I’m well aware that Seamus Milne isn’t enormously popular amongst people who I would consider to be my co-thinkers. Indeed, some of his articles about international issues are a little too much to take.
His recent unconvincing defences of President Assad and Colonel Gaddafi’s blood-soaked rule of Libya made me very uncomfortable indeed. Reading through them, they struck me as very abstract at best. I don’t think he would be making those arguments if he was living under the regimes he was so uncritical of.
His is a common failure however, and to a degree understandable in these times of generalized defeat for the forces (and more importantly the ideas) of the left. A lot of people, especially the generation before mine, have known nothing but defeat, and that eventually breeds disillusionment and political incoherence. For instance, so many in and around the Labour Party who should know better have accepted the Thatcherite settlement and brand anyone who dares question it a ‘dinosaur’.
In the absence of a serious left and labour movement, various alternatives have filled the void in the eyes of many commentators like Milne (or politicians like George Galloway). It could be ‘anti-imperialist’ regimes in the Middle East. Islamic fundamentalists. The Chinese Communist Party.
Anything that ‘challenges’ American hegemony, and their eyes that challenge takes on an innately progressive hue wherever it hails from. (The irony being of course that none of these regimes or ideologies are particularly tolerant of left-wing dissent in their own backyards. In some cases murderously intolerant……)
So it is probably unsurprising that Milne is so enthusiastic about the re-election of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, the anti-American pontificator par excellence.
However on this occasion he is basically correct, and his recent article in the Guardian to that effect is one I would highly recommend. It is certainly not the adulatory puff piece that his critics would no doubt argue he is capable of knocking out:
“Of course there is also no shortage of government failures and weaknesses which the opposition was able to target: from runaway violent crime to corruption, lack of delivery and economic diversification, and over-dependence on one man’s charismatic leadership………..Venezuela’s revolution doesn’t offer a political model that can be directly transplanted elsewhere, not least because oil revenues allow it to target resources on the poor without seriously attacking the interests of the wealthy.”
Fair criticisms and ones I would entirely endorse. Chavez has made mistakes, his government is far from perfect, and as Milne has pointed out, the high price and plentiful reserves of oil have allowed Chavez to avoid challenging the vested interests and concentrated wealth that exists in what is still a horribly stratified, unequal society. One does worry what would happen to Chavez’s ‘movement’ if he was to drop dead, too.
Chavez’s stances on international questions; for example Libya, Syria and Iran, and his personal relationships with some pretty unpleasant people like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, are ludicrous, irresponsible and more to the point not remotely progressive or left-wing
But it is also a fairly easily demonstrable fact that his government have used part of the proceeds of his country’s immense oil wealth to fund social programmes that have made a decisive difference in the lives of the poorest Venezuelans. He has acted to improve the lot of those normally forgotten by governments utterly in thrall to the ideology of laissez-faire.
The idea that Venezuela under Chavez is an authoritarian pseudo-democracy a la Putin’s Russia is also patently absurd. There is no doubt that Chavez’s electoral victory was genuinely the will of the people.
Surely the best indicator of this is the fact that his right-wing opponent, (and to be clear Henrique Capriles is no social democrat), has been compelled to say that many of Chavez’s programmes would remain intact if he beat Chavez. That is to say: Chavez has changed the terms of the debate.
Here at the Mambo a theme I keep trying come back to is that the policies being pursued by government’s in the West are a political choice being dishonestly sold as objective necessity. There is an alternative to the status quo. Government can be used, even in a capitalist economy, to redistribute wealth and look after everyone. It doesn’t have to be a binary choice between cutting one thing, or cutting something else, as the Tories and their Lib Dem brown-nosers are so fond of telling us here in the UK.
So when the Thatcherites and their Blairite mates say that there is no alternative, they are lying. There is. They just don’t like the alternative; it doesn’t sit well with people who get weak-kneed at the destructive power of free markets. When they attack the ‘unrealistic left’, what they really mean is that ‘we don’t like the alternative but are afraid of saying why we don’t like it as it would look rather unpleasant’.
Which is why Chavez, like Salvador Allende before him, has generated such furious opprobrium. Not because he is a dictator (he isn’t, and even if he was most of his right-wing critics wouldn’t mind just so long as he was a right-wing dictator). But because his rule and his policies provide concrete proof that there is an alternative.
And we can’t have people realising that, can we. Just imagine the trouble that would cause.