[News] Estoy con Chávez, Soy un Chávista

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Wed Mar 20 11:22:34 EDT 2013

  Estoy con Chávez, Soy un Chávista: Exploring the political appeal and
  significance of Hugo Chávez

By Samuel Grove - Ceasefire, March 20th 2013

/The death of Hugo Chavez has produced a heavily polarised debate over 
his legacy. In a new essay for Ceasefire, Samuel Grove takes issue with 
the eagerness of the Western left to cloak Chávez in a liberal garb, and 
argues this is symptomatic of a deeper conservative ambivalence towards 
what Chávez represented: a unapologetic fighter and leader for the 
Venezuelan working-class./


There has been a wide range of commentary in the wake of the death of 
Hugo Chávez. Large swathes of it has been the predictable right wing 
bluster about him being a 'dictator' etc. This is obviously absurd and 
not worth engaging with. For me, it is far more interesting to examine 
what accounts for much of the Western left-wing critique of this 
right-wing bluster; critique that I, as much as anyone is responsible 
<http://www.redpepper.org.uk/carroll-in-wonderland-how-the/> for 
producing <http://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/4195>.

I want to address this critique not because it is wrong, but because it 
is limited. The limitations are, I believe, significant enough that it 
runs the danger of misunderstanding, or failing to recognise, a large 
part of what Chávez represents to so many ordinary Venezuelans. Using a 
combination of the philosophy of Alain Badiou 
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alain_badiou> and a documentary 
<http://alborada.net/documentary-venezuela-chavez> on Venezuela's 
Bolivarian process by my friend Pablo Navarrete, I want to explain what 
these limitations are and propose a better way of interpreting Chavez's 
appeal and significance.

*The limitations of critique*

We cannot ignore the right wing bluster, and the limitations I am 
referring to, in many ways, stem from the Western left's preoccupation 
with it. What does the right accuse Chávez supporters of? Many things of 
course, but a lot of it can be condensed in this loaded question by the 
/Guardian/ journalist (and the paper's former Latin America 
correspondent) Rory Carroll <http://www.rorycarroll.co.uk/>·:

/How did [Chavez] seduce not just a nation but a significant part of 
world opinion? How did he make people laugh, weep, and applaud as if on 
command? And how did he stay popular while Venezuela crumbled?/

The question is loaded because the answer is implicit. Chávistas (as 
supporters of Chávez are often called), Carroll implies, have allowed 
themselves to be deceived by an 'illusionist 
who made them believe that things were improving when they were actually 
getting worse. The left critique has, quite understandably, focused upon 
exploding this myth by pointing out that Venezuela is anything but 
crumbling and that, in fact, Chávez's supporters are making very 
rational decisions based on their material self-interest.

There is a great deal of truth to this argument. Growth in Venezuela has 
averaged 4.3% over the last ten years 
and the poor and marginalised are in a better position than most to 
appreciate this having 'experienced a dramatic improvement in their 
material conditions 
<http://www.cepr.net/documents/publications/venezuela-2009-02.pdf>'. But 
the trouble with this argument is that it accepts the malign premise of 
Carroll's question; that politics and political consciousness are 
reducible to an objective appraisal of a government's performance. This 
is an entirely bourgeois conception of politics which we must discard in 
order to understand what Chávez and Chávismo really represent.

*Estoy con Chávez*

Alain Badiou insists that a genuine politics must proceed at a distance 
from that 'state' and the 'economy'. By 'state' Badiou means not just 
the institution, but the governmental 'democratic' logic by which it 
functions. By 'economy', he means not just the realm of economic 
activity but the laws of capital and associated standards of measurement 
(growth, flexibility, sustainability etc). This is often portrayed as a 
departure from Marxism, but it shouldn't be.

Karl Marx's great discovery was not that politics stems from the 'state' 
and 'economics', but that the 'state' and 'economics' are a result of 
the balance of forces in an ongoing class war. If the state system and 
market economy is really congealed class power, then a genuine political 
sequence does not seek recourse in its abstract logic and measurement 
standards. Rather, the starting point is the conflict itself and the 
challenge is to shift this political and economic 'logic' in a new 

Let us begin with the 'state'. Much is made of Chávez's attempted /coup 
d'état/ in 1992. It is used by the right to present him as an aggressor 
against 'democracy'. The Western left commentariat tend to respond to 
this with evasion. 'Yes he did attempt a coup but then he learned to 
seek power legitimately through democratic procedures'. This response 
fails for two reasons: It ignores what Chávez said in the wake of the 
failed coup, and it ignores the popular response to it.

In the speech Chávez uttered the words 'por ahora 
<http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PJQHmzW9Jlg>' ('for now'). A translation 
in English would be something like 'We have not achieved our 
objectives... for now'. Self-evidently, the objectives meant taking 
power, and the phrase 'for now' meant he was not done yet. I am not 
aware of any moment since when he has recanted these words or expressed 
regret for his actions.

