By Noam Chomsky

September 04, 2009 "Boston Review" -- Perhaps I may begin with a few words about the title. There is too much nuance and variety to make such sharp distinctions as theirs-and-ours, them-and-us. And neither I nor anyone can presume to speak for “us.” But I will pretend it is possible.

There is also a problem with the term “crisis.” Which one? There are numerous very severe crises, interwoven in ways that preclude any clear separation. But again I will pretend otherwise, for simplicity.

One way to enter this morass is offered by the June 11 issue of the New York Review of Books. The front-cover headline reads “How to Deal With the Crisis”; the issue features a symposium of specialists on how to do so. It is very much worth reading, but with attention to the definite article. For the West the phrase “the crisis” has a clear enough meaning: the financial crisis that hit the rich countries with great impact, and is therefore of supreme importance. But even for the rich and privileged that is by no means the only crisis, nor even the most severe. And others see the world quite differently. For example, in the October 26, 2008 edition of the Bangladeshi newspaper The New Nation, we read:

It’s very telling that trillions have already been spent to patch up leading world financial institutions, while out of the comparatively small sum of $12.3 billion pledged in Rome earlier this year, to offset the food crisis, only $1 billion has been delivered. The hope that at least extreme poverty can be eradicated by the end of 2015, as stipulated in the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, seems as unrealistic as ever, not due to lack of resources but a lack of true concern for the world’s poor.

The article goes on to predict that World Food Day in October 2009 “will bring . . . devastating news about the plight of the world’s poor . . . which is likely to remain that: mere ‘news’ that requires little action, if any at all.” Western leaders seem determined to fulfill these grim predictions. On June 11 the Financial Times reported, “the United Nations’ World Food Programme is cutting food aid rations and shutting down some operations as donor countries that face a fiscal crunch at home slash contributions to its funding.” Victims include Ethiopia, Rwanda, Uganda, and others. The sharp budget cut comes as the toll of hunger passes a billion—with over one hundred million added in the past six months—while food prices rise, and remittances decline as a result of the economic crisis in the West.

As The New Nation anticipated, the “devastating news” released by the World Food Programme barely even reached the level of “mere ‘news.’” In The New York Times, the WFP report of the reduction in the meager Western efforts to deal with this growing “human catastrophe” merited 150 words on page ten under “World Briefing.” That is not in the least unusual. The United Nations also released an estimate that desertification is endangering the lives of up to a billion people, while announcing World Desertification Day. Its goal, according to the Nigerian newspaper THISDAY, is “to combat desertification and drought worldwide by promoting public awareness and the implementation of conventions dealing with desertification in member countries.” The effort to raise public awareness passed without mention in the national U.S. press. Such neglect is all too common.

It may be instructive to recall that when they landed in what today is Bangladesh, the British invaders were stunned by its wealth and splendor. It was soon on its way to becoming the very symbol of misery, and not by an act of God.

As the fate of Bangladesh illustrates, the terrible food crisis is not just a result of “lack of true concern” in the centers of wealth and power. In large part it results from very definite concerns of global managers: for their own welfare. It is always well to keep in mind Adam Smith’s astute observation about policy formation in England. He recognized that the “principal architects” of policy—in his day the “merchants and manufacturers”—made sure that their own interests had “been most peculiarly attended to” however “grievous” the effect on others, including the people of England and, far more so, those who were subjected to “the savage injustice of the Europeans,” particularly in conquered India, Smith’s own prime concern in the domains of European conquest.

Smith was referring specifically to the mercantilist system, but his observation generalizes, and as such, stands as one of the few solid and enduring principles of both international relations and domestic affairs. It should not, however, be over-generalized. There are interesting cases where state interests, including long-term strategic and economic interests, overwhelm the parochial concerns of the concentrations of economic power that largely shape state policy. Iran and Cuba are instructive cases, but I will have to put these topics aside here.

