Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Economic Destruction

In The Shock Doctrine , Naomi Klein spends a fair amount of time outlining the free market blather of Milton Friedman and his demented acolytes, and then proceeds to show how these policies have been implemented throughout the world, by way of one form of shock therapy or another. She compares this economic shock therapy (new economic rules implemented at the moment of crisis) to actual physical torture. I was prepared to find this torture metaphor simplistic; I find that it is not. The book is simply devastating.

When it comes to the Chicago Boys and their ilk, the question must be asked: were they extremely cynical or extremely stupid? Both? In A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Harvey argues that their rhetoric on freedom was exactly that, rhetoric, that they knew full well the damage they were doing, but didn't care, or rather that it was exactly this damage they wanted to do (that is, to echo zunguzungu's use of James Ferguson's The Anti-Politics Machine, the very apparent failure was the desired result, was success itself: "Sometimes there are structural reasons why 'failure' only reproduces the conditions which necessitate yet more failure."). This is certainly possible, even likely. Is it also possible that they believe all their nonsense about the free market? That they truly believe that it is the best way for the most freedom, for the most people? I suspect it's some combination, with varying degrees depending on the ideologue (recalling that, for example, the American planners--men like George Kennan--of the immediate post-WWII period knew the Soviet Union was no real threat, but by the 1980s we had a situation where, to loosely quote Lewis Lapham from memory, we had a president in Ronald Reagan who believed the movie was true).

As narrated by Klein, and in more detail by Michael Schwartz in War Without End: The Iraq War in Context, the Americans in charge of the invasion and occupation of Iraq (and its anticipated magical conversion into a free market paradise) seem to have been genuinely surprised that things didn't go well, while at the same time they very clearly intended for utter destruction and chaos. The stereotype of the quiet American is of a patriot with good intentions, characterized by well-meaning bumbling. But these so-called good intentions amount to a refusal to consider that anyone would want anything other than the American way of life, such as it is, with freedom narrowly understood as commitment to free market fundamentalism (combined with an inability to understand that those genuine freedoms Americans do have, have nothing to do with the free market and have been fought for, not bestowed). In Iraq, this results in the deliberate destruction of a country, to be followed by a shiny new country completely run according to free market ideology, so they can be just like Americans (except, only poor Americans, apparently, since previously well-positioned Iraqis were not given the opportunity to even become owners of privatized firms). It being impossible to run a country according to the free market, extreme violence, as ever, is needed. Such good intentions are of course essentially malevolent.


Finn Harvor said...

"The American planners--men like George Kennan--of the immediate post-WWII period knew the Soviet Union was no real threat"

I'm not sure of Kennan's innermost opinions on this subject, but this description doesn't describe the beliefs of Dean Acheson, who, post-WW II, was arguably in much a greater position to influence policy -- that is, policy-as-it-was-enacted-in-the-world -- than Kennan.

Richard said...

Thanks, Finn. You may be right; I'll have to refresh my knowledge of Acheson (I do recall him being rather rabid in his anti-communism). I still think that, in general, the statement holds.

Incidentally, your comment gives me the opportunity to clarify, if that is necessary, that by "threat" I mean actual mortal threat, a threat to the US's physical safety, which of course it never was, not even close. It was, though, by example and reputation, however tarnished, a threat to the US's global plans, etc.