The Atheists Pray for Chávez

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This is a translation of a piece published by John Brown, Friday 11th January 2013.

“Le Prince étant défini uniquement, exclusivement, par la fonction qu’il doit accomplir, c’est à dire par le vide historique qu’il doit remplir, est une forme vide, un pur possible-impossible aléatoire”

(Trans: Being uniquely and exclusively defined by the function he must perform – that is to say, by the historical vacuum he must fill- the Prince is a pure aleatory possibility-impossibility)

Yesterday I had the opportunity to take part in a rather emotional event. It was a gathering organised by the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela in solidarity with its president Hugo Chávez who was unable to swear in to his role as re-elected president due to the state of his health. Solidarity with the person who is president spread throughout the entire Bolivarian revolutionary process.

The gathering was made up of members of the Latin American community in Brussels and of other people who support the Bolivarian process and, in general, the transformative wave that is radically changing a large part of Latin America. The attendees, including the members of the ALBA diplomatic corps, were all everyday people, politicised and concerned. Live images appeared on screen of the huge demonstration in Caracas, where the population itself, in Hugo Chávez’s absence, took up the role of president. It was a thrilling scene: against an ‘opposition’ which was letting off fireworks weeks ago when it thought the president was dead, and which even today relies more on cancer than on its own electoral power to put an end to the Bolivarian process, there was a colourful –but also very red- tide, made up of people of all kinds and ages, surrounding the Miraflores palace to defend democracy, their democracy. Against putschism. Against death. Today, even we atheists pray for Chávez to that God whom we know does not exist.

There is a lot at stake in this difficult situation marked by Chávez’s health. The opposition is trying to take advantage of this moment in order to destabilise the country, by generating, among other things, food shortages, chaos and uncertainty. For the moment, their tactics do not seem to be working. On the contrary,  a vast majority of the population, greater even than the one that re-elected him, according to surveys, wishes for president Chávez to return to his position and continue the process that was begun with him. Chávez is not only the president of the Republic, but something else: the living symbol of a social change that has brought forth, into political and social existence, millions of Venezuelans who previously did not ‘exist’ and who lacked any kind of rights. Venezuela today is a country where the social policies of the Bolivarian government have reduced poverty enormously, where access to free education for all, and not merely to primary and secondary level but to university level, is guaranteed. Of 27 million Venezuelans, 300,000 were university students before the revolution; now there are more than two million. The same can be said of health and culture. One of the objectives of the Venezuelan government is for 2 million children to gain access to musical literacy, that is, they know about music and are able to play an instrument, provided to them freely by the State. Theatres and concert halls are no longer the sole preserve of the oligarchy. The social change is tangible with regard to development of public services and wealth distribution, and also in terms of politicisation and the involvement of the population. This is Chávez’s greatest strength and the basis of the legitimacy of the process. As the Venezuelans say, “Chávez gave us a Patria”, in other words, he made them become effective members of a political community and have access to the commons of a country whose great wealth was previously reserved for only a few.

These achievements are indisputable, but the very problem created by Chavez’s illness highlights a characteristic of the process that can be at once its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. It is, in effect, the very close relation between the process and Chávez’s person, expressed in slogans such as “Chávez is the people”, “Chávez, heart of the people” or “Chávez is all of us”. Beyond the relation of affection that large sectors of the Venezuelan population may feel towards the leader of the Bolivarian revolution, this imagined relation is inevitably framed within the political tradition of sovereignty. In this tradition whose classical thinker is Thomas Hobbes, the sovereign is who unifies the people. He unifies it in so far as he represents it and he represents it in so far as the individuals who compose the multitude that becomes the people renounce through a contract any right of their own in favour of the absolute right of the sovereign. For Hobbes, this is the only way of overcoming the mortal dangers entailed by the war of all against all that characterises the state of nature. In this way, the people and each one of the individuals who compose it act through their representative, through the sovereign, and, as a consequence, each subject must consider the action of the sovereign as his own. From a graphical point of view, Hobbes on the cover of Leviathan represented this foundational fact of sovereignty through the image of an Artificial Man made up of little natural men who transfer to the sovereign their own right, their own potency. Thus, Hobbes can claim that in a monarchy “The King is the People”.

Chávez’s leadership has often been described as ‘populist’. In the majority of cases, this is by his detractors, who consider that a political leadership that is not in the hands of “those who know”, of the social elites, can only be irrational and tyrannical. There is, in effect, a great antipathy in western political tradition to the power of the people. This same political tradition that today denounces Chávez’s populism is the one that until the beginning of the 20thcentury considered ‘democracy’ negatively and did so for the same reasons. There is, however, another current of thought that assumes ‘populism’ as something positive and considers, as Ernesto Laclau does, that populism is the other name for politics in the face of other conceptions of politics that neutralise it by reducing it to the mere management of society by presumed experts. Politics thus neutralised becomes, in the terms of French philosopher Jacques Rancière, mere ‘police’, or management of consolidated differences and hierarchies. Only ‘populism’, the importing of the demands of the part that is not represented and perhaps never totally representable can revive antagonism and with it politics proper, which coincides with democracy. This is something that Chávez has done magisterially.

