post-colonialist academic jargon that blighted the gringo social science establishment through the 1990s, a style whose essential faddishness is showed up by the fact that just a decade later, it already looks dated.

It's too bad, because just beneath the tragically hip surface there's a cultural historian with something substantial to say aching to get out. His essential point is contained in the three word marvel of concision that is his title. For Coronil, Venezuela's petrostate really is magical...albeit only in the sense a children's party magician is magical. Like the kiddy magician, the Venezuelan petrostate's performance is an elaborate sham. Promising development, it produces only the appearance of development, promising modernity, it is able to deliver only the outward trappings of the developed countries' reality. Exploring the reasons for this state of affairs is what the book sets out to do.

Needless to say, oil wealth and the way it has been assimilated into Venezuela's political culture provides the bulk of the answer. Ever the anthropologist, Coronil devotes much of his attention on oil as an ideational force, noting the way growing consciousness of its importance structured Venezuelans' collective identity, and cemented the absolute centrality of the state in national life.

With the violent expansion of this independently wealthy state, all major social groups had come to see it as the source of their security or fortune. More fundamental, their very identity was bound up with the state, for they had been formed or transformed by its expansion. Before it they stood in awe. To the extent that they were offspring of the petrostate, their historical formation as social forces was too recent, their political experiences too narrow, their reliance on the state's financial and political resources too great, for them to follow an independent course of action.
This stress on oil's role as the crucible of our political identity is both the book's main strength and its ultimate undoing: Coronil's semiotic insight and considerable talent as a historian is let down time and again by his economic ignorance and the narrowness of his theoretical reference points. In fact, more than once I found myself wishing for rather more history and less flaky theoretical rumination. It's as a work of interpretative history that the Magical State really shines.

Coronil shows us how, for as long as it has been possible to speak openly about such things (that is, from the moment Gomez died) Venezuelan public discourse took it for granted that a shared right to benefit from oil revenues is an essential part of what it means to be Venezuelan. As early as 1936, virtually the entirety of the country's elite saw the state as society's instrument for bringing about modernity. In one of a series of eye-opening moments, Coronil notes that when Uslar Pietri coined his much abused line about "sowing the oil" in 1936, he was not expressing some radically new concept but simply summarizing what was conventional wisdom.

Coronil stresses that the growing consciousness of the enormous wealth buried deep inside Venezuela led to a conceptualization of the nation as made up of two bodies. Whereas most countries build a collective understanding of nationhood on the basis of shared belonging to a social body, Venezuelan nationalism added a widely shared sense of collective ownership of the nation's natural body as well. Venezuelanness, in this sense, is essentially unlike Colombianness or Frenchness or Brazilianness. Since 1936, Venezuelanness has been not just about our relationship with one another, but also about our relationship with it, with the vast store of wealth laying untapped under our feet.

The jarring disconnect between the untold riches beneath the soil and the staggering poverty on top of it has been perceived as an outrage all along, and has served as the driving ideological force behind every major political reallignment since the death of Gomez. And all along, people have conceived of the state's role as bridging that chasm by making overground Venezuela as rich as underground Venezuela is.

As Coronil would have it, the notion that only the state could articulate the relationship between "the nation's two bodies" has never been seriously in doubt. If there is one thing that successive Venezuelan elites have agreed on since 1936 is that the state exists to perform this miracle of transubstantiation: turning black guck into modernity. But, Coronil contends, a fundamental inability to distinguish between modernity and the signs of modernity has frustrated the project time and again.

As the old saying goes, when you have a hammer in your hand, everything starts to look like a nail. And when you have a wad of cash in your pocket, everything starts to seem like it's for sale.

Cash in its pocket is what the petrostate had, all along. And so the task of transmogrifying oil wealth into development came to be seen as a matter of purchasing modernity. Only trouble is, of course, you can't buy modernity by the pound. It lacks materiality, it is not a thing or a service, it cannot be made into a commodity. And it was this essential fact that successive governing elites seemed unable to grasp.

That failure is understandable. After all, when you go to modern countries, you see the signs of modernity all around you. You see the highways and the skyscrapers, the ports and airports and factories and telephone poles. You are surrounded by the manifestations of modernity, its physicality, its embodiment into things that have a price and can be bought. Isn't that what modernity is? Well, it sure seemed like it...and to successive petrostate elites sitting on wads of cash, it seemed like a no brainer: a modern country is a country filled with modern things.

And so a series of buying sprees resulted, more or less grandiose depending on the state of the oil market. Coronil focuses on two: Perez Jimenez's aggressive public works programs of the 1950s and Carlos Andres Perez's experiment in Big Push industrialization a realazos in the 1970s, spending considerable energy working out, in some detail, how and why the unprecedented building booms of both eras left Venezuela a poor country with lots of rich country things in it rather than a rich country.

To my mind, Coronil gets substantial credit for asking the right questions...his identification of the site Venezuelan failure is far more sophisticated than most. But the answers he gives fall far short of the mark.

Coronil doesn't really seem to have a firm enough grasp of economics to understand what specifically went wrong with the 50s and 70s industrialization drives. So he spends well over 100 pages sketching out the stories of specific failed development projects that, though fascinating in their own right, he doesn't really know how to connect with his broader theoretical argument.

The result is a kind of monographic schizophrenia, with the book running along parallel tracks that never quite seem to intersect. Both the theoretical and the historical tracks are interesting, but you're never quite sure why it is they belong in the same book.

