Monday, December 03, 2007

A Simple Lesson
















Understand something: When they vote for him, we must call it a dictatorship. When they vote against him, we must call it a democracy.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

Zach:

You're really naive or ill-informed if you think the ongoing Bolivarian disaster in Venezuela is "about" some kind of U.S. media spin. Chavismo has about as much economic credibility as Reaganomics, dude.

Here's a good fair overview of the situation in Venezuela.

http://www.braudel.org.br/publicacoes/bp/bp41_en.pdf

And here is a marxist-leninist critique, by some oil company shills, that basically says the same thing that economists are saying.

http://www.revcom.us/a/094/chavez-en.html

And for extra credit, if you're really interested in the history and background of Chavismo -- there's a great book called The Magical State by Fernando Coronil.

Zach Campbell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Zach Campbell said...

Oh, christ, anonymous commenter.

I'll look at your links with interest. I am no expert on Chavez's economic program, or its significance for Venezuelans. But insofar as my blogging goes my area of comment is the representation of Chavez by American corporate interests in our media. The "ongoing Bolivarian disaster" is not about "some kind of U.S. media spin," but it is subject to it for those of us here. And that's all I concern myself with here because that's all I feel comfortable making judgments on ...

Tram said...

I'm not a fan of state domination (though, from what I understand, the popularity of Chavez has a lot to do with neoliberal backlash, which, um, goes back to multinationals and corporate interests). But seriously, ain't that the truth.

Oh how I love media spin. Democracy this, democracy that. The word democracy has been milked to death by Dubya. On some days, I'm convinced that there's little difference between press releases and newspaper articles.

Phil BC said...

How Chavez is treated by the US media will provide plenty of case studies for students of the media for decades to come. So much hypocritical cant, it's unbelievable.

Tram said...

Another typical editorial (from my local newspaper, the Honolulu Advertiser):

A win for democracy in Venezuela's vote

Venezuela's rejection of 69 constitutional amendments that would have brought President Hugo Chavez greater control is a big win for democracy for the troubled country.

More than 7 million voters rejected the amendments, compared with 4 million who supported the push by Chavez to become president for life and gain unfettered control.

The defeated amendments would have given Chavez the power to seize property with no checks or balances; declare federal provinces and appoint its governors, bypassing the elections process; impose a state of emergency in perpetuity; and control the central bank.

Voters made a wise choice. Crime and corruption have soared under Chavez's tenure, and failed economic policies have caused shortages of even the most basic supplies.

Chavez shut down Venezuela's television network, which opposed him. But he failed to do the same to Venezuela's people. And they should be applauded for standing firm against authoritarian rule.


Regardless of what you feel about Chavez, the voting process was thoroughly democratic. Had the amendments been approved, Chavez would have governed under democratic authoritarianism.

Alex said...

"On some days, I'm convinced that there's little difference between press releases and newspaper articles."

The press releases are more honest (I was paid to say THIS), and they're the source of the newspaper articles anyway......

Remember that, in fact, so much of modern politics is a meditation on Machiavelli, and Machiavelli so relies upon what we would might "authoritarian" leaders in the transition between aristocracy to the modern state. He even needs to invent more than one term of art to describe such a person - the "armed prophet" and the "princes of the people". Further, he praises so highly the founding of Rome when Romulus kills Remus, which clearly intimates that the "prince of the people" must be willing to undertake things that are dire for others to contemplate.

Anon said...

Understand something: When they vote for him, we must call it a dictatorship. When they vote against him, we must call it a democracy.

...[M]y area of comment is the representation of Chavez by American corporate interests in our media

Well then what about Putin? He won the vote overwhelmingly -- who knew 99% of Chechens supported him? -- but to pretend that what happened was "democracy" is absurd.

I won't disagree about the fear-mongering associated with Chavez coverage in the States, but I don't consider your comment a useful piece of media criticism. The issue is always whether the charismatic leader who won the vote won so fairly -- and in that context isn't it usually good practice to be skeptical of the great leader's victories and pleased with his defeats? In other words, isn't your sound bite, taken with a big grain of salt, actually good advice, regardless of the views of U.S. corporate interests?

The real point is that democracy is not just synonymous with an election (or a vote). Whatever else the Chavez hysteria has wrong, it actually has this point right -- this is completely unintentional, I'm sure, as those who call Chavez a dictator tend to be more reticent about saying the same thing about, say, Musharraf, Karimov, or Niyazov because these men are "friendly" dictators, and they ignore folks like Mugabe or Shwe because there's no profit to be had in opposing them. But this facile equation is why so many dictators hold sham elections so as to be able to claim to be democratically elected.

It seems to be that your observation points up the dissonance between "[them voting]" and "dictatorship" while uncritically endorsing the equivalence of "[them voting]" with "democracy." This is not democracy.

And since you don't want to talk politics, I'll just say in response to tram that "democratic authoritarianism" (Fujimori? Putin? Singapore? Pakistan?) is always, to my knowledge, discussed in scare quotes because it is a clear contradiction in terms. While elections should not synonymous with democracy, the notion that democracy can be had without elections is absurd. But democratic states can certainly vote themselves out of existence and into authoritarian states.

Anon

Zach Campbell said...

The issue is always whether the charismatic leader who won the vote won so fairly -- and in that context isn't it usually good practice to be skeptical of the great leader's victories and pleased with his defeats? In other words, isn't your sound bite, taken with a big grain of salt, actually good advice, regardless of the views of U.S. corporate interests?

