In some intellectual circles in the Spanish-speaking world, namely that very tiny minority circle that consists of free-market proponents and anti-Marxists (which in the Spanish-speaking world is a bit like being a punk fan at an ABBA concert) the accelerating economic, social, and political collapse of Venezuela has been referred to as the “Venezuelan Catastrophe,” but I think that the “Venezuelan Apocalypse” might be more appropriate. Venezuela was never an ideal society, even by Latin-American standards, but what it’s going through now is not just a big crash in the style that often happens to unstable countries of that continent. Those ‘crises’ come in cycles and countries fall in and out of them, but what’s happening in Venezuela will almost certainly result in a state of collapse that will leave that country destabilized for (at least) decades.
In the few months I’ve been writing for EveryJoe.com, I’ve really only talked about South America once (in a Christmas article, at that). But I figured that North American and European readers might appreciate a perspective about what’s happening down here, not just in Venezuela but increasingly in other countries as well, as seen from the position somewhat nearer to the goings-on. Uruguay, fortunately, has been spared most of the instability-to-outright-chaos that is affecting countries like Venezuela, Argentina, and to which even the economic giant Brazil is not immune. One might wonder why; Uruguay, like Venezuela and Argentina has a strongly left-wing government, and yet this country remains economically strong, with a relatively stable currency and no great shortages. On the other hand Venezuela, in spite of being an oil giant in a decade where oil was priced in the triple-digits, has turned into a nation where you have to line up three hours to find out that there’s no toilet paper to be bought. Argentina didn’t have oil, but its economic potential should still dwarf Uruguay’s, and yet their economy is in utter shambles.
On a recent trip to Buenos Aires I almost accidentally brought an old man at a cigarette kiosk to tears when I asked him for some fuel for my Zippo lighter; he had run his kiosk for decades and used to have a shelf full of Zippos that were his pride and joy, and genuine Zippos were now literally impossible to obtain. It was just one more straw in what was this man’s life-work (of putting his blood and sweat into a small but thriving business) being stripped away from him through no fault of his own, but because of the total failure of his country’s government. And if you think that’s some small thing, one of my friends who got himself an Argentine girlfriend reported to me her joy at visiting Uruguay and discovering that you could actually buy tampons here, whereas in Argentina they’d become totally unobtainable; only to be dismayed that the collapse of her country’s currency made the exchange-rate cost of purchasing them prohibitively high.
These are real, first-hand stories, from here. But could they happen where you are? Is this some kind of specific problem of the ‘third world’ or Latin-American culture, or is it something that could, given the right conditions, come to pass in the United States (for example) as some people seem to think might already be happening?
So here, as I see it is the formula: it isn’t just about having a left-wing government. It is about:
a) having a left-wing government, elected by extreme populist rhetoric in a country vulnerable to populist movements,
b) engaging in an economic theory based on anti-property-right ideas and
c) having this government’s actions excused by an intellectual class that is willing to give cover to corruption and inefficiency as long as the right ideological talking-points are maintained.
In the case of truly screwed countries, what you also get is utterly incompetent leaders. Venezuela and Argentina are each in a total mess because they’re being governed by people who wouldn’t actually have any business running a block association, much less a major country. Both got elected by making use of the populist machine created by their deceased predecessors: in Argentina’s case, the current president is the former first-lady, in Venezuela’s it’s even worse because the current leader (Maduro) was nothing more than a semi-illiterate yes-man for the former president Chavez. The Kirchners in Argentina are a family who have dedicated themselves to robbing first their local province and now the entire nation utterly blind with boldfaced gall. In Venezuela, Chavez swept in on the kind of charisma obscene narcissists sometimes manage to muster, but his insistence that everything about Venezuela’s “revolutionary” government had to be about the glorification of his own personal ego meant that he intentionally surrounded himself with total incompetents, and the most incompetent of them all (a former bus-driver whose only redeeming quality was his ability to masterfully kiss Chavez’s ass) ended up becoming his inheritor.
