Do we need another president for life?

Ex-foreign office minister Denis MacShane gives his analysis of the Venezuelan constitutional refere

This weekend, the world will see another president for life emerge. A referendum in Venezuela will vote to endorse changes to the nation’s constitution to allow President Hugo Chavez to stand as often as he likes to be president.

Unlike Mexico with its one-term rule or Brazil where a president has to stand down after two terms, Venezuela will now join those countries like Uganda, or the Maldives, or, if he gets his way Musharraf’s Pakistan where the people will enjoy the blessings of living under one leader for the foreseeable future.

Lieutenant-Colonel Hugo Chavez was the last expression of the golpismo – coup d’état – movement of South American militarism.

While the generals had been forced back into their barracks in Brazil after the great metalworkers’ strikes of 1978-1982 led by Lula, or been humiliated in Argentina by British soldiers on the Falklands, Lt Col Chavez saw himself as the man of destiny when he tried to stage a golpe in 1992.

He failed and had to wait a few more years before his chance came again, this time by electoral means. Still today, he wears uniforms as much as civilian clothes. Like his hero, Fidel Castro, his leadership is sartorially expressed by dressing up as a soldier and commandante, rather than the wearing the attire of civilian democracy.

What then should we make of Chavez? He is today’s idol for a global left that is looking for new bearings. Hagiographic biographies of him have appeared in several languages. For the British writers tired of the stubborn, patient search for a workable social democracy by a Cardoso in Brazil or a Lagos in Chile, the excitement and revolutionary rhetoric of a Chavez is thrilling to focus on.

To submit Chavez to the same critical analysis that other leaders have to put up with is to produce instant denunciations from those who search for the shining path to socialism in Latin America.

Probably Gabriel Garcia Marquez got it right when he wrote that there are ‘two Chavezes’. One might perform wonders for Venezuela. The other was ‘just another despot.’

For Gaba, whose left credentials are unchallenged to describe Chavez in such Jekyll and Hyde terms shows the deep doubts across the Latin American left and intellectual world about the Venezuelan president’s credentials and ambitions.

In the 19 November edition of Libération, the French left daily paper, sixty mainly Latin American intellectuals, writers, journalists and political activists, published an open letter critical of Chavez.

They argued that this weekend’s referendum would ‘abolish all controls on the powers of the state and the actions of the executive’. They further alleged that Chavez was spending a fortune on arms expenditure instead of using the golden showers of oil wealth Venezuela enjoys to develop a balanced economy based on sustainable development. The authors also claimed that Chavez was setting up his own private army, an armed militia that exceeded the size of the nation’s armed forces.

Naturally, not a word of this cry of alarm was published in the British media. Newspaper coverage of Latin America, other than in the Economist is a joke. The New Statesman, to its credit, has published reports on Venezuela which have been both supportive and critical of Chavez.

The most recent (published 15th November) showed a picture of a gunman on the back of a motorbike firing shots at students demonstrating for democracy in Caracas. As with the Mexican students in 1968, or other students movements over the years, the young men and women of Caracas are taking a huge risk in expressing concern about the slow death of democracy in Venezuela.

It does not have to be like this. Chavez presents no threat to capitalism in Venezuela. Businessmen are doing very well.

Like China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria we are witnessing the arrival of unrestrained market economics fusing with centralised state power.

Chavez’s oil populism allows him to hand out money to the poor. In past eras of high oil prices, notably under Carlos Andres Perez (CAP) in the 1980s, a populist president acted charitably.

CAP was a hero of the global left and the international trade union movement as he supported the Venezuelan corporatist trade unions, especially the union controlling the country’s petrol industry.

In 2002, Chavez smashed the union to take full state authority over the oil industry and installed military trusties in key sectors of the economy and civil society.

It was this assault on a trade union which forced the trade union bosses into an alliance against nature with elements of the Venezuelan right that launched the abortive coup in April 2002.

I was in Caracas in the days before the coup in my then capacity as the FCO minister responsible for Latin America. The tension was palpable.

The streets were full of pro and anti-Chavez demonstrations. It was impossible to sleep at night as women lent out of their windows banging saucepans to express discontent. In the first years of Chavez’s rule, before the post-Iraq invasion oil price spike gave him more money to spend than any leader in Latin America has ever enjoyed, Chavez’s economic rule was unsteady. Poverty actually increased and growth slowed.

