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unsolved-socialism-problem

The latest in our series of translations of Russian national-conservative thinker Egor Kholmogorov.

Translated by: Fluctuarius Argenteus; slightly edited by AK.

Original: http://zavtra.ru/blogs/pravoslavnyij-sotsializm

***

Socialism Not Dead: Paradoxes of an Unsolved Problem

It may seem strange that, at the turn of the 21st century, the word “Socialism” is back in the popular political idiom. The final decade of the preceding century seemed to have been the time of its complete (and, so it would seem, irreversible) annihilation.

Soviet-style “Real Socialism” ended in a pathetic disgrace, striking its colors at the sight of a sausage pointed at its heart. Who would have thought that churning out missiles, dams, and factories wouldn’t be enough to sustain a planned economy based on communal property? It was also necessary to grant the Socialist people access to consumer goods at least remotely comparable to those available under Capitalism; otherwise, falling behind not only in living standards but also in technology became inevitable. Soviet Socialism collapsed under the weight of this contradiction, while China enacted reforms so deep that, while looking at Chinese billionaires, one can’t help but wonder whether it’s still Socialism or a “Red Capitalist” oligarchy of the Chinese Communist Party – quite probably no worse than any other oligarchy in history.

Meanwhile, the Capitalist world with its triumphant Liberalism seemed to have scored a doubtless moral victory. Not only did it outpace Socialism, it completely consumed it. All more or less sensible Socialist ideas were incorporated into the structure of the “welfare state”, leaving “Real Socialism” with such dubious achievements as complete socialization of property or pedantic ideological censorship. Socialism appeared to have been entirely devoured and digested by a Capitalism that had reached in this struggle a new stage in its historical evolution.

A quarter of a century after this victory over Socialism, the foundations of the global Liberal order are more and more visibly shaken. Within the US Democratic party, Hillary Clinton’s Liberalism, oriented at racial and sexual minorities, has been challenged by “Democratic Socialist” Bernie Sanders who is cajoling White American workers into rising against the 1%, the Wall Street loan sharks. Socialist? US Presidential candidate? Early 21st century? It seems patently absurd. Meanwhile across the pond, the Labour party in the UK eschewed fine-looking bureaucrats in favour of Jeremy Corbyn, a Socialist, an anti-militarist, and general diehard Leftist. One of his first acts as leader of the Shadow Cabinet was creating a committee for a new economic policy, including such anti-inequality fighters as Thomas Piketty and Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz.

All of a sudden, we not only see a ressurection of Socialism in two of the leading countries of the Capitalist world, but positioning itself as a powerful political political alternative to the dominant Liberal mainstream. If we take into account that this mainstream is also under attack by right-wing populism of the likes of Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen (the program of the latter replete with anti-Capitalist and anti-Globalist vocabulary), the Liberal “end of history” seems to have ended quite rapidly. If this wave hasn’t reached us yet, it is only because both our Liberalism and our Capitalism are quite peculiar, and our political system doesn’t operate under Western-style rules. However, one cannot completely shut oneself off from a revolution of ideas, and it seems likely we will soon hear the march of a new Socialism here in Russia.

What is the cause of this 2010s Socialist re-revolution? The return of economic conditions that had caused the heyday of Socialism in the 19th century and were drastically changed in the 20th. The driving force of the Socialism of two centuries ago was a contradiction between the ideals of civil liberty and equality brought about by the French Revolution and the Enlightenment, and an absolute economic inequality typical of ancien régime Europe. The latter became more prominent and intolerable at the start of the Industrial Revolution, when hundreds of thousands of proletarians became concentrated in the stench and stuffiness of the working-class suburbs of developed countries.

Liberalism was faced with a monstrous and insoluble contradiction: why, after declaring human rights and liberties in thought and politics, giving equal rights to all social strata and doing away with the feudal ladder of estates, should it remain the guardian of a gap between wealth and misery, the protector of economic inequality? The situation of defending equality in the sphere of ideas, less important for most of the people, and championing inequality in the sphere of the stomach, of much greater everyday importance, seemed entirely ridiculous.

Excuses invented for explaining why some people are poor and some rich pushed those who considered this to be an injustice to certain solutions. “Private property is inviolable, you have no right to infringe upon it, therefore, you dare not touch the wealth of others,” said the wealth apologists. “It simply means that property is theft, and it must be destroyed or redistributed to close the gap between wealth and poverty,” replied the champions of the poor. “Liberty is not the equality of results but that of opportunities. We should be equal at square one, and then let each one gain according to his energy and talents,” said the wealth apologists. “Then we should socialize the work effort, and then we’ll have a common result: From each other according to their ability, to each other according to their needs. Also, let’s create truly equal opportunities, because the prospect of equal chances for millionaires and have-nots is a bald-faced lie,” replied the champions of the poor.

The ideas, methods, and moral high ground of the Socialism of yesteryear stemmed from a European yearning for equality, described by Alexis de Tocqueville, and the angst caused by the monstrous material inequality in the Europe in an age when the gaps between wealth and poverty were insurmountable. These gaps are the subject of a spirited dialogue between a young Rastignac and a cynical, conniving Vautrin in Honoré de Balzac’s Le Père Goriot. Vautrin explains to Rastignac, then a young idealist, that his chances of making good money thanks to learning, personal qualities, and industriousness are equal to zero. The only way of winning a fortune is getting it from somebody who already has it, by way of inheritance or marriage. The only way of becoming rich is being rich.

The world that spawned most Socialist theories, especially those of Saint-Simon, Proudhon, and Marx, was not a liberal world of free competition and equal opportunity. It was a polarized world devoid of a middle class: the 1% of haves and the 99% of have-nots.

What did this mean in practice? All talk of alleged opportunity in life granted by a Liberal version of Capitalism seemed naught but a myth. Big money was a magnet that attracted even bigger money. The lion’s share of national income, regardless of the pace of its growth, was distributed in the same proportion that was fixed in the structure of national capital. Simply put, those who controlled the majority of wealth gained the majority of income while making little to no effort.

America was the sole exception, with a lower concentration of wealth and a higher share of income distributed through free competition. Hence the image of the USA as a Promised Land, a land of opportunity, a magnet for migration. A good way of making money in Europe was moving to America (with the possibility of returning to the Old World with newfound wealth in tow left open).

No industrial growth, no Socialist attacks on the government or the bourgeoisie could change anything in the structure of this world until the start of World War I. This explains the revolutionary character of European socialism and the borderline utopian radicalism of its proposed solutions: Total socialization of industry, expropriation of the ruling classes, dictatorship of the proletariat, dreams of a World Revolution.

piketty-capital-income-ratio-europe

Source: Capital in the 21st Century by Thomas Piketty. Not part of Kholmogorov’s article.

This World Revolution did come to pass – but it started not in 1917, but in 1914. As brilliantly demonstrated by Thomas Piketty in Capital in the 21st Century, the Great War kickstarted a default of old European wealth. The horrors of war, the collapse of world trade, the Russian Revolution with its devastation and expropriation of the wealthy classes, the defeat and hyperinflation in Germany and Austria, the demographic crisis and budget deficit in the UK and France, the impeding dismantlement of colonialism – all of this led to a catastrophic decline in capital concentration in Europe.

piketty-russia-inequality-history

Source: From Soviets to Oligarchs: Inequality and Property in Russia 1905-2016 by Filip Novokmet, Thomas Piketty, and Gabriel Zucman (2017). Not part of Kholmogorov’s article.

The revolutionary role of Russia, whose bourgeoisie was sacrificed at the altar of transformation, consisted not so much in socializing property and launching the Socialist experiment as in crashing the world rent. The enormous Russian debt that had fed millions of rentiers all over Europe turned into dust in the blink of an eye and doomed the rentier civilisation to extinction.

From the 1920s to the 1940s, the level of capital concentration in the world capitalist system continued its decline. Contributing factors included the Great Depression that had finally made its way to America, the devastation of World War II, the post-war wave of nationalisations, and tax deductions for national reconstruction. The ratio of capital to national income fell from 6:1 under the old regime to 2:1, i.e. the entirety of concentrated capital (be it in the form of real estate, shares, or foreign assets) became equal to only two years’ worth of national income.

