The death of Hugo Chavez has produced a heavily polarised debate over his legacy. In a new essay for Ceasefire, Samuel Grove takes issue with the eagerness of the Western left to cloak Chávez in a liberal garb, and argues this is symptomatic of a deeper conservative ambivalence towards what Chávez represented: a unapologetic fighter and leader for the Venezuelan working-class.
There has been a wide range of commentary in the wake of the death of Hugo Chávez. Large swathes of it has been the predictable right wing bluster about him being a ‘dictator’ etc. This is obviously absurd and not worth engaging with. For me, it is far more interesting to examine what accounts for much of the Western left-wing critique of this right-wing bluster; critique that I, as much as anyone is responsible for producing.
I want to address this critique not because it is wrong, but because it is limited. The limitations are, I believe, significant enough that it runs the danger of misunderstanding, or failing to recognise, a large part of what Chávez represents to so many ordinary Venezuelans. Using a combination of the philosophy of Alain Badiou and a documentary on Venezuela’s Bolivarian process by my friend Pablo Navarrete, I want to explain what these limitations are and propose a better way of interpreting Chavez’s appeal and significance.
The limitations of critique
We cannot ignore the right wing bluster, and the limitations I am referring to, in many ways, stem from the Western left’s preoccupation with it. What does the right accuse Chávez supporters of? Many things of course, but a lot of it can be condensed in this loaded question by the Guardian journalist (and the paper’s former Latin America correspondent) Rory Carroll·:
How did [Chavez] seduce not just a nation but a significant part of world opinion? How did he make people laugh, weep, and applaud as if on command? And how did he stay popular while Venezuela crumbled?
The question is loaded because the answer is implicit. Chávistas (as supporters of Chávez are often called), Carroll implies, have allowed themselves to be deceived by an ‘illusionist’ who made them believe that things were improving when they were actually getting worse. The left critique has, quite understandably, focused upon exploding this myth by pointing out that Venezuela is anything but crumbling and that, in fact, Chávez’s supporters are making very rational decisions based on their material self-interest.
There is a great deal of truth to this argument. Growth in Venezuela has averaged 4.3% over the last ten years and the poor and marginalised are in a better position than most to appreciate this having ‘experienced a dramatic improvement in their material conditions’. But the trouble with this argument is that it accepts the malign premise of Carroll’s question; that politics and political consciousness are reducible to an objective appraisal of a government’s performance. This is an entirely bourgeois conception of politics which we must discard in order to understand what Chávez and Chávismo really represent.
Estoy con Chávez
Alain Badiou insists that a genuine politics must proceed at a distance from that ‘state’ and the ‘economy’. By ‘state’ Badiou means not just the institution, but the governmental ‘democratic’ logic by which it functions. By ‘economy’, he means not just the realm of economic activity but the laws of capital and associated standards of measurement (growth, flexibility, sustainability etc). This is often portrayed as a departure from Marxism, but it shouldn’t be.
Karl Marx’s great discovery was not that politics stems from the ‘state’ and ‘economics’, but that the ‘state’ and ‘economics’ are a result of the balance of forces in an ongoing class war. If the state system and market economy is really congealed class power, then a genuine political sequence does not seek recourse in its abstract logic and measurement standards. Rather, the starting point is the conflict itself and the challenge is to shift this political and economic ‘logic’ in a new direction.
Let us begin with the ‘state’. Much is made of Chávez’s attempted coup d’état in 1992. It is used by the right to present him as an aggressor against ‘democracy’. The Western left commentariat tend to respond to this with evasion. ‘Yes he did attempt a coup but then he learned to seek power legitimately through democratic procedures’. This response fails for two reasons: It ignores what Chávez said in the wake of the failed coup, and it ignores the popular response to it.
In the speech Chávez uttered the words ‘por ahora’ (‘for now’). A translation in English would be something like ‘We have not achieved our objectives… for now’. Self-evidently, the objectives meant taking power, and the phrase ‘for now’ meant he was not done yet. I am not aware of any moment since when he has recanted these words or expressed regret for his actions.
Many Venezuelans interpreted the coup attempt and the speech exactly for what it was. Not a declaration of war, but a recognition that a war was already going on and he, Chávez, was committed to fighting back. It is not difficult to understand why Venezuelans would have resisted the elite interpretation of Chávez as the aggressor. Chávez had attempted to overthrow a government that, just three years before, had responded to a popular rebellion by deploying the army and shooting dead thousands of people.
