The fantasy of a benevolent, “progressive” socialism—which, as we saw among the Bernie Sanders supporters at last week’s Democratic convention, still attracts a large fan base—always involves the promise of a neo-aristocratic life of leisure.
Karl Marx projected that, when “society regulates the general production,” the worker would escape the tyranny of being stuck in the same 9-to-5 job, day in and day out, and could instead “do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, to fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize [art] after dinner, just as I have in mind.” More recently, advocates of a “basic income” have been touting the creativity unleashed by people freed from the necessity of making a living. It’s the “job-locked poets” trope: that the welfare state will give people the security “be creative and be a musician or whatever,” as Nancy Pelosi famously put it.
As I have been immersing myself recently in the field of “futurism,”I’ve come across a lot of people who are absolutely convinced that this time it’s really going to work, that robots are going to take over all of our jobs and start making everything for us so that we can finally get down to writing all of those symphonies.
If you look at the actual record of socialism in reality, instead of this kind of imagined future utopia, you get a very different picture.
Venezuela, for example, is marching into the socialist future by marching into the socialist past. The latest news is that the entire population of the country is now subject to being drafted as agricultural laborers.
Venezuela said private and public companies will be obliged to let their workers be reassigned to grow crops, in a dramatic move in the middle of the country’s crippling economic crisis. The Labor Ministry announced the measure as part of the economic emergency already in effect; it will require all employers in Venezuela to let the state have their workers ‘to strengthen production’ of food.
This was announced in Venezuela more than a week ago, but the first reports showed up in English in the American press just a few days ago, and it is still being ignored by many mainstream outlets. It would have been a shame, after all, to upset all those dead-end Bernie supporters at the Democratic convention with disquieting news from utopia.
Anyone who knows much about the history of the twentieth century (which is to say, appallingly few of us) will experience a little shock of recognition from that report. This is precisely what the Soviets used to do, dragooning white-collar professionals—engineers, lawyers, playwrights, college professors—to trudge out to the fields at harvest time every year in a flailing attempt to squeeze production out of a disastrous system of “collectivized” agriculture.
I doubt it ever made much difference, and I’ve always suspected its real purpose was not to aid in the harvest but to remind the rank-and-file of the Soviet intelligentsia how easily the state could ship them off to do forced manual labor.
This is what used to be known as “universal labor conscription,” which was imposed by the Soviets in 1918, in which “all those capable of working, regardless of their regular jobs, were subject to being called upon to carry out various labor tasks”—a system pretty much identical to the Medieval institution of serfdom. The measure under which this system was imposed was called the “Declaration of the Rights of the Toiling Masses and Exploited People.” George Orwell never had to make anything up.
Now we’re seeing this again in Venezuela. As in the Soviet Union, Venezuela has specifically targeted agriculture and food production and distribution to reshape according to socialist ideals. For the Soviets, the big targets were the kulaks, prosperous free-holding farmers, who were viewed as dangerously independent and had to be replaced by collective farms. For Venezuela, it was the supermarkets and shop-owners who were targeted as exploiters and enemies of the regime. The result is the same: a chronic shortage of food that has people scavenging in dumpsters and raiding zoos to slaughter animals for their meat.
This is a revealing story about the actual meaning of socialism and what it really does for “the worker.” It ends in an “economic emergency” being used as an excuse for the state “giving itself authority to order individuals from one job to another.” So the advanced economic system of the future ends up being, in practice, a throwback to the primitive economic system of the barbaric past.