EDITOR’S NOTE: In his January 25 New York Times column, titled “Yes, Venezuela Is a Socialist Catastrophe,” Bret Stephens argued that the country’s crisis shows why socialism can never work, and he scorned various left critics, including Nation contributors Greg Grandin, Naomi Klein, and Noam Chomsky, for defending that country’s experiment under late president Hugo Chávez. Grandin has responded directly to the Times; below is a longer reflection.
“Socialism,” says New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, is responsible for the disaster in Venezuela—and, he writes, it’s the future that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the United States and Jeremy Corbyn in Britain have in store for you, if they have their way.
For a decade now, following the financial crash of 2008, with economic inequality calcifying, there’s been a shift in conceptions of citizenship in the United States. Poll after poll reveals that young people are broadening their notion of rights beyond individual rights—to property, to assemble, to speech, to worship—to also embrace social rights: to health care, to education, and to other services that would allow for a dignified life. There’s growing acceptance that the government needs to take action to reduce inequality, reflected in Elizabeth Warren’s proposal for a wealth tax, Ocasio-Cortez’s call for a top marginal tax right of 70 percent, and Bernie Sanders’s repeated reminders that the nation’s economic oligarchy enjoys monopoly political power. Eric Levitz just pointed out in New York magazine that Ocasio-Cortez’s tax proposal is in line with at least one current of founding-father thought: “America’s first political theorists took these truths to be self-evident: that a person could not exercise political liberty if he did not possess a modicum of economic autonomy, and that disparities in wealth inevitably produced disparities of political power.”
What does all this have to do with Venezuela? Well, for over a decade, conservatives, at least since the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency, have been using that country as an object lesson. Obama was hardly a social democrat, much less a socialist. But he did believe in public policy and gentle forms of regulation. And for many conservatives, committed to an ever more absolutist notion of individual rights, public policy and gentle regulation might as well be socialism. For eight years, conservatives, on Fox News and talk radio, in the pages of conservative journals, on Tea Party placards and Internet memes, put forth a narrative that equated Obama with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, arguing that if Obama’s mild program of civic responsibility were to be realized, the country would be descend into Venezuela-like chaos. The right also made two other geopolitical comparisons, swinging between charging Obama with wanting both to turn the United States into Sweden and into Zimbabwe. Such accusations capture two sides of the same fear, in which social rights (as illustrated by Sweden) would produce an irresponsible, unvirtuous state governed by racial criminals (Zimbabwe).
Pundits like Stephens often use other countries, their shortcomings and crises, to draw moral lessons for their own country, allowing them to put forth a simplistic but coherent story to paper over problems in their own worldview. Entrenched poverty, persistent inequality, and a corrupt and disdainful ruling class might, if honestly considered, lead to a questioning of free-market fundamentalism. But they can evade having to consider such questions with a different kind of question: “What about Venezuela?”
Stephens points to a number of writers who, he thinks, have served as Chavismo’s useful idiots, who cheered Chávez on as he drove the country to ruin, including Corbyn, Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky, and myself.
It would have been nice if Stephens had engaged Klein’s important work on climate change, especially since his employer publishes one story after another that could be lifted straight from Cormac McCarthy’s eco-dystopic The Road. “…a Vast Landscape Charred, and a Sky Full of Soot” ran one headline on California’s wildfires (and that was before last year’s apocalypse in Paradise). But Stephens questions climate-change science, so there’s not much of a discussion to be had.
As to me, he chose this quotation, from a 2013 obituary I did of Chávez for The Nation: “the biggest problem Venezuela faced during his rule was not that Chávez was authoritarian but that he wasn’t authoritarian enough.” I would rather have appeared in Jamelle Bouie’s searing inaugural column, where he deals with a topic of actual substance, the symbolism of Trump’s border wall (since it aligns with some of the themes of my new book, The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America).
