Psychoanalyst on a dubious mission
After the outcry generated by Joaquin Villalobos’s hatchet job on Hugo Chavéz, you’d think that the Nation Magazine would be more circumspect. Unfortunately, they have seen fit to publish another atrocity on their website. The author is Elizabeth Young-Bruehl, a 61 year old psychoanalyst from New York City who has written biographies of Anna Freud and Hannah Arendt. Her connection to Arendt prompted a Venezuelan study group called Hannah Arendt Observatorio to send her an invitation. Her write-up on the trip is titled “Reading Arendt in Caracas”, a salute to “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” a book that Columbia professor Hamid Dabashi described as “reminiscent of the most pestiferous colonial projects of the British in India.”
Much of Young-Bruehl’s piece is focused on the student opposition to Chavéz, who are distinguished from the “disaffected middle-class opposition party supporters” that had opposed him in the past. After making this distinction, Young-Bruehl allows that the universities they hail from are overwhelmingly “middle class and white.” I know that consistency is the hobgoblin of foolish minds, but this is ridiculous. For a class analysis of the university system in Venezuela, I recommend George Ciccariello-Maher’s Counterpunch article “Behind Venezuela’s “Student Rebellion“:
But, as Metropolitan Mayor Juan Barreto recently emphasized in a response to the mobilizations, Caracas boasts 200,000 students, whereas these demonstrations have not managed to mobilize more than 5,000. And these mobilizations had been largely concentrated in the wealthy East of Caracas, with no student protests in the sprawling barrios that house half of the city’s population. Who are the rest of these students? It is here that we see another piece of the puzzle, and another crucial sector which opposes the policies of the Bolivarian Revolution.
As a response to the entrenched elitism and conservatism of the existing Venezuelan university structure, and lacking the political weight to attack the long-cherished tradition of university autonomy head on, Chávez’s government opted for a different strategy. Rather than attempting to change institutions like the UCV, the government has funneled resources into the creation of new, alternative educational institutions like the Bolivarian University (UBV), among others. In all, the government has created 8 new free universities and plans 28 more (11 national, 13 regional, and 4 technological institutes) as a part of the recently-baptized Mission Alma Mater. And this isn’t even to mention the vast network of already existing educational missions which stretch from preschool to post-graduate education, and whose participants are currently demanding that they, too, be recognized as “students.” As it stands, these new universities reach approximately 1.5 million students, and the educational missions a further 3.8 million, together representing more than 8% of the Venezuelan population, a figure which will only continue to grow.
Let’s do the math. Only approximately out of forty students from the universities that Young-Bruehl herself describes as “white and middle-class” took to the streets against the government. Meanwhile, nearly 6 million students from the barrios attend new universities built with oil revenues. We can assume that they were not interested in toppling the government. We can also assume that Dr. Young-Bruehl had little motivation to find out what this riff-raff had to say. She is obviously more comfortable with members of her own social class. Hannah Arendt Observatorio is led by one Heinz Sonntag, who is described as finding the Venezuelan universities quite comfortably Marxist. As we shall see, Young-Bruehl uses a by-now-familiar tactic to attack the Bolivarian revolution by invoking “socialist” or “Marxist” opponents of the government.
She must have taken her cues from Nation Magazine contributors Christopher Hitchens and Marc Cooper who also wrap imperialist propaganda in leftish phraseology. Sonntag took an anti-Chavéz position in a debate at the U. Cal/Berkeley in 2003. He said that the mass media used Chávez’s “inflammatory” rhetoric against him. He added, “The way in which these criticisms were received brought the first disappointments with the regime. Instead of giving coherent explanations or accepting responsibility for their wrongdoings, Chávez and his followers attacked the media, committing the additional error of personalizing these attacks by focusing on certain journalists and media owners.”
This is what Malcolm X called turning the victim into the criminal. The private media in Venezuela was not involved with “criticisms.” It was closely allied with the abortive military coup in 2002. It is obvious that Sonntag, despite Young-Bruehl’s assurances about his Marxist proclivities, had gone over to the counter-revolution. Sonntag is just one of a number of self-proclaimed “Marxists” or “socialists” who have made common cause with the section of the bourgeoisie that wants to turn back the clock. They are not necessarily old men like Sonntag. Some are quite youthful, like the student leaders who Young-Bruehl is so smitten with. George Ciccariello-Maher has them nailed down pretty well:
That the “student leaders” are tied to the opposition is far from controversial: for example, spokesperson Yon Goicochea is a member of Primero Justicia and the aptly-named Stalin González belonged until recently to the strangest of opposition organizations, Bandera Roja. BR is a nominally Marxist-Leninist group which made the unlikely transition from a respectable guerrilla organization to the attack dogs of the far right, claiming to use the opposition as a vehicle to topple the fake communism of Chávez and institute a true dictatorship of the proletariat.
