Episode 25: The Banality of CIA-Curated Definitions of ‘Democracy’

Citations Needed | January 31, 2018 | Transcript

Citations Needed
41 min readFeb 27, 2018


Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I’m Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: You can find us on Twitter @citationspod, Facebook at Citations Needed and of course you can support the show by going to Patreon, Citations Needed Podcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. All your help is always much appreciated and of course helps the show keep going.

Adam: Yeah so thanks for all the support as usual. The topic of today is one that is sort of warm and fuzzy to our hearts. I think as a country and I think as a culture we have a very lofty impression of democracy. It sort of gives us a sense of warmth you know we fight wars over it. Our entire moral paradigm is built around it. And advancing it is sort of the most, I think, consistent moral justification for American, I guess, imperialism or American expansion over seas that we are promoting democracy. But it is obviously a very loaded concept as is its antithesis, which is generally called authoritarianism. And authoritarianism is sort of stifling, it’s the state, it’s the curbing of civil rights, it’s the prevention of freedom of space or freedom of press, freedom of religion and that democracy is sort of a core tenant of that. And how we talk about democracy is incredibly important and how the corporate media and how publications like The Washington Post, The New York Times and Vox what they use to measure democracy is, I think, quite revealing and exposes the limits of this cliché when it comes to making value claims about specific countries.

Nima: Right. Later in the show we’ll be talking with George Ciccariello-Maher, professor, political theorist and writer about all these issues and a lot more.

[Begin Clip]

George Ciccariello-Maher: I think capitalism goes hand in hand very well and its not always the case but it goes very well hand in hand with a very minimal understanding of liberal democracy. Understood as formal equality. In other words we are all equal under the law as individual citizens. Why does that goes well with capitalism? Cause that’s the model of exchange that capitalism you know tells us is

ideal. Right? The idea that we as, if we’re workers, enter into the labor market freely. Right? And we make free decisions about where we want to work and this is of course the false freedom that Marx pointed out when he said, you know, “you choose to work or you can choose to starve this is not freedom.” Right? This is no substantive understanding of freedom.

[End Clip]

Nima: The term ‘democracy’ itself is one of those almost meaningless phrases right? I mean kind of like the term ‘terrorism’ at this point. It elicits all sorts of emotions when you say it or when you use it, when it is used in speeches or in opeds or in articles and books and it is so kind of ill-defined that when definitions are used they are often used exploitatively. They are used almost because whoever is using them already knows the answer and they’re kind of working backwards from that. That what is going to be termed ‘terrorism’ is already defined in the person kind of using that term.

Adam: Yeah, it rests on a series of assumptions so the most popular, I guess, measurement that’s used is Polity IV, which was created by the Center For Systemic Peace.

Nima: Which sounds very very bipartisan and prestigious.

Adam: Yeah, very official. Its run out of Georgetown University and what’s interesting about Polity IV, we’ll examine its downsides later in the show, is that its completely funded by the Central Intelligence Agency. It’s actually a CIA project. It’s one that is used quite often; it’s used specifically by Vox a lot. They have along history of kind of uncritically repeating it and they have a lot of really great cultish headlines built on the spreading of democracy and the history of democracy using the Polity IV standard.

Nima: It’s actually kind of amazing how often Vox returns to this well. And it’s always in service of assuring its readers that life in this current moment in history is actually really amazing and wonderful. You can imagine who they expect their audience to be because a lot of people I think don’t feel like that. Don’t feel like the world is on the right track or that people’s lives are really so free and wonderful and yet Vox constantly tells readers that life on this planet at this point in time is moving closer toward justice. There’s less poverty, there’s less war, people are living longer lives, and they have more access to education and full rights. And so Vox uses this all the time and to give a taste of this here are just a number of Vox headlines from the past few years. Here’s one, “How the fall of the Berlin Wall changed the world, in one chart”. That’s from November 2014. Another one from the same month November 2014, “26 charts and maps that show the world as getting much, much better”. Earlier that year in of April 2014, “The animated map that explains the world” and in there there’s information about how democracy is flourishing and spreading and it always uses this Polity IV metric. There was a piece in 2015 headlined, “The world is getting better all the time, in 11 maps and charts”! There was another one a year later, 2016; “World hunger is at its lowest point in at least 25 Years. Thank democracy”.

Adam: Good job democracy.

Nima: Thanks democracy. There was one from December 2016, which was headlined, “Proof that life is getting better for humanity, in 5 charts”! And one from this year 2018 from January 7, 2018 headlined, “9 ways the world got a lot better in 2017”. And one of those metrics is of course the growth of democracy.

Adam: Yeah and so every one of these articles uses the Polity IV standard. Recently there was a New York Times, so what The New York Times did is the New York Times basically they took Amanda Taub and Max Fisher from Vox and just hired them to start their own vertical but instead of calling it The Explainer, which is what Vox did they called it The Interpreter so it was really clever thing they did there.

Nima: Yeah.

Adam: And one of the things that they did is that they released a video, I think it may have been their first video, I think they’re trying to do like these Vox explainer videos, that was about the sort of crisis of democracy. That crisis was kind of on its way out. And it uses of course the Polity IV standard as its metric.

Nima: Yeah.

Adam: Because, you know, as is their want, its an incredibly interesting thing to watch, we can’t show you obviously but listen to it, we’re going to play you a clip from that right now:

[Begin Clip]

Amanda Taub: This is the idea that took over the world.

Max Fisher: First, there was one democracy

Amanda Taub: Then ten, then twenty.

Max Fisher: Then twenty. But there were some setbacks.

Amanda Taub: But People really seemed to want democracy.

Max Fisher: And eventually most of them got one. But 15 years ago democracy stopped spreading and it might not pick back up again.

Amanda Taub: Even some places that seemed safely democratic, turned out not to be. And people are even getting worried about established democracies like the US.

Max Fisher: So is there something wrong with democracy? I’m Max Fisher.

