Monday, December 04, 2006

Chavez and the politics of polarisation

Chavez has been re-elected for a third six-year term. No-one's talking about it. Not in my workplace, not in the pubs I go to. But the blogosphere is a different story. The reason behind this is a familiar one. Political partisans, leftists in particular, have a long history of being obsessed with the events taking place in two arenas in the world - the Middle East and Latin America.

It is because it is felt that it is here that the fundamental clashes between right and left, capitalism and socialism, are played out in primary colours. For the ultra-leftist, the attractions are obvious. All but the most blinkered gave up pretending the Soviet model was internally more benign than liberal capitalism with a welfare state decades ago. But both the Middle East and Latin America were always different stories - areas of the world where evidence of capricious Western statecraft was and is both copious and obvious.

I would point out that the very same leftists had a tendency to ignore the role of the other superpower in both these regions; one has only to compare the starkly different responses to the Soviet and American invasions of Afghanistan for an example of this. But this would be to make the reckless assumption that the people involved in the 'debate' possess memories. And more importantly it would be to fall for the partisan trap that merely apes the polarised politics that have been so destructive to these parts of the world.

For they have been characterised not just by sharply-defined ideological political movements but something altogether more corrosive to civil society - fundamental disagreements not just over policy but over the very mechanisms that determine which policies are executed in the first place. That priests are politicised, the police corrupt, unions riot, politicians and businessmen bribe, and the military coup are symptoms of this very fact. To take sides at various times in a variety of ways is tempting, at at times irresistible, but as often as not this serves only to be part of the problem in these parts of the world.

Enter Chavez. For those aching for the collapse of the American empire, his attractions are obvious. Better than Castro on account of the fact that he isn't at death's door; he was democratically elected; and is fundamentally less repressive than Castro ever was or is now. And you don't have to long for America's demise to acknowledge that he spends his country's oil-wealth in a more benign fashion than the American-sponsored House of Saud.

Yet I'm not celebrating for reasons that I think others are finding difficult to articulate. There is his foreign-policy to consider, of course - his support for dictators of questionable sanity and unquestionable inhumanity in Iran and Zimbabwie. But there's something more fundamental than this. The threat President Chavez has already posed for liberty is clear to anyone who cares to look. And that he intends to seek an amendment to the constitutional restriction on Presidential re-election is perhaps indicative of what is to come.

But Chavez groupies ignore this for the same reason they ignored and continue to ignore Castro's repression - they prefer equality to liberty. It's an old division on the left that dates back to the Russian revolution. I understand this, I was brought up with this. I even used to share it in my youth, but not anymore. Others may have different reasons for their scepticism over the Chavez phenomenon; mine is that while liberty and equality are desirable, they are not necessarily co-existent and where they should conflict, I choose liberty every time. It's as simple as that.

Cross-posted at DSTPFW

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