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Voodoo Politics: Tyranny and Enlightenment in Haiti and Britain

Formal fascism may be dead in the West. But the irrationalism and idolatry which characterize that mode of politics are stronger than ever.
David Hawkes

Issue #30, February 1997

During one of the frequent rebellions against his rule, the Haitian dictator Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier encouraged his supporters with the proclamation: "They cannot get me, I am immaterial." Duvalier was not announcing his irrelevance, but his divinity. Early in his reign he instigated a graffiti campaign which baldly claimed that "Duvalier is a god," and while he held power he managed to convince most of his subjects that this was literally true. From an early age, Duvalier had studied and practiced voodoo, publishing scholarly books on the subject and ingratiating himself with the sorcerors and priests. Once elected President, he appointed a well-known voodoo "houngan" as head of the national militia, and used the religion as an integral part of his program of terror and repression. With his black clothes, top hat and other-worldly aura, he aped the style of Baron Samedi, a particularly malevolent voodoo deity. It required only a small leap of the imagination for the populace to conceive the notion that Duvalier actually was Baron Samedi. Image became reality, as the fact that Papa Doc resembled this spirit edged into the conviction that he was actually a god in human form.

It would be very easy to portray this chicanery as the product of a primitive and underdeveloped culture. For two centuries, the West has confidently assumed that its political discourse is of a quite different nature to that which pertains in places like Haiti. Reasoned persuasion and rational debate have been the means through which the Western democracies conduct their affairs; in sharp contrast, the likes of Papa Doc have enforced tyrrany by the skillful manipulation of image and perception. But as the West leaves the age of Enlightenment behind and sails into the uncharted waters of the postmodern era, it might be worth challenging this glib assumption of superiority. In recent years, political discourse in Europe and the USA has largely abandoned substantive issues, and paid an increasing degree of attention to image. In election campaigns and political commentaries, rational discussion of policy has given way to analyses of the way in which policies are presented and perceived. There seems to be a certain similarity between political discourse in pre-Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment societies. If, as seems to be the case, the West is relapsing into a superstitious, fetishistic and magical faith in totem and image, we ought to seriously consider the political condition of other societies which currently practice what the West has traditionally viewed as superstition, fetishism and magic.

Francois Duvalier was able to secure his political power by exploiting the credulity and superstition of the Haitian peasantry. He represents a phenomenon typical of pre-enlightenment socities: the tyrant, who does not base his legitimacy on reason or democracy, but on mystical and supernatural foundations. Visiting Haiti is probably the closest one can come to visiting medieval Europe. The levels of poverty and inequality of these societies are of comparable levels, but just as striking is the fact, which is immediately obvious to the visitor, that most Haitians do not think in a post Enlightenment manner. They do and say things which strike a Westerner as irrational. This is hardly surprising: most Haitians are illiterate subsistence farmers who speak only Kreyol, a language which was not written down until the 1950's. Education is largely unavailable; malnutrition and even starvation are constant threats; male life expectancy is forty-two. In such circumstances it is not hard to understand why the values of enlightened reason have failed to strike deep roots.

Founded in 1804 as a result of the only successful slave rebellion in history, the Republic of Haiti was ostracized and ignored by the rest of the world for over a century. One of the results was to violently impede its journey down the road which the West likes to call "progress". The freed slaves associated labor with bondage, and land with freedom: they subdivided the plantations into tiny individual plots and they lived off the fertility of their country's flora and fauna. Soon the soil was eroded, the jungles destroyed, the fish eaten, and Haiti began to starve. A kind of society emerged which was just in the process of finally being eradicated in Europe: feudal, with a huge class of desperately poor share-cropping peasants, and a tiny elite of gangsters and soldiers.

The benefits of Enlightenment have been denigrated by much recent Western philosophy. The schools of thought often grouped under the loose label of "postmodernism" suggest that Enlightenment rests on assumptions which were totalizing, logocentric, phallic and hierarchical. Postmodernists celebrate what they see as the crises of reason and referentiality, and the triumph of signification and difference. Figuration and imagery are protrayed as ludic and liberatory; rationalism and logic are arraigned as oppressive. And it is certainly true that philosophical, economic, aesthetic and social developments in Western societies have combined to bestow a pronounced importance on matters of perception, presentation and signification.

