The Looking Glass Revolution

Quico says: For such a familiar object, there’s something quite bizarre about a mirror, that strange device that seems to represent reality “as it really is” while quietly reversing it, making your right side your left side and your left side your right. The effect is at once familiar and, when you think about it, weirdly counterintuitive…not unlike the profoundly mystifying political contraption that now rules Venezuela by subtly, almost imperceptibly, turning left into right and right into left all the while leaving everything precisely as it was.

The Maisto Doctrine (“watch what he does, not what he says”) makes for a good starting point as we try to understand the deep conceptual reversal chavismo operates. It primes us for an awareness that, when it comes to chavismo, the discursive and the factual have a troubling propensity to diverge.

Back in 1999, nobody could have guessed the bizarre extremes this divergence would reach. Today, the “what he does” and the “what he says” are not merely “in tension with one another” but, rather, diametrical opposites, with the discursive rushing headlong to the left while the factual gallops triumphantly rightward.

In today’s Venezuela, that split is the story. The smooth cohabitation between a radical leftwing discourse and a basically regressive policy posture based on de facto trickle-down economics is the essence of what chavismo has become.

On a discursive level – but only on a discursive level – chavismo really does fall squarely into the tradition of leftist totalitarianism. There’s really no other word for it. The revolution’s discourse is proudly, self-consciously totalizing. Chávez proposes a highly simplified explanation for the whole of social experience, the whole of political life and the whole of Latin America’s history. At its core is a totalizing dualism, a clean split between pure Good (a conceptual nexus you could characterize as Chavez – emancipation – socialism – left- pueblo – solidarity – revolution) and pure Evil (Bush – empire – capitalism – right – oligarchy – greed – reaction.)

What rounds out chavismo’s discursive totalitarianism is that this uncompromising dualism is coupled to a Redemption Narrative, the mythic story line of the revolution, which systematizes and explains historical experience by subsuming all events under the totalizing categories of Good and Evil. The story is short enough and simple enough to summarize in just one sentence:

Bolivar had a dream that was cruelly betrayed by the mantuano elite and lay dormant in the hearts of the pueblo for a long time until it re-awakened on February 27th 1989 and was instantiated and tempered by the joint heroism of Chavez and the pueblo in a series of heroic trials: the coups of 1992 and 2002, the oil strike, and the ongoing imperialist-mantuano aggressions against the revolution.

Every episode in this history is expressed in terms of a struggle of good vs. evil. Every day-to-day development is similarly characterized. Whether it’s the Battle of Carabobo or the Milk Shortage, the toppling of Arbenz or a dengue outbreak in Carora, when bad things happen Evil is to blame and when good things happen, Good deserves the credit. Nothing escapes the totalizing perspective of chavista manicheism.

The state, with its growing communicative might, has been fully mobilized to support this World View. The most striking feature of Venezuelan television these days the simultaneous proliferation of official media outlets and their soul crushing repetitiveness. Chávez’s discursive totalitarianism is now hawked aggressively, around the clock, in a whole bunch of new radio stations and TV channels, from VIVE to TVES to ANTV to Telesur to a bunch of smaller, regional channels.

Yet the growth in the number of channels of distribution has resulted in no more variety of points of view on offer: the content in all the government media is essentially, drearily predictable.

The station logos and anchor people are different, the typeface on the screen graphics is different, but the content itself amounts to a virtual, neverending cadena: it’s the same stuff, the same endless variations on the very simple themes repeated ad nauseam. Watch this stuff for just a couple of hours and you can tell exactly the way each story, each agit-prop video, each 30-second spot is going to go from the second it comes on screen.

There’s a mind-deadening predictability to it. You can taste the producers’ fear of breaking the script. Little by little, the essential, tutelaged sameness overwhelms you until you either switch off or turn into a zombie. Nothing surprising ever happens on state TV, and won’t, no matter how many new channels they ad. Nothing even remotely like a real debate, a non-choreographed exchange of views or a contrarian perspective has the faintest chance of being heard.

So we really do have all the characteristics of leftist totalitarian communications here: the dualism, the unthinking sameness, the siege mentality, the systematic demonization of opponents, the none-too-subtle denunciation of dissidents as enemies of the state and, above all, the repetition, the dreary, obdurate repetition, the drip-drip-drip of the same messages packaged and repackaged again and again and again, at every chance and on every space available.

Venezuela is witnessing every element of a communicative practice that, in other times and other places, has typically gone hand in hand with the massive use of state violence to intimidate, marginalize and, ultimately, physically eliminate dissidents.

