Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Belated Responses to Gaza - 3

This Wieseltier poem actually says it all, and no need for exegesis:


So they'll call the Little Prince
stick a submachine gun in his hand and say:
you might have come from another star
but now you're here
and that's not an elephant you see
from under the painted hat, but a tank.
The lamplighter's a terrorist
and if you don't wipe out those sheep
it'll be your head instead.
That's how it is, little prince.

Monday, March 02, 2009

on the chavez referendum

So what is happening in Venezuela today? What does Chavez's victory in the recent referendum mean for the future of democracy in Venezuela and in Latin America? Following this victory, Chavez and other elected public representatives will be able to stand for as many terms as they like, and can only be removed by popular mandate. Chavez's earlier attempt to pass this measure, as part of a wide-ranging set of constitutional reforms, had failed the popular vote earlier; now, stripped of its associations with the other measures (which included gay and lesbian rights, workplace democracy, but also a closer integration of executive, judicial and legislative powers), it has passed the test of public opinion. It reverses a previous constitutional provision that only allows elected representatives two terms of office.

Predictably enough, Chavez was attacked for despotic pretensions during and after the referendum. What can this mean, ask the mainstream Western media, both on the liberal left and the right, but a desire to extend authoritarian controls over the country, in keeping with the Venezuelan leader's obvious love of self-advertisement, and the charisma he so evidently commands? The more hysteric versions of this have been: Chavez wants to appoint himself President for life, and this is just a cleverly executed manouevre to legitimize it. This is one in a long series of policy measures, beginning with the nationalization of the oil industry, passing through the threatened use of military force to expropriate inefficient businesses and place them in the hands of workers if they so desire, and the withdrawal of private TV broadcasting licences, designed to culminate in Stalinist, one-party authoritarian rule. So we're told.

Chavez has also been defended, and idolized, with fervour that sometimes breaks the bounds of the rational. Any criticism, any apprehensions about the trajectory of his political regime are scrutinized for signs of an imperialist agenda, in hock to the United States' foreign policy agenda. Chavez is a great revolutionary democrat, and accusations of authoritarian tendencies can only come from a Right that is deeply invested in the repressive projects of the war on terror, the stabilization of neo-liberal capitalism and economic imperialism, and the maintenance of US global hegemony. So we're told.

How, then, can the signs be read? Chavez very clearly seeks a third term as President. It is worth remarking the fact that he found the issue urgent enough to have to resolve just a few months after his reforms package had been rejected - the first time he had suffered an electoral reversal of any kind during his rule. He clearly wants to preserve his power, and he wants it urgently enough to take it to the people a second time. This was an enormous gamble, it was a wager that could not be calculated. What would the consequences have been had he lost, for his credibility inside Venezuela and in world politics at large? He would have, irresistibly, appeared as a power-hungry demagogue, desperate to indefinitely defer the passage of authority. But he gambled, and he won.

I don't have the competence or knowledge to conduct a political psychoanalysis of Chavez, to dissect his intentions, secret wishes, dreams, and pathologies. Let us assume, for the moment, that power and popular approval - both of which he clearly has in good measure - involve a certain temptation to despotism, a certain inflation of political ego. For balance, let us also assume that he identifies himself with the socio-political transformation of Venezuela quite sincerely, that this is not a corrupt, greedy bid for power but one energized by a quite genuine commitment to the ideals that he publicly upholds. What then emerges as significant, in the first place, about the events of recent months is the form of the referendum, elevated to a founding political principle by Chavez, that was used to secure this advance in authority.

Why the referendum? Is it a 'populist' measure in the simple sense of the term, a symbolic public ratification of political will, a manipulation of Venezuelans that rides a temporary crest of public approval for Chavez? This is unconvincing. All the evidence points to a genuine, grass-roots democratization of Venezuela over the last decade, whether one sees Chavez as an agent or an enemy of the process. Even if we were to dismiss the 'Bolivarian revolution' enacted by Chavez and his supporters as a disguised bid for absolute power, the forms it has taken - the extension of power to local councils and collectives, the devices of democratic self-management offered to industrial and other workers, the resurrection of political debate in the barrios, the reduction of absolute poverty, the spread of basic literacy, the democratization of health services - cannot be understood except as a profound extension of democracy, if the word is to have any meaning. Perhaps Chavez is riding the wave cynically, waiting for it to accommodate his dreams of world domination; perhaps right-wing alarmists are right about the nature of his agenda, but even if this were true, it is undeniable that the wave of popular mobilization that has rocked the country in the last ten years is, in the most radical sense, a democratic wave. If Chavez is a Stalin in drag, as right-wing journalists believe, he would have made sure to have clamped down on forms of popular authority that he could not direct. Instead, he has extended these forms immeasurably, and laid himself open to a democratic calling to account.