In the United Kingdom, which will hold a General Election within four months, the most controversial political issue of late has been whether Tony Blair, the leader of the Labour Party, has "devil eyes". A recent Conservative advertizing campain featured a close-up of Blair's eyes, hideously distorted and reddened in archetypally Satanic fashion. Labour responded with furious denunciations, and countered with a media blitz which stressed the warm, sympathetic qualities which, it was claimed, were clearly visible to any impartial observer in Mr. Blair's eyes. A visitor who entered the country in the middle of this discussion could not but be struck by the arational quality of the debate. It was not so much that the parties were being irrational as that the question was not one which could be resolved by reference to the standards of rationality. It was a superstitious debate. It was a debate which took place on the same plane as the belief that Francois Duvalier might be Baron Samedi. It was a debate from the other side of Enlightenment.

It would seem that the West, having passed through an age in which reason and democracy were the ideals, if not always the reality, of political practice, now seems to be moving towards a system in which the random, irrational fluctuations of the market are the only forces which will be allowed to influence the political direction of nations. Luck, chance, rumor and perception dictate the vagaries of stocks, bonds and currencies, and the shifting relations between these are given a supernatural, unquestioned, tyrannical power over the lives of individuals. Social and personal responsibility has been abdicated, and bestowed upon a capricious, almighty pseudo-deity to whose whims all must bow. The techniques employed by the market to further its ends — advertizing, the manipulation and perversion of human hopes and fears, opinion polling and market research — have migrated from the economic sphere and colonized the political. The new irrationalism is the product of capitalism and relative abundance. The old irrationalism is the legacy of slavery and direst poverty.

I arrived in Port-au-Prince on a fine April morning with a suitcase full of tuna fish. My fellow passengers were loaded down with similar goodies. I'd been warned by the friend I was meeting there that food, especially protein, was hard to come by in much of Haiti; this turned out to be true. There is no working telephone system in Haiti, and the electricity cuts off regularly, even in the capital. There is no public transportation other than "tap taps" — converted pick-up trucks, usually open to the elements and standing-room only. The distance from Port-au-Prince to Jacmel is about thirty miles; such is the condition of the road that the journey takes six hours. There is no police force; the streets are sporadically patrolled by U.N. troops and cops who are supposedly training their Haitian replacements. Visibly and severely over-populated, the entire country is pervaded by an atmosphere of turmoil and chaos.

The customs lady at the airport didn't even glance at the visa which the Haitian consulate in New York had insisted I needed, and had sold me at great expense and almost inconceivable inconvenience. My friend rescued me from a mob of supplicants and hustlers, and we got into a car which the driver claimed was a taxi. At the exit was one of the very few road signs in Haiti, clearly pointing the way to Port-au-Prince. The car sped off in the opposite direction. "You're going the wrong way," said my friend to the driver. Silence. "How much to Port-au-Prince?" I asked him. The driver had a brief conversation in Kreyol with another passenger, then turned back to us: "Two hundred U.S. dollars." The journey was about five miles. "Stop the car!" we yelled in unison. The driver appeared to think very carefully. After a minute, he reluctantly pulled over. We got out and walked back to the airport, followed by the taxi whose driver was now screaming abuse and insisting that we pay him for the quarter-mile he had taken us. We got into a tap-tap and it took us to Port-au-Prince for approximately one dime.

Safe in a bar in Petionville, the single rich neighborhood in Haiti,I reflected on the perverse nature of the taximan's scheme. Why did he try to charge us two THOUSAND times the proper fare? If he'd asked for two dollars, or even for twenty, we'd have paid up happily and been none the wiser. The young Canadian bar owner had a ready explanation. "Haitian logic", he declared, tapping his forehead. "These people don't have rationality. It's a totally different state of mind down here."

I'd heard many similar expressions from white South Africans, and Haiti is an even more racist society than South Africa. Obviously, such sentiments are ideological and designed, consciously or not, to perpetuate an oppressive and discriminatory political and economic system. Like all ideology, however, they do contain element of truth. You don't have to be in Haiti long to realize that it doesn't run according to the rules of logic. Most Haitians, for instance, firmly believe in and practice voodoo, despite highly visible campaigns by American missionaries against it. One guy we met in Les Cayes had tried to get a job as a cook for the U.N. garrison. They turned him down. He went for advice to the local houngan, who instructed him to smear his face with a foul-smelling green ointment and try again. They turned him down again. He couldn't understand why. In Gelee, a man offered us beds in a single room with no running water. His asking price was six hundred US dollars a night. We explained that this was excessive, and offered him ten. He thought about it for a while, then offered us the room for five.