What were the socioeconomic consequences of this Great Default? The grip of Capital loosened, its magnetic effect wasn’t as far-reaching, and the problem of economic equality was tackled within the framework of global Capitalism, without employing the radical recipes of fin de siècle Socialism. More precisely, those radical recipes were relegated to countries that were lagging behind in industrial development, such as Russia and China. The main goal of this radicalism was a wilful, determined achievement of an industrial breakthrough. Socialism in so-called Socialist countries was most concerned with productivity and not wealth redistribution.

Western countries, however, having no need for a “great leap forward”, were able to afford the luxury of a “Socialism sans Socialism”. Social Democracy, Christian Socialism, Swedish Socialism, Social Reformism all followed the same model. Without abolishing private property as such, without creating a dictatorship of Leftist parties, by limiting themselves to a selective nationalisation, they achieved economic equality by fostering a system of high wages and a well-developed social sphere, ushering in the welfare state. Essentially, it was a huge Ponzi scheme organized according to Keynesian precepts: The state took away a sizable portion of incomes via taxation in order to redistribute this money, also as income but under a more egalitarian distribution.

This was the zeitgeist of the treinte glorieuses of 1945-1975, when all Western governments followed, with slight variations, a single socioeconomic policy targeted at bringing social inequality as far down as possible, raising national income redistributed as salaries to the detriment of rents, dividends, etc., and widening the social responsibilities of the state. It was the age of a rising middle class, the 40% that follow the 10%-strong strata of the wealthy; this class laid claim to 30-40% of national wealth as opposed to just 5% before World War I. The 50% of the poor were stuck with the same 5% as before, but at least they gained a much greater chance of breaking out of poverty by dint of education, good work, entrepreneurial spirit and general savvy.

The social lifts seemed to be working. A peculiar anthem of the era is Chuck Berry’s tongue-in-cheek 1964 song You Never Can Tell, the accompaniment to John Travolta’s and Uma Thurman’s wild gyrating in Pulp Fiction. It’s the story of a young Black couple from New Orleans that makes decent money, buys a house, mail-order furniture, a fridge, a phonograph, even a used jalopy… New capital growth was slow but steady, not in the form of rent or foreign bonds but mostly as real estate, shares and equity.

The most positive Soviet-era memories of those who were impacted by the system are based on largely the same processes, just disguised with red banners and “Glory to the Communist Party” posters. The income levels of Soviet workers were incommensurably lower, as was the quality of consumer goods offered by the market (it took a long time to realise that the Western market of the era was just a mechanism for redistributing wealth that was gained through not entirely market-based means). However, the Soviet system was infinitely more helpful with regards to restoring and accumulating… capital. It was even explicitly called “capital construction.” Most Soviet citizens were granted, entirely free of charge, real estate that was worth many years of individual income and still commands an impressive market price. And so construction proceededly rapidly apace to build the cosy, even slightly bourgeois world of 1970s Soviet comedies.

The Socialist system, like that of the West, followed the route of reconstructive capitalism. Meanwhile, Socialism as an idea gradually fell out of favor over the 20th century as its main raison d’être, inequality, disappeared. The semi-Socialist policies of Western countries created a perfect model village of Capitalism: Low inequality levels, broad opportunities, intensive social lifts, high levels of welfare, a wide availability of consumer goods thanks to a developed and flexible market. All of it seemed like a brilliant alternative to Socialist experiments: Socializing not wealth, not industry, but revenue, redistributing it so that everyone could decide where to spend it within a wide spectrum of options.

An ideal world of freedom and equality finally seemed to be within grasping distance. It also had a place for racial and gender equality, the 1960s becoming a triumph for equal rights activists of all stripes. At the same time, Socialism was quagmired in internal antagonism, the total control of the state eroding all freedom and neutering the enjoyment and variety of everyday life.

piketty-top-income-tax-rates

Source: Capital in the 21st Century by Thomas Piketty. Not part of Kholmogorov’s article.

However, the economic developments of the treinte glorieuses were the gravedigger for both Soviet Socialism and Western Welfare Capitalism. They signed their own death warrants themselves. A natural accumulation of capital was underway, via saving a part of income in the West or direct capital giveaways by the state in the USSR. But a feature of capital is that it “magnetizes” and draws income. The owner of capital tends to rent-oriented, not work-orientated, behavior. This “capitalist” wants to gain interest and rent, to make his capital inheritable, to pay the lowest taxes he can, and thoroughly despises the have-nots whose claims to a share of his income seem to him most outrageous.

The late 1970s saw the rise of a new Capitalism with many faces, from British Thatcherism to US Reaganomics to the waves of privatization that swept away the Soviet system and its socialist economy. It was a massive uprising of capital that wanted back its right to extract revenue and spend it on itself without sharing with society. Just like the pendulum swinging towards Socialism in the early 20th century, its return towards pure Capitalism at the end of the century was most pronounced and most socially destructive in Russia. A savage, dog-eat-dog oligarchic Capitalism that took sway in the country freed itself from practically all burden of social responsibility. It was a tyranny of wealth limited only by the garrotte in the hands of thugs, be they mafia racketeers or bureaucrat raiders.

However, it would be unreasonable to claim that the nature of the processes that transpired in those decades was drastically different in Russia, Europe, and the US. It was a time of large predatory fortunes, scams and profiteering, social polarization, and growing inequality everywhere. Americans and Western Europeans, accustomed to slogans of “equal opportunity,” suddenly once again found themselves in the era of Rastignac, when the only way to get rich – was to be rich. Also, the very notion of wealth had changed: It was no longer a reasonable, comfortable prosperity, but a blatant, tacky luxury.

In The Price of Inequality, Stiglitz describes the behavior of modern American business as “rent-oriented.” Nobody wants to improve real economic indices, nobody wants to make money, everybody wants to live as a rentier off unfounded bonuses, “golden parachutes,” and other forms of self-financing so common in American corporations. Is it that different from Gazprom cleaning women?[1]

At the other end is the growth of inflamed poverty: according to Stiglitz, the life expectancy of US White men with no college education is plummeting at the rate of 1990s Russia. Over the last 15 years, everyone and their mother have talked about the “death of the middle class.” Piketty projects that at the current rate of increasing inequality, Europe will return to 19th century levels by 2050: 10% of the population will own 80% of capital, and 60% of all income.

The society built by the global anti-Capitalist uprising of the early 1900s is becoming a thing of the past, as is faith in market-based self-regulation of Capitalism, allegedly evolved enough to solve social issues. It turns out that self-regulation played no part whatsoever, and the growth of economic equality occurred due to a catastrophe that had wiped out the “old money,” paving way for a unique Social-Capitalist system. Conversely, growing capital concentration, seemingly normal for a self-regulating capitalism, simply reproduces inequality.

A Neo-Socialism is the natural response of a society that enshrines equality to the emergence of a new inequality. Will it be different from classic Socialism? It will be, and rather strongly so.

Destruction of private property and socialization of the means of production proved to be a rather dubious road to Socialism. In practice, they only led to the creation of a new class – the nomenklatura, a decline in individual initiative, logistic and planning errors leading to shortages and even famines. And, in the long run, they failed to prevent the restoration of Capitalism in its most savage incarnation. In addition, small-scale private property continued to develop even if when it all private property was nominally abolished.

The utopia of complete socialization is opposed by the following fact: As material progress unfolds, a human being demands more, not less space for individual existence and self-expression. The ideal of a normal human, as it turns out, is his own house, not an army barracks. Collectivism invariably leads to a tyranny of mediocrity and dooms the societies that adopt it to backwardness in scientific-technical development.