Amanda Taub: I’m Amanda Taub.

Max Fisher: We’re journalists at The New York Times.

Amanda Taub: And this is The Interpreter.

[End Clip]

Adam: So Nima, let’s start with what makes the Polity IV standard bad objectively. So let’s set aside the ad hominem that maybe the CIA is not the best funder of what is and isn’t democracy.

Nima: Right. They may not be the number one arbiter of what we call democracies and what we don’t call democracies.

Adam: But that’s ad hominem. We don’t want to be ad hominem here.

Nima: Right, that aside. That’s too easy.

Adam: You don’t want to use 75 years of CIA history to impugn the motives of the Center For Systemic Peace.

Nima: Of course.

Adam: By Monty Marshall at Georgetown University.

Nima: Because remember Adam, we always have to punch down. We always have to punch down.

Adam: Yeah, I know. I keep going after the poor scrappy upstart CIA. So, let’s tease out some of the contradictions in this method.

Nima: So, it’s a scale that actually goes from negative 10 to positive 10. Obviously the negative 10 is the kind of full tyranny, authoritarianism standard and then positive 10 is what they call ‘Full Democracy’ and surprise surprise the United States gets a 10 out of 10! Gets a total free and democratic rating.

Screenshot from The Interpreter’s “Is There Something Wrong With Democracy?” (The New York Times)

Adam: Wow. Yeah.

Nima: So, congratulations, United States, you’re doing a bang up job.

Adam: The video Max Fisher made focuses disproportionately on Venezuela as a once a democracy it says for four decades it was a democracy. We won’t get into the weeds of what actually proceeded Chavez in ’99 but just suffice it to say it was not a full democracy. And then Chavez of course become an authoritarian by redistributing wealth to the poor which is sort of the ultimate sin in New York Times land.

Nima: Right, by consistently by winning elections and then actually not succumbing to a CIA coup.

Adam: Yeah, and then I guess there was some weakening of some judicial oversight, which makes him basically, you know the world’s most evil dictator. But so as of 2013, Venezuela is a five out of 10 on the scale. Now as point of reference 1842 United States, which Vox cites as the first democracy its sort of where they start the time the watch.

Nima: Mmhmm.

Adam: And New York Times starts it at 1879. This is what they consider to be the first democracy. So the democracy in 1842, according to Vox, was a nine out of 10. So, they’re arguing that the United States in 1842 where women could not vote and three and a half million African descendants were slaves, chattel slavery, where obviously basically only rich white land owners could vote, with some exceptions, that that was nine out of 10 and today’s Venezuela was five out of 10.

Nima: Nine out of 10. Nine out of 10. Yeah exactly. Indian Removal Act underway. Full-fledged.

Adam: Oh and they were committing genocide against Native Americans.

Nima: Right, nine out of 10 so I mean you know doing really well, not perfect, but pretty damn well.

Adam: And then in 1942 at the peak of Jim Crow, the peak of Jim Crow, one hundred years later, they’re 10 out of 10. Here we have a system where African Americans routinely can’t vote, discriminated against.

Nima: Achieved!

Adam: Right they’re literally perfectly democratic.

Nima: (Laughs)

Adam: And then now let’s turn out attention to Israel which obviously occupies Palestine, disenfranchises four and a half million Palestinians, roughly one quarter, one third of the population depending what math trick you use, humiliates them in a dozen different ways everyday.

Nima: There are dozens of laws actually that are discriminatory against non-Jewish people in Israel.

Adam: Right.

Nima: Specifically against Palestinians. Not exclusively but in terms of who gets you know who is deemed a ‘citizen’ versus a ‘national’ who can actually travel there,

who has certain rights, who can get certain jobs, etcetera etcetera. But guess what! (drum roll) Israel’s a 10 out of 10!

Adam: 10 out of 10 democracy.

Nima: 10 out of 10 full on democracy. So, congratulations.

Adam: Full on democracy. So what it appears from any kind of cursory, looking at the Polity IV standard, and different political scientists have criticized this by the way, its not a totally original thought, is that they basically reverse engineer criteria to get the US and its allies off the hook. With the exception of the gulf and Emirati countries, which I don’t think, they can’t even like, even bullshit that. Right? No one can sort of argue Bahrain or Saudi Arabia’s a democracy. So they sort of punt on that because they are our sort of our Arab sin eaters. They’re our friends that we reluctantly are friends with but we don’t have to try to defend as such. Turkey gets a nine out of 10 for example noted democracy Turkey. This in fairness was pre-coup but I don’t again whatever. So here you have the standard they just use as a bludgeon from Vox the New York Times as a way of measuring democracy but it’s a measurement system that is sort of by its very nature set up to be very limited.

Nima: And that it really starts from the premise. Okay so the United States is obviously going to be perfect. It’s obviously going to be 10 out of 10 and then you kind of work backwards from there and then fill in the rest. With the obviously all of the official enemies, official badies, North Korea, Russia, China, Iran, down at the very sad no democracy side.

Adam: And one of the things that I was fascinated by was the fact that the criteria is exceedingly capitalist. Obviously right? So for example like the United States is 22 million people in poverty, it disenfranchises millions of African Americans through gerrymandering, through prison sentences, through kicking people off voter roles, through voter ID, that all these pernicious things get sort of a hand wave by the Polity IV metric when you actually look through the details of their methodology. And that’s sort of not something that will ever undermine us, but the second I don’t know sort of Chavez wants to sort of undermine what he considers a bourgeois institution like say a media outlet owned by a billionaire or you know any kind of government wants to crack down on some NGOs they may find to be dubious, that is sort of ultimate sin. That’s the thing you sort of really can’t do. So that is fascinating. I was fascinated by this sort of wild inconsistency how people, who I assume are otherwise intelligent and good people, could promote this sort of CIA created highly dubious metric that meets a very boutique kind of OCD libertarian definition of democracy. And so I reached to Max Roser who is the Oxford research fellow who Vox has cited several times and who has actually written for Vox recently.

