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Thursday, November 12, 2009

Populism in Venezuela

It's a familiar tale. A new leader emerges in a poor country that has lots of wealth but a highly unequal division of income. He pledges to transform the society with generous social programmes, and by using the state to take much of the economy out of the hands of private capitalists, orienting it to the people's needs. But within a few years, the economy stutters, shortages spread, and those goods which can be obtained sell at inflated prices. Poor people suffer. Disappointed by the revolution, they turn against it.

This time, it's Hugo Chávez's Venezuela. But the story has played out countless times before elsewhere, and no doubt will play out countless more times in other lands. Indeed, some readers might even have read the narrative of Jamaica in the 1970s in this story.

Venezuela is a country rich in oil, riding the commodity boom. But try telling that to residents of Caracas, where water is now rationed and power cuts are common. President Chávez is telling his compatriots just to be snappy in showers, saying he can do it in only three minutes. He blames the water and electricity shortage - Venezuela has the world's third-largest hydroelectric dam - on El Nino. That seems a bit rich in a country with such a large river system.

There are probably more banal forces at work. As I once argued in one of my books, stable political systems are founded on two overlapping regimes: an accumulation regime, and a distribution regime. The first refers to how an economy's output is generated, the second to how it is distributed.

Citizens expect to get their fair share out of the system - distribution. But that means the system must deliver a growing economy, to satisfy a growing population's rising demands - accumulation.



Too much investment means too little spending and vice versa. A balance has to be struck. When it breaks down, a political crisis develops.

One could argue that Venezuela was ripe for the Bolivarian revolution because years of rising oil prices hadn't translated into popular gains. The regime was too focused on accumulation. But Mr Chávez has arguably bent the stick too far in the other direction. By distributing oil-price windfalls in the early years of his revolution, he certainly made himself popular. But the resultant under-investment in capacity and infrastructure (previously, profits were being reinvested) has created a situation in which supply can't keep up with rising demand. There results inflation, and shortages.

Defenders of such revolutions will often blame capitalist scheming for undermining a socialist revolution. That's often too crude an analysis. Socialism concerns itself primarily not with the management of distribution, but with the management of accumulation itself. At its heart lies the belief in some form of common ownership.

Noble though the intentions may be, rushing to distribute the profits of a capitalist economy arguably does not amount to socialism, but populism. It is inherently unstable as a political strategy. Ultimately, it fails the very people it is intended to benefit. Not surprisingly, Mr Chávez's approval ratings are falling.

With legislative elections due next year, Mr Chávez may face a dilemma. Should voters turn against his party, he could accept their verdict. Or, as is often the temptation for populist leaders in these circumstances, he could stiffen his resolve and harden the revolutionary stance of his government. The last stage of a doomed revolution is all too often authoritarianism.

One can only hope that if, and when, that moment comes, Mr Chávez will prove to be as good a democrat as Michael Manley was when his electorate terminated his revolution.