I had the pleasure of being in the audience at the Venezuelan embassy in central London for the British launch of a book by Alan Woods, leader of the International Marxist Tendency, called Reformism or Revolution, released in 2008.
A Venezuelan diplomat sat beside him and gave a talk for a few minutes, while we waited for John McDonnell MP, who sadly was caught in a traffic jam and forced to cancel.
Woods wryly explained that Chávez is the only leader in the world who actually reads books. Whether he has read Wood’s book remains to be seen. The book itself is an explanation of what is happening in Latin America; for Woods something revolutionary is occurring, but people were not without their doubts. Behind closed doors members of the IMT were concerned that Chávez was not Marxist enough, if at all – Woods did mention that Chávez was reading Capital at the time of his visit, but generally speaking, what had been happening in Venezuela was not a Marxist revolution, nor was Chávez a Marxist revolutionary.
With the bag full of buzz words within the bank of the left, Venezuela was not a revolutionary country as such; there were no real attempts to collapse the means of production; there had been the odd factory takeover, but in general private capital had been pretty safe from the state. Although, it was not reformism either. Nationalisation programmes were being met with significant attempts to feed and clothe the poorest, staples were being subsidised by the PSUV, and Chávez had no truck whatsoever with free trade or NAFTA; democracy in Venezuela did not begin and end in the voting booths alone.
Chávez’ socialism was certainly different to other milder happenings in Latin America. Back in 2008 when I was avowedly Grantite, I wrote a piece explaining the difference between what was happening in Latin America countries that were somewhere between revolution and reform (Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador) and other countries who were flirting with meek and mild centre left politics (Peru, Paraguay, Chile).
Although some of [Paraguay's, at the time new President, Fernando Lugo's] policies will be a much needed step in the progressive direction – such as agricultural reforms and reassertion of national sovereignty over energy utilities,- Lugo has been keen to play down the image that he is part of the popular left characterised by Hugo Chávez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, although so far his reasoning has been far from substantial.
He dismissed Chávez’s Government for its “lack of pluralism,” but fails to see the dangers inherent in his own coalition which is shared amongst Socialists, Christian Democrats, and certain sections of the centre-right. This is bound to lead to conflicts between the interests of the masses of poor peasants and workers who voted for Lugo expecting fundamental change and those political parties of the ruling class which joined Lugo’s Patriotic Alliance for Change (APC) in the hope of getting a share of power. These sections are represented by Lugo’s vicepresidential candidate Federico Franco, from the Partido Liberal Radical Auténtico. He sought to reassure big business by distancing himself from a “Chávez-style government” and adding that, “Our government will bring the country into a globalised world, into the World market”.
Lugo’s promises of land reform (in a country where 70% of agricultural land is in the hands of 1.7% of landowners), jobs for all, and the use of the country’s resources (hydro-power, oil and others) in the benefit of the majority, if maintained, can only bring him into conflict with the ruling class and the parties in his own coalition. But in order to attain this strong elements of empty reformism and nonsense conservatism must be rooted out, otherwise all the excitement may amount to nothing. If on the other hand he chooses to conciliate or even betray those who have deposited so many hopes in him, then the movement of the masses will find another expression. Lugo will be judged by his actions. Meanwhile the workers and peasants must be ready to fight for the demands in the streets, as these will not be conceded by the ruling class without a struggle.
This was the view of many on the far left; that Lugo and others, (Bachelet of Chile, Lula of Brazil) were either too weak or pandering to the Americans and free trade. But deep down, Chávez was beginning to be too meek as well, in spite of western media outrage that he is authoritarian, dictatorial and trying to introduce Castro-esque communism into Venezuela (the issue with RCTV did not help these matters much).
So the word – often used negatively by certain members of the far left – used to describe Chávez is one that often sticks in the throat of Marxists; populist. The phenomena taking place in Venezuela; popular movement. For the IMT, as with all Marxists, Marxism is a science, it is not a popularity contest, and Chávez needed to pick up pace or they would lose their patience – though this was not made explicit. And for Alan Woods in particular, he was very worried of unwise, unMarxist anti-Americanism, of the type being promoted by Chávez to stoke up popular sentiment in Venezuela and other countries.
