Disaster Collectivism

Naomi Klein, darling of the loonie left, has a new book out called The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. The basic idea is that the insidious forces of neoliberalism take advantage of wars, economic crises, and natural disasters to impose their evil schemes on disoriented and distracted publics. The career of Milton Friedman, the occupation of Iraq, and the bungled response to Katrina are all supposedly cases in point.

Klein is not a serious person, and in this book she does not mount a serious argument. But she does raise an interesting issue: the political implications of crises. It is certainly true that the waves of liberal reform (political as well as economic) that swept the world in the ’80s and ’90s were often triggered by economic crises. Indeed, I wrote a book on the subject in which I interpreted the current episode of globalization as a response to the often cataclysmic breakdown of various state-dominated models of economic development.

There’s nothing terribly surprising about this. Inertia is a powerful force in politics: every status quo has vested interests that benefit from it, while advocates of change push in all different directions and frequently cancel each other out. A crisis, though, can discredit the status quo and demoralize its supporters, while galvanizing particular pro-reform camps and boosting their credibility. Politics suddenly becomes more fluid; rapid and sweeping changes that had no chance of being enacted beforehand now occur in rapid succession.

But it’s ridiculous to portray this dynamic as somehow uniquely favoring one side of the political spectrum. Recall the great triumphs historically associated with the left: the French Revolution was made possible by the financial distress of the ancien regime; the Paris Commune was founded after defeat at the hands of the Prussians; the Russian Revolution was catalyzed by military failures in World War I.

In our own country, it was a one-two punch of cataclysms – the Great Depression, followed by World War II — that brought Big Government to the United States and then consolidated its hold. The unprecedented economic collapse made traditional American attitudes of laissez faire and individual responsibility seem hopelessly outdated; by contrast, the frenetic activity of the New Deal, regardless of the decidedly mixed results, projected boldness and vigor and hope. The subsequent mass mobilization for total war reinforced the shift in political culture. If you watched any of the wonderful new Ken Burns documentary on “The War,” you saw that the “home front” wasn’t just an expression: the diversion of the country’s industrial might to war production, price controls and rationing, extremely high tax rates, war bond drives, and incessant propaganda combined to thoroughly collectivize American society. And it worked: the economy boomed, people reaped the psychological satisfactions of banding together against a common and abominably evil enemy, and in the end America triumphed.

Today people on the left are filled with nostalgia for the political economy of the early postwar decades. I don’t think many of them recognize, though, how heavily their Golden Age depended on the lingering economic and cultural effects of destruction on a mind-boggling scale. They call themselves progressives, yet they pine for the good old days of disaster collectivism.

[cross-posted from www.brinklindsey.com]