Venezuela recently held an election. You, ahem, may have heard about it. The election, which is widely being regarded as a sham, has led to deadly protests within the country, not to mention criticism from the international community and even sanctions from the White House. I know, right? The same White House that wouldn’t commit to criticism of Russia despite its apparent meddling in the U.S. presidential election is imposing sanctions on a foreign government within days of the results? Certainly, there is reason for concern about what has transpired in Venezuela as of late. 40 countries have already indicated their intention not to recognize President Nicolás Maduro’s assembly, and opposition leadership has vowed to block its inauguration, claiming electoral fraud.
It’s apparently not just a case of sour grapes, either. According to Antonio Mugica, chief executive of Smartmatic, the company that runs Venezuela’s official voting software, the election results were at least one million votes off and were deliberately altered. For a turnout of only a few million people, that’s huge. Moreover, for those keeping score at home, with the Venezuelan government claiming some 8 million total votes recorded in the assembly election—and official counts shortly before the closing of polls appearing to fall far short of this number—that one million figure may well be on the low side of things. On the heels of sweeping changes to the government months ago to give Maduro and his government power over the very courts that are supposed to keep the president in check, outside observers see this all as a means of him trying to consolidate power in the manner of a dictator. Arresting leaders of the opposition and taking them out of their homes not long after the votes were (illegitimately) counted only furthers this notion, and generally makes for bad optics. Just saying.
This is decidedly not what democracy looks like, and as such, Nicolás Maduro’s apparent attempted power grab is worthy of censure. As much as the central figure in this electoral drama has been assailed in the press, however, those who have supported Venezuela in the past or those who believe vaguely in the ruling party’s politics have come under fire, and from where I’m sitting, this has more to say about their personal political prejudices than anything. On the UK side of things, Jeremy Corbyn, Member of Parliament, leader of the Labour Party, Leader of the Opposition, Breaker of Chains, and Father of Dragons, is being poked and prodded, thematically speaking, for his past support of Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, as well as Maduro himself. In Corbyn’s defense, this endorsement happened prior to any planned installments of a sham assembly and jailing of dissidents. Besides, Corbyn’s expression of admiration for Venezuela’s leadership, above all else, has more to do with his belief in the merits of socialism than anything else.
Uh-oh—I’ve said it, haven’t I? The “S” word. No, not that “S” word. Socialism. If jeering at Jeremy Corbyn, resident of a country where universal health care is part of the social order and socialized medicine is the instrument of that aspect of the safety net, has been fairly common, then in the United States, the armchair economists and self-appointed political experts have been wagging their tongues at Bernie Sanders, self-described democratic socialist, at a fever pitch. It’s not only the trolls of Twitter et al. who are making this connection between socialism and the unrest in Venezuela, as if to say that socialism is inherently flawed and thus the situation was doomed to fail anyway. Though written a month ago, an opinion piece in U.S. News & World Report from someone who used to live in Venezuela (and just happens to represent Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group funded by the Koch Brothers) elaborates how socialism is destroying Venezuela. Even if not trashing socialism explicitly, numerous outlets ranging in credibility are keen to describe Nicolás Maduro as socialist, both allowing the reader to connect the dots and creating plausible deniability for themselves. Socialism only ends one way, and that’s poorly. Bernie-crats, take heed at the destruction your favored policies would wreak!
There are two major criticisms of criticism of Sanders, Corbyn, and their ilk, mediated by a belief in an incomplete understanding of the economic/political principles involved and their nuances, a lack of insight into their application, or both. You know, beyond the idea neither Bernie nor Jeremy has any direct association with the events leading up to, during, or after the election, because that happened ALL THE WAY IN VENE-F**KING-ZUELA. The first is that while conservatives like to conflate the socialism practiced by countries around the world and those ideals espoused by Bernie et al., the comparison is not an exact one. Socialism, at a fundamental level, concerns economic and political structures in which social ownership (either society as a whole or a cooperative unit benefits from surpluses created) is a priority. Traditionally, the role of the worker to make decisions to his or her benefit and the elimination of strict distinctions between the working class and the class comprising passive business owners and providers of capital are hallmarks of its theory, as well. Broadly speaking, socialism seeks to increase production in accordance with attention to more efficient methods and in ways that honor humans’ capacity for industry, individuality, and creativity. By virtue of this, it moves to address the limitations of other economic and political theories, alongside those social systems which give rise to prejudice and unrest.
