January 21, 2007

Oil, econophobia and the staggering intellectual bankrupcy of chavismo

Quico says: Miguel points to this lovely Chávez quote...
"A President shouldn't listen to economists."
A fine sentiment, no doubt, as long as you can get away with it. If 100,000,000 dollars just happen to gush out of the ground beneath you every day, say. Yes, I agree, economists are pretty superfluous then.

I've been thinking more and more about the lack of intellectual seriousness in chavismo, about its active hostility to specialist knowledge in general, and economic knowledge in particular.

More and more I think econophobia is at the heart of chavismo, of its popular appeal, its arrogance, its basic anti-rationalism and also its tendency to authoritarianism. Chávez holds specialist knowledge in deep, deep contempt - and the more power he amasses, the more contemptuous he gets.

And here, again, oil is a curse. Chávez can get away with it only because money is kind enough to ooze out of the ground in Venezuela. The basic resource constraints that end up persuading a Lula that, y'know, maybe it's not such a bad idea to talk to an economist now and then just don't come up in Venezuela...well, not during an oil boom, anyway.

Thanks to the petrodollar flood, chavismo can just skirt the questions that dog any normal, earthly government - left, right or center - on any normal day: how do we ensure we have a good enough revenue stream to fund public services? how can we sustain a decent living for our people? how can we generate more wealth using the limited resources at our disposal?

Nobody cares. Nobody has to.

Oil is our magical elixir...the solution to all economic conundrums, the guarantee of the irrelevance of economists and their dreary, dense theories and dehumanizing categories and soul-sapping concern with, y'know, work. Who would want any of that? The money's free...

It's easy to forget it now, but socialists used to have serious answers to the problems posed by economic life in industrial society. They were the wrong answers, sure, but they were serious.

Nationalization was supposed to reduce wasteful duplication of investments, lead to economies of scale, and cut out the bourgeois dead-wood from the production process. This would enable living standards to rise more quickly than was possible under capitalism. It didn't quite work out that way, but the proposals were the outcome of detailed analysis on the basis of meticulous reasoning. (Leaf through Das Kapital if you don't believe me.)

20th century socialism never shied away from intellectual engagement in economic debates. Socialists from Clement Atlee to Joseph Stalin understood that socialism had to outperform capitalism in solving the basic problems of economic life. When Khrushev banged his shoe on the podium at the UN, saying "we will bury you!" he meant that the superior Soviet economy would so decisively out-produce the west's that capitalism would wither and die. That was supposed to be the whole point, the reason socialism was supposed to be better than capitalism as a way of organizing society. If it was to take its own claims seriously, 20th century socialism had to have the better solution to the problem of production.

What I find remarkable, unprecedented really, is the way 21st century socialism simply dispenses with any kind of economic reasoning whatsoever. Nationalizations are announced without reference to any kind of abstract discourse setting out the logical links between means (nationalization) and ends (higher productivity, or lower costs, or better service, or anything really.)

It's not even that chavistas are wrong in the causal claims they make. It's that they don't feel the need to put forward causal arguments at all. In their place, we get denunciations of greed and glorifications of solidarity - gut-level appeals to raw emotion - as the sole basis for economic policy-making. Public good, private bad. Collective good, individual bad. That's as sophisticated as Chavonomic reasoning gets.

In the end, 21st Century Socialism is just the hollowed out husk of 20th Century Socialism. The headline grabbing moves - Nationalization! - haven't changed, but they've been completely stripped of the reasoning that once made them meaningful.