Then came accusations that Chávez was an anti-Semite. Unsubstantiated to this day, but problems have arisen of late suggesting that Chávez is either ignoring, or acceptant of, the blatant anti-Semitism of colleagues Martín Sánchez of the Venezuelan Consul General in San Francisco and Gonzalo Gómez an active member of the governing party, PSUV, whose website aporrea.org is awash with anti-Semitic, and historical revisionism of the type that would please Adolf himself.
The Judeosphere has been kind enough to translate sample elements of that particular website:
“Failed Zionists, Jews, Fascists, Murderers” — Written in response to the war in Gaza, the commentator says the Zionists “coolly determined that killing thousands of Palestinians in a single operation would facilitate the final dispossession of the ancestral lands of the village that gave birth to the Messiah, whom their predecessors murdered 2009 years ago.”
“Jews, Schemers, and Murderers” — A bizarre “history” of Jewish intrigue, beginning with the observation that Jews have carried the stigma of cowardice ever since their false God Yahweh killed 200,000 Israelites in retribution for King David’s census (because the Jewish God feared Moloch and needed to prove his credentials as a powerful warrior).
“Hunting Jews” — An “expose” about the “alleged” Holocaust: “If we stop a moment and review the history, we should ask: Why has the supposed extermination of the Jews had and still has more notoriety than the actual extermination of African people? Why has the alleged extermination of Jews achieved major fame?….Does this have to do with a particular project which has sought to make Israel and the Zionist Jews the real owners of this world?”
The Modernity blog has also, probably correctly, mentioned that had the two Government figures written pieces articles praising the US or Capitalism and Chávez had seen them (there is evidence that Chávez quoted from the website, so he felt it was an authoritative resource), they would’ve certainly been thrown out, but anti-Semitism seems not to have jeopardised the jobs of these individuals, which itself has attracted a lot of criticism, and serves as a reminder of comments made about Chávez in 2009 accusing him of being anti-Semitic.
Not one to help matters much, Chávez decided to form close bonds with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. I contacted a high ranking member of the IMT early last year to ask what he made of this close relationship. He replied with a link to this statement by the Venezuelan Revolutionary Marxist Current, which said:
On June 18, president Chávez once again congratulated Ahmadinejad on his reelection as a president and added the “solidarity of Venezuela in the face of the attack by world capitalism against the people of that country”. The Revolutionary Marxist Current in Venezuela, disagrees with this position [...].
Reservations about Chávez were becoming stronger within the IMT, but still they gave their support to him and his popular movement, in spite of the fact that Chávez’ decision to form links with Iran and Ahmadinejad – the same Ahmadinejad who sanctions the kidnapping of trade unionists, pretends there are no gays in his country, denies the existence of the Holocaust, expresses interest in blowing Israel off the face of the earth, and allows the perversion of justice and exploitation of Islamic law to stone women for adultery even though stoning is “never used as a judicial punishment” – were based not on leftist principles, but as a way of sticking two fingers up to the US – a classic example of keeping an enemies’ enemy as friends.
It is a well observed point that Chávez may have a despicable international profile (lets not forget his praise for Robert Mugabe, and his observance that Idi Amin was just a misunderstood patriot) but what he does inside Venezuela is what really matters. To an extent this is true, if like me you admire his nationalisation of industry, his welfare programmes, his subsidising of staples and his agreement to talk to the FARC in Columbia in an effort to free hostages (he wasn’t bankrolling the FARC, that claim is unsubstantiated and a lazy hypothesis based on easily modified data on a laptop), but quite why the Marxists in the IMT continue to bother, I’m not sure.
Having said that, his international record has been enough for me to count myself out of the Chavista camp for good; he is no longer a socialist, but a figurehead for unsophisticated politics based alone on wholesale anti-Americanism, principles of which I cannot relate to.
(Guest post: This continues a paper by Dave Zachariah on ‘The Limits of Social Democracy’. The first two parts can be found here.)