A decision to institute the referendum as the prime machinery of political decision-making and ratification can only make sense in such a profoundly democratic context, where power is seen to reside with the people, and their choices and decisions carry all the weight of an order. This involves taking an enormous gamble on one's own popularity, and laying oneself open to recall at a moment's notice. Morales, significantly, has triumphantly ridden out a recall referendum in Bolivia, a situation that one can easily envisage in Venezuela in the not-so-distant future.

The fact that Chavez and Morales need popular approval so desperately tells us something important about the deeply democratic shifts in political authority that have characterized the recent history of Latin America. Both leaders have 'gone to the people' repeatedly, and barely ever returned from the polls disappointed. Numerous international observers and watchdog agencies have confirmed the freedom with which Venezuelans and Bolivians have voted, and the fairness and adequacy of electoral processes. Allende, at the height of his popularity, never commanded half of Chile's vote. Neither Chavez nor Morales has ever commanded less.

'Riding a wave' is too thin a metaphor to capture the meaning of this. The power asserted on the streets when Chavez was removed by his political opponents in a US-backed coup in 2002, which forced the leaders of the coup to restore him to power, is not power that can be manipulated at the touch of a button. When Chavez's first reforms package was rejected at the polls, he accepted his defeat as gracefully as a political leader can. Whether one sees this as the sign of a profound commitment to democracy or as a pathetic attempt to recoup some Brownie points and lull democrats into a false sense of security, the point is that Chavez did not consider, for a moment, the possibility of ignoring the popular mandate and pressing ahead with reforms that were clearly very close to his heart. There can really only be two convincing explanations of this. First, that Chavez's commitment to democracy is at heart genuine. Second, that whatever the content of Chavez's own beliefs and agenda, he does not consider himself powerful enough to reverse what a 'people's verdict' has decreed - he understands that power flows to him, not from him.

Consider Chavez's successful attack upon the term limit. Some democratic countries institute term limits, others don't. The United States adopts a partial version (which doesn't apply to all elected representatives). The U.K. doesn't have it at all. India doesn't have it, except for the purely honorary and practically redundant President of the Republic. So a decision to reverse term limits, on its own, need not have to bear the oppobrium of an attack on democracy. Most of the time, a term limit is just a pragmatic safeguard against individual despotism, and has no bearing upon the many efficient structural despotisms that govern life.

The question in Venezuela, which is in the grip of a deep political and social transformation, has to be posed in different terms. Chavez's measure implies, in the context of Latin American politics, a remarkable wager on democratic approval, which might succeed or fail. By removing constitutional limits upon his own authority, and upon the authority of other elected representatives, Chavez has declared complete reliance upon the weight of public opinion in a deeply politically aware country. He knows from his continent's recent history how quickly this can change - witness Bolivia's repeated and successful mobilizations that toppled non-performing administrations, prior to Morales' assumption of power. In Latin America at the present conjuncture, with its constellations of popular protest, its radical-democratic movements of workers, peasants, unemployed, tenants, and homeless people, its feminisms and its alternative-sexualities movements, its rising expectations and its growing demands, the test of public approval is a demanding one.

