06 March 2013

The specter of Hugo Chavez

Liberals were never going to be comfortable with someone like the late Hugo Chavez. They aren't really comfortable with revolutionaries in general, since revolutions are always acts of coercion to some extent. Social revolutions often offend liberals when they seem to take the form of ex post facto law. It seems unfair to some people when something that had been thought right, or at least legal, is abruptly declared wrong and illegal, especially when wealth gained by once-legal means are taken from formerly law-abiding people by revolutionary power. Whether the revolutionary appeals to a higher law to argue that past practices were always wrong or cites changing circumstances to claim that they're wrong now, it can't help striking some people as essentially arbitrary. It doesn't help when people presume that the revolutionary, of all people, has a special obsession with telling people what to do. Sure, the capitalist tells a bunch of people what to do, but he doesn't get to tell everybody what to do, and not even with his employees (so the idealists insist) does the capitalist get to enforce his will with lethal force. When a revolutionary is as in love with the sound of his own voice as Chavez obviously was, it only reinforces the impression that he has a lust to dictate, or at least a lust for attention unseemly in a constitutional politician. But the premises by which liberals disdain revolutionaries are not exempt from scrutiny. Their abhorrence of coercion may be deemed superficial, focused more on the obvious incidents of goons clubbing dissidents than the systemic coercions that subjugate multitudes of free-on-paper people worldwide. Their abhorrence of ex post facto law, at least with regard to property, may force them into an untenable defense of the status quo as the best of all possible worlds or, in Churchillian terms, the worst of all except for all the others. Liberals believe in reform, of course, but prefer that to be a matter of pure moral suasion and voluntary conversion. They can justify redistributing wealth by inferring wealth's consent to taxation enacted by duly elected, constitutionally constrained representatives, but they find it much harder to justify the revolutionary preference for confiscation or nationalization because the consent is obviously missing in some cases. The liberal ideal of government is always consensual and contractual, while the revolutionary often asserts more compelling imperatives and assumes obligations that override at least some of the consent requirements liberals demand. This may be because many revolutions assume the state to be the ultimate expression of the human will to survive both individually and collectively, an apparently hypocritical resort to mass murder in some cases notwithstanding, while some liberals, at least, share with their conservative cousins an assumption that the state was never meant for that. For many observers the state becomes dangerous when it assumes that responsibility, especially when it asserts both collective and individual obligations toward realizing its goals, the opposite ideal being the utopia of personal responsibility where everyone is autonomous and no one resorts to force or fraud. By now we're probably getting beyond Hugo Chavez's own agenda, but since liberals believe in the Slippery Slope above all, if you recognize Chavez in any of the above some people probably saw all of it and more, and demonized him accordingly.

In retrospect, Chavez had no business running for re-election last fall, depending on whether he realized his cancer was terminal or not. Looking further back, some will say Chavez had no business ever running for president given his past as a coup plotter, but it's probably to Venezuela's credit that its political system saw fit to integrate him into electoral politics rather than leave him a prowling outsider. You could still argue that people had no business voting for a man who'd been willing to topple his government through a coup -- and you could also refuse sympathy when President Chavez was in turn beset by an attempted coup. History can mix you up sometimes. It seems clear that for Chavez electoral politics was but one means toward his end of socialism or simply social justice, and not the exclusive means envisioned by classical liberals. In his elections he probably cheated as much as anyone running a political machine based on dispensing patronage to supporters, but in politics we should presume no party innocent, no matter what Venezuelan or American partisans, left or right, insist.  He probably pushed dissidents around in petty ways, but that practice is more widespread than it seems when you focus only on the explicitly political realm. Like other "strongmen" disdained in the U.S., Chavez probably didn't share the American liberal bias toward giving dissent the benefit of the doubt, but I don't know whether he differed significantly from his predecessors in power in that respect. His record as a leader rather than as a politician seems mixed, the mix depending on the biases of the observer. He seemed to benefit, or the country to suffer, from the "resource curse" that allowed him to win loyalty by distributing petroleum profits Alaska-style while neglecting other urgent economic needs. Whether the Venezuelan economy as a whole is better off or not after a generation of brain drain and capital flight, you can still make a case that his handling of the oil money was the right thing to do for the people and the nation. Chavez and his heir tend to scapegoat imperialism for any shortcomings or misfortunes, but while the U.S. share of the blame may be exaggerated by Bolivarian propaganda it's unlikely that Clinton, Bush and Obama are absolutely blameless. Any honest appraisal of the Chavez Administration is going to more complex than the instant homages or anathemas pronounced this week, especially if you don't take for granted that certain responses to his policies were inevitable, much less correct. Chavez himself was a big believer in the importance of Great Leadership in history -- hence his idolization of Simon Bolivar, Fidel Castro, etc. -- but an objective assessment of the Bolivarian experiment must look past his personality, perhaps to a degree that argues that Bolivarismo's true test has only just arrived. Now that we're past the usefulness of speculating about Hugo Chavez's compulsions and eccentricities, we can ask with clearer minds whether any leader should be allowed by his people to do as he did; whether any people should be allowed to choose a course like his for their nation; whether any state should be allowed to take the form he intended for Venezuela. You can't judge Chavez without judging the essence of politics itself.


