Venezuela is suffering the worst crisis of its history and of Latin American countries. The last two decades in Venezuela represent a clear case of implementation of the Rousseau’s doctrine, like elsewhere any theocratic regime or any other historical dictatorship on the right as well as on the left side of the political range.
Venezuelan crisis is endogenous
Venezuela is suffering the worst crisis of its history and of Latin American countries. The exogenous factors – the low oil price, the US attitude or the death of the leader Hugo Chavez in 2013 – are of course aggravating parameters but not at all the main cause of what is fundamentally an endogenous crisis of the whole society far beyond economic aspects but entirely created by domestic governance and political options. These options were defined by the late-Hugo Chavez (1954-2013, president from 1998 to 2013, but maintained unchanged by successor President Maduro), under the name of “Socialism for the XXIst century” or “Bolivarian Revolution” based upon strong centralization of constitutional powers and ideological opposition to pluralism, to market economy and to orthodox macroeconomic recipes.
In spite of nice intentions and some creative aspects, the net results are dramatically negative upon the standard of living not only from economic but also political points of view as citizen rights, individual freedom and availability of public goods deteriorated sharply. Of course, such a complex situation deserves and requires very careful analysis, historical rigor and a lot of nuances, distinguishing positive aspects from big mistakes and overall the issue of their possible links for systemic reasons. Our modest contribution does not pretend to gather these necessary analytical qualities but simply to open a Socratic debate about the philosophical basis of the adopted options by the “Chavist” regime.
The purpose of our contribution is to single out some features of the political options we consider to be at the roots of the governance and constitutional failures of this “Bolivarian Revolution”. There are clearly some lessons to draw from this worrying experience. We pretend that the Venezuelan crisis is not comparable to previous cases of Latin American crisis or “bad governance” cases but is emblematic of a deeper and old philosophical conflict which continues to divide our societies. Is it a coincidence that Chavez revolution has used to be welcomed by many extreme left parties or alternative movements as in Spain the “Podemos” party? Is it just for fun that Jean-Luc Mélanchon, the most powerful left leader in France and candidate during the last French Presidential election, has shown the Venezuelan regime as an example applicable to France (in 2017!)? Is it also anecdotic the permanent reference by Venezuelan leaders to the person of the Libertador Simon Bolivar, a military hero and leader of the political independence of several Hispanic colonies in South America?
The historical defeat of the democracy of Miranda by Bolivar two centuries ago
This reference to Bolivar is the analytic line we chose to use for this synthetic presentation of the deepest aspects of the governance issue. Indeed, Venezuela witnessed from the very beginning of its existence as a Republic, an internal political dispute between two heroes, Bolivar (1783-1830) and Miranda (1750-1816). The latest was the Father and Precursor of the emancipation of Latin America, but he was betrayed by his younger disciple, Simon Bolivar, during the war against the Spanish Army, in 1812. Bolivar took over Miranda and imposed a very different kind of political regime with respect to Miranda. This ideological conflict and the way it ended at that time is very emblematic of the present crisis in Venezuela where the revolutionary principles managed by the regime lead inevitably to the paradoxical self-destruction of freedom in the name of democracy.
According to our analysis, this old Bolivar-Miranda split provides a very instructive starting point for examining the philosophical principles inspiring the Chavez regime but also useful for analysing any other political regime. Bolivar was a direct follower of the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), one of the major author of the Enlightenment ideas. Miranda, also inspired by the Enlightenment ideas, was much more cautious as a result of the lessons he drew from his personal experiences as an actor in several revolutions and as a victim during the worst period of the French revolution, under the criminal abuses of the Jacobin, famous followers of Rousseau, like Robespierre during the “Terror” (1793-1794). Although Miranda and Bolivar fought together in the revolution against the colonial regime and promoted a radical independence from the absolutist regime of Spain, they conceived very different governance systems, as shown by their constitutional views. Miranda redacted four successive constitution projectsbased upon a genuine separation of power controlled by check-and-balance mechanisms under a representative democracy, geographical subsidiarity and strong human rights vigilance, along with the line of the pragmatic Anglo-Saxon democracies. Unfortunately, Miranda’s projects and democratic ideas remained useless with the elimination of Miranda by Bolivar, who imposed the opposite option with a Jacobin centralization of powers in the name of the people, following Rousseau’s principles, and announcing dark future of “popular democracy” at the expense of human rights.
Although this is a story from two centuries ago, there exists a close connection with the Venezuelan present drama. President Chavez, claiming “I am a Rousseauian Democrat“, was also a direct follower of Jean Jacques Rousseau, in the same way as Robespierre, Marx, Lénine, Mao, Pol Pot, Castro and…among many others, Mélanchon, are. It is, therefore, crucial to question the conventional ideas about Rousseau and to try to understand what is at stake with his principles and their links with fundamental aspects of governance.
