Strong Constitutions: Cameron Responds

Strong Constitutions

I am grateful to Jon Beasley-Murray for his review of Strong Constitutions. The greater part of the review is a perceptive and accurate account of the central argument of the book. I also appreciate the objections Jon raises, which I think are important and deserve a response.

First, Jon argues that Strong Constitutions, despite its critical intent, ultimately falls within the mainstream of political science. Indeed it rests on a kind of scientific naturalism that is as bad as the pseudo-scientific rationalism it rejects. Second, Jon suggests the argument of Strong Constitutions is actually a rather conservative one. It confuses description with norms—what is, with what ought to be. Such a view limits rather than expands human freedom because, in the end, what ought to be is reduced to what is. Finally, Jon is skeptical of what he calls the “humane” tradition rooted in Aristotelian practical wisdom.

It would please me a great deal if Strong Constitutions were to be seen as part of mainstream political science. I have a strong commitment to social science. I do not, however, think the social sciences should seek to replicate the natural sciences. Strong Constitutions is written in support of an interpretive or human science that starts with the recognition of the centrality of agency and purposiveness, intentions and goals. I can’t agree with the claim that the vision of agency in this book is “as reductive” as rational actor theories. For me—like many social theorists, from Guillermo O’Donnell, to Amartya Sen, to Martha Nussbaum, to Ken Sharpe and Barry Schwartz—agency implies practical reason and moral judgment, which are missing in rational actor models. I assume agents can plan their lives and distinguish right from wrong, good from bad. A social science theory that does not incorporate that human capacity is not just limited—it becomes complicit with the unchecked instrumental rationality that undermines practices and institutions that are vital to self-government.

This brings me to the next point. Moral judgment, care and concern for others, and deliberation about both means and ends in aid of sociability, are human capabilities. They are by no means unique to humans (precursors of morality can be found among other mammals, birds, and, yes, even fish!), but they are massively reinforced by the use of language. The fact that we are speaking agents, among other things, contributes to our potential to be moral agents—that is, the ability to construct ought-based institutions. That is the sense in which Hume’s law (you cannot derive an ought from an is) is flawed. Morality is an emergent property of human sociability, a necessary feature of conscious social activity. Morals are social facts.

Morals as social facts are often embodied in institutions. I attribute recognition of this to Montesquieu, which is why he is a forerunner of sociology (Durkheim’s claim), and that is not at all a bad thing—my work also purports to be sociological. What makes institutions so interesting, in my view, and this is lost in a positivist perspective, is that in order to work they have to make normative claims that are always contestable. Merely reading the riot act is never enough—as we can see today in Ferguson. The factual power institutions generate is grounded in contestable claims that involve ought-statements. These are the moral resources institutions can mobilize, though they often fail to do so.

A critical insight of the book is that planning an action or activity before and judging the action after it has been executed are fundamentally different kinds of things. The first involves deliberation about the aims of an activity and how to achieve them. The second involves judgments about whether the aims were right and the means the best suited to achieve them. That these are not distinctions made in rational actor models is obvious, since such models focus on means-ends calculations exclusively. For that reason, such models cannot explain our deliberative institutions except in highly “reductive” ways. By contrast, the view that institutions are emergent properties of social action that in turn shape and give potential to agents implies reciprocal causality (where the causal arrow go both upward and downward between agents and institutions). I agree this can seem circular, but it is not an iron cage. On the contrary, recognizing this fact is essential to progressive social change.

There is, in the social sciences, too much faux realism masking complacency about the status quo. I am happy to be associated with a more “humane” tradition, though that is not a label I would have chosen. But I don’t see any basis linking Strong Constitutions to a kind of law-and-order ethic. It is, instead, written in support of the idea that human freedom is a collective goal, and to be truly free and flourishing we need to be participate in collective self-government. That is, at their best, what constitutions enable.

My thanks to Jon for his careful reading and probing analysis.

Strong Constitutions

Strong Constitutions

Max Cameron’s Strong Constitutions: Social-Cognitive Origins of the Separation of Powers is a very humane book. I don’t particularly intend that as a compliment, though I suspect it will be taken as one. In any case it’s not such a bad quality, not least in a book of political science. For Cameron’s aim is to avoid the dull, specialized, statistics-packed, acronym-heavy pseudo-objectivity that is all too typical of his discipline. Indeed, he has little time for the entire panoply of “twentieth-century efforts to make the study of politics a science in the model of the natural sciences” (199). He wants, instead, to return to a better and kinder time when politics could be conceived as a gentler, more virtuous and moral, activity than it has been envisaged under the terms of today’s Realpolitik and Polizeiwissenschaft. So, despite the overlaps with (among others) Jürgen Habermas’s theories of communicative rationality or Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson’s notions of “deliberative democracy,” Cameron suggests that something went wrong in political theory shortly after Montesquieu–or, oddly, just before the French and US Revolutions and so at the very dawn of the great age of constitution-writing. Indeed, the real hero of this book is Aristotle, and the Aristotelian conception of “practical wisdom.” The highest praise paid to Habermas, then, is that he “brings political theory back, full circle, to Aristotle” (157), while Montesquieu marks an end to things in so far as he was “the last great Aristotelian theorist” (92).

What results is a wide-ranging, ambitious, and often highly readable treatise on the function of the “separation of powers” within constitutional systems and constitutional thought from the Ancients to the present. Cameron makes two key points: First, that separating powers is not the same as limiting them. In other words, and against the common conception of “checks and balances”–the notion that the various parts of government need to be set against each other in order to ensure that none dominates the others–Cameron argues that it is only by keeping diverse forms of power distinct that we can have “strong constitutions,” that is, states and social orders empowered to organize and coordinate collective action. Rather than imposing limits, then, separation is best understood as a device to enhance each modality of governmental power and to ensure that together they are more than the sum of their parts.

