En torno a la democracia social

En su Pequeña crónica de grandes días nos recuerda el gran Octavio Paz cómo el período de la posguerra ha sido uno de los más pacíficos y prósperos de la historia europea reciente. Algo similar arguye la historiadora Sheri Berman en la introducción de su fascinante [amazon ASIN=”0521521106″]The Primacy of Politics: Social Democracy and the Making of Europe’s Twentieth Century[/amazon], una historia cuidadosa del desarrollo de la democracia social en el siglo XX. Continue reading “En torno a la democracia social”

Venezuela’s Slum Lord

A few of months ago, The New Yorker published an article by journalist Jon Lee Anderson on Venezuela’s most famous slum: the Tower of David. Originally built as headquarters for one of the country’s largest banks, today the Tower seems to symbolize late Hugo Chávez’s Revolution biggest failure.

As a Venezuelan, I’m very familiar with the country’s long lasting housing problems. During the post-war years, Venezuela’s capital Caracas became a magnet for people looking for opportunities and a better life. For many decades, oil rich Venezuela invested heavily in all kind of housing projects around the country, particularly in Caracas, projects that somehow and for some time accommodated many of the newcomers. However, it never was enough to alleviate the ever increasing demand for dwelling of a growing population always ahead of the curve. To this we must add the populism and corruption that has always characterized Venezuelan politicians, particularly during and after the 1970s, who thought that by sponsoring squatting and invasions of public and private lands they would easily solve the problem. Consequently, slums and shanty towns began to pop up everywhere, creating huge belt of poverty and crime around many of Venezuela’s most populated cities — something I witnessed as a young man many times.

In 1998, when Hugo Chávez won his first election, one of his campaign promises was to find a definitive solution to a by then chronic housing problem. Of course, such a solution never materialized — despite a good number of well-intended attempts that were crippled from the very beginning by corruption and/or ineptitude. On the contrary, what the so-called socialist government of Chávez did was to dig deeper into the failing policies of his predecessors, including squatting and invasions. No surprise then that while the alleged main goal of the so-called Revolutionary government has always been to promote social ownership, the overwhelming majority of Venezuelans only want “something [they] can call [their] own” — as Zaida Gómez, the store-owner interviewed by Anderson, put it candidly. The crying of this unfulfilled wish is something I’ve heard many times since I can remember — people who basically want a roof they can call their own.

Reading Anderson’s piece — and another one published last year by the NY Times — isn’t easy. Ours is a country that was a model for the whole hemisphere for many years. An emerging democracy, believed to be a forerunner of freedom and social-justice in a region in which the majority of its neighbors were ruled by either dictatorships or corrupt oligarchies, both from the left and the right. Of course, my generation — born and raised under the democratic system — came to realize early on that ours was a very weak democracy to say the least, plagued by social and economic troubles but mostly crippled by a clueless and stultified political class. If Chávez represented anything in contemporary Venezuelan history, it was the legacy of a failed national project and the flawed generation who was responsible for carrying on with it. In this sense, the Tower is not only a symbol of a failing populist Revolution and his colorful leader but also one of a frustrated national project.

It hurts to admit that for many years now the whole country has been on this slippery road towards becoming a slum of national proportions. Last year, almost 20,000 people died victims of crime-related violence. Despite declining poverty rates, the real economic situation of the country is far from the image of apparent prosperity that some on the left have try to convey outside its borders. As much-cited Mark Weisbrot’s paper concludes, most of the reduction in poverty is measured only in cash income — not a surprise giving the fact that the government has invested most of recent years’ oil revenues into a variety of social programs targeted to the country’s poorer. However, regarding the social benefits in the short run of these policies, they seem impossible to sustain in the long run. Inflation, insecurity, food shortages, dependence on imports (about 70% of the goods consumed are imported), and a dilapidated infrastructure are among the many problems that Venezuelans face today. Recently, the government was forced to devalue its currency 32% — just one of the many signs of economic trouble that seems to darken the country’s future, tied as it has always been to the ups and downs of commodity prices — i.e., oil. I should add to this the current political uncertainty created by Chávez’s passing and the transitional process during the last few months. In all honesty, Venezuela’s future seems as grim and surreal as the Tower’s story may appear to an unsophisticated reader.

