But in the democracy of the all-caps internet, the various new movements emerging in and around the rolling immediacy of social media – the voracious Now of fearsome realities that we must constantly respond to – are not currently working much around the concept of dialogue, or new truths emerging from the polite bringing together of different views. And many of these new identities don’t seem to be delineated along faultiness of class quit e as they were, with people supposedly radicalising away from the moderate middle ground independently of many truly unifying political figures. Most of the current populist politicos look somehow especially like they’re trying to cash in on something, funnel funds around something, not create it.
Has it never been more imperative to be heard, or has it never been more important to find ways to engage? Engage with the challenges. Where is the democratic hope to be found ahead – and to whom do we seem to want to give our endorsement most powerfully?
But in a time of political heats rising all around the world, often apparently disconnected socially from the rising heats, tides, weather system dysfunctions and species mortalities of the same historic period, what are the challenges of real participation? And how might we develop new ways to take on entrenched establishment habits? Can the ordinary polis of us lot dare imagine we even could, in the monopolised, hydrocarbon bubble, corporate digital death grip of the futures currently emerging, as we angrily continue to just click click click?
“We really need to consider a radical rethinking of the way in which decisions are made about the big things. You know, like food poverty, tax avoidance, who we go to war with, how to afford a home, how much plastic we put in the sea, stuff like that. With millions signing the recent revoke article 50 petition, dismissed, British people dying on the streets in the year 2019, suicide on the increase, how long should we persist in this broken system? How much more can we take?”
So asked independent local election candidate, standing with Alliance for Local Living near me in Boscombe, Rob Hughes. His bold questions didn’t get him elected this time. But a whole host of other independents did get elected in my neck of the woods, all of them asking something challenging towards the status quo. So much, that some long-entrenched figures here are, well, gone. If the political landscape can change in my comfortable home town, it can change anywhere. And all across the UK this May, I think people are able to imagine it. Imagine all manner of political outcomes, in fact. An interesting mood in the air ahead of the continent-wide European Parliament elections at the end of May.
That landscape changed near me in multiple directions at once. Half the newly elected independents stood on sort of anti-establishment ideas and half of them on sort of anti-change ideas. It was flashpointed by the recent merging of our three local councils into one, which was an essentially administrative move precipitated mostly by silently dramatic national government austerity cuts, coupled with soaring social care costs, but the local UKIP candidates levered it as somehow part of the “betrayal of Brexit.” Something that appears, from the facts, to make no factual sense what so ever, but which clearly taps into something feeling true to some folk viewing their neighbourhood’s shifts through the prism of a bigger context.
And perhaps similarly, others of us wonder if the dissolving of some cultural borders could open up some timely possibilities. Such seems the binification of our times at all democratic levels.
Uprisings and political engagement used to take just old fashioned community work to organise – turning out, turning up. Being physically together. Which was sort of our thing organisationally anyway, back then in yon quainte olde villaege liffe. But that was just because we weren’t yet what we are now – connected by data. Wherever we are. As much a state of mind as a device in our pocket constantly translating radio signals into misogyny and knob shots.
But if we are now a truly data hooked species, who are we most giving our data vote to?
Go on, you know full well. But they know way more about you.
In ye olden dayes did we have comparatively less complicated lives?
In The Past – you know, that cracked scroll-edged time of dragons and quests and dung for dinner, when men were men and women were sort of homestead sideboards and everyone in between didn’t exist yet – in those halcyon days, when we felt grumbling disconnection from our elites, we knew as The People we had few levers we could pull to activate the ducking stool. Gawd fankee for me elf, we all doffed to the fiefdom, and dropped dead at thirty three. I mean, there might have been a tad more to us than that in the ages that built cathedrals and the renaissance, but historically we certainly had to accept our place rather differently to the irreverent, electorated now. Cathedrals were, as Paul Mason put it in response to the sobering shared grief of the recent Notre Dame fire, our shared cultural hard drives. But we didn’t have to worry about trying to connect them to our home hub.
Compared with living now, we did have so much less noise – so many fewer channels of distraction from wanting, for example, to get decent political representation and justice, when the social squeeze finally became too much for most of us. So I wonder if we were, in many different ages before the modern, perhaps more likely to focus our collective efforts on the voting booth and the street, when the needs arose.