The war did not come to an end when Chávez assumed the presidency in February 1999. The right use this fact to, once again, paint Chávez as the aggressor—the elected dictator that fires judges, closes down media stations, and arrests those politicians who oppose him. The reflex of the left is either to point out the hypocrisy of the right in concentrating on Venezuela; or to argue that Chávez’s actions were, in fact, ‘democratically’ legitimate in the first place. Once again both responses are inadequate. The first because it preserves the myth that the judges, media stations, and politicians as neutral arbiters of the democratic ‘state’; the second because it presents Chávez and his government as the upholders of an abstract ‘democratic logic’.
The reality is that it is precisely the ‘democratic logic’ that is being contested in this sequence. This isn’t easy to see if your encounter with the Bolivarian process is through a discursive framework that takes the state’s ‘democratic logic’ as a point of departure. It is easier to see if you are a Venezuelan caught up in the ongoing class war; if your encounter with the logic of the state is not primarily discursive, but non-discursive practices of force that make no pretence at being fair or just (the police, the army, the prison system etc). One understands that the same logic that cries foul when a rich judge is not granted his full legal rights is basically silent when thousands of poor peasants are being murdered by private militias hired by rich landlords.
We can observe the same problems in the realm of economics. While the right points out the corruption, inefficiencies and inflation that have dogged the Chávez presidency, the left points out the spectacular economic growth and the improvements in health and education outcomes. To augment their argument, the left cite positive reports from the World Bank, IMF and UNICEF. Partly this has to do with using sources the right respects. But it’s not just that. If your encounter with poverty is through economic reports and articles invariably you will articulate poverty in the same discourse. In the process you wind up appealing to ‘objective’ criteria of economic success and failure that are nothing of the sort.
Venezuelans living the experience of poverty are less likely to pinpoint historic macro-economic policy ‘failures’ so much as a series of ‘successful’ victories by a government of rich against the poor. The reductions in poverty and improvement in health and social outcomes that followed the election of Chávez are interpreted in similarly partisan terms. These are the words of Maria Machado, a community organiser in La Vega, a poor district in Caracas:
Chávez is the best, because over these ten years we’ve seen how he has recognised the struggles of the poor and he has given us what we’ve always lacked; education housing. In this process we shouldn’t be afraid because we have a humane President who believes in the poor and in bringing peoples together.
The point is in both cases the principal question is not whether the Chávez government is conforming to an objective standard of ‘good governance’. The question is whose side is the Chávez government on. The irony is that it is those not educated in sophisticated political, legal and economic discourses who are asking the right question.
Soy un Chávista
Of course, Chávez supporters are not oblivious to the problems of a movement overly dependent on a single figure. When asked what had really changed since Chávez came to power, Joel Linares, a community activist in El Winche, responded accordingly:
The greatest achievements of this government can be summarised in two words. Number one, ‘inclusion’ and number two, ‘consciousness’. If this process can’t transcend the figure of Hugo Chávez then we would have achieved nothing. We’re working to enable people to complete the development of their consciousness so that they’ll be capable of carrying on the revolutionary process even if Hugo Chávez isn’t here.
These are the kind of remarks the Western left uses to combat the charge from the right that Chávez supporters are simply dupes. The danger of reducing Joel’s words to a platitude about the importance of ‘independent’ thought is that once again we fail to appreciate Chávez’s real significance. Read more closely Joel’s words. He is talking about completing the development of consciousness without Chávez. In other words it is as much a recognition of the role Chávez has played in awakening people’s political consciousness in the first place.
Alain Badiou addresses Joel’s point about leadership in more detail in his reflection on ‘mastery’. ‘Masters’, he insists, are essential in order to navigate our way out of our ideological malaise (from which we all begin). They present us with radically new ways of seeing the world, force us to reframe the boundaries of what is possible to think and inspire us to reconsider our own limitations. To undergo such a process of ‘mastery’ requires a temporary dependence upon them. Badiou is referring to a process in which, we temporarily forgo our critical voice. If we disagree with them we assume that we are wrong and they are right. Mastery is then the process of finding out why. It is a kind of intuition of discovery designed to change ourselves and the way we think.