Under these conditions, Neo-Socialism presupposes, above all, the socialization of income and prohibitive measures on capital concentration. The world of future Socialism is a world where all offshores are annihilated and each and every fatcat is subjected to high income and property taxes, with inheritance laws hampering the transfer of super-wealth. This nullifies the magnetic effect of large capital, and most of income is redistributed as wages in the context of free labor and a free market. From an instrument of optimizing income, the market turns into an instrument of optimizing expenditure.

Here, however, the New Socialism faces several classic pitfalls, already singled out by Joseph Schumpeter in the mid-20th century. The impossibility of super-wealth, limiting unfair and imperfect competition, monopolism, and profiteering lead to the waning of that very entrepreneurial spirit that nurtures the Capitalist economy. There will a dearth of those interested in starting a new business to beat all competitors and make a nice buck. And, needless to say, an “inventor and innovator” certificate[2] is a feeble substitute for super-incomes.

The only remedy to entrepreneurial crisis within Neo-Socialism could be a change in business philosophy: Stop chasing big money and instead take pride in the individuality of your business, its attractiveness and social relevance. This, however, only works for small and middle-sized businesses, while bigger enterprises require investments (including non-returnable ones) and risks so enormous that a small-time businessman can only afford it if he is aiming for a super-income. An alternative is a planned, state-run innovation policy, a “Communism of ideas” that will be of dubious long-term efficacy.

A society that guarantees a relative equality of income would be doomed to low economic growth. However, it is precisely the form of economic growth stabilization – especially within the core of the Capitalist system – envisioned by Neo-Socialist economists, Piketty above all.

Another question inevitably brought forward by Neo-Socialism is its relations with globalization. In a Neo-Liberal world, globalization is a world market system that forces the expenses of wealthy and developed countries on the poor and undeveloped by creating “common markets” that stifle economic development. They confine poor countries to the lower stages of technological chains while keeping the rights to ideas and the final product in the hands of developed countries. This is exactly the principle of the Transatlantic and Trans-Pacific Partnerships, modern attempts to cement the eternal commercial dominance of the US.[3]

An alternative to this economic globalism is economic Nationalism; the greater the drop in economic growth and surge in inequality, the more that will it be visible. Countries with independent industrial potential and inner market resources will isolate themselves from the rest of the world as much as they are able to, from imports to economic immigrants, in order to maintain their development level despite in spite and at the expense of others.

This Nationalist alternative is seen as the greater threat to the Neo-Socialist project. Its defenders keep putting a lot of effort into criticising Nationalist and Protectionist ideas and rallying to the defence of Smithian dogmas of “relative advantage” that lead to international division of labor and creation of common markets.

Nevertheless, preserving global markets under a Neo-Socialist policy would require a serious “leveling of fortunes” everywhere on the planet. Wealthy countries, much like wealthy people, would be compelled to spend most of their wealth to improve the living standards of the poor up to a certain “golden mean.” According to modern GDP per capita statistics, it would be represented by the living standards of a Turkey or a Mexico – probably even lower in reality, because rich countries create much of their GDP and national income by virtue of being rich. Were they to be more modest in their lifestyle, much of their national product simply wouldn’t be produced.

Is it possible to downgrade the living standards of rich countries and prop up the poor ones to even slightly reduce global inequality? One may well doubt this, especially considering that for most of humanity, it is the quality of life in the developed countries that really matters, not the tyranny of averages. Everyone in the world dreams of a Lexus, not a Zaporozhets.[4]

And now we re-encounter a fundamental contradiction within the Socialist dream. It is inspired by a global historical trend towards equality and social justice, but the justice in question turns out to be a tyranny of mediocrity, the erasure of extremes of arrogant wealth and abject poverty. But how is the value of this justice comparable with the imperative of development that presupposes certain extremes? To move forward, one must desire to be the best, which is impossible without a certain, sufficiently wide score chart – even if it comes at the expense of others.

Combining the values of justice and equality with the values of development is a task yet unsolved by the New Socialism.

***

Notes

[1] Allusion to a news item at around the time of this article’s writing featuring a woman employed as a cleaner in the Gazprom office who had reported the theft of her Christian Dior handbag worth $26K.

[2] Allusion to the Soviet practice of rewarding technical and industrial innovators with honorary diplomas and certificates, as opposed to patent rights or other, more substantial awards.

[3] A cheap rear-wheel-drive supermini mass-produced in the USSR (and then, briefly, in independent Ukraine) in 1958-1994 that became a byword for shoddy, uncomfortable, and breakage-prone cars in (post-)Soviet culture.

[4] On January 23, 2017, the US announced its withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific trade agreement.

***

Translator’s Note

The article was written in April 2016 and reflects the political and economic situation of the era.

 
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Okay, I promise this will be the last post on the matter. But some of the tropes that come up time and time again in coverage of Chavez’s legacy, from neocons and faux-leftists alike, just have to be addressed for me to rest easy. Note that this is NOT meant to be comprehensive; just some things that continuously get slipped in on the side and tend to get taken for granted.

Chavez rigged elections. Look, I like to think I’m objective here. Some politicians I like rule countries where electoral fraud is widespread. But Venezuela isn’t Russia in this respect. Not only are election results consistent with pre-elections, unbiased polls, but Venezuela’s voting technology makes fraud extremely difficult. See Mark Weisbrot:

In Venezuela, voters touch a computer screen to cast their vote and then receive a paper receipt, which they verify and deposit in a ballot box. Most of the paper ballots are compared with the electronic tally. This system makes vote-rigging nearly impossible: to steal the vote would require hacking the computers and then stuffing the ballot boxes to match the rigged vote.

Unlike in the US, where in a close vote we really have no idea who won (see Bush v Gore), Venezuelans can be sure that their vote counts. And also unlike the US, where as many as 90 million eligible voters will not vote in November, the government in Venezuela has done everything to increase voter registration (now at a record of about 97%) and participation.

Chavez closed down critical TV stations. And yet the old case of the failure to prolong RCTV’s broadcasting license continues to be cited as the main evidence of this media “suppression.” E.g. from the faux-liberal Daily Beast:

And yet Latin America’s new democratic leaders rarely spoke against the excesses of Chávismo, turning a blind eye when he canceled the operating license of independent broadcaster RCTV in 2007…

What typically goes studiously unmentioned is that RCTV gleefully and one-sidedly supported the foreign-backed coup attempt against the legitimately elected Chavez administration in 2002. In many other countries, this would have been considered treason, with the attendant penalties of long-term imprisonment or even execution. In humane Venezuela, however, you just lose your broadcasting license.

Electricity blackouts. Guardianista presstite Rory Carroll, who clearly has an agenda:

He leaves Venezuela a ruin, and his death plunges its roughly 30 million citizens into profound uncertainty.

Because that exactly describes an increase in GDP per capita from $4,105 in 1999 to $10,810 in 2011 (according to his own newspaper). As Craig Willy says:

But particularly hilarious is this statement:

Underinvestment and ineptitude hit hydropower stations and the electricity grid, causing weekly blackouts that continue to darken cities, fry electrical equipment, silence machinery and require de facto rationing.

Because of course they never happen in pro-Western, investor-friendly countries.

Chavez stole $2 billion. These are rumors that keep slithering about in the comments from various neocons, although they rarely pop up into mainstream media texts outright. Apparently this claim comes from some right-wing law firm in Miami that claims the Castro brothers of Cuba are billionaires too. I find it about as credible as claims about Putin’s $40 billion fortune (or is it $70 billion now?), initially made by some non-entity Russian political scientist, and Gaddafi’s $200 billion fortune, probably spread by the CIA or somesuch in the course of NATO’s assault on the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (very ironic, coming from thieves who had seized Libya’s foreign-based assets). Funny how it’s always those who dare stand up to Western imperialism who get accused by their flunkies of massive corruption, no? I wonder if one causes the other?

Oil dependence. A lot of the presstitutes have accused Chavez of increasing Venezuela’s oil dependence, e.g.:

Former minister Gerver Torres points out that in 1998 oil represented 77 percent of Venezuela’s exports but by 2011 oil represented 96 percent of exports. That means today only around 4 percent of the goods that Venezuela exports are non-oil products! The Venezuelan economy relies almost exclusively on the price of oil and the ability of the government to spend oil revenues.

