Human Rights and Radical Social Change: Liberalism, Marxism and Progressive Populism in Venezuela

By Tillman Clark
2010, Vol. 2 No. 03 | pg. 3/6 |

Political Ideology and Human Rights

With a grasp of the implicit ideology of liberal and Marxist human rights theory; that of the double blackmail, we can move on towards an analysis of the current discourse in Venezuela. But before moving on, it is important to restate the purpose of this section and identify the logic behind the progression of the next ones. This involves framing the most important claim of this paper; that the key to understanding any human rights discourse is the implied or admitted political ideology and project that is behind it. This is important for two reasons.

The first reason is that it must be admitted that all states are effectively dictatorial because of the fact that they are institutionalized monopolies of the means of the legitimate violence that predicates the legal system.16 This could be said to be waning in the era of globalization, and not an important factor in Third World countries whose states are in effect owned by multinational corporations, but apart from who is controlling the state, and as long as borders differentiate one government from the next, this point holds in theory. Since this is so, it is absolutely imperative to identify the political ideology and project of the state so one can understand the reasoning behind its policies and attempt to predict its future actions.

The second reason is connected to the first. By recognizing the dictatorial nature of the state and identifying its political ideology and project, while analyzing its policies and attempting to predict where it is headed, one must make take the somewhat reluctant, but honest, position that all states are going to violate human rights, in some way, as they are understood today.

When one speaks of liberal human rights theory, one is implying that human rights are to be respected insofar as they are reflections of a certain organization of society. What this amounts to, whether admitted or not, is a universal, global project of liberalism and the institutions it corresponds with. As such, it is a political project. What is important to highlight is that a political project is always proactive. The use of human rights in liberal human rights theory is effectively the right of intervention, whether it be upon the domestic civil population, or a foreign country. When the United States invades Iraq or Afghanistan, it is not based solely and naively on some abstract principle of human rights (human rights are no doubt being violated solely through this act--houses are being bombed, people are being killed and arrested, civil liberties are being suspended, etc. as is a necessary aspect of war). There are also obvious interests involved (why not invade multiple other countries who are equal, if not worse, human rights violators?).

The “defense” of human rights by force in these cases is objectively an element of a proactive political project--one which sees the United States as the guaranteer of some sense of global harmony, freedom and liberty with the right to intervene in countries that do not recognize its conception of human rights and do not have the “appropriate” corresponding institutions. As mentioned earlier, this has the effect of in almost every case seeing a country that does not have the institutions associated with liberal human rights theory as an a priori violator of human rights.

Thus, liberal human rights theory can stand to block any sort of progressive radical change because it sees itself as the culmination of human being, with all that is necessary being gradual reforms and perfections as opposed to complete overhaul. Moreover, in a sort of ideological cul-de sac, an intervention to stop human rights abuses is allowed to engage in human rights abuses of its own in order to fulfill and institute a certain political ideology and institutions that correspond more favorably with liberal human rights theory--but without actually recognizing or admitting this.

If liberal human rights theory hides its ideology of a proactive political project by claiming to only be unprejudiced and objective in its claim of human rights violations and subsequent intervention, then Marxism is its polar opposite. Unlike liberalism, Marxism is upfront in its commitment to intervening and actively supporting a political ideology and project; the upheaval of capitalism and institution of socialism through the use of the dictatorship of the state in the name of the working class.

But this, obviously, does not tell the entire story. Just because a political project is honest about its ideology and direction does not somehow make it justifiable. In fact, this “honesty” has tended to legitimize dictatorship in the eyes of its beholders to the point of ossification and institution instead of a means to an ends. The political ideology of Marxism, in its upfront desire to use dictatorial suppression and terror, is thus a project that not only rejects human rights out of fidelity to an idea or theory of emancipation, but can do so as an opportunity to exercise corruption and abuse of power.

To put it in other terms, there is no guarantee that just because a theory is honest that the person who adheres to it will also be, thus bringing into play an observation made earlier that theoretical founding can beget pragmatic corruption and abuse of power or, alternatively, pragmatic corruption and abuse of power can make use of theory. Therefore, Marxist human rights theory can stand to excuse and legitimize any and all abuses of power because it sees is political project as one of necessary radical social change that should be brought about by any means necessary.