3. The blind spots of social democracy. But the social democratic conception of the state would also prove to be simplistic. Firstly, the workers’ movement’s struggle for universal suffrage was not based on the classical theory of democracy as a form of government.
None of the central institutions of Athenian democracy had elected representatives, instead they were drawn randomly among the citizens. Elected representatives were considered to be an ‘aristocratic’ principle for chosing ‘the best’ in terms of status and education. This method was used almost exclusively for electing the ten generals of the city.
Only candidates chosen by lot could guarantee that poor farmers and artisans held political power. A look at the national parliaments in the modern world in terms of class, gender and ethnicity shows that the Athenian insight was correct; they are populated by representatives that are not statistically representative.
For mass parties the formation of professional policians, whose social background differs from the movement, leads to long-term problems since there is increasing risk that they cease to share the same perspectives. The risk is further increased when the primary goal is to win parliamentary elections and when the professional politicians can secure economic privileges.
Secondly, even if the state can be a juridical subject, and at times act unitarily, it is a hierarchy of state apparatuses that do not always act in concert. The most extreme example is Chile during 1970-3 when the class bias within the military establishment made it perceive the government of Allende as a threat to the order and decided to end it in blood.
In the improbable scenario that the Swedish Defence forces would turn against a government it would not be hard to guess which political direction it would take. More plausible examples, however, are the Ministry of Finance or Central Bank, which can limit the government’s scope for economic policy and therefore influence its direction.
Thirdly, the power of the state apparatuses flow from the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence. No decisions taken within the state, no executive orders by ministries, no laws passed by parliament, would be effective without the possibility to sanction those whom do not follow them. To the extent that this state power is used to reproduce the capitalist mode of organizing society it is effectively capitalist regardless of the what party or intentions are in government.
Fourthly, and most significantly, is the structural dependence between the state apparatuses and the capitalist sector. This is the central problem of the reformists’ instrumental conception of the state and needs to be elaborated at greater length below.
 The following analysis is based on Block  which was a response to a debate initiated by Nicos Poulantzas  and Ralph Miliband [7, 8] i New Left Review.
I. Stephen Hawking and the aliens
I have heard mentioned in the past that Stephen Hawking is one of that motley crew of believers in extra-terrestrials. And it was confirmed for me this morning, on BBC radio 4, that he has made a documentary in which he speculates not merely that alien lifeforms exist, but that they may be dangerous and we should steer clear. This got me thinking.
Obviously Prof. Hawking is an extremely able, gifted man – and his work in attempting to popularise physics is something to respect. I would not presume to challenge him, nor the other eminent scientists like Prof. Brian Cox, that alien life may indeed exist – that it may be microbial etc.
But where does the science come into speculating as to how dangerous it might be?
Even assuming one surpasses the problem of relativistic physics when it comes to the sheer distances involved between two near stars, never mind distant ones, there’s the question of time. Human civilisation has existed for, say, ten thousand years but that’s only ~ 7.3e-7% of the time that the universe has existed, during which entire solar systems have been wiped out.
So, mathematically speaking, not only is the problem simply one of a vast number of planets where eventually variables like distance from sun, the right type of sun, the size of planet etc come into line, but where we have to be in the right time-frame as well – and bearing in mind the age of the universe, that’s not an easy thing.
On the basis of such calculations it seems a bit sensationalist to speculate that aliens may be dangerous. We may never know. Reading one rather fascinating approach, bearing in mind the geophysical forces which shape our planet, 250 million years from now, when Pangaea re-forms, there may not even be a trace of humans left on Earth’s surface.
II. Media and authority
All of this is where the newspapers step in, of course. “Don’t talk to aliens, warns Stephen Hawking” is the Times title. “Stephen Hawking warns over making contact with aliens” says the BBC. No doubt the Sun’s page 3 will have quote Rebecca, 19, from Bournemouth, who finds the thought of aliens arriving on earth just so exciting.
These are the realms into which we are taken by a lot of television – the realms of celebrity. A well-known face is sponsored to feature in a programme that is by and large well meaning, but if it concentrated on those things which can be empirically verified by science, would be thought to bore the socks off the average punter.
