22 March 2006
We Don’t Need Another Hero
In yesterday’s New York Times, there is an article on Venezuela as the latest destination for revolution seekers of the developed world, the political version of adventure tourism for the Birkenstock set. Drawn by the rhetorical extravaganzas of Hugo Chavez, as well by “the possibility of a better world in Venezuela,” against naked American imperialism, strong-armed buffoonery and globalization, leftist Europeans and North Americans have been flocking to Venezuela and its capital, Caracas, to experience what the Times implies is the latest trend in revolutionary politics: The Bolivarian Revolutionary Experience. Or, as Mr. Gordo put it in an email today, “Caracas is the biggest theme park in the world. The Revolution is fashionable and fun!!!”
The situation in Venezuela is difficult to describe for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the problem of criticism itself. The old leftist slogan “you’re either part of the solution or part of the problem” reveals not only a profound anti-intellectualism but also a reductive, simplistic relationship to the world that, in my opinion, does not augur true solutions. Yet, a surprising number of leftists and academics, readers of Stuart Hall, hold on to this view, and to express doubts about Chavez is akin to declaring yourself a part of the oligarchy. But such cartoonish understandings of the world are exactly what I would like to question here. What I want to do here is think, not sloganeer. I, for one, have had quite enough of that!
The Left thinks of Chavez as the embattled leftist (and Black/racialised) democratic leader of South America, resisting the CIA, American hegemony, and right-wing coupsters. The Right considers Chavez a leftist dictator on the Fidel Castro model, who threatens regional stability and consorts with pariah states like Iran and Zimbabwe. The truth, as always, lies someplace in between. Hugo Chavez is considered in the West a leftist (except, ironically, by the Venezuelan left, which considers Chavez as having displaced a true left in the country), and rhetorically he fits the bill, but in practice he and George W. Bush have quite a lot in common, in terms of methodology. Both have moved aggressively to control the state and harness it to their personal politics. Both have assumed mythic proportions (in their own minds, at the very least) as saviours of the nation, have politicised and compromised civil society, both preside over deeply split electorates, and are controversial and divisive leaders who relish conflict and the grand gesture.
This similarity is lost for many developed world leftists, including many academics, who are attracted to Chavez because of his anti-imperialist stances, his “Bolivarian Revolution,” and his open disdain for George W. Bush. Or, as the Times story comments:
Referring to American visitors, an American diplomat in Caracas, who could not speak on the record because of embassy rules, echoed the concerns, saying, “Come down here and get your consciousness raised, absolutely.” He added, “My only request of them is that they try to get the other side of the story.” Emily Kurland, a 26-year-old social worker originally from Chicago, said that was exactly what she and the others here were getting. “They're frustrated with Bush, frustrated with not being listened to, frustrated with Iraq,” said Ms. Kurland, speaking in the Caracas house she shares with several foreigners. “They don't trust Fox News. They don't trust the mainstream news. They want to see with their own eyes what's happening here.”
Leaving aside for now the question as to why Americans, if they are frustrated with the political situation in the USA, would go to Caracas, life on the ground in Venezuela is much more fraught and complicated than one would gather from the work of Amy Chua, Richard Gott, or the “documentary” The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, which made the art house rounds a couple of years ago. The “opposition” is not just blonde millionairesses and suits. It is also working people, the small middle-class, intellectuals and journalists, artists and writers, and is profoundly multi-racial. But the image that persists in the Western leftist mind is the binary between oligarchy/capital/CIA/bad and democracy/revolution/people power/good. We have seen this binary before in the West’s relation to Latin America (anyone remember Cuba?). What the Western Left seems to be caught up in, yet again, is the Che Complex.
The Che Complex refers, of course, to the infamous guerrillero Che Guevara, hero of the Cuban Revolution and subject of the extremely saccharine film The Motorcycle Diaries, which in short order serves up the heroic beginnings of this fighter for the people. Now, mind you, I am naturally cynical. It is hard for me to believe in simple, one-step solutions or mantras that, while comforting, are inane in their naïve understanding of the world. I am reminded of a colleague in graduate school, a Puerto Rican activist, who would constantly chirp, “The problem is we need to teach the working class about transnational capitalism.” While this indeed may be a laudable goal, the working class, at least in the West, would want to figure out just how to get its share of that transnational pie, not to overturn the system. Isn’t that the history of the American working class, after all? Polemic rarely captures the complexity of human desires, which is both its preciousness and its danger. The history of the twentieth century is built on the bones of millions crushed under polemic, from The Great War to the Khmer Rouge, and every horror in between. If the grand revolutionary experiments of the past century were committed to lofty but bloody utopian ideals, we have clearly not lost our taste for that unattainable fantastical pleasure.