The food crisis erupted first and most dramatically in Haiti in early 2008. Like Bangladesh, Haiti today is a symbol of misery and despair. And, like Bangladesh, when European explorers arrived, the island was remarkably rich in resources, with a large and flourishing population. It later became the source of much of France’s wealth. I will not run through the sordid history, but the current food crisis can be traced directly to 1915, Woodrow Wilson’s invasion: murderous, brutal, and destructive. Among Wilson’s many crimes was dissolving the Haitian Parliament at gunpoint because it refused to pass “progressive legislation” that would have allowed U.S. businesses to take over Haitian lands. Wilson’s Marines then ran a free election, in which the legislation was passed by 99.9 percent of the 5 percent of the public permitted to vote. All of this comes down through history as “Wilsonian idealism.”

Later, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) instituted programs to turn Haiti into the “Taiwan of the Caribbean,” by adhering to the sacred principle of comparative advantage: Haiti must import food and other commodities from the United States, while working people, mostly women, toil under miserable conditions in U.S.-owned assembly plants. Haiti’s first free election, in 1990, threatened these economically rational programs. The poor majority entered the political arena for the first time and elected their own candidate, a populist priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Washington adopted the standard operating procedures for such a case, moving at once to undermine the regime. A few months later came the anticipated military coup, and the resulting junta instituted a reign of terror, which was backed by Bush senior and even more fully by Clinton, despite pretenses. By 1994 Clinton decided that the population was sufficiently intimidated and sent U.S. forces to restore the elected president, but on the strict condition that he accept a harsh neoliberal regime. In particular, there must be no protection for the economy. Haitian rice farmers are efficient, but cannot compete with U.S. agribusiness that relies on huge government subsidies, thanks largely to Reagan, anointed High Priest of free trade with little regard to his record of extreme protectionism and state intervention in the economy.

Bailing out banks is not uppermost in the minds of the billion people now facing starvation.

There is nothing surprising about what followed: a 1995 USAID report observed that the “export-driven trade and investment policy”—that Washington mandated—will “relentlessly squeeze the domestic rice farmer.” Neoliberal policies dismantled what was left of economic sovereignty and drove the country into chaos, accelerated by Bush junior’s blocking of international aid on cynical grounds. In February 2004 the two traditional torturers of Haiti, France and the United States, backed a military coup and spirited President Aristide off to Africa. Haiti had, by then, lost the capacity to feed itself, leaving it highly vulnerable to food price fluctuation, the immediate cause of the 2008 food crisis.

The story is fairly similar in much of the world. In a narrow sense, it may be true enough that the food crisis results from Western lack of concern: a pittance could overcome its worst immediate effects. But more fundamentally it results from dedication to the basic principles of business-run state policy, the Adam Smith generalization. These are all matters that we too easily evade—along with the fact that bailing out banks is not uppermost in the minds of the billion people now facing starvation, not forgetting the tens of millions enduring hunger in the richest country in the world.

Also sidelined is a possible way to make a significant dent in the financial and food crises. It is suggested by the recent publication of the authoritative annual report on military spending by SIPRI, the Swedish peace research institute. The scale of military spending is phenomenal, regularly increasing. The United States is responsible for almost as much as the rest of the world combined, seven times as much as its nearest rival, China. There is no need to waste time commenting.

• • •

The distribution of concerns illustrates another crisis, a cultural crisis: the tendency to focus on short-term parochial gains, a core element of our socioeconomic institutions and their ideological support system. One illustration is the array of perverse incentives devised for corporate managers to enrich themselves, however grievous the impact on others—for example, the “too big to fail” insurance policies provided by the unwitting public.

There are also deeper problems inherent in market inefficiencies. One of these, now belatedly recognized to be among the roots of the financial crisis, is the under-pricing of systemic risk: if you and I make a transaction, we factor in the cost to us, but not to others. The financial industry, that means Goldman Sachs, if managed properly, will calculate the potential cost to itself if a loan goes bad, but not the impact on the financial system, which can be severe. This inherent deficiency of markets is well known. Ten years ago, at the height of the euphoria about efficient markets, two prominent economists, John Eatwell and Lance Taylor, wrote Global Finance at Risk, an important book in which they spelled out the consequences of these market inefficiencies and outlined means to deal with them. Their proposals conflicted sharply with the deregulatory rage that was then consuming the Clinton administration, under the leadership of those whom Obama has now called upon to put band-aids on the disaster they helped to create.

