Hugo Chavez's Critics Are Blind


Whoever put together the Hugo Chavez obituary at Britain’s Daily Telegraph had really done their homework. After a rolling, far from unfair account of his life and times, the anonymous author began to crunch the numbers concerning his impact on his country. Figures flowed, this and that per hundred thousand, comparisons to the US and so on.

But to call it even-handed would be too generous. The figures concerned only one social issue, that of Venezuela’s spiralling crime rate — an unquestionable black mark against Chavez’s rule. Nothing about poverty and its alleviation, literacy, education, housing or any of the other matters by which Chavez and his sympathisers claimed a measure of success. There were a few remarks about "social programmes", a lot about the unelected leaders Chavez made connections with, and, of course, his continual baiting of the US over his 14 years in power.

Across much of the Western mainstream media, it was the same thing — indeed, most commentators ditched even the vestigial objectivity of the Telegraph. Slate eviscerated Chavismo as a "politically disastrous, politically effective" ideology.

The New York Times said he was a "dreamer with a common touch and enormous ambition. He maintained an almost visceral connection with the poor, tapping into their resentments, while strutting like the strongman in a caudillo novel" [italics mine].

The Guardian was conflicted from the start, initially running pretty one-sided negative pieces, before hosting a days-long slugathon. The Oz ran David Aaronovitch’s piece which was equally statistic-free, arguing that Venezuela had become a Latin American Zimbabwe. Under Chavez inflation peaked at around 30 per cent, a figure it had hit many times before his presidency; Zimbabwe’s inflation rate topped out at 231,000,000 per cent during Mugabe’s rule. Under Chavez, Venezuelan life expectancy increased by two years — and that of the poorest by four to five years. Yet for Toby Young he was Latin America’s Kim Jong-Il.

For a week, hundreds of thousands of words poured out about Chavez, anecdotal tales of crumbling Caracas, dark mutterings about his takeover of the justice system, his vituperation of opponents, etc etc, but there was one thing that none of his critics would do, and that was to take his record apart with any specificity.

Nor were they willing to engage in the larger debate prompted by his policies — whether real, positive change in a very unequal society had been achieved, and whether such successes as there had been were worth trading some measure of liberal freedom and macroeconomic growth.

When all is said and done, this may turn out to be the most significant aspect of the Chavez obsequies, a measure not of the predicament of the Latin American left but of the systems challenging it. For more than a century, since the first recognisably social-democratic governments of the 1890s, right and centre parties have known that they must explicitly contest either socialism’s ethical principles or its results, or link the two, to socialism’s detriment.

The early defence, that socialism was contrary to the theological order of nature, that the "poor ye have always with you", did not long survive — by the 1900s, parties like Britain’s Liberals and the US Republicans knew that the idea of "right" had decisively shifted, and that freedom from capricious hunger and starvation was now assumed as a universal political goal.

The debate shifted to one of means, and consequences — equality would diminish liberty and dynamism, and undermine the aims it set out to achieve. Indeed the modern neoliberal right was inaugurated and defined by this challenge, and the ground-up reconstruction of classical liberalism by figures like von Mises and Hayek was geared to this end — to not only show that communism and socialism, beneath their different political forms, were afflicted with the same contradictions that would ultimately render a universal immiseration.

Once World War II began, Hayek and others knew that its result, should it not be a triumph of barbarism, would be a decisive victory for socialism, and the demand for a new deal would be irresistible. It is stunning how Hayek, in his 1944 Road To Serfdom, was willing to concede that much should remain under public ownership, while trying to convince the public that Labour’s plan for a broad socialisation of the economy would lead down the road to an impoverished dictatorship.

Hayek and others founded the Mont Pelerin Society, which kept the ideas of the so-called Austrian school on life support for 30 years. When recession, and then stagnation hit in the 1970s, they took control of centre-right parties, ultimately resulting in the Thatcher and Reagan revolutions.

Crucially however, they never denied that the Keynesian era had delivered up a crucial betterment of life for vast numbers of people — the renewed inequality that might come from their proposals was defended as necessary for the sustained functioning of the system. Central to such arguments were discussion of profit-wage ratios, tax levels, and so on. Universal economic interests were held to be the necessary justification — politically and morally — for new right politics.

There was none of that in the Chavez death watch. There is ample evidence that Chavez’s use of oil revenues to build social services, education and subsidised health and food supplies for the country’s poor — which, when he took power in 1999, constituted 60 per cent of the population — decisively reduced poverty, and improved nutrition, health, literacy and many other indicators, figures that I summarised in a recent Crikey piece.

