I recently finished reading The Shock Doctrine, by Naomi Klein. It’s a horrifying (but very convincing) view of several related movements in global politics: free market capitalism, privatisation of state assets and services, widening economic inequality, increasing direct involvement of corporate interests in political decisionmaking, and increasing instability on several fronts (economic, social, political, and even ecological). I recommend it highly, also for the perspective it gives on the Greek situation.
For a long time I’ve had an inchoate suspicion that it’s size that is the problem. The idea comes from seeing competition from chain stores wipe out small bookstores and grocery stores. If we could somehow prevent multinationals from existing, smaller local industries would have a chance to compete; make it harder for chain supermarkets and the local grocery store won’t go out of business; and so on and so forth. The same idea seems promising for nations: If we could break down the larger nations into smaller chunks, the feeling goes, they would each have less power to inflict externally, and individual voices within them would have more chance to be heard. Although of course this is utterly simplistic and impractical, it is based on a notion that is not obviously wrong: it is very very difficult for small to compete against big. Even in an arena where size doesn’t directly correspond to power (think of the supermarkets), a larger organisation will tend to be more efficient (taking advantage of economies of scale) and more stable (because the same shock has less proportional effect) than a small one.
Somewhat by accident, though, Klein has shown me another problem with this idea. She writes:
Another glimpse of a disaster apartheid future can be found in a wealthy Republican suburb outside Atlanta. Its residents decided that they were tired of watching their property taxes subsidize schools and police in the county’s low-income African-American neighborhoods. They voted to incorporate as their own city, Sandy Springs, which could spend its taxes on services for its 100,000 citizens and not have the revenues redistributed throughout the larger Fulton County.
Large organisations don’t just allow efficient external competition: they also allow efficient internal allocation of resources, potentially against the immediate interests of their constituent parts. Chop them up into smaller parts and the parts can compete against each other, rather than being forced from above to work together. Smaller might be a lot worse then bigger, if left free to compete.
If size isn’t the problem, what is?
For Klein, as far as I can see, the answer is free-market capitalism. All the political evils she describes flow from the desire to impose this economic system against the immediate (democratically expressed) wishes of the majority: the “shock doctrine” is the explicit acknowledgement that the political disorientation that accompanies a disaster (whether economic, natural, or man-made) makes possible the imposition of free-market economic “reforms” which would be impossible if the democratic process was functioning properly.
I’m struggling to distill something simpler and deeper from this. I think perhaps we could say that the problem is self-interest, and the problem with free-market capitalism is that it encourages self-interest while promoting the narrowest possible definition of the “self”.1 Seen in this light, Klein’s preferred alternative of democratic socialism (including worker-owned and democratically run collectives as a standard unit of economic organisation) seems promising for the sub-national scale; I wonder what the equivalent supra-national notion would be. (Free-trade economic unions ain’t it: they encourage competition among member nations, diminishing the “self” to individual nations or companies and giving self-interest at that level free rein.) Klein talks briefly about an economic union of South American nations that seems to fit, but not in enough detail to be sure.
Another way of looking at things that I’m turning over in my head is to think about the relative spheres of power and of responsibility associated with a person or an organisation. The US, for example, has responsibility to its citizens but power that extends much further: this is a recipe for someone losing out as that power is exercised without a corresponding balance in terms of responsibility. The responsibility clause ties into the “self” of “self-interest”, while the power clause is how the self-interest is realised as action. Klein’s indictment of the revolving door between business and politics (which she describes as more of an “archway” in the US political climate of government-by-contractor) could be described in these terms as politicians having power at national level (in the political sphere) but feeling responsibility instead to the corporate world.
I think perhaps in an ideal world these proportions would be reversed: politicians and corporations would feel responsibility beyond the reach of their power (to the ecology and humanity as a whole, for instance) and would use their power to restrain the self-interest of smaller organisations and force them to work efficiently towards those larger responsibilities.
Even assuming these fumblings are halfway on the right track, though, the awkward question remains: how on earth do you move in that direction?
Roughly once a week I speak to my parents in New Zealand, and my mother always manages to drop a bit of motherly wisdom into the conversation. It’s frequently not what I want to hear (“put your laptop away and go do some exercise” comes to mind), and often I say “Yes, Mum” and move on as rapidly as I can to a new topic, only to come back to the advice later and realise that yes, there was something to it after all.
The latest such nugget is her advice to counteract this kind of abstract (and depressing) speculation with some good old-fashioned grassroots action. Grow some vegetables and exchange them with friends. Volunteer at a local organisation. Make something and give it away.
I’m paraphrasing extensively now, but I think I can see a way to fit this into the abstract schema above: start building some selves with larger spheres of responsibility (than the physical self, the immediate family, the company you work for), and structure them cooperatively rather than competitively (so that their core of selfhood can continue to grow rather than hardening against an external Other).
I’m not sure yet what that should look like for us here in Greece, but I’m starting to think about it.
- A publicly traded company has not just the right but the legal responsibility to behave selfishly: its leadership can be sued for failing to seize opportunities that would increase the return to its shareholders, even when those opportunities might be morally or ecologically dubious, for instance. [↪]