Walmart Socialism

One of the few advantages of the Chávez regime’s longevity is that, by the time this is all said and done, we may have witnessed the desecratation of...

One of the few advantages of the Chávez regime’s longevity is that, by the time this is all said and done, we may have witnessed the desecratation of every single article of faith in chavismo’s ideological crede as it scrambles to shore up its fast-eroding power base. 

Just this year, we’ve seen the wholesale betrayals in the oil industry, in politics, and in the whole understanding of human-kind chavismo is supposed to stand for. And it’s only February!

First, the government quietly made a 180 degree U-Turn on oil policy, pimping out the nation’s most valuable oil deposits to Chevron in contracts that amount to waving a White Flag in the century-long debate between liberals and nationalists on the development of the oil industry. It turns out that ideology is nice and all, but when push comes to shove and the National Treasury is scraping the bottom of the barrel, sitting down with the foreign oil majors suddenly shifts from constituting the wholesale abandonment of national principle to just one of those things you gotta do to keep the government’s checks from bouncing.

When you’re up to you, International Arbitration clauses weirdly transmogrify from instruments of Transnational Capital’s domination of the Third World into a bargaining chip you’re ready to trade for a fat enough up-front payment. And even the things chavistas  falsely accused the previous regimes of doing – letting foreigners book Venezuelan reserves as assets in their balance sheets – suddenly transform from deepest national betrayal to, y’know, what ya gotta do. And all that with oil prices above $75/barrel!

No part of the carefully built up, long nurtured Bernard Mommer/Alí Rodríguez Doctrine with regard to managing our oil resources survives this Neo-apertura. The whole thing is one big pile of smouldering ideological wreckage at this point. 

But the retreat from long touted principle is just as complete in politics. A government that cut its ideological teeth on the rejection of the principles of "representative democracy" now finds itself vowing to punish politicians who buck the party line because, in doing so, they fail to represent the people who elected them. This from the same political movement that insisted on including an article (201, to be specific) in the constitution it wrote explicitly rejecting the subjugation of Parliamentarians to any requirement to follow the party whip, or anything except "their conscience alone."

However, the ultimate betrayal has been to the very concept of a Socialist New Man/Woman that’s supposed to animate the whole enterprise. This Bolivarian New Man/Woman was meant to rise above consumerism, to be guided by moral suasion rather than the drive to accumulate.

What use would He have for the new, cut-price appliances the government wants to sell through its newly acquired chain of superstores? Why would She need to be brow-beaten with surcharges on Her electric bill to get Her to reduce electricity consumption? What the hell is the point of having a New Man/Woma if His/Her demand curve is just going to slope downward like everyone else’s?

With every clumsy, stumbling step it takes toward a semi-workable solution to the zillions of problems it creates, 21st Century Socialism looks a lot like a bumbling version of its diametrical opposite. Every pragmatic step is taken only grudgingly, unwillingly, as a last resort, and at the cost of twisting the dagger deeper into the corpse of its ideological raison d’etre.

By the time it’s all said and done, chavismo will look like nothing so much as a hypertrophied Gran Venezuela: a massive cross-subsidy with oil rents propping up hundreds upon hundreds of money-pit SOEs and clients kept in line by the absolute necessity of keeping access to those rents as a matter of livelihood strategy.

Think of it as Walmart Socialism: an economic structure built on the promise of Everyday Low Prices enabled not through supply chain management innovations or economies of scale but by the simple expedient of taking the windfall profits from oil extraction and tossing them around. 

Listen, I don’t know if the government’s political power is close to collapse or not. Its ideology, though? Deader than disco.