Abreu, Chávez and Oil. A review of Silva-Ferrer’s El cuerpo dócil de la cultura: poder, cultura y comunicación en la Venezuela de Chávez.

By Geoff Baker

One of the most interesting books I’ve read in a while is Manuel Silva-Ferrer’s just-published El cuerpo dócil de la cultura: Poder, cultura y comunicación en la Venezuela de Chávez. It’s a must-read for anyone interested in recent Venezuelan culture and its relationship to politics and economics. Direct references to Abreu and El Sistema are scarce, but the overall arguments are highly relevant, and I’m going to put them into dialogue here with my own research on El Sistema.

Portada LibroSilva-Ferrer’s principal thesis, drawing on the work of the prominent anthropologist and historian Fernando Coronil, is that we cannot understand Venezuelan culture without understanding oil. Securing access to petro-dollars is pretty much the only game in town in Venezuela. Thinking about El Sistema, then, it’s surely more than just a coincidence that this huge (and hugely expensive) music education program was created in a country with vast oil reserves by a man with a PhD in petroleum economics.

Along with the 20th-century petro-state came a whole cultural apparatus and a small number of “cultural caudillos,” as Silva-Ferrer calls them – including José Antonio Abreu. These individuals had the power and skill to tap the state’s huge resources. In many ways, they were reflections in the cultural sphere of the series of enchanting presidents who emerged alongside the “magical state” (as Coronil calls it in his influential book) and tried to pull illusions and miracles of modernity out of a hat. (Recall the frequent characterization of El Sistema as the “Venezuelan musical miracle.”) These elites constantly tried to monopolize the “booty” of oil, and their efforts were accompanied by a tendency towards arbitrariness and authoritarianism.

It’s interesting to think about El Sistema, then, as typifying the kind of modernization programs unfolded by the Venezuelan petro-state throughout the 20th century, run by a man with specialized knowledge of the workings of an oil economy and, thanks to his political experience and contacts, privileged access to petro-dollars.

I was also struck by Silva-Ferrer’s characterization of Chávez as a charismatic, messianic, authoritarian leader, the latest in a long line in Venezuelan history. He depicts a renaissance of the 20th-century magical state in the 21st century, with Chávez now playing the role of magician-in-chief. He focuses on the continuities between earlier presidents such as Carlos Andrés Pérez (CAP) and Chávez, but this also made me think about continuities between Chávez and Abreu.

One of the big questions that hung over my project, and to which I offer only speculative answers in my book, is how Abreu survived the transition to Chavism, given that the two were political enemies – Chávez had tried to oust Abreu’s mentor CAP in 1992 – and the president disliked classical music. What I see from this book is, firstly, how much Chávez and Abreu actually resembled each other, despite their stark political differences (the adjectives that Silva-Ferrer uses to describe the president – charismatic, messianic, authoritarian – recur in depictions of El Maestro); and secondly, Chávez’s magical state had as much use for a conductor of spectacles as CAP’s did.

Seeing Chavism as the latest cycle in a long-running history and the most recent incarnation of the magical state helps to explain the longevity of Abreu and El Sistema. They are cultural trappings of the Venezuelan petro-state rather than of any particular political party or program, and they can serve its different manifestations and leaders equally well. This does not make them apolitical, however, so much as politically promiscuous – their allegiance is to oil, and they align themselves with whomever controls it.

Reading Silva-Ferrer’s account of Chávez’s TV program “Aló Presidente” rang all sorts of Sistema bells:

  • the delegitimation of the past and the presentation of the leader as a catalyst for transition to the future
  • a love of theatricality
  • creating a sense of proximity by staging scenes where the leader mingles with the people without barriers or intermediaries, even though accessing the leader through formal channels is extremely hard
  • the substitution of a rationally operating bureaucracy by an emotional (and religious) framework

Silva-Ferrer’s description of the Bolivarian project as based around vertical, military-style orders, lacking a solid theoretical basis, and displaying excessive pragmatism, could apply just as well to El Sistema. The continuities between El Sistema and Chavism are just as fascinating as their profound political differences.

I was also intrigued by Silva-Ferrer’s argument that behind the symbolic rupture represented by Chávez’s election, there were initially few changes in the operational field. Transformations were much faster and deeper in the discursive and symbolic realm than in the practical or institutional. Silva-Ferrer writes of a disjuncture between revolutionary discourse and revolutionary praxis, of the narration of a revolutionary epic. This was all rather similar to my analysis of El Sistema – that its claim to be a social rather than musical program was founded more in rhetoric than realities. It appears from Silva-Ferrer’s account that across Venezuelan institutions more widely, embracing a new language was more important than embracing change itself. It is worth considering the idea that El Sistema’s rise to global fame has occurred during a period in which, according to this Venezuelan author, grandiose claims with dubious foundations have been the norm in the national context.

One of the book’s core arguments, which informs its title, is that the cultural sphere has increasingly become a site of disciplinary control on the part of the state. Discipline is also a central concern of my own book. El Sistema might thus be seen as a disciplinary institution within a broader disciplinary cultural program – which may explain the government’s support for an organization that has historically been quite opposed to its stated cultural priorities, such as valorization of the national, popular, indigenous, and Afro-descendent.

However, Silva-Ferrer sees the broader program as one of imposing 21st-century socialism, whereas I argue that El Sistema has nothing to do with key priorities of Chavism such as “participatory and protagonistic democracy,” either explicitly or implicitly. Does Chávez’s support for El Sistema, despite his dislike of Abreu and classical music, suggest that in practice he placed a higher priority on disciplined subjects than participatory citizens? Did he recognize in El Sistema the potential of arts education as a tool of government and technique of social control? Or is it simply that he was attracted to El Sistema as a valuable public relations tool and failed to understand that in practice it contradicted his drive for participatory democracy?

Finally, I was struck by Silva-Ferrer’s section on education, and in particular his claim that the dropout rate in Venezuelan secondary schools is very high. The figures for school starters are very good, but many (especially the poorest) fall by the wayside. 45% have dropped out or are repeating a year by the end of 9th grade, and only 18% of students finish the full cycle of primary and secondary school. Given the frequent claims that El Sistema insists on respectable school performance by its students, if so many children are dropping out of school, is the program really getting through in a significant way to the most disadvantaged in society? Or does it mirror the exclusions of the wider education system, revolving primarily around students who stay in school, who are generally from more advantaged or stable backgrounds?

Taking these points together raises some interesting questions about attempts to establish Sistema-inspired programs overseas. As I argue in my book, to look for El Sistema’s secret in elements like pedagogy and curriculum is to head down a dead end; its approach is generally old-fashioned and conservative. What really makes the program tick, to extrapolate from Silva-Ferrer’s evidence, is the combination of authoritarian management – having a “cultural caudillo” in charge – and privileged access to petro-dollars. (Interestingly, Richard Hackman concluded that these same two factors – authoritarian leadership and lavish funding – were the keys to the performance quality of orchestras, as I discuss in my book.) In other words, El Sistema is highly specific to Venezuela’s magical state, with its love of spectacle and magician-conductors, and its almost unlimited funds to back favoured projects. El Sistema is not only an institution made in Abreu’s image – like “a suit made to measure,” in the words of a former close associate – but one that is profoundly tied to Venezuela and the “black gold” that lies beneath it. It is therefore, surely, the opposite of a generalizable blueprint or paradigm for music education around the globe.

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