Chávez’s leadership is utterly anomalous. Chávez is neither a political professional nor an expert, but a man of the people. This means that the majority of the population excluded from power and from the distribution of wealth identifies with him. Chávez is, for those at the bottom, in that State rooted in colonialism and oligarchy that Venezuela has been until the day before yesterday, a person who does not belong either to the class or the race that has ‘always’ ruled the country. He is, moreover, a person has who has –almost- never abandoned ‘common decency’, that immediate moral sense, based in the equality and dignity of all people that Orwell attributed to the popular classes and of which the vast majority of rulers are destitute. Not only that, president Chávez remains president not only for his undoubted personal courage, nor for having been re-elected for the last 14 years by a wide majority, but above all because the Venezuelan people rescued him from his captors and reinstalled him in the presidency by thwarting an oligarchic coup d’état. In a sense that is entirely opposite to the aforementioned phrase of Hobbes, ‘Chávez is the people’, since the multitude of those at the bottom is what sustained and sustains one of their own in that position of political responsibility that was not made for them.

Thus there exists, in populism and its particular chavista expression a dual aspect: on the one hand, it adopts the forms of classical sovereignty, since it affirms the representation of the people in and by the Leader, but on the other hand, the multitude and only the multitude has proven able to sustain simultaneously the Leader and the Bolivarian revolutionary process. Against the putchist oligarchs and even against illness; against the cancer that constitutes the sad and sordid hope of the ‘squalid ones’ (‘los escuálidos’), it is the Venezuelan multitude that gives content to the action of the leader and gives it potency at every moment through an uninterrupted dialogue. The political theology of a Hobbesian matrix made the sovereign into a mortal God who transcends the people upon which he bases his power and reduces the multitude to One. Chavismo is a new heretical political theology, messianic and materialist, in which the multitude maintains itself as such and as a free multitude determines in large measure the course of the political process. In this context the sovereign ceases to be a substance, and absolute, and is a relation internal to the multitude, of which the person of Chávez, as the defender of the common material resources and common decency, the dignity of all, is a mere expression. The sovereign is not the one who de-activates the multitude, but the figure who emerges from the intense politicisation of the population and can only be sustained through it. Hugo Chávez aboard the slave ship steered by mutineers that is Bolivarian Venezuela is a similar character to Melville’s Benito Cereno, but here it is a different Benito Cereno: a black man dressed as captain who assumes his function with enthusiasm.

Chávez is indeed a prince, but not the shining prince from the fairy tales who appears only once and then disappears never to return unless a near impossible condition is met, but rather an authentic Machiavellian prince. He is the prince who founds a new republic and a democracy out of the initial monarchical moment. Althusser recalled in his essay Machiavelli and us, a text from Machiavelli’s Prince: “although one man alone should organize a State, yet it will not endure long if the administration of it remains on the shoulders of a single individual; it is well, then, to confide this to the charge of many, for thus it will be sustained by the many.”. Thus there are, as Althusser comments on Machiavelli’s text, two moments in the foundation of a new principality: 1) a moment of the prince’s solitude, that of the ‘absolute beginning’ that is necessarily the deed of one man alone, a single individual, but ‘this moment is itself unstable, for ultimately it can as readily tip more into tyranny than an authentic State’ and 2) a second moment, that of duration, which can be ensured only by a double process: the settlement of laws and emergence from solitude – that is to say, the end of the absolute power of a single individual. Indeed, as we have seen, the absolute power of a single individual is a theoretical fiction that aids in thinking the rupture with the past, with the previous order. In the case of Chávez, from the moment of his ‘decision’ to break with the oligarchic regime through the different phases of the Bolivarian revolution, he has always counted on the support of important social movements that tend towards a majority. His revolution can only be compared to the creation of the new Machiavellian principality to a certain point. Machiavelli is thinking about the creation of a modern, bourgeois State, about a system of class domination, intelligent and capable of negotiating with “those at the bottom” to be sure, since the Prince must ‘retain the friendship of the people’, but what is at stake today in Venezuela is in fact the liquidation of class society, the creation of a real democracy, socialism as a transition to a society of the commons. This prevents the two moments from being clearly distinguished, although, without a doubt, the decision by Chávez to rebel against the oligarchic regime was at that moment the catalyst that was at once both necessary and utterly unforeseeable which allowed the whole process to take shape and set it in train.

A prince who founds a democracy is a vanishing mediator, a mediator whose very action prevents him staying on as an absolute sovereign. Chávez is thus indispensable, but at the same time, replaceable. He himself has said on numerous occasions that the objective of the Bolivarian project is to do away with the bourgeois State and its institutions in order to establish a democracy in keeping with new postcapitalist social relations. In the presentation of the electoral programme for the last presidential elections, Hugo Chávez said that: “to advance towards socialism, we need a popular power that is able to dismantle the frames of oppression, exploitation and domination that persist in Venezuelan society, able to configure a new sociality out of everyday life where fraternity and solidarity run alongside the permanent emergence of new ways of planning and producing the material life of our people. This entails pulverising completely the bourgeois State form that we have inherited, which still reproduces itself through its old and disastrous practices, and by giving continuity to the invention of new forms of political administration.” Many of us here in Europe, in Latin America and other parts of the world, hope that the Bolivarian president returns soon and implements this programme that is so necessary in order for the new republic born of revolution to take root, and to exit once and for all from the Hobbesian imaginary of the bourgeois State.

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