Teodoro Petkoff, who shares Heinz Sonntag and Stalin González’s nominally socialist credentials, is described as “a guerrilla fighter” who “did a few stints in prison.” In the 2006 election campaign, he ran for president as a democratic socialist, according to Young-Bruehl. Nowadays, the term “democratic socialist” can mean practically anything. Norm Geras has cheered the US invasion of Iraq in the name of democratic socialism, for example. In my own view, democratic socialism is a redundancy since socialism is by necessity rule by the people, something that Hugo Chavéz gives every indication of supporting. Indeed, it is probably the spectacle of ordinary people asserting themselves that gives people like Heinz Sonntag the willies.
Notwithstanding Young-Bruehl’s assurances of Petkoff’s leftist bona fides, there is another part of his CV that she conveniently omits. Petkoff was economics minister under Rafael Caldera in 1996, a government that imposed a harsh neoliberal regime on the poor. The August 16, 1996 Caracas Daily Journal describes Petkoff’s unsuccessful attempts to persuade the poor that austerity measures were good for them in the long run:
Heralded on Wall Street as the agent of free-market reform, Planning Minister Teodoro Petkoff is finding it more difficult to win over people on his own turf than big-time foreign investors. Petkoff, the flamboyant spokesman for Venezuela’s economic reform program ‘Agenda Venezuela’ , heard the ills of community leaders Friday but had little luck in quelling them. “He is giving us the same responses we are hearing on TV,”said Father Thomas Mulcahy of the Santa Cruz Paris in the Propatria barrio. In an event sponsored by the Foreign Journalists’ Association (APEX), Mulcahy and other social workers met with Petkoff at the church.
While the State of an economic turnaround, the estimated 80 percent of Venezuela living in poverty remain in a perpetual down spiral, said Mulcahy. Lack of funding for schools, poor health facilities and a frighteningly high crime rate are the reality for the barrios surrounding Caracas. “I’ve been robbed in the middle of the afternoon right outside the church … this is the worst I’ve ever seen things.”
Mulcahy, who has worked with Venezuela’s poor for 24 years, said. Running water can stop for up to three months at a time, the social workers complain. The closest hospital, Los Magallanes de Catia, is in dire straits for lack of State funding and the neighborhood’s last remaining pharmacy is about to close shop.
But Petkoff, an ex-communist guerrilla turned economist and politician, remained staunch that President Rafael Caldera hasn’t forgotten the poor… “What he’s talking about we just don’t see up here,” said Oswaldo Borjes, who teaches construction trades to unemployed youth.
Next on Young-Bruehl’s itinerary is a meeting with the students at Simon Bolivar University where she had “an intense conversation about why Hannah Arendt had distrusted revolutions that try to solve problems of social injustice without first achieving a stable, constitutional republic.” Now it must be said that Hannah Arendt was definitely committed to stable, constitutional republics–including ones that saw the wisdom of States Rights. In 1959, Arendt wrote an article titled “Reflections on Little Rock” that warned about the consequences of forcing segregation on the South. Her article betrayed the same kind of sanctimoniousness found in Young-Bruehl:
Another issue involved in the present conflict between Washington and the South is the matter of states’ rights. For some time it has been customary among liberals to maintain that no such issue exists at all but is only a ready made subterfuge of Southern reactionarieswho have nothing in their hands except “abstruse arguments and constitutional history.” In my opinion, this is a dangerous error. In contradistinction to the classical principle of the European nation state that power, like sovereignty, is indivisible, the power structure of this country rests on the principle of division of power and on the conviction that the body politic as a whole is strengthened by the division of power.
When poor Black people in Little Rock or Caracas decide to stand up for their rights, white, middle-class philosophers and psychiatrists get terribly upset.
I must strongly urge that people have a look at Reuven Kaminer’s very fine critique of Hannah Arendt on MRZine titled “On the Concept ‘Totalitarianism’ and Its Role in Current Political Discourse.” I offered Reuven some suggestions on background material on Arendt and her husband Heinrich Blucher, who was my professor at Bard College from 1961 to 1965. Like the students that welcomed Young-Bruehl in Caracas, I too had a head filled with middle-class, anti-Communist prejudices that Bluecher helped to reinforce back then. It was only when I left Bard College, faced the military draft, and began working as a welfare caseworker in Harlem that I began to wake up to the true nature of American society. That required unlearning a lot of the cold war mythology that I had picked up from Heinrich Bluecher.
Let me conclude with Reuven’s clarion call to action:
Marxists present their own counter-narrative regarding the crises of wars, revolutions, and counter-revolutions that characterize the last century.Hannah Arendt argues that the content of the century is the assault launched by totalitarianism against freedom.This overarching metaphysical description is characteristic of bourgeois ideology in that it completely ignores the central social and economic crisis of our time.The crisis of modern society is the internal contradiction of capitalist society whose relations of productions are an objective obstacle to human progress.The content of the century is not a parable of good and evil (which is, of course, a generalized form of Christian myth) but the long and tortuous efforts to overcome and overthrow capitalism-imperialism.Humanity is still faced, to this very day, with the choice between socialism and barbarism.