A Foucauldian Critique of Bolivarian Venezuela

Michel Foucault (1926-1984). Source: Wikipedia

I have been thinking about making a critique of the Latin American radical left for several months now. As a matter of fact, I was working on such a critique – mainly, of Charles McKelvey’s blog posts about the February protests in Venezuela – when my baby son was born and had to stop blogging. For a time, I put that critique on an indefinite hiatus, reinforced by the three posts I wrote after I resumed my blogging.

I was also working on a manuscript about participatory democracy in Latin America, taking Venezuela and Brazil as case studies. At the suggestion of fellow Latin Americanist Tony Spanakos, I took up on reading about phronetic social science and eventually came across the volume that first made the case for it, Making Social Science Matter: Why Social Inquiry Fails and How Can It Succeed Again, written in 2001 by Bent Flyvbjerg. His defense of phronetic social science is established fundamentally in an interpretation of Michel Foucault’s thought, especially his ideas on power and description of his genealogical method. I am not an expert on Foucault, but Flyvbjerg’s interpretation, in light of his statements about why social inquiry has to adopt a phronetic approach and how that approach should consider the questions of power that are central to politics, is very fascinating. It also inspired me to deliver this critique of chavismo, which will make up somehow for the critique of the Latin American radical left I wanted to do at first.

My original idea was that McKelvey’s posts not only reflect the current state of mind of the Latin American radical left, but also provide a highly one-sided view of the events in Venezuela that neither mentions how chavismo has made the situation worse nor does it concede its flaws and mistakes over the years. Remarkably, McKelvey cites reports from Venezuelan and Cuban state-owned media, both as fair and balanced as Fox News. As far as supporters of chavismo go, there is no problem with that officially-sanctioned but biased version of events because it did not come from deceiving bourgeois media conglomerates like CNN and Globovisión, but from people with the real pulse on events. Therefore, it is the truth. Sure enough, chavismo saw in those protests the prelude of an uprising similar to the ones in Libya and Ukraine, always plotted by the US and, therefore, up to no good (so never mind Khadaffi’s involvement in the Lockerbie bombing and Yanukovich sucking up to Russia). This original idea has not changed much from its first inception; as a matter of fact, there is a lot to be said against chavismo from a Foucauldian viewpoint, for which I will cite from Flyvbjerg’s interpretation of some of Foucault’s writings.

In his misgivings against Habermasian discourse ethics because of its alleged concern with universal processes, Foucault thinks that any idea that claims to be universal has to be always confronted with the strictly contingent and specific – that is, with praxis. Foucault also says that history has proven time and again that any utopian vision of the public good generates suffering; consequently,

any form of government – pluralist or totalitarian – must be subjected to analysis and critique based on a will not to be dominated, on voicing concerns in public, and on withholding consent about anything that appears to be unacceptable (Flyvbjerg 2001, 100).

Chavismo in its infancy did exactly that – voicing idiosyncratic but legitimate and public concerns about Venezuelan liberal democracy, known by Michael Coppedge as “the adecopeyano establishment” after its two major parties, AD and COPEI. Notably, that was part of a larger trend: When Latin America made the turn to neoliberal economics in the 1990s, political citizenship became more and more distant from socioeconomic citizenship, setting the stage for the “pink tide” and the onset of governments intent on enacting socioeconomic equity and increase political participation beyond elections. When Hugo Chávez won the pivotal 1998 presidential election, the implementation of both policy goals meant in practice a complete and radical overhaul of existing institutions because he concluded early on that liberal democracy was broken beyond all possible repair. An anecdote serves as an example of his thoughts: In his very first swearing-in as president, he did so over a constitution he called “moribund”. Problems began soon after.

Among the many things created by 16 years of chavismo implemented as both Chávez and Maduro saw fit, there is the peculiarity that a government that claims to empower the masses is systematically disempowering those segments of them that wish to voice their own concerns in public. That does not occur through authoritarian methods (although some could beg to differ) or by suppressing citizenship a la Jim Crow, Nuremberg Laws or apartheid. This disempowerment involves, among other methods, skewing the media and critical institutions like the courts and the electoral system against all opponents of the party in government, even with the periodic holding of free and relatively clean elections. Of course, it all connects to the divisive populist discourse of chavismo, particularly its Manichean rhetoric pitting “the people” against “the oligarchy”, however both are defined. In this context, anyone making a critique of the Bolivarian government on the grounds of withholding consent about anything that appears to be unacceptable (ex. the ideological packing of the Supreme Court, media intimidation, forcing opposition-led governments to accept the policy agenda of the national government, expelling freely elected opposition legislators from the National Assembly, graft and petty corruption, official support for the notorious colectivos) is immediately branded by chavistas as a fascist, someone misinformed by the bourgeois media, being an agent of the US, and so on and so forth rather than someone with his or her own legitimate preoccupations about governance and civil peace, or as someone willing to challenge the grand utopia of 21st century socialism with praxis. Sadly, Charles McKelvey’s posts reproduce that Manichean mentality and lend support to this state of affairs in Venezuela.

The fundamental problem with utopian chavismo not tolerating the same practical critique it levied on liberal democracy can be understood further by looking into the political philosophy canon. In his Politics, Aristotle mentions that governments led by people without a sense of a just mean tend to govern for the sake of narrow interests and not those of the political society as a whole. For our purposes, two of those governments stand out: oligarchies and democracies (i.e. the direct democracies of Ancient Greece). For Atilio Borón, Latin American liberal democracies are nothing but oligarchies because the voice of the downtrodden masses was silenced during “third wave” democratization by the neoliberal types who took over government, all for the sake of international capital. This is not an unfounded claim; there is a lot of evidence out there to sustain that accusation. Pointing out that evidence became the praxis moment of the Latin American radical left in general and Hugo Chávez in particular, as well as a rallying cry for 21st century socialism. Yet the bull-in-the-china-shop implementation of chavista ideology since 1998 points to the truth (inconvenient to Borón) that Bolivarian Venezuela is nothing but a rabble-rousing democracy led by demagogues – as harmful for the common good as an oligarchy. By the same token, even if Foucault defined power as something without any particular locus and not as something to be seized and maintained at all costs, one thing is to speak truth to power and another is being in power because, assuming that Anthony Downs is correct and all politicians strive to obtain and enjoy the perks of office (which in the case of Venezuela it is taking over its oil-based rentier state), the perspective changes completely.

Whether or not an application, necessarily adjusted to the realities of 21st century Latin America, of Aristotle’s ideal government (the phronetic combination of democracy and oligarchy he called politeia) is possible is a subject for another post. Nevertheless, the sad takeaway is that the Bolivarian Revolution does not represent a legitimate attempt to go beyond the disempowerment of the masses but, instead, more of the same old problem but with a different disguise. Alas, to subject chavismo and its government to critique and conclude that they threw the baby out with the bathwater is seriously frowned upon in Bolivarian Venezuela. Even more disconcerting, neither Charles McKelvey nor supporters of chavismo outside Venezuela seem to have a problem with that.

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