“C’est la faute à Rousseau” or the Rousseau the betrayer of freedom
Rousseau is generally considered, especially in France, as the defender of individual freedom since his doctrine is based upon the principle that freedom is one of the very few absolute values which defines a human being i.e. the essence of what being a man is, therefore for him no compromise shall be admitted about freedom. However, life in the society which is also an essential principle for humankind impedes an absolute freedom by imposing some rules which coerce the individual freedom. This is the universal philosophical question on how to reconcile two opposite absolute values, inner to a human being: individual liberty and the authority of community through the coercion of rules. Rousseau pretended very proudly (and said that this discovering was the central event of his entire life) to have solved this key-issue of governance by pure logical argument showing the coherence of human nature without any pragmatic concession but by strengthening the sacred value of freedom.
His “solution” consists in reducing the meaning and scope of individual freedom for submitting it to the Community interests, that he sets as “naturally” superior to those of any individual. In this way he necessarily eliminates any contradiction since individual liberty – altered and constrained by Rousseau’s definition – could not anymore oppose to the collective rules and interests: for Rousseau an individual is only free as far he renounces voluntarily to do whatever he likes for giving priority to the interests of the community. Such a coincidence between liberty and authority is only logically possible if men shall want only that which the moral law in fact enjoins.
In fact, there is nothing new in Rousseau’s idea since he borrows the basis of his solution from the Christian (Calvinist and Thomist) teleological vision of personal freedom, for giving it a secular interpretation: being free is not to do anything individuals do want but to do what fits better with the interests of the Community, choosing to sacrifice their own interests for the sake of society. However, for being opposed to Christianity and to the idea of a superior ethics (God), he attributes the power to define what is good or bad for the Community to democracy.
Up to this point, Rousseau’s logic, although wrong for changing the meaning of freedom with respect of his starting postulate (absolute value of freedom which becomes in fact relative by submitting it to the collectivity), looks attractively correct and should be acceptable by everybody for setting the common sense principle of a necessary compromise between individual liberty and community authority that any society has any way to choose for being manageable. But Rousseau refuses any compromise…
The key mistake he did was to postulate a single way for fixing democratically the general interests. For Rousseau, only the popular assembly would be legitimate, setting another postulate: popular assembly is sovereign for expressing the “general will” and cannot be wrong by “political” definition of the sovereignty of the people. Therefore, the interest of the community must dominate the individual interests and rights, but instead of fairly claiming it, Rousseau disguises this hypostasis of the community under a reduction of the scope of liberty. This hypocrite philosophical option, disguised into a pure logical argument, has developed terrific effects upon humankind, allowing for the explosion of Jacobin movements and for justifying any dictatorship, both on the extreme left and on the extreme right, explaining that Rousseau should be better known as the betrayer of freedom and being the genuine enemy of human rights, contrary to the official picture.
The Rousseau’s wrong syllogism as a basis of any dictatorship
The Rousseau’s logical argumentation is merely wrong from the pure methodologic aspect. Let’s express his worrying argumentation into a pure syllogism form:
- Nature prescribes two simultaneous absolute laws: man has to be free from any coercion, but also nature does impose to man to be coerced by collective rules for living in society,
- Nature being harmonious, it is impossible to see a contradiction between these two absolute, universal and eternal laws and thus liberty and authority cannot conflict for they are one, being the reverse and the observation of the same medal: necessary collective coercion cannot counteract any individual freedom
- Therefore, individual freedom necessarily consists to freely accept to be submitted to the Community interest and rules, any dissident is not a free man but an antisocial being who must be “forced to be free”…
Clearly, in a pure methodological aspect of deduction from a syllogism, there is a flaw because the adjusted extension of the first premises for dominating the conclusion violates the basic logical rule of any syllogism. The other aspect of his logical mistake which reveals a totalitarian unconscious intention is his preference for sacralising freedom in an absolute value for excluding any compromise or trade-off between the individual and his group. This explains he opted for changing the definition of liberty in order to impose its contrary by playing with the words for refusing any pragmatic compromise: “A man who is self-chained is not a prisoner…since self-control is not control but freedom”. Rousseau leads so to the absurd principle that the only genuine free choice for individuals is to renounce to personal freedom since the people are necessarily naturally right: “the surrender of each individual with all his rights to the whole community so that he obeys to himself and remains as free as before” …in this case how can you not be free since nobody coerce you but the State, and the State is you and others like you looking for your common good.