Che, of course, has persisted in being a symbol of resistance, as evidenced not only by The Motorcycle Diaries, but by his image on t-shirts, leaflets, posters, and other paraphernalia of resistance, however understood. And this is where the Che Complex lives, in the universe of symbolic representation. As the Western Left has turned the real Che into a paper tiger, a hero for easy consumption, a reference and shorthand for the dissent of rock bands and sullen suburban teenagers, The Che Complex refers to the dismaying habit of the Western Left to aggrandize symbols of Latin American resistance with little or no understanding (or care) for the histories or tangible effects of these politics on the people living under these revolutionary regimes. Some good political examples of the Che Complex would be, aside from Che (natch): Fidel Castro, Salvador Allende, (at one time) The Sandinistas, (at election time) Lula, and most recently Bolivia’s Evo Morales. Some good cultural examples would be Frida Kahlo, Gabriel García Marquez and the literary genre of magical realism, and the Buena Vista Social Club. I include the cultural along with the political because the Che Complex is a holistic approach to Latin American authenticity: radical, fecund, disordered, natural, native, real, as opposed to our synthetic, processed, unnatural lives in the developed West. What differentiates the Che Complex from old-fashioned exoticism is its explicitly leftist political orientation, its romanticisation of Latin American socio-political upheavals, and an interest in revolutionary transformation that for many in the West seems impossible in their own national milieu. The Che Complex is at heart transference, a displacement of one’s own desires for political transformation onto others, and as such, also reveals the psychosocial dimensions of this transference for the Western mind.
This gesture is also one that is incredibly problematic, for it reproduces the historic and unequal colonial dynamic of centre and margin, just with a progressive political face. As the West has used the developing world “other” for centuries to define itself, as what it is not, so again this system exists in the Che Complex: while we, for whatever reasons, cannot effectively battle the forces of capitalism and corruption in the metropole, our brown brothers and sisters in the outré-mer can.
I remember getting into an argument at Prestigious Eastern U. over Communism in Africa with a light-skinned, upper class black woman, one of those types that years later you remember as really fucking with your mind. The disagreement centred on democracy and political freedom, which I was arguing (silly girl that I was, and still am) was important, while this woman, who we came to call Lady D, argued that if governments provided food and medicine and education, than political freedom wasn’t so important. When I countered whether she would like to live under such a system, she responded that while such a thing would not be good for her, it didn’t mean it wasn’t good for others. This woman was remarkably successful at PU, primarily because she was so angry (she taught me the value of a line and an attitude), and anger was very “in” in the eighties. No one stopped to question exactly why this woman in particular would be angry. She came from a comfortable home, with professional parents, had gone to private school, was physically beautiful, intellectually talented, economically comfortable, and was now at PU. So unbothered by these complications were we that no one questioned her radical politics when she returned sophomore year with a $500 weave. But I think of this argument we had, the first week of school, as indicative of a kind of limited thinking, a type of wish-fulfillment and a fantasy projection that was on the face of it altruistic but beneath the wholesome exterior remarkably narcissistic and self-aggrandizing. Her troublesome privilege could be ameliorated through “good ideological work” on behalf of poor, marginalised others. That this principle also seems at work in so much contemporary scholarship (i.e. Cultural Studies "radicalism") only highlights its tenuousness as an organising concept for effective socio-cultural political action and change.
The current fetish of Hugo Chavez in the developed world strikes me as an aspect of the same phenomenon. I always think that a good test of politics is to measure it upon yourself: a self-test. For instance, what would American leftists feel if they found themselves at odds with a presidential administration, and exercised their democratic right to request a recall election. Then, after much hemming and hawing and protesting and pressure on the part of the government, the election took place, favourable to the administration but with dubious and unverifiable results (confirmed by international observers with their eyes more on the unstable price of oil than democratic irreugularities; in other words, brought to you by the same people who confirmed an Ohio win for Bush). And subsequent to “winning” the election, the administration then obtained a list of those voters who had signed the petition for recall, and distributed the list publicly, and began to bar these voters from civil services (such as the right to a passport or the ability to obtain foreign currency), discriminate against them in government and university employment, and began calling these voters by name on television and in the press traitors, oligarchs, coup plotters, squalid ones, and prosecuting them for treason in courts packed with judges selected for their loyal politics to the regime. Would that be OK?