Since then of course Chavez has been oil rich and some of that income has found its way to the poor. Other countries like Brazil or Chile have made bigger strides in combating poverty and done so without the oil windfalls Chavez has enjoyed.

Chavez is lucky in having one of the most arrogant, elitist, disconnected rightist oppositions that it is possible to imagine.

There are some exceptions like Teodoro Petkoff, a trained Marxist now editor of Tal Cual, but for the most part the right-wing press and opposition are boorish, arrogant and unworthy of support.

Nevertheless in 2002 they came together to do to Chavez what Chavez had done ten years previously – organise a golpe against the elected government of Venezuela. I had spent hours late at night in Miraflores , the presidential residence in the heart of Caracas, speaking to Chavez.

He claimed to be a supporter of Tony Blair and a fan of New Labour. The Labour government had gone out of its way to encourage Chavez, organising high level visits to London in 2001, in the hope that he would become an effective partner of the EU and Britain in a Latin America which needs to build bridges across the Atlantic in place of the region’s fatalistic obsession with the United States.

Other than the rightist government of Aznar in Spain there was no anti-Chavez feeling in any EU government. On the contrary, Britain invested in Chavez with John Prescott laying out a red carpet to greet him and in my 18 months as Minister for Latin America I detected no hostility to Chavez from British politicians or diplomats. The sentiment was rather one of curiosity at how this charismatic but politically unclear leader would develop.

I think Chavez was happy to meet a European politician with enough Spanish to listen to his views. We finished our talk towards midnight. He signed and gave me a copy of a biography of Bolivar. I gave him one of the wind-up radios invented in Britain. I wonder if he still has it? I left for the UN in New York when news arrived of the coup.

I put out a statement calling for a return of democracy in Venezuela. Britain was the only country to react this way. Other government bided their time to await the outcome of the coup.

Chavez now calls Aznar a fascist which is a silly, inaccurate insult unless we call every conservative a fascist. He says the US was behind the 2002 coup. All I know is that there was a planned naval exercise between the US Navy and the Venezuelan navy due to take place in the week of the coup. Against the protests of the US Navy who had spent $1 billion organising their biggest southern Atlantic exercise in years, the US State Department ordered that the exercise be cancelled. In the build up to Iraq, Washington could not afford, want or need accusation of supporting golpes in Latin America.

As a minister I was a useless civil servant. I wrote an article for The Times in which I described Chavez as a demagogue. I also said I was confident he would come back to power but sub-editors on The Times cut out that prophesy. Since then the uncritical Chavez worshippers have tried to paint me as some dark agent connected to the coup. If only. I was not sure of the man but I was clear democracy should be upheld in Venezuela.

Since then, like many, I have been tracking Chavez, more through the Spanish press than the useless puff or hate pieces written about him in the English media.

Michael Reid’s new book, ‘Forgotten Continent’ (Yale University Press) has a clear and objective chapter on Chavez. Reid is the Economist’s long-standing Latin America editor.

The 20 November edition of Le Monde, had a powerful editorial of concern about Chavez. ‘The concentration of power in his hands, the absence of dialogue with the opposition, the denunciation of the student movement as ‘facist’, the green light given to armed gangs, in short the militarization of political life is matched by unparalleled corruption’ the paper declared. Le Monde is no fan of the United States but its judgement cannot be ignored.

On the international scene, Chavez has embraced Robert Mugabe and told Belarus’ dictator, Lukashenko, that he is right to put down the democratic opposition in Minsk.

He has made five high profile visits to Teheran and calls Iran’s Jew-hating, gay-hanging, nuke obsessed president Ahmadinejad ‘my brother’.

There have been unpleasant outbursts of anti-semitism in the Venezuelan press and Chavez himself has made remarks which have frightened the Jewish community in Latin America.

So inefficient is Chavez’s economic management that the country has to import most of its requirement.

Petrol is a few cents a gallon as Chavez refuses any environmental politics that would lessen dependence on oil. At some stage, the uncritical admirers and promoters of Chavez will have to adjust to reality.

He is not yet a dictator like Castro, locking up poets and journalists and throwing away the keys. There is an opposition press. Elections are held and Chavez wins just as he will win the referendum this weekend. 20th century dictators are old hat.

This century we have Mugabes, and Lukashenkos, and Musavenis, and Putins, and Musharrafs, and now Chavez who cannot give up power. We need an adequate political science to describe this new type of populist, authoritarian but elected leader. Whether it is a direction the world left should go is for all of us to decide.

Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and was a minister at Foreign and Commonwealth Office
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A nervous breakdown in the body politic

Are we too complacent in thinking that the toxic brew of paranoia and populism that brought Hitler to power will never be repeated?

The conventional wisdom holds that “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”, in Edmund Burke’s familiar phrase; but this is at best a half-truth. Studying the biography of a moral monster triumphantly unleashed on the political and international stage points us to another perspective, no less important. What is necessary for the triumph of evil is that the ground should have been thoroughly prepared by countless small or not-so-small acts of petty malice, unthinking prejudice and collusion. Burke’s axiom, though it represents a powerful challenge to apathy, risks crediting evil with too much of a life of its own: out there, there are evil agencies, hostile to “us”, and we (good men and women) must mobilise to resist.

No doubt; but mobilising intelligently demands being willing to ask what habits and assumptions, as well as what chances and conditions, have made possible the risk of evil triumphing. And that leads us into deep waters, to a recognition of how what we tolerate or ignore or underestimate opens the way for disaster, the ways in which we are at least half-consciously complicit. If this is not to be the silly we-are-all-guilty response that has rightly been so much mocked, nor an absolution for the direct agents of great horrors, it needs a careful and unsparing scrutiny of the processes by which cultures become corruptible, vulnerable to the agendas of damaged and obsessional individuals.

This can be uncomfortable. It raises the awkward issue of what philosophers have learned to call “moral luck” – the fact that some people with immense potential for evil don’t actualise it, because the circumstances don’t present them with the chance, and that some others who might have spent their lives in blameless normality end up supervising transports to Auschwitz. Or, to take a sharply contemporary example, that one Muslim youth from a disturbed or challenging background becomes a suicide bomber but another from exactly the same background doesn’t. It is as though there were a sort of diabolical mirror image for the biblical Parable of the Sower: some seeds grow and some don’t, depending on the ground they fall on, or what chance external stimulus touches them at critical moments.

If what interests us is simply how to assign individuals rapidly and definitively to the categories of sheep and goats, saved and damned, this is offensively frustrating. But if we recognise that evil is in important respects a shared enterprise, we may be prompted to look harder at those patterns of behaviour and interaction that – in the worst cases – give permission to those who are most capable of extreme destructiveness, and to examine our personal, political and social life in the light of this.

***

It would be possible to argue that the anti-Semitism of a lot of German culture – as of European Christian culture overall – was never (at least in the modern period) genocidal and obsessed with absolute racial purity; limited but real possibilities of integration were taken for granted, converts to Christianity were not disadvantaged merely because of their race, and so on. Yet the truth is that this cultural hinterland offered a foothold to the mania of Adolf Hitler; that it gave him just enough of the permission he needed to identify his society’s problems with this clearly definable “alien” presence. In his new book, Hitler: the Ascent, Volker Ullrich compellingly tells us once again that no one could have been under any illusion about Hitler’s general intentions towards the Jews from his very first appearance as a political figure, even if the detailed planning of genocide (lucidly traced in the late David Cesarani’s recent, encyclopaedic Final Solution) took some time to solidify. Yet so much of the German public heard Hitler’s language as the slightly exaggerated version of a familiar trope and felt able to treat it as at worst an embarrassing overstatement of a common, even a common-sense, view. One of the most disturbing things about this story is the failure of so many (inside and outside Germany) to grasp that Hitler meant what he said; and this failure in turn reinforced the delusion of those who thought they could use and then sideline Hitler.

To say that Hitler “meant what he said”, however, can be misleading. It is one of the repeated and focal themes in Ullrich’s book that Hitler was a brazen, almost compulsive liar – or, perhaps better, a compulsive and inventive actor, devising a huge range of dramatic roles for himself: frustrated artist, creative patron, philosopher-king (there is a fine chapter on the intellectual and artistic circle he assembled frequently at his Berchtesgaden residence), workers’ friend, martyr for his people (he constantly insinuated that he believed himself doomed to a tragic and premature death), military or economic messiah and a good deal else besides. His notorious outbursts of hysterical rage seem to have been skilfully orchestrated as instruments of intimidation (though this did not exactly indicate that he was otherwise predictable). Ullrich devotes a fair measure of attention to the literal staging of National Socialism, the architectural gigantism of Albert Speer which gave the Führer the sophisticated theatre he craved. In all sorts of ways, Hitler’s regime was a profoundly theatrical exercise, from the great public displays at Nuremberg and the replanning of Berlin to the various private fantasies enacted by him and his close associates (Göring above all), and from the emotional roller coaster he created for his circle to the dangerously accelerated rate of military-industrial expansion with which he concealed the void at the centre of the German economy.

