03 August 2009

Are revolutions democratic?

Venezuela's shutdown of numerous radio stations, most if not all broadcasting opposition viewpoints, offers only redundant confirmation for most critics of their suspicions about Hugo Chavez's government. The technicalities cited as reasons for taking over the frequencies look like fig leaves that barely cover the president's naked desire to suppress dissent. Chavez doesn't help matters by editorializing about seizing the media from the "bourgeoisie." If they're being shut down because of violating regulations, what has class to do with it?

Despite being an elected president, Chavez has always seen himself as a revolutionary, and revolutions are always coercive in nature. There'd be no need for revolutions, after all, if everyone agreed on the necessity of reforms at any given moment. Revolutionaries must be determined to tell dissidents that their dissent is irrelevant. We like to think that a genuinely democratic revolution would accomplish this without violence or violating people's rights. In democracy, after all, majorities rule, within constitutional restraints, and dissent is irrelevant to the exercise of power if not to the perpetual public debate. But too often revolutionaries seem uninterested in perpetuating debate. Chavez has a democratic mandate but doesn't appear to trust it. He seems fearful that dissident or reactionary elements could turn a majority of the people against him, even if a majority supports him now. That bit about the "bourgeoisie" also betrays an attitude antithetical to the kind of debate Americans associate with democratic republicanism. The U.S. takes for granted a permanent conflict of interest groups, each of which is free to claim air time or print space (though not guaranteed either) to assert its point of view. Chavez may think that the public airwaves belong only to "The People," and not to any private interests. The problem with that viewpoint, especially when you're running a self-consciously revolutionary state, is the ease with which leaders can assume that the only entity that represents The People is the state itself. How can any person opposing the state prove that he, rather than the state, speaks for The People? Ideally elections should decide, but Venezuela's actions seem designed to reduce dissidents' ability to influence public opinion, and to leave the state with overwhelming advantages. Revolutionaries feel entitled to act that way because they believe, on some level, that they called The People into being and that they alone know who The People are and what their true interests are. Any attempt to say that people are not what the revolution says The People should be is, from the standpoint of revolution, counter-revolutionary.

Only The People, in theory, can refute this argument by rising in sufficient force to overthrow the revolution. Liberals hope that any revolutionary government will have a redeeming moment of insight in which they realize that they have lost the people's confidence. That would be the moment when "People Power" revolutions on the Philippine model can triumph. Revolutionaries, however, are always tempted to see resistance as the people betraying their own duty to become The People. They're tempted to take Bertolt Brecht's ironic advice to appoint a new People when the current ones have lost the confidence of the Party or the state. Then the extreme options range from Bolshevik-style terror and re-education to Hitler's alleged determination that all Germans deserved to die for failing to win the war. These options seem still a long way off for Venezuela. Chavez remains a popular leader, and his popularity might well survive further steps to suppress dissent. There are plenty of people on Earth who are happy to have strong governments because they consider the rich, not the state, to be their oppressors, and those people aren't likely to shed tears if some rich people lose rights that other countries take for granted. I don't know enough about Venezuela to assume that there are no ways other than through the dissident media for people to criticize government policies, or that the government offers no way to redress grievances within the revolutionary apparatus. But if the moral of the latest news is that Hugo Chavez just doesn't want to be criticized on the radio, then these closures are a step in a bad direction. They also show the limits of liberal appeals to the "rule of law." Venezuela wouldn't be the first country to come up with laws simply to inconvenience dissidents, or to come up with creative ways of enforcing existing laws to the same effect. Ultimately the nearest thing to a guarantee of freedom of dissent is still personal courage, and there's never any guarantee that there'll be enough courageous people to make a difference. That's why your own courage is always the most important factor in any free society. It might inspire courage in others, and with enough people inspired, history has shown us the results.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps what Chavez fears isn't the will or popularity of "the people" changing, but fear of his nation becoming just another puppet-state of some foreign interest such as the US. Without knowing the facts, I can still posit the possibility that the media he is shutting down is media that he believes to be controlled by foreign interests, which are not necessarily in the interest of Venezuela. American corporations have a long history of tampering with states in South America and they haven't always been above using the US government - especially the military arm, to get their way. It could very well be that Chavez has a reason and a right to squash media outlets, if they are being used to spread lies, propaganda and unrest before his socialist government really has a chance to prove itself to "the people".

Samuel Wilson said...

The problem with revolutionary paranoia is that leaders come to assume that anyone who disagrees is on the side of the Enemy, whether based at home or abroad. Chavez probably believes that his opponents are U.S. puppets whether they are or not. In any event, his government has already proven itself to the people, since he won re-election himself and his party controls the legislature. It looks to me like he's reached the point where he thinks, maybe because he's won in the past, that he shouldn't have to tolerate dissent.