Democracy implies a clear delineation of the conceptual boundaries between “party,” “government,” “state,” and “nation.”
Democracy conceives of the state as the institutional incarnation of the nation, something larger and more permanent than the government. The state is led but not owned by the government. The government is led but not owned by the party in power.
Democracy conceives of politics as the realm of legitimate competition between parties for temporary control of the government. In a democracy, governments come and go but the state is permanent, because it transcends partisan differences – understood as normal and healthy – and accomodates the periodic changes in control of the government that naturally result from elections.
Revolution, as Chavez understands it, is a refutation of this understanding. It starts from a rejection of the conceptual differentiation between party, government, state and nation. It express itself in the drive to establish permanent control over the government, the state and the nation while flattening the conceptual boundaries between the them. This process takes place both on a symbolic and a substantive level.
Symbolically, Chavez has mixed partisan with national symbols from the start. By adopting the Libertador’s name, his original political vehicle – the Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement – broke the long established norm that lifted Bolivar, the primary symbol of a unitary national identity, above the partisan fray.
Once in power, the co-optation of Bolivar’s name for partisan purposes reached undreamed of new heights, from the subtle process that has made the word “bolivariano” basically synonymous with “chavista” to the decision to stick the now hyper-politicized word in the country’s official title.
“Bolivarianism” – for 150 years the glue that held together our national identity – has morphed into a locus of official partisan identification, while remaining a locus of national identity. This process tends to meld partisan loyalty with patriotism, undermining the possibility of a non-partisan national identification. Dissenters are left without even a country they can call their own – literally, since the politization of bolivarianism turned “Republica Bolivariana de Venezuela” more into a provocation than a description.
Later, the revolution moved to strip away the neutrality of even the most basic symbols of national allegiance, politicizing the nation’s flag and its coat of arms. (Can the National Anthem be far behind?) Time and time again, loci of identification that had served to bind the nation together have been turned into symbolic wedges, into instruments for the delegitimation of dissent and the marginalization of dissenters. Hand in hand with this process, the revolution works to transform the unquestioning acceptance of Chavez’s every utterance from a free expression of opinion into a litmus test of patriotic allegiance.
So the cries of “traitor” and “vendepatria” increasingly launched against those who dissent are in no way coincidental: they’re the logical outcome of the conceptual flattening at the center of the revolution. In the chavista imagination, party, government, state and nation have been melded into a single undifferentiated soup. Having erased those distinctions, chavistas have lost sight the notion, fundamental to democracy, that citizens can oppose the government without opposing the state, or object to the party without betraying the nation. It is not surprising that, swimming in the undifferentiated conceptual stew that is the revolutionary party/government/state/nation nexus, chavistas cannot recognize the distinction between disagreement and treason.
On the substantive level the revolution also seeks to stamp its mark permanently on the instruments of state power in ways that further flatten the conceptual distinctions that sustain democracy. State resources are used openly and systematically for partisan purposes. Courts come to serve the revolution rather than the state – a political rather than a national project. PDVSA is turned into an appendage of Chavez’s political program. The Armed Forces morph slowly but surely into a pretorian guard, where loyalty to the party becomes indistinguishable, to participants, from loyalty to the nation.
On both the symbolic and the substantive level, these revolutionary moves are in direct contradiction with the conceptual apparatus that sustains democracy. They are intended to negate the possibility of alternance. They do so by erasing the conceptual distinctions that give meaning to the democratic process, to the process of partisan competition for control over the government within the context of a permanent, transcendent state conceived as the institutional expression of the unity of the nation. As such, revolutionary values strike at the heart of democratic system. Flattening the distinction between party, government, state and nation, they leave any future government in the position of having to lead an explicitly chavista state, of commanding an Armed Force that conceives of itself as the protector of the revolution, of governing through a personalized bureaucracy, under a flag and coat-of-arms willfully manipulated into symbols of chavista hegemony.