Utopia Unmasked

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Just days ago, the European Union joined the U.S. and dozens of other countries in recognizing Juan Guiadó as the new interim President of Venezuela. While the ousting of Hugo Chavez’s strongman successor Nicolas Maduro is not a done deal, those who follow Venezuelan politics closely predict the imminent demise of the brutal socialist regime. Will this be the tipping point for one of the most repressive governments in the Western hemisphere? We may know soon.

The horrors of life in Venezuela are well-documented, and have been presented on this show in the past by guests like Fergus Hodgson (aka “the Stateless Man”), who shared his first-hand experience of South American dysfunction. This Sunday, we will hear from someone who has been positioned even closer to the center of Venezuelan politics, first as a supporter, then as an arch-critic.

Clifton Ross is a Berkeley-based writer, film journalist and poet who describes his conversion from Bolivarian co-revolutionary to skeptic and eventual enemy of socialism in his memoir, Home from the Dark Side of Utopia. He had been reporting on Latin American revolutionary and social movements since 1982, when he produced the 2016 documentary titled “In the Shadow of the Revolution.”

This project earned him the disdain of his former comrades—including many arm-chair revolutionaries from the U.S., who never witnessed the devastation of the Chavista regime firsthand. For decades, he was a true believer in the Bolivarian project, and at one time was even put up in the Caracas Hilton by the government during the Second World Poetry Festival of Venezuela. Despite completely rejecting socialism now, Ross remains in solidarity with many of the social movements that have taken root in opposition to Chavez/Maduro.

The latest opposition coalition includes elements from center-right to left. Guiadó, the rightly elected president of the National Assembly (akin to America’s Congress) has gained support of the international community by leading the charge to restore fair elections, representative democracy, and all of the civic institutions that make dictators shudder. Unlike in the past, when such regime change was spearheaded by U.S. intelligence agencies, this time it seems like a natural result of Maduro’s unpopularity combined with the incompetence of his patrons in the military, state-owned industry, and media. (Contrary to what you may have heard, the opposition is succeeding in spite of not because ofsupport from President Trump’s support.)

A Conversion of Sorts

Ross’s views shifted most dramatically in 2013, after seeing how enforcing socialism in Venezuela required the use of totalitarian tactics. In a recent interview, he was quoted saying:

“I no longer think socialism has anything of value to offer the world, even if I think it was a useful movement in the twentieth century to raise important issues of solidarity, social justice, class conflict and so on. But the very fact that it required a totalitarian state to destroy a market economy and centralize all power so as to guarantee the establishment and continuation of its utopian project entailed the elimination of real solidarity and real social justice. How can you have solidarity when you’re afraid the worker standing next to you might be undercover police who could arrest you for saying the wrong thing?”

His memoir makes the same point, nothing that all political ideologies are rooted in a mythological idea of the Revolution (capital R) along with some messianic ideal of perfection. In socialism this is embodied by the Workers. In the neoliberal ideology it is the Self-Regulating Market. True revolutions, he says, are a restoration or conservation of original principles—not the creation of Utopia. Many of Ross’s ideas will be familiar to classical liberals, but he also embraces less talked about “first principles,” such as those promoted by the indigenous social movements of South America. Native peoples are especially concerned with the extractive practices of Venezuela’s oil industry, which could end up endangering the planet in the name of loftier ideals of “progress” and “the people.” Filling the void left by the old Leninist vanguard in Venezuela will require a democratic patchwork of smaller social movements. These can only be sustained, Ross argues, by liberal democracy with checks and balances on power.

Clif joined Bob for the full hour to explain how he came to see the truth about himself and the “Revolution,” in all its complex shades of light. They dissect Clif’s journey from his conservative Christian upbringing on Air Force Bases, through liberation theology in Berkeley and the Zapatistas in Mexico, to his career as a skeptical independent writer/filmmaker. Lastly, they discuss what fundamentalist religions share in common with radical socialism, and how in the long run left-wing and right authoritarianism converge on a vision of Apocalyptic Utopian Messianic Millenarianism (AUMM).