February 15, 2008

Are we having fun yet?

The Onion says:

How low can you go?

Quico says: More than a movement, more than an ideology or a revolution or even a government, chavismo-in-power is turning into a kind of gruesome experiment. How debased can a group's discoursive standards get before it falls apart altogether? Having surrendered the tools it takes to process their differences in a minimally sane way, how long can they keep it together?

These are the questions that went through my mind as I read the genuinely weird story of Luis Tascón's final expulsion from the ranks of chavismo.

You remember Tascón, don't you? He's the National Assembly guy who pioneered Chavismo's use of IT to discriminate against millions of Venezuelan dissidents. That guy!

Turns out he's CIA. Or Microsoft. Same difference.

Tascón's now been tossed out of Chávez's budding Socialist Party. It's safe to say now that he will not be Mayor of Libertador like he'd wanted.

His crime? He put forward evidence of corruption (think of it as "El Caso de los Jeeps del Siglo 21") on the part of José David Cabello, the new Tax Superintendent who, by sheer coincidence, happens to be the brother of Miranda Governor Diosdado Cabello, a favorite Chávez protegé and revolutionary untouchable.

El Universal's writeup on this story beggars belief from start to finish. Cilia Flores, the Assembly Chairwoman, called for an overhaul of the National Assembly's corruption investigations arm, the Comptrollership Committee, over its excessive willingness to, um, investigate corruption...just one of the sorts of "details" that gets buried deep inside the story because the headline stuff is so deliriously over the top.

I mean, Diosdado thinks Tascón was conspiring directly with Bill Gates and muses that, while he was in Redmond, "maybe they injected a chip into his blood"...no bureaucratic shakeup in the Assembly can compete with that!

How did our public sphere get this far gone?

Faced with all this craziness, it's tough to organize your thoughts. But Habermas uses a concept I think is quite helpful in this context: "discursive standards".

A discursive standard is a taken-for-granted set of rules a group uses to judge whether an argument is persuasive or not. Discursive standards vary from one setting to another: what constitutes a "good argument" in a courtroom doesn't necessarily hold water in a school playground, or a Globovision studio, or a PETA meeting. In each of these settings, a different set of unspoken rules underpins the group's shared sense of what's reasonable, what's persuasive, and what's appropriate: it's those rules Habermas wants to get at when he talks about discursive standards.

The question, for me, is how chavismo's discursive standards got so freakishly warped.

Simple. The basic ingredient is just a supersized dose of Manichaeism. Reality, in this view, is a constant struggle between absolute evil and absolute good, with nothing in between. Chavista Manichaeism assigns absolute evil one label ("the US") and absolute good another ("Chávez").

Chavismo has crafted a discursive standard out of its iron-willed commitment to this worldview. Its discursive standard forces every single political, moral, diplomatic, personal, or judicial matter into that dualistic scheme. Within chavismo, arguments become "persuasive" only to the extent that they identify what's good with Chávez and what's evil with the US.

Taken to its logical extreme, this resolves into the view that nothing can be good unless Chávez did it, and nothing - not even Bolívar's death - can be bad unless the US did it. No case is exempt.

That's all there is to it, really. For chavismo, every debate must be conducted under these discursive rules. Straying is not allowed. A willingness to stray from the standard suggests the kind of disloyalty that, from the perspective of the standard itself, can only be interpreted as treasonous.

Luis Tascón, of all people, should've realized all this. But he fucked up. He said something bad had happened without saying the US was somehow responsible. Not allowed. So he got CIAed. Cabello Clan 1, Tascón 0.