That’s kind of what happens when the oil price goes from being $11.91 per barrel (in 1998) to $87.04 (in 2011)! Funny how they harp on about how rising oil prices “unfairly” helped Chavez but then instantly shut up about it when making THIS particular point.

Higher violent crime. Not a myth. In fact, as I made clear, it’s one of the Chavez administration’s very biggest failings. Then ago, we also have many of the presstitutes claiming he was a dictator – even though the precise opposite happens with real dictators (they don’t tolerate alternate sources of violence, and they don’t bother with legal niceties; they just put all the suspected mafiosi up against a wall – put the two together, and violent crime almost always plummets under the rule of real dictators. The Sicilian Mafia actually provided help to Allied troops against the Mussolini regime).

He was friends with Ahmadinejad. Plenty of Western politicians are friends with Saudi prices. Drop the double standards.

He was anti-American. Well, what can you expect if you plot a coup against someone and then incessantly demonize him for not respecting democracy? Like Castro, incidentally, he actually started out fairly pro-American. It didn’t have to be this way.

He didn’t build skyscrapers. This has to be read to be believed. From AP’s Pamela Sampson:

Chavez invested Venezuela’s oil wealth into social programs including state-run food markets, cash benefits for poor families, free health clinics and education programs. But those gains were meager compared with the spectacular construction projects that oil riches spurred in glittering Middle Eastern cities, including the world’s tallest building in Dubai and plans for branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums in Abu Dhabi.

The author’s agenda speaks for itself. (Not to mention her ignorance – while Venezuela remains fiscally sound, Dubai’s big tower remains 80% unoccupied and needed a $10 billion bailout. Had Chavez listened to people like these then Venezuela would have gone bankrupt for real, not just in their sordid, bitter like imaginations).

(Republished from AKarlin.com by permission of author or representative)
 
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Not sure you can say that of many national ambassadors! This is what I wrote to this email for expressing condolences on Chavez’s passing:

After a heroic battle with cancer, Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías has shuffled off this mortal coil, but his dream will endure forever and continue giving hope unto the hearts of men and women all over the world. In his dream, nations can triumph over comprador elites, even when the latter are backed by international plutocrats and the world’s greatest superpower. It is the dream of 21 century socialism, which has resoundingly proven that social justice, better living standards, and democracy are not trade-offs, but complementary to each other. It is the dream of a Venezuela and a Latin America that is democratic, socially cohesive, independent, and sovereign. Salutations to the late Comandante, in the firm conviction that Venezuela will find worthy successors to continue pursuing the Bolivarian dream.

Here is his response:

Dear Anatoly,

Thank you very much for your kind message.

During this difficult time for us as Venezuelans, your words were greatly appreciated.

In spite of Chavez’s absence, we will always carry with us his example, perhaps the most important of which was his true dedication and constant perseverance to realise his dreams of independence, sovereignty, justice and solidarity.

Thanks again for your support.

Samuel Moncada, Ambassador.

Incidentally, Mr. Moncada has an impressive academic pedigree, with a PhD in history from Oxford University. Just goes to show that the claims that Venezuela has no meritocracy and all the prestigious political/diplomatic jobs go to chavista cronies are probably false or at least very exaggerated.

Another thing to note is that Samuel Moncada also writes for The Guardian. This article is particularly interesting – apparently he was almost arrested by the CIA-backed coup plotters in 2002. (Many in his apartment block were not so lucky). I try to keep from empty moralizing, but sometimes it’s really sickening how the same people who crow the loudest about Chavez’s “rollback” of democracy studiously ignore – and perhaps privately lament the failure of – the comprador elites’ attempt to unseat a democratically and legitimately elected President.

(Republished from AKarlin.com by permission of author or representative)
 
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We all suspected this would come sooner or later. As it happens, Chavez struggled heroically against his cancer, confounding the intensive Schadenfreude and concerted death wishes of his loathsome detractors month after arduous month.

But this is what you can expect to get when you look out for your own countrymen and stand up to imperialism. Probably no other modern national leader apart from Putin has been quite as consistently and caustically vilified by the Western media.

They say that he managed to squander Venezuela’s oil wealth. I suppose he is guilty as charged, if by “squander” you mean spending it on ordinary Venezuelans as opposed to funneling it away to foreign bankster rats. During his rule, real GDP increased by 50%, poverty has halved, inequality was reduced to a very low level at least by Latin American oligarchic standards, infant mortality was greatly reduced, and virtually the whole array of other socio-economic indicators that states care to track, from access to clean drinking water to enrollment in higher education (which increased by a stunning 138%), saw great improvements. At the same time, contrary to the claims of the neoliberal propagandists, debt hasn’t increased; it was a modest 45% of GDP as of 2011 (IMF), which reduces to 25% if only central government debt is accounted for. The national accounts have on average been balanced.

venezuela-gdp

This was all achieved despite the real negative impacts of the 2002-2003 oil industry strikes, which occurred in tandem with an abortive CIA-backed coup, and the global Great Recession; not to mention Venezuela’s own legacy of corruption and backwardness inherited from previous regimes.

The traitorous cockroaches, including on my very blog, claimed Chavez “oppressed” them and stole the elections. They said he was a dictator for refusing to extend the license of their opposition RCTV channel. The irony is that in any actually democratic country it would have been instantly shut down and they’d have been locked away for decades for treason, if not lined up against the wall like the rabid scum they are. They materially supported a foreign backed coup against a legitimately elected national leader and then had the gall, the temerity, the sheer chutzpah to complain that one of their talking shops was taken away from them! Even though much of the media in Venezuela remains in oligarch pockets and continues to tell lies about pro-Chavez electoral fraud, when all the polls indicate that that is indeed the will of the people. Of course there’s nothing contradictory about that. The seditious vermin despise the Venezuelan people and would much rather dissolve them and elect another (as opposed to emigrating and parasiting off some other country).

The incorrigibly thievish liberals, no doubt full of projection, claim that Venezuela under Chavez has become one of the most corrupt countries in the world. They cite the loathsome Corruption Perceptions Index in support of this view – i.e. the perceptions of the same internationalist banksters and “experts” who have such a withering hatred for those countries that dare to stand up against Western imperialism. Asking ordinary people reveals quite a different picture: Fewer ordinary Venezuelans (some 20% of them) said that had to pay a bribe in the past year than in Colombia (24%), the Western puppet state next door.

latin-america-homicide-rates

Perhaps the only real failing of the Chavez administration is its inability to control violent crime. Venezuela now has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. But this was part of a general Latin American trend, and what’s more, could just as easily be attributable to a regrettable if admirable surfeit of humaneness in the Venezuelan criminal justice system (it has not had the death penalty since 1863).

Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías brought hope and a credible promise of a better tomorrow to a benighted country, and was the bane of the rootless cosmopolitans and comprador elites that hypocritically shrilled about his supposed corruption and selling out to Cuba even as they frantically shuffled their ill-gotten billions into Swiss vaults and dialed their CIA handlers for advice. Yes, he was loathed by the Latin American offshore aristocracy, the neocons, and the Guardianista-type, “humanitarian bomber” Pro War Left and Western chauvinists in liberal clothing. But he was also beloved of the millions of Venezuelans, who resisted oligarch media pressure and mafia-like “international community” and continued to give El Comandante – in some of the world’s cleanest and most transparent elections – term after term to implement his vision of a just and sovereign Latin America.

If it is true that one gets to know a man by his friends and enemies, then he qualifies as one of the very greatest national leaders of modern history. He now shuffles off this mortal coil, leaving behind his struggles and haters, and ascending to the realm of God, where he can contemplate the crystalline tranquility of the cosmos; but the light of the Bolivarian Revolution that he ignited on this lower plane of existence will endure – and continue shining hope into the hearts of men all over the world unto the ages of ages.

