Authoritarianism Already Smothers Freedom: It is Not the Issue in Venezuela

Photo by Eneas De Troya | CC BY 2.0

Some say Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro is authoritarian.  Yet an unrecognized authoritarianism is more serious. The way the world divides up – that is, its economic and political structures – makes certain ideas unthinkable. It even makes it unthinkable that they are unthinkable.

This point is well-known, academically. It was known in Latin America, politically, centuries before North American academics made the topic trendy.[i] Latin American philosophers – Bolívar, Mariátequi, Martí – knew thinking freely about freedom requires, above all, resisting colonialism and imperialism.

These make sense if the people whose lives are destroyed don’t exist. Simón Bolívar knew this. He admired Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau his entire life. But these promoters of freedom didn’t know what it meant to be “even lower than servitude, lost, or worse absent from the universe”.

Some believe the opposition in Venezuela wants democracy. True, some facts are hidden, such as that Marco Rubio expects regime change there to restart his presidential bid in the US, financed by people like Jorge Mas Santos, author of a failed attempt to assassinate Fidel Castro in Panama in 2000.[ii]

But significant facts are well-known, such as that Venezuela has oil, lots of it, and Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution, which Maduro defends, uplifts the poor multitudes. [iii] To suppose the mostly wealthy opposition cares about democracy is, as many have argued, to ignore history.

It is easy to do so, and one reason is precisely the authoritarianism of public debate, the fact that certain ideas are taken for granted, without defense, and others are never discussed.

US political philosophers talk about ideology. They identify ideologies like white supremacy and ableism. They don’t mention liberal ideology about freedom telling us (roughly) we are free when we can do what we want. Its influence is pervasive, including support for ableism.

In Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Settembrini, the sunny liberal optimist, despises “the tie that binds [us] … to disease and death”. Yet Settembrini is dying. Praising science, while denying his own condition, he’s like “ancient Gauls who shot their arrows against Heaven”.

Part of Mann’s point to post-war Europe was that human beings are subject to laws of nature, like everything else in the universe. The liberal slogan, and it is a slogan, is that individuals have power to seize our destiny. Settembrini couldn’t seize his. More significant, he didn’t know it.

Smart, sensitive thinkers say the art of dying and the art of living are the same. The reason is simple: All life, including human life, involves decay. Every moment involves change, which is loss. We live better, with less fear, if we see things as they are. Illusions create false expectations, undermining freedom.

We don’t teach such thinkers. This is the “eurocentrism” decried by progressive academics rediscovering ideology. Yet those same progressives will turn out for a “younger, stronger, faster” seminar, or at least they did at my university. It was even hosted by a women’s centre.

An ideology about “powering through”, realizing “dreams”, is taken for granted. Ivan Illich, widely popular in the 70s as a radical social thinker, gave a talk in the 80s proclaiming “to hell with life”.  He argued that life has become a fetish, an idol. Death has been banished. Reality has been banished. [iv]

He wasn’t understood. There was no uptake. Yet the idea that a life, lived fully, includes death, day by day, has been around for ages – in early Christianity, early Buddhism. Human beings are part of nature, subject to the same laws, in mind and body. It’s how Marx saw it, and Martí. They were naturalists and realists.

But they’re not talked about – unimaginable, or at least their visions are unimaginable. Illich’s point was that such ignorance – of the nature of reality – limits freedom because it limits understanding.  It distorts understanding of how to know the world, and others, through connection.

It is why Martí warned Latin Americans not to be “slaves of Liberty!” It was a matter, he said, of “plain and practical scientific knowledge”. He meant that the error of liberalism, urging to us to find freedom “from the inside”, realizing desires, was “plain and practical”. It doesn’t work. It’s against nature.

Some know the truth and also understand it. Ana Belén Montes is one.[v] She’s in jail, not much talked about. She hurt no one. (Please sign petition here. https://www.change.org/p/1000-women-say-free-ana-belen-montes). Indeed, she saved lives – of people also not talked about, the ones Madeleine Albright says are “worth the price …  if it furthers U.S. foreign policy objectives.”

Ana Belén Montes said she did what she did because the Cuban Revolution must exist. The Venezuelan Revolution must also exist. To say the issue in Venezuela is authoritarianism is “shooting arrows at Heaven”, denying reality. Or at least, it is so if questions are not also raised about how options are closed off, made unimaginable, by a more savage authoritarianism.

It’s a dehumanizing ideology erroneously called freedom. Bolívar said the US exports misery in the name of freedom. Alternatives are almost unthinkable but not quite, by those who care. In any case, the existence of the unthinkable could at least be a question.

Plain and practical scientific knowledge, as Martí suggests, may in fact be at stake.


[i] Handbook on Epistemic Injustice (Routledge 2017)

[ii] “Las manos de Marco Rubio en Venezuela”, 24 July 2017, Cubadebate

[iii] E.g. David W. Pear “Venezuela Under Siege by U.S. Empire”, Counterpunch 21 July 2017

[iv] See David Cayley, “Life as Idol” (forthcoming); “Introduction” Rivers North of the Future (Anansi)

[v] E.g. http://www.prolibertad.org/ana-belen-montes

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Susan Babbitt is author of Humanism and Embodiment (Bloomsbury 2014).

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