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Seven Rules for Running a Real Left-Wing Government

2016 May 16
by Ian Welsh

So, we have had a right-wing coup in Brazil. In Venezuela, the left still controls the Presidency, but has lost control of parliament. In Argentina, the right has won the election.

I have been asked how to stop right-wing reversals.

First it’s worth noting that these three cases are somewhat different. Brazil is a coup in all but name. Venezuela saw massive deliberate fouling of the economy by internal right-wing forces. The situation in Argentina was the closest to fair; a reversal of electoral fortunes.

Still there are lessons to be learned from their experiences:

It’s Not You, It’s China (or, the World System)

All three left-wing movements in Brazil, Venezuela, and Argentina were associated with rising commodity prices. When those commodity prices collapsed, it was only natural for their fortunes to reverse. They are in power when the economy goes bad, now people want them out. They are willing to be complicit in actions to get them out, which are dubious.

Don’t Run Your Economy on Resources

Yes, okay, this is easier said than done. It is hard to bootstrap into something else if you’re a non-core economy. Heck, even many core economies are losing their manufacturing bases and while finance can “work,” it’s a shit way to run your economy. So are “services.” We’ll discuss this in more depth below. But the bottom line is this: You have to develop (or have plans to develop) your economy into a mixed economy, so that it can survive during the inevitable downturns, and, thus, so that your movement can survive them.

People expect you to be able to maintain prosperity. Given the world order as it stands, that may be like asking you to swim with a hundred pound weight strapped to your back, but you still have to do it.

Your First Act Must Be a Media Law

Break them up. Take them over. Whichever. Ignore the screams about media freedom from the usual suspects in the West, this is a case of “freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.”    In all three countries, the media conglomerates remained in the control of oligarchs (update: to be clear Venezuela did eventually expropriate them, but only after many years), and in all three cases, the majority of the media remained relentlessly hostile to the left.

This is just as true in countries like Britain, Canada, or the US as it is in Argentina, Venezuela, or Brazil, by the way. There is a reason why the post-war liberal regimes put strict media controls in place–including size limits–and there is a reason why those limits were removed by the neo-liberal regimes that replaced them.

You can win “against the media” for a time, but if you leave it in the hands of your enemies, they will eventually use it to bury you.

Take Control of the Banking Sector

The banking sector creates money. Money determines what people can and cannot do. This is the control mechanism for the economy in any state which runs on markets. You must control it. If you control it, you can use it to strangle your domestic enemies. If you do not, your enemies will use it to strangle you.

This is a great problem. The world economy has been designed so that countries need to trade, and they need foreign money. So you can take control of your banking sector, but you can’t control England’s or America’s or the payments system (this is what killed Argentina) and thus you cannot tell creditors to go fuck themselves. You need foreign money for necessities.

It is also problematic because the people who know how to run the market economy are not your people. You have get rid of the people who ran it before, so who is going to run it now?

Who Is Your Administrative Class?

You must have a class of people available to run the state and those chunks of the economy over which you are taking control (whether formally or informally). You must know who those people are. FDR reached into academia for many of his people; he pulled from the social gospel folks (who were used to administering large organizations), and he found a lot of fellow class traitors (for example, JFK’s father, whom he used to run the SEC–Kennedy knew all the tricks and was able to tamp down Wall Street’s BS).

Post-FDR, one of the reasons why factory line supervisors were made ineligible for union membership was so that union members couldn’t be used as easily to take over organizations–even the lowest level supervisors were no longer union members.

There are always people who know the business and believe the way it is being run is bullshit. But you have to know who they are, both as a class and individually. There are certainly people who can run TV stations and newspapers who are left-wing, but you’ve got to know who they are.  There are heterodox economists and people who have worked in the finance industry who are class traitors and just itching for a chance to put the boots to the assholes they worked for. Again, you must know who they are.

Take Control of Distribution and Utilities

Yeah, sorry, but no one said this would be easy. In Venezuela, you had the economic elite deliberately worsening shortages. Huge stocks of consumer goods buried and hidden.

These people have power. They are your enemies. They will use their power against you. They will not “play fair.”

In Egypt, under the Brotherhood, the deep state did things like cause electricity outages and blame it on the Brotherhood. Of course, the same bureaucrats as always were running the electrical system.