In any case, the quote that Stephens did use was a criticism not from a Stalinist but rather an institutionalist perspective: For more than a decade, high oil prices and an ill-advised currency-exchange rate let Chávez be a carefree broker, governing without having to really favor one class over another: The rich got rich, the poor got services, and people committed to socialism could believe they were building socialism. Instead of establishing lasting institutions, his government set up parallel tracks, and left the existing civil and military bureaucracy alone to grow fat off various schemes. Hard decisions—especially concerning devaluation—were constantly deferred, as the existing civil bureaucracy and military had ample opportunity to engage in rampant corruption.
Then Stephens offers this observation: “At least Grandin could implicitly concede that socialism ultimately requires coercion to achieve its political aims.” Of course I concede that. But so do most liberal political theorists, including John Locke—not only to establish a socialist state but to establish any kind of state or political order. The United States, the most Lockean political culture on earth, was born out of a violent revolution, a long campaign of ethnic cleansing, and a brutal war to end chattel slavery—the word “coercion” blushes in the face of the amount of terror and violence that was deployed to bring about what we call our liberal society.
Stephens thinks Venezuela is good to think with—but it doesn’t make him think too much. Look there, he says, and you will see where Ocasio-Cortez and Jeremy Corbyn are taking us. But don’t look to Bolivia, governed by a president who also calls himself a socialist, and has been—by all mainstream liberal indicators—a remarkable success, even more so considering its poverty-wracked, racially exploited, and tumultuous history, as Francisco Toro, a harsh critic of Chavismo, and others have pointed out.
I’m disappointed that Stephens didn’t dig up this other quote by me, where I say that “Venezuela might be the most democratic country in the Western Hemisphere.” I stand by this too, though I admit its sentiment contradicts the earlier complaint about a lack of institutionalization. Here, I’m appreciative of the way that Chavismo opened up politics to previously excluded groups, the way it brought poor people into, as historians say, history, affirming their sense that they are the ones that make it. There was an anarchic free-for-all for many years in Venezuela, which, on the ground in the poor neighborhoods I visited, was like breathing in fresh air, especially compared with the stultifying misery found in similar marginal regions in Central America, in Guatemala and Honduras (the work of Naomi Schiller, Alejandro Velasco, and Sujatha Fernandes is indispensable here).
My appreciation of Chavismo ultimately rested on historical modesty—I didn’t value its mobilization because I thought it would last but because I thought it would fail. No movement in Latin America worthy of support lasts very long, for many different reasons. Those reasons deserve a longer debate, as do the causes of the catastrophe now engulfing the country. In any case, most left authoritarian types in Latin America turn very quickly, and often very violently, on their rank and file. Juan Perón is the most famous example, but there are many others. That Chavismo didn’t, for all its many faults, is remarkable. The popular mobilization was transient, temporary, and the opening it gave people, the sense of empowerment, should be valued on its own terms—not because it would result in a lasting, successful socialist order, much less one that could serve as a model for hack political debates in the United States.
There’s one last point to make: Back in the middle of the 2000s we were repeatedly told that Latin America was being fought over by “two lefts,” a good left—represented by the social-democratic Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil—and a bad left—represented by the populist Chávez in Venezuela. Lula did everything right and responsibly—soothing markets, working within existing political structures, making political alliances with opponents, respecting private property, and holding to the country’s Constitution. Chávez, in contrast, rampaged through the institutions, provoking confrontations, violating property rights, and making a mockery of due process. We know the sad state of Venezuela, a knowledge amplified by the superficial attention paid by columnists like Stephens.
But what of Brazil? What accounts for the breakdown of democracy in that country? For its grinding poverty and astronomical rates of violence? Lula would have been the most popular candidate in last year’s election were he allowed to run, but instead he was thrown in jail and his judge appointed justice minister. Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s twice-democratically-elected successor, was driven out of office by a pack of planters and right-wing evangelicals, and the country’s current president, Jair Bolsonaro, who has family ties with right-wing paramilitaries, has basically told the international community that he plans to carry out a program of genocide in the Amazon. If Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky are responsible for Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, who, I’d ask, is responsible for Bolsonaro, a man Foreign Policy compares to Goebbels?