Friday, November 15, 2013

The blame game in conspiracy theories: Structure vs. agency.

Yesterday, at a public meeting with followers in Carabobo, President Maduro again repeated the basic arguments about the “economic war” he claims the opposition is waging against the country: “There are no economic reasons for an induced inflation in the country. The reason is not economic, it is political, an economic war to destroy the Fatherland,” he said.

He also again blamed what he calls “the trilogy of evil” (opposition leaders Machado, López, and Capriles Radonski) for the economic war. “You [the trilogy of evil] are still here because of the Constitution, but your little game [guachafita] is over, there will be no more impunity, we will have no regrets. You are responsible for the war against the people and we will defeat you” Maduro declared.

Is this use of a grand conspiracy theory to explain all the evils in the country working for Maduro?

David Smilde wrote a good assessment on the issue published yesterday in Venezuela Politics and Human Rights. He argues that the government is aware of polls predicting a close municipal elections on December 8, and that it needs to show that it is actually doing something about the economic crisis, which it can no longer deny. Here are the reasons why Smilde thinks that the “economic war” argument might resonate with some Venezuelans:

Maduro has tried to frame this as an economic war being carried out against his government. Polling shows that Maduro’s various conspiracy theories only convince between 5 and 20% of the population.

However, I think publicly calling out electronics retailers for overcharging; forcing them to lower their prices and then presiding over a liquidation of inventory puts a name and face on the perpetrators of the “guerra economica”.

Indeed the move resonates in a context in which market discourse has not been naturalized as it is in countries with longer and more robust capitalist traditions. For average Venezuelans, inflation is simply caused by sellers raising their prices. Furthermore, the root assumption of average Venezuelans’ economic thinking is that sellers who raise their prices make more money. There is no default intuition that if you raise prices you sell less and go out of business, or that the way to get prices to decrease is to increase the number of providers so that they compete.

Smilde’s argument is true; part of the effectiveness of the political use of conspiracy theories comes from clearly showing believers a discernible enemy to defeat. The “name and face” that Maduro wants ultimately recognized however are not merely shop owners, but their masters: “The trilogy of evil.” Conspiracy theories rarely put the blame on impersonal or abstract structures, much less in mere chance, they point to concrete persons, or to persons supposedly belonging to categories such as “bourgeois parasites” or “the fascist right”, as the direct cause of evil.

To illustrate this compare the arguments put forth by Maduro about the causes of the “economic war”, and those by political analyst Luis Vicente León:

Según el presidente, todo esto sucede porque sus enemigos políticos intentan destruirlo, acabando con la economía. De ser cierto, esto pasaría también por acabar con sus propias empresas, sus marcas, su prestigio y su relación con los consumidores. Un harakiri, pues. Maduro se imagina una especie de secta satánica que se reúne en el imperio, al mejor estilo de Pinky y Cerebro, para planear la conquistar el mundo.

Yo tengo una visión distinta. Los problemas descritos tanto por el presidente como por mí realmente son producto de las distorsiones típicas de una economía intervenida, cerrada, controlada y hostilizada por el Estado, algo que ha pasado repetidamente en la historia de la humanidad y que nada tiene que ver con el tema político, sino estrictamente con un modelo económico inadecuado.

Believers in the “economic war” will dismiss claims about the causes of the crisis, such as “it is the product of distortions typical of an economy intervened, closed, controlled, and harassed by the State,” as mere “bourgeoisie economic arguments” that fail to see the reality of people actually hoarding products and speculating.

Conspiracy theories are ultimately secular theodicies that explain evil and how to defeat it. As Hofstadter argued, they are usually the political rhetoric of fringe, marginal, radical groups. But there are moments in history when certain grand conspiracy theories have become the official discourse of governments. Sometimes they have been very effective in mobilizing whole societies, sometimes they have failed.

by Robeto Hernáiz

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