Review of "The Enduring Legacy: Oil, Culture and Society in Venezuela"

Miguel Tinker Salas’ The Enduring Legacy: Oil, Culture, and Society in Venezuela begins with a Venezuela largely divided by natural terrain and facing moments of national unity only when regional caudillos were able to mobilize enough force to get a grip on the entire nation. Poor inter-regional communication and lengthy periods of travel amongst places make such occurrences difficult and their extension of power into the rural areas tenuous or nonexistent until modern technology was able to alleviate these problems. Juan Vicente Gómez Chacón, the military dictator between 1908-1935 leveraged these developments and the alliances that he’d made from his long tenure in the military to grab rule from his dictatorial predecessor Cipriano Castro and become Venezuela’s first modern president. Modern not necessarily because his junta was progressive in any sense but because it was able not just to use traditional income from patronage into projects but petrol dollars. Subsequent interpretations of Gómez have usually conceived of his policies as wily for his play of nations against each other for greater financial concessions for sub-soil access but still in essence a servant for extra-national interests,

With the first big discovery of oil in 1922 at La Rosa, a process of massive population migration, capital investment, infrastructure construction and transformation of Venezuelan politics begins. No longer is Venezuela a country just some minor supplier of agricultural products such as coffee because it won’t spoil on the long winding “roads” which required mules to move goods over the mountains but is placed within an international political and economic nexus. Oil is the precursor for modern industry. Oil is development. And oil soon starts dislocating large amounts of traditional communities and turning the government into a mediating force between outside corporations desperate for their crude oil and the people within these communities. The rhetoric within the country soon conceives of the government as a defender of it’s two-fold national body. There is the socio-political body and there is the large body of oil reserves that predicates the functioning of the government. The government’s dependence on oil revenues for it’s functioning creates a symbiotic relationship between them, the foreign extractive companies and the governments associated with them (predominantly American, British and Dutch).

In the process of developing the oil reserves for export, oil companies such as Shell and Caribe had to construct communities in the midst of the jungle. Their hiring practices consistently prefer foreign workers, mostly North Americans, for the advanced technical work, and use the native Venezuelans for manual labor. The creation of these petrol neighborhoods and the forms of living space they engendered had profound effects on the subsequent Venezuealan culture and values. The first wave of roughnecks that came in were mostly single men who cared about the natives only inasmuch as they could buy alcohol, prepared foods or clothes from them, hire them to clean their homes (if they even had them and weren’t sleeping in a hammock in a shack) and rent females by the hour for sexual liaisons. Conflict occasionally led to social unrest, be it from social causes such as drunk and rowdy drillers to environmental disaster, so the companies later sought to lessen this by the construction of fenced and guarded communities that would be considered desirable to live in by American standards and thus acceptable for families to be brought there by American workers. Summarizing his analysis of these and other trends, Salas states that “Beyond monopolizing the economy, oil shaped social values and class aspirations, cemented political alliances, and redefined concepts of citizenship for important segments of the population” (238). As the foods and the repasts of America came to become an indicator of cultural advancement, one of the reasons for explaining why, unlike the rest of Latin America, the national past-time is baseball and not futbol.

For my own interests, the latter part of the book contains the most compelling historiography and transition from an institutions and cultural studies approach to an analysis of political framing and civil society formation that illustrates the growth and functioning of a government “cursed” by such resources. Clientism, cronyism and nepotism abound in the political structure while in the quasi-private oil sector a supposed meritocracy reigns, a situation which Terry Lynn Karl poetically terms as the paradox of plenty. Having stated the obvious, how the American and British oil companies were in a symbiotic relationship with the Venezuelan state due to the latter’s reliance on oil revenues to function, Salas then illustrates how the capital to initiate a wide array of Venezuealan cultural outlets and political organization originated from the oil companies, how they sponsored surveillance networks to monitor leftist activities and promoted individualistic, corporatist values in their publications. Caribe sponsored schools, university posts, the construction of churches, radio and television broadcasts and infrastructure, magazines, newspapers, etc. One purpose of such publications was the creation of a unified cultural conception of what it meant to be “Venezuelan”. Bringing together the experiences within the andinos, the llanos, and the oriente under one coherent conceptual framework had much the same effects as the conceptions of the polis as “cafe con leche”. The divergent experiences were minimized and the notion of a single “people” came to the forefront.

