Ideological Necrophilia

Moises Naim writes:

We all know someone like this: a friend who over and over again falls for the wrong man, or a talented colleague who bounces from job to job because he seemingly cannot tolerate any kind of authority. Sigmund Freud called this the “repetition compulsion”—a psychological pattern where people repeat the same bad behaviors despite being aware of their negative outcomes.

But this phenomenon doesn’t only afflict individuals. It also affects political groups and even entire nations that get enthralled by leaders whose ideas have already been tried and exposed as failures. These bad ideas, which should be dead and buried, have a way of periodically reappearing and gaining popularity.

Several years ago, I called this condition “ideological necrophilia”: “Necrophilia is a sexual attraction to cadavers. Ideological necrophilia is the blind fixation with dead ideas. It turns out this pathology is more common in its political rather than sexual form. Turn on your TV tonight and I bet you will see some politician passionately in love with an idea that has already been tried and failed, or defending beliefs that have been proven false by incontrovertible evidence.”

What a great term.

Maoism is a good example. The doctrine stressed the need for “permanent revolution,” insisted that peasants should be the central protagonists of political and economic life, made agricultural collectivization the norm, and privileged small industries over large-scale economic units. Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, Great Leap Forward, and other policies wrought havoc on the nation, producing a massive famine and eventually leaving more than 40 million Chinese dead. In the 1980s, an assessment of Mao’s legacy by an official Chinese newspaper concluded: “In his later years he made big mistakes over a long period, and the result was great disaster for the people and his country. He created a historical tragedy.” Such stark conclusions should have bankrupted Mao’s ideas, yet self-proclaimed Maoist rebels and political parties remain in a surprising number of countries.

I love all the communists out there who claim that the problem is that the 50 countries that have tried it and failed miserably, were all doing in the wrong way.

Consider, for example, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, a great 21st-century exponent of extreme populism. Before his death in 2013, he doggedly pursued policies known to have failed in Venezuela and elsewhere: fixing prices of goods and services at levels below their costs of production; wresting private companies from their owners and giving them to politically appointed operatives; allowing government spending and indebtedness to skyrocket; promoting consumer spending through unsustainable handouts, subsidies, and credits; discouraging investment; stimulating imports rather than exports; and imposing strict foreign-exchange controls.

The result: The country with the largest oil reserves on the planet is now importing gasoline. It suffers from the world’s highest inflation rate and critical shortages of food, medicine, spare parts, and much else. A nation that used to have the highest income per capita in Latin America is now in the midst of a humanitarian crisis

And for many years Venezuela was hailed be leftish academics and others as a role model.

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