Monday, Oct 8, 2007, 1:06 pm
Evasion By Way of Economic Theory
Since I began touring with my book The Shock Doctrine, I have had a number of exchanges like this, revolving around the same basic question: When hard-right political leaders and their advisers apply brutal economic shock therapy, do they honestly believe the trickle-down effects will build equitable societies--or are they just deliberately creating the conditions for yet another corporate feeding frenzy? Put bluntly, Has the world been transformed over the past three decades by lofty ideology or by lowly greed?
The question for me is, does it matter? In her heart-rending novel, Animal Dreams, Barbara Kingsolver writes, "It's what you do that makes your soul," (italics mine). Considering the actions and the after-(shock)effects of actions by radical, free-market/Milton Friedman-worshipping ideologues who, as Klein reports in The Shock Doctrine, swoop like rapacious para-privatizers into regions and cities ravaged by natural and manmade disasters and hijack-so-as-to-consume public systems while a bewildered, defenseless public reels from the shock of its disaster, well, does it really matter whether the free-market radicals believe their actions serve a higher purpose? Who cares? Their actions are what we should be concerned with, no? Klein writes "don't knock (the draw of) power and greed" and, really, these are two forces that have always had vise-like grips on human souls if the Greeks, Moses and Shakespeare are to be believed. They are forces to which we are all as vulnerable as babes in a wolfden, so why is it so hard to believe the work of free-market radicals is about power and greed? Why is that so unlikely? And why, if it's about a higher purpose/philosophy/ideology, are they absolved by their beliefs? In my mind, their Theories damn them further. I mean, if post-Katrina, post-Iraq-invasion privatization are the extant results of Grand Theories then the disciples of said Theories are dangerous, some would say insanely, naive clowns and ought to be kept far, far at bay.
More round-house kicks from Klein:
The economy that is Greenspan's legacy hardly fits the definition of a libertarian market but looks very much like another phenomenon described in his book: "When a government's leaders routinely seek out private-sector individuals or businesses and, in exchange for political support, bestow favors on them, the society is said to be in the grip of 'crony capitalism.'" He was talking about Indonesia under Suharto, but my mind went straight to Iraq under Halliburton. Greenspan is currently warning the world about a dangerous looming backlash against capitalism. Apparently, this has nothing at all to do with the policies of negligent deregulation that were his trademark. Nothing to do with stagnant wages due to free trade and weakened unions, nor with pensions lost to Enron or the dot-com crash, or homes seized in the subprime mortgage crisis. According to Greenspan, rampant inequality is caused by lousy high schools (which also has nothing to do with his ideology's war on the public sphere). I debated Greenspan on Democracy Now! recently and was stunned that this man who preaches the doctrine of personal responsibility refuses to take any at all.
Perhaps the reason it matters whether ideologues are true believers in Theories-That-Will-Benefit-All or if it they worship only personal gain is that if the former's the case we need to cut through the semantics and talk about the real world effects of their Theories before they have a chance to play them out.
Read Klein's whole piece here: Greenspan and the Myth of the True Believer.
Klein touches on this, but read Digby's analysis of the connection between Ayn Rand and free market fundamentalism. (I only ever read her slight book, We The Living, when I was 17. I was in the midst of a Vonnegut kick, the first of many, and I have no idea how I picked up one of her novels. I remember thinking the story was decent, but was put off by her humorlessness). Rand purportedly wrote in her journal a summation of her personal philosophy: "What is good for me is Good!" Pretty telling. If we wanted to psychoanalyze the free-market ideologues we might conclude they have subconsciously witnessed/absorbed all the hurt caused by their actions and, not being able to live with themselves otherwise, develop elaborate defense mechanism to protect themselves from falling into the black moral abyss. These defense mechanisms take the form of Grand Theories For the Common Good. That way, even if presently there is anguish and oppression from their policies, they can always believe that their policies were enacted with the common people's best interest at heart and are therefore good. If we just stay the course, see how things pan out in the long run, surely a greater, more just and prosperous society will arise. They know better than the natives. This sounds like social darwinism to me. But, again, I agree with Klein that it's about the money and the power, our nation's true idols.
By the way - if you want an unflattering, but hilarious portrait of Rand, (albeit a fictive portrait), read Tobias Wolff's Old School. The narrator, a 17 year old, nascent writer comforted by and obsessed with Rand's clear, morally-parsed vision of the world meets Rand in a firelit room surrounded by a cold, goofy gaggle of leather-clad sycophantic, absolutist-disciples who mock, along with Rand, any idea of human frailty. The boy thus comes to understand Rand's worldview as one that refuses to acknowledge the complex emotions that make us human, and concludes therefore that Rand's is a poor, unreliable, and untrue literary voice.
Jarrett Dapier is a former assistant publisher at In These Times. Previous work for ITT includes interviews with playwright Christopher Shinn and Fugazi guitarist, Ian Mackaye. He currently works with teens at the Evanston Public Library where he runs a recycled drumming program and directs stage adaptations of young adult literature. He lives in Evanston, IL.