Plato and the paranoia of power

Quico says: In a previous post, I started citing great big chunks of Plato’s republic. Strange as it seems, it isn’t just some gratuitous outburst of pretentiousness (though, of course, there’s a bit of that). What grabbed me was the way Plato treats the concept of tyrannicide.

Plato doesn’t beat around the bush. Writing at a time when power politics was out in the open and there was less need to blush about such things, he came straight out and said it: as the tyrant consolidates his power, his enemies plot to assassinate him.

The fear of slavery will push them to it, and the tyrant will realize this. He will start to think more and more about his own safety and less and less about his people’s, surrounding himself with thicker and thicker layers of security and plundering his country to finance it.

I don’t know if anyone is actively plotting to kill Chávez. It’s easy to dismiss the whole thing as an unseemly crying wolf shtick, just a desperate ploy for attention that’s now running into a serious problem of diminishing returns. Certainly, the melodramatic, media-centered hissy fit we’ve seen this and the Umpteen previous times an imminent magnicide has been announced should give us room for pause. At least this time around, some people have actually been detained.

And yet I get the sense Chávez is honestly convinced that somebody is trying to kill him, that his dread is real. Whether the people around him are ginning up his fears for their particular ends or whether Chávez’s jitters need no ginning up isn’t clear to me, but neither is it especially relevant. The regime’s paranoia is right there on the surface, and even approaching this subject can cause any blogger a serious case of the heebie-jeebies.

The government’s jitters are plain, and they illuminate a deep well of fear and loathing, a heavily burdened conscience, an awareness that he’s pushing society to an extreme where an attempt on his life would in no way be surprising. Chávez knows he’s turning into a tyrant, and he knows what happens to tyrants.

Tyrants are terrified of assassination, and for that reason they surround themselves in byzantine layers of security.

Think of Ghadaffi, too scared to even sleep in a concrete building, carrying crowds of super hot, heavily-armed young girls to guard him wherever he goes, out of pure fear. Think of Saddam Hussein, of PolPot, of Idi Amin, of Castro, of García Márquez’s automnal patriarch – each of them all-powerful within his domain but at the same time permanently terrified, withdrawn, convinced that death could come at any time.

This is the unique fate of tyrants.

Of course, democrats also get assassinated now and then, but the fear of a violent death rarely dominates a democrat’s entire experience of power like it does for tyrants. History shows that, for the most part, democrats get assassinated by madmen. The sane have little reason to kill them. Democratic governments come and go: if you oppose one, you can challenge it, and if your challenge fails, you can just wait it out.

But a tyrant’s fear of assassination is different in that it’s structural. Tyrants are typically assassinated not by the deranged, but by people who’ve done their sums, who’ve added up the pros on one side of the ledger, the cons on the other and calculated they’re better off acting than not acting. What Plato saw so clearly is that tyranny makes assassination rational.

Chávez may never have read Plato’s Republic, but he understands this in his bones. From his point of view, the fear of assassination makes eminent sense.

Chávez is determined to shut down the legal means of challenging him. He understands that the strategy he’s pursuing whittles down his opponents’ options, cornering them little by little, until the only choices they have left are slavery, exile or tyrannicide. And while most will choose the first two, it’s hard to believe that nobody at all will be tempted by the third.

And while Chávez is not yet a full-throttle tyrant, he is headed that way. As he keeps shutting doors and eliminating options for the opposition, he knows the probability of engendering his own demise increases. The paradox is that the more unassailable his power becomes, the more justified his fear seem to become.

Not, of course, that it takes the mind of a Plato to put two and two together. During his long lunch with Antonini last November (which, recall, took place just two days before the Constitutional Reform Referendum), that great Venezuelan philosopher Moises Maiónica reconstituted Plato’s train of thought with some precision.

“We’re with the government,” he tells Antonini, “and we’re doing great.” But if we want this government to stay in power and remain stable, the best we can hope for is for the “No” side to win:

Maiónica: Es más, yo no se cómo Chavez no se la piensa. Si yo tuviera aspiraciones políticas, sí? Dentro del gobierno de Chávez, si yo fuera un Diosdado Cabello, lo mejor que me puede pasar es que gane el “Sí”. Y la unica manera de que salga Chavez es matándolo. Yo no se como el no identifica ese peo. O sea, le está poniendo una firma al contrato de sicariato. Maiónica: In fact, I don’t see how Chávez fails to put it together. If I had political aspirations, within the government, if I was a Diosdado Cabello, the best thing that could happen to me is for the “Sí” to win. Then the only way to get rid of Chávez is to kill him. I don’t see how Chávez has failed to notice that. I mean, he’s putting his signature on his own hitman’s contract.

The math is not hard here. Even an intensely mediocre mind like Maiónica’s has no trouble at all grasping it…and grasping that the danger, for a tyrannical Chávez, comes as much from his putative friends as from his declared enemies.

Which is why we have good reason to worry every time Chávez resurrects the magnicide-paranoia shtick. Because what he says is “they’re trying to kill me”, but what he means is “if I was in their shoes and I knew what I know, I’d be trying to kill me too.”