But the politics of Venezuela, as shepherded by Chavez at present, also entail a wager on democracy itself, on the capacity of more and more direct forms of democratic decision-making to transcend the limits previously set by liberal-democratic, consensus-based politics. This is a more ambiguous wager, though also one that is potentially richer. It can yield disturbing results. Why, for instance, is Chavez apparently so critical of constitutional checks and balances, of the independence of legislature, executive and judiciary from one another? If we leave aside for the moment the hysteric accusations of bloodthirsty tyrant and Pol Pot-in-the-making that have been showered upon Chavez, one can see in these measures a desire to strengthen democracy's executive arm, to enable decisions to be made more quickly, executed more quickly; for justice to be dispensed more speedily and efficiently. None of these, by themselves, are suspicious desires - they attest the desire for a democracy that can deliver freedom, security and justice with greater dexterity and readiness. But the wager undertaken here is that the partial collapsing of these checks and balances will only produce a greater efficacy in democratic functioning, that 'the power of the people' will not be abused by a paranoid executive, that the democratic force exercised by popular opinion will be able to fill in the place of legal safeguards. These are deeply problematic assumptions. They militate against the liberal dogma that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, and the truth of that dogma has been proven enough times in the history of the twentieth century to allow a certain scepticism about Chavez and Venezuela's efforts to transcend it.

Of a piece with this is the urgency of the question of the term limit, and this brings me to another worrying question. Why did Chavez feel this question, rather than, say, gay rights or workers' control, needed to be decided so quickly, by a referendum? I personally would quite like to see Chavez at the helm after 2012, if he continues along policy courses similar to his present ones. But what was the fear of losing power in 2012 - for the liberal and right-wing critics may well be correct here, this was the fear that drove the decision to go to the people - based on? If we reject 'totalitarian' explanations of Chavez's imperatives, the disturbing thought remains that he sees this revolution as somehow bound up with his own person, perhaps that he lacks faith in his likely political successors. Now this lack of faith, this centrality of Chavez to the transformation of Venezuela, may well be true, and it may also be true that the current democratic upsurge can only be brought to fruition with him at the helm. But is this, by itself, not worrying? If Chavez's 'revolution' has not been able to accomplish a mature accommodation to the prospect of the passage of power, will this not bring it into conflict, eventually, with the checks on power that are so necessary for democracy to work? How long will it take to find a way of sustaining radical-democratic impulses that are freed of the need of reification, of their personification in a master-figure? Can this even be done?

An attack on both term limits and the separation of powers represents a very specific act of faith, a very particular kind of 'wager on democracy'. This is the belief in a self-reproducing circuit between a mobilized, politically aware people and a responsive, radical-democratic state. The latter draws its authority from the wishes of the former. Now such a circuit almost certainly does exist, at a number of levels, in contemporary Venezuela. The political climate allows this richness of everyday political experience: the decisions of leaders do have to be brought to the electorate, the wishes of people and communities can find, swiftly, a place in governmental decision-making, or at least exert a significant pressure upon it. But how long can such a moment be made to last?

The answer to this riddle is crucial, for upon it rests the future success of radical democracy in Venezuela, and in Latin America at large. At present, there is an experience of freedom, in a very precise, practical sense, that is probably without precedent in the history of Latin America, an experience that can be likened only to a revolutionary opening. But such moments of freedom and popular agency have historically been liminal; they have separated the dissolution of accepted forms of authority from the realization of new, stable forms of authority. In such situations, forms of authority instituted, democratically, at the ground level have seemed to draw unprecedented force. Direct democracy has appeared both possible and efficacious. Yet in virtually all democratic revolutions, these have been the first victims. Whether it is Lenin disbanding the 'parallel' power of the soviets, or liberal democrats more gently damping down the more transformative impulses of the Eastern European revolutions, this violent or subtle expropriation of popular power has grounded the passage of truly revolutionary transformations.

Now if Chavez's proclamations and the Bolivarian Revolution are to be taken seriously, then the only step ahead would be the 'making permanent' of this explosive democratic ferment, the transformation of every day into a new, carnivalesque experience of democracy. This may be the richest political project of our times, but it is also a paradoxical, potentially dangerous project - for its ability to sustain the democratic nerve crucial to it through hard, embattled times has never been demonstrated. How can popular, direct forms of democracy be sustained by a regime that is driven to paranoia by global hostility and that faces the wrath of national and global corporations? How can democracy itself be made the weapon with which economic and political blackmail is to be fought against? This is another crucial question, for the history of the Left is replete with instances of democracy being sacrificed to 'save' the revolution: this has been by far the dominant trajectory of state socialisms of all kinds. In Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and elsewhere in Latin America, the success of the many transformations under way will depend on the precise articulation that is achieved between democracy and revolution.

