You don’t have to tell me. I know. Arguing about “socialism” is, in the grand scheme of things, one of the top 5 or 6 most pointless way you can spend your time. Believe me I know. I mean, it’s obvious: there’s nothing like a settled definition of “socialism”. For every Bernie Bro that sees “socialism” in Denmark there’s a doctrinaire Marxist who argues socialism has never existed yet, since there’s never been a classless society. Socialism can mean government-run dental care or Pol Pot’s killing fields, it can mean the CLAPs or HydroQuebec. Arguing about a thing-that-isn’t-one-thing is idiotic, pointless, ridiculous, an extravagant waste of time and energy that can’t be defended and that sophisticated people shy away from because they have better things to do with their time.
There’s something about this debate that I can’t resist. Because idiotically compromised though it is, “socialism” is obviously a category that means enough to people to keep going back to again and again for different reasons and in different ways. It’s like the scab you know you shouldn’t pick at, but it just sits there calling at you, beckoning you, so irresistible until you just can’t help yourself and you just give it a tug.
That, at any rate, was what was going through my mind as I wrote this thing about the vastly different experiences with “socialism” in Venezuela and Bolivia for the Washington Post.
Since 2006, Bolivia has been run by socialists every bit as militant as Venezuela’s. The country has experienced a spectacular run of economic growth and poverty reduction with no hint of the chaos that has plagued Venezuela. While inflation spirals toward the thousand-percent mark in Venezuela, in Bolivia it runs below 4 percent a year. Shortages of basic consumption goods — rampant in Caracas — are unheard of in La Paz. And extreme poverty — now growing fast in Venezuela — affects just 17 percent of Bolivians now, down from 38 percent before the socialists took over 10 years ago, even as inequality shrinks dramatically. The richest 10 percent in Bolivia used to earn 128 times more than the poorest 10 percent; today, they earn 38 times as much.
Going through the comments on the WaPo comments section, it’s clear that some people got it and some people didn’t in all the predictable ways for all the predictable reasons. You could just call the whole thing a waste of time…but I don’t think we should, and here’s why.
For all the differences between them, Evo, like Chávez, successfully established himself in power as the voice of the radical left. Like Chávez, Evo’s stance is definitional: he defined what it means to be a radical leftist in Bolivia through his positioning. This, I think, is what makes each of their claims to “socialism” plausible: each was credible (and, indeed, widely believed) in his national context as he set out a line of action as socialist.
That, substantively, those lines of action are in fact very different is…sort of my point! A skillful politician can establish the left-bound of political action as a radically destructive force in society, or as a relatively benign one.
And it just depends. On many of things. But key among them is their basic approach to the spending of the public’s money. Are you willing to be broadly prudent about it, or do you insist on approaching it like a junkie approaches his next fix?
To define socialism as a pathologically destructive approach to public sector financial management is to rig the game: to win definitionally. It isn’t realistic, and it isn’t fair.
Listen, I know this isn’t a debate worth having, because the signal-to-noise ratio it generates is simply dreadful. But sometimes there’s a scab there and you just gotta pick at it, y’know?