But if ballot boxes and queuing for them have seemed less meaningful to millions of fatigued democratic westerners in the neoliberal years, in the dim glare of such corporate cynicism, how might we encourage a democratic interface in the future?
Oh no, you may be thinking. Will it be reduced to some Black Mirror / Doctor Who emoji map, as Tom McKay posits in Gizmodo, after the New York Times produced its mood map of the US midterms last autumn? Like leaving Curry’s PC World or the entire Emirate of Dubai, is digital democracy just going to end up some thumb-twitch version of punching a satisfaction face button? Will it feel satisfying enough?
In such pictogram politics, McKay can picture our choices eliciting responses by the bot harvesting the data – such as: “Citizen, your vital signs suggest feelings of horror and arousal. Are you sure this is the ballot you would like to cast? You will be released following this message from our sponsors.”
He reassures us that this will be fine as a democratic system because it’s already being test-powered by Facebook.
Because, yeah. The questions over our current free will, our senses of identity and capacity for democratic influence are all brought into reasonably terrifying sharp relief by the moral question mark over Facebook’s ubiquity in our lives. Of course.
In the past, suggests Noah Yuval Harari, democracy defeated totalitarianism in the end because it was just much more efficient at parsing information – because it passed it on much more freely. A bit like the free markets, which could move at lightning speed compared to the centralised ledgers of communism. Freer people power played an active part in sharing around certain ideological truths much more openly, especially in the 20th century. And so our democratic expectations grew. Ordinary dung-eating sideboards like you and me.
But as the currency of power seemed to shift in the industrialising world from land to manufacture, in the digital age it has of course appeared to shift again – to data. And if history attests in the end that data was the real disruptor of our times, it will be because it so rapidly became the spinal fluid, the neural impulses, the blood plasma, the oxygen of the human planet system. And most of us, or at least many of our existing culture systems, were woefully too wooden to realise this quite properly. The internet isn’t over there somewhere, in your son’s bedroom, its already inside you.
Ahhh, but let you stop me right there. There was a salvation in the very blood, right, you techtopian hippy historian? Information wants to be free. The old order just couldn’t hold it in. Dam it up. Hold back the tide of knowing. Sharing. Open sourcing. Yay! Democractic digital freedom outpaced everyone to the future. So we were, in the end, okay!
Ex. Cept. There are some flies in the ointment of your moisturising hopes there, my good Wozniakite.
You. Love. Facebook. You love-hate Twitter and you enjoy the soft sugar-rush of Instagram and you begrudgingly tolerate Linked In every day but you absolutely love Facebook. Even if you hate it. In fact, your vote for it is so adorational, you don’t even notice how deeply you endorse it. You habitually endorphin it. As you lie back and think of olde England.
In an age of free speech as we believe this to be, one wonderful expression of it is how much we can allege things. For example, some allege that Facebook is a fundamentally undemocratic global influence over the whole human planet system that, unlike other massively influential corporations, doesn’t manufacture biological products and some handy addictions to go with them, as some allege of big pharma, or handle most things we ever touch and feed how much we want them immediately and cheaply at the abuse of working conditions for most people in the supply matrix, as some allege of Amazon, or even just trade openly in information and its filtered, ranked and sponsored biases, as everyone alleges of Google, Facebook purports to exist only to facilitate our communities, to encourage our personal lives. That’s all. That and dodge corporate tax, which everyone just kinda knows about all of them.
Though, of course you do know. Something else. You do know that Facebook really only exists to elicit emotional clicks from us. Like lab mice in the rewards maze. You know that really. You just want the reward.
Facebook’s cornered market is us – we are its product. Well and truly cornered. And not by some technocratic new world order – not like you might think. There may be some faceless new uplit faces tapping screens, rather than pulling levers, in our lives, but they are channelling some very old fashioned thinking.
Because the age of digital commerce hasn’t so far liberated us from a grinding old industrialist mindset – the desire to own shee. And try to own everything.
