Ideo-logy and Pragmatism

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It was a charming moment. This morning I got this piece in my email from a philochavista reader hoping to show me the error of my ways. I thought about responding to the silly propagandistic tosh with a point-by-point fisk, but then realized how beside the point that approach would be. The problem here is not that the author gets facts wrong. The problem here is about epistemology, about how the author comes to “know” about what he thinks he knows about.

The first thing to keep in mind is that Chavista thinking is ideological thinking. This is how Hannah Arendt puts it:

An ideology is quite literally what its name indicates: it is the logic of an idea. Its subject matter is history, to which the “idea” is applied; the result of this application is not a body of statements about something that exists, but the unfolding of a process in constant change. The ideology treats the course of events as though it followed the same “law” as the logical exposition of its “idea.” Ideologies pretend to know the mysteries of the whole historical process-the secrets of the past, the intricacies of the present, the uncertainties of the future-because of the logic inherent in their respective ideas.

She’s right. Ideological reasoning is thinking that takes the implicit logic of ideas and the relationships between them as more real, more basic, more important an instrument for understanding reality than the actual evidence about what happens in the world. For this reason, ideological thinking is almost pre-programmed to error.

What do I mean, exactly?

Take the assertion – basic to chavista rhetoric and incredibly widespread among lefty europeans – that Chavez’s government has been all about taking power, money and privilege from the rich and handing it to the poor. This idea is the basis of chavista ideology, almost a dogma. It is implicit in the logic of the ideas that Chavez repeats in speech after speech. It is the purpose of the chavista experiment. It is the center of his rhetoric. For an ideological thinker, this is enough: Chavez means to redistribute power, money and privilege within society, ergo, he has. Not much of a need to go beyond that.

Or, in Arendt’s far more refined prose,

“To an ideology, history does not appear in light of an idea, but as something that can be calculated by it. What fits the “idea” into this new role is its own “logic,” that is a movement which is the consequence of the “idea” itself and needs no outside factor to set it into motion.”

To refute this way of understanding reality, facts are not enough. What’s required is a shift in basic epistemological standpoint – a paradigm shift from ideological thinking to pragmatic thinking, to evidence-based thinking. Pragmatic thinking does not see reality as the inevitable or mechanistic outcome of given relationships between abstractions. For a pragmatist, the fact that Chavez says he intends to redistribute wealth in society is not really a reason to think that Chavez has or will redistribute wealth in society. The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

Evidence about the world and what happens in it is more important to a pragmatist thinker than the implicit logical connections that derive from abstract ideas. So if a pragmatic thinker approaches the question of the distributive effects of Chavez’s government, and if he does it on the basis of evidence, s/he can see clearly that the standard ideological line coming from chavismo is just not true.

If you take the time and tedium to look at the actual statistics, it’s clear that Venezuela is now more reliant on multinational companies to extract its oil than in 1998. It’s clear that the combined macroeconomic effect of ongoing inflation and a massive contraction in real GDP has been to pinch the income of everyone, and it’s clear that the richer you were in 1998, the more able you were to protect yourself through capital flight. It’s clear that the share of the workforce in informal work has remained steady, and unemployment has risen. Food consumption statistics make it clear that people are eating less. Crime statistics make it clear that street violence has dramatically expanded, to the crazy extent that you are now more likely to be murdered in Venezuela than in Iraq! (13,000 murders in Vzla, 10,000 in Iraq, with roughly the same population.)

Did Chavez intend all of this? I don’t think so! Is this the net result of his six years in power? It sure is!

Pragmatist thinking is aware that intentions and results are vastly different things. Ideological thinking is unable to come to grips with this. Pragmatists understand that policies can and often do have unintended consequences. Ideological thinkers assume that if a government claims to represent the poor and institutes policies meant to help them, then by definition and automatically it succeeds.

The funny thing is that the evidence on the distributive effects of chavismo is not particularly complex, or ambiguous, or difficult to interpret. The problem does not occur at this level. The problem occurs at a more basic level. It has much more to do with one’s basic epistemological standpoint. Those who believe that the way to come to grips with reality is to understand the ideas and then tease out their implications will never be convinced by evidence.

The last word should go to Arendt:

The danger in exchanging the necessary insecurity of critical thinking for the total explanation of an ideology is not even so much the risk of falling for some usually vulgar, always uncritical assumption as of exchanging the freedom inherent in man’s capacity to think for the strait jacket of logic with which man can force himself almost as violently as he is forced by some outside power.

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