So the first major part of this formula is populism. This can sound unpleasant to those of us who fundamentally believe in democratic rights and universal suffrage; but it has to be put into the right context. The danger is when you have callous and self-serving political demagogues appealing to a large mass of severely under-educated, impoverished, and generally desperate people who are willing to listen to rhetoric spinning all the blame for their problems into class warfare. So part of the danger here is sub-standard education combined with creating motivation for high voter turnout; in a lot of these countries, voting is mandatory. While I believe in the right to the universal franchise, mandatory voting is something I’ve always found to be both inherently paradoxical in terms of freedom, and also dangerous when a large part of the population is naively under-educated. In countries where voting isn’t mandatory, the part of the population most likely to ruin your democratic system (that is to say, morons) end up not bothering to vote at all. But if everyone must vote, it’s even more tempting for self-serving politicians to appeal to the lowest common denominator, promising them a hot dog a day for their vote, or making big claims about everyone getting ‘free money’ from all those middle-class people who are after all “to blame” for the underclass’s poverty (when all along, it’s actually the political class making the promises who is to blame, and who has a vested interest to forever keep the underclass poor so that they can keep extracting votes from them in this fashion). This leads to blatantly idiotic claims, like when Argentine President Christina Kirchner claimed that spending government money on diabetes was unnecessary because diabetes was a “rich man’s disease.” This seems laughable, but then you go from there to things like assassinating a prosecutor who found proof of her involvement in making a deal with Iran to cover up their terrorist attack on Argentinian soil, and then simultaneously claiming (utterly incredibly, if you look at all the evidence) that said prosecutor killed himself AND that it was actually a secret plot by U.S.-and-Israeli intelligence agencies in combination with Argentinian ‘fascists’ to discredit her (as if this imbecile had any credit left… except with the populist masses that vote for her because she gives them a pittance in exchange).
Now, Venezuela technically doesn’t have compulsory voting anymore (it ended in the ’90s), but there was already a longstanding culture of it, and a highly mobilized underclass that was (legitimately) frustrated by corruption and incompetence in the former governments of that country. Hugo Chavez swept in on promises of serving the poor and punishing the rich; he did the latter part alright but even before his death everything he did “for the poor” had more to do with promoting his own grandeur and making a show, political propaganda with little actual change and at the cost of destabilizing the nation’s economy to the breaking point. When the near-illiterate bus-driver-turned-yes-man Maduro took over, his only strategy for governing was an absurd hyperbolic pantomime of Chavez’s own methods but without any of the skill at managing to fend off the increasingly difficult economic problems. His only method for dealing with these problems now consists of ratcheting up the populist insanity, encouraging the literally-government-sanctioned mob rule, calling on people to forcibly ‘occupy’ and sack supermarkets that he claimed were to blame for high prices and massive shortages of basic goods (when in fact, the blame was squarely on his own government’s horrific mismanagement of an economy that could potentially be the richest in Latin America and one of the richest in the world), and imprisoning and even killing his opposition (including beauty queens who dare stand up to him).
It doesn’t really matter to these people that the Marxist policies they’ve enacted have never worked anywhere in the history of the modern world. You would not be blamed for thinking that only a criminally insane person would look at a formula that involves forcible nationalization, price-fixing, and currency control, see the evidence that EVERY SINGLE TIME it’s been tried it has led to total economic collapse, and tell themselves “that’s the model we should follow for our country”! But that’s exactly what they’ve done, because Marxist ideology demands it.