So it may well happen, now and in the years to come, that Chavez will appeal for vigilance against 'the enemies of the people' (which he's done), institute restrictions on free speech and dissidence (which, quite remarkably given what he's faced, he hasn't). Much of this may use, quite sincerely, the rhetoric of protecting the revolution. Given the past experiences of global left-wing solidarity with revolutionary regimes, a good, Kantian, a priori tactic would be - assume such measures of restriction are unjustified, even if there are compelling reasons to support them. In this respect, I'd make the provocative claim that the right-wing suspicion of Chavez is something that left-wing sympathizers - like myself, for instance - should adopt wholesale. Not because it's true - most of the time it isn't - but because the dangers of a Stalinist regression are always going to be real enough to justify, from sympathizers, the most paranoic vigilance. Whenever Chavez takes refuge in the rhetoric of the 'necessary' sacrifice of democratic principles to facilitate the revolution, or enacts policy founded on it, liberal alarmists will be right, and just, in seeing the shadow of Stalin.

This will always be a spectre that is in some measure a diversion, it will always be at some level corrupted by the taint of self-serving, 'anti-Bolivarian' propaganda, or will be easily pressed into the service of such propaganda: in other words, the danger of an 'authoritarian regression' will be a rhetorical flashlight even when there's no justification for such suspicions. But as long as Chavez continues to play a role in this fascinating, and deeply democratic, transformation, he will have to answer questions of democratic accountability, he will have to be called to account for his decisions far more rigorously than a liberal-democratic politician. If this seems unfair, it is the history of the Left that is to blame for such suspicion, not that of its adversaries. Precisely because history leaves deep marks, and because the promises held out by the Bolivarian Revolution appear so genuine and so hopeful, the duty of suspicion, even of alarmism, is incumbent upon everyone who professes solidarity. The experiments in Latin America are too real, too full of possibility, and too important to be allowed the temptation of Stalinisms of their own, temptations which have to be real and potent even as democracy deepens across the continent, and moves leftwards.

But anti-Stalinist vigilance is, in the current context, an appropriate tactic for left-wing sympathizers, and nothing more: it cannot substitute for an attempt to understand, with some precision, the dynamics of the changes in Venezuela and in Latin America at large. These dynamics cannot be understood through the democratic/Stalinist or democratic/totalitarian dualisms. They are better understood as a genuinely crucial moment within the history of democracy, as a moment when the structures of existing liberal democracy can no longer accommodate the forces, the pressures, and even the new forms of popular sovereignty that threaten to emerge from within them.

The term limit, for instance, is founded on an essentially cynical liberal-democratic dogma: the rotation of power and influence is needed to stabilize democracy, to prevent the breaking of consensus through the establishment of alternative structures of power that might exist parallel to constitutionally ratified ones, and so term limits are necessary, because they prevent individuals from building such bases, and keep power rotating, and democracy stable. At some level, isn't this particular form of faith in democratic 'turnover' essentially a cynical declaration that a political representative's capacity to win successive elections is meaningless, that she should surrender her power, for the sake of 'stability', the supreme political virtue, to opponents or successors who may command none of the same support? The fear of democratically elected representatives turning their constituencies into fiefdoms is a justified enough fear - a glance at the politics of West Bengal, for instance, brings that home sharply. But is this the only fear that grounds the belief in a limit? Isn't there, for some of the proponents of this limit, also the fear that the capacity to win elections repeatedly might confirm upon an elected representative the legitimacy and support necessary to enact wide-ranging structural transformations, of the kind that Chavez and Morales have?

I agree, broadly, with the Chavistas on the question of term limits, and with their critics on the question of the separation of powers - that is, I see the former as inessential to democracy, and the latter as essential. But in a sense the questions posed to the strategists of the Bolivarian revolution, the question that can only be answered in practice, are the same in both cases: what place does the restraint of power play in your version of democracy? The success of your revolution has so far depended upon the articulation of two dynamisms, that of popular democracy from below, and an imaginative, bold and democratic leadership from above. The two have fused together in a project, but projects are by their nature temporary. When will the project fructify, stabilize into some kind of a structure, that no longer requires this kind of willed, voluntarist politics from above, but instead is able to reproduce the flow of popular, participatory decision-making, in the same way, for instance, that the silent operation of property markets and wage-labour relationships help reproduce the logic of capitalism? Is it not inconsistent to even expect this - that a particular set of state structures will stabilize, and reproduce, popular agency? If it is inconsistent, are we then to put our faith, ultimately, in the democratic intentions and good sense of the 'leaders', after all? And what degree of hope does history allow us to have of these?