The notion of the nation created, however, was not just inclusive of these but also exclusive. It was inclusive in the sense that the oil companies were promoted as the key component as to how it was that the nation was becoming “modernized”. Though the companies themselves were foreign, they defined themselves and hired multiple public relations firms to cast them as benevolent for their bringing up “the people” out of poverty and subsistence agricultural production. That vast numbers still lived in grinding poverty was not even mentioned. Additionally, the values propounded on the radio and television programs and in the papers excluded certain qualities as being proper to the economic order and thus indicative of atavism still present within the population. The qualities denigrated were not just those anathemic to regularized business practices, such as tardiness, conflict, non-“Christian” behavior as well as race. While the latter illustrates the desire for a docile, responsible labor force the latter speaks to the fat that Afro-Venezuealans and Trinidadians, while within the social-economic nexus of oil extraction, were largely confined to manual and house labor if able to gain steady employment at all. Their marginalization meant that during period of economic downturns they were the most at risk. While Salas does not focus much attention on the Chavez phenomenon in the book, he does define the motivation and forces supporting him as largely coming from those marginalized both symbolically, economically and politically and representing a new conception of a modern Venezuela that is not solely dependent upon it’s natural resources to function as an economy – because such functioning in fact greatly harm to those not fortunate enough to join that sector.

Review of "The Conspiracy"

Paul Nizan’s The Conspiracy could be seen as a retelling of Dostoyevsky’s Demons in a situation that is no longer conducive to revolution by people whose allegiances are best served with the hegemonic order despite their views that it will soon totter over. In contradistinction to the verbose style showcasing the intricacies of the characters through long exchanges and monologues found in the latter book, The Conspiracy packs a number of dense statements into a tightly compact narrative. What it at times misses it nuance, breadth and complexity, it makes up for in it’s economy of language and referentiality.

Rosenthal, the leader of the conspiracy, his comrades and even those that disagree with him speak in the type of clipped language that those familiar with the various discourses use. In this it is much more realistic than Dostoyevsky. For instance, in the scene where Carre and Regnier are arguing about the difference between the French socialists and communists he says: “You see every participation as a limitation. You immediately want to revoke your decision, in order to show yourself you’re free to reject what you just embraced. And proud to boot, and Goethean: “I am the Spirit that negates all…”” While the first point is relatively clear, the latter part is a shorthand. It is this type of intellectual shorthand, I would argue, that is in large part the reason why their plan and their attempt to realize it barely takes off.

Rosenthal’s academics lean towards France’s revolutionary tradition and the writings of Spinoza, Hegel and Marx. All three personages are repeatedly quoted as authorities of the present situation. The reader, however soon discovers such sentiments are likely to assuage Rosenthal’s own feelings of guilt for the privilege he was born into and to showcase his concern with the “world”. He does not know it, so much as a manner of interpreting the world and a set of values that emerged from another age. In this he is not alone. As the action unfolds, we learn that the student revolutionaries are motivated not but any great humanitarian desire to negate the unnecessary deprivations that could be banished in a post-scarcity world but are instead driven by their insecurities about the future, illusions of grandness, their desire to rebel against their parents or gain social recognition for their “specialness”, their adulation to others they hold to be intellectually superior and their adherence to classical Roman notions of republican virtue that while inspiring are outdates in an age of mass society. The only person which throws his fate in with the Socialist Party is Pluvinage, who we later learn is an informant for the police.

The plot itself deals with this in the mundane manner that one would expect student revolutionaries separated from mass politics would work. They conceive of an attendant that will spark the public into action and just as poorly as they thought it through they then execute it. When Simon, one of the plotters is discovered, the intent is quickly brushed aside due to his class and the explanation that he wanted certain information to write on a novel – a hobby considered understandable based on his social standing to the members of the military that are considering how to judge what next will happen to him based upon his infraction. The pleasant distractions of women, the desire for others to see one as great and family dynamics play a significant factor in keeping the conspiracy largely stillborn. In fact the task that Rosenthal devotes most of his time to besides that of a “revolutionary” journal with a minuscule circulation is in attempting to seduce the wife of his older brother so that she will leave him.

