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Twilight of the Idols: Venezuela’s National Assembly Goes Belly Up

Confusing the pilasters of your own cheap plaster building with the pillars of society and the impotent caviling of your colleagues with a weighty deliberative process harking back to the Socratic agora…. Marx had a name for this. He called it “parliamentary cretinism.”

The surest proof of this form of political shortsightedness is that when the parliament falls, the deluded parliamentarian thinks that the world is coming to an end.

That is certainly the case in Venezuela today, where parliamentary spokespeople such as Julio Borges were raising all kinds of alarm cries on Thursday. Borges claimed, for example, that with the recent decision to effectively dissolve the National Assembly, president Nicolas Maduro had “kidnapped the freedom and rights of Venezuelans” establishing a dictatorship.

But like Chicken Little buffeted by an acorn, Borges has mistaken appearances for reality.  In fact, the National Assembly could be dissolved, not because of Maduro’s “excessive” power, but because of the deliberative body’s own isolation from real Venezuelan society and its real economy.

Tellingly, the Assembly’s implosion happened not with a bang but with a whimper.

The official Chavist discourse calls this deliberative body’s process of wasting away an “auto-disolución” (self-dissolution), and it is not far from the truth. The term neatly anticipates and compliments OAS chief Luis Almagro’s coinage of “autogolpe” (self-coup) to refer to the most recent maneuver of a supposedly power-hungry Maduro.

However obvious both coinages may be, they point to the increasing autonomization of Venezuelan politics: the separation of its visible expressions from the real interests of the average citizen.

Yet the process is not symmetrical, and the opposition is far more separated from the masses than is Chavism. It is true that the Supreme Court’s pretext for dissolving the National Assembly – the incorporation of a couple of members from districts where the elections were fraudulent – is rather thin, given the government’s prolonged foot-dragging in dealing with the case. Yet the ability to act on this pretext indicates that, while it is apparently indifferent to many of the problems of the masses, the ever more procapitalist Maduro government maintains a symbolic reserve (more felt than reasoned) in a large sector of the population.

Revolutions cast long shadows, and a population once put in the center stage of history does not easily retreat into the wings of the world theatre. Chavism may seem to survive today only as a color, an image, and a memory, but those are three things that the Venezuelan opposition lacks, since it has yet to invent anything that amounts to more than painting the grayness of the past onto the obscurity of the present.

The afterimage left by Hugo Chávez is far brighter and more real than the ghostly actors of Venezuelan politics today.

In this chiaroscuro present, the pushing and shoving that has characterized the most recent struggles is not what it seems to be. The correctness of the term “power play,” often used to describe it, is belied by the increasing weakness and emptiness of the victorious and the defeated parties alike. Perhaps these moves should instead be called “weakness plays,” for they resemble the wrestling of spectral bodies on a ghost ship.

If the most recent episode presents an anemic parliament collapsing at the touch of a skeletal supreme court, the final battle of the Venezuelan Gotterdammerung will no doubt be fought not with clubs but with straws.

Meanwhile, the Venezuelan masses have shown that they are impressively resilient. Despite enduring privations of all kinds, they maintain the government through a Luther-like faith that has little to do with acts or deeds. They cut the government light-years of slack not so much by actively endorsing it, but by passively accepting it.

These masses are the true subjects of an epoch-making political process that, through a predictable mechanism of inversion, has made them appear to be only its predicate. Their moment will come when, reversing this order of things (as they did in the times of Chavez), they once again fill the more or less empty forms of contemporary politics with sovereign content and purpose.

More articles by:

Chris Gilbert is professor of political science in the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela.

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