At this point, there is no true ‘end game’ in real Marxist ideology (and we’re not talking about vague wishy-washy progressive dreaminess here, though the hard Marxists totally bank on that fuzzy-thinking from people who think that nationalization and wealth re-distribution will somehow just magically lead to economic prosperity, without really thinking about the total absence of any intermediate step to get you from “point a” to “point c”). It’s impossible at this point to rationally deny that the traditional hardcore Marxist model will not only fail to produce prosperity but will additionally create a huge mass of permanently impoverished drones ruled over by a tiny political elite (forever, they hope). The keystone of making all this happen is in pushing the idea that there is no inherent right to property; that “you can’t own stuff, man.” The assumption is that ALL property actually belongs to that vague fantasy called “the people,” and that if someone is in possession of any kind of property (be it a multi-million dollar business, a house, a car, or the clothes on your back) it is to some degree a kind of misappropriation. This way of thinking, extremely popular in Latin-American leftist circles, presumes that if you own something, it is because you have somehow denied it to someone else. Unless of course you’re part of the left-wing political elite; then you deserve to be showered in dollar bills, like Nicolas Maduro’s son recently was at a party while his country falls into ruin.
This kind of logic argues that if an individual or a family has become very wealthy, it is because they “stole” that wealth from the workers in their businesses or farms. That their wealth is taken from a limited pie of potential wealth, and is somehow unfairly benefiting from the sweat of someone else’s brow, rather than being the product of a combination of very hard work and taking massive risks in their lives and careers that others were not willing to do. But the absurdity of this argument becomes evident as you scale it down: if Luis has obtained his two-million-dollar farm from the unfair denial of that same wealth to Carlos (who only owns a fifty-thousand-dollar house), one would have to also assume that Carlos’ more modest home was somehow unfairly ‘stolen’ to the detriment of Jose, who only lives in a tin shack. And if Jose lives in a shack but can afford to buy shoes for himself and his children, has he ‘stolen’ those shoes from Pedro, who doesn’t have shoes? It is a theory that demands absolute economic equality for all, but it is an equality that aims down, always. Rather than actually trying to lift the poor up, it wants to drag the wealthy and middle class alike down as punishment for perceived crimes, and will by default always create a ‘bell curve’ of the haves and the have-nots (even once everyone has relatively nothing).
Finally, all of this horrible governance and horrible economic policy gets supported by a strongly Marxist intelligentsia. These are, of course, the gang of asses who I have the least respect for.
Now don’t get me wrong: as much as I think that Marxism is utterly and totally wrong, I could respect at least the guts of someone who, on the courage of their convictions, picked up a gun and went to fight the revolution. I’d be even more impressed if, instead of some guy who had nothing to lose, it was a (naive, but courageous) idealist who came from a prosperous background, willing to risk all that on their convictions to fight for a world where instead of getting to live in luxury they would be working on the factory farm alongside all the rest of the proletariat. They’d be totally wrong, but at least would be fighting for something they actually believe in.
But these university-level crooks are nothing like that. They don’t want to end up living in a world where they would be industrial workers. They want to create a system where they are the ruling elite. Marxism, once it infiltrated the Latin-American universities, gave these bastards career security, and the populist crackpot politicians they give ideological cover to make them people of influence. And for that, they’re willing to act like whores, giving lip-service to ideological propaganda they know isn’t true about the “path to socialism” while their governments screw over the proletariat time and time again, repress, ignore or make a mockery of human rights, and plunge their own nation into chaos and ruin. The ideologues support people like Kirchner and Chavez and Maduro and the rest, indoctrinating the local youth into the storytime of “the Gringos and the Oligarchs are responsible for anything bad that ever happened to you”, giving an intellectual veneer to what is in essence thuggery, knowingly lying about the goals of the regime, and of course, selling the regime abroad to untold numbers of ‘useful idiots’ (that is: American college kids desperate to believe that Chavez was a leftist ‘hero’ and Venezuela was on the verge of becoming a Socialist Paradise, as countless of them blindly parroted back to me from their dorm rooms a continent away, over the past decade). These prostituted Marxist intellectuals are traitors, in many ways worse than the “Bolivarean revolutionary leaders” themselves.
