‘We Don’t Have Light’

A street during a blackout in Caracas, Venezuela, March 8, 2019. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins)
The lights have been out for a while in Venezuela, but none of this should surprise us. We have literally seen this before.

New York City collapsed in 1977. There were 1,557 murders in the city that year, more than twice the number there had been ten years earlier. That awful trend would continue to get worse until the city hit its homicidal apex in 1991, with 2,245 murders, but the shadow — the literal shadow — of 1977 continued to loom over the city.

Anno Domini 1977 saw the nation as a whole suffering from stagflation, and New York City in particular was crippled by a financial crisis following years of misgovernment heavy on policies that lately have enjoyed a revival: tuition-free education at City University of New York, substantial growth in public-sector personnel spending, big deficits financed by potentially volatile securities, short-term emergency financing, etc. Against that background of chaos and desperation, the so-called Son of Sam serial killer commanded the headlines as a brutally hot July settled over the simmering city.

And then the lights went out.

The 1977 blackout saw New York City burn. Arsonists attacked 31 neighborhoods in the city, burning down a five-block commercial stretch in Crown Heights with 75 stores. Bushwick was still burning the next morning. Hundreds of stores were looted, and a Bronx Pontiac dealership was relieved of most of its new-car inventory. Hundreds of police officers were injured in the riots, and thousands of looters were arrested. Thousands had to be evacuated from stalled subway cars. And New Yorkers were trapped: The tunnels had to be closed down as the ventilation failed, and the airports were closed. Mayor Abe Beame described it as a “night of terror.”

ConEd, the municipal monopoly utility, called the event an “act of God.” But it was no such thing. The situation of New York City was the result of the acts of men — and their hubris.

New York City was not alone.

On the other side of the Atlantic, London had found itself in much the same situation, along with the United Kingdom at large. It was the high-water mark of British socialism, with strikes crippling the country, rampant inflation crippling the economy, and the attempt to impose wage-and-price controls in response making things even worse. Homes lost their heat, hospitals were running on batteries or ceasing to operate at all, transportation came to a standstill.

The 1970s saw much of the notional radicalism of the 1960s put into actual practice in the United States and the United Kingdom, producing a terrible alloy of étatist command-and-control economics, cultural libertinism, and delusional liberationist policies touching everything from law enforcement to mental health — it was the golden age of “deinstitutionalization,” the results of which can be seen and smelled and heard raving on the streets of any U.S. city today — all under the watchful eyes of powerful public-sector unions and related interest groups. In short, it was a time of permissiveness in all the things requiring rigor and regimentation in all the things requiring liberalism.

The blackouts in the United States and the United Kingdom were emblems of the despair of that time and, more pertinent, of the failure of the political ideas that shaped those years. But there were others: Gasoline rationing and hours-long waits at fuel stations come to mind.

In the United Kingdom and the United States, the rejection of that arrogant and dysfunctional étatism resulted in the elections of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, respectively, and in support for their broadly deregulatory, market-oriented reform agendas.

But it is in the nature of human beings to forget. When Hugo Chávez came to power in Venezuela, progressive activists in the United States and the Democratic politicians allied with them lionized him as a rebuke to American capitalism and its excesses, celebrating him as a people’s champion and the leader of an authentically popular movement. Philadelphia Democrat Chaka Fattah accepted the gift of a few gallons of heating oil from the Chávez-run state oil company and sang hymns to the great dictator, thanking him “and the Venezuelan people for their benevolence.” New York Democrat Jose Serrano later eulogized the Venezuelan strongman as a hero who “understood democracy and basic human desires for a dignified life. His legacy in his nation, and in the hemisphere, will be assured as the people he inspired continue to strive for a better life for the poor and downtrodden.” Joseph Kennedy suggested that those critical of Democrats who accepted the patronage of the Chávez regime were countenancing “a crime against humanity.” The usual suspects — Sean Penn, Oliver Stone, Michael Moore — came to sit at his feet. Under Chávez’s successor caudillo, Nicolás Maduro, things got worse, but Jesse Myerson of Rolling Stone assured his fellow Millennial socialists that Venezuela’s economic program was “basically terrific.” There was no food, medicine, toilet paper, etc., and people were reduced to eating pets and zoo animals, and opposition leaders were disappeared in midnight raids, but Myerson insisted that Venezuela’s “electoral system’s integrity puts the U.S.’s to abject shame.”

The lights have been out for a while in Venezuela. People are dying in Venezuelan hospitals because there isn’t enough electricity to run the dialysis machines and other necessary pieces of equipment. People are starving because food cannot be refrigerated or transported. Looting is common. The police crackdowns and political retaliation are brutal. As one Venezuelan put it, literally and perhaps more poetically than intended: “We don’t have light.”

None of this should surprise us. Not in New York. Not in London. We have literally seen this before. And where are American progressives? On Maduro’s side of the barricades, to a depressing extent. The failure of what Bernie Sanders likes to call “democratic socialism” in Venezuela cannot be forthrightly admitted lest they come to discredit Democrats’ domestic political ambitions. What has, say, the average columnist at The Nation learned from this brutality and privation? “The left wing of the Democratic Party needs to sharpen its crisis-response message,” writes Greg Grandin, “to figure out a way to use such moments to put forth a compelling counter-vision to the bipartisan foreign-policy establishment.” As long as the suffering of the Venezuelan people can be used for something! If it helps Ilhan Omar, then at least it will not have been entirely in vain.

Some shadows are very long indeed, and some darkness almost impenetrable.

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