The right argue that if we vote for a socialist such as Jeremy Corbyn then Britain will end up like Venezuela. But Venezuela’s problem isn’t too much socialism—it’s not enough.
The country, whose former president Hugo Chavez proclaimed “21st century socialism”, is deep in crisis. It has the world’s highest inflation rate—720 percent and rising. Its currency has plummeted to less than 1 percent of its official value, making it hard to import food.
Hunger is endemic. Buying food at subsidised shops where price controls operate involves queuing for four hours, only on certain days, and sometimes still getting nothing.
Medicines and sanitary products are scarce. Chronic power blackouts have seen factories close and public sector workers move to a two-day week. Growing numbers are emigrating, or depend on products sent by relatives abroad.
What’s caused this disaster?
The right say that market forces ran the economy smoothly until Chavez and his successor Nicolas Maduro interfered with them. In reality, this is a crisis of the capitalist system that they didn’t confront.
The biggest problem is the collapsing price of oil, Venezuela’s main export.When the oil price was high Chavez could fund anti-poverty programmes without confronting the rich. Maduro can no longer do this.
Meanwhile severe drought has rendered the hydroelectric dams that power Venezuela useless. Neither of these problems are former bus worker Maduro’s doing.
Of course, a decade of relying on oil revenue didn’t help. But Venezuela’s rulers were simply following the absurd capitalist logic about what a resource-rich country should do in a time of high prices.
The only thing the Venezuelan right and its US and European imperialist backers would have changed was letting the poor get a share.
Today’s crisis would be far worse in a Venezuela with no food subsidies or price controls.
According to some surveys, around half the population now supports neither Maduro nor the right wing opposition.
But Maduro himself is resorting to increasingly desperate authoritarian measures. Troops have been deployed to keep order. Widely used motorcycles were briefly banned from the streets of the city of Cumana to address “looting”. One decree even allows workers to be drafted into 60 days forced agricultural work.
This is like trying to put a sticking plaster on a gaping wound—or to hold back the tide at gunpoint.
Socialism would mean making human need, not profit, the basis for organising society.
We saw the possibility for this after 2002-3, when poor Venezuelans mobilised in their millions to defeat a coup and a bosses’ strike.
Self-organisation flourished, representing not just hopes for change, but a force that could realise them.
The left government did all it could to co-opt or contain this self-organisation.
It decided early on to adapt to capitalism—and some figures grew very rich.
Big industries stayed mostly in private hands. Key sectors were nationalised, only for officials to follow the market’s priorities at an international level.
Other firms were rightly taken over after workers campaigned to save their jobs. But without a deeper socialist transformation of the economy these could not succeed.
But now people are starting to chant in the food queues. In 1989 an oil slump, economic disaster and neoliberal attacks triggered the “Caracazo” riots that marked the beginning of the end for the old political elite.
If that happens again we’ll get a glimpse of what socialism is really about—workers fighting capitalist priorities to assert their own interests.
The challenge will be to take that further than Chavez did.