Reading up on Tascón's defenestration, I couldn't help but think of Orwell's take on Stalin's trotskyite purges, and the inability of the PSFs of his age to get their minds around what was happening:
To get the full sense of our ignorance as to what is really happening in the USSR, it would be worth trying to translate the most sensational Russian event of the past two years, the Trotskyist trials, into English terms. Make the necessary adjustments, let Left be Right and Right be Left, and you get something like this:

Mr. Winston Churchill [i.e. Trotsky], now in exile in Portugal, is plotting to overthrow the British Empire and establish Communism in England. By the use of unlimited Russian money he has succeeded in building up a huge Churchillite organisation which includes members of Parliament, factory managers, Roman Catholic bishops and practically the whole of the Primrose League. Almost every day some dastardly act of sabotage is laid bare - sometimes a plot to blow up the House of Lords, sometimes and outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the Royal racing-stables. Eighty per cent of the Beefeaters at the Tower are discovered to be agents of the Communist International. A high level official at the Post Office admits brazenly to having embezzled postal orders to the tune of 5,000,000 pounds, and also to having committed lese majeste by drawing moustaches on postage stamps. Lord Nuffield ["the English Henry Ford"], after a 7-hour interrogation by Mr. Norman Birkett [who would become a lawyer at Nuremberg 7 years later], confesses that ever since 1920 he has been fomenting strikes in his own factories. Casual half-inch paras in every issue of the newspapers announce that fifty more Churchillite sheep-stealers have been shot in Westmoreland. And meanwhile the Churchillites never cease from proclaiming that it is they who are the real defenders of Capitalism and that it is the government that is no more than a set of Bolsheviks in disguise.'

Anyone who has followed the Russian trials knows that this is scarcely a parody. From our point of view, the whole thing is not merely incredible as a genuine conspiracy, it is next door to incredible as a frame-up. It is simply a dark mystery, of which the only seizable fact - sinister enough in its way - is that Communists over here regard it as a good advertisement for Communism.
Faced with Tascón's expulsion, what would Orwell think? In terms of violence, chavismo is surely far from the blood-soaked extremes of Stalinist paranoia. But in discursive terms, it's really not that far.

Every week seems to bring a new low in the Bolivarian republic, yet the govering clique limps along somehow. Each week's lunacy serves only to set a kind of "personal best" - a challenge to be out-lunaticked the following week. The discursive standards of the chavista governing elite get more and more detached from reality but, so far, the group's managed not to implode.

I'm amazed, awed even, by its neverending capacity to plumb new depths, to outdo itself for shrill craziness again and again, to keep surprising us even this late on in the game.

I sense that this can't go on much longer...but then, I've sensed at for a long time, and they keep proving me wrong.

Update: One of my better connected readers puts this befuddling possibility in my email. It may or may not be true: if anyone knows more, please share.
Here's a weird 'fact' (insofar as anything that comes via indirect sources can be regarded as a 'fact'): Jose David Cabello is not part of the Cabello clan ... apparently the two brothers, whose kleptomania and physical resemblance - not to mention their close family ties - suggest that they are as alike as peas in a pod, belong to a different power group. In fact, Jose David's recent appointment to replace Jose G Vielma Mora is the reverse of what most of us had thought ... because it's Vielma not Cabello who belongs to Diosdado's group. And this may be one reason for his mysterious ouster. All very strange.

February 12, 2008

I am not taking my hand off of this hot stove until you say uncle!

Quico says: So, for the Nth time, Chávez has threatened to stop selling oil to the US. This was a non-story the last time it came around, and it's a non-story now. But since - like the magnicide canard - it seems sure to keep coming up, I thought I might explain precisely why it's a non-story.

At the moment, Venezuela's main trade relationship is with the US. We send them oil. They send us dollars. They really depend on our oil. But we depend on their dollars much more than they depend on our oil.

Chávez says he's ready to break this relationship. But if he does, what the heck is he gonna do with all that oil we're selling them now?

One thing's for sure, he can't get by without a replacement buyer: his government's stability depends on the revenue those sales generate.

Thankfully, in today's world there's never a shortage of oil buyers. So, lets say, he sells it to China.

There's just one problem: it's not like nobody sells oil to China now! These days China gets its oil, basically, from the Persian Gulf. That market is spoken for. To get into the Chinese market, Chávez would have to elbow the Arabs out of his way.

Lets say, hypothetically, he manages to do that. (And this's really hypothetical, because there aren't any refineries to process Venezuelan crude in China...but just for illustrative purposes.) Next thing you know...

The Gulf producers realize, "shit, we don't have a buyer for all that oil we used to ship to China!"

What to do? What to do?

