Karl Marx famously said that history repeats itself first as tragedy, and second as farce.
It may be necessary to revise that formulation. In Venezuela, in July 2016, history is repeating itself as something more like a cable-channel reality show. Not exactly farce – which is well and tightly plotted, even when it’s unintentional – but full-frontal, open-ended whoa-dude banality.
Nicolas Maduro, the pale copy of Hugo Chavez who took over Chavez’s socialist-tyrant duties in 2013, signed a new law last week informing able-bodied, working-age Venezuelans that they would be forced into agricultural labor in order to boost national production. The shelves are empty and people can’t find enough to eat. So Maduro is ordering them to present themselves at the farms and till the soil, for wages that he is (hilariously) directing their current employers to cover.
But while those terrible episodes were assuredly tragedies, what Maduro is doing is something beyond farce. Farce in this case would pay some homage to the ideological framework of its preceding tragedy, socialist collectivization. Marx’s specific case of farce, indeed, did pay such homage to its preceding tragedy.
Marx’s “farce” was the pseudo-Napoleonic ascent of Napoleon III to power in France. Napoleon III’s drama was farcical in its conscious effort to mimic the epoch-making revolutionary romance of his predecessor (and uncle) Napoleon I. It was so obvious to everyone that Napo 3 (as I referred to him in my school notes) wasn’t a patch on Napo 1, it had to be a bit like watching Barney the purple dinosaur entertain toddlers, to be an eyewitness to the years of the Napo 3 “empire.”
Fast-forwarding to Venezuela 2016, what we aren’t seeing is, precisely, that form of homage to the collectivist pioneers of modern forced labor. When the original Marxist-Leninists undertook it, they affected to reorder society, to reeducate the human organism and repurpose the human landscape. They had a mighty project in mind, complete with a cosmology and a weltanschauung.
They made excuses for collectivizing the people and ordering them to forced labor. They needed gulags. They needed laogai. The world-historical moment demanded it. There were theses and antitheses out of balance; rapacious enemies of the people on the prowl. Hearts and minds had to be “encouraged.” There might not be bread or meat when the great synthesis arrived and the state withered away, but there would be posters, songs, and endless editorials and worker-therapy meetings along the way.
Radical Islamism is a lot like that today. But not socialism in Venezuela. In Venezuela, Maduro is just an executive despot using his pen and his phone because he can. He isn’t bothering to justify his move in any world-historical context: certainly not in any way that raises a noisy chorus of ideological supporters around the globe.
Think about it. The Democratic convention was haunted this week by every faction of the radical left known to man, but who on the streets of Philadelphia thought of solidarity with Maduro and Venezuela?
Socialism, as an “inspiration” for forcing things on hapless people, is pretty much an empty shell now. It’s just a tired feature of an over-familiar landscape, like all the stupid bromides people utter in reality shows about “not being haters” or “being supportive” or “making sure they have safe sex” – no matter how selfishly, narcissistically, and unsafely they are living their lives.
Socialism is now just a lowest-common-denominator aspect of an unexamined, amoral modern life.
And so is peremptory power exercised by executive government. Of course, socialist collectivism ends up requiring that the people be conscripted into labor. The wonder is not that Maduro has issued his order, but that he has issued it without ideological fanfare, or an infrastructure of reeducation camps, or at least some really bad poetry. He’s just waving his arm, rather languidly as it appears from here, and saying, “Go farm, dudes.” And there are people who will.
We ought to take a lesson from this. The end of socialism is worse than tragedy, and not even farce – both of which require soul. The end of socialism is a big fat glob of soulless nothing. It ceases even trying to justify itself, much less fight actively against more motivated – or brutal – foes.
Socialism sure isn’t the future. But as the hand of a lingering, entrenched past, in Europe and the Americas, it’s positioned in too many ways to drag us down, if we lose sight of Reagan’s correct proclamation that it has already been consigned to the ash heap of history. Socialism is a zombie. So is the ever-false promise of salvation through executive government power. Time to kill both, and put them out of their misery.