A Moratorium on the Isms

Socialism doesn't work. We know that. End of debate. Is it? No. It is not.

obama-socialist-posterTell a U.S.American about Venezuela’s spectacular collapse this year and a frightening proportion of them have the same reaction: a scornful, sarcastic “What a surprise, Socialism is a disaster!”

For a sizable proportion, the kicker is automatic: “paging all BernieBros!” or even —and immeasurably more obnoxiously— “give Obama and Hillary another few years and we’ll be in the exact same place!”

I read that and think immediately of Doña Blanca Cabana. Now 86 years old, Doña Blanca has to get up at 4:00 a.m. in her house at El Limón and lug it all the way to the Mercado de Catia to stand in line for a kilo of pasta or flour to eat. Time was when disabled people and senior citizens had a separate, shorter line to buy these things: no more. Doña Blanca was beaten by the police days ago in the melee to get to the front of the line – now her arm is as bruised as her self respect.

In the rush to turn Venezuela into just one more card to play in the fight of the abstract nouns — conservatism! liberalism! socialism! — there’s no room for the black and blue on Doña Blanca’s arm. There’s a wholesale dehumanization of the experience of actual living Venezuelans in this mode of arguing that leaves me faintly nauseated, and deeply enraged.

Because Doña Blanca is real, damnit, in a way none of the “isms” are. They’ve all been drained of coherence by overuse, but none more so than socialism.

Socialism means shooting anyone who wears glasses. Socialism also means banning employers from forcing you to check your work email on the weekend.

Think about that.

A word that can be used to describe both those things has been usage-fucked out of any semblance of coherence. And trying to have a sensible debate about a fundamentally incoherent concept makes about as much sense as using a colander to carry water. It can’t work.

Is “socialism” Venezuela’s problem? Does that question even mean anything?

I do know what Venezuela’s problem is, though. Venezuela’s problem is that it sets all prices administratively, monetizes its debt, doesn’t respect property rights and doesn’t allow the rule of law to function.

In Venezuela, that miserable set of policies has created a garish social and economic collapse. Locally, it’s a set of policies known by the abstract noun socialism. In many other contexts, where that same abstract noun denotes a different set of policies and institutions, there’s no comparable collapse. As far as I can tell Bernie Sanders has no intention to set all prices administratively, monetize debt, abuse property rights and piss all over the rule of law – let alone Hillary Clinton.

(And as it turns out, it’s the GOP candidate who has flirted with debt monetization, and doesn’t seem to grasp even the barest outline of the rule of law. So there’s that.)

The broader point is that picking out the single more criminally incompetent instance of an ideology and letting it stand for the whole isn’t an argument, it’s a non-sequitur: a slippery slope fallacy intended to shut down debate and render illegitimate all positions other than your own.

We Venezuelans are more used to seeing this kind of nonsense applied in the other direction: chavismo has spent years staking out terrain in the far, far left reaches of the ideological spectrum and then labeling anyone half an inch to the right of them a fascist. We recognize the ideological blackmail involved in that move easily enough when it runs the other direction, why is it so hard to realize it’s the same thing when we apply it to the left?

What’s hiding just behind these kinds of maximalist positions is a deep mental laziness, coupled with a deep kind of intolerance. It’s a lot of work thinking through the ten zillion ways markets are both vital and chronically prone to breakdown, it takes effort to work out the complex ways the state can help them work better through well designed regulation or stop them working at all through ill designed meddling.

That’s the work of statecraft, coño, and just randomly declaring that conversation over before it’s had a chance to start does everyone a disservice.

All the cheap point scoring in the world isn’t going to fill up Doña Blanca’s grocery basket, ok? Capitalism won’t solve her problems any more than any other ism would. Decent government run by reasonable people on the basis of the law just might — and there ain’t no ism for that!