The trouble with using a word as a catchall insult is that it loses its force. If everyone is a racist, then no one is. If Sens. John McCain and Mitt Romney were extremists, what was former President Donald Trump?
It works both ways. Just as “fascist” and “Nazi” have been worn out through overuse, so has “Marxist.” It, too, has come largely to mean “someone I don’t like.” But if former President Barack Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are Marxists, what are we to call actual believers in the doctrines of Karl Marx?
Consider, for example, the man who seems overwhelmingly likely to be the next president of Peru: Pedro Castillo. Castillo, an indigenous rural schoolteacher, leads his rival, Keiko Fujimori, 41% to 26% in advance of the final runoff on June 6 and is comfortably ahead in every region of the country except Lima.
The trade union leader, who likes to campaign wearing the broad-brimmed hat favored by poor farmers in his northern region, is a full-on, chateau-bottled Marxist — more so, indeed, than Marx himself, who once told a French supporter, “All that I know is that I am not a Marxist.” Castillo has no such doubts.
“Free Peru is an organization of the socialist Left,” reads the opening line of his party manifesto. “To be on the Left, it is necessary to embrace Marxist theory, and interpret all social phenomena, globally, continentally and nationally, in its light.” (Even the prose style is authentically Marxist.)
I don’t often write about my native Peru. Its political developments are gloriously baroque, but they make only the tiniest dent on the rest of the world. What is happening there now, though, could be the herald of a more illiberal post-COVID-19 future. And that should concern us all.
Perhaps the worst aspect of the past year, globally, has been the way in which our brain chemistry has been altered by a common threat. Behavioral psychologists have long known that wars and natural disasters make people more wary, intolerant, collectivist, and demanding of the smack of firm government. Voters become likelier to back interventionist policies, less interested in process than in outcome, more sympathetic to the idea of a strong leader.
Marxist regimes are often the product of mobilization and its associated psychology. World War I made possible Russia’s 1917 revolution, and World War II paved the way for communist takeovers in Eastern Europe. It is often claimed that no Marxist has ever taken office through a democratic election. This claim depends on how we define a Marxist. But one thing is indisputable: Authoritarian, revolutionary, and anti-capitalist parties do best after wars and secessionist campaigns.
This brings us back to Castillo. Might he become the first communist to win with a genuine majority in peacetime? (Even if we count Chile’s Salvador Allende, he only secured 36.6% of the vote in 1970.)
To put it another way, might COVID-19 be the political and psychological equivalent of war? Peru had been through the toughest lockdown in the world, with men and women allowed out on alternate days and the army enforcing a curfew. It also suffered arguably the worst fatality rate. Exactly as one would expect, this has led to an authoritarian spasm. Castillo’s opponent, the daughter of Alberto Fujimori, who ruled as Peru’s strongman in the 1990s, is illiberal in the other direction, talking of the need for firm government.
Populist authoritarians, despite their wretched record, are making a comeback across South America, a continent especially adversely affected by COVID-19, winning in Argentina and Bolivia and even looking credible in Chile, until now the wealthiest and most stable country in the region. In Europe, the other hard-hit continent, we see the same phenomenon. The Green Party leads Germany’s polls, and in France, Marine Le Pen looks electable for the first time.
I don’t want to overstate things. The candidates who placed third and fourth in Peru’s first round were champions of free enterprise. So was the surprise winner of Ecuador’s presidential poll, Guillermo Lasso. One could argue that President Joe Biden represents a return to traditional politics after the spasm of Trump — though his willingness to jump on culture war issues is eerily reminiscent of his predecessor.
Still, the trend looks clear. A year of being told what to do by the authorities has made us much readier to look to the state for a lead. We are in for another bout of big government, with all its associated costs, inefficiencies, and petty constraints.
A half-million Venezuelans were driven to Peru by Marxist maladministration. Soon, there may be nowhere left for them to flee.
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