Nima: And he’s kind of like the main Evangelical voice for this Polity IV metric.

Adam: Right. So here’s what he said. He said: “I chose it as my main source because of the comparison with alternatives that I site on the data entry of democratization. We also have to keep in mind that this measure cannot capture everything that matters for a political regime.” No shit. Sorry that was an editorial note. He went on: “For example, it makes sense to measure corruption or economic exploitation separately from democratic concept not because it doesn’t matter but because it all matters for different reasons. We want to be able to differentiate between importance of different…” see that doesn’t mean anything. That’s total bullshit.

Nima: That’s also a complete admission that the metric itself is itself is narrow and flawed and dubious and totally inconsistent and meaningless.

Adam: Well I think what he means to say is that it’s sort of useful in a very kind of specific context when coupled with other things. From a political science perspective. And I’m sure we have a lot of people who are in political science who listen to this show so by all means chime in. And for the record there are a lot of other alternatives people use. Some people sent me some other options which we’ll have in the show notes that are, they operate under kind of similar liberal or neoliberal framework but they are way way better. They don’t come up with these kind of cartoonish patriotic and nationalistic results.

Nima: Right, I would say Polity IV is say in the middle in like this obvious centrist definition there’s a Freedom House definition which is I would argue probably a bit more neoconservative.

Adam: Also of course funded by the United States Government.

Nima: Right, of course.

Adam: 86% of Freedom House’s money comes from the State Department and US Aid and its consistently used by the media.

Nima: Right, and every year Freedom House will release its new “Freedom by the Numbers” and they have like a Freedom Index and a Democracy Index basically and these routinely get press release write ups in foreign policy and elsewhere touted as this is who is free and who is not. And obviously you can imagine who is included on those lists and who is omitted from those lists.

Adam: Cause again watching Chinese or Russian state television is propaganda but citing US-funded CIA and State Department-funded studies is somehow not. I don’t know how that works.

Nima: Right. Right.

Adam: So in fairness though I want to read, if you actually look at the link provided there’s a citation from the Polity IV standard of what their criteria is for democracy, and I want to read it for you to be fair. It says quote, “The presence of institutions and procedures thru which citizens can express preference about alternative policies and leaders. The existence of institutional constraints to the power of the executive and the guarantee of civil liberties to all citizens.” Although where these guarantees are respected is not actually measured. So there’s a clear criteria of guaranteed civil liberties to all citizens so you know even setting aside these sort of absurd historical ratings its unclear to me how the United States, which has the largest incarceration rate in the entire world, maintains off shore penal colonies, doesn’t afford people basic due process, it routinely shoots unarmed African Americans, has the worlds largest surveillance system. I guess I don’t know why none of those knock it down a notch. I mean I know the real reason, I’m sort of feigning naiveté but you know to say nothing of the fact that again how do you have countries who have actual slavery or how do you have countries that have serfs or how do you have countries that have colonial subjects like Britain did? I mean if you look at the New York Times video, Britain when they first start the measurements you know a hundred some odd years ago is considered almost a full democracy. Of course the subject’s sort of nominal democracies that are also colonies, that have colonies, those subjects don’t count.

Nima: Right. Right.

Adam: Which is obviously true, which is true of Israel too right?

Nima: Well they don’t count themselves and also something to note is often times on these lists those kind of post colonial societies are also deemed to have no data or like insufficient data to say like how democratic they are or are not and yet no amount of controlling or owning or exploiting or destroying colonies seems to count against-

Adam: They just don’t matter.

Nima: Right of course. Against a western, Atlantic adjacent country. It doesn’t count against their level of democracy, their 10 out of 10 rating.

Adam: Its somewhat perverse that Polity IV has gone back in time and has deemed slaves and serfs to be not, they don’t even count because they use this very acute definition of citizen but I guess they technically use the word citizen so that’s where they get off. At least in the southern United States they counted them as three fist citizens. They don’t even do that! They give them a score of zero. They’re not even sort of registered and when you have there’s these huge parts of this Vox map that Max Roser used and there’s all these blank space sin Africa and India and they’re all gray and it says “no data”.

Nima: Yeah.

Adam: And, of course, they have data.

Nima: No yeah.

Adam: They have data. Its just inconvenient data. So, then there were these, there was an uptick in just overtly anti-democratic takes and its always interesting to me when like the forces of quote unquote ‘populism’ emerge that the smart kids club the sort of West Wing-y elite types the sort of Georgetown crowd, they suddenly kind of come out of the woodwork as being overtly anti-democratic.

Nima: When elections don’t break their way right? Like don’t break the way that they either predict or want its this idea of, “aw well you can never trust the people anyway”. And then they have these touty articles we have like tons of them that we can cite. There’s one from June of 2017 by our very favorite New York Times opinion writer Bret Stephens called “The Year of Voting Recklessly”.

Adam: Yeah so Benjamin Wittes, who is the gentleman that runs the Lawfare Blog, he writes for Brookings, he’s liberal’s favorite right of center anti-Trumper, he said, “More professionalism, less populism: How voting makes us stupid, and what to do about it” and he argues in Brookings that too much democracy is bad. Vox.com. Here’s the headline they wrote from a gentleman from Lee Drutman: “What if ‘more public participation’ can’t save American democracy? Its time to make peace with reality and develop a new plan”. Basically the whole thing is scheming how to make democracy less robust. So yeah then there is James Kirchick at the LA Times he is super super right-wing and he said, “The British election is a reminder of the perils of too much democracy,” after Jeremy Corbyn almost took the Prime Minister-ship in Britain.

Nima: I think actually a lot of these articles came out in the wake of that UK vote. There was a Sunday Review opinion piece by Eitan Hersh at the end of June of last year headlined, “The Problem With Participatory Democracy Is the Participants” in it he wrote the problems of our partisan politics are not seen through gerrymandering or Citizens United or cable news he says, quote, “any of the other common scapegoats that our system is broken but because of us. Ordinary people who are doing politics the wrong way.”