In substantial measure, the food crisis plaguing much of the South and the financial crisis of the North have a common source: the shift toward neoliberalism since the 1970s, which brought to an end the Bretton Woods system instituted by the United States and United Kingdom after World War II. The architects of Bretton Woods, John Maynard Keynes and Harry Dexter White, anticipated that its core principles—including capital controls and regulated currencies—would lead to rapid and relatively balanced economic growth and would also free governments to institute the social democratic programs that had very strong public support. Mostly, they were vindicated on both counts. Many economists call the years that followed, until the 1970s, the “golden age of capitalism.”

The “golden age” saw not only unprecedented and relatively egalitarian growth, but also the introduction of welfare-state measures. As Keynes and White were aware, free capital movement and speculation inhibit those options. To quote from the professional literature, free flow of capital creates a “virtual senate” of lenders and investors who carry out a “moment-by-moment referendum” on government policies, and if they find them irrational—that is, designed to help people, not profits—they vote against them by capital flight, attacks on currency, and other means. Democratic governments therefore have a “dual constituency”: the population, and the virtual senate, who typically prevail.

In his standard history of the financial system, Barry Eichengreen writes that, in earlier years, the costs imposed by market inefficiencies and failures could be imposed on the public, but that became difficult when governments were “politicized” by “universal male suffrage and the rise of trade unionism and parliamentary labor parties” and later by the radicalization of the general public during the Great Depression and the anti-fascist war. Accordingly, in the Bretton Woods system, “limits on capital mobility substituted for limits on democracy as a source of insulation from market pressures.” There is a corollary: dismantling of the Bretton Woods restrictions on capital during the neoliberal period restores a powerful weapon against democracy.

The neoliberal rollback of democracy—often called “democracy promotion”—has enabled other means of control and marginalization of the public. One illustration is the management of electoral extravaganzas in the United States by the public relations industry, peaking with Obama, who won the industry’s award for “marketer of the year for 2008.” Industry executives exulted in the business press that Obama was the highest achievement yet of those who “helped pioneer the packaging of candidates as consumer brands 30 years ago,” when they designed the Reagan campaign. The Financial Times paraphrased one marketing executive suggesting that the Obama triumph should “have more influence on boardrooms than any president since Ronald Reagan, [who] redefined what it was to be a CEO.” Reagan taught, “you had to give [your organization] a vision,” leading to the “reign of the imperial CEO” in the 1980s and 1990s. The synergy of running corporations and controlling politics, including the marketing of candidates as commodities, offers great prospects for the future management of democracy.

Where neoliberal rules have been observed since the ’70s, economic performance has generally deteriorated and social democratic programs have weakened.

For working people, small farmers, and the poor, at home and abroad, all of this spells regular disaster. One of the reasons for the radical difference in development between Latin America and East Asia in the last half century is that Latin America did not control capital flight, which often approached the level of its crushing debt and has regularly been wielded as a weapon against the threat of democracy and social reform. In contrast, during South Korea’s remarkable growth period, capital flight was not only banned, but could bring the death penalty.

Where neoliberal rules have been observed since the ’70s, economic performance has generally deteriorated and social democratic programs have substantially weakened. In the United States, which partially accepted these rules, real wages for the majority have largely stagnated for 30 years, instead of tracking productivity growth as before, while work hours have increased, now well beyond those of Europe. Benefits, which always lagged, have declined further. Social indicators—general measures of the health of the society—also tracked growth until the mid-’70s, when they began to decline, falling to the 1960 level by the end of the millennium. Economic growth found its way into few pockets, increasingly in the financial industries. Finance constituted a few percentage points of GDP in 1970, and has since risen to well over one-third, while productive industry has declined, and with it, living standards for much of the workforce. The economy has been punctuated by bubbles, financial crises, and public bailouts, currently reaching new highs. A few outstanding international economists explained and predicted these results from the start. But mythology about “efficient markets” and “rational choice” prevailed. This is no surprise: it was highly beneficial to the narrow sectors of privilege and power that provide the “principal architects of policy.”