Underneath the current weather system of populism, our age may have been feeling like it was becoming the age of lost privacy. The age of creeping surveillance, powered by swiftly-spread stories of crime and terrorism and grown by even swifter machine learning. All of which, as novelist and futurist Cory Doctorow puts it, is really about the modern, neoliberal version of… monopoly. It’s trying to be the only digital game in town.
Speaking in a soberingly evidential information burst at Republica 19 in Berlin, this May, he illustrated the “high-speed Chinafication” of the internet this year alone by first siting the growing ban on working cryptography.
Digital cryptography has come some way since the Data Encryption Standard developed in the seventies. And jolly good, you may say, not simply because of your obvious knowledge of DES but because of your obvious knowledge of FREAKING SEVENTIES COMPUTER SECURITY, MAN. While crypto is all just clever takes on the ancient world idea of sending messages encoded using a cypher that only the message receiver has a copy of, in order to decrypt the code and read the message without third party hijacking of the information, it’s not simply Caesars and and Greek gods or continental armies with enigma machines sending coded messages today, it’s every last one of us online. Every web page click in a browser goes looking for a security certificate to answer back before the page loads. Which means daily human planet security has to work at botsphere speeds across zillions of interactions every day to outpace malware.
Because of this, lots of other encryption systems grew up without something the DES had built into it – a back door for the security agencies to get into message streams with. Modern asymmetric crypt systems are end-to-end galaxies of impossible to hack message security that security agencies can’t get access to. Which they’re not happy about. And so various governments are trying to undo this.
And as Cory Doctorow puts it in a BoingBoing article, Australia has successfully managed to ban it. No, really.
“Under the new rule, cops can get court orders that will require tech companies to backdoor their encryption, serve malware, or do whatever else it takes to decrypt subjects’ messages, even if those messages are so well encrypted that it would take more computational cycles than can be wrung out of all the matter in the universe to brute-force the key. Bad guys, meanwhile, can just use free/open source software, or tools that are made by companies located outside of Australia, or tools that exist today without any backdoors, and never fear police interception.”
As he goes on: “Making this bill work would mean a raft of extreme measures: seizing and altering every general purpose computer in Australia; banning the importation of any computing device, including phones and laptops, into Australia; blocking Github and every other software distribution site at the national level, and more…”
But. “Australia continues to work to establish another precedent: that even supposedly open and democratic states should be able to censor and filter the Internet. If the country continues to walk down this road, then it’s only a matter of time before only back-doored communication tools run by compliant multinational tech companies are permitted in Australia; and all other services and protocols will face government-mandated blocking and filtering.”
“That world” he says “still is still only a potential future. There will be opportunities for companies, lawyers, activists, technologists, and Australian voters to keep a filtered, insecure Australian Net from becoming a dystopian reality. But thanks to Australia’s lawmakers on both left and right, that reality is a giant step closer.”
And Britain wants to do the same. So does America. Net censorship. Like China. Like Russia.
In the midst of this, the digital world has seen at least as much concentration as the wider corporate world. Planet Earth is dominated by, of course, GAFA – Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon. And when there is legislation to promote supposed safety for community users online, for example, it’s really only the big players who can afford to step up and play that complex game. Hastening the monopoly by law, effectively.
It is a culture though, Doctorow says, not of crypto hackers and geek hippies turned successful, so much as monopolising post-post-war culture. Something which, like everything of today’s problems, you might say, goes back to the 1980s. Regan repealing the anti-trust laws that simply did away with anti-monopoly safeguards put in place to aid economic rebuilding after the second world war. There are those who say it is time to reinstate such safeguards and, for example, force the break up of Facebook.
It’s made me realise, as no kind of hacker to date, that net neutrality is democracy. With our lives so utterly online, web freedom is our freedom.
But, Doctorow also says, remember what Facebook really is. It can only do one thing: Make you look at Facebook. And you do so because all your friends are on Facebook.
But your attention span is also limited, right? You’ll only look for so long. So how should a new online platform in the nascent age of social media aim to keep its customers ‘engaged’ – ie: on its turf, using it? Yep, give ‘em lots of reasons to keep clicking. And what seems to do this better than heightening extremes of opinion? Whipping us up into opposing camps in a time of increasing uncertainty smouldering under, well, everything. Did even Facebook know what it was going to tap into playing around with this?