This is like the "witches float" test, if you ask me ...

Zach Campbell said...

I don't mean my above comment to be only glib or smartass, by the way. I don't have a lot of time right now and am hesitant to get sucked into a discussion. But I wonder, Anon, what positive expression you're willing to leave to people--especially poor majorities in nations--when they vote for a leader who is not aligned with first world capitalist power interests?

And if the interests of the Venezuelan people are in mind, if facts and results are what are important, why is it that seemingly every article critical of Chavez has to sneeringly pathologize him? (Even Norman Gall can't resist: Hugo doesn't actually read the books he quotes, and get this, he drinks too much black coffee.) The moralizing extends to the people in Venezuela, who are, we hear, foolishly spending money on consumer goods and booze (not putting it back into infrastructure, as a noble middle-class person of progressive capitalist bent would do). And of course in the US media one will see reports of large protests against Chavez (hearing nothing even larger demonstrations in favor of him). This doesn't mean Venezuela doesn't have problems. I have an unsound grasp on economics, I would not claim to know what "works" or doesn't. (Actually, I'd suspect that if Chavismo truly "worked" and were good for the people, in any very efficient way, he'd already have a bullet in his head, then.) But he has retained a lot of support amongst the poor, and even those who don't support his policies are not necessarily in favor of a neoliberal takeover. His defeat is a sign of thriving democracy, I think, only insofar as he has retained significant support regardless, and as far as I am aware--perhaps I'm misinformed--the last vote was not the product of (US) external tampering or pressure, which is an important point.

Tram said...

And since you don't want to talk politics, I'll just say in response to tram that "democratic authoritarianism" (Fujimori? Putin? Singapore? Pakistan?) is always, to my knowledge, discussed in scare quotes because it is a clear contradiction in terms.

The fact that democratic authoritarianism is a contradiction does not make it any less so of a reality.

My problem with the U.S. press has a lot to do with spin (possibly corporate?) and simplification. It has nothing to do with me agreeing with Chavez's politics (which I don't).

As Zach pointed out, Chavez's policies very much resonate with the poor. His proposals were considered very populist in the wake of the failed neoliberal movement in Latin America.

I am appalled at how skewered Chavez's profile is in the States. We're supposed to hate him here. Yet most Americans have no idea how he rose to power. No idea at all.

anon said...

Zach,

I didn't intend to offer any advice to the Venezuelan public at all, just as I assumed you didn't mean to either (unless you think the Venezuelan poor read a lot of Norman Gall -- which they very well may, for all I know). I simply wanted to suggest that the corporate interests you want to be critical of have, on average, supported dictatorial regimes under the guise of democracy -- the Chavez case is an anomaly (in recent times), reflecting the fact this administration has brought overt regime change back into fashion. So while I don't disagree that "dictatorship" is becoming an accusation of convenience, I just wanted to point that that "democracy" has also become a more debased term. The substance of democracy must mean more than the presence of a ballot box, though the ballot box (unmolested) is of course a basic requirement.

But the particular quote you pulled could be read as advice, and I guess I would stand by it. I've been speaking lately with friends about the situation in Pakistan, where the poor have the luxury of "choosing" from a set of three corrupt leaders, past and present. (The scare quotes reflect an assumption of significant vote-rigging, though I don't really know how bad the situation is in Pakistan on this front.) It is a tried and true technique in the subcontinent to promise the world to the rural poor and then, having ridden a wave of discontent to office, leave them mostly to rot (this is not so dissimilar to populist politics in Western countries, of course). So yes, I would endorse the first part of the quote -- skepticism of leaders who paint themselves as saviours of the poor is always warranted, and one should always be on the lookout for signs that those leaders are more interested in securing power than in solving problems. (This may be a lesson I absorbed from my immigrant parents.) Now that doesn't mean that Chavez isn't still the best choice for poor Venezeulans among a set of bad options -- Chavez certainly isn't the only one playing power politics in Venezeula. But I don't see anything wrong in acknowledging the possibility that all the options are bad.

Nevertheless, to reiterate, my intention was to take your observation as a piece of (US) media criticism, not as a piece of political commentary. And I don't disagree with you (or, on preview, Tram) about the absurd ahistoricity of the American coverage of Chavez.

Anon

Alex said...

Er, but the question is not really democracy / not-democracy. Venezuela is not the position of being a long-stable democracy. What a prince of the people does to establish the democracy isn't necessarily democratic in and of itself. That is, the prince of the people (one who wishes to establish new modes and orders) begins his activity with largely illegal acts - he must overthrow a currently unjust regime (which obviously will make overthrowing it illegal). Also, one cannot expect that the populance, having been long abused and perverted under the prior tyrannies, will easily and immediately understand the new mode of democracy. Thus, the prince of the people cannot always rely upon popular understanding or an already achieved popular enlightenment.

Thus, applying the standards proper for a just democratic statesman in 2007 Sweden is not only inappropriate, but simply irrelevant and harmful to an equally just statesman in a non-democratic Venezuela. The correct procedure is not imposing a preconcieved democratic ideology upon a non-democratic situation, but asking if Chavez acts justly or unjustly in his situation, whether he seeks good policies or bad, whether he acts prudently and moderately, whether he knows how to both the fox and the lion and so on.