Adam: There was also an uptick right before the election; I think people sensed something was wrong with Trump winning. So here you have a headline Bloomberg news “Voters Are Making a Mess of Democracy”. That’s always the worst. Here’s Josh Barro, a writer at Business Insider, who said, “This is why the public should be kept away from policy making” after the Brexit vote. You had a hot take in Derek Spiegel: “Brexit Vote Underscores Limits of Direct Democracy,” and then you had an article in Foreign Policy, which is my absolutely favorite take: “Its Time For Elites to Rise Up Against the Ignorant Masses: The Brexit has laid bare the political schism of our time. It’s not about right vs. left; It’s about the sane vs. [the mindlessly angry]”.

Nima: Oh, of course.

Adam: Our favorite power reinforcing tautology of sanity versus not sane. Cause clearly “only insane people who would like this thing that I, a man who went to Yale, don’t like.”

Nima: You know this was obviously also seen in the wake of Hamas winning an election in 2006, in Palestine obviously, that election was deemed completely free and fair by the you know western arbiters of whatever that is and because it didn’t break the way that the United States wanted it to, and obviously Israel wanted it to, that was then deemed “these people just don’t know how to deal with democracy”. Um, one of my very favorite pieces recently was in The Diplomat, which is this shitty centrist-right foreign policy magazine, and the headline, it was in the aftermath of recent protests in Iran, the headline is literally this, “Why Iran’s Monarchy Could Unite a Divided Country” and the sub-headline is, “How the Persian monarchy once saved- and may yet again- save Iran”. Which if you know anything about the Persian monarchy that was overthrown in the revolution in ’79 the fact that that would be the way to ‘save Iran’ is both appalling and criminal but the idea that this is the kind of opinion piece that gets published is obviously directly anathema to anything about hailing democracy and yet this is not seen as being at all contradictory to these same news outlets that then promote freedom indexes, democracy, rankings, that kind of bullshit.

Adam: It goes to show you and you saw this right after Brexit there was push to do a revote and as someone who loathes Brexit as I do, ’cause I really think it was awful for a lot of the most vulnerable communities in Britain.

Nima: Of course.

Adam: You know that’s not the way democracy works. You don’t get to keep redoing elections until you get the results you want.

Nima: Right. Mulligan!

Adam: Yeah it’s not like the SAT you can’t keep taking a wack at it. Or at least like you have to wait a couple of years. You can’t just sort of keep having votes until you get what you want and again I think it speaks to this thing and this is what we’ll talk about with George today it speaks to the kind of malleability of democracy as a concept and how people who were sort of supposedly its biggest champions the second something happens they don’t want whether its Jeremy Corbyn or Donald Trump, one of which is very good, one of which is very bad, they kind of freak out and they start to do this thing where they start changing the rules of the game. And this is something similar you saw with the fake news panic where corporate media was losing its legitimacy and instead of finding ways to gain that legitimacy in ways that reflect the sort of want of the readers or figuring out ways of accommodating that they sort of blamed this sort of moral failing on the part of readers. And then they brow beat the social media companies into creating a two-tiered system of truth and information, one of which is sanctioned, and one of which is unsanctioned. So you see this sort of like liberal reaction to populist uprisings which I think mostly have their origins in materialist issues and then instead of like addressing those or coming up with ways of countering those with a kind of left wing populism or populism that deals with some of these underlining currents their reaction is simply to change the rules.

Nima: Yeah and just move the goal post so that they can then still call what they want fully democratic and still call what they don’t like fully autocratic.

Adam: Yeah and its completely arbitrary and you saw this of course when Venezuela moved up their elections from next winter to April some people at the Wall Street Journal were freaking out calling it authoritarian and then of course Theresa May did the exact same thing with the early elections in Britain because she thought she had an advantage.

Nima: And they’re like “that’s a very smart move to save democracy”.

Adam: Yeah so you know these definitions get tossed around a lot so our guest today will help elucidate some of those tensions and talk about the debate and the flux of this definition and how we can come up with one that is maybe a little bit more robust than praising Israeli Apartheid and American slave colonies.

Nima: Yeah.

Adam: So, quick production note when we recorded this I was literally phoning it in because of logistical problems so if it sounds like I’m calling from outside of the studio it is because I am.

Nima: Okay, yes we are about to be joined by George Ciccariello-Maher: professor, writer and author of a number of excellent books including We Created Chavez, Building The Commune and his most recent one entitled Decolonizing Dialectics. Stick with us, it’s a doozy.


Nima: We are joined now by George Ciccariello-Maher, professor, writer and author of a number of books including We Created Chavez, Building The Commune and most recently Decolonizing Dialectics. Thrilled to have him here. Hi George.

George Ciccariello-Maher: Hey thanks for having me on again.

Adam: So we were coming up with when we were going over this show we were fascinated by the ubiquity of the Polity IV standard for democracy and what we viewed as kind of a very kind of literal minded libertarian view of democracy that in this case was funded by the CIA.

Nima: And unencumbered by anything having to do with slavery or colonialism.

Adam: Yeah.

George: (Chuckles)

Adam: Yeah and I said, “Who do we know that’s written about democracy? Well George wrote a book on it!” And I would say you have a more robust definition of democracy. Can you speak about what you feel like these kind of like Freedom House and Polity IV definitions of democracy, what they’re used for, what their limits are and what your definition of democracy would be?

George: Certainly and I think starting point is to understand that these things are all contested right? In the broad range of human history there’s never been agreement on what democracy is or what you know the ideal form of democracy is. Because these can mean such different things. And they can mean such different things even within the sort of the liberal or what we understand to be the liberal tradition. You know you can have a very strong popular sovereignty that’s very majoritarian or you can have the separation of powers as a very liberal understanding of liberal democracy that divides up power rather than trying to actually represent you know the will of the demos. In other words the will of the people expressed by the majority. And these things are always you know contested. They are always up for debate. They’ve always been debated. And they’ve always been debated by movements kind of on the ground often pushing for stronger forms of democracy. Thicker forms of democracy. More substantive participation. Participatory democracy. What people call deliberative democracy. These are all things that people have offered as supplements to and alternatives to a very very limited understanding of democracy put forward by you know global capital and its liberal variance and used as a mechanism and as a justification often for regime change.

