Those of us raised during the Cold War tend to think of democracy and communism as opposites.
They’re not. Democracy tends toward communism until the egalitarian dream proves unworkable, then it collapses into tyranny.
In the United States, we’re blind to this. We think that history, which began in 1776, has a direction, or sides, and an ennobling spirit busy with dispensing dignity to the once-taboo. Actually, history will forget these peculiar fixations, except for the Elagabalian footnotes. The democratic dynamic that matters is the same one that’s always mattered: our appetites. We are gorging ourselves on what does not belong to us, and this cannot last.
Just look at Venezuela.
When the Economist looks at Venezuela, it sees “a textbook example of why democracy matters: people with bad governments should be able to throw the bums out.” Indeed. But the editor who wrote that ought to have taken a closer look at the newspaper’s own reporting, which mentions that the late president Hugo Chavez, who is responsible for the “Bolivarian” system that has collapsed, is still viewed favorably by 53 percent of Venezuelans. (His successor, Nicolas Maduro, has a 23 percent approval rating.)
Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, blames socialism, writing, “Any government in a democratic country that failed this spectacularly would have been relegated to the dustbin of history long ago. Maduro is getting around this problem by ending Venezuela’s democracy.
“The Chávistas slipped up a year or two by allowing real elections for the country’s National Assembly, which were swept by the opposition.”
This is not quite right. Maduro did indeed commit a “self-coup,” putting an end to Venezuela’s democracy with his phony election of a Constitutional Assembly on July 30.
This new super-legislative body will serve the same function as Robespierre’s Comité de salut public during the Terror, or the Thirty Tyrants of Athens’ council of 500, or heck, a more murderous version of your local school board’s citizen bond planning committee. That is, it’s meant to create a patina of democratic consensus, but the real power lies elsewhere.
In Venezuela’s case, the 545 hand-picked members of the new Constitutional Assembly don’t even fit in their meeting hall, but it’s no matter, because there’s nothing to debate — just applause and voice votes approving whatever the regime proposes. The opposition put the creation of this assembly to a popular vote last month, and it was rejected almost unanimously: of more than 7 million voters, just 0.13 percent approved of Maduro’s plan.
But the election of this Constitutional Assembly didn’t end “a year or two” of real elections, as Lowry put it; it ended a 59-year run of them. A majority of the Venezuelan people chose this course. A majority of the Venezuelan people cheered on the destruction of property rights and institutional legitimacy. A majority was too foolish to anticipate the consequences of this behavior, and now a large majority no longer wants to tolerate them. Only they’re now discovering that a majority is neither reason nor power.
When the loudmouth with the trademark red hat showed up insulting wealthy elites and pernicious foreigners, inveighing against free market economics, he tapped into the resentments of millions who thought the system was rigged against them. Sure, they knew he was a bit of a clown and a windbag, but that only increased his appeal to the outsiders, that the elites would have to submit to him.
At first, Chavez called himself an economic humanist and praised British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s “third way” between capitalism and socialism. He promised funding for social programs, and he’d get it by going after tax cheats and government waste and corruption.
For all his talking, his proposals were usually vague. You could make of the “Bolivarian revolution” whatever you would. But the essence soon became apparent: the country’s oil wealth would be directed toward social programs, and private businesses — more than 1,500 of them in all — could be expropriated for the public benefit, as could farmland. Undergirding it all, Chavez buttressed his power through extreme graft and patronage, running narcotraffic through the military. The military he kept under control with the help of Cuban advisors, who taught him how to uncover disloyalty (the Cubans would later pick Maduro has his successor). Information is power, it’s true, but for dictators, not for the masses.
At first, the expropriation was often for symbolic value, each seizure another visible step in the revolution. But as the tax base withered and the demands of corruption grew, the pace accelerated. The productive classes are, as Plato noted, “the most squeezable persons and yield the largest amount of honey to the drones” who make up any democratic government. The people’s leaders, he wrote, “deprive the rich of their estates and distribute them among the people; at the same time taking care to reserve the larger part for themselves.”
“The people have always some champion whom they set over them and nurse into greatness,” he wrote. “This and no other is the root from which a tyrant springs…. [H]aving a mob entirely at his disposal, he is not restrained from shedding the blood of kinsmen; by the favorite method of false accusation he brings them into court and murders them, making the life of man to disappear, and with unholy tongue and lips tasting the blood of his fellow citizen; some he kills and others he banishes, at the same time hinting at the abolition of debts and partition of lands: and after this, what will be his destiny? Must he not either perish at the hands of his enemies, or… become… a tyrant?”
Ken Livingstone, the execrable socialist and former mayor of London, thinks Chavez’s failure was in not taking this principle far enough. “He didn’t kill all the oligarchs. There was about 200 families who controlled about 80 percent of the wealth in Venezuela,” Livingstone said. “He allowed them to live, to carry on.”
As outrageous as that is, Livingstone actually has a firmer grasp on the situation than short-sighted American critics, including the administration, who think the thing to blame is the ex nihilo onset of tyranny. Actually, the Americans see even less than the 30 percent of Venezuelans who don’t see that Maduro is the natural continuation of Chavismo. There is a small distinction between Chavez and Maduro: neither respected property or human rights, but Chavez enjoyed enough popular support that he could make an outward show of respecting democratic institutions. Maduro doesn’t and can’t.
Pure democracy, unbalanced by strong economic and property rights, ends up destroying the economy and property. If you endorse the proposition that everything a majority does is inherently legitimate, then you are on the side of Chavez.
One can hardly be surprised that an overbearing iconoclast would end up smashing the most precious icon of all: democracy itself. The only surprise is that it took so long, that by the time democracy died, the country was already ruined.
The coup was an afterthought.