The End of Securitized Mortgage Lending
links for 2008-04-28

Doug Henwood on Naomi Klein

Doug writes, apropos of Naomi Klein:

History, but not exactly a secret: As is often the case with arguments organized around a conceit, Klein works hard to squeeze events into her model’s form. There’s the problem mentioned above—that Cameron and Pinochet cannot explain Ronald Reagan’s 59-41 victory over Walter Mondale in 1984. But there are also problems with many of Klein’s case studies.

In her chapter on post-apartheid South Africa, Klein notes how the hope generated by the ANC’s taking power was dashed by the orthodox economic policy the party pursued once in power. She explains that the country was “outnegotiated” by the World Bank and IMF. That is not how many on the South African left see the problem. Their analysis is that the ANC was never anti-capitalist, and was quite eager to join the world system and get its own piece of the action. As no less than Mandela himself put it: “The ANC has never...advocated a revolutionary change in the economic structure of the country, nor has it...ever condemned capitalist society.”

She also asserts that Israel is in the midst of a Chinese-style boom, which has been occurring because, not in spite of, the country’s constant state of war. The boom, she asserts, is being driven by the production and export of military and surveillance equipment. But in fact Israel’s economy isn’t booming, the military share of GDP is way down from its 1970s peaks and has been flat in recent years, and arms represent only a fraction of Israeli exports. Israel’s per capita GDP has been growing at about a quarter of the Chinese rate over the last couple of years; over the last seven years, it’s more like a tenth the Chinese rate. Electronics, including military–surveillance goods, have been declining as a share of Israeli exports, while that of drugs and chemicals has been rising. Israel’s share of the world’s arms trade is just over 1%, behind Sweden’s.

For Klein, the invasion of Iraq wasn’t a geopolitical adventure so much as an economically rational attempt to complete the Chicago-school counterrevolution that began in Chile in 1973: to bring the “Friedmanite” model to the Middle East. “The ‘fiasco’ of Iraq is one created by a careful and faithful application of unrestrained Chicago School ideology.” It was, in a phrase she likes, “Friedmanite to the core.” Among the problems with this reading are that things haven’t worked out as planned—Iraq barely has an economy to impose any policy on, though privatization decrees were certainly issued—and that Friedman himself opposed the invasion of Iraq. He told the Wall Street Journal’s Tunku Varadarajan in July 2006: “What's really killed the Republican Party isn't spending, it's Iraq. As it happens, I was opposed to going into Iraq from the beginning. I think it was a mistake, for the simple reason that I do not believe the United States of America ought to be involved in aggression.”


Klein’s use of a one-dimensional caricature of Friedman as an all-purpose whipping boy may play to the choir, but he deserves more serious attention than this. His economics was in many ways wrong and vile, but over the course of a fifty-year career, he helped reshape not only his discipline, but the way politicians and regular people think and talk about the economy. He was an extremely effective popular writer; if only the left could have produced a book as persuasive as Capitalism and Freedom, the world might be a better place. (Yes, yes, his argument was nicely aligned with the needs of capital in the 1970s, but on the other hand, capital also needed some degree of popular assent, which Friedman helped produce—and, on the third hand, polemic doesn’t count for nothing, and material interest isn’t everything.)

One reason that Friedman became popular both within his own profession and in the larger world was that there were real economic problems in the 1970s. In the richer countries, Keynesian/welfare-state capitalism was in crisis because of stagflation. According to the economic consensus of the time, weak growth was supposed to mean low inflation—but weak growth coexisted with persistently high inflation throughout the 1970s. Friedman offered an explanation for that: monetary stimulus beyond a certain point results in inflation, not additional growth. Growth was being held back by unions and regulations, which were interfering with the magic self-adjusting powers of the market. The solution was tight money and deregulation. It worked, at least for a while, on its own terms, though at great human cost.

But there’s a radical way of expressing the insights of Friedman and the others who came to power and influence in the late 1970s. Capitalism simply cannot live with low unemployment rates. Workers gain confidence, resist the direction of the boss, and wages are forced up. Add to that a welfare state, which cushions workers against the risk of job loss, and things are even worse from the bosses’ point of view. Their plight was evident in the depressed profit rates of the leisure-suit decade.

Sure enough, the application of the Friedman agenda raised profit rates and ended the great inflation—though it put the working class into a semipermanent state of anxiety, which was part of the point. That does suggest a permanent shock strategy is part of the system’s normal operating procedure, not an extraordinary event.

Limits and beyond

An honest evaluation of this history would have to recognize that the Keynesian model in the northern hemisphere had reached an impasse in the 1970s. Either things had to break in the Friedmanite direction or a more anticapitalist direction. And in the southern hemisphere, import substitution was running into similar problems: rising inflation and low levels of productivity. Many governments borrowed heavily abroad in an attempt to keep things going, laying the groundwork for the debt crisis of the 1980s. Obviously Friedman, Pinochet, and Reagan do not represent the full range of possibilities, but something had to give, and the left worldwide was too weak to win the battle.

Though the analysis may be problematic, Klein’s closing chapter does inspire hope even in a skeptical reader. Shocks wear off, and some of the most inspiring agitation is coming from the region that suffered some of the worst abuses of the 1970s and 1980s, Latin America. The word “socialism” is even being dusted off in Venezuela and Bolivia. But the emphasis on shock as the organizing principle of the book even constrains the inspiration. Those recovering from shock, whether in the Southern Cone or in New Orleans, see themselves as “repair people, taking what’s there and fixing it, reinforcing it, making it better and more equal. Most of all, they are building in resistance—for when the next shock hits.” These are the concluding words of the book. Is this really all we can do? Tinker while the weather’s fair, and get ready to duck and cover on a moment’s notice?