As Venezuela burns, socialist everywhere are desperately trying to disown the tragedy. Over recent years, while it has become increasingly clearer that the country is in a vicious downward spiral, the left has been looking for explanations for Venezuela’s collapse which somehow exonerates the ideology of the founder of the Bolivarian Republic, Hugo Chavez, and his successor, Nicolas Maduro.
Some are blaming the oil price, arguing that Venezuela was doing fine until the price dropped; but even if a low oil price is hurting Venezuela – home to the world’s largest oil reserves – it is not clear why they should be doing worse than countries which have no oil reserves at all. Others have blamed imperialist meddling, accusing the US and its allies of conspiring to bring down the Venezuelan regime by destroying the economy. However, there is zero evidence of any such meddling and no real plausible explanation of how it could be accomplished.
So, the last refuge of socialists has been to disown the regime and ideology behind the mess: Venezuela is not a socialist country, they say, because real socialism has no “ruling class” – in other words, only a society where the people collectively own the means of production and direct distribution and exchange would qualify. Therefore, socialism has never existed anywhere, and the ideology gets a free pass for the catastrophes which have befallen the many countries which have claimed to be socialist.
Instead, socialists have deflected attention and tried to claim credit for the Scandinavian countries. But quite apart from the fact that these countries also have a” ruling class” – thereby invalidating the previous argument – are they generally organised in a way which could reasonably be called socialism? The core characteristic of socialism is state control of the means of production and an economy which is centrally planned instead of being directed by market forces. To claim that Denmark, Sweden and Norway are such economies to a larger extend than Venezuela is not just disingenuous, it is totally misleading: while certainly highly regulated, Scandinavian economies are largely capitalist (we go into much more detail here). The Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom has Denmark in 18th place, Sweden come 19th and Norway 25th; all figure in the “mostly free” category. Venezuela rank 179th and are counted in the “Repressed” category, below Cuba and ahead only of certified basket-case North Korea. We are by no means arguing that Scandinavia, or any other western country for that matter, has genuine free-market capitalism. But they are much closer to capitalism than Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea or other past or present countries which have had self-professed socialist governments. If indeed “real capitalism” or “real socialism” doesn’t exist, then for the former we could use Switzerland or Honk Kong as a close comparison. For the latter, Venezuela is arguably as close as we get.
Hugo Chavez wanted his country to be socialist, and “democratic” socialist politicians, from the UK’s Jeremy Corbyn to Bernie Sanders in the US, are promoting policies just like the ones which destroyed Venezuela: high corporate and personal taxes, public ownership of utilities and production, massive state-controlled social welfare programmes, government intrusion into all facets of life. The fact that Venezuela and other failed socialist states were unsuccessful in implementing “real socialism” is really only testament to the impossibility of doing so – those in charge of a political systems with a powerful centralised state will always end up using their influence for self-serving purposes. Venezuela is a case in point: the daughter of Hugo Chavez, Maria Gabriela Chavez, is the wealthiest person in the country, with an estimated fortune of $4.2 billion.
In a 2006 poll, Venezuelans were asked to rank socialism and capitalism on a number of measures such as which system provides the most freedom, peace and wealth. They preferred socialism on all counts. Britain should take note. 43% of the British public agreed in a recent poll that “genuine socialism” would make the country a better place to live, whereas only 36% thought it would make it worse. In Venezuela they got what they wanted, but having lived through less than two decades of socialism the country is impoverished and on the brink of civil war. Britain, along with other free countries flirting with socialism, should be careful what they wish for.