Tucker Carlson devoted a segment of his show last night to discussing Democratic Socialism with Professor Cornel West. After outlining some of the policy prescriptions advocated by Democratic Socialists—”state ownership of major industries,” reparations for black Americans, abolishing ICE, etc—Carlson asked Cornel West for an example of where such a program has worked.
“Can you point to an example, an extant example, of it that works? Venezuela seems like an example of Democratic Socialism. Would you say that it is and if so does it work?” Carlson asked.
“No, I don’t think that Democratic Socialism as an ideal has been able to be embodied in a larger social context.”
The interview could have ended there with West admitting that this is an idea that has never worked, except that would be letting West off the hook too easily. Carlson brought the question back around to this point saying, “What happened in Venezuela? They call that Democratic Socialism but they don’t have toilet paper.”
At this point, West deflected by blaming outside forces for Venezuela’s failure. “Any time there’s been the attempts of ordinary people to engage in self-determination, they can get crushed by external nations, look at U.S. policies toward Venezuela has been very, very ugly,” West said. He added, “So we’ve never had a chance to really pull it off.”
The rest of the interview drills down on some specific proposals emanating from the Democratic Socialist left, i.e. abolishing prisons and borders. That’s interesting but I want to stick with the central question here: If Democratic Socialism is such a good idea, why hasn’t it ever worked?
Here’s my own partial answer to that question which you can take or leave, but I think it explains why so many efforts to instantiate Democratic Socialism/Communism wind up becoming authoritarian nightmares.
The central conceit of Democratic Socialism is the collective ownership of important industries. The State becomes a state but also a giant corporation. The idea behind this is to socialize the profits and thereby benefit everyone. It sounds lovely in theory. But of course, socializing profits also means centralizing authority. Now the government isn’t just responsible for passing and enforcing laws and regulations, it’s actually running most of the industries as well.
The left is fond of claiming the corporations are a threat to the people but somehow doesn’t grasp that consolidating all of those corporations into one mass and combining that mass with government power only makes the problem infinitely worse. It’s essentially offering one person control of the government and industry.
If that’s the prize on offer, what kind of person is going to wind up running that system?
Oh, I know the correct answer is the people. Socialism is supposed to work because the people remain in control of everything. If you ask a socialist like Cornel West the answer is always that real socialism/communism has never been tried. But they never can explain why that is.
Here’s why. Because Democratic Socialism/Communism sets up a winner-take-all system. As a result, the winner is often going to be a ruthless psychopath like Stalin, or Mao, or Pol Pot, or Fidel Castro, or Hugo Chavez. They could all talk a great game about the glories of the people’s revolution but ultimately they were autocrats who achieved power and then set about making sure they never had to give it up by any means necessary. This is precisely what has happened in Venezuela. Before he died, Hugo Chavez expropriated a bunch of businesses, spent lavishly on welfare, and then announced changes to the country’s Constitution that would allow him to become president for life.
In a rambling televised speech reminiscent of his close ally and friend Fidel Castro, Mr Chavez told the national assembly of 33 changes he plans to make to the constitution he introduced in 1999 which will cement his grip on power.
“We have broken the chains of the old, exploitative capitalist system,” said Mr Chavez. “The state now has the obligation to build the model of a socialist economy.”
His successor has done the same thing, i.e. packing the Supreme Court, throwing rivals in prison, and revising the constitution to remain in power. Five-digit inflation means little to an ensconced socialist tyrant. He just keeps talking about the glories of socialism no matter how many people are starving in the street.
That’s the other problem with Democratic Socialism. It not only concentrates power to create the ultimate prize for the most ruthless person capable of seizing it, it also gives them a built-in way to deflect any and all criticism of their schemes. Was Chavez an autocrat? Yes, but he was doing it for the people. Was Castro an autocrat? Yes, but he was doing it for the people. So long as you make a few moves toward spreading the wealth, a lot of people are willing to overlook the tyranny.
The alternative is a system of decentralized power. That’s what an ideal free market represents. People start their own businesses and run them. And yes, you’re still going to have a few psychopaths who become titans of industry, but in a decentralized system, they won’t control everything. At worst, they’ll control one segment of one market for a time. And even that will be a constant battle because other titans of industry are fighting for their share of that market. Market competition turns human lust for money and power into a check on itself.
Democratic Socialism eliminates that competition and consolidates the power in one place. If you put all the eggs in one basket, someone powerful and ruthless will come along and take the basket. And then they’ll use that consolidated power to stay there for as long as they can. That’s not a risk worth taking and Venezuela is a perfect example of what can happen when you do.