I concur with the sentiments found in Jean-Paul Sartre’s afterword on finding some of the most compelling of Nizan’s writing within this book to be about recognizing the transition into adulthood by these students to be a difficult time and one filled with adjustments without clear end goals. Their desire for something specific, something they can see is understandable especially given the crisis-ridden world in which they are beginning to take a part. However there are other parts that I find particularly worthwhile, though I find at times the plot drags. The scene between Pluvinage and the policeman Massart, for instance, while lacking the sustained tension, humor and gravity as that between Porfiry and Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, is also quite compelling. One of the more intelligent lines that Massart utters in this vein is: “Pascal was the first author who face the outline of a police conception of the world… Little accidents and little men manufacture great events. The masses and the professors never see the true connections, because there’s no visible relation between cause and effect and all tracks are muddied. Everybody’s unaware of chance working away behind the scenes, and of the secret of little men…” and demonstrates Nizan’s capacity to incarnate a number of characters based upon certain philosophical presuppositions.

Review of "The Underdogs"

Mariano Azuelo’s novel The Underdogs was first published in 1915 and is an account of the revolutionary war in Mexico against the Federal government of Porfirio Díaz. The novel predominantly follows the military actions of bandit-turned-general Demetrio Macías, against the Federal government and the manner in which his armed forces are housed, fed, paid, disciplined and interaccaudt with themselves and others segments of Mexican society. In the account of Demetrio’s rise it is possible to see the historical context of caudillismo and the structural limitations for enacting progressive development once the economic and political contradictions of dependent development have been contested. To the first point of caudillismo, we can trace it in the brief career of Demetrio, who leads a small rebellion for personal gain and then decides to join the “formal” army simply in order to potentially gain more. The second issue is shown in the environmental, institutional and social destruction as a result of the civil war itself.

We first encounter Demetrio and his band in armed confrontation with the federal troops. Demetrio is shown to be brave, strong and charismatic to those under his command. He frames his participation in the rebellion in a moralistic personal narrative devoid of notions of class or national solidarity. This desire for revancha similarly motivates the other members of his band that too could be taken as archetypes for the historical context within which they find themselves. Their attacks are not coordinated with any of the other forces fighting against Díaz in the country until they are joined by Luis Cervantes.

Luis is an outsider, both from his previous advocacy of conservative positions, as is evident from his writing in the El Pais and El Regional newspapers, and his class background, his parents could afford to pay tuition for him to be a medical student. Additionally he is described as having a handsome appearance, likely preserved from not engaging in taxing manual, agricultural labor and having a certain reservedness. For these reasons he is given the name Curro, or handsome, which could be interpreted as referring both to his looks and his refined habits.

However these do not alone compose his variations from Demetrio’s group. He states his decision to join forces with the revolutionary band is for idealistic reasons rather than naked material interest. Azuelo shows how ambiguous such a commitment is, however, in providing a backstory that shows Luis previously in the company of the government troops and deciding to desert after being humiliated by his commander, learning how many of the troops were untrained farmers pressed into service and how profitable the side of the rebellion could be. This last consideration is unknown to the group and thus he is viewed according to all in the band as being “made of different stuff”, which in this context means being looked up with suspicion. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, he soon becomes a mouthpiece for the values proclaimed by revolutionary leaders such as Villa and Zapata. While not specifically citing the Plan of Ayala as a motivating force for his action, he states “The revolution is for the benefit of the poor, the ignorant, those who have been slaves all their lives, the miserable ones…” (15).

