New tricks for old dogs – the Brutus effect

February 3, 2009 at 1:55 am (Tom) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Sorry about the delay on this one. I’ve started numerous posts on numerous topics without actually finding one that I was interested in completing – and if I’m not interested enough to write it, it’s probably going to make for some very boring reading.

But here’s an article that got me thinking today (try 3 days ago. Stupid time lapse…); about the bankruptcy of neoliberalism, and the radicalisation of South America; which, as things go, makes for a pretty standard fare in the Guardian, but for the mention of Barak Obama’s approach to Venezuela.

Now, I have mixed feelings on Venezuela. It’s not quite democracy as we know it; it’s somewhere in between that and the old Trot dogma of permanent revolution, and there’s no real doubt that Chavez is setting himself up for a long, long spell in power. On the other hand, the economic and social progress (oh, fallacy of progress, how I cling to thee) in that country has been truly absurd over the past decade; putting the major economies of the South (Brazil, Argentina, Chile) to shame, and sparking a wave of Bolivarian wannabes across the poorest countries on the continent, with mixed results. Whether Chavez is a dictator, a demagogue, or a democrat, what it demonstrates beyond all reasonable doubt is that Venezuela pre-Chavez, was corruptly condemning the vast bulk of its population to grinding poverty, for the benefit of a small urban “middle” class.

So, why is Barak, guardian of American values, pillar of Liberal wetness, and missionary of change we all believe in, doing equating the Venezuelans with the Iranians? Is it oil again? Venezuela has managed its socialist experiment, in part, due to their tremendous reserves of oil – which undercuts American energy hegemony in the area. But that doesn’t seem right. America hasn’t ever managed to successfully dominate the South American energy market – in the 70s, the military regimes they sponsored down south went so far as to develop ethanol economies to avoid dependence on US Oil. (Sidenote, we have Pinochet, Medici and Ongania to thank if biofuels end up saving the world from climate change…)

No, the way I want to tell it, the story starts earlier, and it starts in the Ukraine. Well, actually Serbia. But the Ukraine is a better example.  The Orange Revolution of 2004 was a textbook example of a corrupt regime brought down by people power – grassroots community organising efforts, nonviolent resistance and massive protest events, aimed at putting pressure on domestic and international sources of authority to effect extra-legal political change. Viktor Yanukovych was, no question, a corrupt and violent wannabe dictator, propped up by an aggressive foreign power, who used the resources of the state to try and rig the election. His opponent, Yushchenko, was an experienced former Prime Minister with an impeccable economic record and a desire to balance Russia’s power with that of the EU in the West. So far, so good. But if this was truly a widespread and deeply felt people’s movement, why did the eventual election return a result of 52% Yushchenko, 44% Yanukovych? Surely 9 out of 20 people wouldn’t be supporting a tyrant?

Basically, the problem with the scenario is that the Ukraine is a divided country. After 70 years of Russian domination and settlement, the east and south of the country is largely ethnically Russian. They were also primarily industrial, mining and energy workers and communities, who suffered greatly under the early waves of reform that washed through the area after the cold war. Today, these areas are some of the most impoverished in the country – and Yanukovych was heir to their champion, Kuchma. Kuchma was acceptable to the ethnically Ukrainian north and west because despite his engagement with Russia he pushed ahead on pro-market reforms that brought a great deal of prosperity to Kiev and its satellite cities – at least for a burgeoning middle class in the service industries and finance. But Yanukovych was abhorrent to them. So they revolted, using the tools of the domestic and international media, international, NGO and – finally, and crucially – their allies in the judiciary to topple the government.

But it didn’t just spring from nowhere. The Orange revolution was the product of 15 years of education, activism, training and organising by Western groups dedicated to spreading democracy – including the International Republican Institute, Freedom House, the Bilderberg Group; as well as the US government. All became involved in the Ukraine towards the end of the Soviet era, and – openly in the State Department’s case – were as interested in spreading American influence as they were in spreading democracy. These groups had actively organised on University campuses, and in the capital; they had actively targeted promising students entering the fields of government, business and law, they had recruited exiles and redeployed them within the Ukraine, they had sought to actively redistribute power within the country; they built a PR machine and an activist engine; and drove their opponents from the stage. Their tactics were direct from the playbook of Trotsky, Che and Mao; just better resourced and more media-focused (and, well, fewer purges, to their credit). What united them was their belief in the revolutionary power of democracy and capitalism – that a free market in ideas and capital was essential to human progress; that all humans essentially sought these goods, and that virtually any means were acceptable to achieving them. This intellectual viewpoint had achieved notoriety the year before with the US invasion of Iraq; and was now widely known as Neo-Conservatism.

Chalk one up for those guys. And hey, it is actually a functioning democratic capitalist state these days – maybe history really will smile on them. These days, most people think Napoleon was a pretty cool guy. He fought Austrians and didn’t afraid of anything.

