Venezuela isn’t socialist, it’s much closer to home

I’m just going to lay my cards on the table: Venezuela is NOT a socialist state. It is a heavily state-controlled social democracy and quasi-dictatorship.

Socialism, as it’s usefully defined, is

a political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.

In contrast social democracy is usually defined as

a political, social and economic ideology that supports economic and social interventions to promote social justice within the framework of a liberal democratic polity and capitalist economy

An estimated 70% of the economy is privately owned, not by the community (often represented as the state) as a whole. It may be heavily regulated and have many socialist elements but I’m willing to side with most leftists in 2018 and concede that Venezuela isn’t socialist, it’s social democratic.

Venezuela has not achieved a completely state controlled, centrally planned economy like the Soviet Union. Most of the economy remains in private hands on paper (except for crucial elements like oil) and is still a market economy, albeit faced with heavy distortions and much state control. So what? There have been loads of failed states in the developing world that have suffered the same kind of problems in a similar economic model.

Well, Venezuela was a wealthy democracy. It has had a fair bit of state intervention in the economy since the 1970s but only when the (self proclaimed) socialist government of Hugo Chavez came in did leftists in the West (notably including Jeremy Corbyn) praise Venezuelan “socialism” for mass redistribution and interventions in the name of fairness. Leftists supported the Venezuelan model because it was achievable within the constraints of the democratic system, it wasn’t too distant from western social democracy in its use of redistribution and regulation.

Yet when it all started crumbling, socialists who called this experiment in radical, interventionist social democracy “socialism” backtracked. It was no longer the cuddly, easy to achieve in a market economy, modern socialistic dream that one could export to Britain or France or the United States. It became toxic and entered the realm of “not real socialism”. (Would the same leftists proclaim that Corbyn is not a real socialist based on the Labour 2017 manifesto?). Others blame sanctions, as if they aren’t targeted at regime officials and actually prevent free trade, (which is always fun to see leftist, autarkic types argue is a necessity). Some of the cranky ones just blame US imperialism without going into too many details. And others will say the revolution didn’t go far enough, that oligarch heads needed to roll and an even more hands-on approach was necessary to stop economic collapse (you can count former London Mayor was Ken Livingstone and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell in this category). All of these apologetics ignore that it was a man-made crisis showing the extremes of what a small group of ideological men, trying to control an entire country’s economy, can do.

Venezuela is a exemplary failure of centralised state planning in a market economy. A show of how excessive government intervention breeds incompetence at best and corruption at worst. It’s resulted in over 1 million economic refugees, some marching through jungle, to escape poverty. It’s resulted in Venezuelans losing an average of 8kg in weight. And it’s resulted in a de facto dictatorship of Nicolas Maduro.

Leftists of all stripes like to shift the goal posts when pet projects, even ones committed under the red banner of socialism, fail. Venezuela was to represent a kind of state-driven “21st century” hardline social democracy that socialists could aspire to achieve, which of course is why so many leftists like Jeremy Corbyn initially supported Chavez even when the cracks begun to show in 2012 and 2013.

It may not be the collapse of a distant, third world Soviet-style socialism, it’s even worse, it’s the collapse of social democracy Corbyn style.