Though Curro is new to the group and an outsider, his capacity for ratiocination is also recognized. When determining the next plan of action, Curro is able to convince Demetrio not just to be an insurgent, but to make an effort to join the revolutionary army of Natera so as to gain position within the new political organization. On this point he states to Demetrio:

“You are generous, and say: “My only ambition is to return to my land.” But is it fair to deprive your wife and children of the fortune that the Divine Providence is now placing in your hands? Is it fair to forsake the motherland at the solemn moment when she will need the abnegation of her humble children to save her, to keep her from falling into the hands of the eternal oppressors and torturers, the caciques?” (25-26)

Leaving aside the ambiguity of Curro’s commitment to egalitarian reform, in the crucible of Mexican class struggle that Curro has entered into his propounded values are soon confronted by the material realities and he soon transitions to an opportunistic pragmatism. The reasons for this are best voiced by an acquaintance, Sr. Solis, he meets in the camp of Natera. Before he is shot in battle, Solis states that “you either become a bandit like them or you leave the stage and hide behind the walls of a fierce and impenetrable egotism” (38). Stripping the abstract to its materiality, we see that Solis refers to a series of behaviors that Luis also witnesses that could be summed as lack of revolutionary discipline.

The men which are leading the military charge are not just querulous about their socio-economic position but also amongst themselves, their aggression leads to in-fighting that, when exacerbated by alcohol, lead to murder. They display their anti-intellectualism by cooking corn with books, destroying art and breaking objects such as crystal chandeliers simply because they are manifestations of the surplus capital extracted from peasant labor. The chain of command becomes difficult to maintain. There is tension between the insurgents and those that have abandoned their roles in the Federal Army that is compounded by the anti-hierarchical sentiments unleashed by the revolutionary cause. The role of women in the novel not only shows their marginal status within a society dominated by males and naked force but becomes yet another point of differentiation between Luis and the “revolutionary” group. After Luis finds a “currita” that he expresses the intention of marrying, she must lock herself away from the other men for fear of rape. This romantic subplot also highlights the recurring tensions, distrust and conflict that exists between city and urban-dwellers.
As these variances in acculturation accumulate, Luis realizes that his “place” in the revolution is not to be found amongst the armed services but in the urban, professional class. At this point he begins to trade loot with the other members of the group to get the most valuable objects and hides some of his loot from them. Demetrio catches him, but does nothing as Luis manipulates the impoverished leader’s rich moral self-conception by offering to prove his loyalty to the group by offering him his take, which is declined.

After Luis has accumulated enough loot he decides to leave the group. Realizing that the best use of the capital he has accumulated from his time with Demetrio would not be in unstable, impoverished Mexico, he relocates to Texas and invests in the completion of his medical studies. This depiction of capital and intellectual flight is not unique to this historical situation but a trend that still occurs in many Latin American countries. With Luis gone, Demetrio has no compass with which to interpret the vicissitudes of power politics. When asked by Natera who’s side he is on, the Carranca or Villa, his response is to recognize his ignorance on the matter and state that he will follow whoever Natera decides.

In the closing section of the novel the cost of the conflict takes on a greater potency. No longer is the conflict just between the opposing forces but between the purportedly liberated and themselves as well as them with the land. The fighting has claimed so many lives and horses that it has slowed or stopped agricultural production, the legacy of theft and pecuniary speculation has harmed trade and caused peasants to now prefer commodity to money exchange. The novel closes with a deep pessimism as to the future of the movement, best expressed by Demetrio himself. Demetrio returns home to his wife and child but finds that he no longer desires to do the farm work that helped instigate him to take up arms. Furthermore he starts to believe the grandiose, conquerors mythology he created about himself and when asked by his wife why it is that he continues to fight, he has no noble response but simply points to a stone he has just thrown and says: “See how that pebble can’t stop…” (86).

On a final note I think it’s worth commenting that the predominant translation of “Los De Abajo” has been “The Underdogs”. While I agree that the band depicted were “the underdogs” in the fighting that transpired, I believe that my short analysis of the novel indicates that Azuela did not intended this interpretation that these people were simply “those from below.” This is evident in the fact that the one surviving middle class characters, Luis, become so disgusted by what he witnesses that he deserts and the depiction of the rebels as brave, but ignorant bandits that cannot build but only destroy.

Review of "Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution"

Richard Gott’s book Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution is a highly readable account of the rise of one of the most controversial politicians in recent Latin American history. Gott provides a topical historical contextualization as to why it was that the previous constitution was viewed by so many Venezuelans as insufficient to their current social conditions and how it was that the dominant political parties within the country were not able to mobilize enough support to maintain popular credibility and soon withered away.