The end is nigh. Venezuela is in clear collapse, Argentina is following about a year behind (because Christina Kirchner isn’t even original). Venezuela is turning even on its closest allies now, becoming increasingly resistant to even the mildest of criticism, such as when Maduro called Uruguayan Vice-President Sendic (whose father, unlike Maduro or Chavez, was an actual armed communist revolutionary leader in the 60s) a “coward” for saying that he hadn’t seen any evidence of the U.S. trying to plot to kill or oust Maduro (a claim Maduro’s been shouting to the rafters lately, as both Argentina and Venezuela ratchet up using the States as the bogeyman to try to cling to control over their own population).
So why hasn’t this happened in Uruguay? It’s been ruled by the hard left for the last 10 years now, the last five by Pepe Mujica, who (like Sendic’s dad) spent the 1960s as an armed communist revolutionary seeking to overthrow the democratic government of Uruguay and replace it with a Soviet-backed Marxist Dictatorship. Mujica was shot six times, and spent 15 years in a literal hole as a political prisoner. He has more Marxist ‘street cred’ than Chavez could ever have dreamed about, to say nothing of Bus-driver Bob or the Painted Lady.
I think maybe it was the fact that he had been a real Marxist Revolutionary that let him break out of the mold. The other guys are self-serving manipulative narcissists. Mujica was a true believer. Tabare Vasquez, who was president before Mujica and has just been elected president again, is an economic moderate. Neither of them have the need to be “Generalissimos” or “Commandantes,” and neither of them actually want to plunge their country into poverty. Kirchner, Maduro and the late Chavez all do/did, to a certain extent. They wanted to put the poor on a pedestal, use them to win elections, and keep them there. Whereas Uruguayan leftist politicians, wrongheaded as they often are, just aren’t corrupt enough to be willing to completely ruin their country. I was at Mujica’s inaugural five years ago, and I remember the look of shock and dismay from some of his own fellow-travelers, desperate for going the same path to ruin that Venezuela was already a good ways down (and Argentina just starting on) back then, when Mujica said that his main concern would be to encourage the economy, industry and the growth of business (rather than stealing businesses away from their owners), because the best thing you can do for the poor is get them out of poverty. Sadly, the only guy on the South American Left capable of taking that reasonable a point of view is the guy with six bullet wounds, who no one could dare call a traitor.
So could this happen where you live? Well, you might notice at least a few similarities in all I’ve said above with your local political scene. But this state of collapse does not happen overnight. You need a massive, permanent, and poorly-educated underclass, but also an underclass that has been politicized effectively (to actually get the votes out for the populists) to vote for who will throw them the most bones. You need a state of complete disrespect for personal property, for the idea that any private ownership is something that exists only because the state allows it to, and not as an inalienable right. You need a powerful ideological concept (usually couched in revolutionary terms) and an intelligentsia that is willing to keep making excuses for why the ideology won’t work in practice. Finally, you need the opposition to any of this to be so disorganized, or so corrupt, or so much more oppressive that there’s effectively nothing to present itself as a better and more idealistic alternative (that’s another thing that Uruguay had that Argentina and Venezuela didn’t: opposition parties that, while far from saints, are also far from outright criminals or monsters). The most effective vaccination to prevent this sort of thing from the left is to have a right-wing in your country that isn’t hopelessly self-serving, or idiotic, or authoritarian.
Watch for all of that. If you take a close look at what things are like down here, you’ll know that (as much as you might complain about the socialists at home), the United States isn’t anywhere near that tipping-point into catastrophe (much less apocalypse) yet. But this doesn’t mean it can’t eventually be, if you don’t learn from these cautionary examples.
Kasimir Urbanski doesn’t write on a specific subject; he’s EveryJoe’s resident maniac-at-large. A recovering Humanities academic and world-traveler, he now lives in South America and is a researcher of fringe religion, eastern philosophy, and esoteric consciousness-expansion. In his spare time he writes tabletop RPGs, and blogs about them at therpgpundit.blogspot.com.
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