Where it gets really interesting, for my money, is where it pops up again – in Thailand. Thailand, from 2001-2005, was under the sway of a personally powerful prime minister – Thanksin Shinawatra, who founded and led the Thai Rak Thai party to 2 election wins – with 60% of the vote in the 2005 elections. Again, Thaksin is not the picture of democratic rectitude – he moonlights as a telecommunications billionaire with a pretty laissez faire approach to using his power for his own benefit. He ran his party like a fiefdom, and was repeatedly accused of bribing his way to election victories. However; this is Thailand – the fact that he had enough respect for democracy to pay for its subversion, instead of just driving over his opponents in an armoured vehicle is some kind of progress…

However, Thaksin’s success and popularity amongst the country’s rural poor, and his sweeping reforms to land ownership, nationalised industries, health care, universal education and the role of the monarchy and army in public life managed to anger a wide swathe of the urban middle class and public sector unions, and the elites of the military, business and aristocratic worlds. As in the Ukraine, the anti-government forces assigned themselvse a colour – yellow – and a name – the People’s Alliance for Democracy. The PAD, throughout 2005 and 2006, organised, trained activists, infiltrated all arms of government, and generally steeled itself for action. As previously noted, it would have been all too easy for the Thai army to simply step in and remove Thaksin at any point between 2001 and 2006. Thailand’s vibrant coup culture certainly wouldn’t have treated plotters overly harshly; especially, as in all coups, if the purported to be supporting the monarchy. Instead, they organised as a mass protest movement, and took to the streets – wearing the beguiling garb of “the people” to undermine the rule of the 6/10 people they didn’t consider worthy of a vote.

Long story short, they won. Using the courts, they harrassed Thaksin for corruption; using street violence and “peaceful” takeovers of airports, public utilities and major roads they shut down the capital, and using their business connections, they just about destroyed the economy; all with the active assistance of Queen Sikirit, amongst others. In 2006, Thaksin dissolved his own government in response, and held new elections – which the opposition boycotted. After winning with nearly 70% of the vote, amidst escalating unrest in the capital and surrounds, the army moved in, and exiled Thaksin for good. Thai Rak Thai was banned in May 2007, and most of its leadership banned from politics for 5 years. A cast of B-listers formed the People’s Power Party; and duly won the December 2007 elections with a clear majority. Barely 5 months later, a consitutional court impeached the government, and a couple of months ago, with the PAD again threatening violence, the PPP was disbanded by government decree, and its leaders banned from politics.

So what am I getting at, and how does this all link to Venezuela?

It’s about legitimacy. Since the end of the cold war, there has been a single, dominant vision of statehood; and it’s inextricably bound up with democracy. George Bush senior was the last American president to respect sovereignty for its own sake; both Clinton and W have pursued interventionist foreign policies from different parts of the political spectrum – part of a new Western consensus on the “The Responsibility to Protect”, championed by Australia’s own Gareth Evans. Although it seems difficult to reconcile with the reality, regimes that do not pay lip-service to democratic principles are simply unable to find acceptance on the world stage – and fear fast sanctions, political intervention or even direct invasion if they don’t toe the line. Worse than that, for the traditionalists, is that western norms of statehood have worked their way into the often western-educated elites of almost every country on earth. You can’t run a government without officers, bureaucrats, leaders, knowledge workers – if they won’t work for you, you don’t have a functioning dictatorship, you’ve got Zimbabwe.

Some countries – like North Korea, are prepared to tough it out and do things the traditional way; but sadly one keyeffect has been to teach plutocracies, oppressive minorities, disenfranchised royals, coup plotters and all the traditional power-wielders some new tricks.

If democracy has failed you, and the people who can’t be trusted to vote correctly have ended up choosing the government, it’s no longer OK to just scratch the result and take a somewhat brutal mulligan. Mugging for the international media is easy – as long as your supporters are well-dressed, middle-class types who find it easy to congregate in urban areas, close to the airports and hotels. Motivating your domestic supporters is more difficult – but the lessons of the 1960’s protest movements have been well learnt – momentum, political theatre, moral simplicity; and a convincing explanation for why the poor don’t really understand what’s in their own best interests. Or are lazy and selfish. Best to go with both.

You build a convincing narrative – struggle against corruption, against the odds, winning allies, all good men pressed to resist; momentum gathers, and when the country is literally unable to function, the reassertion of the traditional power structures is the only way out of the crisis. The Berklians who built the democratic fairytale of the moratorium marches would be horrified at what it has become in Bangkok.

So, Venezuela, where the drama is still unfolding. Chavez is no model democrat, true. But he won better than 60% of the votes in the reasonably fair 2006 presidential election, and his party, the PSUV, did better than 60% in the 2005 parliamentary elections. A live talk-show might not be very presidential, but it is the country’s most-watched program. And in December 2007, he accepted the results of a referendum that rejected his proposed amendments to the constitution. After an unsuccessful coup attempt in 2002 – whose leaders remain in the opposition (which was part funded by the National Endowment for Democracy, years before its better dressed successes in Eastern Europe – including Ukraine), was succeeded by an oil strike, then a petition campaign, which forced a recall election, which he won in 2004,  and the subsequent election in 2007.

So why does the wealthy, middle-class opposition command the moral high ground, without a majority of the citizenry? Why does Obama reflexively side with an underdog that isn’t an underdog at all? Perhaps because, like Obama, they have mastered the theatre of protest; and retold once again the fairytale of the people’s revolution. If they could just get the army on-side, Hugo’d be a in whole mess of trouble.



  1. andrewcrisp said,

    That was awesome, thanks Tom.

    The theatre of protest is rather attractive, and it’s a great way to rally people together. Whether you’re the majority or minority, it sounds good to get together and demand change against some (possibly imagined) wrong, and for it to happen like magic. It makes you feel like you’re no longer the underdog, even though it uses the myth of the underdog all the way until you’ve won.

    Have you read The Shock Doctrine? Because you should.

  2. chromefist said,

    Actually, I didn’t. I’ve heard the premise, but never read the book. I should pick up a copy.

    But yeah; the reaction against disaster economics in South America is fairly extreme, with good reason. Maybe the IMF learnt their lesson, though – they’re advising deficit spending to the major industrial economies in this downturn; rather than the surpluses and wage cuts they advised for recessions throughout the 90’s. Or they treat the 1st world differently from the 3rd; who knows?

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