From this submission of individuals to the group, Rousseau advocates for centralization of powers into the hands of direct democracy expressing more easily the “general will” without necessarily having to check with the population through regular, competitive elections. Rousseau argues that in a pure democracy there would be no need for any effective separation of powers since democracy requires that the executive branch must be placed under the direct authority of the legislative branch without any autonomy, or that both powers be merged through the direct control of popular assemblies or committees. Rousseau, like his disciple Chávez, was thus a promoter of “plebiscitary” or “ratifactory” elections (“yes” or “no”) without the need for representative or multiparty debates. Rousseau’s Social Contract (1751) can thus be seen as a manual for engineering Jacobin plans of revolutionary change or “great leaps forward”. It follows from Rousseau’s analysis that the separation of power or checks and balances is not needed because those institutions would only get in the way of a heroic leader’s ability to act on the general will. Rousseau, like Marx one hundred years later, would also be against intermediaries or what we now call “civil society” because that would also hinder a leader’s ability to carry out the general will, which he presumably knows intuitively better. Hence, as in Chávez’s Venezuela, the Rosseauian principles can disparage and undermine political parties, and dispense with the give and take of competitive, pluralist, interest-group bargaining and negotiation because those obstruct his ability to implement the general will and rule directly for “the people.” In contrast, empirical observations show along history that such agencies as political parties, interest groups, and pluralist give-and-take are absolutely essential for building resilient democracy and to protect human rights.
Upon such theoretical views, Rousseau’s philosophy moved to a criminal paradox for freedom and democracy that all dictatorships in the world used effectively in an Orwellian way. Rousseau is, in fact, the intellectual father of totalitarian regimes, from Stalin to Hitler and Pol Pot. Indeed, if other citizens think differently to “general will” and do not surrender their freedom to the Community (to the State but in fact to the dictator), it means they are not seeking the common good because they do not understand their own nature, they are not free but alienated by ignorance, corruption or madness. They lost their human nature and represent a threat for the society which must defend itself by denying them any right.
Therefore, Rousseau’s doctrine of absolute liberty leads directly to its opposite, the absolute despotism and the negation of human rights. It is actually amazing that Rousseau’s views were not massively opposed, were so widely accepted and continue to feed dictatorships in the world. The only lucid thinkers came from Oxford philosophical school with two important contributions, Talmon and Berlin. The first coined the concept of “Messianic democracy” about Rousseau. The important empirical observation to make is that from Robespierre and Marx to Castro and Chavez, the Rousseau’s way of thinking has produced a worldwide regression in the human right respect and a massive submission of citizens to political and intellectual serfdom. If the intellectual origin relies in Rousseau, the complicity of a huge number of intellectuals is engaged too. The Venezuelan case is another example.
What is the Bolivarian revolution/Chavist movement?
Although other countries and political movement have used this name or made reference to Bolivarian Revolution, its most prominent and structured case is the political movement and government led by the late President Chavez in Venezuela from 1998-99 to the present days of May 2018 in spite of his death during his third mandate in 1993
The ideological radicalization created both domestically and internationally has produced a sharp division among the social scientists and observers of Latin American issues, making more difficult to present a synthetic analysis without being classified immediately as a partisan or an opponent to the Chavist movement. Furthermore, the ideological fight between anti-Chavist and Marxist supporters biases the debate since the difficulties and failures of this regime are immediately attributed by its partisans to the capitalist system and its international vested interests which would impede a participative democracy to succeed without a more radical revolution. Our purpose is precisely to try to escape this lack of analysis by focusing upon the link between the deviations of the attractive Bolivarian democratic/social ambitions and the Rousseau’s principles adopted by the Chavist movement. How to explain the failures of the Bolivarian Revolution, the loss of democracy, freedom and socio-economic welfare that everybody could easily observe objectively following the mere facts in Venezuela after two decades of Chavism? Whatever the quality of its social goals and even the positive experiences realized under this regime how was it possible to divide so cruelly a society making impossible any basic social consensus? The fact that we consider the Bolivarian Revolution as a systematic implementation of the Rousseau’s doctrine and especially of his logical mistake, does not imply that we could not acknowledge the positive objectives and creative social realizations of the Chavism while considering that the same social objectives could be better reached in a different conception of democracy relying upon a more balanced method allowing for consolidating democratic institutions through pluralistic debates in the respect of a genuine separation of powers.
Aware of the risks of misunderstandings, let’s try to present shortly the main aspects of the Bolivarian Revolution or the Chavist movement.