And the truth is, we want it. As FastCo published, Brian Millar founded a consultancy that essentially made sense of data from people’s online habits and preferences. Only, the story he usually told with it, he says, was essentially just meant to be the positive stuff – “the best brands are funny, useful, beautiful or inspiring”. But, as he says: “I’d only be telling half the story.”
“When you look at what really engages people online, we all know that there’s a seething hellpot of content out there that’s neither funny nor useful nor beautiful nor inspiring.”
In fact, Millar couldn’t help himself as an marketeer, evidently, and came to categorise the flip side of Facebook’s most shared content into four categories as well – sex, narcissism, sadism, and hate. “Just as there are lots of different kinds of ways you can be funny or inspiring,” he says, “there are lots of different ways you can be sucked into less wholesome content.”
But, what his team began to recognise as they looked at the data was that darker material sits across spectrums of dark.
“The scary thing is how quickly you can go from one end of the spectrum to another.”
Now, as Zeynep Tufekci reports in the New York Times, YouTube seems to have an algorithmic bias of expediting your move from the light end of the content spectrum to the more extreme end. And after conducting her own initial research into the idea, she found other emerging research to support a rather chilling notion.
“It seems as if you are never “hard core” enough for YouTube’s recommendation algorithm. It promotes, recommends and disseminates videos in a manner that appears to constantly up the stakes. Given its billion or so users, YouTube may be one of the most powerful radicalizing instruments of the 21st century.”
As Brian Millar puts it: “Watch some center-right commentators, and within a couple of videos you’re in the world of QAnon. Watch some center-left stuff, and YouTube starts throwing up Illuminati conspiracies. This isn’t an attempt by Google to radicalize us, it’s the result of the biggest experiment ever conducted into what engages us. The answer is clear: something more extreme than the thing we last watched.”
You only need look at your cherubic and soon to be academically brilliant toddler to remember: Deep down, we’re all sadists, right? “Put the cat DOWN, Jemimah…” Just like we have a powerful urge to eat sugar, salt and fat – mmmmm, sugarsaltandfat… – primal urges that may be hard wired into the ape bit of our brains, like fight and flight, but which don’t help us live so well in a complex human society. What these darker urges, from schadenfauder to sheer sadism, actually help is demagogues. The dark influence organists, piping tunes to charm our chimp thinking. But Millar equates such Pewdy-Pied Pipe work with the modern arts of behavioural economists.
How dark are some of the dark nudges bot thinking seems to inevitably coerce us with in a bid to keep upping the human mouse stimulation response, to keep us online? Like gambling addicts. And while your higher brain may know just what it thinks of a refugee who’s lost everything and a talentless banker paid bonuses for shorting people’s debt, how does your chimp gut really react to a poor person and a rich one? Is all this somewhere in the matrix of our online choice making, time spending and emotional vote giving?
It’s a neat idea that seems too cute when you instinctively compare it to your own online life maybe. But honestly? I simply wonder if in the great numbers of us, this chimpbot thinking just adds up into extremities. The one we’re in.
As outright dodgy as a firm leveraging all this, such as the exposed Cambridge Analytica, does look, it’s not stopped us from spending every day on social platforms, has it. Or feeling the emotional response from another loveless tweet from some fathead apparently somewhere. And feeling mystified that they’re out there.
“Cambridge Analytica wanted to project to its clients that it had perfected use of Facebook’s mind control ray, but it had no mind control ray” said Cory Doctorow – just freely granted ledgers of deeply personal information from millions of users that it knew how to bot-mine for targeting information.
Which illustrates something else to the techtopian hippy. Even if it does turn out to be an impossible task to fully damn up knowledge in a connected society, nefarious power dreamers haven’t had to lock down the world wide web to be chillingly effective in their ambitions so far. Because they realised, could they kind of do something else with the flow of information instead? Help those lab mice bots a bit. Could they simply watercourse it?
You won’t be surprised by the story of journalist Lyudmila Savachuk in Business Insider. Known as a ‘troll slayer’ she first exposed the story of the disinformation campaign of the Russian state in 2014 and has since gone undercover in a ‘troll factory’ to see how such an operation works.