Many Venezuelans interpreted the coup attempt and the speech exactly for 
what it was. Not a declaration of war, but a recognition that a war was 
already going on and he, Chávez, was committed to fighting back 
<http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WXN5mWJbEQY&t=11m57s>. It is not 
difficult to understand why Venezuelans would have resisted the elite 
interpretation of Chávez as the aggressor. Chávez had attempted to 
overthrow a government that, just three years before, had responded to a 
popular rebellion by deploying the army and shooting dead thousands of 
people <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uDZNNPvBsRM>.

The war did not come to an end when Chávez assumed the presidency in 
February 1999. The right use this fact to, once again, paint Chávez as 
the aggressor---the elected dictator that fires judges, closes down 
media stations, and arrests those politicians who oppose him. The reflex 
of the left is either to point out the hypocrisy of the right in 
concentrating on Venezuela; or to argue that Chávez's actions were, in 
fact, 'democratically' legitimate in the first place. Once again both 
responses are inadequate. The first because it preserves the myth that 
the judges, media stations, and politicians as neutral arbiters of the 
democratic 'state'; the second because it presents Chávez and his 
government as the upholders of an abstract 'democratic logic'.

The reality is that it is precisely the 'democratic logic' that is being 
contested in this sequence. This isn't easy to see if your encounter 
with the Bolivarian process is through a discursive framework that takes 
the state's 'democratic logic' as a point of departure. It is easier to 
see if you are a Venezuelan caught up in the ongoing class war; if your 
encounter with the logic of the state is not primarily discursive, but 
non-discursive practices of force that make no pretence at being fair or 
just (the police, the army, the prison system etc). One understands that 
the same logic that cries foul when a rich judge is not granted his full 
legal rights is basically silent when thousands of poor peasants are 
being murdered by private militias hired by rich landlords 

We can observe the same problems in the realm of economics. While the 
right points out the corruption, inefficiencies and inflation that have 
dogged the Chávez presidency, the left points out the spectacular 
economic growth and the improvements in health and education outcomes. 
To augment their argument, the left cite positive reports from the World 
Bank, IMF and UNICEF. Partly this has to do with using sources the right 
respects. But it's not just that. If your encounter with poverty is 
through economic reports and articles invariably you will articulate 
poverty in the same discourse. In the process you wind up appealing to 
'objective' criteria of economic success and failure that are nothing of 
the sort.

Venezuelans living the experience of poverty are less likely to pinpoint 
historic macro-economic policy 'failures' so much as a series of 
'successful' victories by a government of rich against the poor. The 
reductions in poverty and improvement in health and social outcomes that 
followed the election of Chávez are interpreted in similarly partisan 
terms. These are the words 
<http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WXN5mWJbEQY&t=4m51s> of Maria Machado, a 
community organiser in La Vega, a poor district in Caracas:

/Chávez// is the best, because over these ten years we've seen how he 
has recognised the struggles of the poor and he has given us what we've 
always lacked; education housing. In this process we shouldn't be afraid 
because we have a humane President who believes in the poor and in 
bringing peoples together./

The point is in both cases the principal question is not whether the 
Chávez government is conforming to an objective standard of 'good 
governance'. The question is whose side is the Chávez government on. The 
irony is that it is those not educated in sophisticated political, legal 
and economic discourses who are asking the right question.

*Soy un Chávista*

Of course, Chávez supporters are not oblivious to the problems of a 
movement overly dependent on a single figure 
<http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WXN5mWJbEQY&t=34m45s>. When asked what 
had really changed since Chávez came to power, Joel Linares, a community 
activist in El Winche, responded accordingly 

/The greatest achievements of this government can be summarised in two 
words. Number one, 'inclusion' and number two, 'consciousness'. If this 
process can't transcend the figure of Hugo Chávez //then we would have 
achieved nothing. We're working to enable people to complete the 
development of their consciousness so that they'll be capable of 
carrying on the revolutionary process //even if Hugo Chávez isn't here./

These are the kind of remarks the Western left uses to combat the charge 
from the right that Chávez supporters are simply dupes. The danger of 
reducing Joel's words to a platitude about the importance of 
'independent' thought is that once again we fail to appreciate Chávez's 
real significance. Read more closely Joel's words. He is talking about 
/completing/ the development of consciousness without Chávez. In other 
words it is as much a recognition of the role Chávez has played in 
awakening people's political consciousness in the first place.

Alain Badiou addresses 
<http://www.lacan.com/symptom9_articles/badiou19.html> Joel's point 
about leadership in more detail in his reflection on 'mastery'. 
'Masters', he insists, are essential in order to navigate our way out of 
our ideological malaise (from which we /all/ begin). They present us 
with radically new ways of seeing the world, force us to reframe the 
boundaries of what is possible to think and inspire us to reconsider our 
own limitations. To undergo such a process of 'mastery' requires a 
temporary dependence upon them. Badiou is referring to a process in 
which, we temporarily forgo our critical voice. If we disagree with them 
we assume that we are wrong and they are right. Mastery is then the 
process of finding out why. It is a kind of intuition of discovery 
designed to change ourselves and the way we think.

