The following paper was presented at the Eighth Annual Telos Conference, held on February 15–16, 2014, in New York City.
In the following, I address the question of Venezuelan democracy under the fourteen-year mandate of recently deceased President Hugo Chávez from the philosophical perspective of Karl Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire to Louis Bonaparte. Recent Latin American history of the past twenty years has seen a resurgence of leftist governments sympathetic to Cuba’s Marxist revolutionary ideals of the 1960s, where Venezuela is no exception. Focusing on one particular event in Venezuela’s contemporary history, I wish to accomplish two things. The first is to convince my audience that Nicolás Maduro’s inauguration ceremony of his then newly appointed presidential cabinet in late-April 2013 is the sharpest expression of the current failed state and non-direction of Chavismo in Venezuela, or more precisely, what I call the dissolution of its sensus communis. Second, I wish to advance a philosophical question for discussion among audience members, namely, does replicating a historically prior political ideology ever secure success for democracy within present historical circumstances; more succinctly, in other words, do anachronistic political experiments produce volatile democracies?
“Revolución en la Revolución” (“Revolution in the Revolution”) is the most telling iteration of all chavista rhetoric. The slogan, many Venezuelans may recall, was conjured by Chávez’s successor and current president of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, at the inauguration ceremony of his then newly appointed presidential cabinet in the wake of Chávez’s passing, late-April of 2013. It is projected in bold, blood-red lettering in the background of the stage, a stage that will itself iterate many of the social-realist histrionics of Chavismo we Venezuelans know intimately. In the background, on the left, we see Chávez’s signatory populist salute to el pueblo (“the people”), on the right, a decorated Maduro bluntly reminds us of his autocratic incumbency as president in the short aftermath of a massive election fraud, politically prosaic slogans within slogans, e.g., “eficiencia o nada” (“efficiency or nothing”), can never be left out, of course, sellout extraordinaire Venezuelan conductor of the LA Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel, conducts the national anthem in the foreground; exceptionally, a strange, amorphously larger image of Maduro than Chávez’s looms on the scene, a crucial detail to which I will return to. The event, all in all, is the defining moment of Chavismo‘s sublime failure as ideology and the final dissolution of its sensus communis.
To speak of the sensus communis of Chavismo might seem like a contradiction in terms. Chavismo, after all, purports to be an ideology whose very etymology stems from the cult of personality of a single individual, which according to a Kantian definition of sensus communis, for example, could never ascend to universality (among other reasons, this being at least the most straightforward). The philosophical concept sensus communis has wide valences in the Western philosophical canon, however, and certainly conveys a great deal more than its English translation “common sense.” While specifically central to theories of knowledge from the ancient Greeks through the Enlightenment philosophers, one could even consider its historical recurrence in other revolutionary movements, e.g., the role Thomas Paine’s famous pamphlet titled “On Common Sense” played around 1776. It was seventeenth-century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico, however, who first synthesized its Greek meaning in Aristotelian aesthetics (from koine aisthesis) with its meaning in Roman law. It has been the subject of much debate with respect to questions of ethical relativism whether to interpret sensus communis as an ethical judgment (an interpretation that Richard Rorty, Richard Bernstein, and others have tried to rescue) versus a kind of linguistic consensus. Vico reconciles the two, in any case, by analyzing social phenomena and constellations of power from within the humanist rhetorical tradition. For my purposes, thus, Vico’s achievements allow me to relate ethics and rhetoric to a hermeneutics of the Venezuelan democratic state, namely, in defining “revolution” as the sensus communis of Chavismo.
In close alignment with Aristotle’s notion of endoxa, Vico defines sensus communis as wisdom accumulated over the course of successive generations as it reveals itself through language—a kind of “mental dictionary” a collective shares about its own history, if you will. Vico defines this common sense, moreover, as a “judgment without reflection, shared by an entire class, an entire people, and entire nation, or the entire human race.” “Revolution,” as the word’s very etymology suggests, meaning the periodic cycle of a celestial object’s return to its original location in the heavens, is the ethical and rhetorical gravitas of Chavismo. A word that today self-righteously asserts its dominance over our collective understanding of history, its ethical justification and eventual transformation into judgment without reflection, we may recall, began under the heading of a new republic (“La Quinta Republica”) that broke with the largely unsuccessful and corrupt politics of puntofijismo—a period spanning exactly 40 years of democracy dominated by three right-wing conservative parties during the second-half of Venezuela’s twentieth century.