Once again, even as I write these lines, I'm aware that these questions are haunted by the spectre of Stalinism, and this is frustrating, but also necessary. Lenin and Stalin, after all, also faced a hostile world order, attempts to break their regime economically and politically: the survival of the socialist project, and of a new path for world politics, was at stake. They made their choices, and the tragedies and horrors unleashed by these choices are well known, none more so than the truly tragic horror of Stalinism, the first, catastrophic experiment in socialist despotism, from which all the others flowed. The choices made by Chavez and Morales, in a similarly hostile global conjuncture, have been radically different, but they have yet to make the decisions that Stalin made so brutally: how is the relationship between popular, democratic mobilization and the preservation of the experiment ('socialism' in one case, '21st century socialism' or 'radical democracy' in the other) to be conceived, and forged, and administered? Soviet Russia gave us the first model, a repetition of which would be unbearable, and also seems unlikely. Contemporary Latin America is the latest in a long series, but also perhaps the most powerful, of instances of an opening where that elusive 'second way' can be discovered, and enacted. In the winter of this economic crisis, what happens in Venezuela, and Bolivia, and Argentina, and Ecuador, and a growing circle of countries, may matter more for the world's future than what happens on Wall Street.

Belated Responses to Gaza - 2

Wieseltier again. This is, oddly enough for something posted in a piece entitled 'Responses to Gaza', a patriotic poem by an Israeli. It's also one of the very few patriotic poems I've ever found genuinely moving.

Garbage Dump, 2000

I didn't like your faces from the start.
The words you spoke sounded phony.
Your plans were tiresome.
Even your women dreamed about something else.
But I carried on next to you day after day.
I simply had nowhere else to go.

Your futures looked doubtful to me.
Your fondness for your mistakes and your lies made me sick.
Your blindness wasn't even innocent.
Some appendage sprouted in you, bequeathed from a lower order of mammals.
But I kept finding myself in your company.
I was an orphan, completely broke.

I saw you polluting everything around you without restraint.
The most simple solutions you took as castles in the air.
Only desolation seemed simple and real enough to you.
Your children learned to growl in helpless agreement.
But I didn't turn my back on your company.
Somehow I learned to love and to hope.

My love and my hope had nothing to feed on.
Shadowy corners in the junkyard were all heat and rust.
Even the nights were thick and hazy.
Sated, sleepy faces displayed a vacuous denial of mortality.
But I made up my mind long ago this is where I'll end.
My body and soul have ripened as fruit of this dump.

This is a meditation that unfolds in four symmetrically conceived verses. In each of the verses, four lines announce a crippling distaste for one's inheritance, a distance from it that allows the coldest of dissections, delivered in brief, contemptuous phrases. 'I didn't like your faces from the start.' 'Your blindness wasn't even innocent.' 'Your children learned to growl in helpless agreement.' 'My love and hope had nothing to feed on.' This, for Wieseltier, is what his national inheritance can be reduced to - this is what 'belonging' really means, this is what he belongs to.

This could, then, have been an angry poem of disavowal, in the vein of a Brodsky or an Akhmatova denouncing the crimes of their 'socialist fatherland', or in the vein of Ginsberg's wonderful lines, 'Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb', delivered to Cold War America. Such renunciations - of party, of faith, of nation, of the bonds one is made to wear and made to feel proud of wearing, by all the smoke-screens and lies woven around us - are what gives much political poetry its bitterness, its prophetic, Cassandra-like force that tears away illusion and posturing, that drives it to, in Seamus Heaney's words, 'prophesy, give scandal, cast the stone.'

Yet Wieseltier's poem is not an act of disavowal, it is an act of belonging. The concluding couplets of each verse affirm that belonging, that attachment which has nothing at all to do with pride or with celebration or even with hope. 'I simply had nowhere else to go.' 'I was an orphan, completely broke.' 'But I didn't turn my back on your company.' 'My body and soul have ripened as fruit of this dump.' There is a helplessness to belonging, because belonging is what we are 'thrown' into, what every act of disavowal conjures up despite itself.

