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The Sophist

Plato’s Nightmare in Maduro’s Venezuela

The specter of an ancient threat to liberty, prosperity, and basic human dignity haunts the Caribbean world today. Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela has sparked intense debate, as some pundits have cast it as the latest failed example of socialism, while others have sought to disassociate the regime from its explicit ideological roots. However, I do not believe Maduro’s dictatorship most evidently follows the model of twentieth-century totalitarianism, whether of the fascist or the socialist variety. Instead, his regime is best described as  a tyrannical society, outlined by Plato in the Republic, brutishly imposed through the promotion of class resentment on the Venezuelan people over two millennia after the age of Socrates.  

In Plato’s nightmare, the tyrant emerges, not as an unapologetic defender of moneyed interests, but as a “leader of the people who dominates a docile mob.” That was precisely how Hugo Chávez, Maduro’s predecessor in national patricide, rose to power in 1998. But how did he and his successor stay in power until today? He did so by following Plato’s prescription, namely, to  “keep a sharp lookout for anyone who is brave, large-minded, knowledgeable, or rich” and to “plot against them until he has purged them” from the country. The movement spearheaded by Chavez removed the knowledgeable in 2003 when 19,000 experienced engineers were removed from the national oil company to be replaced with incompetent cronies. They liquidated the large-minded when they shut down opposition media so that by 2008, public information was entirely under their control. They expelled the brave as they purged the country’s once honorable armed forces, now reduced to little more than a band of drug-dealing cronies and brutal oppressors. And, of course, they cracked down on the rich, because in the absence of an economically powerful private sector, all that remains is the political will of the state, and in the eyes of the tyrant, he is the state. 

Plato’s tyrant, then, begins as a crusader against all other pillars of power in his society. He “banishes some, kills others, and drops hints to the people about the cancellation of debts and redistribution of land.” When Chávez seized 1.5 million hectares of land in 2005, it was clear that his main intention was not to benefit his country’s most vulnerable. In fact, millions of them have fled to Colombia, Peru, and other neighboring countries to find dignified jobs and proper meals. Instead, his goal was to demolish an important center of power that did not conform to his authority. And he did so successfully. That’s why, according to Plato, it’s the tyrant who “stirs up civil wars against the rich.” The land reform was a precursor to the slaughter of political opponents that takes place today, for both were carried out to demolish alternative power. 

A tyrant’s job is never done; his rule must always be legitimized, and future repression must be continuously justified. In doing so, Plato asks, “isn’t it necessary for a tyrant to be always stirring up war?” Tropical tyrants of yore undoubtedly followed this playbook. In 1966, Fidel Castro claimed that his battlefield against imperialism “spanned the entire world,” a statement that would come to justify his support of brutal terrorists in Europe, Africa, and Latin America. Today, Venezuela’s government thirsts for blood. It recently mobilized 150,000 troops along its border with Colombia and continues to shelter Colombian terrorists hoping to dismantle democracy at home.

But perhaps the tyrant’s worst crime is to recklessly plunder the wealth that his people have taken centuries to produce. For “clearly, if there are sacred treasures in the city, he’ll use them for as long as they last, as well as the property of the people he has destroyed.” After wasting away the resources of an unsustainable oil boom on bread and circus while destroying non-oil wealth by forcefully seizing and mismanaging the country’s most valuable private industries, the government has imposed a dreadful crisis on its people.  In the past five years, Venezuelans have lost over a third of their income. In 2017 alone, they involuntarily lost 20 pounds on average from persistent food scarcity, and only 20% of the drugs necessary to fulfill the country’s healthcare needs are available. In an unprecedented exodus, over four million people have fled. And yet the tyranny remains. 

Of course, Plato’s texts have aged over for more than two millennia, and we should take his words with a grain of salt. He held views we’d consider tyrannical today, including his preferences for ‘enlightened’ censorship over free speech and a government of “philosopher rulers” over elected representatives. Moreover, his conception of democracy as the Athenian system, with a higher degree of direct rule by the citizens, was very different from ours. However, it appears that his warnings about the descent of democracy into tyranny are worth considering.

Indeed, many trends emerging across developed western liberal democracies bear a terrifying resemblance to the platonic road to serfdom. Plato predicted that parents would accustom themselves to “behave like a child and fear [their children],” that teachers would fear their students, and more generally, that expertise would be rejected as “disagreeable and authoritarian.” He predicted the rise of populism, where leaders seek to divide and scapegoat individuals by race, heritage, or class instead of proposing thoughtful and fair solutions to the issues of the day. He predicted that resentment against the elites would grow uniquely strong in a democratic country, and sow the seeds of its own destruction.

I don’t foresee a Venezuela in Europe or Anglo-America anytime soon, but the similar tendency towards tyranny is nonetheless concerning. Indeed, while democracies can decay into tyranny with terrifying speed, Plato doesn’t provide a way back. While we take political pluralism and the rule of law for granted too often, these are fragile treasures that have taken centuries to establish. Our civic duty, therefore, is to defend them with the most heroic vigor and commitment against the divisive forces that enable tyrants. Anything short of that will condemn our children to unforgivable suffering and humiliation, as the people of Venezuela have had to learn through cruel experience.

As the 2020 elections draw closer in the United States, the immortal words of Plato serve to remind us of how much worse things can get and reveal the paths to be avoided if we don’t want to impose upon ourselves “the harshest and most bitter slavery.”