Soon enough, the Gulf producers would go "Ah ha! Turns out that there's one big fat consumer out there that's suddenly facing a shortfall just as we're looking for a buyer for all our excess production!"

Lucky break, huh?

So they just move into the market that we've vacated!

And, in the end, all you've done is go from this:

To this:

When all is said and done, nothing's really changed. The US would be getting the exact same amount of oil as before, and Venezuela would be selling the exact same amount of oil as before. Same for China and the Gulf producers. Oil musical chairs.

Granted: in the short run, the adjustment would cause a great deal of disruption. That's why Chávez's threat still manages to spook the oil market to some extent. But everyone can see it's not a very credible threat because the disruption to the US would pale in comparison to the sheer chaos Venezuela would face during the adjustment period, when we wouldn't be able to sell our extra-heavy crude to anyone.

Very expensive new refineries would have to be built in China to process Venezuelan crude. What's more, PDVSA's refineries in the US would become practically worthless, because it would probably be cheaper to restart from scratch than to adapt them to process Gulf crudes.

Which, when you think about it, is deliciously ironic: Chávez is protesting the PDVSA asset freeze by threatening a policy that would make those assets worthless!

True, oil would have to be shipped longer distances to reach both the US and China, but all that means is that the real beneficiaries here would be, weirdly enough, South Korean companies like Hyundai that dominate the tanker shipbuilding business, alongside firms that operate tanker fleets. Consumers would pay a bit more for oil, producers would get a bit less for it, and the difference would go to the shippers. Oil socialism indeed.

The basic point here is that oil is a fungible commodity: its price is set in a global market, so it's sensitive to the total worldwide supply and demand levels, not to supply and demand in any particular bilateral relationship.

To grasp why, imagine what would happen if Venezuela switched its production from the US market to the Chinese market and the Gulf producers didn't respond by switching a corresponding amount of their output to the US. Suddenly, oil would be relatively more scarce in the US than in China. Oil prices would rise in the US at the same time they're falling in China.

But, at that point, any marginally awake oil trader (and oil traders, in general, are far more than marginally awake) would realize he faced a massive arbitrage opportunity. He could make a riskless profit by buying oil at the Chinese price and re-exporting it to the US for the higher price there. And traders would continue to do that until the prices equalize. Given today's electronic commodity marketplace, this process would run its course in a matter of seconds.

It's called the Law of One Price, y no perdona.

The only way Chávez can affect the global oil market in the long run is by reducing the overall supply level. He'd have to refuse to sell oil not just to the US but to anyone at all. But Chávez needs to sell his oil far more urgently than the US needs to buy it. So everyone can see it's an empty threat: like threatening to stain somebody's freshly whitewashed wall by shooting yourself in the head next to it.

Or, as Edo puts it:

¿Qué pasaría en Venezuela si no existiera Globovisión?

Quico says: Nobody who reads this blog regularly could mistake us for fans of Globovisión, Venezuela's 24-hour opposition news station.

For years Katy and I have been taking potshots at Globo's frequently amateurish and breathlessly partisan reporting, at its role in keeping oppo supporters cooped up in a claustrophobic little bubble of know-nothing anti-Chávez fundamentalism, its inability to reach out to NiNis and its general tendency to play into Chávez's polarization strategy.

It's straightforward: Globo sucks. In many ways, the government has a lot to be grateful for: a more effective counter-propaganda arm would have made its life much more difficult than Globo has.

Which is why I'd always assumed chavismo would just let Globo do its thing: Venezuela's swing demographic (low-income, politically uncommitted people) don't watch Globo, and if they did, they'd probably go running straight back into the chavista fold.

Anyway, the point is moot: Globo only broadcasts free-to-air in Caracas and Valencia these days. For most Venezuelans, the station's already off the air. Why would the government tarnish its democratic credentials even further by shutting Globo down for good?

Five words: Ud. lo vio por Globovision - the station's deadly 30-second agitprop spots.

Set to music, with no commentary, You saw it on Globovision spots are short, sharp and devastating. A kind of Greatest Hits of the craziest, most degenerate and demonstrably false things Chávez and his cronies have said, they're like communicational hand grenades lobbed straight at the heart of chavismo's discursive authoritarianism.

