A recent exchange with a particularly unpleasant member of the international prochavista left resulted in me meditating on the rhetoric and arguments behind the leftist cheerleading of distant regimes.
The individual in question appeared to be a Leninist, which may explain her tone of argument. In a rather curious piece of rhetoric, she referred to an entirely discredited Libcom thread which led to a poster being banned and denounced by his NEFAC comrades, as well as making a bizarre claim that El Libertario were "right wingers who say they are anarchists in order to fool the left". The newspaper also attracted her ire for attacking Chomsky's sudden softness for Chávez. How dare us commit sacrilege against such an idol, after all!
We decided against continuing the correspondence with her, partially because it was being conduced via an intermediary, but mostly due to a sense of ennui amongst folk who have been shouted down for 11 years by disingenous hacks repeating the same, tired lies. However, there was one argument in particular which stuck with me, largely because it has some resonance with some so-called anarchists. She was in favour of Chávez, she said, because "it is clear that the vast majority of the poorest Venezuelans support the government's policies".
Of course, firstly, it is far from clear who supports el proceso and by how much. In the recent PSUV primaries for this year's parliamentary elections, only 38% of the party's members even bothered to vote, suggesting widespread disillusionment amongst card-carrying members. Another (nationwide) survey implied that there are now (marginally) more antichavistas than chavistas (32% to 31%), while 63% considered that "things are generally going badly" and 62% actually thought that their problems are getting worse. Hardly surprising then, that yet another survey puts the figure of expected abstention in November at over half: 51%.
Now, we all know that polls are not the most reliable of public barometers, and that we have to consider who commissioned them and to what end. Moreover, it is possible that many people's minds will change in between now and November: Chávez is certainly hoping that his presentation of the already-mooted meagre minimum wage increase (covered back in January here) as a Mayday gift to the nation's workers, as well as all the nationalist pomp and ceremony around the celebrations of the Venezuelan bicentenary, will push up his ratings. Noone is quite sure what will happen in November, hence the increased militarisation of chavismo. My point, however, is this: it is far from clear that "the great majority of the poorest Venezuelans" support the government; in fact, if anything, the evidence suggests that opinion on him is divided.
Moreover, even if that were to be the case that Chávez counted on the support of the vast majority of the country, that wouldn't in itself warrant an abandonment of criticism and struggle against the regime. History is littered with successful populist leaders who have managed to manipulate their subjects. That, more than anything else, is the art of politics, after all; the ability to simultaneously gauge and fabricate public opinion, the exact thing that we are struggling against.
So why would someone use a politician's popularity as an argument for unconditional support? One part of this is linked to the ugly, lazy dichotomies which some "anarchists" - especially towards the end which Libcommers have taken to calling "neo-platformists" - manoevre, often under the misnomer of "pragmatism". In said dichotomy there only exists two options in a stagnant, inertiatic world: either attempt to dodge the pink elephant in the room by refusing to denounce the populist leader (after all, wouldn't wanna offend these folk and their religious conviction in him) or risk complete alienation by confronting the sacred cow and criticising him. Like I say, this rather narrow view of world events confines every political landscape into a narrow, pre-prescribed set of events.
Moreover, it requires a sort of doublethink which already belies the proximity of said radicals to the populist ideology: after all, only a chavista could really believe that s/he is a part of a popular movement, and even then, it would demand a certain amount of self-denial (in the case of El Libertario's critic, her observations were based on a visit to Venezuela that, as a member of a prochavista organisation, was presumably organised in conjunction with the Venezuelan state). To my mind, accrediting popularity to a populist amounts to something of a self-fulfilling prophesy.
More crucially however, such lines of arguments expose the post-colonial left as the ugly, patronising creature that it really is. It refers to a worldview - influenced by a clunky, poorly-digested comprehension of developmentalism - in which Westerners are superior in intelligence and education to those folk in Thailand, Venezuela and Africa, which is why Westerners can demand social revolution while the working class in ex-colonies can only demand literacy programmes and state-run healthcare. Once bolivarianismo et al have failed, then - and only then - will Latin Americans be able to criticise social democracy. Of course, by that point, the former colonial powers will have developed that much further, so the formerly colonised will have to continue pursuing them on an identical path of development.
However, contrary to the Sims-like world of the leftist cheerleader, the trajectory of developing countries is not identical to that of the developed world. It is not merely a simple question of charting various stages in an atemporal vacuum. Today's developing world has access to 21st century technology, an increased level of global self-awareness and analysis, an elite which lives in an opulence that is comparable - even superior in many ways - to the developed world's elite, etc. As a result, the capacity exists within developing countries for cogent analysis, criticism and even struggle against populism. Whereas populism and weak infrastructure can be an obstacle to autonomous political activity in, say, Palestine, in places such as Mexico and South Africa, continued poverty and scarcity have merely served to radicalise workers and social movements.
In Venezuela, there is an anarchist community, mainly based around - but not limited to - the El Libertario newspaper. More importantly, there is a growing number of strikes, demonstrations and social struggles over housing, food shortages, workers' rights, and many more issues. The assertion that the nation is united behind chavismo can be attributed to either despicable disingenuity or hopeless naivete, while the blanket recourse to blanket cultural relativism with regards to developing world populists represents a sort of noble savage-era condescension which borders on racism.