Sunday, November 3, 2013

Richard Hofstadter on Venezuela

American historian Richard Hofstadter published The Paranoid Style in American Politics in 1964. The essay is really about conspiracy theories in the radical right wing political movement of the US. But because conspiracy theories seem to have an “elective affinity” with radical political ideas, form the left or right, some of the themes in the essay seem very much applicable to Venezuela’s current case of paranoid style of political rhetoric.

Particularly relevant is his analysis of the “apocalyptic” character of conspiracy theorizing, which Hofstadter puts almost in political religious terms. Related to this is his description of how the enemy is clearly defined by the use of conspiracy theories.

Here are some paragraphs from the original essay which, taken out of context, seem written with Venezuela in mind:

The central image is that of a vast and sinister conspiracy, a gigantic and yet subtle machinery of influence set in motion to undermine and destroy a way of life. One may object that there are conspiratorial acts in history, and there is nothing paranoid about taking note of them. This is true. All political behavior requires strategy, many strategic acts depend for their effect upon a period of secrecy, and anything that is secret may be described, often with but little exaggeration, as conspiratorial. The distinguishing thing about the paranoid style is not that its exponents see conspiracies or plots here and there in history, but that they regard a “vast” or “gigantic” conspiracy as the motive force in historical events. History is a conspiracy, set in motion by demonic forces of almost transcendental power, and what is felt to be needed to defeat it is not the usual methods of political give-and-take, but an all-out crusade. The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of this conspiracy in apocalyptic terms – he traffics in the birth and death of the whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at the turning point: it is now or never in organizing resistance to conspiracy. Time is forever sunning out. Like religious millenarians, he expresses the anxiety of those who are living through the last days and he is sometimes disposed to set date for the apocalypse.
This enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman: sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He is a free, active, demonic agent. He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history himself, or deflects the normal course of history in an evil way. He makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced. The paranoid’s interpretation of history is in this sense distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone’s will. Very often the enemy is held to possess some especially effective source of power: he controls the press; he directs the public mind through “managed news”; he has unlimited funds; he has a new secret for influencing the mind (brain washing); he has a special technique for seduction (the Catholic confessional); he is gaining a stranglehold on the educational system.
The recurrence of the paranoid style over a long span of time and in different places suggests that a mentality disposed to see the world in the paranoid’s way may always be present in some considerable minority of the population. But the fact that movements employing the paranoid style are not constant but come in successive episodic waves suggests that the paranoid disposition is mobilized into action chiefly by social conflicts that involve ultimate schemes of values and bring fundamental fears and hatreds, rather than negotiable interests, into political actions. Catastrophe or the fear of catastrophe is most likely to elicit the syndrome of paranoid rhetoric.

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