Although the “Bolivarian Revolution” is named after the Libertador Simón Bolívar by President Chavez, it is obvious that this movement is entirely made by Chavez’s personal thinking and ideology. Chavez used Bolivar’s figure for his deeply rooted impact upon local popular culture as the symbol of his political project for Venezuela and the whole Latin America. Chavez, sharing Bolivar’s deep adhesion to Rousseau’s doctrine of people power and limitation of individual freedom, turned Bolivar’s anticolonial and anti-imperialist thinking towards state socialism for organizing a massive redistribution of the oil revenues for giving an effective answer to long-lasting popular claim for social justice and some limited participation to political power through local direct democracy and the creation by the State of “community groups” of partisans acting as parallel (paramilitary) popular powers, as well as the “social missions” implementing social policies out of the official administrations. In political science terminology, this kind of popular revolutionary movement is clearly a case of populism according to the Oxford Bibliographies, by its “anti-system” nature organized by the bond of its leader and the masses, “rooted not only in cognitive-rational elements but in emotions, buttressed by a certain style of addressing the masses, directed at the most popular sectors of the population; a persisting call to plebiscitary-like decisions, which grants symbolic empowerment to popular sectors while retaining a powerful appropriation of voice by the leader; an emphasis on executive power overriding the division of powers, and often leading to legislation by decree. Consequently, a “politics of anti-politics,” or in less loaded terms, the weakening or manipulation of some of the basic institutions of representative democracy” …”.
The ideological and cultural components of Chavism are a subtle mix of Chavez’s personal interpretation of Christianity (mixed with some “liberation theology”), local cultural roots anchored in past-Venezuelan heroes complementary of Bolivar with some creative form of popular participation together with old socialist/nationalist principles addressing popular and marginalized classes of the citizens for providing them more social justice. These social objectives are dealt with by a combination of creative people mobilization (the impressive social missions) with quick-fix recipes, like price-controls, trade protectionism, state nationalization and intervention oriented to social protection and welfare services with heavy subsidies etc….all tools creating a generalized “clientelist” dependency particularly difficult to reverse, and a general widening of the personal power of the leader. However, the Chavist movement became also more participative with the “Law of Communal Councils” (2006) which allowed for an impressive wave of the bottom-up upsurge of local organizations for developing community initiatives with central state resources.
Other heroes are also used by Chavism for mobilizing the masses, such as the Venezuelan Ezequiel Zamora (1817-1860, romantic military heroes named “General of the Sovereign People”) and Simón Rodríguez (1769-1859, educator and Bolivar’s mentor, socialist philosopher), who form with Bolivar what Chavez named the “tree of the three roots” or the basis of his revolutionary ideology. In addition, the socialist Colombian Jorge Eliécer Gaitán (1903-1948, who was about to become president of Colombia but was murdered before the election), as well as famous anti-imperialist leaders as Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and Salvador Allende. The Venezuelan Marxist historian Federico Brito Figueroa (1922–2000) influenced also directly Chavez’ socialism and General Perez Arcay, his professor at the military academy.
As a result, Chavism is made up of a combination of four main lines:
- Grassroots political participation of the population via popular votes and referendums (popular democracy) delegating to the charismatic leader most of the powers, bashing the representative democracy and its democratic institutions and eliminating its checks-and-balances,
- state control of the economy combined with the rejection of market economy, orthodox recipes, neo-liberalism and free-trade dispositions, allowing for promoting solidarity rather than competition,
- South American economic and political sovereignty with an anti-imperialism external diplomacy for feeding a political hemispheric integration against the United States,
- Strong nationalism Instilling in people a national ethic of patriotic service ensuring more popular unity
The Bolivarian Revolution as an illustration of the Rousseau’s fault
From a methodological point of view, the last two decades in Venezuela represent a clear case of implementation of the Rousseau’s doctrine, like elsewhere any theocratic regime or any other historical dictatorship on the right as well as on the left side of the political range. Whatever the assessment of the quality of the intentions or of the person leading a political regime – and Bolivarian revolution belongs to the top quality group in terms of social intentions and social creative realizations – once a political or religious movement pretends to own a single truth, democracy and individual freedom are in direct peril because Rousseau’s principles and his wrong syllogism will inevitably be applied by the regime for defending its power and the “rent-seeking” of its own oligarchy and army. Therefore, the Rousseau’s philosophy leads inevitably to the destruction of democracy and its substitution by an Orwellian “popular democracy” like the Soviet Union, its satellites during the cold war, and the Cuban and North-Korean surviving cases. Venezuela joins this list.