Again, this comes back to control: You have to take control and you have to have competent people you can trust who can do so. Do you know who they are?

Reduce Your Vulnerability to the World Trade System

The world system as it stands now is designed so that no nation can stand alone: They cannot make and grow everything they need. This was not always the case. In the past, many nations went out of their way to be self-sufficent. It was Keynes’ position, by the way, that nations should produce all their day-to-day necessities themselves, wherever possible, and import only what they could not produce and luxuries–but to strive not to need anything they couldn’t make.

This has been economic and political orthodoxy at various points.

But it isn’t now. You’re in hock to various foreigners for a lot of money, denominated in their currency. You probably can’t feed your own nation. You can’t make what you need (toilet paper, famously, in Venezuela’s case) and you can’t buy it without foreign currency. But the foreign financial system is not friendly to you if you’re genuinely left-wing, and the world trade system is set up to make it illegal to do what is required to produce goods domestically.

You’ll need subsidies or tariffs to make new domestic industries viable, and that’s illegal thanks to a web of trade deals meant to make you unable to control your own economy.

Venezuela tried to increase farming, but failed, precisely because the price of oil went through the roof and foreign food was cheaper than domestic. The classic response would be tariffs, but the kinds of tariffs sufficient to work would not be tolerated by the world trade system.

It’s hard to overstate how huge a problem this is. It goes back to the commodity issue. Maybe you have enough foreign cash for now, but you won’t always, and you must have it. This vulnerability must be reduced, generally.

No one has managed this in the neo-liberal era, not completely, and huge amounts of geopolitics are run based on this. Russia has its oil prices drop so it moves to selling military goods to make up the difference, for example, and its Syrian intervention is, in large part, a venue to show off how well its weapons work.

Workarounds have been tried: Cooperation with other left-wing nations is the standard one. Venezuela with Cuba, and so on. But this is the “south” trading with the “south.” The stuff they really need, generally none of them actually produce, and if they do they either don’t produce enough or they don’t really, i.e., it’s produced by some multinational with no loyalty.

So then you try to appropriate the multinational, but that runs you into all sorts of problems from getting replacement parts for the machines, the experts to run what you’ve expropriated, to effective embargoes, even if not declared as such.

Nonetheless this is a problem which must be solved. A full description of how to bootstrap an economy is beyond the scope of this article, and I’m not sure I have a full kit, but I will say this: There are a huge number of highly skilled first world workers, from the Ph.D.-level down to machinists who are unemployed or underemployed. They want to work. They hate their own system. You can bring these people in, give them new lives, and at least have the necessary expertise.

I know many extremely qualified pharma professionals who would love a chance to set generic factories and create new drugs without the pressure for palliatives they receive from their drug company employers (or ex-employers), as just one example.

This bootstrapping is a challenge which appeals to a lot of the very best and brightest.

Be Satisfied with What You Can Grow and Make

If your elites or population insist on fresh summer vegetables in winter, you’re done. What you can produce, you must have a taste for. This is especially true for elites. If they must have the latest Mercedes, a vacation in Paris, and a home in London, you’re screwed because to have those things they must have foreign currency.

When Korea was industrializing they had huge campaigns to not smoke foreign cigarettes: It was considered unpatriotic.

You need what foreign currency you have to stay earmarked for capital goods, and you need your elites to be local elites, not global elites. If your elites consider themselves global, you will never be able to create the necessary self-sufficiency to buck the world system.

Obey the Laws of Purges

Let’s not dance around. Your first steps will be breaking the power of current economic and political elites who are not willing to convincingly join you or at least let you rule without trying to sabotage you.

You must do this all at once. When it happens, it happens to everyone it is going to happen to. This is Machiavelli’s dictum, and he was right. After it has happened, those who weren’t broken know they’re safe as long as they don’t get in your way.

If the breaking keeps going on and on everyone who still has something to lose (and still, thus, has power) lives in fear. They must destroy you before you destroy them.

Let’s give a concrete example. Assume Obama was really a left-winger. He gets into power in 2009, and he really wants to change things. He needs to take out the financial elite: Wall Street and the Big Banks.

They’ve handed him the opportunity. Here’s part of how he does it: He declares all banks involved in the sub-prime fraud racket (all of the big ones most of the small ones) conspiracies under RICO.

He then says that all the individual executives’ money are proceeds from crime and confiscates it. (This is 100 percent legal under laws as they exist). He charges them, and they are forced to use public defenders.

They are now powerless. This is the second law of purges: Anyone you damage, you must destroy utterly. If you take away half their power, and leave them half, they will  hate you forever and use their remaining power to destroy you.

Leave them whole, or destroy them. The financial executives would have been destroyed, and win or lose in the courts, the next five to ten years of their lives would be consumed by personal legal nightmares.

Again, this is a Machiavellian dictum.

All of this will make many readers uneasy. It seems “mean.”

Get out of the game. You aren’t fit for it. This is all mean. Millions of people die every year and millions more are ruined by the current system. If you’re in this game to win it, rather than feel good about yourself, you will have to play real power politics by the actual rules of the game.

Too many left-wingers try to play by what they think the rules are. “We have a fair election every X years and the losers accept the result and don’t sabotage the winner (or do a coup).”

Those aren’t the real rules. If the right is really losing, they will cheat and cheat massively. They will think nothing of running death squads, making a deal with the US to support guerrillas, and so on.

You directly threaten their wealth and power if you are a real left-winger. Even if all you want is a 50s style social democracy with racial and gender equality, that would destroy almost all of what they have. They remember what FDR did to them, even if you don’t. They remember all the lost power and fortunes.

It is not possible to have a fair, egalitarian, prosperous society, and have very rich and powerful elites. It cannot be done. Brandeis was exactly right when he said you can have democracy or great wealth in the hands of a few, but you can’t have both.

Either you’re willing to do what it takes, including the ugly bits, or you aren’t. There are sometimes local exceptions, places where a lot of the ugly isn’t needed, but there aren’t a lot of those left in the world. This isn’t the post-war era and even then, for the South (as opposed to Scandinavia), actual egalitarian developed economies mostly weren’t allowed. You can ask Central and South America about that.

Most left-wing movements get into power without having properly thought out what they’ll do once in power and without a realistic understanding of the deep lack of belief in democratic norms by their right-wing opponents.

Break your enemy’s power. If you’re any sort of left-winger worth your salt, you ethically do not believe in huge concentrations of power and money in the hands of a few people anyway. Act on your beliefs.

And if they’ve committed a pile of crimes (and they almost always have), use those crimes against them.

Then remember the world system is set up expressly to stop what you are doing.

You’re tackling the dragon, and most people who do that get eaten. We tell the stories of the dragonslayers because they are so few.

So, know the odds are against you, and be willing to do what is required to improve them. If you aren’t, stay home.

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29 Responses
  1. EmilianoZ permalink
    May 16, 2016

    This is one of the greatest posts I’ve ever read here or on any other blogs.

  2. May 16, 2016

    I warned you.

  3. Daize permalink
    May 16, 2016

    Nice to hear left wing warrior talk for once!

  4. May 16, 2016

    “Get out of the game. You aren’t fit for it. This is all mean. Millions of people die every year and millions more are ruined by the current system. If you’re in this game to win it, rather than feel good about yourself, you will have to play real power politics by the actual rules of the game.”

    Yes. If you don’t like to fight, don’t fight. But don’t try to stop the people who *are* willing to fight because fighting makes you feel bad.

  5. nihil obstet permalink
    May 16, 2016

    Where I think you’re maybe too optimistic is in slighting the damage the legislative and judicial systems can do. Say, on Obama’s opportunity to break the banks — what he might do legally in confiscating the banksters’ ill-gotten gains can be made illegal by Congress overnight. Or, alternatively, the judges are adept at finding reasons to dismiss cases against their friends. From Reconstruction through the 1920s, judges found that the 14th Amendment requiring equal protection under the laws prevented the federal government from stopping lynching and simultaneously prevented unions and laws outlawing commercial discrimination. And of course the Supreme Court finds today that it legalizes bribery against all other laws and common sense.

    I haven’t followed the events in South America closely enough to comment in an informed way, but my sense is that the courts and legislature are in the tank in Brazil and Venezuela.

    In other words, even a strong administration is going to end up having to act “illegally” to survive, and that scares a lot of people, and there’s some reason for fear of power that doesn’t recognize laws.

    Just thought I’d add to the pessimism.

  6. Ian Welsh permalink
    May 16, 2016

    Yes, I knew I was slighting the justice system, and I’m considering doing a follow up piece which deals with that as well as the general question of legitimacy.

  7. carlos permalink
    May 16, 2016

    Actually Ian if you really want to know why the left failed in Venezuela you need to do more research and less pontification. Most of the top “left” officials have become millionaires with assets hidden through 3rd parties. Have you wonder why a country that produced 3M b. of oil a day (15 years ago) at an average of about $60 a barrel is now very much in bankruptcy? Have you ever visited Venezuela? Now in all fairness the “Chavistas” were never really a left. They were populist which is very different.

  8. carlos permalink
    May 16, 2016

    “Take Control of Distribution and Utilities

    Yeah, sorry, but no one said this would be easy. In Venezuela, you had the economic elite deliberately worsening shortages. Huge stocks of consumer goods buried and hidden.”

    You can not be more ignorant of the facts! All utilities in Venezuela ARE own by the government: CANTV (communications), PDVS (oil) , All the electric utilities. The shortages come form incompetence. Oil production has gone from 3M to less than 1.8M despite huge investment $ (that went to government officials)

    By the way MOST media conglomerates are own by the state. There is hardly anyone that is private and those are continuoslly fine and harass.

    My advice to you is due a little research before you write otherwise your credibility goes down the drain

  9. Ghostwheel permalink
    May 16, 2016

    Thanks for this.

  10. Hugh permalink
    May 16, 2016

    These rules seem rather advice on how to run a successful revolution. In this regard, it is important to keep in mind a few points. Revolutions are always violent. This is so because the old order creates the need for revolution precisely by the violence it practises (stealing trillions from the rest of us, selling us crappy, unusable health insurance, sending our jobs to China and Mexico, etc). It is so habituated to this violence that it sees it as the natural course of things. For the same reasons, it will defend its wealth, privileges, and power with unlimited violence against any challenges. It is used to violence, and its right to power is a fundamental law of the universe.

    We do need expertise. We do not need elites, the system of privilege and wealth which those with expertise have woven around themselves. As a class our elites have betrayed us. As elites, they really could do nothing else. The difference between now and other periods is simply the extreme degree of the betrayal. I would say our political class at a national and state level, that is present and past officeholders, is a dead loss. Only at the local level, there may be a few officeholders and office seekers who might fit into a new order of things. The same could be said for some staff at the state and national levels. One of the keys to a successful revolution is organization and the creation and recruiting of networks to replace the old order. This gets to Ian’s point of identifying those we can work with. A good place to start are with staff who have retired but who still retain contacts with those in the system.

    It is good to break up the media conglomerates. They have been providing a steadily worse, more expensive, more propagandized product for decades. Once again virtually all of the current practitioners are a dead loss. This scenario is repeated as we go through the various categories of the elites: the legislature, the executive, the judiciary, the media, the bureaucracy, and academia. Huge swathes of them are not only worthless and unretrainable but hostile to anything that would disturb the status quo and their privilege.

    A revolution also needs a clear, easily followed program. This program is in two parts, one positive and one negative, what we are against and what we are for (and how to get there). None of this is new. Recently, I was glancing through John Stuart Mill’s essay Socialism published in 1879 a few years after his death and noticed he said much the same thing:

    “As in all proposals for change there are two elements to be considered—that which is to be changed, and that which it is to be changed to—so in Socialism considered generally, and in each of its varieties taken separately, there are two parts to be distinguished, the one negative and critical, the other constructive. There is, first, the judgment of Socialism on existing institutions and practices and on their results; and secondly, the various plans which it has propounded for doing better.”

    Revolutions erupt out of discontent with the way things are, but for them to be successful and accomplish some good, this initial negative energy is insufficient. To keep this energy flowing, it needs to be channeled into the positive and constructive.

  11. gringo permalink
    May 16, 2016

    the MOST important thing to do is to rid your country of all traces of the usa

    kick out all NGOs
    kick out all usa personnel
    kick out the IMF
    kick out the world bank
    kick out all wall street scum and parasites
    kick out all usa military
    kick out all usa intelligence
    shut the usa embassy

    know from the start that the usa will target you in a million different ways and will never ever stop trying to depose or kill you.

  12. highrpm permalink
    May 16, 2016

    brutal [leaders].

    the only ones who will understand the extremes of such revolutionary rule are those few good critical thinkers. the great mass populace are [irrational] “i believe’ers,” “i tv’ers”– sorry, give me names, facts and figures. the elite are entrenched, having fed the tap root of dumbness over generations. a missing rule is “purge the idiots from the populace.” and that won’t happen w/o lots of holocaustic cruelty/ bloodshed/ pushback from world opinion — “you’re depriving your citizens of their basic human rights [of freewill].

    what is the likelihood of such a powerfully grounded leadership that can stand against the world? a more likely scenario is the apocalypse of the book of revelation.

  13. Ian Welsh permalink
    May 16, 2016

    No Hugh,

    you can’t even run a left wing government which isn’t revolutionary without these rules, at least in much of the world.

  14. Ian Welsh permalink
    May 16, 2016

    Globovision, for example, was not under government control until 2013. That contradicts my advice.

    I did not say the utilities were not under Venezuelan government control.

    As for industry (like oil) I said that even if you expropriate them you would have problems with production. This isn’t a pattern that is unique to Venezuela, it has happened to most countries which expropriated oil production (but not Saudi Arabia, an interesting exception, no.)

    As for for food and consumer goods, this article is instructive:

    People are policy. You have to be able to run the state and the economy. If you can’t, for whatever reason, people have every reason to be upset at you.

    The article tries, in part, to explain /why/ it is so hard to run a left wing government—what is against you.

    This is a LOT less true the more central your state is.

    Assuming, of course, the bureaucracy worked with him. Parts would clearly need to be brought under control.

  15. highrpm permalink
    May 16, 2016


    your well articulated post and the resulting comments show how truly difficult and rare a revolution is in today’s globally connected world. nuclear atomization seems the more likely alternative as the heat of populace anger rises under the froth of elitism.

    per martin seligman, pessimism requires two of least 3 affects, the 3 P’s as he labels them: taking negatives Personally, seeing negatives as Pervasive and viewing them as Permanent. holding out hope for the future for the loosening of both israel’s and the united states’ elitest stranglehold on the world, i’m a big, big pessimist. not in my lifetime (i’m 65).

  16. Steve permalink
    May 16, 2016

    Has anyone been paying attention to the Philippines presidential elections? Outsider left-wing populist Rodrigo Duterte upset the usual lame centrist candidates. The western media has been calling him the “Filipino Trump,” which is a huge insult to Duterte. Duterte is a much more accomplished politician and plausible leader than pretty boy Trump. It’s good timing for this post, since Duterte is anything but a beautiful soul.

    Anyway, ideological change starts at the fringes and then moves to the center. It’s still ambiguous what the change will bring, and it will be ambiguous until the last moment.

  17. Gaianne permalink
    May 17, 2016


    Precise, concise, and coherent–a really fine essay!

    A bit depressing as well, as one realizes how few “lefties” have a clue.

    But the world is what it is.

    Thanks very much.


  18. May 17, 2016

    Excellent essay Ian. Kudos

  19. Douglas Smith permalink
    May 17, 2016

    Ask a Green candidate whether they would arm the people (as in forming militias) to defend a future left/green government, and they look at you as if you were crazy. Such an eventuality is far beyond their idealist horizon. Hearty congratulations on specifying the terms of engagement so remorselessly. Would you consider wearing Lenin’s laurels?

  20. sanctimonious purist permalink
    May 17, 2016

    Wondering if a U.S. city could do this. Would Lumumba’s Jackson, Mississippi have made it?
    Public bank, universal healthcare, publically run utilities, green energy and housing paid for by municipal taxes. No developer or corporate breaks. Citizen councils that govern for the people. Could it be done at the municipal level?

  21. carlos permalink
    May 17, 2016

    Again, if you want to be taken seriously you should stick with the facts. I don’t mind the essay as advice to left wing government to follow. However, to actually depict the Venezuelan government as a lefty government that is under attack because they didn’t do what you propose is preposterous. The Venezuelan government is populist, corrupt to bone and incompetent. Chaves run intelligent/capable people away because they were a threat to his popularity. He surrounded himself with “yes” men that were more interested in getting rich than anything else. His own daughter (just like Cristina in Argentina) is extremely wealthy so is his father who from being low middle rose to owner of large plantations in his native land. I’m mean just because a government call itself “communist” or “socialist’ does not make it so. Let me give you an example closer to home Obama call himself “liberal” that has to be the biggest joke perpetrated on the American people. Obama by actions is a corporatist nothing more nothing less. So is Maduro’s government. They talk to being “left” while at the same time they loot the country. One more thing Telesur is funded and own by the Venezuelan government. Basically a propagand mouth piece

  22. Ian Welsh permalink
    May 17, 2016


    Nowhere did I say the Venezuelan government was competent. In fact, though the article will be hard to find, as far back as 2004/5 (on BOPNews) I wrote that Chavez was fucking up. Venezuela did not do all of what I say is necessary. NOTE that I said that getting the right people is important: in fact, I spent more time on that in the article than any other single topic.

    That does not mean the Chavistas didn’t have enemies who were sticking it to them.

    By definition, all 3 regimes fucked up. I had a long discussion about how Argentina was bungling the loan shark case a few years ago, for example. They thought they were geniuses, and didn’t hire the right lawyers.

    Take the article seriously, or don’t take it seriously, I will lose no sleep over it.

  23. Joe permalink
    May 17, 2016

    “Anyone you damage, you must destroy utterly. ”

    Last week’s Silicon Valley when Richard tried to go over the head of his CEO, the CEO replied, “If you’re going to shoot the king, you gotta make goddamn sure you kill him.”

  24. Hugh permalink
    May 17, 2016

    gringo repeats the Chomskyan fallacy that if only American influence were removed everything would be hunk-dory. This view fails to recognize that the US as hegemon has only been on the world scene for 70 years. It also effectively denies the rest of the world its own history, a clearly false assertion. Even if the US ceased to exist tomorrow, local and regional conflicts would persist. Indeed most of these antedate the assumption of US hegemony at the end of World War II by centuries. While no other state is in a position to become a global hegemon, there would still be plenty of regional hegemons seeking to create spheres of influence and dominating their neighbors. Class warfare would not cease to exist. Whether the US was here or not, kleptocracy would remain the paradigm of governments everywhere.

  25. May 17, 2016

    My feeling is that the true Achilles’ heel in Ian’s list is avoidance of a globalized elite. Even without the possibility of a home in London, communications and entertainment tech imply nearly directly that the elite, and not just the elite, is going to be status-competing at a global scale.

  26. V. Arnold permalink
    May 18, 2016

    “Obey the Laws of Purges”

    I particularly liked that section; cuts directly to the point without sentimentality.
    The 240 years of lies will not die easily…

  27. Cody permalink
    May 19, 2016

    Ian, this all seems fairly true, but you miss the hardest thing, by far, which is ensuring that you and your comrades have a genuinely socialist guiding ideology and remain true to it, in the course of amassing enormous power and, consequently, temptation. And, if that weren’t hard enough, ensuring that your entitled children share your austere spirit of self-sacrifice for the common good. It’s not so much the ruthlessness and violence that turns youthful fellow-travelers into progressives, but the inevitable eventual betrayal and corruption of the cause by its own practitioners. All of these so-called right wing reversions, throughout the world and across the last century, have been as much products of the corruption of the revolutionary leadership as the subversion of the counter-revolutionaries. I’d be genuinely interested in how you think such fidelity to principle might be maintained over the course of years, decades, and generations.

  28. Sheldon Cooper permalink
    May 21, 2016

    Naked Capitalism: Sanders and Class Struggle in the Democratic Party

  29. May 22, 2016

    There has to be law. Just laws have to be put into place and a just judiciary established to implement them. Or any revolution will end up like the Russian or the French, both dissolving into violent tyranny.

    Maybe the laws could be written first?

    Has anyone seriously attempted to propose a constitution and legal system for a socialist state in the early 21st century?

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