Nima: There seems to be certainly at this point in time probably in the past few decades as this has grown the appeal of ranking. Making lists doing like a “Top Five Best Supertramp Songs” but also when you bring that to like international debate and foreign policy these things really have serious implications. Can you talk about like why international rankings about freedom, about democracy how they proliferated and where they kind of lead us?

George: And I think you know you can joke about this is the maybe the Buzzfeed-ification of sort of democratic discourse but the stakes are incredibly high. And the consequences of being characterized as undemocratic are stark. If we look at the history for example just of Latin American revolutionary movements we find a shift from traditional more Marxist understandings of seizing the state and refusing to even you know really deal seriously with capitalist notions of democracy. Two attempts to at least play it safe in the context of the American sphere of influence by playing democratic game. When you look at attempts made by the, you know, by the Sandinistas, for example, to hold clean elections and to be elected and that didn’t change the fact that the Contras were paid to essentially destroy Nicaragua and attempt to overthrow it. Venezuela is a great example because you have really unprecedented numbers of clean elections being won by the Chavistas. Of course with great difficulty in the present but still you know you have a presidency, which is legitimate. You’ve got a constituent assembly, which is elected, and you have people attempting to use the leverage of claiming that this is a dictatorship claiming that it is undemocratic as a way you know to topple this government. To discredit it. So at the very least we can you know the soft supporters or the soft sympathizers they don’t have to take seriously when its time to actually time to actually do the work of real regime change. As you saw in Honduras and in other parts of Latin America.

Adam: Yeah it seems like there’s the other point which is this term authoritarianism which is sort of like terrorism in that like I can definitely think of examples of authoritarianism but its seems like the definition gets a little fuzzy and a little wobbly on how we define certain things. So, at the beginning of this show we kind of show some of the contradictions in the Polity IV method for example which has 1840 United States which had 3.5 million slaves and women couldn’t vote was a 9 out of 10 democracy.

George: (Chuckles)

Adam: But Venezuela from 2013 was a 5 out of 10. You know Israel is of course 10 out of 10 and so forth and this gets to the notion of like what does it mean to have a democracy if you don’t have economic rights? If you don’t have labor rights? You see this a lot with Human Rights Watch for example. With Human Rights Watch it never talks about labor rights. It never talks about economic rights in fact the founder of Human Rights Watch, as we discussed about in Episode 8, believed that economic rights and labor rights were antithetical to democracy and even used the word authoritarianism to describe them. What is the problem with this kind of neoliberal authoritarian versus democratic model that has no sort of place for, you know, lifting people out of poverty or economic rights or labor movements or unionization?

George: And does this claim you know does this if you I was trained as a political scientist unfortunately. Luckily, I was trained as a political theorist, a political philosopher, so someone who’s able to you know engage with the complexities of these ideas and accept the fact that they’re up for debate alright and they’ve been up for debate. But what political scientists like to say is that “Oh on one hand you’ve got political rights and then you’ve got economic rights and these are separate things in a certain way. Or you’ve got negative rights which are you know prevent the government from imposing its will on you but then you have positive rights which allow you to do things you know to enjoy you know the fullness of human existence. And we want to focus on these negative rights. We want to focus on these political rights.” And this has never been sufficient. Its never been you know even an accurate understanding of what’s going on in the world as you pointed out understanding the US you know in its early stages as a democracy when the demos of those you know allowed to participate was so restricted. And of course this is faithful to the Greek model which was a slave society of course and which citizens could participate but the number of citizens was very small.

Nima: And women couldn’t vote, immigrants couldn’t vote, slaves couldn’t vote.

George: Of course and the limitations of the demos are you know this is referred to often as the boundary problem of political theorists. “Who is included?” Right. And this is a huge question you know and people raise it with regard to migrants, for example, who can’t vote if they don’t have citizenship rights and also this question of who is included in the electorate but this is not irrelevant to Venezuela either. Part of what happened in Venezuela is that the electorate, in other words those who are able to register to vote, you know, able to participate in that sort of most basic level of democracy, it was very limited prior to Chavismo. And millions and millions more people got access to ID cards, got access to voting under Chavismo. So, there’s a huge expansion of the electorate. In other words, a dramatic expansion of the inclusiveness of that democracy even at the level of simple democracy, of simple voting. Right? So, you would think that people would recognize that as a huge advance. And when you add to that the fact that they deepened participatory institutions, you know, people able to do more than just vote. Right? Able to just do more than just vote every four or six years and able to participate in the everyday managing of their lives which then leads into this question of economic management in what are called the communes of today.

Adam: There’s a New York Times video that I shared with Max Fisher in it and he it focuses primarily on Venezuela as an example of a crumbling democracy but there’s a throw away line where he says that Venezuela for 40 years before Chavez had a robust democracy or like a full democracy. Can you give a quick primer, and I’m sure Max Fisher has no idea what he’s talking about, I assume he skimmed Wikipedia, can you give me a quick primer of what democracy in the ’60s ’70s and ’80s and ’90s looked like in Venezuela?

