‘Chavez is still a model for Obama’: Interview with Santiago Zabala

Silvia Mazzini talks to philosopher Santiago Zabala about ‘hermeneutic communism’ and Chavez as a model for Obama.

Hugo Chavez
If Obama hopes to make any real "change", then he should look toward emulating in part Chavez's reforms [REUTERS]

What does Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring all have in common? According to Santiago Zabala, professor of philosophy at the University of Barcelona, they’re all hermeneutic “alterations” that have been “healthy” to democratic societies. Humboldt University lecturer Silvia Mazzini, in a question-and-answer, discussed “hermeneutic communism” with Zabala, and how re-elected Chavez should be a model for re-elected US President Barack Obama.

Silvia Mazzini: Slavoj Zizek praised your Hermeneutic Communism (written with Gianni Vattimo) as “a book that everyone who thinks about radical politics needs like the air he or she breathes!” The book concluded suggesting that the Venezuelan president was a model for the American president. Do you think the fact that both were reelected is a confirmation of that thesis?

Santiago Zabala: No, I do not think so since both were reelected for very different reasons. If “change” was Obama’s catchword, it has come first in Venezuela and other Latin American countries. Let’s take Obama healthcare reform. It’s nothing compared to what Chavez has managed to do: Offering free health care to millions of people for the first time, cutting extreme poverty by 70 percent, and quadrupling public pensions among many other things. As for foreign policy, there is no question that Obama has been much more violent, considering the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan and, of course, the prisoners in Guantanamo. Although Obama is certainly a decent man, we are still waiting for his “change”; on the other hand, Chavez has not only delivered it but also imposed it when necessary. Either way, that thesis should be read within the philosophical context of the book.

SM: You mean Chavez’s “hermeneutic communism” as opposed to Obama’s “conservative neoliberalism”?

SZ: Yes, the basic idea is that the United States, the EU, and other Western democracies are “framed”, that is, politically neutralised. One of Obama’s greatest mistakes has been to call for bipartisanship when he had the majority in the senate during his first two years in office and so could have done as he pleased. Instead, Chavez has used his majority not only to leave the IMF but also to nationalise most of the country’s national resources in order to fund social programmes that have led to, among many other things, the eradication of illiteracy and the creation of medical clinics throughout the nation. If we look at the differences between Obama and Romney, they were not as marked as the ones between Chavez and Capriles. It’s true we just experienced the US presidential election, but it is clear that not enough would have been done differently under a republican administration to justify Obama’s call for change.

SM: Let’s take a closer look at Chavez; he does not call himself a “communist”, much less a “hermeneutic” communist.

 How will Chavez’s victory impact the world?

SZ: Not yet! It’s true; he uses the term “socialism for the twenty-first century” or “Bolivarian revolution”. Communism, as you know, has become very popular with contemporary philosophers (Terry Eagleton, Slavoj Zizek, Jodi Dean) after Francis Fukuyama declared the “end of history” as the “neoliberal victory”. But as the Arab Spring and the ongoing financial crisis demonstrated, history is far from concluded, and capitalism is struggling for survival. But in this condition communism does not return as a repetition but rather as a possibility for emancipation from the neoliberal frame we are in. While China is still proceeding within the ancient and authoritarian Soviet parameters, in Venezuela not only has the democratic electoral procedures been respected but also the state bureaucratic system has been decentralised through social missions for community projects, called “missiones“.

SM: Like the word “communism”, also “hermeneutics” can be interpreted in different ways. What does hermeneutic in your book mean?

SZ: Hermeneutics refers to the philosophy of interpretation that runs proximally from Aristotle to Richard Rorty. Although Plato in the Ion presented hermeneutics as a theory of reception and practice for transmitting the messages of the gods of Olympus, it soon acquired a broader philosophical significance, pointing out the alteration of meanings, that is, their possibility for being interpreted differently. We use hermeneutics as a way to indicate this flexibility in communism. This is why the motto of the book (rephrasing Marx’s famous statement from Theses on Feuerbach) is that “the philosophers have only described the world in various ways; the moment now has arrived to interpret it”. Both hermeneutics, which favours interpretation over truth, and communism, which strives for state control of national resources, are alterations within our established intellectual institutions.