From a faux Saudi Republic — as people used to call the country in the 1970s — Bolivar’s motherland has become just another failing Revolution. This may seem an obvious epilogue to many of Chávez’s critics — a very disingenuous and simplistic conclusion though. Chávez’s term wasn’t an isolated event, a singularity in Venezuela’s convulsive history. To look at Chávez’s failure without considering the long history of failing policies that preceded him — and made his tenure possible — is not only naive but more importantly counterproductive. As it has happened many times in the past, such attitude will only guarantee the eternal return of some populist savior — or saviors — willing to trade good wishes for all the power he/she can accumulate. However, what’s more unreassuring about Venezuela’s current situation is neither its eternal housing crisis nor its failing economy but the degree of  division and polarization that poisons its political and social environments. The country is a deeply divided nation that seems not to find a common project good enough to unify it and to satisfy all political and social actors. In this sense, the country is getting closer to that Schmittian point of no-return in which one side — whichever has the strong end of the rope — will do whatever it can to annihilate the other side. In this sense also, the Tower becomes a terrifying metaphor.

On “Epistemic Closure” and Other Maladies of the Right

Libertarian blogger Julian Sánchez recently posted a very interesting comment on the “systematic trend toward “epistemic closure” in the modern conservative movement.” Leaving aside some conceptual imprecisions – Sánchez himself addresses them on another post – I should say that he does an excellent job discussing “the effects of technological change” on modern day conservatism.

Obviously, technology plays an important role on this issue. The democratizing effect of current media technologies, for instance, has the immediate result of allowing non-professional actors into a more disaggregated field. With non-professional I don’t mean less educated but less exposed to the disciplinary discourse that characterizes college-educated professional journalists – and here I look for parallelism with Foucault’s genetic criticism of the medical / psychiatric profession as systems of thought. Today’s journalists are less like Time‘s Henry Luce and more like Glenn Beck or Abby Hoffman – digital journalist Robert Niles actually equates both professions, community organizing and modern day’s journalism.

On this issue of the democratization of the media, I agree with Sánchez assessment that “there’s a lot of institutional and cultural capital built up in [traditional media] outlets, which at least produces a set of norms and practices that create pressure toward more fair and accurate reporting.” Although Foucault’s vision of disciplinary institutions was rather negative – his favorite metaphor was Bentham’s panopticon -, the fact is that they play an important role – as Sánchez recognizes – in producing those self-regulating norms and practices so necessary to create stable institutions, as traditional journalism – with all its presumed and real liberal bias – is today. Then, the problem with conservative media outlets like Fox News is that they are trying to create an alternative “allegedly” non-biased media institution but not by providing a new set of norms and practices that – as Sánchez rightly points out – try to “to get it right” but by undermining those same norms and practices so necessary for their own viability, as alternative or whatever kind of institutional media.

Curiously enough, the same ought to be said about conservative’s distrust of government. And I mean that unhealthy irrational distrust that characterizes modern day Tea Party-ers as opposed to the at times helpful anarchist strain that has always permeated American politics.

To conclude his post on “epistemic closure,” Sánchez puts forward a working hypothesis:

So here’s a hypothesis: Epistemic closure is (in part) an attempt to compensate for the collapse of geographic closure. A function no longer effectively served by geographic segregation—because the digital equivalents of your local hangout are open to invasion by the hordes from New York and London—is being passed to media segregation, bolstered by the sudden demand that what was once tacit and given be explicitly defended.

He supports this his hypothesis, in part, on a non-related event concerning a young lesbian high school student from Fulton, Mississippi, who was banned from taking her same-sex girlfriend to the school’s prom. The media covering of this was, as expected, intense. On one side, some liberals portrayed the small town people as “ignorant hillbillies” and/or “inbred rednecks.” On the other side, conservatives portrayed the whole issue as an example of the attack on the traditional values of this country. In any case, what Sánchez gets from all this is the fact that conservatives seem to feel under siege because of the deterritorializing effect of modern communication technology. Therefore, their “epistemic closure” seems to function as a sort of defense mechanism against the fact that geographic segregation is not a viable strategy for geographically-based moral relativism. In other words, it seems that conservative’s crisis is due in part to the fact that instances of bigotry cannot be justified anymore on the basis of geographic locality. (By the way, a similar case could be done on certain leftist postures in and outside America’s politics.)

If that is the case, the Tea Party movement could thus be inserted into a global trend against globalization and – particularly – against cultural hybridization and/or transculturization. This, of course, plays well within the epistemic function (purpose) of conservatism – that is, to preserve their current beliefs, the status quo.

In a larger scale, conservative media do what they do – undermining institutional (liberal) journalism – not because they want to “get it right” – as Sánchez rightly pointed out – but because they want to support their own essentialist worldviews. They want to seize the destructive side of the globalizing/democratizing drive of modern information technologies, and they believe they will be able to control it, to limit its radius of destruction, in order to protect their own definition of locality – culturally and geographically. Whether such a strategy based on “epistemic closure” will work or not, the most likely answer is: no, it won’t! If history has taught us anything (as explained by Fernand Braudel), it is that cultural isolationism has never been a wining strategy to anything that lasts.