Wednesday, July 5, 2017


Pity the poor petrostate! They have a tough life no matter who is in charge.

Venezuela, which  possesses the world's largest known reserves of oil, is therefore in hock to the global economy for its well-being. Without being able to sell its oil it can't buy the consumer products its citizens demand.

So the disastrous decline of that country is not entirely due to abysmal governance under Chavez and Maduro. Part of it was baked into the cake. Still, other petrostates--Canada and Saudi Arabia come to mind--have fared much better, despite hard times. Chavez and his successors and sycophants have turned a bad situation into a complete and irreversible catastrophe.

Among those sycophants is a fellow by the name of Chris Gilbert, a professor of political science at the Bolivarian University of Venezuela. This institution was founded by President Chavez in 2003 and is open to all Venezuelan citizens (contingent only on having completed high school). This is the "Let them eat college classes" strategy--food, toilet paper, electronics, and just about everything else in the country is in short supply. But never mind--you can still catch the pearls of wisdom from Professor Gilbert's lips for free.

Isn't socialism wonderful?

But even Professor Gilbert is forced to admit that things in the socialist petrostate have not exactly gone swimmingly, as he admits in an article entitled The Chavez Hypothesis: Vicissitudes of a Strategic Project. (h/t Louis Proyect)

Professor Gilbert accuses his fellow Leftists of many strange things. The lede paragraph:
What does Chavism really stand for? What are its main accomplishments and its main failures? What was the soldier-become-president Hugo Chávez trying to achieve, and how far did he go in achieving it? Most often it is taken for granted that Chávez, who was elected president of Venezuela in 1998, began with an anti-neoliberal project that became, with time, anti-imperialist and then later aspired to socialism. It is also usually argued that, unfortunately, Chávez went very little of the way to achieving the latter goal. Chávez’s project suffered, this story goes, because it was only discursively socialist; that is, it proposed socialism as a goal but could not really begin the transition, being unable to go beyond mere discourse to concrete social and economic facts. That being the case, a part of the Left praises the Venezuelan leader for what it sees as an essentially verbal achievement. This group contends that Chávez fulfilled an important task for humanity by merely recovering and promoting the word socialism after the fall of the Eastern bloc. Others, generally from the so-called Hard Left, are more skeptical. They highlight Chávez’s failure to significantly alter the structure of the society or the economy.
The unreality of this paragraph is stunning. It stretches credulity to think that anybody today will think that Chavism "recover[s] and promote[s] the word socialism after the fall of the Eastern bloc." Are there any American Leftists who still believe that the Venezuelan experiment has "fulfilled an important task for humanity"?

The alternative view is similarly detached--that Chavez, while "discursively" socialist, failed to properly implement socialism. This will be the view of my Trotskyist friends in the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Action, who believe that if Mr. Chavez had simply uttered the proper magic words and followed the correct policy as prescribed by a true revolutionary party, then the results would have been much different. As it stands he betrayed the working class.

Professor Gilbert finds both criticisms "impoverished," and that leads to a long critique of the Marxist movement generally. Marxists, he claims, have ignored politics, which the professor describes as a "semiautonomous sphere."
On the procrustean bed of vulgar historical materialism, it generally spreads the Chávez phenomenon between, on the one hand, a mere discourse that is acknowledged to be avant-garde and interesting and, on the other hand, the unaltered hard economic facts. Yet this view leaves out almost entirely the specifically political mediation between these two realms.
And that takes him off on philosophical excursions, commenting on Derrida, Gramsci, and Lenin. Indeed, he attributes to the latter an opinion that is decidedly heretical: "that political consciousness is essentially separate from the economic struggle."

And it is in politics that Chavez apparently excelled. We're informed that he actually wrote books: "Even before taking power, he produced the Libro Azul (1992), the Agenda Alternativa Bolívariana (1996), and La propuesta de Hugo Chávez para transformar Venezuela (1996). This substantial body of writing constitutes less than a third of his output!"

If any of this oeuvre has been translated into English, it doesn't show up on Amazon. Never mind--the fact that Chavez remains mostly unread results from the ur-prejudice against politics by Marxists, and/or blatant Eurocentrism by the rest of us.

Professor Gilbert criticizes people like my Trotskyist friends for not having a strategy to achieve socialism. Simply mouthing words like "revolution" and "vanguard party" is not a strategy--there has to be something more specific than that. He cites Lenin--the man with the plan--as a counter-example borrowing from Lars Lih's biography (which I reviewed here). Whether Lenin had a strategy, or was merely a tactical genius, or was just plain lucky, is to me unclear. Probably a combination of all three.

Chavez's strategy (per Professor Gilbert) revolved around communes:
The Venezuelan commune was conceived as a profoundly democratic territorial organization. Though local, the commune aspired to be part of a future Communal State. The commune was also to be both political and economic, incorporating means of production under a regimen of social property that were projected to assume an important part of national production.
Any beginning student of economics can see why communes must inevitably fail. Unlike a firm, which responds to the market, communes are first and foremost tasked to make their members happy. It seems happiness does not arise from the production of toilet paper--apparently there were no communes in all of Venezuela which saw fit to produce it.

Far be it from me to defend traditional Marxism, and Professor Gilbert's emphasis on politics does have merit. But surely the "procrustean bed of vulgar historical materialism" will eventually raise its ugly head. Our professor barely alludes to that fact, mentioning "oil" only in a single, vaguely parenthetical paragraph. And yet oil is the final nail in Chavez's communal coffin.

In 2012 Mr. Chavez decided to redistribute capital away from the oil companies and give it to the poor. To which, in March, 2013, Mr. Proyect responded:
I’ve always thought that a good way to test the sincerity of anyone who claims to be on the Left is to find out their attitude to Hugo Chávez. Those who try to disavow him tend to be, in general, useless: they want a pure, ideal socialism, not socialism as a real material movement. Chávez wasn’t perfect. In some areas he went too far; in many he didn’t go nearly far enough. Nonetheless the immense good his Bolivarian Revolution has done for the people of Venezuela – and for people across Latin America and the world – is undeniable. What must be remembered, though, is that Hugo Chávez didn’t do any of this alone. His achievements were those of every doctor, teacher, worker, farmer and organiser who worked to improve the lives of those around them. The social movements he helped build and connect will long survive him. Descanse en paz. La lucha sigue.
Mr. Proyect's assessment was spectacularly wrong. Not only did Mr. Chavez make all Venezuelans much poorer, he destroyed their oil industry. Indeed, he has destroyed their country. It will take many generations before Venezuela regains the standard of living that existed prior to President Chavez.

Further Reading:

No comments:

Post a Comment