Post-Truth Populism in Venezuela
Venezuela’s Chavist regime seems to be a good example of an illiberal democracy. But is it?
As democracies deconsolidate, the prospect of democratic breakdown becomes increasingly likely.Illiberal democracy is democracy minus constitutional liberalism. According to Fareed Zakaria, without liberalism’s checks and balances democracy lends itself to the kind of “people-making” based on ethnic, class, racial or religious majorities, a feature that is intrinsic to the authoritarian populisms or “illiberal democracies” proliferating everywhere. Characterised by plebiscitary rule and an expansion of the executive that renders all state branches into adjuncts of the ruler, Venezuela’s Chavist regime seems to be a good example of an illiberal democracy. I would, nonetheless, raise the following questions: Does Chavism have any unique features? And, if so, which and why? Following the standard argument on “illiberal democracy” the answer would be negative as Chavism would simply offer yet another cautionary tale about democracy without liberalism. Recent developments in Venezuela, however, would suggest otherwise. In my view Chavism’s significance and dynamism have less to do with democracy, understood as majority rule, than with factors that such an understanding occludes. Despite having lost its electoral edge Chavism has recently become even more authoritarian and repressive but without drawing (other than fraudulently) on a majority that it no longer possesses.
The fragmentation of the political body
The collapse of representative democracy and of the nation’s representative institutions instigated by a neoliberal structural adjustment programme in the 1980s explains Venezuelan Chavism better than the mere question of democracy. Though it initially came to power following a democratic implosion, the trajectory of Chavism since is only intelligible as part of the breakdown of political representation that is an endemic, even postliberal, condition currently affecting not just Venezuela but the world.
This breakdown has two critical effects: firstly, it reveals a crowd sociality hitherto enclosed within social and political institutions and, with it, the emergence of bodily affect as a crucial political and social crucible. Secondly, in such a situation, there is a growing inability of any representative instance to occupy the place of the universal, and, from there, represent the whole of society to the state. Under these conditions infectious affective contagion spreads. This amounts to a preeminence of the horizontal over the vertical as the axis along which forms of personal and social experience and relations are formed, unformed and transformed.
Confronted with such a slippery terrain brought about by globalisation and traversed by myriad images and desires circulated by the media, the Venezuelan state is unable to totalise society, or represent it as a whole society accountable to itself.
POPULISM AS WAR MACHINE
Like sovereignty or democracy, populism too mutates amidst such an unstoppable “retreat of the political” as the instance capable of totalising “society”. Traversed by myriad images and desires circulated by the media, the Venezuelan state is unable to totalise society, or represent it as a whole society accountable to itself. Populism has been characterised as the “royal road” to the political, the means whereby through appeals to a homogeneous “people” a political order torn by intractable antagonisms is made whole again (Ernesto Laclau). When the very possibility of setting up a totality is fraught, populist interpellations acquire new ideological functions. If in classical populism appeals to the “people” functioned as the political means to vertically restore a fantasised lost unity, sustaining such fantasy is increasingly untenable both ideologically and institutionally now that the political is horizontally beset by an increasingly divided, differentiating society.
Under these no longer totalising circumstances, appeals to the “people” function according to an unabashedly “tribal” logic aimed at erecting a war machine centred on affect and the body. It operates on an ever more fragmented social terrain, which it does not seek to totalise but to control and dominate.Appeals to the “people” function according to an unabashedly “tribal” logic aimed at erecting a war machine centred on affect and the body. The endless strife and ungovernability of this fragmented terrain keeps the populist machine expanding at the cost, however, of rendering sociality ever more unpredictable and chaotic. In what in the current climate of post-truth politics amounts to a Humpty Dumpty effect in the sense that a word “means just what I choose it to mean”, the word “people” can simply refer to “my people”, however the ruler chooses to define them. “My people” are then those always ready to bodily crush the enemy rather than any numerical majority that supports a government or a policy.
dominance without hegemony
The result is “dominance without hegemony” (Ranajit Guha). Having lost its majority, Chavism still insists on maintaining power. To achieve this, the massively corrupt regime has developed a whole new arsenal of control mechanisms ranging from the wholesale distribution of weapons to civilians, the so-called colectivos, to placing the army, which is now subjected to minute forms of intelligence monitored by Cuban agents, in control of the nation’s food distribution and vast mineral wealth.
Meanwhile invocations of “democracy” and “the people” continue but mean what the regime wants them to mean, irrespective of any numerical majorities. The recent top-down decision to set up a “Constituent Assembly” capable of bypassing the opposition-controlled parliament is the latest in the regime’s Humpty Dumpty politics. Yet this is not a case of an “illiberal democracy” if by that one means a well-consolidated, semitotalitarian regime. A more likely scenario, I fear, is: an intensification of the prevailing civic strife, corruption, violence, narcotrafficking and chaos. While the opposition controls ever more ineffective sites of democratic expression, the regime “democratically” holds the firepower.
From the very beginning Chavism in all its exorbitance foreshadowed tendencies at work everywhere in times of the “retreat of the political”. Trump’s populist, Humpty Dumpty–like assault on American liberalism bears witness to similar tendencies. In order to defend democracy and liberalism, we will need to rethink them in the face of this withdrawal of the political.