Lets look at a few.

In this one, Globo recalls Chávez's charming recent boast about his coca-paste based breakfast routine:

Here, Chávez blatantly distorts TV audience numbers:

In this one Iris Varela flat out denies the existence of any videos showing people shooting from motorbikes inside UCV ahead of last year's referendum - except Globo has the videos.

And here Chávez swears "on his mother" that he will never back FARC over and against the democratically elected government of Colombia:

You can see plenty more on YouTube: here, here, here, and (my favorite) here.

Personally, I think these spots are brilliant. Usted lo vio por Globovisión points a camera straight into the dark heart of chavista intellectual bankruptcy. It's compelling viewing.

Insofar as government-friendly intellectuals try to articulate a reasoned critique of Ud. lo vio - and, frankly, that isn't very far - they focus on the way the clips decontextualize the information they present. But that's exactly backward. Context - additional information that makes an initial message more meaningful - is what these clips are all about.

It is in the context of his earlier promise (por mi madre) never to back the guerrilla that Chávez's recent U-Turn becomes fully meaningful. It is in the context of the photographic evidence of motorcycle gunmen at the UCV campus that Iris Varela's flat denial morphs from a claim that may or may not be true into clear evidence of a whopper. You want context? These clips are chock full of context!

But this kind of calm, collected critique is the exception. For the most part, the clips make doctrinaire chavistas really, really mad. As in ranting-and-raving furious. At times, the rants that result get breathtakingly silly. Take José Acosta over at Aporrea who - without a hint of irony - launches an angry tirade against Globovisión for giving the impression that Chávez uses drugs by...showing a video of Chávez bragging about using drugs! (This stuff has been brilliantly satirized by Laureano Márquez.)

Acosta's essay then dissolves into the standard chavista conspiracy theory about the State Department, the CIA and something he calls "the Jewish Mossad." Charming.

In the end, what makes these people mad is that Ud. lo vio torpedoes Chávez's ultimate power fantasy: his deranged will to set reality by decree.

It's their role in resisting the imposition of a docile, partisan truth that gives these clips their unique power. They're our last line of defense, our final recourse against the total deformation of our public sphere. No other format could make the point as powerfully.

"NO!" the clips shout, "reality is not made of plasticine! You cannot bend it to your will or set it by decree! Eurasia has not always been at war with Eastasia! We can prove it, damn it!"

Ud. lo vio por Globovision may be the last vestige of political democracy that still operates in Venezuela. In a normal democracy, politicians face a series of incentives to avoid saying things that are crazy, or brazenly contradictory, or easily-demonstrably false. Questions get raised in parliament. Pundits go to town on you. Your prestige and credibility suffer. If your fuck up happens to be against the law, you even face jail.

In Venezuela, these sanctions have withered into nothingness: either worn down by the chavista onslaught or idiotically surrendered by the abstentionist opposition Globovision did so much to engender. It doesn't matter how nutty their discourse gets, Chavez and his cronies face almost no consequence. Only the chance of earning a spot on the Ud. lo vio Gallery of Rogues acts to constrain them by now.

These clips are the last, weakly social sanction against the total debasement of our public life we have left. It really ain't much, but it's all we've got. Seeing the way chavismo has been gradually turning up the rhetorical heat on Globo, it's hard to know for how much longer.

February 10, 2008

Selecting for halabolivarianismo

Quico says: So Chávez went out to Santa Bárbara de Barinas to tour one of his revolutionary co-ops. At one point, some of the actual co-op workers got close enough to complain about how badly the project was going, making for one of those enthralling moments when reality manages to pierce through the layers of security and ideological insulation Chávez has so carefully built around himself.

To Chávez, bad news like this are an intolerable impertinence: baffling evidence that reality can't always be badgered into ideological conformity.

Try as he might to insulate himself, these episodes keep happening. And Chávez keeps looking baffled and genuinely hurt by them. How could this go on? His instinct is to look for a culprit. Some traitor must have infiltrated this project and sabotaged it. Root the traitors out, and these baffling anomalies will cease.

Except they don't cease, and each reshuffle seems to make things that little bit worse.