She found hundreds of people at computers, split into departments of work – news division, social media seeders, and the makers of visual memes called demotivators.
“Each worker has a quota to fill every day and every night,” Savchuk is quoted as saying. “Because the factory works around the clock. It never stops. Not for a second.”
Its job? To attack opposition activists with social media assaults. And her conclusion was that Vladimir Putin’s old gang the KGB was running it. An idea so unsurprising it can kind of hide in plain site. Part of the art of it all.
As Peter Pomerantsev wrote in The Atlantic General Philip Breedlove, NATO’s top commander in 2014, said at a summit that September that Russia was waging “the most amazing information warfare blitzkrieg we have ever seen in the history of information warfare.” And doing it in German, not Russian, so severe is it apparently.
Yet Pomerantsey considered this comment an understatement from the General. “The new Russia doesn’t just deal in the petty disinformation, forgeries, lies, leaks, and cyber-sabotage usually associated with information warfare. It reinvents reality, creating mass hallucinations that then translate into political action.”
In a culture supposedly grown up around the Russian premier, he says, information precedes essence.
“I remember creating the idea of the ‘Putin majority’ and hey, presto, it appeared in real life,” Gleb Pavlovsky, a political technologist who worked on Putin’s election campaigns, told him. “Or the idea that ‘there is no alternative to Putin.’ We invented that. And suddenly there really was no alternative.”
The real name supposedly at the heart of this movement is Vladislav Surkov who, according to Peter Pomerantsev who interviewed him, complete with fashion shoot, has: “directed Russian society like one great reality show.”
As Frank Rieger puts it: “As a society, we have an orientation problem. Post Modernism was a hope that out of new methodology something would happen as a shared space of being. But it didn’t really happen. And in the process we essentially lost our beacons of reference, our anchor points, with just fragments of shared references now steaming past us.”
Now, just as Radio Free Europe used to broadcast propaganda into the Soviet Union to mess with everyone’s sense of reality over the wall, Russia just sees itself as returning the joke. And Surkov has appealed to as wide a target set of groups as possible, to draw them all into a fading sense of trust in what they know. To show all his own workings on the outside, so to speak, and encourage a disillusionment in certainty itself.
From a string of highest offices at the Kremlin, but essentially as the greatest political technologist of the Putin movement, Surkov helped foundationally to create the modern unreality of Russian influence. Influence over itself and the whole world. Myth, insinuation and modern art. A truly fantastical storytelling, climbing inside the apparatus of old stories and hollowing out their very realities in the imagination of voters. The wizardry and viziery of digital times. And it seems to have infected… everything of now. The now of fearsome supposed realities.
Well, almost everything.
The Mueller investigation into possible Russian collusion in the 2016 election that saw Donald Actual Trump become the forty-fifth US president, may have exonerated the president of personal complicity in any interference but the idea of misinformation among us in a new digital cold war is so understood already that this report headline sounds surprising to millions of us. Really? No collusion?
And no such investigation has been launched by the UK government into similar claims about the Brexit campaign. Which actually came first and taught some lessons, some think. We do know major donors to Leave broke electoral law on spending, with a figure like Aaron Banks showboating around both Trump and Russia, not unlike a certain Nigel Farage, whose Brexit party still won’t disclose its funding and isn’t an actual political party with members who can vote on policies. It’s more like a sort of: “massive blank screen,” as Jonathan Coe put it on Twitter, “onto which people can project their various senses of anger, grievance and victimhood.”
Will this all turn out to be one story in history? Many think so. Not least of all the journalist Carole Cadwalladr who Banks told: “I wouldn’t be so lippy in Russia” and who has been in a storm of abuse surrounding her investigations into these links.
It’s the kind of behaviour that is making our times seem darker and more undemocratic than most of us can remember. And all in new vaguely dystopian ways we can’t properly understand, like an atmospheric virus in our imaginations. Which is entirely the point of it.
But whether nefarious influences surround them or not, successful political campaigns have worked in recent times because there was emotional truth to lever. It’s how they always work. Only now it’s closer to home than it’s ever been. It’s notionally inside us.
With our lives now not just practically online but emotionally, what could a bot army do to manipulate our feelings if it evidentially knows us better than we have bothered to know ourselves? If the algorithms move faster than our consciousnesses already, could they harmonise some emotional truths and amplify them into behaviours? As independent of thought as you obviously are, collectively it does seem so. Now imagine when we are hooked up to that digital reality biologically. When it’s literally inside us. Can we trust our idea of democracy with that new reality?
Not you, obviously, I know you’re above all this digital agora gossip. Me too. Let’s unjack and go hiking.
If there is a rhythm to the emergence of democracy in human life, it is perhaps a kind of oscillation – it seems a forever vulnerable thing, prey to every level of more selfish ambitions by influencers, but it also keeps reappearing. Sometimes where you might least expect it, depending on your own cultural expectations.
The modern Middle East isn’t exactly known for its democratic freedoms currently. And this isn’t exactly disconnected from European imperial influences either. The reimposition of the Shah with a new prime minister who would put a stop to all this democratically voted for nationalising of the British oil industry in Iran in 1958 worked out famously well as an inspiration to Persians to want to be part of western democracy. And I’m sure they’re still thanking the foreigners for the populist backlash of Ayatollah Khomeini’s subsequent revolutionary grip and its legacy to this day.
But it’s not only brutal dictatorships emerging from the power plays of the international community.
The Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, also known as Rojava, is a region in the middle of global politics – and the middle of a fascinating experiment in radical democracy that seems to be weirdly off the radar of most western news threads.
After a decade of regional and proxy-global war, triggering the most news thread-filling refugee crisis this century, Syria is currently a country split into three recognisable controlling forces. Firstly, the two-thirds of it back under the state forces of the incomprehensibly still-in-power Assad regime, backed by Russia, recaptured from Daesh, or so called Islamic State. Then there is a sizeable near-third of it liberated by the Syrian Defence Force across the north-east – a coalition of Kurds, Arabs and others who also drove out the invading extremists but backed loosely by the US and Europe. Then, as of last year, there is a north-west area of the country annexed by its neighbour Turkey. Hopping over the border in early 2018, aspirational dictator Erdogan sent military forces into Syria to… well, it depends who you ask.
The province in question is Afrin – and it’s been home to an emerging radical democratic project, right in the heart of a totalitarian and extremist warzone. And Turkey is currently doing a thunderingly effective job of looking like it wants to put a stop to all that. Without any real complaint so far from the motherlands of democracy in the West.
“Essentially, in the birthplace of patriarchy, women are liberating themselves,” 26-year-old Elif Sarican, an activist with the Kurdish Women’s Movement tells Owen Jones in a Guardian article.
Liberated from Daesh in 2015, the city of Afrin began to form itself into a much more people-centric structure under the Syrian Defence Council. And then Turkey acted, invading the region to try to puncture the dominance of Kurdish influence growing there on its border. Now basing itself in Idlib, the upshot of Turkey’s military presence in Syria is effectively to have created a safe haven for extremists who have fled from the rest of the country, and to have shifted the demography of Afrin in particular, significantly diminishing its former diversity.
“Afrin was a peaceful city, secular and ethnically diverse” says Ilham Ahmed, from the executive committee of the SDC. “They had sheltered many Syrian refugees. Afrin had its own political self-rule system didn’t bother anyone. But today it’s occupied by the Turkish state and its armed forces. It’s being destroyed. Every day it is destroyed and plundered.”
As Amber Huff, Patrick Huff and Salima Tasdemir put it for Red Pepper: “Afrin’s fall is not the end; as the war shifts to a new phase the defenders of Rojava have refused once again to be acquiescent victims. Solidarity demands that we work to end the silence around the atrocities being committed against them, and recognize that their struggle is our common struggle for life and the freedom to build better worlds in the ashes of broken and violent states.”
That oscillation in emergence, the coming and going of new democracy, sped up its frequency in the 20th century. Democracy’s battles have been many against the modern status quo – which is Superpower. Superpower embodied by supposedly communistic and supposedly democratic nations and blocks of nations. And while those of us growing up in the West are used to the idea of evil dictators in the East, it’s a story we don’t see as easily in our own back yards.
