Your ideas are not your ideas

Quico says: I’ve been fascinated by the responses to Chávez’s detailed invocation of Gramsci the other day. Most of the opposition is slightly dazed and confused by all this. Mostly, I think, it’s because we just don’t know that much about Gramsci – it’s a names that crops up now and then in intellectualoid circles, but who really has the time to slog through some half-forgotten Marxist’s musty old theories? Well, apparently Chávez does, and now we have to as well.

Probably the most common opposition reaction to this episode has been a sneering dismissal, something like:

“So he’s a Gramscian now? Right, just like he was a Trostkyite after somebody gave him a few snippets of Trostky to read. When he went to the US in 1999 he said he was a Jeffersonian, two weeks later in China he said he was a Maoist. A few months after that he was quoting from a New Ageish gay self-help book during cadenas. His reading is a mile wide and an inch deep: there’s no need to pay any attention.”

Usually I would tend to agree, but not this time. Why? Because when Chávez runs out and “discovers” he’s a great follower of, say, Mao, the claim is ridiculous because nothing Chávez has done shows any similarity with Mao’s ideas or Mao’s actions.But when Chávez talks about Gramsci, he lays out a kind of road-map to his communication strategy over the last eight years.

Chávez has always shared Gramsci’s fundamental insight about the role of ideology in supporting capitalism. Gramsci’s whole point was that, under capitalist hegemony, your ideas are not your ideas. They may feel like they’re yours, but in fact you’ve unwittingly absorbed them from the hegemonic system all around you – from the radio and Hollywood movies and Radio Rochela. That cultural system exists precisely in order to pass off the interests of the ruling class as “common sense,” to swindle the oppressed into siding with the interests of the oppressors. That’s hegemony.

This interpretation is chavismo distilled. How many times have we heard Chávez attack a journalist posing a difficult question by telling him he’s only advancing the interests of his newspaper’s owners? How many time, just in the last week, did we hear chavistas dismiss the student protests over RCTV, saying they are “manipulated,” that – in effect, their ideas are not their ideas?

Whether Chávez knew that this view was associated with Antonio Gramsci, I can’t tell. But I am sure that, for the last eight years, his refusal to engage substantively with those who disagree with him has been implicitly based on this kind of understanding: a gut level sense that those who agree with him “get it” and those who disagree with him are, consciously or unconsciously, advancing the class enemy’s agenda, carrying water for the Big Lies of the bourgeoisie.

So I do think there’s more to Chávez’s Gramscian tirade than there was to similar tirades in the past. Gramsci puts some theoretical meat on the bones of Chávez’s intuitive understanding of hegemony, one that has always made a sharp distinction between the legitimate (revolutionary/socialist/liberated/patriotic) speech of his friends and the illegitimate (reactionary/capitalist/manipulated/pitiyanqui) speech of his foes.

The Gramscian turn helps explain chavismo’s quizzical contention that the RCTV shutdown is a conquest for freedom of speech: certainly, if you see revolutionary speech as fundamentally free and dissident speech as fundamentally manipulated, you will think a fully free media is one where only revolutionaries get to speak.

And so chavista Manichaeism reductios itself at absurdum.

Because, when you get right down to it, who is the arbiter of whether an idea is liberated or not, revolutionary or not, counterhegemonic or not? Who gets to decide whether you are a patriot or a (conscious or unconscious) enemy of the people? Who’s entitled to judge the acceptability of what is said? To pose the question is to answer it: only Chávez gets to make those kinds of judgments.

If you disagree with him, you demonstrate, by that very act, that you’ve not yet managed to shake off the last vestiges of hegemonic thought. You show the world that, even if you fancy yourself a revolutionary (here’s looking at ya, Ismael García), you still carry the seeds of capitalist oppression within you. You demonstrate, in short, that your ideas are still not your ideas.

For chavismo, your ideas only become fully yours, only become fully free, when they are exactly the same as Chavez’s. Until you’ve achieved that mystical union of views, your ideas are manipulated. You are only free once you submit.