Reading the Magical State

Quico says: The Magical State, the 1997 monograph on Venezuelan petrocracy by University of Michigan anthropologist Fernando Coronil, is a magisterial, bone-headed, brilliant, infuriating, path breaking failure: a book that gets a stunning number of things right on its way to leaving you basically unsatisfied.

That, at any rate, is how I felt after re-reading it for the first time in ten years. Coronil’s book teems with fresh insights weighed down by the kind of trendy, post-post-colonialist academic jargon that blighted the gringo social science establishment through the 1990s, a style whose essential faddishness is showed up by the fact that just a decade later, it already looks dated.

It’s too bad, because just beneath the tragically hip surface there’s a cultural historian with something substantial to say aching to get out. His essential point is contained in the three word marvel of concision that is his title. For Coronil, Venezuela’s petrostate really is magical…albeit only in the sense a children’s party magician is magical. Like the kiddy magician, the Venezuelan petrostate’s performance is an elaborate sham. Promising development, it produces only the appearance of development, promising modernity, it is able to deliver only the outward trappings of the developed countries’ reality. Exploring the reasons for this state of affairs is what the book sets out to do.

Needless to say, oil wealth and the way it has been assimilated into Venezuela’s political culture provides the bulk of the answer. Ever the anthropologist, Coronil devotes much of his attention on oil as an ideational force, noting the way growing consciousness of its importance structured Venezuelans’ collective identity, and cemented the absolute centrality of the state in national life.

With the violent expansion of this independently wealthy state, all major social groups had come to see it as the source of their security or fortune. More fundamental, their very identity was bound up with the state, for they had been formed or transformed by its expansion. Before it they stood in awe. To the extent that they were offspring of the petrostate, their historical formation as social forces was too recent, their political experiences too narrow, their reliance on the state’s financial and political resources too great, for them to follow an independent course of action.

This stress on oil’s role as the crucible of our political identity is both the book’s main strength and its ultimate undoing: Coronil’s semiotic insight and considerable talent as a historian is let down time and again by his economic ignorance and the narrowness of his theoretical reference points. In fact, more than once I found myself wishing for rather more history and less flaky theoretical rumination. It’s as a work of interpretative history that the Magical State really shines.

Coronil shows us how, for as long as it has been possible to speak openly about such things (that is, from the moment Gomez died) Venezuelan public discourse took it for granted that a shared right to benefit from oil revenues is an essential part of what it means to be Venezuelan. As early as 1936, virtually the entirety of the country’s elite saw the state as society’s instrument for bringing about modernity. In one of a series of eye-opening moments, Coronil notes that when Uslar Pietri coined his much abused line about “sowing the oil” in 1936, he was not expressing some radically new concept but simply summarizing what was conventional wisdom.

Coronil stresses that the growing consciousness of the enormous wealth buried deep inside Venezuela led to a conceptualization of the nation as made up of two bodies. Whereas most countries build a collective understanding of nationhood on the basis of shared belonging to a social body, Venezuelan nationalism added a widely shared sense of collective ownership of the nation’s natural body as well. Venezuelanness, in this sense, is essentially unlike Colombianness or Frenchness or Brazilianness. Since 1936, Venezuelanness has been not just about our relationship with one another, but also about our relationship with it, with the vast store of wealth laying untapped under our feet.

The jarring disconnect between the untold riches beneath the soil and the staggering poverty on top of it has been perceived as an outrage all along, and has served as the driving ideological force behind every major political reallignment since the death of Gomez. And all along, people have conceived of the state’s role as bridging that chasm by making overground Venezuela as rich as underground Venezuela is.

As Coronil would have it, the notion that only the state could articulate the relationship between “the nation’s two bodies” has never been seriously in doubt. If there is one thing that successive Venezuelan elites have agreed on since 1936 is that the state exists to perform this miracle of transubstantiation: turning black guck into modernity. But, Coronil contends, a fundamental inability to distinguish between modernity and the signs of modernity has frustrated the project time and again.

As the old saying goes, when you have a hammer in your hand, everything starts to look like a nail. And when you have a wad of cash in your pocket, everything starts to seem like it’s for sale.

Cash in its pocket is what the petrostate had, all along. And so the task of transmogrifying oil wealth into development came to be seen as a matter of purchasing modernity. Only trouble is, of course, you can’t buy modernity by the pound. It lacks materiality, it is not a thing or a service, it cannot be made into a commodity. And it was this essential fact that successive governing elites seemed unable to grasp.

That failure is understandable. After all, when you go to modern countries, you see the signs of modernity all around you. You see the highways and the skyscrapers, the ports and airports and factories and telephone poles. You are surrounded by the manifestations of modernity, its physicality, its embodiment into things that have a price and can be bought. Isn’t that what modernity is? Well, it sure seemed like it…and to successive petrostate elites sitting on wads of cash, it seemed like a no brainer: a modern country is a country filled with modern things.

And so a series of buying sprees resulted, more or less grandiose depending on the state of the oil market. Coronil focuses on two: Perez Jimenez’s aggressive public works programs of the 1950s and Carlos Andres Perez’s experiment in Big Push industrialization a realazos in the 1970s, spending considerable energy working out, in some detail, how and why the unprecedented building booms of both eras left Venezuela a poor country with lots of rich country things in it rather than a rich country.

To my mind, Coronil gets substantial credit for asking the right questions…his identification of the site Venezuelan failure is far more sophisticated than most. But the answers he gives fall far short of the mark.

Coronil doesn’t really seem to have a firm enough grasp of economics to understand what specifically went wrong with the 50s and 70s industrialization drives. So he spends well over 100 pages sketching out the stories of specific failed development projects that, though fascinating in their own right, he doesn’t really know how to connect with his broader theoretical argument.