Anonymous said...

" since revolutions are always acts of coercion to some extent."

All government is coercion. For most people, you aren't being coerced if it's something you're doing anyway (not murdering, for example).

" They can justify redistributing wealth by inferring wealth's consent to taxation..."
The problem with this mode of "redistribution" is that it DOESN'T get redistributed to the people who created it, but rather to their political representatives. That does NOT address the issue of low-wages and little or no benefits for the working class and excessive salaries, full benefits and "golden parachutes" for the management class.

I'm guessing you're main beef with Chavez is his record on "free speech", something you seem to put at the very top of the priority list of freedoms. We differ on that, in that I hold free speech in very low esteem, considering how that "freedom" gets used. I, however, respect Chavez as someone who stood up to the imperialist bullying of the US and their boss, big oil. Although he may have been a little on the paranoid side, he did NOT invade and occupy any foreign nations, which puts him way ahead of the United States in my book.

Samuel Wilson said...

Chavez's record on free speech consists of his controversial denial of license renewal to TV and radio stations that had supported the coup attempt against him, along with alleged intimidation of dissident journalists. The licensing thing is the state's prerogative and while I don't think the media should only parrot the ruling party line a case can obviously be made that certain franchise holders abused their privileges. Intimidation, meanwhile, happens everywhere, the forms only differing. The relevant fact is that under Chavez, Venezuela was never without dissident media, so Chavez's record isn't nearly as bad as some of the rulers he called his friends. Meanwhile, aren't you lucky that more people don't hold freedom of speech in as low esteem as you do?

Anonymous said...

Why should I consider myself lucky? I am exactly as free to say or write what I want, wherever I want. I may have to deal with fallout of one sort or another. I am free to murder on whim, should I choose. Of course, once caught I would be imprisoned or slain.

My point being that any person is as free to do or say whatever they want. But since freedom isn't free, they may have to pay for it.

Meanwhile, I believe there are far worse things out there than not being able to publicly announce your opinion. My problem with freedom of speech is that too many people take that as a license to lie and too many people are stupid or gullible enough to believe those lies and base their world view on it. I would much rather live in a society where you are free to say or write the truth and only the truth (fictional works of literature aside).

Samuel Wilson said...

Fair enough, and I assume you mean the government in that requirement as well. I also accept your point about inherent risk, but we also have a right to expect that government won't simply treat dissent as something to be crushed or bullied out of existence. No absolute guarantee can ever exist, no matter how we fetishize the First Amendment, but it's our prerogative to assert that expectation and our duty to call the government out when we catch it in a lie.

Anonymous said...

It comes to me that our difference of opinion is this: You see freedom of speech from the perspective of dissent. The right to disagree with and point out the foibles of government.

I see freedom of speech as Goerring's propaganda machine and the damage it caused - to the human race and to the planet.

You see it from an individual perspective; you're right to think, say, write what you want. I see it from the perspective that too many humans are too easily swayed by words. If those words are used to create a more peaceful, open free societ - a "utopia" if you will - then that's fine. But history and current reality tells me that more often than not, freedom of speech is used to start wars, declare fatwahs and to part fools from their money.

Anonymous said...

To answer you, YES, of course government, above all else, ought to be held to the strictest codes of honesty and openess. Once government is proved to lie, it is no longer trusted. What kind of sane human wants to live in a country where government lies?

Insofar as dissent goes, I take it on a case by case. No slippery slope. Is dissent simply being used by a minority of malcontents to lie and undermine the relationship between people and their government?

Democracy is usually seen as the only real guarantor of free speech. I keep insisting that democracy can only work when the populace is intelligent enough to understand how the system works, educated enough to know how the issues effect them and vigilant enough be familiar with who their representatives are and what they are actually doing while in office.

We don't have that. The result is the dysfunctional, partisan bedlam we call government.

Samuel Wilson said...

You're probably right in your suspicion that liberalism's tendency to give dissent the benefit of the doubt leaves it soft on lying, but there has to be some way to split the difference and hold liars in political discourse to account without the state claiming the prerogative to decide what a lie is. Civil and other kinds of libertarians will take your Goering example as proof of what the state can do with complete control of information and discussion, but there's no reason to assume that the state alone is capable of such distortion unless you assume that monopoly over the media is a prerequisite for Goering/Goebbels style propaganda to work. You're also right to point out the blind spot when people assume that threats to civil society come only from above, i.e. the state.