As expected, the US is preparing for war in Venezuela. The reason for this war is obviously oil, a resource that country is unfortunate to have a lot of. Remove the oil, and the US would be thinking of other things and places. The wars of our times are still closely tied to fossil fuels.
On Monday, the old hawk John Bolton—the US's current National Security Advisor—appeared at a White House briefing with a yellow legal pad tucked in his right arm. On it was scrawled: "Afghanistan -> Welcome the Talks. 5,000 troops to Colombia." What can this mean? many wondered. Apparently, even Colombia (which is next to Venezuela and has a right-wing government) is in the dark about these words. Is the US preparing to send troops to Venezuela to bring down the current leader, Nicolás Maduro, and install, by force, the self-appointed interim president Juan Guaido, who is on the far right and wants to end the country's nearly two-decade-long experiment with a form of socialism? As Trump's popularity continues to plummet in the aftermath of the deeply unpopular shutdown, and with his policy space having been squeezed considerably by his party's loss of the House of Congress, war seems inevitable. The age when blood and oil are finally unmixed is still far in the future.
But what went wrong with socialism in Venezuela? The answer can be found in the simple fact that it was dependent to one resource, oil, whose market value is determined not by the state but by global market forces. This, to use the words of Eva María, who was recently interviewed in the Socialist Worker, is "extractive socialism." It is the worse model imaginable for socialist reforms or governance.
So this notepad that National Security Advisor John Bolton was holding today at the White House briefing on Venezuela says:
"Afghanistan -> Welcome the Talks. 5,000 troops to Colombia."
If confirmed this would be a pretty terrible OPSEC breach.https://t.co/KS0Issfvps pic.twitter.com/IOrSprG567
— Rao Komar (@RaoKomar747) January 28, 2019
There are in the world and its modern history two forms of socialism. There is the one that finds its most vivid expression in the Scandinavian model. This form is related to the New Deal in the US and the welfare housing and health programs in the UK and other parts of Europe. It came into prominence after the Second World War, but has its roots in what is called Ricardian socialism (labor is the key to capitalist production) in the 19th century. Seattle entrepreneur and venture capitalist Nick Hanauer is this kind of socialist. The decisive idea here is not so much about giving free stuff to the poor, but recognizing that raising the living standards of workers has, for capitalism, positive economic consequences.
The other socialism is the kind that was inaugurated by the Russian Revolution. This socialism attempted to achieve a modern standard of living by industrial progress and the creation of interdependent international socialist community. And so, like the capitalist West, the socialist East was still devoted to a 19th century (or Victorian) idea of progress. What the socialists claimed, and this was their downfall, is that they can do progress better than capitalists. But progress, as it is now understood, is very new and wholly invented by the apologists of capitalism, who, at every opportunity, confused it with concurrent (but certainly not unrelated) political and scientific achievements. The Soviet bloc did not change this meaning of progress. It indeed threw itself totally into it. Because Marx was a Victorian, some of the blame for this enthusiasm (or faith) can be blamed on him and his hit rock-poem (as Raoul Peck described it at the end of his 2017 movie The Young Karl Marx), Communist Manifesto.
The bourgeoisie has disclosed how it came to pass that the brutal display of vigour in the Middle Ages, which reactionaries so much admire, found its fitting complement in the most slothful indolence. It has been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades.
And so, you have on one side, the commitment to progress as defined by the 19th century (Victorian) apologists and theorists of capitalism; and the other, more importantly, the goal of constructing non-capitalist societies in a world dominated by global markets in London, Tokyo, and Manhattan. The latter led to the rise, during the Cold War, of the Eurodollar market in London (socialist societies could do banking in US dollars without fear of punishment or freezing from the US—an advantage that Venezuela is now discovering is of the greatest importance). The upshot: These countries were not outside but inside of capitalism. And it is this dependency that made them vulnerable. The same can be said about Venezuela's five-year crisis. It's simply this: Oil prices collapsed. In the 2000s, the socialist state could easily redistribute wealth to the poor because the world market demanded $120 for a barrel of oil. But after 2014, the world market pleaded for $9 per barrel (it's now around $55). This is not a crisis of socialism. This is called a market crash.
You can’t use capitalism to make socialism. It may be possible to deliver some improvements in people’s living conditions, but these are not structural and systemic gains. So this isn’t the end of socialism. I think the conclusion should be that these kinds of shortcuts — to try to deliver socialism through petro-dollars — won’t work.
And so, is there another socialism that's not, say, Scandinavian or Soviet? Meaning, a socialism without capitalism? Yes, there is. It's one that begins by profoundly redefining progress. (This is a subject for another post, but I kind of hinted at this direction in a 2014 Arcade Journal post: "After Growth: Rethinking the Narrative of Modernization."
In the past, development was about growing vertically, moving up to what was coded as a Western standard of living: home ownership, car ownership, high wages, low unemployment, crass consumerism, meat-rich diets and so on. But now that mode of life is proving to be problematic.... The vertical model is no longer realistic or desirable. But what can replace it? Horizontal development, a model that does not climb but enhances, improves what’s already available.