The Half-assed Totalitarian
I’m reading Christopher Hitchins’ new book on George Orwell at the moment, and enjoying it immensely. As I read about Orwell’s horror at Stalin’s tactics, it’s hard not to relate it to events here, which are at once so similar and so vastly different to 1930s Russia. What Orwell makes clear, what he made his reputation writing about, is the way that the systematic denial of the truth is the cognitive cornerstone to totalitarianism. Mangling reality wasn’t just something Stalin did accidentally: it was at the center of his control of society. And while there are many, obvious differences between the two, Hitchens’ book shows up some terrifying parallelisms between Chávez and Stalin, at least in terms of their attitudes to reality.
Take, for instance, Orwell’s satirical take of the rhetoric coming out of Moscow during the dark years of the pre-war purges:
“To get the full sence of our ignorance as to what is really happening in the USSR,” he writes, sometime in the mid 1930s, “it’s 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 Trotsky be Churchill, and you get something like this:”
“Mr. Winston Churchill, 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 organization 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 an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the Royal racing-stables. 80% of the Beefeaters at the Tower of London are discovered to be agents of the plot. A high official at the Post Office admits brazenly to having embezzled 5 million pounds and also to having committed lese majesté by drawing moustaches on postage stamps. Lord Nuffield, after a 7-hour interrogation, confesses that ever since 1920 he has been fomenting strikes in his own factories. And meanwhile the Churchillites never cease from proclaiming that it is they who are the real defenders of Capitalism…
“Anyone who has followed the Russian trials,” Orwell comments, “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.”
Now, think about this, and think about Chávez’ Venezuela in terms of this. When we hear MVR congressman Raul Esté telling us that on November 4th the gunshots were fired by undercover Chacao policemen who had infiltrated the chavista protest but forgotten to change their boots, when we’re told on State TV (channel 8) that the Plaza Altamira protest is a satanist/neonazi plot spearheaded by Alejandro Peña Esclusa, when we’re told that the Metropolitan Police routinely drops tear gas canisters on perfectly peaceful chavista demonstrators for no good reason, when Pedro Carreño tells us that Henrique Salas Feo’s Operación Alegría street-sweepers are a highly trained corps of provocateurs who sneak into chavista marches, when Chávez tells us that an offhand comment by a CNN correspondent proves that the opposition planned and organized the April 11th massacre…when we hear things like that, isn’t there a more than evident streak of totalitarian truth-twisting to the rhetoric? Isn’t there an obvious and alarming parallelism between the way these statements mangle the truth beyond all recognition for partisan gain? Aren’t each of these items “next door to incredible as frame-ups”?
Yet, the differences are just as telling. What made Stalin Stalin is that state-lies held a monopoly of the information available to common people in Russia. His aggressive convolution of reality was paired with a willingness to use as much violence as it took to crush anyone who questioned the state line. Stalinism wasn’t just about routinely making up impossibly far-fetched lies, it was about making it compulsory to believe them. It was about routinely using impossible lies lies as the justification for putting bullets in people’s heads, or sending them for long sojourns in Siberia.
Chávez won’t go all the way, which explains why the Chávez era has been one-part-tragedy, two-parts-farce. Without total control over people’s access to information, twisted state lies are laid bare before the end of the day, becoming a farcical joke rather than a source of deep terror. Not only is it not compulsory to believe the crap the government peddles, but making fun of various chavista lies has become a kind of passtime for the middle classes. To make a proper totalitarian leader, you have to balance off your willingness to mangle the truth with an equal dose of cruelty and violence – Chávez just can’t strike that balance, because he’s just not comfortable enough using violence to achieve political ends. Thank God. And people are realizing that Chávez isn’t really willing to use massive, indiscriminate violence to stay in power. Think about it: this is a country where military intelligence raids are foiled by pissed-off, pot-banging housewives who block the access roads with their cars and laugh at the heavily-armed, ski-masked intelligence officers when they demand to be let through. Think that’s a problem that Stalin had?