PS. For more statistics and objective assessments of Chavez’ achievements, consult Mark Weisbrot’s classic, “The Chávez Administration at 10 Years: The Economy and Social Indicators.

(Republished from AKarlin.com by permission of author or representative)
 
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At the recent Summit of the Americas in Trinidad, two great leaders, Obama and Chavez, shook hands in what could be the symbolic first gesture of reconciliation. Treasonous neocons will no doubt rush to condemn this as yet another limp-wristed and unilateral concession to “America’s enemies”, reminding their listeners that Chavez closed down opposition media, nationalized American assets and welcomed Russian warships and strategic bombers to his realm.

Yet their stubborn animosity is worse than just imperialist arrogance – it is stupid. They fail to realize that in the past decade Latin America in general, and Venezuela in particular, has become too politically mature to be easily manipulated into serving US (corporate) interests by economic hitmen, CIA operatives and their local surrogates. It is to Obama’s credit that he is willing to move from willful denial to cautious acceptance of the decline of overt American power in Venezuela and elsewhere.

For that is the new reality. The Venezuelan opposition is increasingly discredited for its unconstructive hostility to the government and extra-legal attempts to overthrow Chavez, one of which nearly succeeded in 2002. This resulted in blowback against the US for its covert involvement The government’s refusal to renew the licenses of opposition media outlets that seditiously backed the abortive coup is thus completely understandable, as is Chavez’ personal animosity towards Bush and outreach to other states in similar straits. Furthermore, it should be noted that the owners of newly nationalized companies, including American ones, were fairly compensated.

Meanwhile, within five years of taking real power in Venezuela, a corrupt, disorganized and class-ridden country, Chavez managed to a) double the GDP, b) halve the number of people living in poverty and c) drastically improve practically every indicator of social wellbeing from child mortality rates to inequality to tertiary education enrollment rates (I already covered these successes in prior posts). This does not mean that Venezuela is no longer a corrupt, disorganized and class-ridden country – it still is, to an extent – but the improvements are undeniable and Chavez enjoys high approval ratings. It is thus unseemly and dishonest of the Western MSM to excoriate Chavez as a thuggish populist strongman and economic illiterate.

Let us hope they take a clue from Obama. Or from Mark Weisbrot and his fellow authors, who in their latest paper, The Chávez Administration at 10 Years: The Economy and Social Indicators, give a glowing verdict on the achievements of the Bolivarian revolution.

Economic Growth: As you can see from the graph below, Chavez inherited an ailing, stagnating economy. From 1978-1998, Venezuela’s per capita GDP declined by 21.5%. Chavez was initially politically weak, with the state-owned oil company (PDVSA), the linchpin of the Venezuelan economy, controlled by forces intensely hostile to Chavez. Furthermore, they began to actively sabotage the economy from December 2001, when the Venezuelan Chamber of Commerce organized a general business strike against the government. This culminated in a two day military coup in April 2002 that temporarily unseated Chavez. Adding to the political instability and capital flight, the PDVSA oil strikes of Jan-Feb 2003 led to a short but severe recession.

After the oil strike and Chavez's consolidation of power, Venezuela racked up one of the highest growth rates in the world.

After the oil strike and Chavez’s consolidation of power, Venezuela racked up one of the highest growth rates in the world.

However, once the opposition were neutralized Venezuela managed to rack up very rapid growth. Even canceling out the post-recession recovery, GDP grew at an annual pace of 8.8% from the end of the shaded part in the graph above to Q2 of 2008, or at 6.9% in per capita terms. This is not an unimpressive achievement. The (mean) average Venezuelan increased his output as fast as the average Argentine, Indian and Russian during those years; from the major countries, only the Chinese did significantly better.

Furthermore, growth was broad-based and primarily private – contrary to media myths, the oil sector actually experienced negative growth from 2005-2007 after its quick initial recovery from the PDVSA strikes. Manufacturing grew at a respectable annual rate of 13.2% from 2004-2007. For all the ruckus over incipient statism with all its negative connotations, the public share of GDP declined.

Social Progress: The economy not only grew at an impressive tempo, but the benefits accruing to it were more equitably distributed than at any time in Venezuelan history. Despite the opposition-instigated economic reversals of his mid-Presidency, from 1999-2008, poverty more than halved from 43% to 26% and extreme poverty plummeted from 17% to just 7%. Its Gini index, a standard measure of inequality, dropped from 47 to 41 – though still high, it is extraordinarily egalitarian by Latin American standards and all the more impressive considering it came at a time of rising oil prices.

Infant mortality dropped from 19.0 / 1000 in 1999 to 14.2 / 1000 in 2008; post-neonatal mortality was cut by more than half. Food security improved through the Programa Alimenticio Escolar school-feeding program and the heavily subsidized Mercal network of government food stores. Despite fairly rapid population growth, from 1999-2007 access to clean drinking water increased from 80% to 92% of the population and access to sanitation increased from 62% to 82% of the population. These achievements were facilitated by impressive improvements in medical care – the numbers of physicians, hospitals and other medical facilities increased by almost an order of magnitude.

From 1999-2008 Venezuela finally achieved near universal primary school enrollment and near universal secondary enrollment. Participation in higher education increased by an astounding 138%. Since the extra human capital embedded in education is a vital prerequisite for longterm economic growth, Chavez laid very important foundations here.

Labor: Unemployment dropped, and naysaying propagandists to the contrary, not just because the state hired all the new people. Though employment in the public sector increased by around 50% since 1999 and its share of the total workforce increased from 13.1% to 16.6%, it was commensurate with the large expansion of the state undertaken under Chavez in the second half of his Presidency. However, it remains quite low by developed-country standards.

Government Finance, Current Account. Although the dramatic rise in oil prices helped, non-oil revenue also increased from 11.7% of GDP in 1998 to 14.2% of GDP in 2007 due to improved tax collection. Revenue and spending both increased, the government maintained a stable budget surplus. However, the state oil company PDVSA also had 6.1% of GDP in public expenditures – this, along with peak oil, is probably what caused Venezuelan oil extraction to fall. That said, I think leaving more resources in the ground for a time when they’ll become worth much more is in itself not a bad investment. Similarly, the current account stayed firmly in the black throughout.

For a more detailed discussion of Venezuela’s prospects during this world depression, please see Victimized Venezuela II: Beware of Schadenfreude. Suffice to say the situation is unlikely to turn critical and Chavez will remain politically secure, the wishes of some in the US foreign policy establishment regardless.

That said, there do exist serious problems in Venezuela – inflation, an overvalued bolivar, corruption, obstacles to small and medium business (SME) growth and crime… just to prove I’m not a chavista fanatic.

Problem – Exchange Rates, Inflation. After subsiding from a peak at around the time of the PDVSA strikes, inflation crept back up to around 30% since 2006, supercharged by soaring global food prices. However, since its exchange rate is fixed at 2,150 bolivars to one US dollar, the inflation contributed to massive over-valuation of its currency, estimated at more than 50%. This needs to be fixed if Venezuelan manufacturing is to become competitive and to dilute the economy’s dependence on oil rents – growth in this sector mostly ceased by 2008, and as of December 2008 was down by 25.4% from December 2007. Devaluation is also needed to narrow an awning budget deficit some expect to exceed 20% of GDP in 2009, a disturbing figure even by recent spendthrift standards.

Now that Chavez won the referendum on the abolition of term limits in February 2009 and given that the next Presidential election is in 2012, there are already signs of a stealth devaluation. Because subsidizing dollars is much harder with oil prices at 50$ instead of 100$ per barrel, the government is limiting the amounts of dollars Venezuelans can buy for foreign travel and are considering doing the same with luxury imports. Though Finance Minister Ali Rodriguez says a devaluation will not happen in 2009, a “multitiered exchange rate” is possible – that is, continuing the current peg only for vital imports such as medicine, food staples, and industrial machinery.