Cameron’s second point is that the three modalities of power embodied in the legislature, executive, and judiciary are fundamentally all determined by their relation to written texts: writing, reading, and reflection. They are each, in other words, different aspects of the interpretative process in a system that is shaped by and dependent upon the written word. Constitutions are ultimately “texts that prescribe speech acts that are performed repeatedly according to a set of conventions and understandings” and thus give rise to “linguistically constructed worlds of shared meaning” (200). Hence, “reading” is far from a passive activity: when Cameron calls it a “speech act,” it is so in the sense that “reading the Riot Act” is a performative utterance with concrete effects on a given collection of human bodies. But such utterances are only effective if they are ascribed the requisite authority and legitimacy, and this (Cameron argues) is what the separation of powers ensures. If the Riot Act is read and the people do not disperse, then whatever the limited success of sending in the police with their batons and shields, something is wrong with the constitutional order.

So this is in many ways a very traditional book, almost refreshingly old-fashioned in its historical sweep and its attempt to rise above any geographical or cultural particularity as much as in its recourse to an old and somewhat out-of-favour theoretical tradition. Yet by putting language so firmly at the centre of its analysis, it also gestures to the so-called “linguistic turn” that has been so influential in twentieth-century social theory, even as mainstream political science turned its back on such theory in the name of rationalism and scientificity. Yet sadly, Strong Constitutions remains a work of the mainstream in so far as it, too, passes up on the chance for fruitful encounter with theorists of language, narrative, and political representation from Austin to Derrida, Althusser, Lyotard, Foucault, Laclau, Butler, or Agamben; some of their work is briefly cited, and there is a short if rather unsatisfactory discussion of Agamben in particular, but ultimately this is an opportunity lost. Here, I think, is where Cameron’s investment in the humane tradition does what is otherwise a fascinating and important book a signal disservice.

For ultimately, Strong Constitutions falls back on a scientific naturalism that is no less debilitating than the one that it (rightly) rejects in contemporary Political Science. We see this in the strange and wholly unexamined assumption that the separation of powers somehow replicates fundamental structures of human cognition: it “organiz[es] the state so that it has the same collective capacity for agency as the human mind: deliberation, followed by execution, and judgment of consequences” (166). This is surely as reductive a vision of agency as that of more conventional rational actor theory. Moreover, the invocation of “cognition” gives it a similarly spurious sense of scientific foundation–however much the first part of Cameron’s book suggests that ways of thinking are historically conditioned by communication technologies. Yet this assumption, that states act and think like people, and that people act and think according to these three particular categories, is central to what Cameron calls his “social-cognitive” approach, which is based on the notion that the separation of powers is “an organizational consequence of human cognition” (14).

Constitutions emerge then as less the product of human minds (as Cameron is otherwise keen to emphasize) than the quasi-natural attempt to mimic their thought processes. Not only does this lead to the very conservative confusion of description with norm: what (putatively) is becomes the model of the way things ought to be. Additionally, and despite his arguments against social contract theory, Cameron comes to remind us of Thomas Hobbes, who saw, as Sheldon Wolin is quoted as saying, “a potential congruence between the phenomenon of politics and the concepts of the human mind, provided that these concepts were founded on the right method” (qtd. 88). A new Leviathan emerges! So long, that is, as people do indeed think the ways in which they “ought” to think.

Where constitutionalism apparently doesn’t work out–as in the case of much of Latin America, we’re told–this is because of “entrenched patterns of social communication” that don’t fit the ideal model (178). Here, constitutions can’t very well do the job of bringing us to order, that is, of “bring[ing] speech and action into line with texts” (202). But then we are locked into a circular problem: if a constitution merely reflects (a given state of) human mind, mirroring its organizational features, then it can’t be expected to flourish in such barren social-cognitive ground. As Bertolt Brecht famously put it, “Would it not be easier / In that case for the government / To dissolve the people / And elect another?” Which, upon reflection, doesn’t seem such a humane option after all. And this is one of the cruel ironies of the humane tradition: that it has so often been so very inhumane in practice.

[Update: Cameron Responds.]

Rights of Man

Thomas Paine, Rights of Man

Thomas Paine is a curious character, whose legacy is hard to assess. But perhaps this is why it is all the more important to (re)read him. His difficulties, ambiguities, and ambivalences, in the midst of the eighteenth-century “Age of Revolutions,” may resemble our own in what are at first sight rather less revolutionary times. But perhaps our times are every bit as revolutionary as Paine’s: he spends much of his celebrated Rights of Man reporting back from abroad; and we are also faced with upheavals elsewhere (from Syria to Venezuela, Egypt to the Ukraine) that give rise to divided opinions and uncertain allegiances.

The first part of Paine’s book is, after all, given over mostly to a stinging attack on Edmund Burke’s critical account of the French Revolution. For Paine, Burke provides more fiction than fact. Specifically, his conservative opponent concocts a kind of moral drama full of “theatrical exaggerations” and “poetical liberties [. . .] omitting some facts, distorting others, and making the whole machinery bend to produce a stage effect” (23-4). In response, then, Rights of Man provides a rather soberer description of recent history, stressing the “cool deliberation” characterizing the creation of a National Assembly (60) and its lack of “mean passions” or vindictiveness against its enemies (64). Indeed, if anything, Paine rather downplays the novelty of the revolution itself, framing it as the logical result of a prior collective prise de conscience: “The mind of the nation had changed beforehand, and the new order of things has naturally followed the new order of thoughts” (51).

Yet it is not as though Paine himself were above playing to the gallery. This book was originally a pamphlet (two, in fact) that sought–and achieved–high circulation thanks as much to its witty ripostes as to its patient explication. Paine shows himself a master of rhetorical and literary figures, from metaphor to hyperbole: Burke, for instance, is described as “mounted in the air like a balloon, to draw the eyes of the multitude from the ground they stand on” (35); his discourse is discounted as “a wild unsystematical display of paradoxical rhapsodies” (35). And yet there is something rhapsodical about Paine’s text, too, and unabashedly so. Indeed, in part two Paine relishes the popular success of the first part of his tract (“I suppose the number of copies [to have been . . .] not less than forty and fifty thousand” [100-1]) and then immediately takes the opportunity to make a pun on Burke’s charge that it should be subject to “criminal justice”: “it must be criminal justice indeed that should condemn a work as a substitute for not being able to refute it” (101). In short, the Rights of Man is infused throughout with a sort of glee–one might even say jouissance–that might be thought to undercut the emphasis it otherwise places on the triumph of reason.

It helps of course that Paine feels he is very much on the right side of history. The problem with Burke, he claims, is not so much his failure to understand what was going on in France (or America) as his insight into the implications for England: “He writes in a rage against the National Assembly, but what is he enraged about? [. . .] Alas! It is not the Nation of France that Mr Burke means, but the COURT; and every Court in Europe, dreading the same fate, is in mourning” (88). Paine, meanwhile, takes the same revolutionary events to indicate that “spring is begun” (196), that we are promised “a new era to the human race” (106), and goes so far as to venture that he does “not believe that monarchy and aristocracy will continue seven years longer in any of the enlightened countries in Europe” (102). “The present generation,” he tells us, “will appear to the future as the Adam of a new world” (191). Sadly, perhaps, Paine’s enthusiasm is not exactly borne out by events. He himself would go on to be arrested (and very nearly executed) by the French. And one wonders what he would make of his glowing account of American Exceptionalism now.

But what kind of revolutionary was Paine? Given that he seems to think that the main burden of government (corrupt or otherwise) comes in the form of taxation, he could easily be read as a forerunner of the Tea Party or other right-wing libertarians. At the same time, he also seems to believe in a kind of basic sociability or commonality promoted by everyday interaction and habit (as well as trade). And yet he spends much of part two of his book coming up with a rather detailed plan of how to redistribute surplus tax revenue (once the monarchy and privileges of landholders have been abolished) that sounds much like the foundation of what could almost be a welfare state: in place of large monopolies of land, pensions and child benefit. In short, one might even believe that Paine was not only as rhapsodical but in some ways as paradoxical as Burke, as he see-sawed between calls for less government on the one hand, and on the other comprehensive proposals that would bring on more government. The new era that he proclaimed combines both the right to revolt, the refusal to be weighed down by tradition, and also the beginnings of biopolitics, the ever more insidious advance of power relations within the population.

We Created Chávez

George Ciccariello-Maher, We Created Chávez

George Ciccariello-Maher’s We Created Chávez, which styles itself as “a people’s history of the Venezuelan Revolution,” is a valuable contribution not only to our understanding of the contemporary Venezuelan government and its origins, but also if more indirectly to debates over the so-called Latin American “left turns” and indeed to our thinking about the relationship between social movements and the state in general.

Ciccariello-Maher positions his book as a response of sorts to the debate initiated by John Holloway, whose influential Change the World Without Changing Power was inspired by the experience of the Mexican Zapatistas. Holloway argues that the Zapatistas, who famously opted out of and even argued against participation in the electoral process with their “Other Campaign,” offered a vision of what we might call constituent power trumping a constituted power that only ever repeats all-too-familiar structures of domination. A few years later, drawing on the Venezuelan case in which Hugo Chávez was merely the first in a series of often stunning electoral victories by the Latin American Left, Gregory Wilpert followed with a book whose title is an explicit rebuke to Holloway: Changing Venezuela by Taking Power. In trying to bring together these perspectives, refusing to choose in any simple fashion between social movements “from below” and the role of the state “from above,” Ciccariello-Maher’s contribution is broadly in line with the account given by Sujantha Fernandes’s Who Can Stop the Drums? Urban Social Movements in Chavez’s Venezuela, the main methodological difference being that where Fernandes provides a more thorough-going and textured anthropological account focussed on the urban poor, We Created Chávez is more broadly historical, examining a range of groups and organizations across the country from the 1950s to the present. Unfortunately, Ciccariello-Maher provides what is only a response “of sorts” to this debate in that specific references to this previous work is muted, most often found buried in footnotes.

Moreover, there are other references that are simply missing. For instance, on another, more theoretical level, this same debate about Venezuela and the contemporary Latin American Left is to some extent replicated in the exchange between Simon Critchley, author of Infinitely Demanding, and Slavoj Zizek, who like Wilpert turns to Chávez (as elsewhere he turns to Lenin) to justify the importance of seizing the “commanding heights” as much as the grassroots in any serious effort to effect social change. Invocations of constituent and constituted power also suggest the controversies surrounding Michael Hardt and Toni Negri’s theorization of Empire and (more recently) Commonwealth or even Negri and Giuseppe Cocco’s GlobAL, on “biopolitics and struggle in a globalized Latin America”; and one might have thought that (for instance) Bruno Bosteels’s reflections on the similar situation of Bolivia, addressed in The Actuality of Communism, deserved a mention. But while Hardt and Negri are mentioned in passing (and again, in footnotes), these other names are absent.

Ciccariello-Maher’s main points of reference are, instead, Régis Debray (as antagonist) and Frantz Fanon, CLR James, and Enrique Dussel, mixed with a little Gramsci and Ernesto Laclau where occasion seems to merit. At the very end, Lenin comes to save the day and resolve the apparent “paradox” that despite their “militant autonomy and rejection of the Venezuelan state,” so many social activists and ordinary people alike “nevertheless pledge their loyalty, however temporarily and contingently, to the man currently [as Ciccariello-Maher was writing] sitting atop that state” (5-6). The problem remains that there is very little explicit dialogue in this book with other contemporary critical approaches to Latin American politics and culture. Translating both that paradox and Ciccariello-Maher’s proposed solution into the terms of broader debates in the region and elsewhere is left, then, as an exercise for the reader.

One possibility is a turn to the dialectic. For if one were in a dialectical frame of mind (and Ciccariello-Maher very often is, on occasion finding even a “dialectic within a dialectic” [236]), one might suggest that We Created Chávez resolves the apparent antagonism between the positions outlined by Holloway and Wilpert in terms of the triumphant synthesis of a Revolution whose revolutionary nature is constantly asserted and never questioned. This is the synthesis of the constituent process and the constituted fact of institutional organization; this is the negation of the negation that presents us with the revolutionary state incarnated in “an individual, Chávez, as an expression of [. . .] alternative power ‘from below’” (242). Hence the need to support Chávez and his government: he is after all (as the book’s title reminds us) the creation of popular energies that long predate him, and that the narrative Ciccarielo-Maher presents dates back to the 1950s and the origins of Venezuelan democracy.

The book begins with the various guerrilla groups that sprang up in the wake of the 1958 overthrow of dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez, tracing the effects of their misjudged vanguardism and the relative ease with which they were routed by the state, only for the masses to grow in power and finally show the bankruptcy of “Venezuelan exceptionalism” in the Caracazo, whose consummation was Chávez’s electoral victory of 1998. On a somewhat shorter timescale (and perhaps another dialectic within the dialectic), if the violent protests of 1989 were “a mass charge without a vanguard” and Chávez’s 1992 coup attempt were then the actions of “a vanguard that was not able to immediately coordinate its masses” (101), Chávez in power represents their sublation or Aufhebung.

But once the long view is introduced, a somewhat different story emerges. In rather less dialectical manner Ciccariello-Maher’s book is also about the varied and torturous paths taken by a vast range of social struggles, some of which become unified under the name of Chávez and the umbrella of the Bolivarian revolution (at least for a time), but others not. Even at its best, this is less the negation of negation than a long, slow consolidation of forces more reminiscent of Laclau than of Zizek or Hegel. At its worst, in Ciccariello-Maher’s account the dialectic is replaced by a sometimes rather teleological narrative of progress. More to the point, what we mostly see as the book guides us through an alphabet soup of acronyms (FALN, LCR, MAS, PCUV, M-28, CFPs, CTV, FRETECO, and many more) is a complexity that is not well served by the proliferation of appeals to dialectical thinking, however fast and loose our conception of the dialectic may be. Any unity appears fragmentary at best, and yet there are even uncanny moments (in the history of the student movement, for instance, or in official reaction to lumpen self-organization) at which the line between chavismo and the anti-chavista opposition becomes awfully blurred, despite Chávez’s (and this book’s) consistent attempts to distinguish as clearly as possible between revolutionary Bolivarians and reactionary escuálidos.

What becomes evident instead is a multiplicity that remains stubbornly resistant to any final unification or even neat divisions. A tension remains, then, to trouble over-confident declarations of synthesis or loyalty. When the book (like Zizek) reaches for Lenin, it is now the Lenin of “dual power,” of the sometimes uneasy, often downright contradictory, cohabitation of popular power and state command, local councils and sovereign institutions, constituent and constituted power in an equilibrium that can only ever be provisional. From this point of view, as the book’s last line has it, support for Chávez can only be “por ahora” or “for now” (255). Theory is abandoned in favor of a pragmatism that sits somewhat uneasily with the radicalism that Ciccariello-Maher otherwise wears rather ostentatiously on his sleeve. And the fact that this watchword of enduring suspicion is taken from Chávez himself–from his brief televised address in the aftermath of his failed coup attempt of 1992–is but a further irony or twist in the tale. It is as though we can go beyond the gran comandante only by mimicking his own rhetorical strategies.

But if there is no tidy synthesis at the end of the story, the excessiveness of constituent or popular power cuts both ways. On the one hand, Chávez can never fully represent the Venezuelan people, however hard he tried (and nobody, frankly has tried harder), because ultimately there is something that always resists and overpowers such representation. But then there are also the aspects of social struggle that are somehow left behind along the road, that are never fully incorporated into chavismo or that are dropped or drop out. Emblematic of the other side or failures of chavista populism, its failure to construct a “people,” is the fate of Douglas Bravo, long-term revolutionary and now disillusioned ex-chavista. Bravo bookends We Created Chávez: he is introduced early, in part to establish Ciccariello-Maher’s credentials, in a book that is very concerned with the bona-fides of the anthropological “I,” with its possession of the passwords and “magic words” (83) that enable and guarantee the authenticity of its and our entry into Venezuelan reality. We are told that Bravo himself checks the author out and ultimately approves: “I can work with you” he “abruptly announces” (25). But it turns out that Ciccariello-Maher cannot work with Bravo, who is twice described as “seething” (28, 253), as in some sense out of control; this is a word otherwise only applied to an anti-Chávez journalist’s denunciation of the “lumpen.” In a final scene, moreover, Bravo is portrayed with “his mind clearly moving quicker than his words” (whatever exactly that means) and depicted with more than a smattering of condescension as “an isolated former guerrilla who cannot accept the reality of the battle ahead, a comandante without troops” (253).

So who, I wonder, created Bravo? Why is he a comandante without troops, while Chávez by contrast has so many battalions to call upon? If we are to blame Bravo for being left behind by history, then why not in turn praise Chávez for his astuteness in figuring out the way the wind blows? Why, in short, ascribe agency only to the losers (here, Bravo) while so resolutely denying it the victors (Chávez)? There are some strange choices at work here. Or perhaps not so strange, merely overdetermined. Everyone likes a winner, after all.

In the end, my problem with Ciccariello-Maher’s purported resolution of the conflict between constituent and constituted power is that it comes down to something of a truism. Of course in some ways the “people” created Chávez–though one would have thought that a dialectician would also point out the ways in which Chávez likewise created his people, not least through his consistent politicization of the social field, his insistent division between the people and the escuálidos who fall outside and beyond any attempt at representation. But more to the point: didn’t the “people” also create Betancourt, Carlos Andrés Pérez, and the like? Isn’t constituted power always a result of constituent processes, even when the results don’t turn out quite how we (or the people) might want?

In other words, the simple gesture of pointing to popular creativity and productivity doesn’t in itself legitimate their resultant representatives. Suggesting that it does risks repeating the dual festishism that Ciccariello-Maher sets out to abolish: it fetishes the state and the people at the very same time. Here, indeed, it might have been helpful to consider the distinction between people and multitude upon which Hardt and Negri (among others) insist: it is surely better put to say that it is the multitude that creates Chávez, while he in turn constructs them as a people. Sadly, the very notion of multitude is here dismissed in the tersest of footnotes for its supposed “abstract implausibility” (275). Far from it: Ciccariello-Maher had the chance here to investigate the concrete and quite particular attributes and activities of the Venezuelan multitude, and perhaps also then to complicate Hardt and Negri’s faith that the multitude is always good, always to be trusted. It is this faith that is abstract and implausible, not the category of the multitude itself. But to employ the concept of the “people” so loosely and so uncritically is no great improvement.

In short, this is an important–indeed vital–book that does much to rectify the often short-sighted and shallow accounts of the Bolivarian process by its detractors and defenders alike. By pointing to the centrality of the Caracazo, and beyond that of struggles that originate as far back as the 1950s (and one could go further still, of course, as Margarita López Maya suggests, back to the 1930s or even the 1900s), it displaces the rather sterile debate about Chávez’s (now, Maduro’s) mindset or personality. Along with Who Can Stop the Drums? (as well as the work of others, such as Luis Duno’s important forthcoming contributions), We Created Chávez usefully shifts our attention from the symbolic figure of the sovereign himself, who has otherwise beguiled even those (such as Richard Gott or Tariq Ali) who pledge themselves to him.

But in its tendency to characterize both Chávez and sovereignty more generally simply as product, simply as the result of popular power, this book proposes a new version of Venezuelan exceptionalism, as though the Bolivarian state were unique or somehow singularly organic in its authentic expressiveness of a popular base. It plays down therefore all the various tactics of the chavista state, not least its novel use of media, and utterly ignores the effects of the construction of transcendence, the ways in which constituted power, by folding constituent power back on itself, converts multitude into a delimited people, creating a new range of subalterns and a new set of exclusions. It ignores the ways in which Chávez proved the last gasp of puntofijismo in ensuring some kind of stability for rich and poor alike (“the only leader capable of staving off the threat of civil war” as one of Ciccariello-Maher’s informants rather regretfully puts it [87]).

In sum, and despite all the hedges and provisos that it offers, We Created Chávez runs the risk of re-enchanting the chavista state all the more firmly: no longer as simply the agency that more or less arbitrarily redistributes oil rent, but as the only one that can do so legitimately in the name of its constituents.


Rights are mainly a matter of declarations. They are, in short, the product of a speech act. Undeclared rights are not rights at all. Hence the history of human rights is also a history of their repeated enunciation and articulation, from the Magna Carta on. But a declaration also implies an audience, and a process of interpretation. Hence, alongside this history of speech acts is a parallel (parasitical?) history of interpretation and commentary. Often the modus operandi of that commentary is the laborious process by which an event is reconstituted and reimagined: What exactly did the framers mean?

And if a declaration is an event, an irruption onto the scene of political discourse (dated: 1789, 1948…), then usually interpretation is the province of an institution (a Supreme Court or similar), whose judgments may or may not come to be seen as events and so new declarations, that have in turn to be interpreted in subsequent institutional deliberations. Such is the temporality of rights discourse: the violent irruption of the event is followed by the (quite literally) stately progress of deliberation and interpretation.

But some events are less eventful than others. The “Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms” is, frankly, a bit of a damp squib. It comes late to the scene of rights declarations (which were piling up thick and fast by the middle of the twentieth century). Belatedness is not itself a curse: the more recent a declaration, the more likely it is to declare a new right, and thus to up the ante of the game of eventful articulation. The Canadian Charter, however, manages to be both almost entirely derivative and singularly Canadian at the same time.

The derivativeness is in the first instance linguistic. And I don’t merely mean the phrases (e.g. “the right not to be subjected to any cruel and unusual treatment or punishment”) clearly lifted from other, similar documents. More to the point, and despite being described as a document that articulates the values around which the Canadian people can unify, the Charter’s language is distinctly uninspiring.

It doesn’t help that the document’s very first clause is the famous “Limitations” clause that states that the rights that follow are “subject [. . .] to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” This may seem like an eminently sensible and pragmatic reminder that rights are mutually limiting: the right to free speech, for instance, is limited by the right to non-discrimination; hence bans on hate speech. But it sure takes the wind out of the Charter’s rhetorical sails.

Imagine the crowds that surged on Parliament Hill, urged on by the slogan “Fight for your Rights! Subject only to Such Reasonable Limits Prescribed by Law as Can Be Demonstrably Justified…” Actually, you can almost imagine an Ottawa crowd moved by such a slogan. Hence the distinctively Canadian tone of the Charter: so very sensible and self-limiting. Quite unlike the US Bill of Rights, for instance. And the Canadians not only begin with a “Limitations” clause; they also end with a “Notwithstanding” clause, which basically means that the Parliament or a provincial legislature can suspend almost any of the Charter’s provisions for (a renewable) five years.

In short, if every rights regime comes into being and operates between the twin pressures and temporalities of an insurgent event on the one hand, and that event’s institutional interpretation and assimilation on the other, it’s very clear to which of the two Canada’s Charter leans: it’s a tool of state management much more than it is the result of popular struggle. Its time is not that of revolution (still, by contrast, hard-wired into the US Bill of Rights or the French Declaration of the Rights of the Citizen) but of pacification.

And so no wonder that Harry Arthurs and Brent Arnold can conclude that the Charter is essentially useless:

Progress towards the vision of Canada inscribed in the Charter has generally been modest, halting, non-existent, and, in some cases, negative. What we claim is that the Charter does not much matter in the precise sense that it has not – for whatever reason – significantly altered the reality of life in Canada.

[. . .]

Canada’s political culture today is less vibrant, less democratic, than it was a generation ago.

[. . .]

The plight of Aboriginal peoples has not been much ameliorated, if at all. The project of multiculturalism, which is mentioned but not given prominence in the Charter, has seemingly gone off the boil. Immigrants – despite new guarantees of their legal and equality rights – seem to be having a tougher time integrating into society and the economy. (“Does the Charter Matter?” [Review of Constitutional Studies 11.1 (2005)]: 38, 111-112)

And why exactly has it had so little impact, or has what impact it has had been mostly negative? Essentially because it substitutes fictive abstract equality for real material differences. This, after all, is the fundamental move of all rights discourse, from the founding conceit of moving from natural to civil rights. Again, as Arthurs and Arnold put it:

If one were to establish a gradient that descends from the most affluent to the least affluent members of society, one would find at each point on that gradient not only lower living standards, but lower levels of educational attainment, health, personal safety and security, civic participation, political influence, and respect from police and other state officials. Moreover, as one descended the gradient, one would almost certainly encounter members of Charter-protected groups in ever-increasing numbers. [. . .] The best prospects for greater progress towards the equality values of the Charter would therefore be to redistribute wealth.

[. . .]

Of course, the Charter was not designed to transform Canada’s political economy. On the contrary, when it was adopted, its architects took considerable care neither to protect property nor to redistribute wealth. (113-114)

But is this not what all rights declarations do? It’s not merely that the Canadian Charter happens to be one of the least interesting and least effective instances of such rights discourse. It also demonstrates to us something shared by all such discourse. For it always ultimately is a matter of replacing popular struggle with bureaucratic institutions.


Last night in Vancouver a small group of young men, watched and urged on by a large crowd, indulged in a frenzy of violence. And then afterwards there was a riot.

Hockey has a very ambivalent–and increasingly anguished–relationship to violence. This is a sport in which fights are permitted if not condoned, and which is only now debating whether or not to outlaw “hits” (that is, shoulder charges at speed) to the head of opposing players. This is a sport in which roughing up the opposition is an integral part of the play and major injuries are common: the league’s best player has been out for most of the year with a concussion. In the season’s penultimate game, one of the Vancouver Canucks had his back broken when he was rammed into the boards that line the ice long after the play had moved on; the player who hit him didn’t even get a penalty. Every such incident provokes prolonged discussion of the finer points of the game’s ever more complex rules governing which types of violence are acceptable (and when), and which are not. There is no real thought, however, of eliminating the violence altogether, as it is acknowledged that it is a large part of the game’s popular appeal.

This Stanley Cup finals series between Vancouver and Boston was particularly nasty, with a lot of bad blood between the two sets of players. Boston were the more physical team, and tried to impose their style of play on Vancouver, who were drawn into replying in kind. There were big, violent hits on both sides, as well as endless hacks, slashes, and punches. Much of this went unpunished thanks to some rather inconsistent refereeing.

And then there was a riot. But by contrast with the discussion prompted by the on-ice fighting, the commentary on the post-game violence has been singularly un-nuanced. The people downtown have been uniformly condemned as “idiots.” One Facebook status update I saw urged on the Vancouver Police Department and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police: “Go VPD Go!!! Go RCMP Go!!!” Another was scarier still in its unabashed call for an authoritarian crackdown: “How about a total media blackout and we let the police REALLY do what should be done?” Who are the thugs here? Who are the ones calling for more force, more violence?

The post-game violence was just about as predictable as the violence during the game itself. The last time the Vancouver Canucks had been in this situation–in 1994, when they had likewise lost a Game Seven of the Stanley Cup finals–also led to destruction and looting. This West Coast city is pretty laid back about most things, but when it comes to hockey apparently we like to riot. There had been much talk in the media and elsewhere about the possibility of a repetition of the events of 1994. Indeed, the riot had been talked up almost as much as the game itself. In the interval, however, the success of the Winter Olympics last year seemed to suggest that Vancouver could now deal with large and exuberant crowds in the downtown core. In the event, however, none of the lessons of the Olympics were learned. In fact, overshadowed by folk memories of 1994, it almost seemed as though the police wanted a riot; as far as I could see, at least, they were doing their best to provoke one.

I watched the game with some friends in an inner city suburb, the West End. As it happens, they live very close to what had been the epicenter of the 1994 disturbances. But as I went out, half an hour or so after the hockey had finished, there was no sign of any trouble. Some people were milling around, but the streets were pretty empty. No doubt many had gone home early, both disappointed in the score and worried about the much-hyped prospect of violence. Though there had reportedly been up to 100,000 people downtown to watch the game, very soon afterwards there were far fewer people out and about. The crowd was certainly nothing like the size it was after the Olympic gold medal hockey game last year, when at times it was impossible to move down some of the city’s main thoroughfares because of the sheer numbers of bodies blocking the way.

I made my way further downtown: things were quiet and calm everywhere until a block or so away from what might be the heart of the city, the intersection of Georgia and Granville, where a fairly raucous crowd was gathered outside the Vancouver outlet of that Canadian icon, the Hudson Bay department store. Even here, however, the streets were never too busy to traverse. I could easily have kept on walking; at no point were pedestrians at risk. Around me were a wide and representative selection of the city’s inhabitants: young couples; women dressed to the nines with high heels accessorizing their fitted Canucks jerseys; businessmen in suits; old as well as young; many South and East Asians, reflecting Vancouver’s racial mix. Apart from the very old and the very young, it was a pretty representative cross-section of the community. Perhaps surprisingly, there was not much obvious public drunkenness. There was a sense of expectation and some anxiety, a recognition that circumstances might change, but in general people were relaxed: at a loose end, hanging around, waiting to see what might happen. An occasional cheer would go up, and there was some commotion right next to the plate-glass windows of the Bay, but in general at this stage it was quite safe to be out and about.

There were no police to be seen. This was quite different from the Olympics, when the police had been everywhere, interacting with the fans. My understanding had been that here, too, the strategy was to be “part of the crowd.” But, if it had ever been implemented, by this point that strategy had clearly been abandoned.

The first indication I got of a police presence was when people started running past where I was standing on the corner of Georgia and Granville, coming from the direction of the stadium, and I caught the whiff of tear gas. The panic soon stopped and the crowd stabilized again, but it seemed that if they were doing anything the police were merely provoking these blind flurries from somewhere on the Eastern perimeter. Meanwhile, across the street at the Bay, there were periodic attempts to smash the window. But this was a slow, episodic process–it appeared that there were security guards within the building who managed mostly to keep would-be looters at a distance. At almost any point, this crowd could probably have been dispersed. The number of people actively looking for trouble was very small indeed; the rest were merely at a loose end, uncertain which direction to go.

After another rush, another distant volley of tear gas, and so another panic, it looked as though someone wanted us to move. I wandered a few blocks south, up Granville Street, where I finally caught my first sight of the police: a small group of officers standing at the intersection of Granville and Smithe, who seemed at as much of a loss as to what to do as the crowd. Further up Granville, however, were more clouds of tear gas, prompting people to move back towards Georgia. We were now being gassed from two sides. If there was any particular direction that the police wanted us to move, it wasn’t too obvious–and the small group I saw made no effort to tell us what to do. There seemed to be little if any coordination.

Meanwhile, someone set fire to a rubbish bin on Granville. As there was nobody to stop it or put it out, the fire burned merrily away. People took pictures. In fact, just about everyone had a camera out most of the time; later, I even saw someone holding up an iPad to get a record of events in front of a police line. I drifted back down the street. Shortly, another bin was alight, in front of London Drugs. Across the way, after an agonizingly long time, people at the front of the crowd by the Bay had finally managed to get in to the store and were raiding the perfumery department. A detachment of cops, I suddenly noticed, were hunkered down in the SkyTrain station opposite, making no moves to come out and deal with the disturbances. They had apparently decided to give up these few blocks of the downtown core, and let the store’s private security guards take the brunt of any violence. Meanwhile, the tear gassing was surely provoking more bad feeling, and whenever the police helicopter, hovering up above, shone its searchlight in our direction people turned around and gave it the finger. In short, rather than preventing the trouble it felt rather that the police were provoking it.

It was now dark and I thought I’d start making my way home. It was unclear how to do this, though: there was no traffic and so no buses or taxis. I thought I’d walk East, try my luck with the SkyTrain if it was running, and if not I’d try to pick up a taxi in the nearby suburbs of Gastown or Yaletown. Heading down Georgia, though, I ran into a rather more significant police presence: the riot cops were now on the scene, some on horseback, standing in front of (but as far as I could see, otherwise doing nothing about) a rather larger street fire round the corner, on Richards. They charged the crowd a couple of times, pushing us up the street where another cordon of riot police prevented us turning East on Robson. Near the next intersection, there was another fire in an alley. A man ran to it with a fire extinguisher, trying to tackle the blaze. Nobody helped him out.

Meanwhile, the police had drawn back along Richards Street, making their previous charge seem rather pointless. Indeed, their various barricades obeyed no obvious logic, not least because it was easy enough to avoid them by slipping down an alley. The provided a fairly intimidating image, yes, not least because many of the cops had their weapons out. But they surely weren’t making much of an impact on crowd management. One cordon put down their shields and started putting on their gas masks. I decided I’d seen what I wanted to see and had had enough of being tear gassed, so continued with my plan to head towards the Georgia Viaduct. Along the way I asked one of the policemen if the SkyTrain was still operating. He had no idea.

Walking along Georgia, towards the stadium, I came across more smashed windows (a Budget rental car office; a BMO bank) and two burned-out cars. I think these were the two vehicles that were making most of the TV news. I had earlier passed a bar in which people were happily drinking and watching on big-screen TVs the footage of what was supposedly going on outside. Again, however, it was completely safe on the streets: the only points at which I’d felt at all uncomfortable had been when we’d been tear gassed and/or charged by mounted and shield-waving riot cops. I passed the Queen Elizabeth Theatre and headed down Dunsmuir towards the SkyTrain station, which was indeed open, but my way was blocked by yet another cordon of riot police. They said I had to do around: so I went half a block, up an alley, and back again. It’s as though the cops were actively making it difficult to leave downtown, for no obvious reason.

In contrast to their absence on the streets, the police were present in force at the SkyTrain stations, picking off people for questioning if they felt they looked suspicious. Again, this seems to have been their plan: to occupy the periphery and let a rather small section of downtown Vancouver riot, while they lobbed in the odd tear gas canister and observed from the sides and on high. It seems obvious to me that this made things much worse, rather than better: it did nothing to stop the violence, and criminalized the whole crowd, succeeding only in irritating the vast majority of people, who were mere bystanders hanging out because there was little else to do. Frankly, I’m surprised that the disturbances weren’t worse; most of the crowd behaved remarkably well, considering that from almost the outset the forces of law and order had decided to treat them as though they were really, as the media alleged, some kind of mob.

Of course, it’s easier to portray the people on the streets as a mob, and blindly to cheer on the police, than to think about the violence with any kind of nuance or self-reflection. This demonization of the post-game violence is no doubt a safe outlet for the pent-up energy of so many disappointed Canucks fans: they have a target for their frustration, and they can feel so very civilized in expressing their anger. It’s easier to grab this moral high ground, to claim that the so-called rioters do not represent Vancouver, than to stop and consider the ways in which violence is engrained in this sport on whose bandwagon they are hitched, or the conditions that gave rise to the post-game disturbances–and the many ways in which it could have been avoided. But let’s give these concerned citizens some slack. They need their moment of mindless outrage, too.

Republished at the Tyee.


If there is a guiding principle to Latin American postcoloniality, it is surely that which is encapsulated in Juan Bautista Alberdi’s famous phrase, “Gobernar es Poblar”: “To Govern is to Populate.” As the Argentine jurist put it in Bases y puntos de partida para la organización política de la República Argentina, a book which outlines the structure of a future constitution of the country, the point of this maxim is to ensure that the constitution is not empty: “What name would you give a country, or what name would it deserve, if it comprised two-hundred thousand leagues of territory and eight-hundred thousand inhabitants? A desert. And what name would you give to the Constitution of such a country? The Constitution of a desert. Well, that country is the Argentine Republic, and whatever its Constitution may be, for years it will be nothing more than the Constitution of a desert” (525-526) Hence the exhortation to immigration, and not just any immigration, as Alberdi was at pains to explain even years later: “To populate is to enrich when you people the country with folk who know what they are doing when it comes to industry and who are accustomed to work that is productive and enriching. To populate is to civilize when you people the country with civilized folk, that is, with settlers from civilized Europe. That is why I have said in the Constitution that the government should encourage European immigration. But to populate is not to civilize, indeed instead it leads to brutishness, when one peoples the country with Chinese or Indians from Asia, or with blacks from Africa” (“Gobernar es Poblar” 271). Population has a qualitative aspect, as well as a quantitative one. It matters who or what constitutes the population, who or what gives flesh or life to the constitution.

In the first place, Alberdi’s remarks indicate clearly that at least from the standpoint of those who charged themselves with envisaging the constitution of the new Republics that resulted from independence from Spain, Latin American postcoloniality involved less the region’s decolonization than its recolonization. Argentina, Alberdi tells us, has still yet to be properly colonized; it needs to be colonized again, but now on the North American model, rather than along Spanish lines. Settler colonialism was to replace administrative hierarchy, wiping out the rigid division between a ruling caste on the one hand, whose roots were not truly in the country, and a vulgar mass on the other hand, who lacked all social or political responsibility. For in the second place, it is clear also that the act of population, for Alberdi, also implied the process of forming a people. “Gobernar es poblar” could equally be translated as meaning “To govern is to construct a people.” Only the presence of a people would ensure that the new republic’s constituted power was more than mere facade, deserted and empty.

And so the history of Latin American populism begins: as the injunction to construct a people that would give life to the otherwise hollow institutions of the new Republic. The people are never separate from constituted power; indeed, it is the architects of the constitution who dream them up and call them forth to take their (supposedly) rightful place. The problem, of course, is that the region is hardly in fact unpopulated. Nobody believes for instance that Argentina is truly a desert, truly devoid of population: Domingo Sarmiento would provide, in Facundo, what is in some surprising ways a remarkably sensitive anthropological account of at least some of the human settlement that already occupied the Argentine pampa, the uncivilized and (quite literally) unsettling gaucho who were an obstacle to true settlement, proper settler colonialism. The fiction of a terra nullius is always self-consciously just that: a fiction. And elsewhere in Latin America (Mexico, Peru, and so on), the notion that the territory was mere “desert” was always much more untenable still. The problem was that the population was not yet a people, no more than Asian or African immigrants could ever (in Alberdi and others’ eyes) constitute a people and redeem the deserted constitution. The pre-existing population of Latin America were, rather, variously an unformed mass, barbarous hordes, or recalcitrant and atavistic Indians whose principle of (dis)organization did not fit easily with the political organization imagined for the postcolonial settlement. So the history of Latin American populism is not merely that of calling forth a people to flesh out the constitution: in recolonizing the territory, claiming it back in the name of the new Republics, the framers of political order would also have to deal with the multitude that always already precedes them.

The basic trope of populist rhetoric invokes what is apparently a primordial social division. Indeed, as Yves Mény and Yves Surel indicate, we can define populism precisely by its rhetorical maneuvers: first, it demarcates a fundamental cleavage between “the top and the bottom, the rich and the poor, the rulers and the ruled,” in short, between “the good, wide, and simple people” and “the corrupt, incompetent, and interlocking elites”; second, “elites are accused of abusing their position of power instead of acting in conformity with the interests of the people as a whole”; and third, populism then insists that “the primacy of the people has to be restored.” Direct democracy is encouraged: “The ideal populist political system comes close, at least on paper, to a ‘pure’ democratic regime where the people are given the first and final word” (Mény and Surel, 12, 13). So populism combines: a framework of an overriding distinction between people and elite; an analysis that presents this distinction as antagonism rather than mere difference; and a gesture of solidarity with the people, against the elite. And yet we will never fully understand the populist impulse if, like so many and not least Ernesto Laclau in his celebrated analysis, we are content simply to trace its rhetorical gestures, its apparent antagonisms and solidarities. For populism is, in the end, the attempt to construct political unity by positing the people as the basis of political legitimacy, and therefore by displacing or conjuring away a pre-existing multitude. The populist sleight of hand consists in recasting the multitude as people while at the same time presenting itself as somehow anti-institutional and progressive; in short by appropriating and converting constituent into constituted power.

And this, ultimately, is the history of Latin American postcoloniality, which is therefore fundamentally structured by populism even in those periods or places where populist movements are in abeyance, seem not to have the upper hand, or even appear to be definitively absent. From the nineteenth century to the present, with rare exceptions (and the neoliberal period of the 1980s and 1990s may arguably be one of those), governance in Latin America has involved the projection of unity in the face of the legacy of a Spanish colonial regime that had always been content (not least in its division between creole and Indian republics) to live with difference and duality if not multiplicity. Latin American postcoloniality has been an attempt to undo the basic structures of Spanish imperialism while preserving its constituent institutions (as well, of course, as its class and racial privileges) by recasting them along North American lines as somehow by (if not for) the people. To this end, it has projected a whole series of spurious hegemonies of integration, mestizaje, development, and so on, of which classical populism has merely been the most successful (perhaps because it was its purest incarnation) if only at the same time its most miserable failure. For the rock on which this project has founded has been the continual insistence of the multitude, the fact that the dream of a wholesale neocolonial resettlement could only ever be wishful thinking. The multitude has ensured that constituted power in postcolonial times has remained unsettled, hollow and deserted.

works cited

Alberdi, Juan Bautista. Bases y puntos de partida para la organización política de la República Argentina. Obras completas. Vol. 3. Buenos Aires: La Tribuna Nacional, 1886. 371-558.
—–. “Gobernar es Poblar.” Escritos póstumos de J. B. Alberdi. Vol. 8: América. Buenos Aires: Cruz Hermanos, 1899. 266-276.
Mény, Yves, and Yves Surel. “The Constitutive Ambiguity of Populism.” Democracies and the Populist Challenge. Ed. Yves Mény and Yves Surel. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002. 1-21.