European citizens perhaps only squintingly acknowledge the legacies of empire in recent centuries – proto-superpowers fighting each other for land and resources in other people’s countries, across which redrawn and renamed maps of the world the industrial revolution bled, switching up the effect of everything. Out of which emerged the shape of the world as we’ve known it, the superpower blocs of America, the USSR, China, Europe. But if it’s hard to accept political history from previous centuries, how much harder from only previous decades. Or from the present.
For, when you look at it, it is hard to talk about democracy in modern times without acknowledging how much America and it’s flotilla of allies has done to damage it.
I know. The government by the people for the people. But perhaps rather fewer people than most of us have admitted.
America’s involvement in its ‘back yard’ of central and south America over the years has been an interesting discourse in democracy, you could say, for example.
Venezuela hasn’t been far from the news for a while, with ongoing democratic unrest, to put it mildly. Ongoing hyperinflation skyrocketing the cost of basically everything for Venezuelans. The refusal of its president, Nicolás Maduro, to bow to constitutional convention and cede his contested re-election to Juan Guaidó, the country’s National Assembly head, because the NA doesn’t recognise the presidential victory and neither does half the international community, supposedly. Also Maduro’s refusal to allow in international community aid to his citizens, kind of starving of the basics by now, in a country that’s meant to be rich in natural resources, with some three million of them in the end just leaving the country over the last few months to spread out across south and central America. It’s a mess. Like we’ve long been told these “banana republics” are.
It’s a tragic fall for a people who’ve been on a democratic rollercoaster over the last twenty years. One that found revolutionary democratic highs and lows under the presidency of the characterful Hugo Chavez.
Chavez was, of course, a socialist. He was good mates with the Cuban Castro brothers, after all. I mean, look at it him in his military fatigues and beret – a classic communista, right? And hell, he tried to become a full dictator, didn’t he? Centralising power, nationalising everything and “starting a war with the private sector” as Pedro Carillo, former Venezuellan foreign service project director, puts it. He had a brash confrontational style and wasn’t exactly camera shy, but if his presidential failings are the crippling financial legacy inherited today, you might say they essentially come down to the economic realities of trying to protect your own in a multinational environment. Price controls and currency controls may have done more to help the black market in dollars than local business competitiveness and an open door sense of internationalism.
But. Whatever else he did, Chavez knew how to speak to his people. Or at least, the ones he wanted to appeal to. The people of the favela-like barrios, piled up on the hills of Caracas. He spoke to them of living with dignity, and he introduced subsidised grocery stores and free healthcare and adult education classes to ramp up literacy across the country and along with it all came the reinforcing of positive ideology with articles of the new constitution, which he put to a vote soon after gaining power in 1999, simply printed on daily consumer products all over the shops as constant reminders of people’s rights. In the process, he literally put whole communities on the map, showing the barrios where previous cartography of the country had shown green spaces. He helped people reappear.
And in return, so did they, him. When America tacitly wanted him removed.
The people who most hated Chavez were the rich. People who lived in leafy suburbs: “Who’s spiritual homes are Miami and Washington” as investigative journalist John Pilger puts it.
“The days of the old bosses and barons are over,” said Chavez and one massive rally. “That false, elite democracy is over in Venezuela.”
Sounds like populism, doesn’t it? Trumpists and Gillet Jaune and Brexit Party supporters and so many others might aim such language at the status quo. And in the end, Chavez didn’t eradicate poverty in Venezuela. But what Pilger suggested in his 2007 film War On Democracy is that Washington felt threatened by him. “Because what he represented is another way. A threat to American domination.”
In the early naughties, opposition to Chavez grew in his country in a growing swirl of colourful invective across the local media. It came together in one particular protest day in April 2002, when two opposing marches mysteriously coincided on the streets of Caracas and it turned into bloodshed. Broadcast at the time were images of Chavez supporters shooting upon protesters and the deaths of those on the streets were piled upon the criticism of the president. By the end of the day, the president had resigned in an effective coup and the National Assembly suspended, his supreme court and the Attorney General, and a new president sworn in. A chap from the business community, And George W Bush’s White House publicly rubber stamped this view.