George: I mean unfortunately he probably knows a little more than the Wikipedia entry because he’s kind of echoing what was this sort of mantra in political science namely that while you had civil war and dictatorship across Latin America, Venezuela was stable. Right? It had this stable two party democracy that was established in 1958 and ran roughly until Chavez’ election in ’98. And the reality is yes it was stable but it was stable because it was exclusionary. It was stable because it sought to institutionalize all levels of life and those who were left outside of it were violently repressed. Were killed. Were, you know, were imprisoned. Tanks rolling periodically onto the University campus, shutting it down, killing students. And you know and it was the very first president, the so called founder of Venezuelan democracy after 1958, presided over his time in office the majority of days were spent under a state of emergency. In other words, in which actual rights were suspended. And this ended up, this repressive, you know, nature waxed and waned during the forty years. But it was against this exclusionary two party democracy, which of course we know very well, a two-party democracy in which you actually can’t really effect any kind of change or have any kind of influence over political life. And people organized against that. Not against democracy per se but for a different kind of democracy. Against this exclusionary, elite, what is called Pacted Democracy. A democracy of these to corrupt parties that were increasingly corrupt as time went on. And when economic crisis hit all this meant was that the rich did fine and the poor were made to suffer. And when they were then thrown into poverty in huge numbers in the 1980s and ’90s this is one massive rebellions happened. And resistance and riots that then led to the emergence of a different understanding of democracy that you know helped to bring Chavez to power through liberal democracy. Through elections but then seeking to sort of transform that system and deepen it.

Adam: Yeah, but that’s never enough right?

George: No.

Adam: I mean you can play by the rules but there’s some new criteria that will come up.

George: Right you can win all the fucking elections. You know Chavez in 2006 won 61 or 63 percent of the vote, you know, really just the biggest landslide you can possibly imagine. And people still refer to it as fraud or a dictatorship when it was you know according to the Carter Center one of the cleanest systems of electoral systems in the world. And there was no question about those results. And then you realize this is just partisan shit. Right? This is you know using words like democracy as a weapon. This is fucking Hillary Clinton going on the news and calling Chavez, even Chavez a dictator. You know she wasn’t confused right? She didn’t actually believe that these elections were unclean or anything. She just was using that as a weapon because that’s the political orientation that she was bringing to US policy in Latin America at that point.

Nima: Well so it kind of reminds me of on the eve of the Iranian revolution Jimmy Carter called Iran under the Shah like an ‘island of stability’ and its just because we like them and we prop them up and then as soon as that changed now they’re evil and terrifying.

George: Oh, of course. And like there’s a certain point where the word ‘stability’ should make your skin crawl.

Nima: Yeah, right.

Adam: No, totally.

Nima: Talking about how these are kind of not only fungible phrases and terms but how they’re weaponized concepts like democracy and autocracy and do you feel like these rankings really when they say that they’re talking about democracy they’re really talking about capitalism because capitalist societies are always in the 9 and 10 for 10 areas whereas any other sort of system of government obviously fall far down on the list it reminds me of, there was a Vox article, Vox is the leading champion of these ranking and showing how the world works in three charts and a gif. But there was an article where they actually interview Steven Pinker and it’s headlined “Steven Pinker explains how capitalism is killing war”. And can you just kind of talk about how the concept of capitalism actually subsumes this entire conversation.

George: Sure. I think capitalism goes hand in hand very well and its not always the case but it goes very well hand in hand with a very minimal understanding of liberal democracy. Understood as formal equality. In other words we are all equal under the law as individual citizens. Why does that goes well with capitalism? Cause that’s the model of exchange that capitalism you know tells us is ideal. Right? The idea that we as, if we’re workers, enter into the labor market freely. Right? And we make free decisions about where we want to work and this is of course the false freedom that Marx pointed out when he said, you know, “you choose to work or you can choose to starve this is not freedom”. Right? This is no substantive understanding of freedom. The point is that its understand in a very formal way. We are all equal. Right? And so provided everyone was a citizen or among those citizens we are considered to be equal. This is not social equality. Right? This is not substantive real equality. Its formal equality. Its equality on paper. And you can see I think very quickly why capitalism doesn’t tolerate very well substantive equality because often that requires social equality, economic equality to actually be able to participate in political life. To have your, you know, even if we’re talking about the contemporary United States to have your free speech matter. Right? You know in the free speech of corporations that pay hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars in political donations you know they’re speech matters a great deal and the corporate capitalist press they’re speech matters a great deal.

Nima: Right.

George: Whereas you average poor person speech matters essentially zero. It has no relevance.

Adam: It seems like it boils down into this right. Which is I think what we’re getting at you talked about negative and positive rights. I think the sort of major difference to me between a liberal and leftist generically put it or let’s say a neoliberal and a progressive even is this idea of positive versus negative rights. And whether or not fundamentally the key question to me is do you consider poverty an unfortunate law of nature or do you consider it an act of violence? A sort of choice that a society makes? It seems like to me, say take, for example, the evolution of Venezuela, you know, according to Bloomberg news Chavez reduced poverty in Venezuela by about 30 percent, noted communist rag Bloomberg news, his first ten years in office from roughly ’99 to 2010. That to me seems like a tremendous expansion of democracy because again I don’t think you can really participate in democracy if you live in extreme hunger in extreme poverty but this doesn’t really matter to most people. And I think frankly that a lot of, you know, a lot of sort of nominal Dem Socs they don’t put a lot of weight into that. They use terms like ‘taking away rights’ or sort of and again, I am in some ways a kind of bleeding heart liberal just full disclosure I actually do think that some formal notions of democracy are sort of useful, I’m not dismissive of those, but I think that they have to be balanced and weighed against things like poverty reduction or distribution of wealth as a form of expanding rights. You know when you run against these rhetorical bludgeons about authoritarianism and democracy where does the positive rights come in to? Is that sort of something you have to condition the American educated person to sort of get as a concept or?

