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The parrot and the peacock

March 9, 2011

Gaddafi could be seen shopping on Margarita wearing an African-motif shirt, occasionally stopping to mingle with ordinary Venezuelans.

Recently I wrote about the Platonic ideal of democracy as poikilon, a varied and brightly-colored garment, and how it analogizes Muammar Gaddafi (who espouses sartorial freedom with the eradication of democratic freedom) as a plumed peacock. Riding under a cloak of bloodshed (including the use of military equipment against civilians) Gaddafi has little international diplomatic support to speak of. One commentator described today’s unleashing of force on Zawiya, a town of 200,000 people, as ‘pulling a Fallujah’:

The attacks on the people of Zawiya resemble the American attacks on Fallujah, Iraq back in 2004 in many ways: army snipers are at work cutting down people; hospitals are taking gunfire; their wards are overflowing with wounded professors, doctors, engineers, not just nebulous ‘militants’; even small children are being hit as armored vehicles and tanks are blasting away at civilian infrastructure. These are all war crimes:

Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, however, has stuck beside him (though unable to offer any direct support). The term birds of a feather comes to mind, as even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (his administration no stranger to the use of violent force against demonstrators) has condemned Gaddafi: ‘How can a leader subject his own people to a shower of machine-guns, tanks and bombs? How can a leader bomb his own people, and afterwards say “I will kill anyone who says anything?”‘

In ‘Can the Left Finally Stop Listening to Chávez?’ Linda Quiquivix writes that although he speaks the language of anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism:

…we don’t need Chávez to understand for ourselves the danger of a US-backed counter-revolution. In fact, because Chávez is a Qadhafi ally, his suggestion the US is backing the revolts comes across as empty and no better than the tired propaganda of [insert-name-of-Arab-dictator-currently-facing-revolts-here]. It would be nice if Chávez would just shut up.

But if we can’t get Chávez to be quiet, we can ask of ourselves that we stop listening to him. Maybe we should listen to the revolutionaries instead. Yesterday a banner came up in Benghazi that read: ‘NO FOREIGN INTERVENTION. Libyan people can manage it ALONE.’

(As the U.N. Security Council vote for a No-Fly Zone, i.e. airspace intervention on Libya, broods nearer, it’s worth remembering that ‘Libyan opposition groups have made abundantly clear they don’t want foreign troops on their soil, and a British special forces mission to link up with the opposition leadership ended in a humiliating failure last weekend when the team was arrested by rebel forces.’)

Chávez’ rhetorical stance and sartorial dressing toward Gaddafi is what I want to isolate momentarily here. The two met after the African and South American leaders summit in Venezuela where

‘South-South’ cooperation was a buzzword, [bringing] together the African Union and the South American bloc Unasur. During his speech at the rally Monday night, Gadhafi criticized the ‘imperialism’ of some wealthy countries, singling out the United States and Britain, and he repeated his denunciation of last week calling the U.N. Security Council an elite club where nations such as Libya have no voice.

While there is ample reason for south-south multinational solidarity given the history of colonial and imperial pillage in both countries, Chávez’ speech conveniently overlooks Gaddafi’s tyrannical rule, not to mention the documented human rights massacre of Abu Salim prison. He also glided over the fact that Gaddafi’s ‘socialist’ republic actually occupies a third space between an advanced capitalist and socialist economic model. The word he avoids is oil. In Libya: The Elusive Revolution (pp 187-190) Ruth First discussed the pioneering system developed by Venezuela in the 1940s in which oil-producing countries and international firms ‘shared profits according to ‘duly negotiated formulas on royalty allocation.’ The eventual system for the production of oil in Libya may have enriched the state, but it hasn’t necessarily translate into hugely improved living conditions for the average Libyan (nor, in hindsight, does it adequately explain the rentier state dependent on non-Libyan oil labor). Writing in 1974, First:

Libya’s interdependent role in the international capitalist system is firmly established with her export of oil in exchange for manufactured goods and even the most basic foodstuffs. The insertion of an advanced capitalist mode of production in the oil sector has caused a dramatic acceleration of economic growth; yet the only direct impact of the petroleum sector on the rest of the economy is through the government’s expenditure of oil income and the local purchases of goods and services by the oil companies. There has been almost no industrialization. There is no financial or industrial bourgeoisie; only a dispersed and fragmented commercial class that sells to the internal market.

The history of Venezuela and Libya as oil-producing nations (able to more or less determine the terms by which they wish to buy or trade oil revenue) gets glided over in the more populist Chavista discourse.

Fast-forward to September 2009, the site of Gaddafi’s dressing-cum-coronation with the jewel-encrusted replica of 19th-century revolutionary Simon Bolívar.

In this past week’s ‘Harvard for Tyrants,’ Douglas Farah wrote:

Chávez pulled out all the stops during Qaddafi’s visit to Venezuela in 2009. ‘What Símon Bolívar is to the Venezuelan people, Qaddafi is to the Libyan people,’ Chávez said while awarding the Libyan leader the ‘Order of the Liberator’ medal, along with a replica of Bolívar’s sword. Qaddafi in turn praised Chávez for ‘having driven out the colonialists,’ just as he had driven out those in Libya. ‘We share the same destiny, the same battle in the same trench against a common enemy, and we will conquer,’ Qaddafi said.

The sword acted as more than a mere emblem uniting purported socialist republics: it was a powerful sartorial symbol of the aspiration of a pan-Arab and pan-Latin American body-politic, and even pan-historic link between what Derrida called ‘the democratic and the demographic.’ In other words, in this exchange of a symbolic accessory we glimpse what Plato originally intended as the democratic: that it is a mode or paradigm, ‘neither the name of a regime nor the name of a constitution’ but a constitutive modality of a democracy to come.

(Top photo by AP. Screengrabs by South/South.)

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