This will keep social discontent to a minimum (for a year or two, Venezuelans will have to live with fewer imported cars and cakes, but they’ll have bread). The boost in inflation will be counteracted by shrinking demand and general global deflation. Furthermore, Venezuela has low foreign debt, considerable reserves and China is keeping a floor under commodity prices by buying them up on the cheap across the world. Coupled with what already looks like an incipient recovery in emerging Asia, Venezuela, like Russia, should come out of the crisis relatively unscathed, leaner and ready to enjoy a second round of soaring oil prices. Meanwhile, Chavez is continuing to invest in long-term development by pouring money into infrastructure projects like building an extensive railway system – an excellent idea for the post-peak oil world.

Problem – Corruption, Obstacles to SME Growth. Venezuela is ostensibly the 158th most corrupt nation in the world, according to Transparency International. Yet as I noted in one of my very first articles for Da Russophile, Reading Russia Right:

While there’s no denying Russia is plagued by corruption, to suggest it is endemic like in a failed state is ludicrous – and would frankly be obvious to anyone who has visited the countries on that list. The problem with the CPI is that it’s a survey of outsider businesspeople and their subjective perception of the situation. While improving perceptions is an important goal, it does not necessarily correlate perfectly with reality. TI’s Global Corruption Barometer asks ordinary people how affected they are by corruption, for instance, have you paid a bribe to obtain a service this year? In 2007, 17% of Russians did – putting them into the same quintile as Bulgaria, Turkey and the Czech Republic. In other words, slap bang in the middle of world corruption, rather than at the end.

Pretty much the same argument can be made with Venezuela. In 2007, only 12% of Venezuelans paid a bribe to obtain services, basically the same proportion as the supposedly much cleaner Czechs.

The root cause of this is the sheer amount of restrictions on business in Venezuela – it comes 171st in Ease of Doing Business rankings. In this atmosphere, doing business in full compliance with all the laws and regulations is nigh impossible and forces enterprises into a constant search for shortcuts by reaching understandings with regional bureaucrats. This distorts the economy, dissuades investors and reduces the potential rate of economic convergence with the developed world. And lowers its position on the Corruption Perceptions Index

Yet ultimately, the important thing is to get stuff built – parasites skimming 10% off a project is regrettable, but not catastrophic. As long as a developing country has basic market mechanisms, a semblance of macroeconomic stability, an open economy and most importantly, high human capital, its economy will converge to developed country levels. Many deeply corrupt and bureaucratized countries (Italy immediately springs to mind) managed the transition and fell into economic stasis only after they got rich.

The current preference for short-term social gratification in place of faster diversification through manufacturing is lamentable, but perhaps unavoidable. Chavez operates under the same political constraints that conditioned the classical Latin American caudillo. Maintaining the acquiescence of the statist bourgeoisie, if not their active support, is key to retaining power, given their control over the traditionally tightly intertwined business-bureaucratic-military complex. It appears to me that this structure is being rapidly dismantled in Venezuela since 2003. (Paradoxically, by constructing a new elite drawn from the younger, educated proletariat, Chavez may well end up ushering in the conditions for a leaner, more effective capitalist economy).

Sociological speculations aside, it is however indisputable that Chavez is building the future more actively than any previous Venezuelan leader – despite the cancerous growth of bureaucracy, socialist tendencies and failure to reform the economy on his watch.

Problem – Crime. I am always skeptical about attributing crime trends, positive or adverse, to governments. They can influence them but can’t control them, for they depend on a great many variables inter-connected in ways little understood even by modern criminologists. That said, I thought it would be instructive to actually plot out Venezuela’s notoriously high homicide rates against other Latin American nations.

First, even by the time Chavez was inaugurated President in February 1999, Venezuelan homicide rates had a long, secular trend towards growth, much like Brazil and Jamaica.

Second, they peaked in 2003, at the end of a turbulent period of opposition-instigated anarchy. Since then homicide rates fell slightly, but it seems from the graph of Colombia that once entrenched, high homicide rates are very hard to reverse.

Third, there are allegations that the Venezuelan state contributes to the high homicide rates with its supposedly lax policies towards the “war on drugs”. Right-wing commentators lambast Chavez, left-wing commentators lambast the CIA, and in general the situation seems shady and unclear. I will not comment on these angry accusations and conspiracy theories (which might be true, who knows?) except to state the obvious and recommend global drug legalization.

Fourth, many of the big cities where crime is concentrated are actually run by opposition mayors.

Along with the likes of Colombia, South Africa and Iraq, the chances of violent death in Venezuela today are typical of a medieval society. By my rough calculations, at current rates every thirtieth Venezuelan can expect to be murdered during his or her lifetime. You really don’t want to be a young man living in a seedy Caracas slum nowadays…

Crime is no doubt a huge problem in Venezuela requiring the utmost attention and possibly draconian measures. Which will not happen, as Chavez is far too humanistic for that, and tradition-bound; Venezuela abolished the death penalty way back in 1863…

Problem? – Authoritarianism. Even Freedom House, a notoriously compromised organization, refrains from labeling Venezuela as Not Free. According the Economist Democracy Index, it is a hybrid regime much like that of Russia, Turkey or Georgia – neither a traditional liberal democracy nor an authoritarian state. The Polity IV Project, an academic database tracking democracy trends since the end of the Second World War, gives Venezuela 5 on a scale ranging from -10 (full autocracy) to 10 (full democracy). I suggest reading their 2007 Venezuela Report to anyone genuinely interested in its political status – their main complaint is on weak executive constraints.

Furthermore, democracy is no panacea. Chavez may have increased his personal power and perhaps this trend will intensify, yet he empowered communities by expanding local democracy, education and healthcare. Much of Latin America is enmeshed into backward, class-ridden systems wherein minuscule middle classes exploit the state to serve their own ends, while keeping the masses suppressed by neglect, ignorance, poverty and religion. Chavez is breaking Venezuelans free of this unholy matrix.

I once talked on a plane with a Venezuelan who lamented on the idleness and lack of curiosity of the people, and about how the equivalent of a small town is murdered there every year. Sounds to me like they need a good dose of revolutionary fervor directed towards building up the country. Hopefully the Bolivarian Revolution will sweep away the oligarchic degenerates into political irrelevance and Chavez will use the opportunity to build a modern industrial economy and reinstall liberal democracy once the heavy lifting is finished.

Yet in any case the US should not concern itself over his democratic or human rights credentials, be they fair or foul. Venezuela has Latin America’s biggest reserves of oil and its Orinoco tar sands could potentially hold as much oil equivalent as Saudi Arabia (though being hard to exploit they are worth much less). Although it exports much of its oil to the US, the Chinese have recently been getting in on the action in a big way, as part of their global strategy of locking up diminishing natural resources to fuel industrialization for a few more decades. Cutting off a major part of America’s economic lifeblood at a time of peaking global oil extraction in the service of abstract concepts like democracy is strategic folly.

Overthrowing Chavez and installing a pliant satrap is no longer realistic – the Venezuelan state is now stronger, Chavez is popular and the opposition is viewed as venal and discredited in the eyes of voters. Even from a military perspective, intervention is politically unacceptable and in any case becoming riskier year by year as the Bolivarian republic plows part of its oil windfalls into acquiring modern diesel submarines, air defense systems and Sukhoi fighter jets from Russia – a relatively cheap and effective way of negating American CVBG diplomacy.

Finally, in any case Venezuela has, interesting enough, the most positive outlook on the US of any major Latin American country – Chavez’s tirades to the contrary. This should provide further incentives for cooperation rather than conflict.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Much like Putin’s Russia, Venezuela has been unfairly victimized by Washington’s foreign policy elite and savaged by the Western MSM, which have caricatured Chávez as a run of the mill Latin American populist strongman. In a previous post on this matter, I drew attention to the work of Mark Weisbrot at the CEPR, who has demolished these crude myths (The Venezuelan Economy in the Chávez Years). Under the Bolivarian regime poverty plummeted, access to high-quality healthcare, education and affordable food widened and the GDP skyrocketed by 94% from Q2 2003 to 2008.