Well, that is exactly what has happened in Venezuela. The veil of the Che Complex excuses these “excesses” from censure by Western leftists. “Venezuela is different!” we hear. How is Venezuela, or any developing world nation that different? People in Venezuela and other developing world countries aren't from Mars, after all. “They have critical poverty!” we are told. Well, there is a lot of critical poverty in the USA. “There is an extreme difference between the have and the have-nots, and an oligarchy that controls business and the press!” people say. How would one describe the USA any differently?
If we do this self-test in honestly, most of us would agree that such political conditions as exist in Venezuela under the Bolivarian regime of Hugo Chavez, if performed here by, say, the current administration of George W. Bush, would be unacceptable, even at this very moment when US rightists are feverishly working to overturn the American republic. Then why are they acceptable in Venezuela, or indeed any developing world nation? To reach the conclusion that such authoritarianism is acceptable in the developing world is uncomfortably close to colonialist visions of the brown or black or yellow “other” as being incapable of appreciating culture, running government efficiently, and being eligible for humanistic Enlightenment values. “Democracy” for the West, revolutionary kleptocracy for everyone else, is hardly an inspiring slogan, but it seems to fit here.
Chavez is not a leftist, he is not a rightist, nor is he truly a democrat. He is an authoritarian, the paradigm of the Latin American strong man. Chavez has one true love, and that is himself. Let’s not forget he was a member of the army, never a good sign for Latin American democracy. Unlike Allende or Lula, he does not represent the traditions of Latin American democracy, but rather its old bugaboo, the caudillo. This is a leader who has stated in his turgid six- to eight-hour televised speeches, which occur every week, that he plans to be President forever. This is someone who has appointed his aged father as the governor of the state of Barinas and his brother to an important cabinet position. This is a democratic leader who absurdly proclaims that Condie Rice has a lustful crush on him on national television and blows her kisses. This is a revolutionary patriot who consorts with former revolutionary now kleptocrat Robert Mugage, calling him a hero to his people. This is the radical who seeks total control over the independent banking system and has appointed his cronies to (and overseen corruption at) Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) and the entire infrastructure of government ministries, including most notably the Consejo Nacional Electoral (CNE). The recent closing and collapse of the highway bridge leading from Simon Bolivar International Airport in Maiquetia to Caracas has become a symbol for the ineptitude and lack of focus of a revolutionary administration that has now had eight years to demonstrate its governing value (ringing any US bells?).
Rhetoric, sloth, radicalism, corruption, modernity, collapse, revolution, coercion, dreams of the state, nightmares of government.
While Chavez purportedly represents a change from the sclerotic Venezuelan democracy of the past, he is ironically following in its footsteps, harnessing the power of what Coronil calls "the magical state,” where oil money and the notion of state power come to represent an easy solution to the profound social and economic crises that face Venezuela. And Chavez is an aspect of these crises, for his presence and rhetoric and policies towards the poor do respond, at least on the level of discourse, to real, tangible problems in Venezuela. The conundrum for Venezuela, and the thinking Left in the rest of the world, is whether or not this is true reform, or the progressive rhetorical trimmings of a kleptocratic loon.
The depressing truth is that Chavez represents the flip side of the criminal administration we currently have here in the USA in its rapaciousness and ideological excesses, and the love affair the global Left has for him is symptomatic of its intellectual exhaustion more than anything else. Didn’t we get enough of this with Fidel? We need to wake from our Che Complex dreams, and dedicate ourselves to forthrightly and deliberately fixing our own world (as opposed to transferring our utopian fantasies onto others in a colonial modality), and rebuilding effective leftist strategies, effecting change here as well as there (for after all, Chavez does not emerge sui generis, he represents a true crisis in Venezuelan society, as Bush represents a true crisis in American democracy). What we need is more thinking, and less compulsory and knee-jerk hero-worship. For in the words of Tina Turner, we don’t need another hero.