To the effect of this historical circumstance, the so-called Bolivarian Revolution initially credited itself with a message of social justice, fairer distribution of the nation’s wealth in view of its vast natural resources, a renewed sense of patriotism, greater economic and infrastructural self-sustainability, and independence from developed nations. On the other hand, for many in the opposition, Chavismo ultimately became an ideological hodgepodge, a Babelesque language, a pseudo-intellectual cosmopolitanism of left-wing caricatures ranging from Noam Chomsky to Salvador Allende, Che Guevara to Jesus Christ, Karl Marx to nineteenth-century Venezuelan military heroes. Indeed, for many of us, Chavismo evokes little more than the whims and eccentric quirks of a staunch socialist who sang “happy birthday” to Fidel Castro on his 72nd birthday, only a few years after he had rung the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange in 1999, who inexplicably banned Coke Zero from the country before giving a free apartment to his three millionth follower on Twitter, who declared golf a bourgeois sport for the lazy during a publicly televised speech wearing one of his many custom French-tailored suits, who tried to ban Halloween in Venezuela for being “an American imperialist holiday designed to instill fear and terrorize its own people,” who once spoke of fair access to drinking water during World Water Day before speculating that capitalism had depleted all water resources, effectively destroying civilization on planet Mars, who changed the official time of Venezuela by 30 minutes as a form of retaliation to the imperialist world time-frame set by the Greenwich Meridian. In the end, can one take Chavismo seriously as an ideology, begging the question: is there, truly, a common sense to the so-called Bolivarian revolution?
During a 2005 interview conducted by Marta Hanecker, a Chilean sociology professor and former student of the famed French structural Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, in an extraordinarily rare instance of conceptual lucidity, Chávez explains the ideological roots of Chavismo quite explicitly. Going back to the very early days, as early as the formation of Chávez’s first political group, the clandestine MB-200, founded by Chávez himself and some of the few still surviving ideologues adherent to Chavismo, he attests:
We created what we called the “tree of three roots” as the origin of our ideology. It consisted in a Bolivarian root, inspired by Simón Bolívar’s ideals of equality and freedom, as well as his vision of geo-political integration in South America; we named the next root the “Zamorian root,” after Ezequiel Zamora, the general of the sovereign people and symbol of unity among civilians and military; and finally, the Robinsonian root, inspired by Simón Rodríguez, Bolivar’s tutor, also known as the Simón Robinson, a man of “education for the people,” wise for his ideas on liberty and equality. This tree of three roots is what gave ideological sustenance to our movement.
Materially speaking, it is immediately clear that Chavismo failed on all three accounts. Regarding geo-political integration in South America, United States remained Venezuela’s number one buyer of oil at the time of Chávez’s death; as to its ambitions of restoring a sense of military duty among the country’s civilian population, several high-ranking military officers in the Venezuelan army are on the Drug Enforcement Agency’s most wanted list; and with respect to improving literacy in the country, his successor, Maduro, a former bus driver who failed to complete a high school degree, was shockingly caught in a recent interview on the topic of education not knowing the meaning of the word analfabetismo, meaning “illiteracy.” To prove the same from an ideological standpoint is my task at hand, that is, returning to my initial ambition in this essay, to engage the uncritical Marxist dimension of Chavismo within the possibilities of Marxist critique.
I challenge the popular myth told by a substantial portion of Western media that Chávez represents what has been called an “awakening” in Venezuelan participatory democracy as a response to puntofijista politics. I contend instead, well aware of the provocative nature of my contention, that there is absolutely nothing revolutionary that properly belongs to the chavista movement. With Vico in mind, I want to suggest moreover that chavista rhetoric reveals this historical insight all on its own. Simón Bolívar, Ezequiel Zamora, Simón Rodríguez, the heroic patriots Chávez references in his ideological exposition, represent three key figures in nineteenth-century colonial history. Even to the dilettante of this period of Venezuelan history, it is obvious that these figures were nowhere near the ideal combatants of revolutions against bourgeoisie-ruled societies and Western Imperialism. It is no obscure fact that Simón Bolívar, a sort of George Washington of South America who single-handedly led several wars of independence in the pursuit of South America’s consolidation and independence from Spanish colonial rule, who has moreover inspired a kind of cult following during the Chávez era, was an oligarch by all accounts, at one point owning over a hundred slaves; once while in exile in Jamaica, he even negotiated commercial trade agreements with the then imperialist nation of England in exchange for men and weapons following the defeat of what is known as Venezuela’s Second Republic. Ezequiel Zamora, the “great defender” of the peasant- and land-reform movement during a civil war known as the Federal War of 1859 to 1863, owned slaves as well, not to mention, waged a war that led to the loss of half the country’s cattle and at least a third of the population’s death, ultimately, becoming partially responsible for catapulting Venezuela into what many historians, chavista and non-chavista alike, refer to as “the lost century” in the history Venezuela’s infrastructural development from 1863 to 1948. Simón Rodríguez, the great “educator of the people,” was another social elite who spent twenty years of his life pursuing his education in Europe.
Personally, I see Chávez much more akin to an Antonio Guzmán Blanco, who, despite his redeeming qualities as the one of the first politicians to decree obligatory education which effectively ten-folded the number of schools in the country, was a corrupt politician who won by electoral fraud and by appropriating Simón Bolívar’s rhetoric verbatim, becoming the first of many politicians in Venezuelan history to “put on a mask of a dead generation revered by the times,” as Marx would say. Chávez’s rhetorical glorification of these figures’ language is but the mask of masked imaginaries. “Patria,” “Liberación,” “Igualdad,” “Imperio,” “Horror a la Oligarquía,” (“homeland,” “liberation,” “equality,” “empire,” “horror to the oligarchy”) are but a short list of the trappings of nineteenth-century Enlightenment concepts and battle slogans that today incarcerate the sensus communis of the Venezuelan language.
