Sunday, 6 February 2011

Crisis is the locomotive of history

The Bolshevik revolutionary Leon Trotsky famously declared that “war is a great locomotive of history”. Over the last half-century, however, territorial expansion has ceased to be a legitimate reason for waging war – although this hasn’t stopped covert conflicts and has given birth to new justifications such as humanitarian intervention and pre-emptive strike.

Naomi Klein – in her monumental book The Shock Doctrine – frames modern history as the evolution of disaster capitalism and the shock doctrine. Klein debunks the myth that the rise of neo-liberal hegemony was achieved democratically and contends that free-market capitalism requires (and encourages) crisis to force through the contentious and unpopular corporate reengineering of society. Laissez-faire policy-makers capitalise on the public’s disorientation following massive collective shocks – such as wars, terrorist attacks and natural disasters – to implement economic shock therapy. In this sense, crisis – not just war – can be seen as the locomotive of history. Indeed, as the Chicago School economist and grandfather of disaster capitalism Milton Friedman stated in 1982:
Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.
The Shock Doctrine argues that Friedmanite economics has been applied throughout the world in response to crises since the 1970s – from Pinochet’s Chile to the occupation of Iraq. Free-market reform – always serving American corporate interest – has required the shock therapy of torture, war and repression to subdue popular unrest and smash opposition. International bodies under the control of America – such as the IMF and World Bank – have used the debt crisis in Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Soviet Union to hold democratically elected governments to ransom and push through an agenda of privatisation.

Klein generally equates disaster capitalism with war, terrorist attacks and natural disasters – but the shock doctrine also provides a useful framework to view the recent economic crisis. Britain’s recession has been characterised – by the Tories, Lib Dems and mainstream media – as a result of economic ineptitude on behalf of the previous Labour government. All government responses to questions – regardless of topic – start will a denunciation of the “economic mess” that Labour left the country in. Samantha Cameron’s probably stopped asking David what he wants for breakfast fearing the inevitable tirade against Brown and co. – but all this rhetoric is necessary to soften up the population for economic shock therapy. As the Nazi Minister for Propaganda Joseph Goebbels declared, “if you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it”. In the same way, if the government repeat often enough that cuts are necessary, people will come to believe it. It is here that the dichotomy of Friedmanite crisis – both actual and perceived – becomes blurred and mutually reinforcing.

There are stark parallels between the shock therapy of military intervention and the current economic shock therapy being implemented by the government. In Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance – the military doctrine that underpinned the invasion of Iraq – the authors state that the invading forces should “seize control of the environment and paralyze or so overload an adversary’s perceptions and understanding of events so that the enemy would be incapable of resistance”. In Britain, the invading forces – or the government – seek to paralyze their adversaries – or the electorate – by perpetuating the idea of crisis and the need for the economic reconstitution of society. Furthermore, the violent repression of student protests can be seen as a direct corollary of repressive shock therapy and serves as a stark warning to those who might consider future protest.

A perceived culture of crisis is required by Conservatives to fortify a systematic assault on the state. As Klein states:
People can develop responses to gradual change – a slashed health programme here, a trade deal there – but if dozens of changes come from all directions at once, a feeling of futility sets in, and populations go limp.
Furthermore, ensuring all the cuts come at once forces Labour Party collusion. If Labour oppose cuts they are accused of being “deficit deniers” whilst their economic credibility is shattered by the government attributing the economic crisis to Labour mis-management. Labour do not wish to appear out-of-touch with the electorate and are thus forced to meekly accept government economic policy. Its effect, as Milton Friedman declared, is that something which was previously “politically impossible becomes politically inevitable” – in this case the underhand privatisation of the NHS and Royal Mail.

As the political scientist Michael Wolfe states:
Conservatives cannot govern well for the same reason that vegetarians cannot prepare a world-class boeuf bourguignon: If you believe that what you are called upon to do is wrong, you are unlikely to do it very well... As a way of governing, conservatism is another name for disaster.
Despite what Conservative mantra tells us, the real crisis we face is not the result of global financial recession, it is the effect of ideologically-driven neo-liberal economic policy: mass youth unemployment; the privatisation of the NHS; the narrowing of access to higher education; and the championing of the corporate agenda.

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