To restate the key points of this section; it is important to see human rights through the recognition that the necessary aspect of understanding any discourse on human rights is the implied or admitted political ideology and project that is behind it; and that all states are going to violate human rights as they are understood today. Thus, in order to understand the discourse in Venezuela on human rights theory, one must also analyze the political ideology and project to the extent of whether or not such an ideology and project is viable, worthwhile and legitimate. It is this position that will determine the rest of this paper, as the claims of human rights abuses in Venezuela will be contextualized within the framework of its political project and ideology.

The following part will consist of the bulk of the paper; an analysis of the political ideology, nature and project of the Venezuelan state, and the political movement that I characterize as Chávismo, following the beginning of the Bolivarian Revolution of 1998. This can be most accurately identified as populist in nature while utilizing Marxist rhetoric. The third part will consist of an analysis and generalization of the human rights discourse and debate that has embroiled Venezuela. It will identify the interests involved, describe some of the claims and counterclaims, and group these two parties into general opposing theoretical camps; those who objectively support the liberal human rights theory and those who objectively support the Marxist theory of human rights.

The intention is to show that the human rights discourse should be seen as both employment of a Marxist theory of human rights by defenders of the Venezuelan state on one side, excusing the abuses of an inviable political project under the guise of social change, and employment of a liberal theory of human rights by accusers of violations, who see liberal institutions as the only guarantors of human dignity, on the other. It is intended to show that populism is not a viable, worthwhile or legitimate political ideology and project and that the abuses to civil freedoms and human dignity cannot be justified. But since the accusers are already biased towards opposing radical social change, their position should be rejected as well. This paradoxical reversed “double blackmail,” in which no position can seemingly be supported, will be addressed in the final part.

Populism and Progressive Social Change

Before delving into the details of the Venezuelan political ideology of progressive populism following the 1998 election of Hugo Chávez, an analysis and theory of populism must be illustrated. Populism is a controversial phrase when it is associated with progressive political and economic movements. As it is most commonly used, populism is what Western governments and academics like to call movements and governments that are somehow not subscribed to the dominant ideology and by one way or another are existing outside of their means. This way of looking at populism is largely denigratory and used to mask certain power dynamics and the vested interests that accompany them. This way of looking at populism is fundamentally false.

From a different perspective, populism can be seen as a movement with emancipatory intentions that opens up a democratic rift in the status quo by employing means of mass popular support in an attempt to overcome exploitation and poverty that emerge from an antagonistic socioeconomic and political situation. But good intentions are often not enough. Populism is not a political ideology with a rigid prescription for social change, nor is it a specific set of policies or tendencies. If anything, it is the lack of these attributes that gives populism its character. Especially as regards progressive populism, of which this section will largely focus on, the element that gives rise to populism is the utilization of a certain logic of “reaction.” It is this aspect of populism that is the starting point for its further limitations.

Conventional academic wisdom associates populism in Latin America with the rise of mass politics in the middle of the 20th century, when traditional forms of oligarchic domination connected to the latifundio based commodity export model were overshadowed by the social mobilization that came with the early stages of industrialization. Following the Great Depression, this export model was replaced by a state-led industrialization effort that transformed the socioeconomic landscape of the continent.

While new middle and urban working classes were created by this process, the traditional forms of political representation and inclusion could not fulfill the demands of these new demographics. It is this void that populism filled. Populism incorporated workers and capitalists within broad, multi-class political coalitions backing social reform and state led industrialization. It relied heavily upon nationalism and charismatic authority to bring together diverse social demographics, and it made special appeals to urban workers and labor unions, who were bound to the state for distribution of benefits and the exercise of political influence.

Leaders such as Perón in Argentina, Cárdenas in Mexico, Vargas in Brazil, and Haya de la Torre in Peru mobilized the masses from the top-down, challenging the traditional oligarchic order with their promises of political inclusion, social organization, and economic well-being for the working and lower classes.17 In gaining access to public office, most of them also expanded the economic role of the state by protecting and subsidizing basic industries, restricting foreign investment, regulating labor markets, and providing a broad range of social benefits.