Returning back to Maduro’s slogan “Revolución en la Revolución,” the notion of revolution within revolution, of course, as any orthodox Marxist would attest, is a contradiction in terms: proletarian revolutions produce utopic, classless societies by means of radical change within historical-material conditions at the final stages of the capitalist order, so the theory goes. What would it even mean to overthrow something so innately desirable? More to the point, if the so-called Bolivarian revolution succeeded in the fourteen years Chávez was in power, as chavistas still so adamantly insist, why should another revolution, or more paradoxically still, a revolution within the revolution, be necessary at all? The slogan makes no sense, quite simply, and it is within this sublime representational failure of the “revolution” that the sensus communis of Chavismo dissolves.
Nothing is more telling than the seemingly insignificant detail that is the larger size of Maduro’s image compared to Chávez’s. There is a deep contradiction between the larger image of Maduro compared to that of the leader named posthumously the comandante supremo y eterno (“the supreme and eternal commander”) of Venezuela: how does one present before the people a larger-than-life revolution in social-realist fashion of something that is already supremely and eternally larger-than-life—but is now dead? Powers at stake overwhelm the chavista imaginary, and therein lies what I have been referring to as the propaganda’s sublime representational failure. Chavismo must, by ideological necessity, “overthrow” itself in order to remain true to itself. On September 28, 2012, in the western city of Maturín in the state of Monagas, Chávez gave what I personally consider to be his most infamous and sinister speech, where he explicitly asked voters to set aside their need for city maintenance, employment, electricity, and access to drinking water for an upcoming election because “the life of the homeland” was at risk of takeover by the Venezuelan bourgeoisie and Western imperialism. In the spirit of Chávez’s delirious following, who have been anointed by the Chavista propaganda elite as “the children of Chávez,” indeed, like Abraham before God, the inauguration of Maduro’s then newly appointed presidential cabinet represents the decisive moment of faith wherein Chavismo sacrifices its own life before Chávez.
It could be said that the slogan was originally intended as a kind of pause, however brief and in passing, and however disingenuous, for productive self-reflection and self-critique in the aftermath of Chávez’s disaster presidency. “Revolución en la Revolución” vs. “Eficiencia o nada”: notwithstanding, I would insist that Maduro’s promising slogans amount to nothing more than a mise-en-abyme; after 14 years, now is the time to be efficient? The senselessness of the former slogan reflects but on the inefficiency of the latter. In another thought, this now key protagonist in Venezuelan contemporary history promises no end in sight to the endless proliferation of inefficient slogans amid a now utterly senseless revolution within the revolution. Maduro, widely mocked for his awkward, second-rate impersonations of Chávez’s tone of voice, hand-gestures, and diction, lest we not forget, made headlines with his folksy disparate believing Chávez had reincarnated as a tweeting bird who came to console him in upcoming elections as he sat on a bench. There is another important level of reflexivity in the wider scope of this event to bear in mind, thus. The abysmally destructive delirium and total indifference to the decrepit state of Venezuela’s economy and infrastructure that is the essence of so many things chavista is embodied by Maduro himself as the chavista imitation of Chávez par excellence. As though foretold in the language of a Marxist critique of capitalism, Maduro is the final product of an ideological fetish-commodity machine-line whose “super-structures” have oppressed his labor to the point of having no value.
In closing, the great German philosopher Georg Friedrich Hegel remarked somewhere that all great world-historic events and characters appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. Marx’s beautiful opening chapter in his Eighteenth Brumaire to Louis Bonaparte, I am convinced, articulates with near-perfect intuition the historicity of the Chávez-Maduro phenomenon:
Human beings [Die Menschen] indeed make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under circumstances of their own choosing, but rather under circumstances already existing, handed-down from the past. The legacy of dead generations weigh like a nightmare on the [brains of] the living. And just as they are preoccupied with revolutionizing themselves and the world, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such times of revolutionary crisis, they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history by means of disguises and borrowed language revered by the times. Luther put on the mask of the Apostle Paul, the Revolution of 1789–1814 draped itself in the guise of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and the Revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to parody the revolutionary tradition of 1793–95 in the aftermath of 1789. It is much like beginners in foreign languages who resort to translation back into their mother tongue: beginners only assimilate the spirit of the new language once they are able to express themselves freely without the necessity to recall words from their native language, by finally forgetting it, as it were.
My hope, as a Venezuelan, is that we may learn to speak a new tongue, a new sensus communis, that the language of the so-called Bolivarian revolution be sublated into the distant memory of a supernova, whose orbital return to center implodes into a black hole of supreme and eternal nothingness in the Venezuelan legacy of its dead generations. This is my philosophical testimony to the final day of the chavista ideology. May the opposition continue to succeed in its struggle.