Theatre both presupposes and creates a public. In the anxiety and despair of post-Versailles Germany, there was a ready audience for the high drama of Nazism, including its scapegoating of demonic enemies within and without. And in turn, the shrill pitch of Hitler’s quasi-liturgies normalised a whole set of bizarre and fantastic constructions of reality. A N Wilson’s challenging novel Winnie and Wolf, a fantasia on Hitler’s relations with Winifred Wagner, culminates in a scene at the end of the war where refugees and destitute citizens in Bayreuth raid the wardrobe of the opera house and wander the streets dressed in moth-eaten costumes; it is an unforgettable metaphor for one of the effects of Hitlerian theatre. Ullrich leaves his readers contemplating the picture of a vast collective drama centred on a personality that was not – as some biographers have suggested – something of a cipher, but that of a fantasist on a grand scale, endowed with a huge literal and metaphorical budget for staging his work.

All of this prompts questions about how it is that apparently sophisticated political systems succumb to corporate nervous breakdowns. It is anything but an academic question in a contemporary world where theatrical politics, tribal scapegoating and variegated confusions about the rule of law are increasingly in evidence. On this last point, it is still shocking to realise how rapidly post-Versailles Germany came to regard violent public conflict between heavily armed militias as almost routine, and this is an important background to the embittered negotiations later on around the relation between Hitler’s Sturmabteilung and the official organs of state coercion. Ullrich’s insightful account of a de facto civil war in Bavaria in the early 1920s makes it mercilessly plain that any pretensions to a state monopoly of coercion in Germany in this period were empty.

Yet the idea of such a state monopoly is in fact essential to anything that could be called a legitimate democracy. In effect, the polity of the Third Reich “privatised” coer­cion: again and again in Ullrich’s book, in the struggles for power before 1933, we see Nazi politicians successfully bidding for control of the mechanisms of public order in the German regions, and more or less franchising public order to their own agencies. A classical democratic political philosophy would argue that the state alone has the right to use force because the state is the guarantor of every community’s and every individual’s access to redress for injury or injustice. If state coercion becomes a tool for any one element in the social complex, it loses legitimacy. It is bound up with the rule of law, which is about something more than mere majority consent. One way of reading the rise of Hitler and National Socialism is as the steady and consistent normalising of illegitimate or partisan force, undermining any concept of an independent guarantee of lawfulness in society. It is the deliberate dissolution of the idea of a Rechtsstaat, a law-governed state order that can be recognised by citizens as organised for their common and individual good. Rule by decree, the common pattern of Nazi governmental practice, worked in harness with law enforcement by a force that was essentially a toxic hybrid, combining what was left of an independent police operation with a highly organised party militia system.

So, one of the general imperatives with which Hitler’s story might leave us is the need to keep a clear sense of what the proper work of the state involves. Arguments about the ideal “size” of the state are often spectacularly indifferent to the basic question of what the irreducible functions of state authority are – and so to the question of what cannot be franchised or delegated to non-state actors (it is extraordinary that we have in the UK apparently accepted without much debate the idea that prison security can be sold off to private interests). This is not the same as saying that privatisation in general leads to fascism; the issues around the limits to state direction of an economy are complex. However, a refusal to ask some fundamental questions about the limits of “franchising” corrodes the idea of real democratic legitimacy – the legitimacy that arises from an assurance to every citizen that, whatever their convictions or their purchasing power, the state is there to secure their access to justice. And, connected with this, there are issues about how we legislate: what are the proper processes of scrutiny for legislation, and how is populist and short-view legislation avoided? The Third Reich offers a masterclass in executive tyranny, and we need not only robust and intelligent counter-models, but a clear political theory to make sense of and defend those models.

***

Theatre has always been an aspect of the political. But there are different kinds of theatre. In ancient Athens, the annual Dionysia festival included the performance of tragedies that forced members of the audience to acknowledge the fragility of the political order and encouraged them to meditate on the divine interventions that set a boundary to vendetta and strife. Classical tragedy is, as political theatre, the exact opposite of Hitlerian drama, which repeatedly asserted the solid power of the Reich, the overcoming of weakness and division by the sheer, innate force of popular will as expressed through the Führer.

