Recently, when visiting the Spanish state, I had the chance to hear some rather summary evaluations of Hugo Chávez’s practice and trajectory. I should note that they were opinions of leftists, most often people with an admirable communist formation. A common position was: From Chávez one can learn that you cannot do the revolution half-way.Or again: Chávez’s career shows that the bourgeoisie must not be permitted to coexist so freely with the working class during the transition.
There are many ways one can respond to such criticisms, which to be sure are not without a significant validity. One of them is to remind people that it shows a real loss of perspective to highlight only a leader and movement’s errors and forget its important successes, such as those derived from Chávez’s taking power in the first place (at a time when that idea was somewhat discredited on the left), his re-nationalizing PDVSA (the Venezuelan petroleum company), and his raising the then unpopular flag of socialism. Still, leaving aside the significant lack of perspective that these criticisms represent, there remains a different kind of error, which has to do with the skeletal notion of politics and political discourse they embody.
Imagine a doctor who insisted that the human being is mortal and therefore no medications or care can really save him, or an automobile designer whose only idea was that a car is a thing for getting from one place to another. The former, without having committed a logical error, would have brought his profession too close to that of the funeral director, whereas the latter would apparently not distinguish between a scooter and a city bus. Yet in many ways this reductive, bottom-line approach is how people think about politics today – for example, as simply representing the populus – without much interest in the manner in which it is done, nor in questions of style, to say nothing of questions of right and wrong.
The late Luis Villafaña once observed that Chávez, whenever he went to a place (for example in the traveling episodes of Aló Presidente), would begin to talk about the region, recite poems having to do with it. Essentially, he was trying to put the region on the map: Chávez wanted it to be a somewhere, its people to be somebodies. According to thebrilliant analysis of Toby Valderrama, Chávez was a kind of catalyst who allowed the population of a country that lives off the petroleum rent (in such societies work is generally undervalued and not related in people’s minds to achievement) to see themselves as agents and therefore capable of doing something. In his discourse they became inheritors of Bolívar, Zamora, Maisanta, and countless others.
Chávez tried to inspire people; impressively, he actually succeeded in doing so. Was this merely an affective part of his discourse and hence unrelated to real politics? I once wrote that the kind of inspiration Chávez proffered should be thought of in relation to the word’s etymology: to inspire is, literally, to breathe… life. The truth is that without living people, people who have decided to be or become, it is surely impossible to do anything, let alone anything political.
The contrary of being inspired is, of course, to lose morale. In fact, it would be hard for someone not living in Venezuela to understand the widespread “pérdida de ánimo” that has taken place following Chávez’s death. It is possible that recent changes in Nicolás Maduro’s discourse – now more carefully prepared and self-critical – together with the call for popular mobilization to combat the economic war will do something to change this. Otherwise the Bolivarian movement will have to find other means to keep the inertia and routine of urban life – the degrading objective conditions that are reserved for the majority in a modern class society – from mining its militants conduct, which has to be the basis of the process of change.
The kind of “bare bones” view of politics that I am questioning recently showed itself in another context. This was the crisis induced in the European left by the “Winter phase” of the Arab Spring. A sharp divide opened up among leftist intellectuals concerning the interpretation of the events in Libya and later those in Syria. Some adopted an ultra-defensist perspective that in its most extreme versions ended up celebrating Muammar Gaddafi and Bashar al-Assad. Others, who later would be accused (sometimes with justice) of being “pro-NATO,” felt that more credit had to be given, at least in certain moments of their trajectory, to the rebel movements. In the Spanish language website rebelion.org, where some of the most heated disputes took place, John Brown hinted that the former group was so Manichean that it would have to disown José Martí for having opened Cuba to imperialism.
It would be quite difficult to fairly map the complex motivations and context of this whole debate. Nor is it my interest to try to do so here, but rather to illustrate something about the crisis and limitations of hegemonic political discourse. Though it seems a bit of a throw away, I am inclined to say that both sides are partly right, partly wrong. Let it be acknowledged that an intellectual who ends up coinciding with NATO obviously is on the wrong side. On the other hand, it remains a strict matter of fact – and this is the point I wish to make – that a political perspective which dissolves into a purely geostrategic view of things, as the defensist view sometimes did, is doomed to failure. Unless one takes into account the aspirations of people on the street, their sense of dignity, their lived reality and being, one cannot do any kind of politics, but especially not left-politics. This is because people on the street are the agents of left politics.
Put another way, the exclusively geostrategic view sees politics as a chessboard: a mere moving of pieces around as if all of us, at least in our minds, could be Metternichs or Bismarcks. Whatever support this view can offer to left politics, it cannot be the whole of left politics.
These days, thanks in a great measure to existentialism, one cannot read Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy without thinking that his question about being or not being is not simply a matter of living (biologically) or not but is rather about the decision to live deliberately and meaningfully. I say this because, in effect, “to be, or not to be” constitutes a basic (pre?)political question for everyone today; choosing the former is the only alternative to the dominant position which, as Peter Sloterdijk argues, is a diffuse cynicism. Hence, in our time, simultaneous with any serious political action, a collective has to decide to be or to become; often it must do so with reference to the concept of a nation or a people. (The Basque left, always interesting in this respect, has recently named its party Sortu (to be born), while its newspaper of some years is Gara (we are).)
In the “Afterword” to his Considerations on Western Marxism, Perry Anderson argues that Marx committed a series of errors because he underestimated the importance of the nationalisms that would dominate Europe in the second part of the 19th century (something Marx might have corrected had he lived longer). In our time, however, the left has frequently fallen into an even greater error: not understanding interiority, motivation, and identity. I take it that it was one of the great successes of Chávez that, with a discourse that cannot be reduced to any mere instrumentality, he sought to interpellate and elevate people – their being – in a fundamental sense.
Chris Gilbert is professor of Political Science at the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela.