A Cultural Sociological Take on the Venezuela Conflict

[During my two-week pseudo-vacation from all things Venezuela, I attended the annual meetings of the American Sociological Association, this year in Montreal, Canada. There I organized a panel called Public Cultural Sociology looking at how cultural sociology can contribute to public debate. Participants included Orlando Patterson, Abigail Saguy, Mary Blair-Loy, and Fredrick Wheery. Below is an edited version of my oral presentation, which is a little more academic than what we normally publish here, but avoids jargon.]

While public social science has become more prominent in recent years, the social scientific concepts that make their way into policy discussion and the media are strongly biased towards minimalist concepts coming from rational choice and game theory. This in itself is progress—much policy-making takes place based on simple political considerations and without a whole lot of analysis of the problem being confronted or the consequences of specific policies.

But complex social and political events frequently show how limited minimalist rational actor models can be.

Cultural sociology can provide understandings of the cultural codes, discourses, narratives, schemas, models and rituals that infuse cultural, economic, social and political life and give it its shape. These understandings do not just “enrich” our analysis, as is commonly suggested. Rather, they provide a more empirically realistic understanding of the nature of social problems and the impacts of policies designed to address them.

I am going to make a few comments about the past few years in which–without having it in my professional plans—I have become a consultant, analyst and commentator on the ever-worsening political crisis in Venezuela.

As most of you are aware, in the past four years Venezuela has been in a downward spiral of economic, social and political crisis with: triple digit inflation, one of the highest murder rates in the world, repeated cycles of street protest and now, in the past year, a collapse of its democratic institutions.

My training is actually in social and cultural theory, and the ethnography of religion and social movements. My dissertation and first book were on the conversion of young men to evangelical Protestantism in the barrios of Caracas during the 1990s. I did three years of participant observation for this project and then two more years of participant observation for a project on street protest.

All of this meant that I lived in Venezuela and did fieldwork off and on from 1993 to the year 2000, precisely during the period that Hugo Chavez rose to power.

The Chavez period immediately generated conflict and I found myself participating in listservs and online debates as a sort of pastime as I worked on issues of religion, participation and protest. In 2008 I began a 3-month consulting gig as a way to pay for my summer research trip to Venezuela, and I haven’t stopped since.

While I frequently find myself explaining to journalists and policy-makers all things Venezuela–from inflation, to crime rates, to toilet paper scarcities–my strong suite from the beginning has been explaining the mindset of Chavistas and supporters of the Chávista coalition which came straight out of the social scientific analysis of culture.

What I am going to do here is run through three examples of how I have used sociological approaches to culture to conceptualize and explain the Venezuelan context to journalists and policy-makers. First I will look at an explanation coming from cultural sociology, then an explanation coming from sociology of culture, and finally one coming from the perspective I refer to as embodied realism.

Understanding Chavismo through cultural sociology

By cultural sociology I mean the tradition of social scientific thinking about culture often referred to as the “strong program” in which culture has a strong causal impact on social action. This perspective is especially helpful in understanding situations in which people’s behavior deviates from what would be expected based on unconstructed rational interests.

Over the past four years there has been a dramatic deterioration of Venezuela’s democracy. Already 3 years ago, Senators and Obama administration officials were floating the idea of targeted sanctions on Venezuelan officials accused of corruption or human rights abuses.

The justification of a policy of targeted sanctions is that they impose costs on officials carrying out opprobrious acts and therefore dissuade them from doing so. This is supposed to work not just on officials who are sanctioned but even more so on officials who are around them, who see that there are consequences for their actions and will desist from carrying out orders that may include violations of human rights.

There are multiple problems with this policy. There is the problem of legitimacy–we know that sanctions tend to be imposed only on human rights abusers that have poor relations with the US. So for example Venezuelan officials are sanctioned, but the king of Saudi Arabia is embraced. There are also serious issues of the legality of these measures. They amount to penalties imposed on people who have been accused but have not had a clear right of defense.

But we can set these problems aside for the moment. For current purposes, the most notable element is the impoverished rational actor model with which sanctions policies are hypothesized: if you increase the costs of a behavior, the actor is less likely to carry it out.

Using a thicker, cultural sociological perspective, we can see that this calculus will entirely depend on the cultural context.

In this case, the centerpiece of Chavista ideology is anti-imperialism. This is a theory of history that suggests that countries like Venezuela are underdeveloped because imperial powers like the United States have long conspired to keep the world periphery peripheral, in order to take advantage of its commodities and its labor. Chavismo sees itself as a national liberation movement trying to: break the hold of the United States, strengthen its own sovereignty, demand more for its commodities, and develop its economy. It assumes that imperial powers will not let go easily and will try to undermine any efforts at national liberation.

With this as its guiding theory, you can imagine what sanctions look like. They are not a confounding and troubling sign of disapproval, as they were for, say, pro-Western South Africa in the 1980s and Serbia in the 1990s. Rather they validate the meaning system, strengthen the interpretation of leaders and are therefore completely counter-productive. The officials who are sanctioned become heroes within the government and are handsomely rewarded with ceremonies and promotions.

This logic should be rather obvious given that 55 years of US sanctions on Cuba have been clearly counter-productive. But the default logic of rational action that US policy makers work with makes it difficult to recognize that.

Understanding the Venezuelan opposition through the sociology of culture

A second example is best seen in terms of the “sociology of culture.” By this latter I mean sociological treatments of culture that predominantly see it as a dependent variable, finding social structural causes that explain how these cultural schemas are created and when they are put in play.

Almost as much as explaining Chavismo, I find myself helping journalists make sense of the Venezuela’s political opposition, whose self-defeating behavior has for years led to international head-scratching.

For over a decade this opposition consistently thought it was the majority and that Chavez was unpopular, despite ample evidence to the contrary. This misperception was the basis of their consistent miscalculations. It reduced their ability to speak to Venezuela’s poor majorities and win their support; it led to repeated, evidence-free accusations that Chavez was winning by fraud; and it led to a consistent overestimation of the success of their protest strategies.

To explain this to larger publics I focus on the geography of inequality in Venezuela. Venezuela’s radical inequality affects not just income, but actual conditions of social and political interaction. Many poor Venezuelans live in barrios that began as squatter settlements and evolved into neighborhoods not always recognized by the state, without titles, without consistent access to municipal services and without formal employment. Many people from Venezuela’s middle and upper classes consider these spaces a sort of no man’s land and have not set foot there in their whole lives.

Yet most of Venezuela’s poor majorities circulate daily in wealthy areas where they work, shop and access services. They observe and listen to the middle and upper classes, but the middle and upper classes do not observe nor listened to them.

As such, Venezuela’s urban middle classes are remarkably endogenous and have little sense of the conditions of poverty or size of the impoverished population in their country. They exist in echo chambers in which everyone they know is against Chavismo and has been from the beginning. The develop the most stereotypical analyses of why the poor found hope in Chavismo, and incredibly unrealistic portraits of what Venezuela was like before Chávez.

Put differently, Venezuela’s urban middle classes live in relatively closed class networks and end up mistaking their reality for their country’s reality. Venezuela’s popular or working classes have much more open class networks and understand the country much better. This is one important reason for why the Venezuelan opposition has so consistently been outsmarted and outmaneuvered by Chavismo and its supporters over the past eighteen years.

Some of this has changed over the past two or three years, for sociological reasons that are just as interesting, but I will save that for another presentation.

Understanding Chávez supporters through embodied realism.

Finally, in my work on culture and religion, I have worked with a concept of embodied realism based on pragmatist theories of culture that suggests that culture is not an arbitrary, autonomous structure that simply narrows the scope of our actions, but rather is a medium through which people engage a real world that we can never know in an unmediated way, but which does indeed push back against our meanings and practices.

In this view, illiberal ideologies, including Chavismo, are convincing to people in part because they explain their world. They explain the suffering they have experienced in the liberal world order, as well as the empowerment they experience in an illiberal movement. Put differently, for some people in some contexts, engaging the world through an illiberal ideology simply works better than engaging it through a liberal ideology.

Indeed for average Venezuelans presented with a new set of ideas and practices, Chavismo provided the goods. Hugo Chávez ran in 1998 on an anti-neoliberal platform suggesting that if Venezuela gained sovereign control over its resources all Venezuelans could live well. Low and behold, in the first year of his presidency the price of oil more than tripled. Over the first ten years of his presidency, poverty and inequality decreased dramatically.

Of course, close social scientific analysis would suggest that the increase in the oil price was only in part due to Chávez’s policies, and that the decline in poverty and inequality had more to do with economic growth than social and participatory programs. As a rule, ideologies are going to have a different view of the causality at play than will cold social science. But what is important for the believer is that the practices called for by the ideology actually achieved what they said they would.

This is not an apology for illiberal movements. But it does put policy and political action on a different footing. Thinking about illiberal ideologies in terms of embodied realism would suggest that representatives of the liberal world order actually need to make their case. They cannot treat illiberal movements–whether they be Christian fundamentalists, Islamists, nationalists, neofascists or neoLeninists–as irrational, duped or under the spell of a charismatic leader.

The first impulse in addressing illiberal ideologies needs to be to engage, critique, debunk and provide convincing alternatives that work. Liberalism has to provide what it promises just like any other ideology because culture is not an irrational set of codes working behind people´s backs. It is a medium through which people act and engage the world.

This was especially evident in 2013 when Hugo Chávez died. About half of the journalistic stories about his supporters treated them as emotional followers of a messianic leader–in very non-rational senses of those terms. The other half treated them in terms of straight-forward instrumentality: Chávez had purchased their support through goods and benefits paid for with record oil income.

I sought to provide an alternative understanding in which Chavez came into a context in which it was said that even a country with oil could not provide for its people. Chavez said that with a nationalist policy, the country could take care of its people, and he did so. That was enough of a change to create a lot of emotion and devotion for some time, and the memories won’t instantly disappear because the economy goes has gone South. Culture is embedded in discourses, biographies and networks that have considerably more staying power than naked self-interest.

Indeed, despite the horrendous conditions in Venezuela, Chavez’s successor Nicolas Maduro maintains a 20% level of support in a region in which presidents frequently dip into single digits with better performances. The late Hugo Chávez himself still has an approximately 50% approval rating.

In sum, my cultural-sociological approach to public advocacy regarding Venezuela has not rejected the play of economic and political interests—those are central. But it has provided a thicker, meaning-centered portrait that I think provides more analytic purchase on the political conflict there.

Thank you.