Traditional populism was largely considered outdated by the economic and political changes of the past several decades. The wave of right-wing military coups starting in the 60s led to the repression of labor and popular movements and to new forms of capital accumulation. When a wave of democratization occurred in the 1980's, it coincided with the infamous Latin American debt crisis and ushered in the era now best associated with neoliberalism and economic “discipline.”18

This new era marked an incapacity for government to intervene with social programs and spending to respond to popular demands due to the stringent demands of institutions like the IMF and World Bank who insisted on rigid economic policy for debt repayment. These changes weakened organized labor and they deprived governments of the policy tools that had been used by populist leaders in the past. Thus, the “Washington Consensus,” as it is popularly conceptualized as the global neoliberal project led more or less by the leadership and overwhelming support from the United States, seemed comfortable enough to assume that previously negatively characterized “populist regimes” would not return to the region and a new era of representative democracy, “fiscal responsibility,”19 and globalized markets was there to stay.

It is now widely accepted that this comfort was unfounded. Highlighted by the complete collapse of the Argentinean financial system from 1999-200220, the neoliberal project in Latin America has crumbled. In the same period, and continuing today, there was an unprecedented wave of electoral victories for Left-leaning presidencies including those that can be identified as populist. The election in 1998 and ongoing presidency of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela can be characterized as the bedrock of this development.

Before continuing, it is important to recognize is that the more recent wave of populism in Latin America is a result of the dissolution of the social, economic, and political models built during the era of state-led import substitution industrialization which was constructed mostly by the first generation of populist leaders such as Perón and Vargas and continued into the 1970’s by the proliferating dictatorships.21 The debt crisis of the 1980’s made statist and nationalist development models impossible and paved the way for neoliberal reforms and an opening to global markets.22 It was then largely the implementation and subsequent failure of neoliberal reforms that led to the modern re-emergence of Latin American populism. But what constitutes populism? What makes, for instance, the Chávez presidency populist but another not? It is to these questions that we now turn.

In traditional scholarly academia on Latin American, populism has been treated as a largely economic phenomenon which encompasses a style of political leadership (charismatic and autocratic) and a specified model of policies (import substitution industrialization with economic nationalism and large role for the state).23 According to this position, populism led to financial crises due to the unsustainable nature of these policies, and neoliberalism was the prescription.

The traditional perspective sees populism as a response to the demands of popular masses for political inclusion, and it is often generated and reproduced in democratic and electoral settings. Populism thus emerges in situations where large sections of the lower classes are available for political mobilization but are not successfully represented by traditional parties and do not have access to institutionalized forms of political self-expression.24 It is this definition that separates “progressive” populism from other forms of populism, such as fascism.25 Populism is thus a political movement which “...enjoys the support of the mass of the urban working class and/or peasantry, but which does not result from the autonomous organisational power of either of these sectors. It is also supported by non-working class sectors upholding an anti-status quo ideology.”26 The development that follows is what Tortuato Di Tella, writing in 1970, referred to in the “revolution of rising expectations,” in which

The mass media raise the levels of aspirations of their audience, particularly in the towns and among the educated. This is what has been aptly called the “revolution of rising expectations” [...] Yet economic expansion lags behind [these expectations], burdened by demographic explosion, by lack of organisational capacity, by dependence on foreign markets and capital, or by premature efforts at redistribution. A bottleneck necessarily develops, with expectations soaring high above the possibility of satisfying them.27

A way to see populism, therefore, is in the relationship between the demands of the peasants, workers and anti-status quo sectors of society and the economic reality of the situation. Additionally, this traditional outlook also sees the linchpin of populism being that the political mobilization triggered by populist leaders is inherently sporadic and never permanent because it cannot be sustained given this relationship between demands and economic reality.

A tradition of dictatorial political leadership in Latin America that is best characterized by the image of the caudillo--an authoritarian but popular military leader--may seem appropriate to populism. But what separates the populist leader from the caudillo is that populism operates in a context of mass politics instead of dictatorial, singular power. In this sense, populist leaders must have a democratic form of popular support for their rule--either through street demonstrations and rallies or through constant calls to the voting booth. Populist mobilization, therefore, is an inherently top-down process that often feeds off a direct relationship between a leader and an originally unorganized mass of followers. But this is not nearly enough, as almost any original movement can be seen this way.