In a hotel in Cap Haitian, there were fifty or sixty Chinese guests. None spoke a word of English; none ever left the hotel. It was impossible to find out what they were doing there. Eventually, an American fisherman told me that unscrupulous Chinese ship owners often charge exorbitant fees to smuggle their compatriots into the USA. Rather than face the patrols and police of American waters, however, the captains drop their passengers on a beach in Haiti and tell them they're in Miami. I wondered whether the hotel guests had realized the truth of their situation yet. "What happens to them?" I asked. The American shrugged: "I guess they just turn into Haitians."

In context, his meaning was clear enough. The attitude of the average Haitian, he implied, is fatalistic. It involves the sense that the course of events is not within human control. The idea that the systematic application of reason and logic can influence and alter the objective world seems to be absent. Instead, there is the belief in magic — in the determining power of the supernatural. In recent Haitian history, this belief has been closely associated with political tyranny, and has served as the means through which tyranny has justified and maintained itself.

It is deeply ironic that what the West calls "superstition" has achieved such prevalence in Haiti. The nation was founded on the rational republican principle that goverment should be based on a reasoned constitution, rather than on arbitrary, irrational rule, or "tyranny". This tradition of republicanism originates in Rome, is revived in Renaissance Italy, and achieves its first importance in a modern nation state with the English Revolutions of 1642 and 1688. The constitutional theories elaborated by Milton, Harrington and Sidney in seventeenth-century England inspired the politics of the French Enlightenment, and were invoked by the revolutionaries of 1789, and it was the French Revolution which gave rise to the Haitian revolt of Toussaint L'Ouverture and the "black Jacobins".

In Haiti, republicanism immediately gave way to Caesarism, largely because there was no significant skilled and educated middle class. In England too, republicanism failed to establish itself, due to the fact that the seventeenth-century revolutions took place before the bourgeoisie was powerful enough to win victory outright. However, by 1688 the principle was established that the state ought to be guided by reasoned debate and rational persuasion, as opposed to the irrational rule of an arbitrary tyrant. The association between irrationality and tyranny had become a vital element of European political theory.

It may be worth remembering that association in the postmodern era, when spin and soundbite, image and perception, have come to dominate political discourse. When I left the U.K. in 1987, it still seemed that the various political parties could be differentiated on the basis of their substantive arguments on material issues. This is no longer the case. Shortly after visiting Haiti, I went back to Britain for a month. The "devil eyes" controversy was in full swing. Watching Tony Blair perform for television, a resident of the U.S.A. could not avoid a shock of recognition. Blair was "doing" Clinton: the studied avoidance of settled positions, the talk of following the dictates of "principle not policy", the advertising slogans about a "stakeholder society", the marketing-man's gambit of referring to his party as "New" Labour, the attempt to minimize the difference between the parties, the superstitious faith in opinion poll and focus group.

In short, the economic has invaded and conquered the political. Expertise in advertising and marketing is the most valued skill in a political advisor. The philosophy of the market-place dominates political debate. Rational discussion has been replaced as a means of persuasion by the manipulation of images; referentiality is rejected in favor of empty signification. In this context, it seems rather arrogant for a Westerner to criticize Haitians for fatalism or gullibility. Recent thinkers such as Guy Debord and Theodor Adorno have connected this hegemony of the image to the rise of fascism in pre-war Europe: Hitler was the supreme manipulator of representation and perception.

Formal fascism may be dead in the West. But the irrationalism and idolatry which characterize that mode of politics are stronger than ever. To allow the market to dictate the course of politics is to give up human agency to an irrational force. It is a fundamentally superstitious position. In seventeenth-century England, Francis Bacon wrote of the "idols of the market", thus establishing a connection between religious fetishism and commodification which informs many subsequent analysis of market ideology, most notably that of Karl Marx. If Haiti exemplifies the potential political influence of religious "superstition", then the contemporary West illustrates the enormous power of commodity fetishism. They have much in common, including an irrationality which has historically been associated with the theory and practice of political tyranny. Postmodern thinkers should bear this connection in mind when holding the principles of Enlightenment up to criticism.

David Hawkes is Assistant Professor of English at Lehigh University. His book Ideology is published by Routledge, 1996.

Copyright © 1997 by David Hawkes. All rights reserved.