That ol' cult of personality
Popular American blogger Marc Cooper has made a number of attacks on Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian revolution, arguing that support for them is incompatible with 'democratic left-wing' politics. In a post made earlier this week, Cooper focused on the cult of personality that has grown up around Chavez:
Anyone who swears himself into office under a giant portrait of himself, as seen above, is usually not the type to brook criticism from mere mortals. Indeed, I think the 25 foot high portrait of Chavez is one of those little details that tell you a much larger story.
The extent of Chavez's responsibilty for the cult of personality that undoubtedly exists around him is a matter for debate. Some of the phenomena that we take for shameless self-promotion on Chavez's part can be explained with reference to the peculiar conjuncture in which the man took power. The famous (and very popular) TV show Alo Presidente, where Chavez talks about his policy programme and takes calls from viewers, was in many ways necessitated by the extreme hostility that all the large private TV stations showed to the Bolivarian revolution in its early years.
A cult of personality is undoubtedly a negative thing, whenever and wherever it appears, but the fact that a cult of personality has grown up around Chavez should not lead us into automatic denunciations of him. The cult seems to be a recurrent feature of politics across the board, from the far left to the far right, but social democrats like Marc Cooper seem only to notice it when it surrounds a figure of the radical left. Cooper lived in Chile in the early '70s, where he worked for Salvador Allende, and he likes to counterpose Allende the good democratic left reformer to Chavez the self-aggrandising coupster. He seems to forget, though, that a formidable cult of personality surrounded Allende.
New Zealand's first Labour Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage is commemorated by an extravagant mausoleum on the Auckland waterfront. When Savage died in 1940 hundreds of thousands flocked to watch his body travel north along the main trunk line from the capital to Auckland. Even today the man's photo hangs in thousands of homes. When New Zealand's current deputy Prime Minister Michael Cullen entered parliamentary politics in the 1980s, his rise up Labour's greasy pole was aided by the oft-remarked fact that he looked like Savage.
Cooper or one of his local co-thinkers might retort that Savage never fostered a cult around him, but I'm not sure this is true. In his memoirs of the first Labour government party rebel John A Lee bitterly recalled that Savage was originally intended to be a symbolic leader, and power was supposed to be vested in the Labour Cabinet as a whole. But that arrangement soon fell apart, as Savage began to run the pary like a CEO, and use his weekly radio 'talk to the nation' to associate popular Labour policies with himself. Today Savage is still widely seen as the father of New Zealand's welfare state and the man who single-handedly soothed the pain that the Great Depression brought to ordinary New Zealanders. In reality, he was a constant break on radicals like Lee, who wanted to reconstruct the New Zealand economy rather than simply redistribute income.
I'm sure readers in other parts of the world can think of their own examples to stand in place of Savage.