The result is a kind of monographic schizophrenia, with the book running along parallel tracks that never quite seem to intersect. Both the theoretical and the historical tracks are interesting, but you’re never quite sure why it is they belong in the same book.

This is a shame, and puzzling too, because the theoretical points he makes suggest themselves naturally as interpretative aids in making sense of the narrative history. Obvious connections, however, go maddeningly unnoticed for chapters on end.

Fundamentally, his theoretical explanation of The Venezuelan Failure rests on the elite’s inability to distinguish between the “hardware” and the “software” of modernity, about successive governing elite’s misguided belief that people’s inner selves could be transformed through the expedient of transforming their physical surroundings.

But his historical narratives just fail to connect those dots. Most egregiously, the book devotes a whole chapter to the 1970s and 1980s import-substitituion policies in the auto sector without once stopping to note the way those policies instantiated a fetishistic concern with the materiality of production, treating the domestic manufacture of cars as synonymous with industrial independence even though all of the engineering and design work would be carried out elsewhere, by foreign multinationals. The fundamental difference between technology and technological capacity simply eludes him: producing Ford engines under licensing agreements is the guy’s concept of technology transfer.

Set aside, for the moment, the fact that his understanding of the role of technology in capitalist production is at least two decades out of date: what’s startling is that his account does exactly what he accuses CAP and Perez Jimenez of doing. It mistakes the material manifestations of capitalism (steel mills, hydroelectric plants, engine factories) for capitalism itself, the hardware of capitalist production for its software. It’s as though amid his stinging critique of the fetishization of the tokens of modernity, Coronil hasn’t quite freed himself from the habits of mind he’s critiquing.

It’s not the only instance where Coronil leaves the reader to fill in the blanks where his most significant arguments ought to be. The earlier part of the book is taken up with a fascinating narrative history of Venezuela from the Gomez era to the launch of puntofijismo. Coronil is (rightly) concerned to note how Gomecismo created the template of petrostate governance Venezuela has followed ever since, regardless of the vastly different ideological labels various governments have touted. But in this section, again, the most interesting insights remain just below the threshold of explicitness.

For Coronil, the traditional periodization of Venezuelan history, marked by its sharp distinction between dictatorial governments (1821-1936, 1948-1958) and democratic ones (1936-1948, 1958-1997) obscures more than it illuminates. Ever since the start of the oil era, both all have agreed on their basic conceptualization of the role of the state as modernizing agent at the interstice between the nation’s social and natural bodies. Rather than sharply divergent political models, Coronil interprets 20th century dictatorships and democracies as variants of the basic petrostate model, where a governing elite sets out to transmute oil into modernity but, for various reasons, fails.

All of that strikes me as correct, important, and not-widely-enough-understood. Yet his narrative history of the period fails to make obvious connections between the fates of successive regimes, connections that are consistent with his overall view and evidently suggested by the evidence he sets forth.

In each of the cases he examines (1936, 1945, 1948, 1958), the pattern he documents is the same. A marginalized political actor organizes dissent against the governing clique. Noting that the nation’s oil wealth belongs to all its people, it slams the monopolization of political power and oil wealth in the hands of the governing clique. Capitalizing on a brewing anger at the perenially baffling gap between subsoil wealth and oversoil poverty, it sets out to gain control of the state. In time, it succeeds, wresting control of the state and setting out to revolutionize the way it plays its role as mediator between the nation’s social and natural bodies, sure that, unlike all its predecessors, it knows the right way to transmogrify oil wealth into modernity. But, in time, the new governing elite turns inward, governing increasingly for its own benefit, concentrating power in the president and repeating many of the cliquish and sectarian policies it criticized in the previous elite. This antagonizes groups disenfranchised by its rule. Those new groups in turn organize dissent against the governing clique, slamming its monopolization of the nation’s natural body, and swearing that they and they alone can be trusted to truly make oil wealth benefit everyone…lather, rinse, repeat…

It’s what the young officers did to the gomecista clique in 1936, what AD did to the Medina in 1945, what the military did to AD in 1948, and what the Junta Patriotica did to the military in 1958. Just a couple of years after the publication of Coronil’s book, it’s what Chavez did to Puntofijismo…and you can bet your right testicle that, in broad outline, it’s the way chavismo will eventually fall. And yet, though he puts forth mountains of evidence for this view, Coronil fails to explicitly note the pattern, to problematize it or seek to theorize it or even accept it exists.

If Coronil’s scandalous economic illiteracy prevents him from drawing the obvious connections in the later part of the book, an equally baffling failure to apply basic insights from political science lead him to drop this pop fly. If he had any notion of bureaucratic politics, any sense of the principal agent problem, or even just a basic willingness to look beyond groovy academic marxism and explore incentives-based rational choice hypotheses, Coronil might have seen the way taking control of the state itself transforms the incentive structures of new governing elites, and sets the stage for their eventual overthrow, renewing the petrostate political cycle over and over again.

Alas, his theoretical reference points are too narrow to allow for that sort of thing. He won’t go there. So even at 394 pages, the book feels weirdly underwritten, like it never quite gets around to developing the most suggestive themes it raises. The final package is as brilliant as it is infuriating: a fascinating, enthralling wreck of a book.

Am I glad I read it again? For sure. His retelling of the 1948 and 1952 coups alone are well worth the price of entry. Actually most of the narrative history really is brilliant: concise, well documented, to the point, and fun. That the theory doesn’t really mesh with it, and instead alternates between sheer genius and pure paja doesn’t detract from that one bit. I say read it…but be prepared to yell at it a lot.