Chávez was a leader and educator. Even before he came to power he had made a name for himself as a popular teacher in the army academy. Once he came to power he harnessed these skills further. During the making of another documentary, The War on Democracy, John Pilger accompanied Chávez on his political travels:
He [would] arrive at a school or a water project where local people are gathered and under his arm will be half a dozen books – Orwell, Chomsky, Dickens, Victor Hugo. He’ll proceed to quote from them and relate them to the condition of his audience. What he’s clearly doing is building ordinary people’s confidence in themselves.
For the right this is less a testament to Chávez’s pedagogy so much as of his demagoguery. Similarly his prominence on Venezuelan state media is cited as evidence of him as an elected dictator. I think this is an argument that makes the Western left uncomfortable. Our usual response is to point out that private media still dominate the Venezuelan airwaves and that much of the state funding for media has gone into community media outlets. But the significance of Chávez’s media skills, particularly on his television show Alo Presidente, is not something we should shy away from. In his biography of Chávez, Richard Gott doesn’t:
Chávez is a master communicator, and he speaks every Sunday morning on his own radio programme (later transferred to television) called ‘Alo Presidente. The entire country is familiar with his pedagogic formulations. He talks like a teacher and listens like a teacher, picking up an implicit question and throwing it back at the questioner. On the radio, he is at his didactic best, illustrating, explaining, and arguing, with all the sophistry at his command. This is a world with which he has always been familiar, and it is no accident that one of his great nineteenth century heroes is Simón Rodríguez, sometimes called Samuel Robinson, who worked as the organiser of a radical programme of education—in Venezuela, Bolivia, Chile and Ecuador—for the poor, the Indians, and the blacks.
Badiou insists, similarly to Joel, that devotion to one’s master is not enough; ‘masters’ must ultimately be ‘surmounted’. But this is not the same thing as denying them, as we in the West are often wont to do. In fact, to deny our ‘masters is disastrous’ precisely because it precludes our independence from them; condemning us to endless repetitions of what they have already said, all the while thinking it is we who are speaking.
It is only by recognising our debt to our masters that we place ourselves in a position to move beyond them. We should be cautious, therefore, of too easily equating approbation and admiration for figures like Chávez with political immaturity. Our hostility to it might well belie our own arrested political development.
Members of the Western left commentariat are fond of demonstrating their own critical independence by mixing a defence of Chávez and the Bolivarian process with specific criticisms of it. The Trotskyist left decries the process for falling short of a true revolution that can overthrow capitalism. This is true if a bit a pompous; considering the abject failure of revolutionaries in this country to even mount a challenge to neoliberalism. Others have criticised Chávez’s largely rhetorical support for repressive regimes in Iran and Syria. This is also fair, but if his support for third world regimes under threat from US attack were ill judged they should be understood in the context of his principled opposition to imperialism and war.
I make a brief nod to these criticisms because I probably wouldn’t have written this essay if I thought the limitations of Western left commentary on Venezuela were simply a result of the constraints of critique. I suspect, in fact, that the limitations run deeper and are symptomatic of the class privilege that the Western left commentariat enjoy.
Commentators on the right and left, whose contact with the world is largely through computer screens, do tend to see politics primarily as a battle of ideas. The kinds of qualities that come to the fore in actual conflicts and struggles—personal qualities that Chávez embodied and his supporters so admired such as courage, loyalty, honesty and leadership—tend to be easily dismissed by this commentariat as either politically naive or irrelevant.
Similarly I don’t think it is any coincidence that the heroes of this same commentariat, tend to be figures whose engagement with the world is in the realm of ideas and who observe it largely from the sidelines; figures like Chomsky and Foucault (two of my heroes) who were renowned for their independence of thought, detachment and dissidence. Working-class heroes who stand out more for the way they sought to change the world than the way they interpreted it, remain the target of suspicion. Chávez and Chávismo, are things we in the West, even on the left, remain inherently ambivalent about.
[*Unfortunately, despite writing for a nominally left-of-centre paper, the Guardian, Carroll is very much a disseminator of right-wing bluster.]
Samuel Grove is a PhD candidate at the University of Nottingham, a co-editor of the New Left Project, and a union activist.