The reason?

Two words: adverse selection.

Chávez doesn't know it, but his obsession with loyalty weeds out the honest and selects for halabolivarianos.

It's a process fueled by his narcissism. As Jimmy Carter told Gustavo Cisneros, if there's one thing Chavez can't stand is to be contradicted: avoid doing that, and you can pretty much keep him on your good side. Problem is, if Jimmy Carter knows that, then everyone in the chavista elite knows it too...and the less scrupulous you are, the more likely you are to exploit it for personal gain.

How does this work? Well, once upon a time, quite a few honest, competent people backed Chávez. Alongside them, of course, were more than a few crooks and opportunists.

Of course, ex ante, there's no way to tell who's a C and who's an H (that's the information asymmetry here).

Along comes Chávez and says something fantastically controversial. He calls for the country's name to be changed, say, or demands a sprawling Enabling Law.

As is natural, some of his supporters will agree with him and some will disagree. Honest chavistas who honestly disagree will do the honest thing and express that disagreement. But the crooks and opportunists, being crooks and opportunists, will not. Angling to stay on his good side, they'll express agreement whether it's genuine or not:

But Chávez sees dissent as pure disloyalty, and disloyalty is the one fault he is not prepared to overlook. So he purges everyone who expresses dissent, and ends up with...

...an elite with more and more Cs and fewer and fewer Hs.

Then, some other issue comes up. Pick your controversy. Again the elite is divided:

Again, the crooks voice support for el Comandante. If the issue is central enough, the honest folk will put their heads above the parapet even knowing that it could cost them their ticket to the chavista inner circle (c.f. Baduel ahead of the constitutional referendum.)

The point, of course, is that when you make absolute loyalty your basic selection criteria, you provide huge incentives to fake absolute loyalty. And only the truly morally repugnant can fake it consistently for a decade or more.

Crooks and opportunists in every corner of Venezuela long ago realized that there's nothing easier than jumping on the bolivarian gravy train: you just have to suck up to the guy all the time. Narcissists are, after all, touchingly predictable creatures. In a strange way, Chávez is dead easy to manipulate.

It can surprise no one that, in time, we ended up with the governing elite we got:

A sea of crooks, with a couple of extremists thrown into the mix: people who actively favor authoritarianism and take perverse pride in their willingness to turf out their judgment to the big man unconditionally. But I think the true zealots are the exception. The bulk? Halabolivarianos...

And this explains Chávez's perplexity when cold, hard reality somehow breaks past the cordon and meets him face to face: he can't for the life of him figure out why things don't go as planned. As far as he's concerned, he's already thrown out the bad apples. Hell, he's spent the last nine years vigilantly looking for any sign of disloyalty and nipping it in the bud: as far as he can see, there's no reason why the government shouldn't work with Prussian efficiency by now.

Here, the paranoid side of the Narcissist mind kicks in. Narcissists are convinced they have special powers and abilities, that they are uniquely gifted and good. When things go wrong, a narcissist won't even consider looking in the mirror for a culprit. Instead, they look around them, sure that some kind of conspiracy is afoot to thwart them. If only their will had been carried out, they reason, things would have gone well. Only disloyalty can explain failure. The scale of a narcissist's self-regard is the measure of the conspiracy he figures must have been in place to thwart him.

This is the dead end Chávez has reached. The people who might have been able to sit him down for a stern talk about this stuff got purged years ago. His advisors, these days, are people he selected mainly for their willingness to feed his ego come hell or high water. He intuits some of them must be betraying him, but how to figure out who? You can spy on them more, but what if the spies are the conspirators? When nobody around you will tell you the truth, isn't the reasonable response to trust no one?

It's a spiral. And it's really driven Chávez to extremes of paranoia that more and more transcend the bizarre and bleed over into psychiatric territory. The harder Chávez tries to root out the "fifth columns" all around him, the more he locks in the circle of amoral sycophants craven enough to lie to him all the time, alongside a dwindling cohort of extremists who just refuse to disagree no matter how plain his lunacy becomes.

It's no wonder we're governed by crooks and kooks: nobody with a conscience could withstand the selection system Chávez has instituted without going mad.