SM: So hermeneutic communism is not primarily a theory of interpretation, but rather a call for alterations?

SZ: Yes, alterations such as Chavez, the Arab Spring, or the Occupy movement, which have all shaken our so-called international diplomacy and national democratic communities. As we know, all these alterations have been healthy for the development of democratic societies: Chavez has demonstrated that leaving the IMF is profitable; the Arab Spring, that dictators were never welcomed there; and Occupy, how we are not all pleased in the rich democratic countries. When Martin Heidegger, one of the architects of hermeneutics, pointed out decades ago how the “only emergency is the lack of emergency”, he was referring to these sort of alterations: The emergency is when they don’t occur.

SM: But why should Chavez be a model for Obama? After all, the changes the Venezuelan president brought about are not all suitable in the United States.

SZ: Let’s be clear: Obama is much better than Bush or Romney, but he presented himself as an agent of change that we have not seen either internationality or nationally. While there are many issues I could mention, from appointing the same people who created the economic crisis or indiscriminately using drones in the Middle East, there is one issue that binds all three of them together: Slums. Slum population is growing by a 25 million people a year and is becoming a major social and security issue for every nation. Some ministries of defence even see it as the battlefield for the twenty-first century wars. While Chavez has channelled massive state resources to offer houses to these populations, in the United States the slum population is growing at an alarming rate.

SM: So you believe Obama should turned toward these slums?

SZ: Yes, but we focus on slums not only because they are increasing everywhere but also for philosophical reasons. In our book we refer to slums as one “discharge of capitalism”, and other, philosophical, discharges are those positions (deconstructionism, critical theory, hermeneutics) considered marginal and unnecessary because they do not submit to metaphysical or scientific realism. But if these positions do not submit to scientific realism (which, as Herbert Marcuse warned us long ago, prepare the “way for racist ideology”), it’s not for theoretical reasons but rather for ethical justifications, for their interest in the weak, the marginal, and the losers of history. So, Chavez, the Arab Spring, and Occupy are really at the margins of the so-called proper functioning of finance, politics, and society because they enact alterations or, better, non-authorised changes.

I think the media portray him in a negative way to make sure no one sees his policies as a model or example to follow.

-Santiago Zabala

SM: Do you think it is useful to compare a regional power, Venezuela, with the USA, a global player?

SZ: Well, sure, Chavez, just as Obama for the West, does not represent simply his country, but the leader of all the Latin American countries that have joined forces (through UNASUR, ALBA, and MERCOSUR) to emancipate from IMF and the Washington consensus in general. Let’s remember South America is expected to grow by 10.1 percent in 2013, more than any other region in the world.

SM: What would you answer to those who see Chavez as an undemocratic or populist politician?

SZ: I think the media portray him in a negative way to make sure no one sees his policies as a model or example to follow. We thought of this when we began to notice how many intellectuals, such as Thomas L Friedman, Moisés Nairn, and Francis Fukuyama, portray him as despotic. It must be said that thanks to economist such as Mark Weisbrot, journalists as Richard Gott, and filmmakers as Oliver Stone, who devote much of their work to denouncing disinformation, he is getting some recognition now.

SM: You seem to be – together with Tariq Ali and Noam Chomsky – in love with the Venezuelan president.

SZ: I think “love” is too much. The point is that Obama now has another four years to make changes, and whether we like it or not, Chavez is still a model for him.

Dr Silvia Mazzini is a lecturer at the Humboldt University and a guest fellow at the Institute for Cultural Inquiry in Berlin. She is the author of Für eine mannigfaltige mögliche Welt. Kunst und Politik bei Ernst Bloch und Gianni Vattimo (Frankfurt am Main: Lang, 2010), and of numerous articles on aesthetics, political philosophy and social space.

Santiago Zabala is ICREA Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of Barcelona. His books include The Hermeneutic Nature of Analytic Philosophy (2008), The Remains of Being (2009) and most recently, Hermeneutic Communism (2011, co-authored with G Vattimo), all published by Columbia University Press.