Gott lucidly shows that Chavez’s rise was a long time in the making due to the problematic internal dynamics of the country and focuses cites as evidence of it’s disorder the caracazo. While the collapse of the Berlin wall received the lions share of the world’s attention due to the implications it had in the Cold War, for Venezuela the caracazo was an event of equal importance. The riots and social unrest unleashed following price adjustments for public transportation in the poorer sections of the city spread out soon leading to the mobilization of the military to quell it. Following the soldiers quashing of unrest, the disintegration of Carlos Perez’s presidency and his Washington Consensus conceived policies of neoliberal reform was soon forthcoming. This event accelerated and deepened the commitment of political actors, especially those in the military, to look for new ways of creating a Venezuela that wasn’t so sharply divided by class.

Chavez’s attempted coup, his subsequent forming of political bonds and the subsequent formation of a 5th Republic Movement give better understanding into the wide support that Chaves has received there. It is in fact noteworthy that even at a time when there were no “Chavistas” in the state apparatus and as a new-comer, in the December 1998 elections that brought Chavez to power he received 56% of electoral votes while the next closest parties receiving 36% and 4%. Narrating the second coup attempt by reactionary elements in the business community and military showcases both his popularity as well as the degree to which the political edifice once in place had deformed. Following his election, Gott illustrates the role that political interest and community groups played in the writing of the new constitution and how it was that the Chavez government actively sought to incorporate previously marginalized communities into the polis, mobilized the military for community development and increase social spending.

In addition to this background, Gott, based upon numerous one-on-one interviews with the now deceased former president, contextualizes the intellectual context in which he operated. Eschewing the quasi-Marxist rhetoric of his friend Fidel Castro, Chavez has instead sought to resuscitate a 19th century revolutionary tradition epitomized by three Venezuelans: Simon Bolivar, Simon Rodriguez y Ezequiel Zamora. Giving the historical context of these three situates Chavez in such a way that he is not some lone, charismatic figure amongst a dark past but one of many in a tradition seeking to reign in the gross inequality that began with the Spanish system of slavery which transformed into quasi-colonial relations with European and American companies for oil exploitation.

Gott cannot be seen as attempting to minimize the radicalism of Chavez through this, for at no point does he obscure the fact that much of the support for him stems from former left-wing radicals. In fact, as he clearly believes that “it is impossible to understand the historical roots of Chavez’s success without reference to the powerful anti-Stalinist communism of De la Plaza and Miquilena that was to influence important sections of the Venezuelan left in the years after the 1940s” (79). People with Trotskyist leanings, such as former governor William Izarra, and former members of long de-mobilized guerilla groups helped shove him into power.

The depiction of a cult of personality around Chavez is common in writings and perceptions of Venezuelan political culture. Considering the country is only recently becoming largely literate, I’ve engaged in several conversation with people who claimed that this was the case there. While Gott’s writings do not go into detail on this fact, it is very clear that not only is there a right-wing oppositions but there is a left-wing opposition to Chavez as well. Ultra-leftists are critical of the manner in which Chavez has sought to actualize progressive policy within the country without enacting immediate, wholesale changes. Chavez has been derided by many of his former supporters as unnecessarily gradualistic and too accommodating, especially to the oil interests. While he was successful in winning the populations allegiance during the petroleum strike of 2002, he also decided to pay for national control of oil sites that had been sold by corrupt politicians to international oil companies rather than simply nationalizing them without recompense.

While Gott does not go into much detail regarding the success or failures of the Mision’s Chavez launched, he is both praising and critical of their functioning. As with the other historiography, Gott limns several of the conditions that are beyond Chavez’s capacity to influence in the short term that make the goal of this mision’s difficult. For instance, one of the tasks of the Chavez government has been the encouragement of movement of the urban poor into the agricultural sections of the country that have long been underused. The reason for this is simple, despite large amounts of fecund land the country’s abundant petroleum wealth artificially increases costs and makes food importing more cost effective. The government would rather, of course, have less people involved in the underground or parallel economy and put to use the land. Lacking capital investment for facilities and equipment, combined with the general preference for urban over rural living, this has been difficult. While government investment has been made in the region for housing and other facilities, actualizing his Plan Bolivar 2000 has been problematic and lead to those structures degenerating. It is not all failures, however. Other projects, such as his successful push to revitalize OPEC and lead to greater oil revenues for the government, are also highlighted.

