Towards a critical theory of chavismo

Very early attempt to build an account of chavismo on the basis of J.M. Briceño Guerrero’s insights

It is perhaps ironic that the most insightful book yet by a Venezuelan intellectual on the Chávez era was written years before Hugo Chávez rose to national prominence. J.M. Briceño’s “The Laberinth of the Three Minotaurs” presents itself as a critical theory of Latin American culture in historical perspective. It is, however, much more than this. More because the word “analysis” hardly does justice to Briceño Guerrero’s sumptuous, poetic style, or to the playfulness of his intellect. More also because Briceño Guerrero’s prose, while drawing inspiration from such famously impenetrable French critical theorists as Derrida, Lacan and Foucault, has produced a curiously relevant, almost accessible text.

Critical theory will never be “light reading”, but in Briceño Guerrero’s hands, it can be a delight. Most impresively, in the two decades since its creation, The Laberinth has gained rather than lost relevance – a contemporary reader will be startled again and again by the creeping sense that such analysis might well have been produced last week. The challenge is use Briceño Guerrero’s insights as a springboard to a critical theory of chavismo, one that goes beyond the partisan posturing on either side and captures the historical specificity of the Chávez era.

Discourses at war

A starting point for a Briceño Guerrerista reading of the last six years is that chavismo is not a left-wing ideology. That does not mean that chavismo is a right-wing ideology. It means that the categories of left and right are ill-suited to capturing what has been happening in Venezuela since 1999. In fact, the tendency by chavistas and their opponents alike to place the experience of the last six years within familiar right vs. left terms obscures far more than it enlightens.

Briceño Guerrero interprets Latin American culture as a melding of three separate, mutually incompatible strains, which following Derrida he refers to as “discourses.” They are the Western Rationalist discourse, the Mantuano (or hispanic colonial) discourse and the Savage discourse. For Briceño Guerrero, the three are irreducibly incompatible, and eternally doomed to struggle fruitlessly for supremacy over the other two. As he explains, “it’s easy to see that these three discourses penetrate one another, acting as parasites on each other, encumbering one another in a tragic combat where no victory is possible.”

In Briceño Guerrero’s view, both the left and the right are strains within the Western Rationalist discourse. They may be radically at odds with one another – surely they are – yet they share the same basic faith in reason, in rational analysis, as the key to understanding and changing social reality. Marx was not a savage, and neither was Adam Smith. They may disagree on almost everything, but they share a faith in instrumental rationalism as a privileged method for ascertaining reality.

Chavismo does not. Unlike both the traditional left and right, chavismo represents a rejection of western rationalism’s claim to supremacy over the public sphere. In a fundamental way, chavismo cannot be placed on right-left axis without massively distorting both it and the axis. In fact, Chavismo not only falls outside that axis, it represents a rejection of the axis, a revolt of the epistemological order that sustains it.

All the way back in 1982, Briceño Guerrero had noted the “verbalist political impulse of the savage discourse.” It’s a devastating phrase. It gets, in just a few words, at the basic chavista determination to privilege words over reality. And by linking it to one of the deep strains in our culture, it explains not only why chavismo exists, but also why it succeeds.

Chávez’s political appeal is based on the emotional bond his rhetoric creates with an audience that profoundly resents its historic marginalization. It works by echoing the deep undercurrent of rage on the part of the excluded, a rage Briceño Guerrero captures powerfully. Chávez’s rhetoric is based of a deep intuitive understanding of the un-western/anti-rational discourse in Venezuela?s culture, a discourse that has been alternatively attacked, discounted and denied by generations of european-minded rulers. Chávez validates the savage discourse, reflects it, and affirms it. He embodies it. Ultimately, he transmits to his audience a deep sense that the savage discourse can and should be something it has never been before: a discourse of power.
?The magical power of words
In the Savage Discourse, Briceño Guerrero sets out a framework for understanding chavismo’s otherwise baffling belief in the magical power of words. Of words in isolation, that is, words abstracted from any point of contact with non-verbal reality, with anything outside discourse itself.

Looked at from a western rational point of view, this stance seems like mere superstition, if not lunacy. Because, in a sense, western rationalism is a method for ensuring that a reliable link is built between word and world. To reject this part of it is to reject the whole.