An alternative approach to populism is taken from the Marxist position. Ernesto Laclau, in his essay Towards a Theory of Populism, is an essential reference point here.28 For Laclau, populism is not a specific political movement since no defined “populist” movement is the same, but instead occurs when a series of particular “popular” demands is enchained in a series of equivalences (“interchangeabilities”), and this enchainment produces “the people” as the universal political subject. It has no inherent program or political orientation but through the discourse of “the leader” towards the audience of “the people” a certain political subjectivity emerges through “interpellations” and “the people” develop an identity, specific to the situation, that did not exist before.29

The limitation of Laclau’s analysis is analyzed by Zizek. Zizek postulates that populism seeks to overcome a refusal of a complicated systemic analysis by using a logic of “reaction.” For Laclau, populism represents a neutral space for which open struggle can incorporate a larger and necessary sphere and where the content of what is at stake is form. This means that in populism the content is situation-specific and this specificity is never predetermined, while a theory such as class struggle “presupposes a particular social group (the working class) as a privileged political agent.”30 For Laclau, the series of equivalencies does not have to be the result of a general particular struggle. In some cases it can be worker’s struggle, in others anti-colonial or anti-racist. The inherent nature of populism is thus a form of frustration or grievance being “interpellated” through a new discourse, but this frustration is mitigated by the “reactionary” belief that there is a hidden agent causing all the problems. As Zizek puts it;

Populism is ultimately always sustained by ordinary people’s frustrated exasperation, by a cry of “I don’t know what’s going on, I just know I’ve had enough of it! It can’t go on! It must stop!” -- an impatient outburst, a refusal to understand, exasperation at complexity, and the ensuing conviction that there must be somebody responsible for all the mess, which is why an agent who is behind the scenes and explains it all is required.31

Zizek goes further, contrasting the populist discourse to the Marxist one:

[F]or a populist, the cause of the troubles is ultimately never the system as such but the intruder who corrupted it (financial manipulators, not necessarily capitalists, and so on); not a fatal flaw inscribed into the structure as such but an element that doesn’t play its role within the structure properly. For a Marxist, on the contrary [...] the pathological (deviating misbehavior of some elements) is the symptom of the normal, an indicator of what is wrong in the very structure that is threatened with “pathological” outbursts. For Marx, economic crises are the key to understanding the “normal” functioning of capitalism [...]32

It follows that a theory of populism is not as so much an idealistic economic/political enacting of policies, an unrealistic relationship between demands and conditions, ideological “interpellation” or solely marked by the will of political charisma. Instead, these characteristics arise from the original lack of systemic analysis that utilizes a logic and rhetoric of "alien" elements infecting the unified and potentially balanced social whole. The solution is thus to find and destroy the problem-causing invaders, rather than seeing society as a society always-already divided by antagonisms with there being no "natural" or "harmonized" state to return to or advocate for.

Thus, inconsistent references to the “financial manipulator,” “international capitalists,” “oligarchy,” or the effects of imperialism are used in an effort to externalize the congenial contradictions of the nation. The main issue with this approach is that its ambiguity is the starting point for undemocratic and authoritarian politics, which is arguably worse than if a rigid, well defined Marxist position on a certain necessary, temporary authoritarianism is taken.

It may be simply that populism is best embodied by Zizek’s point about the “agent behind the scenes”; populism in this sense is nothing more than a refusal to confront the complexity of the situation with a systemic analysis and thus is the underlying flaw of populism and is the catalyst for its further limitations and shortcomings. This is the true point of departure for which some regimes are characterized populist and others are not. As pointed out above, the liberal position plays the game within the parameters of capitalism and there is no radical change necessary. Obversely, as opposed to the progressive populism we are addressing here, the radical emancipatory project such as Marxism also differs. Zizek again elaborates upon this point:

[T]he ultimate difference between true radical-emancipatory politics and populist politics is that authentic radical politics is active, imposing, enforcing its vision, while populism is fundamentally reactive, a reaction to a disturbing intruder.33

It is with this understanding--that populism is a refusal of systemic analysis and its subsequent political and economic prescriptions and instead an almost ‘shoot-from-the-hip” social and ideological movement--that we can proceed to looking at its limitations.

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