These lines nail, with an honesty that is stark, bare and bleak, the impossibility of belonging in the full sense, if one refuses to suture the wounds of history and the present by masking the truth, by denying to ourselves what it is that we belong to. Our 'belonging' entails necessary complicity with 'some appendage....bequeathed from a lower order of mammals' - the angriest indictment imaginable of military-patriotic fervour, of the drum-rolls of war and national sacrifice, of the sheer, amoral animality of the stories we tell to buttress this 'belonging'. And while Wieseltier writes these lines as an Israeli, with all the poignancy that this particular denunciation/affirmation of national belonging involves, I read the poem as an Indian, and would have read it as an American had I been one, or as a Palestinian had I been one. No form of national belonging is innocent of these charges, no form of national belonging has been unwilling to dip its hands in gratuitously shed blood.

And yet, knowing all this, one belongs. One builds answers, ways out of the tragedy, 'castles in the air', and one continues, all so often, to belong, with all the self-division and the pain that this creates. When Wieseltier writes that he 'was an orphan, completely broke', this is plain truth. He and his mother and sisters (his father had been killed serving in the Soviet Army) were among hundreds of thousands who made the hungry, cold trek from Moscow when the city was evacuated in 1941, the year of his birth. He ended up in Israel in 1949, an eight-year old who had already travelled, as a deportee, through Poland, Germany and France. Quite literally, he had 'nowhere else to go.' Israel was thrust upon him, over the years, as an experience of national chauvinism, paranoia and hypocrisy that he turned his back on with disgust, but at the same time he developed attachments to the land, the air, the trees, the cities and the people in ways that could not be reduced to the nationalism he was urged to feel by his society and its state. We all do, and this, really, is all that national 'belonging' can mean if we're honest, in its simplicity and its profundity. I have never read an affirmation of country, of belonging, of identity that has moved me as much as the concluding line of 'Garbage Dump, 2000': My body and soul have ripened as fruit of this dump. For most Zionists, this would be the statement of a 'self-hating Jew', the standard appellation for Jews who choose to separate their need for a home, for security, community, belonging, from the state of Israel as it exists today, for Jews whose Jewishness refuses to be bound by 'loyalty to Israel'. Wieseltier is writing from within Israel, but his 'patriotism' has nothing to do with notions of loyalty, or faith, or sacrifice. He can affirm his belonging while denouncing all that he belongs to, without looking for imaginary succour from Zionist or utopian fantasies.

But there is more than helplessness and a surrender to belonging in the kind of attachment that Wieseltier is bound by. There is something beautiful that is usually hidden by the collectively authorized forms of 'belonging', an experience that is personal, irreducible and authentic in the only true sense of the word. For at rare moments of freedom, belonging can break the bounds of duty and break into the realms of choice. In one of his most exquisite poems, Wieseltier plucks out a sense of belonging, of homeland, that transcends nation and myth, from a memory of his childhood in the small town of Netanya. As his translator Shirley Kaufman writes, this takes the form of 'a bittersweet nostalgia for his preteen years, uncorrupted by symbols of nationalistic fervour.' Here, finally, is a form of belonging that one needn't be ashamed of.

Far From The Flag Parade

It was sweet, dark and tangy
under the heavy branches
of the citrus trees bent
around Ein-Hatkehelt and Avikhail.
I called it homeland.
Shade streaming from the trees,
the heavy heads of the Shamutti oranges
scattered around me,
a glowing, saturated yours-for-the-taking,
far from the flag parade,
I called it homeland.
That was a long time ago. A kind of piratical act
of a boy who found
something he wasn't looking for.

'Homelands' envelop us all in embraces that are suffocating and unwanted. Sometimes, though, a truer sense of home can be produced by a 'piratical act' of the imagination, which lays claim to an experience that cannot be contained in ritual genuflections to the motherland, an experience which is a 'glowing, saturated yours-for-the-taking', bereft of all the symbolisms our senses of belonging are colonized by, an experience that is always, always, far from the flag parade.