In terms of those other more limited frameworks that various philosophers have either explicitly or implicitly considered in potential application of socialist principles, the one that is most immediately relevant is capitalism. The origins of socialism, which date back centuries if not millennia, are a direct reaction to capitalism, in particular the ways in which it has served to unevenly distribute wealth and has encouraged the creation or substandard living conditions for the working classes and for the poor. In the oversimplified political parlance of our time, socialism must therefore be diametrically opposed to capitalism, and because Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn identify with elements of socialist beliefs, they must, by proxy, hate capitalism and want to bring disorder to their respective countries.
In reality, however, someone like Sanders self-describes more precisely as a “democratic socialist,” and his end game is not a purely socialist state, but rather one in which laws are passed which help make the workings of capitalism fairer and more humane, and in which stakeholders outside the milieu of corporate managers and shareholders—customers, supplies, workers, and members of the general public such as you and I—possess greater latitude in decision-making which stands to impact the economy. It’s a critical distinction to make. Ultimately, the pursuits of democratic socialism, practiced in this way, allow for greater attention to the social safety net without being hotly anti-capitalistic. Moreover, all this can be said before we even get to the concept of America as a country which is not purely capitalistic. There are umpteen social programs administered at the federal level which would not exist for a modification of unadulterated capitalism, and as some would point out, for such a “free” economy, the U.S.’s is awfully high in taxation and regulation, and relatively low in free trade.
In other words, Bernie Sanders isn’t a socialist, and by democratic socialist standards, he doesn’t go as far as some would ask for in terms of abolishing capitalism outright. Let’s dive a little deeper, though. The kneejerk reaction to even whispers of the term “socialism” in American political thought imagines a system by which economic growth is stunted by the desire to ensure income and wealth inequality, and that increased regulation and taxation denoted by an expanded role of the federal government would only further depress living conditions. Conservatives especially see socialism as a grave threat, for they would have it that low levels of taxation and laissez-faire capitalism should be our modus operandi. Let the markets correct themselves, let businesses and wealthy individuals build our economy, and don’t you dare raise my taxes! These critics on the right also have myriad examples of socialist states gone wrong with despotic leaders at the helm. Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot. Maduro could be another one in the making, and there are a number of other historical instances of those in power living lavishly at the expense of their constituents and being above the law. This is what many of us in the United States draw up in our minds when it comes to “socialism,” and admittedly, it’s largely understandable.
So, socialism sucks and is to blame for the degradation of order and depression in Venezuela, right? Maybe, maybe not. Eva María, a Spanish teacher at the college level, wrote a piece which appeared in the publication Socialist Worker in June and explored this notion at length. María, who originally hails from Venezuela, begins by acknowledging the struggles her homeland has faced, especially among the nation’s poor. However, she turns a critical lens back around on the “Western media” seemingly eager to depict the situation in terms of violent protest and chaos, and more importantly, she questions whether socialism has “failed” in Venezuela or whether it was actually truly implemented in the first place. In her lengthy analysis, María considers how socialism was supposed to take shape—at least as far as Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro laid out their vision—as well as outlining two “traditions” in socialist practice as expounded upon by socialist Hal Draper. As with socialism vs. democratic socialism, there is a crucial distinction to be made. Per Draper, there is “socialism-from-above” and socialism-from-below.” We’re not talking about Heaven or Hell here, either. The latter socialism is concerned with a more equitable system based on the collective power of workers which does not put profit above people, and is one in which the political struggle of the working class gets them directly involved in the democratic process in a genuine grassroots way. By contrast, the former socialism, also referred to as “social democracy,” emphasizes the long arm of the state, and envisions socialism that must be handed down to the masses rather than the masses actively reaching out and taking their democracy, so to speak.
