Friday, June 10, 2011

Book Review: Venezuela's Chavismo and Populism in Comparative Perspective by Kirk Hawkins

If I had to sum this book up in one word it would be "dense". This is not a book that you would (typically) want to curl up with on a lazy afternoon to relax with. This book has an incredible wealth of information, complexity, and analysis. This is not a book written for a general audience, but the things it talks about are incredibly important for the general audience. Perhaps the only way I could begin to understand what the author was talking about was because I have at least a minimal familiarity with Latin American politics and I spent four years studying philosophy, that way I could understand a lot of the technical terms and their proper context.

Perhaps I can give a brief overview of the book (kind of like trying to explain the history of Western Civilization in 1000 words or less), so here goes:

As the title implies the book deals with the Chavismo movement in Venezuela (it does not provide a breakdown of Hugo Chávez himself, as the Chavismo movement, while centered on Hugo Chávez, is much more complex than a single movement lead by one man). Furthermore, the book looks at Chavismo as a populist movement rather than an expression of a particular political ideology. The movement does have a particular ideology, but to think of it in such narrow terms is to miss what is really going on.

One of the first things Dr. Hawkins does is set out an understanding of three critical ideas; populism, worldview and discourse. In terms of worldview, Chavismo movement has what is called a Manichaean outlook, which means they view their own actions, plight and work as being part of a larger cosmic struggle between the Good and the Evil. In this case the Good is interpreted by them to be the unified will of the people and the Evil to be a conspiring minority. In this sense their worldview is a populist worldview. The discourse refers not to a set cannon of political tracts or works, but a more elusive and set of vocabulary, tone, metaphor and broad themes that drive the movement.

After laying this foundation Dr. Hawkins then proceeds to give an in depth analysis of Hugo Chávez's use of populist discourse and also gives a method of measuring the populist discourse quantitatively. This is compared to other countries and leaders to give a sense of where Chávez and Chavismo in general falls in the populist spectrum. Not surprisingly it falls at the extreme end of the populist spectrum.

Then Dr. Hawkins looks into the historical causes that lead to the rise of populism in Venezuela. While there were a number of factors that contributed to the formation of the societal forces in Venezuela, Dr. Hawkins clearly states that it was the break down of democratic norms and the underlying violation of the rule of law that allowed for the creation of a populist movement in Venezuela. This assertion is accompanied by a number of studies and surveys (presented in a number of tables) to measure the level or the perceived level of corruption in government. This measure is compared against the causes of populism across several countries and areas of the world.

The book finishes up with a look at how the introduction of a populist movement has affected Venezuela in general. Specifically the author looks at the effect of Bolivarian Circles on the fundamental political organization of the country. The Circles are characterized by four attributes: low institutionalization, movement structure, disruptive tactics, and insularity within the larger society. These four things both defined and drove the populist movement in Venezuela. The effects of populism on public policy are also considered where it is asserted that the ideology of the populist movement drives the economic policies rather than economic policies driving the movement.

The book concludes by emphasizing the importance of the ideas developed in the course of the book, namely that of populism as discourse and worldview that can be used to understand and apply to different situations across the world. It is important to understand how the system works because that will determine future outcomes and/or determine how the society interacts with other societies. How that particular society responds to external forces and influences will be highly dependent on the strength and amount of populist fervor in the country. Definitely important things to consider when interacting or studying the country in question.

Overall I found the book to be very informative and interesting. I realize that I could never give an adequate summary of the book here as it is very complex, but it does provide a wealth of ideas, analysis and understanding of populism.

Disclaimer: Dr. Kirk Hawkins is my brother-in-law, which is why I decided to read this book. I don't typically go and pull random Political Science books of the shelf and read them. But I really did enjoy reading this book.

1 comment:

Eliza said...

Thanks for the review. That's one more person who has read the book!