George: I mean it’s difficult to gain traction making these kind of arguments because we’ve been vaccinated against them for so long. You know we’ve told that there’s a certain kind of democracy it’s the only one that matters. It the one that we have despite the fact that we also simultaneously we know this system of democracy. Right? Its you know you’ve got this simultaneous cynicism about US democracy and this gut feeling that there’s no other democracy that could be better. Or that we’ve somehow, you know, even if this is not a perfect democracy anything else would be undemocratic. And that’s where you I think, you know, again come back again to this question of capitalism. Right? Is it undemocratic to restrain the power of wealth in political life? And I think a lot of people do think that or do make that argument. Right? And it gets to this question you know you brought up authoritarianism and you don’t have substantive political change without auhtoritarism of some kind. You know again it’s not a good term. It’s not a term I like. Slavery was abolished by force. Slavery in the United States was abolished by the force of armies, the force of slaves and rebellion and, you know, and the force of an armed dictatorship occupying the south. You know this is how change happens a lot of times. When Venezuela is trying to transform society to expand these kind of social rights. To expand the ability of the people to actually just live and survive and thrive. What they end up doing is coming up against barriers in the Supreme Court, in the legislature, in the separation of powers, in the liberal apparatus of the state. Then you need to be over come. And the overcoming of those is painted as undemocratic or authoritarian despite the fact that it may expand rights or expand participation in the transformation of that. You know and you know and we come up constantly I think against these same questions. I think on the left one thing we need to do is make these arguments and to you know to drive home this question of substantive rights and its you know it needs to matter you know what our freedoms are there for. What our political freedoms are there for. It needs to matter whether we vote.

Adam: The question to me is like what are the limits of that? And I think that we would all sort of agree there are some limits to that. Maybe I’m being somewhat squeamish or liberal but I feel like the question is how capricious is this government? How sort of arbitrary are these decisions? And to me the fundamental issue is like is it a consistent policy or is it being or it is capricious? And I think that is sort of where some sympathizers can kind of be like “okay well maybe that’s too far or something”. But at the end of the day you have to look at what the alternative wants and you talk about expanding right or the fundamental question about Venezuela I feel like that a lot of people who are Dem Socs or liberals who have fallen out of favor and say “this is an authoritarian regime” whatever is they can never quite explain why even why mainstream outlets like the AP and Reuters will tell you the government is still very popular in parts of extreme poverty. And if the government is bad for poor people then why is it still popular for poor people? I have yet to get an answer to that question.

George: Absolutely and there is no answer and it doesn’t mean that poor people are doing particularly well in this moment.

Adam: It’s better than what the right wing will do I mean look at Argentina.

George: Exactly yeah. It’s better than the alternative. It’s better than what used to exist. It’s better than a lot of things. And their lives were improved so dramatically that they’re willing to be patient for a little while while this is sorted out. You know and it needs to be sorted out or that patience will, you know, will eventually run out. Um but it’s really difficult to kind of mark what the limitations of that are because again this is not a government seeking stability its a political process seeking revolutionary change. And that’s going to be conflictive. CLR James has this great footnote in The Black Jacobins where he’s talking about the French Revolution in conjunction with the Haitian Revolution, of course is a famous sort of dual history, and in this he says the you know the Jacobins were authoritarians. In other words, this is the French leadership but the radical leadership. Right? Robespierre and others. They were authoritarian and they wanted to carry out a revolution for everybody else. Whereas the Sans Culottes, the grass roots radicals, they wanted a dictatorship over their enemies as how James puts it, but they wanted a sort of radically democratic dictatorship in other words they wanted to exercise themselves on the grass roots level. And I think these are very different kinds of authoritarianism that we need to understand. The fact that people want to brutally overthrow their oppressors and transform their world is entirely justifiable in a different way, you know, then the sort of, you know, the leadership stepping in to do something that may be less popular. And I think here we can’t get away from the question of democracy as some kind of mass majoritarian phenomenon. And there is so much anxiety in the history of the world and the history of political thinking about the tyranny of the majority, which you know its not that we shouldn’t be concerned for minorities but speaking globally. Right? You know the vast majority are you know poor people of color and working people who have fucked over their entire lives. And so I think, you know, I would take a little more tyranny at the hands of those people in world history than we’ve gotten.

Nima: I’m really intrigued by the idea of democracy as the galvanizing selling point for a society and the idea of buy in of that this is a voluntary act to vote or to engage in this system we’ve seen that as being kind of fundamental and foundational to

even Athenian democracy when citizens were the ones that would row the triremes, row the war ships to expand the Athenian naval supremacy. You couldn’t have slaves do that because they wouldn’t do it. They didn’t have the buy of “we are fighting for our democracy” so how the narrative about democracy infects our current discourse all the time. That people can be really frustrated with our government and hate the government, hate congress, hate how everything works out be frustrated about being poor about being unemployed and yet then you say this buzzword democracy and everyone’s all for it. How can that shift? Where does the shift happen? Where do we lead? Where is the hope right now in terms of changing how language is perceived around this term?

George: That’s really interesting cause they also have these you know especially in Latin America these very well known polls the Latinobarómetro Polls that poll people on democracy looking for questions of equality. And what’s been revealing over the years is that, you know, many many Venezuelan Espados talk of dictatorship are among the happiest people in Latin America and among those who have the most faith in democracy. And in, you know, this is one way of measuring interesting dynamics about, you know, you don’t have to necessarily believe that the institutions function well to have some kind of faith or optimism about democracy but these emerge in very, you know, complicated ways sometimes. You know compacted dynamics between your actual participation and your optimism and your happiness and all these things. How do we transfer something like that into the United States I think is difficult because it’s hard to get people to participate when they don’t think it matters. And on the left we can’t lie to people and tell them that it matters more than it does. I think we are kind of trapped in this system that we need to participate in. I think it’s difficult to say, for example, that we should be engaged you know this debate in DSA now about local elections and these things. And its difficult because I think its dangerous to say “oh yes let’s all participate in local elections” but its also dangerous to refuse these, you know, we just elected a radical district attorney in Philadelphia despite the fact that that is a contradiction in terms absolutely. You know, the person that sends people to jail cannot be a radical and yet we have this strange point of leverage in which people are, you know, juvenile lifers are coming out, other people are not going to go to jail, other people are going to have their charges reduced and its going to be incredible and we need to think in that context and act strategically in that context.

