Way Back Socialism

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Quico says: So, it has started. With his vow to nationalize CANTV and the electricity sector, Chavez has finally put some meat on the bones of “21st Century Socialism.” At first sight, it looks suspiciously like the 20th Century kind – the move will, no doubt, confirm many people’s fears that chavismo is just lightly (and ever less) disguised Marxism. Tactical dissembling in the transition period notwithstanding, this latest move makes it easy to conclude that “socializing the means of production” is what this exercise was all about.

For my money, though, calling Chávez a Marxist is a vile slur…on Marxists.

However wrong his theories might have been, you can’t help but admit that Marx at least had some. Theories in the sense of carefully worked out understandings of the way society works, coherent takes on how exploitation happens and a cogently reasoned set of prescriptions for how to overcome it.

“Scientific socialism” is what Marx called it. Enlightenment rationalism adapted to sustain far left views. Marx developed this style of theorizing in direct and conscious contrast to Utopian Socialism – that wooly gaggle of disjointed plans, fond hopes and pious ideals lacking any systematicity that dominated far-left theorizing before he came along. Promising an earthly paradise once the evils of individualism and greed had been banished from the earth, Utopian Socialism was based on a visceral rejection of capitalist aesthetics, of the motivations that underpin capitalists as they go about their business.

Even more than a critique of capitalism (which Marx avowedly admired), Marxist thought took aim at the pajuatadas of the Utopian Socialists. Marx insisted that socialists had better ask themselves some tough questions about the nature of the problems society faced and work to answer them in a way that made sense. A vague nausea, a feeling of disgust at the greed of the greedy and the money of the moneyed could not serve as a solid basis for an alternative system of human government. In order to succeed, socialism had to make sense in the realm of ideas, to give convincing answers to the great over-arching questions of life in modern society.

For me, it’s clear that 21st Century Socialism is a throwback – but not just a throwback to the 1960s, or to the Bolshevik Era, or even to 19th Century Marxism. It’s a throwback to the first decades of the 1800s, all the way back to an era before Marxism dominated socialist thought, to a time before socialists were rationalists.

Think about Sunday’s announcement. Chavez decides to nationalize two key areas of the Venezuelan economy. But why? Based on what view of what ails society? With the aim of achieving what?

The answers, I think, are basically aesthetic in nature. For Chavez, the problem with private ownership of telecoms and electricity is that it’s ugly. It rubs him the wrong way. It brings up images of gringo yuppies trading CANTV ADRs in expensive suits on the floor off the NYSE. It leaves important parts of the economy in the hands of people he doesn’t like motivated by feelings that disgust him. In that sense, nationalization is an aesthetic necessity. And it’s on that basis that he’s moving ahead.

Chavez doesn’t propose a systematic view of the nature of capitalist oppression. He doesn’t even try to situate his decision in a coherent overall view of what is wrong with the way society is now, how he intends to make it better, and what role these nationalizations will play in getting us from where we are to where we want to be. This kind of hard-nosed analysis is entirely alien to chavismo, which instead delights in parading its disdain for hard questions, flaunting its deep intellectual poverty.

Of course, when you proceed that way, some questions you might think relevant are just never asked…let alone answered. Will phone users get a better service? Will the lights stay on? How can the state guarantee that, once they’re nationalized, these companies will sustain a level of investment appropriate to the needs of the user base? Who cares!

And, then, there’s the money question: will nationalized telecoms and utilities produce services that are of greater value than the resources they consume to produce them? If they don’t, which other parts of the public sector will be shortchanged to cover the shortfalls? If they do, then what’s the point of nationalizing them?

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