Considered in this context, Eva María explains that Chávez’s brand of socialism was the kind of socialism-from-above that didn’t truly engage the working class at a grassroots level, and thus did not fulfill an important tenet of the kind of socialism elaborated by someone like Karl Marx. (“He said ‘Marx’—get him!”) And while Hugo Chávez did expand social programs using revenues generated by the country’s oil stores, when the oil money dried up, so did the money for those social programs. Under Maduro, opposition from both sides of the political aisle has been suppressed in a decidedly undemocratic fashion, bureaucracy within the Venezuelan government has grown yet more bureaucratic, and the nation’s capitalist class has continued to go unchallenged, with the current president proving even more friendly to this lot. Thus, as María argues, what we’ve had in Venezuela over the past 15 years or so hasn’t truly been socialism. As she puts it, “Venezuela has remained a capitalist country, through and through, despite the social achievements of the last 18 years. What has failed is not socialism, but a system that has been capitalist in its economic and political domination by a minority over the majority.” The relationship of power is everything, socialist or not, and even anti-capitalist posturing known to socialists appears to be lacking in today’s Venezuela among its leadership. Is this the “socialism” that has people taking potshots at the Sanders and the Corbyns of the world? If so, it’s a bit of an apples-to-oranges allusion, if we value what Eva María and Hal Draper have to say about it.
Socialism, because it is seen as antithetical to capitalism, and therefore imperils the status quo in the United States, is unpopular with a majority of Americans. Then again, I suppose a certain amount of resistance to socialist ideals exists because of the conflation with communism and the dredging up of Cold War-era resentment. However you slice it, public opinion generally is strongly negative surrounding socialism, which explains why Bernie Sanders does not shy away from the “socialist” label, but he is quick to qualify that he supports political/economic models such as that of Denmark—a “welfare state” that is, at its core, capitalistic—more so than purely socialist states. He might as well, though. As we’ve noted, socialism always fails over the long term, and besides we wouldn’t want what has happened in Venezuela to happen here, right?
Invoking our good socialist friend and theorist Hal Draper, however, this may be an example of falling prey to a self-fulfilling prophecy, i.e. socialism has produced corrupt regimes, so therefore it must. From Draper’s work, The Two Souls of Socialism:
Since the beginning of society, there has been no end of theories “proving” that tyranny is inevitable and that freedom-in-democracy is impossible; there is no more convenient ideology for a ruling class and its intellectual flunkies. These are self-fulfilling predictions, since they remain true only as long as they are taken to be true. In the last analysis, the only way of proving them false is in the struggle itself. That struggle from below has never been stopped by the theories from above, and it has changed the world time and again. To choose any of the forms of Socialism-from-Above is to look back to the old world, to the “old crap.” To choose the road of Socialism-from-Below is to affirm the beginning of a new world.
In highlighting these thoughts from Draper, I’d like to stress that I am not suggesting we necessarily start a revolution to dismantle capitalism in the U.S. and elsewhere. As with the formation of a viable and competitive third party in American politics, this would be an immense undertaking, and would require strong commitment and leadership to see it through over a protracted period. At the same time, though, I think it’s important we understand where our misunderstanding surrounding socialism, in its various forms, may exist. While socialism tends to be defined by ownership of the means of production by a central government, the involvement of the working class in economic and political decisions is more fundamental to its tenets than anything. As for Bernie Sanders in particular, he is “socialist” to the extent that he believes in the elevation and organization of workers, but in practice, is he is more of a “democratic socialist” or perhaps even closer to a “New Deal Democrat” than anything.
In other words, keep Bernie Sanders’ out of your mouth when you talk about Venezuela. Chances are you don’t understand him, the socialist movement, or the situation in that South American country nearly as well as you think you do.