Only. Yeah. Chavez hadn’t resigned. He’d been kidnapped. And that infamous footage on the bridge of his “armed gangs” changed context somewhat when subsequent footage emerged of them being pinned down by snipers from below and above, away from any anti-Chavez protesters. More chillingly, the video statement from the heads of the Venezuelan army denouncing the deaths in this clash and switching allegiance to the coup, turned out to have been filmed before that day.
It appears to have been planned.
“We have a great weapon, which is the media. Our weapon was the media” said one military spokesperson later. Feeding discontent. But one independent radio station turned around the situation. Because the story broke that Chavez was hostage, forced out of office, and hundreds of thousands of people joined in the streets around the presidential palace, demanding his reinstatment. The army, switched back. And Chavez miraculously helicoptered back into power. And some of the leading plotters, says Pilger, fled to Miami.
In his investigation into this, he and others unearthed CIA documents in fact showing that the Bush Administration didn’t just know about the coming coup, it had been funding the opposition to the tune of a few million of dollars through bodies like the National Endowment For Democracy. Doesn’t sound surprising does it.
Now, obviously, post hoc ergo propter hoc – just because a thing happened before a thing doesn’t mean it happened because of the thing, right? And pfff, a couple of mill. So what. The games of politics. Right?
But. Y’know. People died.
John Pilger is probably loved by lefty news orgs. He describes US declarations about democratic freedoms around the world as “an epic lie” and says that to understand it, you have to understand a hidden history. Suppressed history. ..Go on, that’s got you, ain’t it?
“History that explains why we in the West know a lot about the crimes of others, but almost nothing about our own. The missing word,” he says “is Empire. The existence of an American empire is rarely acknowledged or its smothered in jingoism that celebrates war and an arrogance that says no country has a right to go its own way unless that way coincides with the interests of the United States.”
Hmm. What do voters want, to make America great again, do you think? Is it to get back to this, or overcome this? And if this all sounds conspiratorial well, who can blame any of us for believing conspiracies? As I heard someone say recently: “We were all raised on conspiracies.” Is it any wonder the internet is so deeply fertile creatively for so many extreme worldview stories?
How do we tell history? It matters, in democracy.
“Since 1945, the United States has attempted to overthrow fifty governments, many of them democracies. Thirty countries have been attacked and bombed, causing the loss of countless lives” says Pilger. “Empires have nothing to do with freedom. They’re vicious. They’re about conquest and theft and control and secrets.”
Venezuela seems to be one on a long list of Latin American nations alone that were significantly interfered with by Washington. Why… comes down to who you sympathise with – who’s world view. Who’s story you think you are living in. But just as in the middle east, it’s often been lubricated by oil, coating the hands of Britain and other nations too.
I think realpolitik is complicated. And just like corporate life, we all get caught up in jobs and roles and feelings within the system. Engineers, diplomats, retailers, politicians. We’ve all got to get on and do our jobs.
To strip it all back to straight talk, is the story of the 20th century massively that of an Americanised coke and oil crazed infantilisation of the world? Spending billions on defence to plunder the world through capitalist systems? Wait, where’s my beret? I wonder, as someone who’s never been much of a capitalised Socialist, if history will render this view of the US starkly obvious. And yet, it was a system supported by the populist view that democracy would prevail and “everyone” would see “progress”, all of it ramped up and up by the dissemination of technology. In the end, a process, an experience of storytelling that along the way couldn’t help but inspire people to want real democracy. Real freedom. Not fake news freedom. Empty promises.
Will then the story of the twenty first be of such enormous trans-political converging crises, brought about by some wildly, wantonly, violently, even catastrophically unsustainable strategies for economic security, triggering desperate new ways of seeing things and of old systems being inevitably overturned by, well, ordinary people. Because there was no putting technology, or the dream of democracy, back in the lead-lined box?
So the question remains: Can democracy emerge around the world stronger from war and oppression and misinformation and digital division and conquest? Can it untangle itself from the old models of representation that millions of us in the West are used to seeing as something heading in a good direction, marrying realism and idealogical endeavour better than anything in history. A story of entrepreneurs and service people’s fight for our freedom. About noble sacrifice and bold dreams. Of which there were, of course, so many.
If better democracy can emerge from the middle of everything of now, who will fight for it? Who will rescue us from the old world machine? Trapped in its cogs like vaudeville tramps. And how?