Yet this is precisely chavismo’s trick. In front of a microphone, Chávez does not talk about reality, he creates it. You only start to understand the staggering, savage radicalism of chavismo when you begin to appreciate this dynamic.

You only have to watch Aló, presidente for 10 minutes or so to grasp this point. But just to illustrate, consider a real world example of the chavista belief in the magic of words. There are dozens that would serve the purpose, but there?s one that stands out, precisely because it drives the opposition positively batty:

Every year or so, with an expression of grave concern, President Chávez “discovers” that there’s a terrible problem with unemployment in Venezuela. Every year, to much fanfare, he announces radical solutions to this problem. The employment plans he creates out of words vary in name, but not in nature. Each comes with a specific, wildly improbable, numerical target of jobs to be created. Each is announced with pride and revolutionary fervor. Each seems to consist of nothing beyond the announcement of its creation.

Twelve months later, the ritual repeats itself.

Now, the opposition can hardly contain its baffled anger at this game. It seems obvious, too obvious, to us that this is a giant scam. Not surprisingly, each year, at employment-plan-announcement time, opposition newspapers fill up with irate commentary about the rise in unemployment statistics. Bursting with principled outrage, pundits point out that nary a peep was heard about the previous year’s employment plan at the announcement of the new one. They note the absence of follow-up, they pour vitriol on the wildly unrealistic targets set.

A deep current of baffled exasperation runs through such commentary. The Roberto Giustis and Marta Colominas and Maxim Rosses and Teodoro Petkoffs of the world work themselves up into a furious lather trying to force the government to establish some point of contact between the president’s words and reality as it exists beyond his discourse.

They insist on this. They cannot, will not, countenance the possibility that, for Chávez as well as for his supporters, the announcement is its own justification. The expression of will is reality enough, and no point of contact between it and the reality outside the discourse is needed. This is more than the opposition punditocracy can handle. They cannot imagine, let alone understand, that millions of excluded Venezuelans actively want the nation’s affairs to be run on the basis of a savage (non-western/anti-rational) discourse, that they crave leaders who adopt such a stance, and that they are thrilled to reward Chávez with their votes because, not despite, his rejection of rationalism, of the demand for word and world to match.

Western rationalism imagines itself to be the only valid basis of political action. Few in the opposition are willing to probe this belief, because it seems so foundational to them. Their commitment to a rationalist ethic has some costs, though, which have become increasingly obvious over time. It blinds them to the deep historical roots of the savage discourse, to its profound venezuelanness, its staying power.

Armed with Briceño Guerrero’s analysis, however, the verbalist political impulse of chavismo can be placed within a framework of deeper cultural-historical meaning. Once you understand his framework, chavismo finds its place within the broad sweep of Latin American history. One comes to see that Chávez’s political genius stems from his ability to intuit something Briceño Guerrero understands well and the opposition not at all: that the non-western/anti-rational Savage discourse is one of the fundamental building blocks of Venezuela?s culture, and serves as the primary discourse for millions of poor Venezuelans.

Opposition blindspots
From a western rationalist point of view, the savage discourse looks basically like non-sense. For those schooled in the rationalist ethic, it’s nearly impossible to shake this feeling, and its consequence, that non-sense must be seen very much as the ideological heart of the chavista project. That non-sense is the basis of its street credibility. That non-sense, Chávez’s ideological commitment to non-sense, is the basis of his popular appeal. That chavismo cannot give up non-sense and remain chavismo.
And yet, that which looks like mere non-sense to the rationalist ethic constitutes the primary discourse for millions of Venezuelans, the basic springwell of their identity, the heart of their understanding of Venezuelaness.

Briceño Guerrero’s analysis helps make the rationalist reader aware of his own discursive blindspots, where they come from, why they are so hard to get around.

Consider this: How often have you heard an opposition supporter decry the fact that “none of this craziness was a problem before Chávez came to office?” How often have you seen the current government blamed for the entirety of the class resentment that now marks public life? For the sudden outbursts of anger and violence that mark the have become such a frightening aspect of public life? How often have you felt this was so?