The Chavez regime provides a perfect demonstration of this law since any opposition is considered as a necessarily perverse betrayal for opposing to a movement defending the general interest and the huge majority of the people. The most synthetic way to express the “Rousseauian degree” of the Chavist regime is reminding a slogan written as a syllogism upon Caracas walls and manifestation banderols:
“All the power to the people
Chavez is the people
All the power to Chavez”
Indeed, the Bolivarian revolution relies upon the “popular power” by direct democracy i.e. under the control of the popular assembly, not the representative democracy. The result is the tendency to centralize all the powers and to resist to all kind of check and balances mechanisms, moved by emotional popular pressures for delegating to the political leader all the powers.
The Bolivarian Constitution of 1999 demonstrates the centralization bias upon which relies the Chavism. The new constitutional assembly which was elected for redacting it but was composed by 125 Chavist partisans on a total of 131 members, behaved as the country’s “supreme authority”. This assembly voted to give themselves the power to abolish government institutions and to dismiss officials who were perceived as corrupt or as operating only in their own interests, subordinating so all other institutions to the executive power. This assembly even granted itself the power to overhaul the judicial system, and the Supreme Court was replaced in the 1999 Constitution with the Supreme Tribunal of Justice submitted to the government. The constitution strengthened the power of the President of the Republic, eliminated most of the check-and-balances. From 1999, the three constitutional powers were effectively controlled by a majority of Chavist partisans. As Miranda already warned during the debates upon the redaction of first constitution of Venezuela in 1811, a situation in which when the three powers would be dominated by the same political majority would be worse than an absolute tyranny, because democracy is not warranted by majority alone but by effective division of powers ensured by the free action of independent check-and-balances.
This is precisely what was excluded by the Chavist movement, following Rousseau’s view of popular power, leading inevitably to the loss of democracy as shown by the refusal by the executive power to accept his defeat in the legislative election of December 2015 when the opposition won the legislative election with even a super-majority of 112 seats against 55 won by the Chavist movement, allowing for the Parliament to change constitutionally the government. Indeed, the proof of the disappearance of democracy in the Chavism was brought to the light when the executive power, controlling closely the Supreme Tribunal of Justice and the National Electoral Commission, declared the Parliament “in a situation of contempt” and transferred powers from the Parliament, which had a huge opposition majority since January 2016 to the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, which has a majority of government partisans. This ruling also granted President Maduro the power to suspend elections and imprison opposition deputies. Then, the government call for the formation of a new constitutional assembly under the condition that it will be composed by partisans of the executive. Indeed, the members of this parallel new legislative power were selected not by democratic election but by social organizations loyal to Chavism. These are merely facts that express clearly the failure of the Bolivarian Revolution to ensure democracy and freedom.
From the Rousseau’s postulate that the movement is necessarily legitimate since it seeks only the common good and is supposed by definition to represent the “general will”, any criticism or opposition appear as necessarily perverse and directed against the people interests, being either corrupted by private or foreign interests or mistaken by ignorant citizens or lost people mentally ill. As it was the case with the Bolshevik movement during the Russian revolution, even if the general election would be lost by the movement, the movement remains legitimate because citizens are ignorant and not yet able to understand their own interests (alienation), therefore democratic election is not meaningful once the result does not warrant the power to those actually defending the people. Once in power, it is not rational to let opposition members to become candidates to elections, or to accept freedom of criticizing the government, as shown by the Cuban regime, another pure case of Rousseau’s followers.
 Ghymers, C., « Miranda visionnaire: l’intégration régionale dimension indissociable de l’émancipation latino-américaine. Une interprétation de la pensée politique et économique du précurseur des libérations latino-américaines », in Francisco de Miranda, l’Europe et l’intégration latino-américaine, with L.X. Grisanti, Association Internationale Andrés Bello, Brussels & Louvain-la-Neuve, ed. Versant-Sud, 2001,
Also Ghymers, C. “Las constituciones de Miranda: Los primeros ensayos constitucionales en la América española”, congreso de Latinoamericanistas españoles, Valencia, September 2010, in Antonio Colomer Viadel (coord.) Las Cortés de Cádiz, la Constitución de 1812 y las Independencias Nacionales en América, ed. Ugarit, colección Amadis, Valencia, 2011
 Rousseau (free translation from French by the author), cited by Touchard, Jean, Histoire des idées politiques, Vol. II, (Paris, 2005). p. 424.
 Talmon, Jacob L. The origins of Totalitarian Democracy, Secker & Warburg, vol. 1: 1952, London, vol. 2: 1960, London and Berlin, Isaiah, inaugural lecture delivered by Isaiah Berlin before the University of Oxford on 31 October 1958, reprinted in Four Essays on Liberty, Oxford University Press, 1969
 Roniger, Luis, Modern Populism in Latin America, 2017
 Hugo Chavez declared that Christus is “the greatest socialist in history.”