January 13, 2007

Chávez Unchained

Quico says: After all the dread, after the slow, protracted, build-up of the last eight years, the denouement that began this week comes almost as a relief. Finally, after all the smoke and mirrors of the "transition period," the government finds itself with no reasons to hold back anymore. With power centralized absolutely, with no more institutional restraints in place, without even a looming election to impose a modicum of caution, we finally get to see chavismo the way Chávez wanted it all along: free to implement all of his utopian fantasies with utter, gleeful abandon.

On the one hand, yes, it's true. We're utterly, utterly screwed. All of the barely concealed autocratic tendencies that have been building up since 1999 have bloomed into a no-longer-really-hidden authoritarianism. The transition to autocracy is now complete; the delirious utopianism of our new governing class has nothing to hold it back anymore. Those of us who dissent have exactly zero cards left to play. Our dissent makes us enemies of the state, and the state no longer has any reason to cut its enemies any slack. After all, 63% of Venezuelans have voted for a government that openly sees the remaining 37% as enemies. Any objections we raise will be dismissed, at best - at worst, our elected dictatorship will turn them against us, use them as evidence of our treason.

On the other hand, it's been clear that this moment was coming, and it's been years since we've had a realistic prospect of avoiding it. We all knew that it was going to happen. At least the dread of the wait is pretty much over. At least we're finally finding out how far Chavez was really planning to go. At last the government realizes the time has come to show its hand. By the end of this year, we'll know how much space for independent action we'll really be allowed. It's not pretty. But, with Chávez unchained, we'll at least get a degree of certainty about what the country will be like for the duration of his rule.

We can take comfort - minor comfort - from the fact that, with oil prices now dropping to still-high-but-no-longer-quite-stratospheric levels, the government will at least have to face some resource constraints in implementing its delirium. And we can be assured that when the chickens come home to roost, it'll be clear to everyone whose home they're going back to.

Still, there is no sugar-coating it: with an extremist autocrat fully in control of every instrument of power, the next few years will be very dark ones for our country.

January 10, 2007

The Limits of Economic Analysis

Quico says: Don't miss this provocative article by Francisco Rodríguez in the current Foreign Policy. Key graf:
The most commonly cited statistic in defense of the Chávez-helps-the-poor hypothesis is the decrease in poverty rates, from 42.8 percent when he took office in 1999 to 33.9 percent in 2006. But this decrease is neither unprecedented nor surprising, given that the Venezuelan economy is in the midst of an economic expansion fueled by a five-fold increase in global oil prices since his first term began. Historically, drastic declines in poverty in Venezuela are associated with periods of substantial real exchange appreciation similar to the current one. The last such episode, which lasted from 1996 to 1998, coincided with an even larger decline in the poverty rate, from 64.3 percent to 43.9 percent. The fact that Venezuela is presently running a fiscal deficit despite unprecedented global oil prices signals that the current improvement, just like previous ones, will sooner or later be reversed.
I find it oddly reassuring that somebody is doing this kind of work, and doing it competently, despite all the obstacles. But I do think the piece shows the limits of economic analysis. Whether or not Chávez's policies have actually helped the poor, what's relevant is that the poor attribute the improvement in their living standards to what Chavez has done. That's a fundamentally political fact based on a series of complex cultural phenomena: no amount of economic data is likely to clarify it.

And, to me, it's the most interesting part of the story.

After all: did Caldera and Alfaro Ucero get any credit for the fall in poverty rates Rodríguez cites in 1996-98?

January 9, 2007

Way Back Socialism

Quico says: So, it has started. With his vow to nationalize CANTV and the electricity sector, Chavez has finally put some meat on the bones of "21st Century Socialism." At first sight, it looks suspiciously like the 20th Century kind - the move will, no doubt, confirm many people's fears that chavismo is just lightly (and ever less) disguised Marxism. Tactical dissembling in the transition period notwithstanding, this latest move makes it easy to conclude that "socializing the means of production" is what this exercise was all about.

For my money, though, calling Chávez a Marxist is a vile slur...on Marxists.

However wrong his theories might have been, you can't help but admit that Marx at least had some. Theories in the sense of carefully worked out understandings of the way society works, coherent takes on how exploitation happens and a cogently reasoned set of prescriptions for how to overcome it.

"Scientific socialism" is what Marx called it. Enlightenment rationalism adapted to sustain far left views. Marx developed this style of theorizing in direct and conscious contrast to Utopian Socialism - that wooly gaggle of disjointed plans, fond hopes and pious ideals lacking any systematicity that dominated far-left theorizing before he came along. Promising an earthly paradise once the evils of individualism and greed had been banished from the earth, Utopian Socialism was based on a visceral rejection of capitalist aesthetics, of the motivations that underpin capitalists as they go about their business.

Even more than a critique of capitalism (which Marx avowedly admired), Marxist thought took aim at the pajuatadas of the Utopian Socialists. Marx insisted that socialists had better ask themselves some tough questions about the nature of the problems society faced and work to answer them in a way that made sense. A vague nausea, a feeling of disgust at the greed of the greedy and the money of the moneyed could not serve as a solid basis for an alternative system of human government. In order to succeed, socialism had to make sense in the realm of ideas, to give convincing answers to the great over-arching questions of life in modern society.

For me, it's clear that 21st Century Socialism is a throwback - but not just a throwback to the 1960s, or to the Bolshevik Era, or even to 19th Century Marxism. It's a throwback to the first decades of the 1800s, all the way back to an era before Marxism dominated socialist thought, to a time before socialists were rationalists.

Think about Sunday's announcement. Chavez decides to nationalize two key areas of the Venezuelan economy. But why? Based on what view of what ails society? With the aim of achieving what?

The answers, I think, are basically aesthetic in nature. For Chavez, the problem with private ownership of telecoms and electricity is that it's ugly. It rubs him the wrong way. It brings up images of gringo yuppies trading CANTV ADRs in expensive suits on the floor off the NYSE. It leaves important parts of the economy in the hands of people he doesn't like motivated by feelings that disgust him. In that sense, nationalization is an aesthetic necessity. And it's on that basis that he's moving ahead.

Chavez doesn't propose a systematic view of the nature of capitalist oppression. He doesn't even try to situate his decision in a coherent overall view of what is wrong with the way society is now, how he intends to make it better, and what role these nationalizations will play in getting us from where we are to where we want to be. This kind of hard-nosed analysis is entirely alien to chavismo, which instead delights in parading its disdain for hard questions, flaunting its deep intellectual poverty.

Of course, when you proceed that way, some questions you might think relevant are just never asked...let alone answered. Will phone users get a better service? Will the lights stay on? How can the state guarantee that, once they're nationalized, these companies will sustain a level of investment appropriate to the needs of the user base? Who cares!

And, then, there's the money question: will nationalized telecoms and utilities produce services that are of greater value than the resources they consume to produce them? If they don't, which other parts of the public sector will be shortchanged to cover the shortfalls? If they do, then what's the point of nationalizing them?