Chavez: The dream of "high modernism" Posted by: McQ
on Thursday, November 29, 2007
Very interesting article in the Washington Post (RTWT) about Venezuela's Hugo Chavez's project to bulldoze a jungle mountaintop and build a socialist utopia. In fact, work began on this project a year ago. He envisions a "beautiful place" which will be populated by residents now living in the slums of Caracas. He is also another in a long line of authoritarian dreamers to try this sort of scheme, known as "high modernism".
In launching this extraordinary project, which he hopes will be the first of many around Venezuela, Chávez joins a long list of rulers who have dreamed of converting nature into orderly living space for the masses. Among them are Stalin, Mao and Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu — but also the more benign Julius Nyerere, the Tanzanian president who, back in the 1970s, thought it would be a good idea to move 5 million of his countrymen into cookie-cutter villages partly financed by the World Bank.
Like all of these men, Chávez acts on an ideology that anthropologist James C. Scott of Yale has called "high modernism." In his brilliant 1998 book about the phenomenon, "Seeing Like a State," Scott explored the peculiar mix of good intentions and megalomania that has driven one unchecked government after another to pursue the dream of a reconcentrated populace: "a strong, one might even say muscle-bound, version of the self-confidence about scientific and technical progress, the expansion of production, the growing satisfaction of human needs, the mastery of nature (including human nature), and above all, the rational design of social order commensurate with the scientific understanding of natural laws."
In essence it is, as we've said, another who thinks that he can succeed where others have failed. It is the megalomania that drives this sort of thinking. It requires a belief that human nature and natural laws can be overcome and bent to the particular leader's will. The "good intentions" then, end up costing thousands if not millions of lives as witnessed in some of the projects undertaken under Mao and Stalin.
He is like previous high-modernist authoritarians, who, as Scott writes, "regarded themselves as far smarter and far-seeing than they really were and, at the same time, regarded their subjects as far more stupid and incompetent than they really were."
Obviously, then this goes to a deeper and more menacing desire by such leaders - the desire to control:
High modernism is the architecture of centralized political control. When people live scattered across the countryside or, in the case of Venezuela, clinging to the mountainsides around the capital, they're relatively hard to govern in any fashion, let alone by authoritarian means. In government-built grids, Scott notes, they can be identified, counted, conscripted and monitored.
Authoritarianism demands such order and control and by any measure, Chavez is an authoritarian. What his new city, Caribia, represents is his first attempt to really exert the sort of control he'd like to see throughout the rest of the country. And my guess is, should he retain power long enough to populate it, he will pour whatever resources are necessary to make his experiment a "success", at least in his eyes. That, of course, will allow him the ability to rationalize doing this on a larger and larger scale. Don't expect his attempt to bend human nature to his will be anymore successful than Mao or Stalin's. Instead it will eventually serve as yet another example of the horror that can be wrought on a people by allowing authoritarian megalomaniacs to have unchecked power (as Chavez is amassing).
My guess is that Caribia will eventually go the way of previous experiments such as this and end up abandoned - standing as yet another monument and testament to man's inability to learn the lessons of history.
"My guess is that Caribia will eventually go the way of previous experiments such as this and end up abandoned - standing as yet another monument and testament to man’s inability to learn the lessons of history. "
We need not conjure the horrific examples of Stalin, Mao, etc. We have plenty of case studies in this sort of thing among the more benevolent states of the west:
If relatively stable, democratic societies can’t get it right how does a flash-in-the-pan neo-socialist plan on doing so? You would think Comrade Hugo would be willing to share his planned improvements with the world. For the greater good, you know.