Contemporary political theatre is not – outside the more nakedly totalitarian states – a matter of Albert Speer-like spectacle and affirmation of a quasi-divine leader; but it is increasingly the product of a populist-oriented market, the parading of celebrities for popular approval, with limited possibilities for deep public discussion of policies advanced, and an assumption that politicians will be, above all, performers. It is not – to warn once again against cliché and exaggeration – that celebrity culture in politics is a short route to fascism. But a political theatre that never deals with the fragility of the context in which law and civility operate, that never admits the internal flaws and conflicts of a society, and never allows some corporate opening-up to the possibilities of reconciliation and reparation, is one that exploits, rather than resolves our anxieties. And, as such, it makes us politically weaker, more confused and fragmented.

The extraordinary mixture of farce and menace in Donald Trump’s campaign is a potent distillation of all this: a political theatre, divorced from realism, patience and human solidarity, bringing to the surface the buried poisons of a whole system and threatening its entire viability and rationality. But it is an extreme version of the way in which modern technology-and-image-driven communication intensifies the risks that beset the ideals of legitimate democracy.

And – think of Trump once again – one of the most seductively available tricks of such a theatre is the rhetoric of what could be called triumphant victimhood: we are menaced by such and such a group (Jews, mig­rants, Muslims, Freemasons, international business, Zionism, Marxism . . .), which has exerted its vast but covert influence to destroy us; but our native strength has brought us through and, given clear leadership, will soon, once and for all, guarantee our safety from these nightmare aliens.

***

This is a rhetoric that depends on ideas of collective guilt or collective malignity: plots ascribed to the agency of some dangerous minority are brandished in order to tarnish the name of entire communities. The dark legacy of much popular Christian language about collective Jewish guilt for the death of Jesus could be translated without much difficulty into talk about the responsibility of Jews for the violence and poverty afflicting Germans in the 1920s. (Shadows of the same myths still affect the way in which – as recent reports suggest – sinister, vague talk about Zionism and assumptions of a collective Jewish guilt for the actions of various Israeli politicians can become part of a climate that condones anti-Semitic bullying, or text messages saying “Hitler had a point”, on university campuses.)

Granted that there is no shortage of other candidates for demonic otherness in Europe and the United States (witness Trump’s language about Muslims and Mexicans), the specific and abiding lesson of Nazi anti-Semitism is the twofold recognition of the ease with which actually disadvantaged communities can be cast in the role of all-powerful subverters, and the way in which the path to violent exclusion of one kind or another can be prepared by cultures of casual bigotry and collective anxiety or self-pity, dramatised by high-temperature styles of media communication.

Marie Luise Knott’s recent short book Unlearning With Hannah Arendt (2014) revisits the controversy over Arendt’s notorious characterisation of the mindset of Nazism as “the banality of evil”, and brilliantly shows how her point is to do with the erosion in Hitlerian Germany of the capacity to think, to understand one’s agency as answerable to more than public pressure and fashion, to hold to notions of honour and dignity independent of status, convention or influence – but also, ultimately, the erosion of a sense of the ridiculous. The victory of public cliché and stereotype is, in Arendt’s terms, a protection against reality, “against the claim on our thinking attention that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence”, as she memorably wrote in The Life of the Mind. Hitler was committed to the destruction of anything that challenged the simple self-identity and self-justification of the race and the nation; hence, as Ullrich shows in an acutely argued chapter of Hitler: a Biography, the Führer’s venom against the churches, despite their (generally) embarrassingly lukewarm resistance to the horrors of the Reich. The problem was that the churches’ rationale entailed just that accountability to more than power and political self-identity that Nazi philosophy treated as absolute. They had grounds for thinking Nazism not only evil, but absurd. Perhaps, then, one of the more unexpected questions we are left with by a study of political nightmare such as Ullrich’s excellent book is how we find the resources for identifying the absurd as well as for clarifying the grounds of law and honour.

The threats now faced by “developed” democracy are not those of the 1920s and 1930s; whatever rough beasts are on their way are unlikely to have the exact features of Hitler’s distinctive blend of criminality and melodrama. But this does not mean that we shouldn’t be looking as hard as we can at the lessons to be learned from the collapse of political legality, the collective panics and myths, the acceptance of delusional and violent public theatre that characterised Hitler’s Germany. For evil to triumph, what is necessary is for societies to stop thinking, to stop developing an eye for the absurd as well as the corrupt in language and action, public or private.

Hitler: a Biography – Volume I: Ascent by Volker Ullrich is published by the Bodley Head

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism