In 2021, Venezuela was a country in crisis. According to Human Rights Watch, millions of Venezuelans lacked adequate nutrition. The absence of accessible health care and safe drinking water contributed to the spread of COVID-19. The UN Human Rights Council cited Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro’s administration for crimes against humanity, including extrajudicial executions, police brutality, and torture. The crisis led an estimated 5.5 million Venezuelans—more than 15 percent of Venezuela’s total population—to flee the country.1
Venezuela’s troubles stem from decades of efforts to make the most of the country’s economy. These efforts have been couched in differing political ideologies—that is, consciously held ideas about both how political life is structured and how it should be structured. Venezuela is rich in oil reserves. In 1913, the Venezuelan government contracted with the Royal Dutch Shell Group to extract those reserves. By the 1950s, Venezuela was a leading oil exporter, and its gross national income—the total value of the goods and services in its economy—was the highest in Latin America.2 However, the distribution of wealth left a sizable percentage of Venezuelans in abject poverty. In 1998, Hugo Chávez was elected president of Venezuela on a platform rooted in socialist ideology, which he promised would improve the condition of the lower classes. Chávez placed the oil industry under the control of the state and embarked on a program of significant wealth redistribution. Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, has kept these policies in place. While the policies substantially improved the living conditions of the poorest Venezuelans,3 and poverty rates declined in the early 2000s,4 from 2007 to 2017 the gross national product of Venezuela declined sharply, and the inflation rate spiked.5 Since 2019, unemployment rates have increased considerably.6 In addition, Chávez and Maduro have been accused of suppressing political opposition and manipulating the political process to ensure their continued rule. Defenders of the Maduro regime argue that sanctions imposed by nations hostile to Venezuela’s socialist ideology have been the major driver of economic decline and that human rights abuses have been exaggerated. Opponents of the regime, both inside and outside Venezuela, allege that the problems—both economic and political—result from socialist ideology itself. Will opponents of the socialist regime emerge triumphant? If so, will the political ideologies of liberalism and neoliberalism espoused in opposition to Chávez and Maduro eventually prevail? The future of Venezuela remains uncertain.
So far, the 21st century has been marked by increasing tensions among rival political ideologies around the world. Will the conservative populist ideology in contemporary Brazil continue to eclipse the center-left ideology that has marked so much of Latin American politics in the past few decades?7 On the other side of the globe, will the government of Afghanistan, which in the summer of 2021 fell once again into the hands of the Taliban, survive as a governing regime based on religious extremism? In many parts of the world, ideological flux defines political life, with contests between and among socialism, liberalism and neoliberalism, the center left, conservative populism, religious extremism, and a range of other ideological visions.
The political ideologies at the center of current conflicts have evolved throughout history. This chapter begins with a brief review of some of the core thinkers and central concepts in Western political thought that developed from the classical period of the fifth and fourth centuries BCE to the present.