Unable to criticize Venezuela on humanitarian grounds, the only option left open to the neoliberal ideologues was to claim that the Venezuelan economic miracle was nothing more than an ‘oil boom headed for collapse’. Unfortunately for them, the Venezuelan state kept a balanced budget, reduced its foreign debt from 47.7% of GDP in 2003 to 24.3% in 2007 and total interest on all public debt amounted to just 2.1% of GDP in 2006 – overall, a fiscal policy far more responsible than Washington’s itself. For 2008, the government assumed an oil price of 35$ per barrel; it is true that in practice the state spends beyond budgeted expenditures when oil revenue far exceeds the budgeted for price, so a fall in oil prices would trim government spending and growth. However, a budgetary crisis or economic downturn are very unlikely, since the government has more than 50bn $ of international reserves it can draw upon in a crisis.

That was the theory when Weisbrot published the paper in February 2008…but how does it stack up in the face of 50$ per barrel today?

In November Mark Weisbrot published another article, Oil Prices and Venezuela’s Economy. In the brief introduction, he reiterates the points made above and mentions that since US-Venezuelan economic links are weak, by far the most important direct external effect of the global economic crisis on Venezuela is the effect on oil prices, since that commodity accounts for 93% of its exports. The key question is how far oil prices must fall before the country begins to run an unsustainable current account deficit. (The current account is mostly the trade balance plus several other things like debt service payments, and is the main binding constraint for all developing countries since they cannot borrow as much, relative to their GDP or for as long, as developed countries with ‘hard currencies’, to meet their import needs. The central government budget can be covered in the local currency so it’s not as important).

Weisbrot begins by looking at various export scenarios. He assumed that the 7% of non-oil exports remain a constant 6.5bn $ per year.

After verifying PDVSA’s (Venezuela’s national oil company) export volumes, he took that as the high case (2.89 mbd) and after subtracting half the 0.54mn barrels exported on favorable terms to friendly nations under the PetroCaribe program, took the latter figure as the low case (2.62 mbd). As we see from the table above, exports remain respectable at 63.9bn $, even at 66$ a barrel (WTI-adjusted), whereas ‘estimates from Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, and the International Energy Agency predict WTI prices of between $80 and $100 per barrel for 2009′.

Venezuelan annual exports under various oil price scenarios. NB: Above prices are for Venezuelan oil, which typically sells for 10% less than West Texas Intermediate.

Venezuelan annual exports under various oil price scenarios. (Above prices are for Venezuelan oil, which typically sells for 10% less than West Texas Intermediate).

Imports for 2008 are currently at an annualized 43.2bn $. Considering that this year did see a price spike, the average oil price for the whole year should remain at around 90$, thus providing about 90-100bn $ of export revenue and yielding a massive trade surplus of 50-60bn $ (or around 15-18% of GDP).

The new two years are summarized in the tables below for a range of oil prices, and using the lower export volume estimate (2.62 mbd). (In practice it might be a bit lower due to oil field depletion and OPEC quotas, but it will not change the overall picture to any significant degree.)

Oil @ 90$ / barrel 2008 2009 2010
GDP (bn $) 331.8 440.5 598.3
Imports (% GDP) 12.9 13.0 13.3
Exports (% GDP) 28.0 21.0 15.5
Trade Balance (% GDP) 15.0 10.5 7.2
Oil @ 80$ / barrel 2008 2009 2010
GDP (bn $) 331.8 440.5 598.3
Imports (% GDP) 12.9 13.0 13.3
Exports (% GDP) 28.0 18.8 13.9
Trade Balance (% GDP) 15.0 8.4 5.6
Oil @ 70$ / barrel 2008 2009 2010
GDP (bn $) 331.8 440.5 598.3
Imports (% GDP) 12.9 13.0 13.3
Exports (% GDP) 28.0 16.7 12.3
Trade Balance (% GDP) 15.0 6.2 4.0
Oil @ 60$ / barrel 2008 2009 2010
GDP (bn $) 331.8 440.5 598.3
Imports (% GDP) 12.9 13.0 13.3
Exports (% GDP) 28.0 14.5 11.7
Trade Balance (% GDP) 15.0 3.7 2.4
Oil @ 50$ / barrel 2008 2009 2010
GDP (bn $) 331.8 440.5 598.3
Imports (% GDP) 12.9 13.0 13.3
Exports (% GDP) 28.0 12.3 9.1
Trade Balance (% GDP) 15.0 1.5 0.8

As seen from the scenario above, Venezuela will almost certainly avoid a trade deficit in the next few years (let alone experience a balance of payments crisis), even if oil drops to and stays at 50$ per barrel – a highly unlikely outcome that would probably only come to pass in the event of a full blown global Depression.

Adding in interest payments on the sovereign debt does not change the big picture, since they currently only make up 2.2% of annual GDP. Even if, contrary to all expectations, the oil price remains at 50$ per barrel and Venezuela racks up a small current account deficit, it can be easily mitigated by the Central Bank’s 40bn $ of reserves and 37bn $ in other hard currency assets, which together make up a 23% of GDP cushion which ensures that any landing will be a soft one.

In conclusion, Venezuela will retain a long-term current account surplus under almost any plausible scenario. Since the government controls access to foreign exchange, import growth can be limited as a last resort. Weisbrot recommends the Venezuelan government to pursue an expansionary fiscal policy, including deficit spending, so as to maintain economic growth and prevent unnecessary falls output and employment (just like the counter-cyclical measures the Chinese are now taking). Inflation should not be a problem, since it will be countered by deflationary forces due to the decelerating global economy (e.g. lower food prices). Not only is Venezuela very far from collapse, to the incipient chagrin of schadenfreude-indulging neocons; the fiscal prudence Chávez wisely followed during the fat years will now enable Venezuela to pursue growth in the midst of Anglo-Saxon paralysis.

NB: in other recent work, Weisbrot takes issue with those who think Argentina is going to default on its debt, as it did in 2002. He also has a pessimistic take on the US economy and foreign policy – it’s key points are a) the housing bubble is still far from wound down, b) expects a retreat of neoliberal dogma in the next few years, c) notes that the IMF has lost practically all leverage with respect to middle-income countries, d) US power and prestige have been in retreat throughout Latin America, which has seen a political ‘left wave’ and dissilusionment with the Washington Consensus, e) there is a continued and disturbing lack of understanding of Latin America by Washington’s foreign polic elite, in particular towards Venezuela, f) hopes that the Democratic base will exert influence on foreign policy, in particular removing America’s sense of messianic exceptionalism and g) “Americans may finally begin to see themselves as having to choose between fighting to defend an empire in decline, and enjoying the quality of life – including such amenities as universal health care – that their counterparts in other rich countries have”.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Chavez is frequently shafted in the Western media, who allege that the only reason the Venezuelan economy is doing well is because of record oil prices. This is not to mention all the invective hurled against the Chavez administration for its supposed disrespect for democracy, from refusing to renew the licenses of TV stations support foreign-sponsored coup attempts against him (while ignoring human rights violation in friendly countries in the region like Colombia, where more union workers are killed annually in than in the rest of the world combined) to the latest smear job by the Economist about crime.

But let’s focus on the economic-boom-is-because-of-oil mantra. Having disproved similar claims about Russia, I decided to investigate this further. Novel Prize winning economist Stiglitz has praised Venezuela’s economic policies. And I found this excellent paper, Update: The Venezuelan Economy in the Chávez Years by Mark Weisbrot and Luis Sandoval from 2008. I’ve quoted its main findings.