As a book for understanding the past twenty years of Venezuela’s political climate as well as the Chavez phenomenon I highly recommend the book.

Review of "The Lost Steps"

After having deeply enjoyed Alejo Capentier’s novel Explosion in a Cathedral, I decided to pick up his other renowned novel The Lost Steps. Though the setting and plot are vastly divergent from the other work, his style is similar. The at times rambling poetic descriptions with flourishes of erudition, the variegated display of characters attitudes which leave and return in a mutated form like the evolving rhythms of Latin music, as well as the abiding concern over the interpenetration of personal and political engagement are just some of the qualities that brought me back to his writing. For it is these traits combined with many others that is able to transform a story into an artfully executed, moving novel about disillusionment and the possibilities for finding truth.

The novel follows the life of a composer who has grown up and lived in various countries. He is ambivalent to if not downright antagonistic to the American culture he now lives in, and is additionally alienated from his actress wife, his career, his friends and his mistress. Compounding this with the problems of “intellectualism” and a career which provides money but not the possibilities of self-edification overdetermine him into agreeing to leave for the jungle of an unnamed Latin American country to find a certain set of instruments desired for the collection of a museum. Unable to find meaning anywhere else in his life and seeking to please his former mentor that asked him to accomplish this task, the composer leaves. But not before the composer’s mistress Mouche decides to invite herself along.

Mouche is familiar with all of the “isms” of the time and self-identifies with the “cultural left”. She is not a socialist, as to be so would be to submit to authority over her, which she resists at every turn and to find a profession that was not involved in the continuing obfuscation of the mind – astrology. Instead she is engaged in petty rebellions against the bourgeoisie, of which she is a part, and bases all of her valuations upon the thoughts of the great Europeans aesthetes. This eventually leads to a conflict between her and the composer, as he increasingly looks down upon her inability to understand what she encounters based upon the object itself and as she makes a purchase of an art object there that she could obtain anywhere rather than the special, one of a kind objects d’art that she could only obtain there. We see the stirring of such animosity in the references to the bliss which the composer gets when speaking his mother tongue regularly. As he remember not only scenes from his childhood memories but also his “racial memory,” he feels more connected in this world.

A coup in their city of arrival causes them to delay their trip into the jungle. Time slows but due to the new regime the amount of money he was given is now worth much more. The couple escapes the city and a Canadian artist that the composer rightly fears would draw them back into the milieu he sought to avoid by taking a bus to the edge of the jungle to begin their trek to the place where it’s suspected that the instrument is located. While moving from van to boat to boat, there are several beautiful images and many interesting frontier town characters. Rosario, the Greek, the Adelanto and Fray Pedro are the main persons whose life-stories contribute along with the change of scenery to the dissolving effect on the composers habits and personality.

The composer’s growing respect for the atavistic once there leaves him to break with his Mouche once she’s come down with malaria and to then take up with Rosario. Rosario is a woman who is constantly described as unable to even be conceptualized by those that have not lived in the jungle and truly understood the adaptive requirements to live there. The linguistic signifier which she uses to describe herself once they are involved, “your woman,” implies that she is somehow property and in a disempowered state but as the other shows this is only the case if her choice in the matter is discounted. Rosario’s powerful emotions leads her to acts of service and affection toward the one that she has chosen, the composer, but this is shown to stem from a recognition of mutuality rather than expectation. The composers ability to genuinely change and stay this person, however, is tested and he fails. Following a return of the impulse to create a new musical arrangement, the composer suddenly needs paper and pen desperately. Their distance from civilization and the weather make it hard to do this. Following the arrival of a rescue party, the composer leaves despite his resolution to stay. He will just get some paper to take back with him and divorce his wife so he can be honestly married with Rosario and then he will return. Things, however, are not so simple.

When the composer finally returns to the area near where he was taken, he discovers that the woman that he wants to return to is no longer possible. It is directly alluded to by the Greek Miner that the world they live in is not that of Odysseus and that Rosario that she is no Penelope. The living conditions are such there that it is not possible to hold on to anything but the present.