Yet there was no question that this came at a cost, in terms of efficiency, cronyism, lack of reinvestment (the ratios of social vs infrastructure investment in Venezuela and China are almost the inverse of each other) and personalised idiosyncratic government, and gave Venezuela problems which may well send its efforts to defeat major poverty into reverse in the near future.

A case, crunching the figures, and with comparison to the range of mixed economies in Latin America could have been made from the right, in the same terms as a Thatcherite case was made against the Wilson-Callaghan governments, and a Clinton one against the more liberal wing of the Democratic party. From the 40s through to the 90s, faced with a large western working class, a trade union movement, and a left focused on economic issues, a detailed case had to be made. Now, in the case of Venezuela, it has to be avoided.

Why? Because by any reasonable comparison, it starts to admit that socialism — that is, a mixed economy of the Venezuelan type, rather than the more limited social democratic states around it — might be a thinkable option. What is required now in the West, with a minimised working class, a curtailed union movement, and a lack of social protest, is to avoid any sort of discussion which might spark the idea of an alternative at a time when the neoliberal model has delivered a five year Western slump, likely to lurch again into recession or worse at any moment.

What is required instead is a morality tale, light on detail, in which any fiddling with the basic set up of overwhelmingly private economy, minimal welfare net and lowered taxation is held to be the road to hell — that Chavez’s aggressive, and (unquestionably) sometimes shady or illegal dealings with an inherited bureaucracy and ruling class judiciary was the equivalent of Lenin and Stalin.

Such arguments put their makers in a bind — Chavez must be tied to the corrupt remnants of the former regime to fully discredit his. The manifold absurdity of such could not be uncommented upon. "Let’s be clear" Paul Mason said on the BBC, to cruise missile (pro-Iraq war) leftist Nick Cohen, who brought the Uncle Joe comparison out straight away, on Radio 4’s "Broadcasting House" programme , "you’re not saying Chavez was like Stalin?" "No of course not, but…".

Despite 14 years of contested elections, including a major constitutional referendum which he lost and accepted the result of, he is always "about" to be a totalitarian, the meaning of any social reform is thus defined by what it might become rather than what it is.

It’s significant that many of those attacking Chavez and showing no interest in his social reforms were ex-radical leftists — in Aaronovitch’s case, an ex-Stalinist. But in the wake of 9/11 they had all signed on for a different narrative, one in which the only possible cause was the protection of liberal democracy and open society, without any reference to the opportunities different groups of people had within it. What they had in common with Chavez’s neoliberal antagonists was that the entire category of "the poor" had simply disappeared.

Since they existed in contradiction to both narratives, they were simply excised. The process is in parallel to the treatment of the "underclass" in the West — they have been simply given up on by and large, and the fact that they lack the numerical strength and social inclusion of the old working class makes it near impossible for them to assert their power, or acquire a class consciousness.

Between Latin America’s poor and those of the West there exists a division — poverty for many of the former means, or meant, chronic hunger and improvised shelter, a denial of basic life, while for the latter it is impoverished life, without the urgency of imminent total desperation. Making Venezuela’s poor invisible relies on the fact that such poverty on a mass scale has been largely forgotten in the West.

As such poverty returns, especially in the US, and it looks increasingly unlikely that neoliberalism will generate its own recovery, any real consideration of Chavez’s program is forbidden. What is truly remarkable about how his death has been treated is the degree to which the right has simply jettisoned any real concern for the poor. This marks a genuine moral decline from the "New Right" period of Thatcher-Reagan, which was constituted by its willingness to contest a left vision on a shared value, the desired universality of means of life.

It also suggests a measure of defensiveness. A more confident neoliberal movement would have taken apart Chavez’s regime piece by piece on its own terms. Instead, it is the last thing they want to talk about, lost in the kitsch of red shirts and Alo Presidente! Many of them are rejoicing at Chavez’s demise, assuming that the movement that took his name will now splutter and die. Instead, it may well be that it will consolidate and rationalise, that its next leadership will back away from Chavez’s charismatic and idiosyncratic style, and begin to address some of the structural problems they have inherited.

That would threaten a fresh nightmare for the right — a viable democratic socialism, a system where a private sector sits within the framework of a larger public and co-operative sector — just as the West enters a new period of stagnation.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.