Dr Kristian Niemietz is Head of Health and Welfare at the Institute of Economic Affairs.
A while ago, I took part in a panel discussion on the issue of “Millennial Socialism”. One of the speakers, who was broadly on my side of this argument, called for a self-imposed moratorium on the V-word: Venezuela.
Critics of socialism, he argued, had been banging on about Venezuela for too long, and they had to stop doing it. According to him, references to Venezuela were pointless, because they did not resonate with people. British people are interested in what’s going on in Britain, not Venezuela. They see such references as irrelevant at best, and as a lazy cop-out at worst.
As is usually the case with panel discussions, there was no time left to discuss this further. But as someone who does bang on about Venezuela rather a lot (I dedicated a chapter of my book Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies to it), I feel like I should address it.
I actually agree that the V-word can be overused. I agree that shouting “Venezuela!” can act as a mere rhetorical trump card against the Left, and a poor substitute for an actual argument. The fact that a number of key socialist policies have failed in Venezuela does not mean that the opposite of those policies is automatically right, or that all attempts to create a more equal society must always end up that way.
Nonetheless, a moratorium on the V-word would throw out the baby with the bathwater. So I’d like to suggest a little “how-to guide”, outlining when it is appropriate to bring up Venezuela in a discussion, and when it is not.
The main point to note is that Venezuela is an actual country, not a shorthand for “everything I don’t like about the Left”. It is a country that is in trouble for specific, identifiable reasons, not for being, somehow, generically, “too left-wing”. This sounds obvious when you put it like that, but deviations from this point are the main cause of V-word inflation.
So when somebody on the Left proposes to, for example, raise income tax, wealth taxes, or corporation tax, people on the pro-market side should not respond by shouting “Venezuela!”. Because that’s not what happened in Venezuela. Venezuela is not a high-tax economy, or at least, their tax burden is not what ruined them.
In the same way, if somebody on the Left proposes to hike the minimum wage, to abolish university tuition fees, or to ban zero-hour contracts, shouting “Venezuela!” is not the answer either. Those are bad ideas, sure. But those are not the ideas that destroyed Venezuela.
In short, we shouldn’t bring up Venezuela in a discussion of run-of-the-mill left-wing policies, which bear little relationship to anything that Chávez and/or Maduro did.
Furthermore, when somebody points out a genuine social problem in Britain, “Yeah but Venezuela!” is not much of a reply. Socialists are sometimes good at identifying problems, even if they are terrible at developing solutions. It is true that we have some of the highest housing costs in the world. It is true that our productivity performance, and as a result, wage growth, are poor, and have been poor for far too long. It is true that our welfare system is riddled with flaws, and often fails to support people who have fallen on hard times.
“It’s much worse in Venezuela, which is the system you lot want!” is not good enough. “It’s much better in capitalist countries X and Y – which is the system we should learn from” is more like it. So in such cases, it’s best to leave Venezuela out of it. Let “Venezuela” be a country, not a rhetorical all-purpose put-down.
That said – don’t declare that moratorium just yet. When prominent British socialists call for mass nationalisations, when they call for price controls and capital controls, when they deride the rule of law as a mere “bourgeois” construct that only serves “the elites” – then yes, it is absolutely fair to point out that this is exactly what happened in Venezuela. Here, we’re not talking about some allegorical “Venezuela”, but about the actual country, and about specific things that happened there. These are the very policies, and this is the very mindset, which turned what was once South America’s richest country into a basket case. This argument may not “resonate with people” – but it’s true.
Further to that: when socialists claim that “their” version of socialism will be completely different from any of its previous incarnations, that it will be genuinely democratic, empowering, grassroots-based and non-hierarchical – then it is fair to point that this is exactly what the Chavistas also used to say.
Some Western socialists are currently trying to convince themselves that Chávez and Maduro just never really aspired to a different kind of socialism, that authoritarian populism is all they ever wanted. This is fundamentally untrue, and Western socialists used to know this very well. The project of Venezuelan socialism started with the aspiration that this time would be different, that this time, “socialism” would not mean an all-powerful state controlling everything. It started with the aspiration that there could be completely different forms of collective ownership, which had nothing to do with the top-down nationalised industries of the past.
The appeal of Millennial Socialism rests on the delusion that the democratic, bottom-up socialism Millennial Socialists aspire to is a fundamentally novel aspiration, and that nobody in history has ever tried to build anything like this before.
But it is not a new aspiration. This was precisely what Chávez’s and Maduro’s “21st Century Socialism” was also about, which is why it used to be so popular in the West. A moratorium on the V-word would just play into the hands of those who now want to pretend that none of this ever happened, and that “Millennial Socialism” is novel, untried and untested.
So no, I absolutely won’t stop banging on about it, and if you don’t want to hear it, tough luck, because I’ll bore you with it anyway. We shouldn’t stop banging on about Venezuela until the Left stops banging on about socialism.