And yet, all the anger, all that barely suppressed rejection of the west and its isms, all that mindless revanchismo, all that barbarous rejection of rational ways of being and thinking, all that thirst for chaos, all that secret loathing for all that is thought and done, all that faith in magic, all of it was out there, visible, a quarter of a century ago…visible enough to be analysed with brilliant clarity all the way back then. To his great credit, Dr. Briceño Guerrero saw it and understood it and wrote it up twenty years before it finally found its electoral vehicle in the megalomaniac from Sabaneta and took power for itself.

The problem is that the opposition?s commitment to western rationalism prevents it, almost precludes it, from quite appreciating that the non-western/anti-rational aspects is one of the basic pillars of Venezuelans’ identity. There is a current of profound denial about the barbarous aspects of Venezuela?s culture, of its people’s culture, a panicked sense that to admit its existence is to surrender to it, a desperate will to suppress it. That denial is ongoing, it is visible even now. Even after six years with a non-western/anti-rational discourse entrenched in Miraflores.

Roberto Giusti cannot, will not accept it. Marta Colomina will go to her grave resisting it. Marcel Granier would stop being Marcel Granier if he could understand it. Much, much of the sifrino opposition is defined by its inability to grasp it. But it’s true: resentment against privilege runs wide and deep among poor Venezuelans, and it expresses itself not just as a deep loathing for the privileged, but also as a guttural rejection of the rationalist discourse of privilege (and of the privileged.)

This rejection elevates non-sense – what looks to a rationalist like Non-sense – into a cardinal political virtue. That is what Chávez knows and the rationalist opposition doesn’t. That is why the last thing the opposition needs is “country consensus” plans prepared by technocrats and experts. And that, sad to say, is why he wins – and is likely to keep on winning.

The Missing Discourse

Absent from this discussion so far is the third part of Briceño Guerrero’s overall framework: the Mantuano Discourse, which “governs individual conduct and interpersonal relationships, as well as the sense of dignity, honor, grandeur and happiness.” A medieval holdover conveyed to Latin America through colonization, the Mantuano discourse is the basis of the patron-client pattern of interpersonal relationships that serves as the basis for so much social interaction in Venezuela.

It’s easy to see the influence of the Mantuano discourse in things like Chávez’s plane, Danilo Anderson’s jetskis, Tobías Nobrega’s crooked real estate deals, Francisco Carrasquero’s familial clan-based recruiting and the dozens of other seemingly counterrevolutionary outbreaks of corruption that persist within the purported revolution.

The staying power of the Mantuano discourse is startling. For 60 years after the death of Gómez, Venezuelan politicians spoke like rationalists and acted like Mantuanos – using the state’s coffers the way elites always had, as a sort of petty cash box. This dissonance between discourse and behavior was one of the most jarring aspects of the pre-Chávez era. It served, in time, to build up the pervasive sense of disenchantment that eventually led to the election of Hugo Chávez.

Since 1999, the government has switched the discourse that governs public statements, jettisoning rationalism in favor of savagery. But in terms of behavior, startlingly little has changed. The sense of seigniorial entitlement over public monies remains, the willingness to set aside purported principles for the sake of clan-based material interests remains. The mantuano discourse remains. If you bracket the statements made by public officials and focus on official behavior, the last six years show surprising continuity with what came before.

And here, at last, comes a glimmer of hope. In time, Venezuelans got fed up with the evident distance between the elite’s rationalist talk and its mantuano walk. In time, they could well get sick and tired of the gap between Chávez’s savage talk and his government’s mantuano walk.

This dissonance does not create a revolt right away, because the mantuano attitudes are deeply embedded in all Venezuelans. Mantuano attitudes feel Venezuelan to most Venezuelans and, in a deep sense, they are. Moreover, due to the long history of dissonance between the old elite’s talk and its walk, the opposition is in a very weak position to capitalize on the dissonance at the heart of chavismo. It just has very little credibility on the matter, a fact Chávez has brilliantly exploited with all his scare mongering about how the opposition only wants to turn back the clock.

It will take time to undo the damage – the damage Chávez has inflicted on rationalism, as well as the damage the rationalist opposition has inflicted on itself by systematically devaluing and attacking the discourse millions of Venezuelans primarily identify with. Even today, after six years, the opposition has yet to understand the deep cultural roots of Chávez’s appeal, to see them as anything beyond a series of baffling outbursts of senselessness. Taking stock of such realities is never easy, but it is vital.