Review of "Choice Theory"

Choice Theory: A New Psychology of Personal Freedom is William Glasser’s presentation of a mode for everyday human interaction that doesn’t rely upon coercion and force to compel people to act in a specific manner. Why is this desirable? Glasser holds that these power dynamics and compulsions to act limit the individual, leads to personal disempowerment, dissatisfaction with life and human relationships and an undue focus upon material possession rather than positive, high-quality social interactions. The manner in which Glassner seeks to evade such exertions of power is by promoting personal autonomy and demanding that we reflect deeply upon the choices available to people. By realizing how it is that we often form our own behaviors by choices we make, Glassner holds that we gain power over our emotions and our repertoire of responses – even if we can’t do so over the conditions in which we live. There are many examples given of how this actually works, some more compelling than others, as well as methods for obtaining positive results from a currently bad situation.

This can include avoiding two of the purely negative types of individuals that he cites as well as one of the methods for obtaining peace, contentment and happiness in a permanent relationship. This latter mechanism involves the conscious creation of “circles of belonging”. While the examples primarily relate to marriage, Glasser claims that this also applied to family and even work dynamics. Focusing on this can help counteract people’s choice to depress, exhibit deleterious psychosomatic functions and help build stronger social ties. On the point of generalized therapeutic practices, Glasser writes passionately that it is not that childhood or previous experiences of the patient that truly matters but whatever problematic relationship they are now in. Glasser states that normally he forgoes this typical Freudian tactic to instead analyze the problem and reorient them to proper behavior that recognizes their choice in disfunction. While, nominally, I agree with this, I think it also important for the therapist to provide the client with tools to better understand their former choices in such a manner as they can see how their choices, empowering or disempowering, creative or destructive, helped bring them to that point. Such a tract will of course depend on the desires of the client, but I thought it worth mentioning.

One of the larger sections which Glasser shows his choice theory in action is in his exposition on it’s functionality in public schools both ideally and in case studies. After having had his ideas adopted by a number of principles and even getting involved with them, he shows how the model explicated in Choice Theory in the Classroom works. This section, while interesting, has the same failings as several other points in the book. Simply it makes very broad claims without documentation. This is not to say that there are not some very worthy points to be made. Glasser agrees with Freud’s position that much of the self-repression which occurs isn’t, qua repression, bad – for if one was to unleash the many aggressive feelings one has when one’s desires are delayed or negated the world would be much more violent. However Glasser does claim that the world’s level of violence is increasing, a point that Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined refutes as well as current statistics on gun and knife violence. I point this out only as I find the foray of psychologists into social science to be understandable but also specious at times, for as in this case not only does the actual evidence go against him but it’s not needed for his argument that Choice Theory is a practice that should reach a wider audience. Another point that I find somewhat disconcerting is the author’s apparent claim that he has developed choice theory himself, without the influence of other theories, when much of the components of it were outlined by the Greek stoics thousands of years ago. While he did adapt aspects of it to fit modern needs and devise therapeutic approaches to it, I find this silent disavowal problematic.

One of the traits of this and several other of the FICAM readings that I’ve been doing that I look forward to writing on in the future is that manner in which many of these psychological texts posit that the application of the paradigm propounded within the books is claimed to create an ideal living situation for all in contradistinction to the terrible world administered by government. Additionally this type of power is claimed as pre-eminent by its exponents and in a way it becomes a force for universalist, humanist personal power. Those familiar with Foucault’s writing on psychology and biopower who haven’t had alarm bells ringing in the above paragraphs should have them going off now. As is mentioned in passing in the above, the psychological conception of autonomy that Glassner has is one that is radically separated from history and is in many ways concerned with reconciling the self to the needs of society. Such a direction, outlined in more detail with other psychologists in Foucault, Psychology and the Analytics of Power, has obvious issues both in it’s hermeneutic and therapeutic approach. If I seem to be overtly critical in the end of Glasser, I do not mean to be so. The framework he has employed clearly has genuinely positive effects on unwanted neurotic symptoms that should not be minimized, however I think it’s worth restricting it’s application to certain areas of living rather than propounding it as a panacea.