Venezuela has experienced very rapid growth since the bottom of the recession in 2003, and grew by 10.3 percent in 2006 and about 8.4 percent last year. The most commonly held view of the current economic expansion is that it is an “oil boom” driven by high oil prices, as in the past, and is headed for a “bust.” The coming collapse is seen either as a result of oil prices eventually declining, or the government’s mismanagement of economic policy.
There is much evidence to contradict this conventional wisdom. Venezuela suffered a severe economic growth collapse in the 1980s and 1990s, with its real GDP peaking in 1977. In this regard it is similar to the region as a whole, which since 1980 has suffered its worst long-term growth performance in more than a century. Hugo Chávez Frías was elected in 1998 and took office in 1999, and the first four years of his administration were plagued by political instability that had a large adverse impact on the economy. (See Figure 2). This culminated in a military coup that temporarily toppled the constitutional government in April 2002, followed by a devastating oil strike in December 2002-February 2003. The oil strike sent the economy into a severe recession, during which Venezuela lost 24 percent of GDP.

But in the second quarter of 2003, the political situation began to stabilize, and it has continued to stabilize throughout the current economic expansion. The economy has had continuous rapid growth since the onset of political stability. Real (inflation-adjusted) GDP has grown by 87.3 percent since the bottom of the recession in 2003. It is likely that the government’s expansionary fiscal and monetary policies, as well as exchange controls, have contributed to the current economic upswing. Central government spending increased from 21.4 percent of GDP in 1998 to 30 percent in 2006. Real short-term interest rates have been negative throughout all or most of the recovery (depending on the measure—see Figure 4).

The government’s revenue increased even faster than spending during this period, from 17.4 to 30 percent of GDP over the same period, leaving the central government with a balanced budget for 2006. The government has planned
conservatively with respect to oil prices: for example, for 2007, the budget planned for oil at $29 per barrel, compared to an average price of $65.20 dollars per barrel for Venezuelan crude last year.
The government has typically exceeded planned spending as oil prices come in higher than the budgeted price, so it is possible that spending would be reduced if oil prices decline.

The Chávez government has greatly increased social spending, including spending on health care, subsidized food, and education. The most pronounced difference has been in the area of health care. For example, in 1998 there were 1,628 primary care physicians for a population of 23.4 million. Today, there are 19,571 for a population of 27 million. The Venezuelan government has also
provided widespread access to subsidized food. By 2006, there were 15,726 stores
throughoutthe country that offered mainly food items at subsidized prices (with
average savings of 27 percent and 39 percent compared to market prices in 2005 and 2006, respectively).

The poverty rate has been cut in half from its peak of 55.1 percent in 2003 to 27.5 percent in the first half of 2007, as would be expected in the face of the very rapid economic growth during these years. (See Table 3). If we compare the pre-Chávez poverty rate (43.9 percent) with the first half of 2007 (27.5 percent) this is a 37 percent drop in the rate of poverty. However this poverty rate does not take into account the increased access to health care or education that poor people have experienced. The situation of the poor has therefore improved significantly beyond even the substantial poverty reduction that is visible in the official poverty rate, which measures only cash income.

Inflation itself is a problem, now running at 22.5 percent. But it should be emphasized that double-digit inflation rates in a developing country such as Venezuela are not comparable to the same phenomenon occurring in the United States or Europe. Inflation in Venezuela was much higher in the pre Chávez years, running at 36 percent in 1998 and 100 percent in 1996. It has fallen through most of the current recovery, from 40 percent annual rate (monthly, year-over-year) at the peak of the oil strike in February 2003 to 10.4 percent in May 2006, before climbing again to its present rate (see Figure 3).

Because of its large current account surplus, large reserves, and low foreign debt, the government has a number of tools available to stabilize and reduce inflation – as well as eventually bring the currency into alignment – without sacrificing the growth of the economy. It appears the government is committed to maintaining a high rate of growth, in addition to its other goals. Venezuela is also well-situated to withstand negative external shocks, including a likely U.S. recession or even a serious global slowdown, a significant drop in the price of oil, and problems in the international credit and financial system. Therefore, at present it does not appear that the current economic expansion is about to end any time in the near future.

In sum, the performance of the Venezuelan economy during the Chávez years does not fit the mold of an “oil boom headed for a bust.” Rather it appears that the economy was hit hard for the first few years by political instability, and has grown rapidly since the political situation stabilized in the first quarter of 2003. High oil prices have certainly contributed to this growth, as has the government’s expansionary fiscal and monetary policy. Containing and reducing inflation, as well as realigning the domestic currency, appear to be the most important challenges in the intermediate run; in the long run, diversifying the economy away from its dependence on oil is also a major challenge.

However, the declining public debt (as a percentage of GDP), the large current account surplus, and the accumulation of reserves have given the government considerable insurance against a decline in oil prices. This favorable macroeconomic situation has also left the government with much flexibility in dealing with inflation and the related imbalance in the exchange rate. Since the government is committed to maintaining solid growth, it does not seem likely
that it would sharply curtail economic growth in order to bring down inflation, as is often done. This is especially true since it has not exhausted other alternatives. Venezuela is also well-situated to withstand negative external shocks, including a likely U.S. recession or even a serious global slowdown, a significant drop in the price of oil, and problems in the international credit and financial system. Therefore, at present it does not appear that the current economic expansion is about to end any time in the near future. The gains in poverty reduction, employment, education and health care that have occurred in the last few years are likely to continue along with the expansion.

A few more remarks.

1. Yes, Venezuela has become more oil-intensive as measured by its (nominal) GDP figures during Chavez’ rule. However, this is because oil has exploded in price. In real terms, oil production has actually been in decline and a weight on GDP growth; the biggest growth, by sector, was in construction, mining, utilities, retail, finance, transport and communications. I.e., pretty much everything except oil.

As put by the Council on Foreign Relations, “critics of Chavez think he should be pouring money into infrastructure to ensure a sustainable oil industry rather than allocating so much for social and foreign policy initiatives.” While that is certainly in American and oil-importing countries’ interests, that does not apply to ordinary Venezuelans.

But that’s beside the point, because the reason Venezuelan oil production is in decline is not that the state-owned oil company, PDVSA, has been supposedly stuffed by incompetent Bolivarian ideologues, burdened by non-oil related social and industrial obligations and had its share increased in “strategic associations” (between PDVSA and foreign companies) from 40% to 60%.

While the three above factors have played apart, it all ultimately comes down to peak oil. All the big discoveries were made before 1960 (which led to the first oil peak in 1970) and, with the exception of a small blip in the mid-1980′s (which, together with modernization and deregulation led to the second oil peak in the late 1990′s), have now ceased. And from now on it is predicted Venezuela’s oil production will be in continuous, relentless decline, following in the footsteps of countries like the US itself.

As an aside, the Orinoco fields are not a solution. The only place in the world where heavy oil refining is a major enterprise are the tar sands in Canada, which have not delivered impressive results despite the huge amounts of fresh water, natural gas and capital expended on them.

2. The most comprehensive (and non-hysterical) critique of Chavez is An Empty Revolution: The Unfulfilled Promises of Hugo Chávez by Francisco Rodríguez, who worked for a time Consolidated Social Fund, clashed with the administration and was eventually ousted. A condensed version was reprinted in the IHT.

He attacks the root of the Chavistas’ claims to superiority, claiming that ‘the “Chávez is good for the poor” hypothesis is wrong’. Basically, he suggests that even in those areas where things didn’t get worse (scarcities, access to running water, percentage of underweight babies, wealth unequality, etc), poverty reduction, illiteracy, infant mortality and spending on education and housing would not have been any worse without his presence. In other words, the oil windfall was mismanaged.

3. On the other hand Weisbrot immediately wrote a (convincing) rebuttal of the above claims in An Empty Research Agenda: The Creation of Myths About Contemporary Venezuela, showing most of those claims to be either half-truths or outright falsehoods.

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
 
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Anatoly Karlin
About Anatoly Karlin

I am a blogger, thinker, and businessman in the SF Bay Area. I’m originally from Russia, spent many years in Britain, and studied at U.C. Berkeley.

One of my tenets is that ideologies tend to suck. As such, I hesitate about attaching labels to myself. That said, if it’s really necessary, I suppose “liberal-conservative neoreactionary” would be close enough.

Though I consider myself part of the Orthodox Church, my philosophy and spiritual views are more influenced by digital physics, Gnosticism, and Russian cosmism than anything specifically Judeo-Christian.


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