This is a shame, and puzzling too, because the theoretical points he makes suggest themselves naturally as interpretative aids in making sense of the narrative history. Obvious connections, however, go maddeningly unnoticed for chapters on end.

Fundamentally, his theoretical explanation of The Venezuelan Failure rests on the elite's inability to distinguish between the "hardware" and the "software" of modernity, about successive governing elite's misguided belief that people's inner selves could be transformed through the expedient of transforming their physical surroundings.

But his historical narratives just fail to connect those dots. Most egregiously, the book devotes a whole chapter to the 1970s and 1980s import-substitituion policies in the auto sector without once stopping to note the way those policies instantiated a fetishistic concern with the materiality of production, treating the domestic manufacture of cars as synonymous with industrial independence even though all of the engineering and design work would be carried out elsewhere, by foreign multinationals. The fundamental difference between technology and technological capacity simply eludes him: producing Ford engines under licensing agreements is the guy's concept of technology transfer.

Set aside, for the moment, the fact that his understanding of the role of technology in capitalist production is at least two decades out of date: what's startling is that his account does exactly what he accuses CAP and Perez Jimenez of doing. It mistakes the material manifestations of capitalism (steel mills, hydroelectric plants, engine factories) for capitalism itself, the hardware of capitalist production for its software. It's as though amid his stinging critique of the fetishization of the tokens of modernity, Coronil hasn't quite freed himself from the habits of mind he's critiquing.

It's not the only instance where Coronil leaves the reader to fill in the blanks where his most significant arguments ought to be. The earlier part of the book is taken up with a fascinating narrative history of Venezuela from the Gomez era to the launch of puntofijismo. Coronil is (rightly) concerned to note how Gomecismo created the template of petrostate governance Venezuela has followed ever since, regardless of the vastly different ideological labels various governments have touted. But in this section, again, the most interesting insights remain just below the threshold of explicitness.

For Coronil, the traditional periodization of Venezuelan history, marked by its sharp distinction between dictatorial governments (1821-1936, 1948-1958) and democratic ones (1936-1948, 1958-1997) obscures more than it illuminates. Ever since the start of the oil era, both all have agreed on their basic conceptualization of the role of the state as modernizing agent at the interstice between the nation's social and natural bodies. Rather than sharply divergent political models, Coronil interprets 20th century dictatorships and democracies as variants of the basic petrostate model, where a governing elite sets out to transmute oil into modernity but, for various reasons, fails.

All of that strikes me as correct, important, and not-widely-enough-understood. Yet his narrative history of the period fails to make obvious connections between the fates of successive regimes, connections that are consistent with his overall view and evidently suggested by the evidence he sets forth.

In each of the cases he examines (1936, 1945, 1948, 1958), the pattern he documents is the same. A marginalized political actor organizes dissent against the governing clique. Noting that the nation's oil wealth belongs to all its people, it slams the monopolization of political power and oil wealth in the hands of the governing clique. Capitalizing on a brewing anger at the perenially baffling gap between subsoil wealth and oversoil poverty, it sets out to gain control of the state. In time, it succeeds, wresting control of the state and setting out to revolutionize the way it plays its role as mediator between the nation's social and natural bodies, sure that, unlike all its predecessors, it knows the right way to transmogrify oil wealth into modernity. But, in time, the new governing elite turns inward, governing increasingly for its own benefit, concentrating power in the president and repeating many of the cliquish and sectarian policies it criticized in the previous elite. This antagonizes groups disenfranchised by its rule. Those new groups in turn organize dissent against the governing clique, slamming its monopolization of the nation's natural body, and swearing that they and they alone can be trusted to truly make oil wealth benefit everyone...lather, rinse, repeat...

It's what the young officers did to the gomecista clique in 1936, what AD did to the Medina in 1945, what the military did to AD in 1948, and what the Junta Patriotica did to the military in 1958. Just a couple of years after the publication of Coronil's book, it's what Chavez did to Puntofijismo...and you can bet your right testicle that, in broad outline, it's the way chavismo will eventually fall. And yet, though he puts forth mountains of evidence for this view, Coronil fails to explicitly note the pattern, to problematize it or seek to theorize it or even accept it exists.

If Coronil's scandalous economic illiteracy prevents him from drawing the obvious connections in the later part of the book, an equally baffling failure to apply basic insights from political science lead him to drop this pop fly. If he had any notion of bureaucratic politics, any sense of the principal agent problem, or even just a basic willingness to look beyond groovy academic marxism and explore incentives-based rational choice hypotheses, Coronil might have seen the way taking control of the state itself transforms the incentive structures of new governing elites, and sets the stage for their eventual overthrow, renewing the petrostate political cycle over and over again.

Alas, his theoretical reference points are too narrow to allow for that sort of thing. He won't go there. So even at 394 pages, the book feels weirdly underwritten, like it never quite gets around to developing the most suggestive themes it raises. The final package is as brilliant as it is infuriating: a fascinating, enthralling wreck of a book.

Am I glad I read it again? For sure. His retelling of the 1948 and 1952 coups alone are well worth the price of entry. Actually most of the narrative history really is brilliant: concise, well documented, to the point, and fun. That the theory doesn't really mesh with it, and instead alternates between sheer genius and pure paja doesn't detract from that one bit. I say read it...but be prepared to yell at it a lot.