Adam: I asked people that I consider to be pretty radical about him and they’ll say, “Yeah like he’s actually pretty good.” People that I sort of trust across the board so its interesting to watch that play out cause I’m super super skeptical a lot of reformist candidates obviously cause they’re usually full of shit but I mean I guess he’s going to try to do some stuff so we’ll see what happens.

George: Yeah and I mean we need to understand the ways in which reformists can be not that it is radical but can be you know can be a vehicle for radicalism right. He was elected by the movements that are abolitionist right. He was elected by movements in which the voices of incarcerated lifers are predominate you know.

And insofar as we can use this to transform the city which, you know, we should understand this is only happened because already transformed the city and set it into motion. You know this is the kind of dynamic that we need to deepen. This is someone who ran against the police. You know and the police hated him and attacked him and mocked him and so that’s always a good sign as well despite the limitations that he may have.

Adam: It’s true, yeah. Your enemies are a good measurement of whether or not you’re doing something right. Thanks for your time George, I appreciate it. I thought that was really good.

George: Great.

Nima: Yeah, absolutely. George Ciccariello-Maher: professor, writer, author most recently of Decolonizing Dialectics. It has been a pleasure to talk to you again. Thanks for joining us on Citations Needed.

George: Of course. Thanks for having me. This was dope.


Nima: So again that was George Ciccariello-Maher: professor, writer, prolific tweeter. Give him a follow absolutely if you don’t already. He is great on that platform. His account is @ciccmaher. Ciccmaher. So yeah that was excellent. He’s always an amazing person to talk to Adam.

Adam: Yeah, he’s known by the Washington Times, our favorite right wing rag, because its, that and Breitbart are the only organizations that still give a form to the MEK, but they refer to him as the “white genocide professor” which is total life goal. It’s amazing that he wants to genocide white people and yet comes on our show where I happen to be white.

Nima: Some of his best friends are white.

Adam: That’s true. When he’s not calling for white genocide he likes to hang out on their podcast. So yeah its negotiating these concepts of democracy and authoritarianism are interesting to me because I think we all sort of intuitively think that democracy is good and civil liberties are good.

Nima: Exactly.

Adam: And we sort of intuitively think that you know government repression is bad and I agree I think the issue why is the government the only standard of oppression and do these positive rights, economic, labor, justice, do they matter? And how do you put those in a framework? Again I keep going back to this, the founder of Human Rights Watch viewing economic and labor rights as a form of authoritarism is deeply telling of how we build these kind of liberal moral paradigms.

Nima There’s no sense of that the right to education, the right to work, the right to eat, the right to have a place to live, that these are not fundamental to a successful society and therefore they are not taken into account at all. That there are political rights as you said as distinct, separate, completely non-overlapping with economic rights. And this really tips the scales obviously. This informs the debate. The binary that is immediately set up with these democracy rankings.

Adam: Yeah.

Nima: Is as you said one is good. Democracy is a shining light on the hill and that is good and guess what? Guess who’s 10 out of 10 on that one? The United fucking States. And who is you know the dregs of autocracy and you can just list our official enemies. It is so clear what the agenda is behind these kind of rankings.

Adam: And anyone who knows me knows that like I’m a bit of a closet I mean I am a liberal in that sense. I do think there’s something to be said for democracy and having like religious freedom. I’m not someone who is glib about that. I just feel like in our current model there’s no input for these kind of positive labor or economic rights. When Ken Roth, the director of Human Rights Watch, hammerings about the Chavez regime and their crimes and the dictatorship, I mean the fact that he reduced poverty doesn’t really factor in at all and I feel like it should.

Nima: Right or increased literacy and education and labor rights. Right exactly. Those are never part of the conversation.

Adam: Now at the same time I also think things like legal formality and the liberal concepts of justice I think are important.

Nima: Of course.

Adam: I also have a huge- I’m also concerned about the arbitrary. Right? I mean I think what’s interesting is finding a balance between those to things and I feel like the way the discourse is set up is we have a very very OCD very libertarian very neoliberal concept of what democracy is. Just as we did about human rights when we did that episode. And I feel like it’s a power serving system that doesn’t really have an expansive definition and I think its important that when we hear things thrown around in Vox or the New York Times or the Washington Post or they pull out these democracies scores from Freedom House or the CIA front groups that we think critically about what that means and who that gets off the hook and where positive and economic and labor rights come in.

Nima: And that is doesn’t have to be an either/or.

Adam: Yeah.

Nima: That is doesn’t have to be you relinquish your rights to live and work and thrive in that way just because you have the political right to property. You know that does need to be the trade off here. So definitely when the next Foreign Policy piece or Vox piece comes out with its charts, graphs, gifs about who is most free, less free, who has the most democracy, less democracy, you know, I think its kind of important to pay attention to what the definitions are and who is behind funding those definitions.

Adam: Well I think that’s a good place to end it. Thank you so much for listening and thanks for all your support. If you like the show we try not to beg but I’m going to do a little bit of begging here. If you can go to Patreon and support us it’s really appreciated. It’s Patreon.com, Citations Needed Podcast. Look for Adam Johnson and Nima Shirazi. There’s another imposter Citations Needed be sure not to do that. If it’s ours it’s a black and yellow logo. If you could support us there we would really appreciate it. It helps keep the show going because we are making some part time hires and it helps that. So and also you can obviously find us on Facebook and Twitter. Facebook at Citations Needed and Twitter @citationspod. And obviously you can go to iTunes at any point and give us a favorable rating. While I’m humiliating myself and begging-

Nima: Full grovel mode! Grovel grovel Adam!

Adam: I’m done. That’s all I’ve got. Also, tell me I’m good looking. No. And that’s what we’ve got thanks so much for listening.

Nima: And, of course, a special thank you to our critic level supporters on Patreon. Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Our production consultant is Josh Kross. The music is by Granddaddy. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Thanks again for joining us. We will catch you next time.



This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, January 31, 2018.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.



Citations Needed

A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.