Thus we have Stephen Hawking talking about, of all things, aliens.
It reminds me of George Bernard Shaw’s objections to a great deal of scientific discovery – evolution, germ theory and vaccination, for example, and the attention this was given at the time. Now Shaw was not a scientist and spoke from no scientific authority. In point of fact, many of his anti-scientific rants, usefully available in his Collected Prefaces, railed against scientists rather than abstract theory – but the theory caught it hot from GBS’ pen too.
National newspapers reported this stuff all the time, not just as the rants of an eccentric but as if a blow had been struck by one side in a debate against the other. As with Stephen Hawking, this was a departure from the world of science, towards the world of celebrity. Well-known figures expostulating on things they can’t possibly know.
III. Media and celebrity
These days we have Ross Kemp running round battlefields pretending to have a clue. For current affairs programming, Christine Bleakley on the One Show is a happy-clappy joke (I haven’t seen Chris Evans’ slot so I’ll hold judgment). And so on through any number of people who are complete twits, evident non-specialists in the field they are speaking about, and who are elevated by a centralised media to semi-stardom.
There was the blissful moment when nauseating ex-teen, Daniel Radcliffe, was asked about his opinion on the leadership debates, combining pre-existent celebrity, non-specialism and complete gormlessness in one package. All featured in the Sun, unsurprisingly.
Even for specialists the dangers are the same. Watch literally anything presented by ‘historian’ Bettany Hughes, a graduate of St. Hilda’s College, Oxford.
Certain people are elevated over the rest of us to educate us, and not through any great learning but simply because of the nature of a centralised media. There must be sources of authority to ask about things, otherwise newspapers aren’t reporting the opinions of a celebrated personage – merely the opinion of the much less illustrious opinion of a staff writer, and that doesn’t really count as news, apparently.
Even where those sources of authority can reasonably be expected to hazard an educated guess about the stuff they’re presenting, the danger can lie in the method of presentation – speculation independent of a balancing fact, or independent of a sense of proportion. Like aliens being dangerous.
As an avid sci-fi fan, I’m as curious as anyone else about the principles and technologies that would shape a human-alien first contact – and with Stephen Hawking it may be just as honest. We should be aware, however, that this frivolity, like the rantings of George Bernard Shaw, exists in a great pool of pseudo-science, mysticism and other views that serve different social functions.
To take a topical example, the conspiracy theory in the Arab world that Israeli Mossad was responsible for the 9/11 attacks finds its voices of authority in engineers who’ll speculate that aeroplanes alone couldn’t bring down the towers and serves the social function of relieving people from having to challenge the Islamist demons on their shoulder.
Compared to this, of course, the examples of Christine Bleakley and co are less spectacular. I doubt she’ll ever feed a conspiracy theory. But neither are we likely to get piercing analysis. So people can sit back and consider themselves informed, without ever having to actually be informed, one of the most important personal responsibilities in a democracy.
This great pool, as I have called it, is fed into by what GBS would have called ‘vested interests’ – e.g. the corporations who sponsor the cultural programmes of the religious right. We all know just how anti-scientific those are. These interests simply utilise the same form as more mainstream media – hence Christian broadcasting like the 700 Club. While more secular versions may deal with ‘facts’, that’s not to say that it’s better in principle.
When the debate is focused around secular issues, say MMR vaccines, animal testing or immigration, we get the same thing. In one corner a speaker from Immigration Watch or whatever the preposterous anti-science anti-vivisection group of the hour is, and in the other corner, some academic, commentator, journalist or politician. And this is presented as a method for reasoned exposition of key issues that afflict us – which it need not be.
Regardless of ‘fairness’ or ‘popularity’, some of those present may simply not have a clue what they are talking about. And, conversely, there may be issues that go un-discussed as a result.
IV. Arguments to authority and the blogosphere
Elevation by celebrity is deadly, just as much when we are too respectful of genuine specialists as when we permit interlopers of other specialisms and none to take over that role. We can let ourselves be guided by what is being said, especially when presented to us in a shiny format, or from such an august personage. This is despite the fact that both pretenders and personages can very often be full of it.
