Monday, April 03, 2006

Hell hath no fury.... 

Today in the Wall Street Journal there appeared a historical column that at first appeared to have little to do with Venezuela, save that it was about taxes which has been a key subject here recently. But when I finished reading it I realized it actually had a lot to do with Venezuela.

Rather than reproducing the column let me describe what the issue was.

In the 1930s the U.S. was in the midst of a very bad depression and the Senate was holding hearing to investigate how the stock market crash of 1929 came about. In the course of these hearing it came out that the extremely wealthy banker, J.P. Morgan, and many of his rich associates, paid not a penny of income tax. While many far less wealthy paid taxes (although only 7% of the population do to the poverty and unemployment of the time) these magnates used loopholes to avoid paying anything.

There was generalized outrage over this and Robert Follette, the Progressive Senator from Wisconsin, introduced a bill that made a summary of everyone’s tax return public information. The idea was that by allowing anyone to go to a public office and look up how much anyone else paid in tax it would shame the wealthy into paying (sort of like what Seniat is doing to stores in Venezuela).

Of course, the wealthy were aghast at this and fought for repeal of the law. The repeal effort was spearheaded by Raymond Pitcairn, a glass manufacturing magnate from Pittsburgh. Through a massive lobbying effort he was able to have the law repealed the very next year even though it only affected a small minority of the population and most people supported it. How could a small minority affect change so quickly? This is how it was explained in the columns last paragraph:

Mr. Pitcairn had successfully manipulated public opinion on a matter affecting a tiny minority of Americans. “Minorities create news because they do daring things and act together,” he explained in a recruiting letter. “The get they’re way against larger numbers because they demand what they want and make a fuss about it.

Now, Mr. Pitcairn obviously leaves out the impact that their money has in all this. Nevertheless, he is making an important observation about the attitudes of these elites and one that made me immediately think of what happened in Venezuela a few years ago.

In 2002 and 2003 it was a regular occurrence for thousands of Venezuelans, most of them from the upper segments of Venezuelan society, to take to the streets and demand that President Chavez resign or hold new elections (this even before it was time for the recall referendum). In watching this at the time the most recurring thought that went through my mind was who do these people think they are? What arrogance and pretension for them to think they can demand an elected President to resign before his time is up. Yet they made such demands time and time again. What’s more, they didn’t limit themselves to just making these demands but they actually took actions intended to push Chavez from office. Listening to them at the time they clearly saw nothing wrong with that. They seemed to take it as a given that they had a right to do these things.

After a while it occurred to me who these people were and why they acted as they did. They are the same people Mr. Pitcairn is referring to above – people with wealth who are used to getting their way. They are people who are used to being accommodated, be it by the servants in their homes or officials in a government office. When there is a law or regulation that is an impediment to something they wish to do they know whom to call to have that impediment removed. And they don’t take no for an answer. The poor are throughout their lives taught to know their place and accept their lot. But not these people. Upper class people much more readily challenge authority and rules than do poorer people. And that makes sense as it is the upper classes who generally have the power to make whatever changes to the existing authorities and laws they wish.

Of course, these people are not unique to the Venezuelan opposition. They are found in the Bangkok elite trying to resist that countries progressive president. They are found in the U.S. elite that makes sure its taxes are cut even while the country drowns in red ink. This is how elites are the world over.

What is unique about Venezuela is that this elite now finds itself in a very unusual position. Its faces a government elected by a poor majority that will not accommodate it. When it became apparent in 1998 that Chavez would be elected this elite tried to woo Chavez. If you can’t beat him, co-opt him they thought. This strategy had always worked before as most politicians campaigned on the left but governed on the right.

Yet within a short period of time they realized they couldn’t co-opt him, that he intended to stay true to his electoral mandate and govern on behalf of Venezuela’s poor majority. That is when they began “to make a fuss” as Mr. Pitcairn has pointed out people of their social strata are prone to do. Their often hate filled writings and speeches are filled with scorn for those who oppose them. They dismiss the results of elections or the rulings of courts with the backhanded contempt of a powerful minority not accustomed to being ruled over by the majority – and a majority that in their minds is made up of rabble.

Now that they have failed, at least for the time being, to get their way they seem both outraged and befuddled. The rich and powerful aren’t used to losing and they are not at all graceful in defeat. Their arrogance and pretension, and the anger and spite they generate, are as evident now as they were three years ago. And as long as the Chavez government stands between them and what they want they will continue making ther fuss. Hell hath no fury like an elite rebuffed.


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