Welcome to the Grand Hotel Abyss
The day after that dreadful night of the failed coup in Turkey, tens of thousands of Venezuelans were crossing the Colombian border. The weekend of July 16-17 witnessed around 135,000 Venezuelans making the trip. They walked there, and they walked back. Why you may wonder?
They went to shop for supplies. Things like toilet paper, sugar and salt. Some were carrying car tires on their backs. They walked hundreds of kilometers over the weekend, exchanged their bolivars at 1 percent of the official exchange rate and bought supplies. They had to do this because Venezuela is in shambles. Two years after the collapse of oil prices, the economy is run down, nothing works as it’s supposed to, and hunger grips the nation.
Why did all this happen? Is it just bad luck that brought Venezuela to its knees? No, says Ricardo Hausmann, a Harvard economist and a Venezuelan, “the crisis is the inevitable consequence of government policies.” Then he poses the critical question: “Why would a government adopt harmful policies, and why would society go along?” Public policy is based on public beliefs. Politics is the representation of alternative belief systems. If you shut your eyes to inconvenient parts of that picture, if you fight the facts, chaos becomes inevitable.
But Hausmann doesn’t answer the second part of his question. “Why would society go along?” Largely, that is because Venezuela had oil, and high prices helped Chavez to redistribute toward the poor, making a majority of voters go along with the harmful policies for a time. Note that Chavistas lost the elections so big in last December that the opposition gained a two-thirds majority in Congress. With the collapse of the oil prices, economic chaos came to Venezuela together with a constitutional crisis. A Chavista president, still fighting with Congress, is deepening the chaos.
The whole thing makes me think of the Grand Hotel Abyss. In 1962, Hungarian philosopher Georg Lukacs criticized the members of the Frankfurt School, scholars like Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Jurgen Habermas who theorized a lot about the evils of capitalism yet did nothing to change it. He charged that they had taken up residence in what he called the “Grand Hotel Abyss,” a conceptual place “equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity.” Guests of this beautiful hotel, says Lukacs, spend their days merely in daily contemplation. “And the daily contemplation of the abyss between excellent meals or artistic entertainments, can only heighten the enjoyment of the subtle comforts offered.”
I wonder whether as a Venezuelan, Ricardo Hausmann ever felt like a guest at the Grand Hotel Abyss while his country was circling the drain. Because I do.
But Turkey is no Venezuela. We don’t have oil money flowing in to buy public support to harmful policies for a long time.