One only has to read Polly Toynbee columns over an extended period to realise her political expertise is the greatest exercise in political charlatanry since the Divine Right of Kings. It’s little different for the pretenders, hoping through sheer dint of effort to one day be regarded as a specialist in their chosen field. This is often what Tory blogger Iain Dale is accused of – self publicising etc. Well, he’s no better or worse than anyone else.
This danger of an appeal to authority, argumentum ad verecundiam, was eloquently rejected by John Locke in Concerning Human Understanding*, and it is completely undemocratic.
When men are established in any kind of dignity, it is thought a breach of modesty for others to derogate any way from [the opinion of men of established authority], and question the authority of men who are in possession of it.
This is apt to be censured, as carrying with it too much pride, when a man does not readily yield to the determination of approved authors, which is wont to be received with respect and submission by others: and it is looked upon as insolence, for a man to set up and adhere to his own opinion against the current stream of antiquity; or to put it in the balance against that of some learned doctor, or otherwise approved writer.
Whoever backs his tenets with such authorities, thinks he ought thereby to carry the cause, and is ready to style it impudence in any one who shall stand out against them. (Book 4, XVII.19.i)
From the point of view of the Marxist, there also exists the clear danger that Capital, having control of celebrated institutions, also controls and disseminates ‘expert’ opinion to suit itself. Recently, this process was documented by David Harvey when it came to things like the Powell Memo or the sea-change in acadaemia from a preference for ‘embedded liberalism’, which even included a strong Marxist Left flank, to ‘neoliberalism’.
One of the key successes of the blogosphere, in my view, has been the ability to rubbish appeals to authority by challenging the very basis of that authority. Now that many of us can write and opine, the narrow group that do it professionally seem a little less important. Not to denigrate the very real differences between the two – professional journalism is read far more widely than blogging, no doubt, and given much more weight to.
Nor would I challenge the view that quality control is important on blogs, and is sometimes neglected or made irrelevant, the latter in the case of blogs with more than one purpose – e.g. personal musical tastes and politics, where one element is based on argumentation and the other on simply showcasing a preference. Yet overall, I think our contribution is still a net positive.
V. And back to Stephen Hawking…
Beyond the self-congratulatory aspect to all this, there is a wider point. I am not qualified to comment upon Hawking Radiation for example, and this I’ll freely admit. I could pretend to be, but in the absence of any formal qualifications in quantum physics, my views would likely only gain currency if they fulfilled some social function, e.g. as ideology. Yet this doesn’t mean that nobody is qualified to comment, even if they lack formal qualifications.
While above I rail against those who have little or no background in what they talk about, it’s mostly from seeing the effects of this lack of background rather than being because they lack such a background. It would be a mistake to extrapolate from this that only those formally qualified are worthy of having an opinion. I have only qualifications in ancient history but I feel myself quite qualified to talk about politics, music, the arts and so on.
Even if I’m not.
If celebrity elevates people – irrespective of their learning – to preside over us, that is bad. Yet it is equally bad to suppress others simply because they lack formal qualifications that denote learning. What I look forward to is the day when there is some equivalent of the blogosphere for all media – a genuine participatory journalism in which ‘experts’ jockey with amateurs who have access to the same range of experimental data or learned journals.
Which, today, we don’t, nor would we have the time to use them if we did. If the realm of freedom begins after the realm of necessity ends, to speak undialectically for a moment, for most of us, that’s still nowhere near enough free time to establish hobbies that might prove to be intellectually fruitful not just for us but for the entire human race.** Even deprived of such time, however, the contribution of the average moron is still the equal of any expert.
It can be just as tainted with conceits or humility, it can be just as frankly expressed or couched in terms more amenable to socially acceptable proposals and ideals. It can be complete tosh or not. And there’s no reason under the sun such people shouldn’t have the right to be heard, why on matters like aliens, Stephen Hawking’s voice should be heard above the din, or on matters like evolution, GBS’ voice, but others should be condemned to obscurity.
Celebrity is what we call this exclusion and it is toxic.