Richard Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics is a classic of political science. It documents America’s paranoid obsession with alleged hidden forces in power, from the Masons and Illuminati, to Communists and Papists. Religious fanatics are also taken by this paranoia, and have formulated all sort of ridiculous theories about the Antichrist’s presence in the White House.
There may be a psychological basis for the “paranoid style”. Evolutionary psychologists are fond of saying that, in the African savanna, our ancestors lived in a very harsh environment, and they needed a mental module to detect patterns of dangers. Thus, our paranoia may in fact be an adaptation. But, there is also a cultural side. Historians and sociologists tend to agree that the “paranoid style” is especially common in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Traditionally, for the most part, Latin America has been spared.
In Venezuela, however, things began to change with Chavez. He had a soft spot for conspiracy theories, and did his best to promote them. The Americans never made it to the moon. Simón Bolívar did not die of tuberculosis, but he was killed. 9-11 may have been an inside job. The CIA inoculated Chavez’s cancer. There are subliminal messages in Globovision’s broadcasts. And so on.
The trend has caught on. Pretty much not a day goes by, without some chavista making some outrageous comment giving credit to some conspiracy theory. Hugo Pérez Hernáiz, a Sociologist from Universidad Central de Venezuela, keeps track of them. It has become a routine: two or three times a week he documents the latest conspiracy theories in chavismo. I suppose he only writes two or three times a week because he grows tired; if he really wanted to document every conspiracy theory postulated by chavistas, he would not have time to do anything else in his life.
Hofstadter argued in his book that the “paranoid style” is intimately related to populism. A populist is a political actor that appeals to masses, and delivers to them what they want to hear. Masses do not have the patience or the capacity to hear about nuanced and detailed political analyses. They want easy, simplified answers to complex problems. And, masses come together when they have a common enemy upon whom collective rage can be directed. Social psychologists call this phenomenon “scapegoating”, and it is quite frequent in politics.
Thus, a politician who capitalizes on his appeal to big crowds, strengthens his position by pointing out some real or imaginary enemy. If he fails to deliver concrete political results, he can always divert attention to the alleged conspirators. Unfortunately, it is a useful tactic to avoid taking blame and responsibility, and try to save face in the mist of failure.
As expected, Venezuela’s economic catastrophe over the last few years, follows the same pattern. It does not take a genius to understand what goes on: Chavez’s presidency coincided with the oil boom. Venezuela’s bonanza impeded any diversification of the economy. After Chavez’s death, the oil price crashed due to many factors, and predictably, Venezuela’s economy, extremely dependent on oil prices, went downhill.
But, of course, populist chavistas will never admit to it. It is always someone else’s fault. According to the main conspiracy theory, it is all part of a malevolent plan of economic warfare, directed by the US government. Hey, if they did it to Allende, they would do it again to another leftist government, right? Well, not quite. Yes, the CIA was behind the 1973 Chilean coup, but, had it not been for Allende’s deeply misguided economic policies, there would have never been the sufficient social and political conditions for a military rebellion. And, as the Eastern bloc collapse proves, there are plenty of cases where Socialist regimes fall on their own weight, without any need of outside interference.
Unfortunately, the “paranoid style” in Venezuela is no longer the exclusive territory of the left. Chavez began a game that, sadly, has now been played by the opposition as well. Pérez Hernáiz documents some conspiracy theories by MUD members. This stopped being an ideological tendency, and is now a Venezuelan thing, regardless of political colors.
Take, for instance, the narrative on Dollar Today, the website that announces the value of the dollar against the bolivar in the black market. The way this value is calculated is pretty simple and straight forward: exchange houses in Cucuta report the quoted rates, and this is announced on the website. It is quite safe to say that, as Henry Ramos Allup has frequently argued, Dollar Today reflects market forces. Chavistas, however, will never admit to it. According to their theory, a handful of conspirators arbitrarily decide the value of the dollar regardless of real market forces, with the sole intent of toppling down the government.
Astonishingly, opposition sympathizers every once in a while have their own version of a conspiracy theory regarding Dollar Today. After a dramatic rise, in the last few weeks the value of the dollar against the bolivar has steadily decreased. Common sense dictates that this is due to the current cash crisis: Venezuela’s economy is heavily dependent on cash, and with the shortage of cash, there is a decreased demand for dollars. Economics 101: with decreased demand, the value of the commodity also decreases.
But, this will not suffice for conspiracy theorists in the opposition. Rumors are now circulating that chavismo bought and got hold of the Dollar Today website. According to this conspiracy theory, they artificially inflated the value of the dollar as announced in the website, sold their own dollars, then set the dollar back to its current value, and are now buying the dollars they sold, but at a far cheaper price.
A few conspiracy theories do turn out to be true. How, then, can we distinguish the real ones from the false ones? Occam’s razor is a good approach: the simpler explanation is probably the right one. Or, as Occam would himself put it, non sunt multiplicanda entia sine necessitate, (entities should not be multiplied without necessity); i.e., among competing hypothesis, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. If basic economics allow us to understand sufficiently well fluctuations in the value of the dollar against the bolivar, there is no need to appeal to additional entities. Venezuelans are in urgent need to apply Occam’s razor to every ridiculous conspiracy theory that Pérez Hernáinz tirelessly documents.