Chávez was a leader and educator. Even before he came to power he had 
made a name for himself as a popular teacher in the army academy. Once 
he came to power he harnessed these skills further. During the making of 
another documentary, /The War on Democracy/ 
<http://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/2363>, John Pilger accompanied 
Chávez on his political travels:

/He [would] arrive at a school or a water project where local people are 
gathered and under his arm will be half a dozen books -- Orwell, 
Chomsky, Dickens, Victor Hugo. He'll proceed to quote from them and 
relate them to the condition of his audience. What he's clearly doing is 
building ordinary people's confidence in themselves./

For the right this is less a testament to Chávez's pedagogy so much as 
of his demagoguery. Similarly his prominence on Venezuelan state media 
is cited as evidence of him as an elected dictator 
<http://www.pbs.org/ombudsman/2008/12/heeeres_hugo_1.html>. I think this 
is an argument that makes the Western left uncomfortable. Our usual 
response is to point out that private media still dominate the 
Venezuelan airwaves and that much of the state funding for media has 
gone into community media outlets. But the significance of Chávez's 
media skills, particularly on his television show /Alo Presidente/, is 
not something we should shy away from. In his biography of Chávez, 
Richard Gott doesn't:

/Chávez// is a master communicator, and he speaks every Sunday morning 
on his own radio programme (later transferred to television) called 'Alo 
Presidente. The entire country is familiar with his pedagogic 
formulations. He talks like a teacher and listens like a teacher, 
picking up an implicit question and throwing it back at the questioner. 
On the radio, he is at his didactic best, illustrating, explaining, and 
arguing, with all the sophistry at his command. This is a world with 
which he has always been familiar, and it is no accident that one of his 
great nineteenth century heroes is Simón Rodríguez, sometimes called 
Samuel Robinson, who worked as the organiser of a radical programme of 
education---in Venezuela, Bolivia, Chile and Ecuador---for the poor, the 
Indians, and the blacks./

Badiou insists, similarly to Joel, that devotion to one's master is not 
enough; 'masters' must ultimately be 'surmounted'. But this is not the 
same thing as denying them, as we in the West are often wont to do. In 
fact, to deny our 'masters is disastrous' precisely because it precludes 
our independence from them; condemning us to endless repetitions of what 
they have already said, all the while thinking it is /we/ who are speaking.

It is only by recognising our debt to our masters that we place 
ourselves in a position to move beyond them. We should be cautious, 
therefore, of too easily equating approbation and admiration for figures 
like Chávez with political immaturity. Our hostility to it might well 
belie our own arrested political development.


Members of the Western left commentariat are fond of demonstrating their 
own critical independence by mixing a defence of Chávez and the 
Bolivarian process with specific criticisms of it. The Trotskyist left 
decries the process for falling short of a true revolution that can 
overthrow capitalism. This is true if a bit a pompous; considering the 
abject failure of revolutionaries in this country to even mount a 
challenge to neoliberalism. Others have criticised Chávez's largely 
rhetorical support for repressive regimes in Iran and Syria. This is 
also fair, but if his support for third world regimes under threat from 
US attack were ill judged they should be understood in the context of 
his principled opposition to imperialism and war 

I make a brief nod to these criticisms because I probably wouldn't have 
written this essay if I thought the limitations of Western left 
commentary on Venezuela were simply a result of the constraints of 
critique. I suspect, in fact, that the limitations run deeper and are 
symptomatic of the class privilege that the Western left commentariat enjoy.

Commentators on the right and left, whose contact with the world is 
largely through computer screens, do tend to see politics primarily as a 
battle of ideas. The kinds of qualities that come to the fore in actual 
conflicts and struggles---personal qualities that Chávez embodied and 
his supporters so admired such as courage, loyalty, honesty and 
leadership---tend to be easily dismissed by this commentariat as either 
politically naive or irrelevant.

Similarly I don't think it is any coincidence that the heroes of this 
same commentariat, tend to be figures whose engagement with the world is 
in the realm of ideas and who observe it largely from the sidelines; 
figures like Chomsky <http://chomsky.info/onchomsky/20130315.htm> and 
Foucault (two of my heroes) who were renowned for their independence of 
thought, detachment and dissidence. Working-class heroes who stand out 
more for the way they sought to change the world than the way they 
interpreted it, remain the target of suspicion. Chávez and Chávismo, are 
things we in the West, even on the left, remain inherently ambivalent about.

/[*Unfortunately, despite writing for a nominally left-of-centre paper, 
the Guardian, Carroll is very much a disseminator of right-wing bluster.]/

/*Samuel Grove* is a PhD candidate at the University of Nottingham, a 
co-editor of the New Left Project, and a union activist./

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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