And yet…where are the concentration camps? The secret police torture rooms? The death marches? Where is the reality to back up all that talk? It just isn’t there…and, nine years into all of this, I really don’t think it’s coming.

When Stalin and Hitler and Pol Pot and the Interahamwe mobilized the state media to systematically demonize their opponents, the real world cost of those discursive practices was measured in millions of lives. When Chávez does it, the cost is measured in tons of bullshit, because in his hands the discursive somehow never quite bleeds through to the factual.

It’s when we come to understand the dynamics of the political economy of chavismo, the real channels through which money and influence flow through society in the Chávez era that we start to grasp the scale of the disconnect between the world of meanings state TV creates and the orgy of clientelist rent seeking the real revolution has slowly morphed into.

Again, it pays to think Maisto here. What would the revolution look like if we watched it “on mute,” as it were: tuning out the discourse entirely and focusing exclusively on the way money, power and influence flows through society. What would we see then?

Well, we’d see a tiny elite, well connected to the centers of state decision-making that control petrodollar flows, exploiting its access to grow enormously rich and live extravagant lifestyles.

We’d see a much broader middle class benefiting handsomely from petrostate largesse in the form of deeply subsidized travel, imports, internet transactions and energy.

We’d notice that the truly weighty macroeconomic policies, the ones that move sums large enough to alter the overall distribution of national income, channel resources resolutely up the economic scale.

And we’d see some mass based social programs that are unsustainable, lack systematic evaluation mechanisms and are funded mostly in the run-up to elections and designed to benefit only politically docile clients, such that their portion of oil rents becomes the price they’re paid for their votes.

What we’d see, in other words, is the political economy of puntofijismo. Petrostate clientelism, plain and simple.

Discourse and reality, moving in opposite directions along parallel plains. Never touching, never penetrating one another, never clashing with one another, never encumbering each other in their onward march. As estranged as though they belonged to radically different realities rather than to a single country.

What explains this impermeability? To my mind, it’s the totalitarian features of the state discourse itself that ensures that no aspect of “real” reality can ever bubble up through into the revolution’s discursive awareness. Having committed completely to a discourse that automatically dismisses any critical thought as “media terrorism” or “CIA psy ops” geared at planting destabilizing “opinion matrixes”, Chávez supporters effectively ban themselves from engaging critically with the mass of contradictions the revolution daily generates.

The revolution can’t “see” the connections between the issue of Notas Estructuradas and Victor Vargas’s lifestyle, it can’t join the dots from the operation of Cadivi to the transfer of wealth from the state to the wealthy, it never notices any of these and a thousand similar anomalies because such matters are systematically blacked out from the state media. And they’re systematically blacked out from the state media because the lament they carry, their implicit political message, is embarrassing to the government and therefore, a priori, deemed suspicious, likely part of some gringo plot to undermine the regime, of some ploy by absolute Evil to undermine absolute Good.

The cronies at the top of the bolibourgeois game understand this dynamic plenty clearly enough and daily manipulate it to their advantage, tarring any one who seeks to hold them up to public scrutiny as agents of evil, deploying the revolution’s deeply warped discursive standards to protect their particular positions in the rent seeking game.

Locked in this watertight discursive bubble, unable any longer to distinguish truth from fantasy, the revolution has destroyed its own ability to process reality reasonably and fatally undermined its own capacity to integrate “what it says” with “what it does”, to harmonize the two, or at least ensure a minimum of coherence between them.

As far as I know, there really is no precedent for what we’re seeing here. Some people compare it to the Mexican PRI’s brand of rhetorically incandescent clientelism but, as far as I know, no Mexican government ever even approached the extremes of discursive totalitarianism we’re seeing here. Because what we’re witnessing is no garden variety political hypocrisy, no run-of-the-mill opportunism. What we’re seeing is a kind of political schizophrenia, an incapacity to integrate what is said with what is done that strikes me as closer to a mental illness than to a political ideology.

The paradoxes that this divorce engenders are almost endless. The government we have is passionately hated by the people it benefits the most, and passionately upheld by many it treats as an afterthought. Its preponderant social policies, its costliest, most far reaching and radical redistributive policies (the gas and foreign exchange subsidies) are unarguably regressive, redistributing income from its supporters to its detractors, and are almost never discussed by the official media.

Like a looking glass, the revolution has made the right into the left and the left into the right, but the effect is so subtle and the outcome come to seem so “normal” we don’t quite spot it, can’t quite process it, can’t quite see just how bizarre it all is.

After all, what could be more normal than a mirror?