December 29, 2007

Rich tyrant, cheap intellectuals

This time the rich tyrant is Hugo Chávez. In an editorial Nature magazine praises Chávez for "his genuine achievements" and because he "has broadly supported universities and scientific research in Venezuela," and dismisses student protesters as "upper middle class." The blog of the Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and Commonwealth (ASA) shares Nature's praise for Chávez and offers as an example of his "creative and imaginative policy-making" his continuing support for a "nationwide system of public youth orchestras, which begun about 30 years ago, and now involves more than 250 thousand –mostly poor– children, [...] while in most of the world classical music was left to the elites, through prohibitive fees and de-financing." According to ASA's blog, Sir Simon Rattle of the Berlin Philharmonic has declared this system "the most important thing happening in music anywhere in the world."

The post in ASA's blog is titled and ends with the question "What are we training anthropologists for?" and answers:
A confident, hesitant or negative answer will capture well the general thrust of the political economy where each of us is located. That many of us in the Euro-American academy would read into the question a sort of ‘default utilitarianism’ speaks no doubt about the impoverishment of our political imagination.
We have been here before.


  1. The Youth Orquestra system has been in Venezuela -working in the same way that it works now, with children with low resources - since the 70's. Can't believe how some people just buy the Chavez propaganda without any futher research.

  2. I suppose it wont make a difference if I say that it would pay a little to read articles carefully...

    A couple of points:

    - In our ASA Globalog, German and I expressly state that we do not wish to conflate praise of the Venezuelan science policy agenda with Chavez himself. We make the point, in different registers, over four times. But it is disappoingtly clear how some readers insist in bringing their own personal politics into other peoples' analyses.

    - Perhaps more disappointingly still, Marcelino's reading of our post fails altogether to understand that our intention - and what we take Nature's editorial to be prompting scientists worldwide to do themselves - was to COMPARE political economies. But again, it is easier to self-indulge in our personal political opinions than to take the trouble to look out to see how people are really doing.


    Alberto Corsin

  3. Alberto, you praise Chávez's policy ("for all its faults", "despite obvious mistakes", "no matter what its flaws") of spending more money on universities and research, and for maintaining the public youth orchestras. You describe these policies as "genuine achievements." You criticize European governments for not spending enough on these things - for "de-financing" them, for opening them to the market. You compare the Venezuela's "creative and imaginative" policies that "seem to point in the right direction" with European trends that are "heading exactly the opposite way" and that, if I correctly interpret your words, have some relation to "the impoverishment of our [the Euro-American academia] political imagination".

    Yes, you do compare political economies. You praise one, you criticize the other.

    I repeat - we have been here before.

    Of course I openly express ("self-indulge in") my political opinions just as you do. I welcome any reduction in public spending in universities, research and music. I dislike the central planning of the economy, education, scientific research and the arts. I welcome opening things to the free choices of individual people (i. e., to the market).

    So, you and I disagree. This fact should disappoint no one.

  4. Looks like we disagree, indeed. The 'disappoint' comes, however, in matters of intellectual style. You say we have been here before - and draw an analogy between our points and western intellectual admiration for the Soviet Union in the interwar period. Hence your labelling us as 'cheap intellectuals'. You may call this 'openly expressing your political views' - but in fact you dont. Only in your commentary to my own you air your political views. Until then, you simply self-indulge.

    The point remains, however, that no matter how much you want us conflating Chavez with his government's science-policy agenda, in our post we dont fall for that. We certainly praise public funding of research and universities in Venezuela - and we do so not because we are 'pro' or 'against' the market but because we see good work being done there - work on health and education on indigenous communities in the Amazon which would never be carried out if left to market forces, as indeed is happening elsewhere, not least in the UK.

  5. 1. Chávez steals a lot of money from Venezuelans. (Others may choose to talk about the democratically elected government of Venezuela instead of Chávez, and about the resources of the Venezuelan state, or of the Venezuelan people, or of the Venezuelan proletariat, instead of the money Chávez has confiscated. But we all know what we are talking about.) He differs from most other politicians throughout the world in the scale of this confiscation. In addition, he restricts the freedom of Venezuelans in several other respects to an extraordinary degree.

    2. To get approval from his constituencies and other people, Chávez spends some of that money on universities, research and youth orchestras.

    3. Nature magazine and the ASA blog praise Chávez for those policies, and imply that not everything is perfect in Venezuela but don't go into details. Nature magazine, ASA, and you and German probably have the best of intentions, but the consequence of your articles is a boost to Chávez. Rich tyrant, cheap intellectuals; we have been here before.

  6. OK. Fair enough. I suppose, in the end, it's better to be a cheap intellectual than to give up on intellectual curiosity altogether. Best of luck with your doctrinal and rhetorical discourse. I agree with you - we have been here before.

    Happy new year,