• • •

The phrase “golden age of capitalism” might itself be challenged. The period can more accurately be called “state capitalism.” The state sector was, and remains, a primary factor in development and innovation through a variety of measures, among them research and development, procurement, subsidy, and bailouts. In the U.S. version, these policies operated mainly under a Pentagon cover as long as the cutting edge of the advanced economy was electronics-based. In recent years there has been a shift toward health-oriented state institutions as the cutting edge becomes more biology-based. The outcomes include computers, the Internet, satellites, and most of the rest of the IT revolution, but also much else: civilian aircraft, advanced machine tools, pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, and a lot more. The crucial state role in economic development should be kept in mind when we hear dire warnings about government intervention in the financial system after private management has once again driven it to crisis, this time, an unusually severe crisis, and one that harms the rich, not just the poor, so it merits special concern. It is a little odd, to say the least, to read economic historian Niall Ferguson in the New York Review of Books symposium on “The Crisis” saying that “the lesson of economic history is very clear. Economic growth . . . comes from technological innovation and gains in productivity, and these things come from the private sector, not from the state”—remarks that were probably written on a computer and sent via the Internet, which were substantially in the state sector for decades before they became available for private profit. His is hardly the clear lesson of economic history.

Large-scale state intervention in the economy is not just a phenomenon of the post-World War II era, either. On the contrary, the state has always been a central factor in economic development. Once they gained their independence, the American colonies were free to abandon the orthodox economic policies that dictated adherence to their comparative advantage in export of primary commodities while importing superior British manufacturing goods. Instead, the Hamiltonian economy imposed very high tariffs so that an industrial economy could develop: textiles, steel, and much else. The eminent economic historian Paul Bairoch describes the United States as “the mother country and bastion of modern protectionism,” with the highest tariffs in the world during its great growth period. And protectionism is only one of the many forms of state intervention. Protectionist policies continued until the mid-twentieth century, when the United States was so far in the lead that the playing field was tilted in the proper direction—that is, to the advantage of U.S. corporations. And when necessary, it has been tilted further, notably by Reagan, who virtually doubled protectionist barriers among other measures to rescue incompetent U.S. corporate management unable to compete with Japan.

From the outset the United States was following Britain’s lead. The other developed countries did likewise, while orthodox policies were rammed down the throats of the colonies, with predictable effects. It is noteworthy that the one country of the (metaphorical) South to develop, Japan, also successfully resisted colonization. Others that developed, like the United States, did so after they escaped colonial domination. Selective application of economic prinicples—orthodox economics forced on the colonies while violated at will by those free to do so—is a basic factor in the creation of the sharp North-South divide. Like many other economic historians, Bairoch concludes from a broad survey that “it is difficult to find another case where the facts so contradict a dominant theory” as the doctrine that free markets were the engine of growth, a harsh lesson that the developing world has learned again in recent decades. Even the poster child of neoliberalism, Chile, depends heavily on the world’s largest copper producer, Codelco, nationalized by Allende.

In earlier years the cotton-based economy of the industrial revolution relied on massive ethnic cleansing and slavery, rather severe forms of state intervention in the economy. Though theoretically slavery was ended with the Civil War, it emerged again after Reconstruction in a form that was in many ways more virulent, with what amounted to criminalization of African-American life and widespread use of convict labor, which continued until World War II. The industrial revolution, from the late nineteenth century, relied heavily on this new form of slavery, a hideous story that has only recently been exposed in its shocking detail in a very important study by Wall Street Journal bureau chief Douglas Blackmon. During the post-World War II “golden age,” African Americans were able for the first time to enjoy some level of social and economic advancement, but the disgraceful post-Reconstruction history has been partially reconstituted during the neoliberal years with the rapid growth of what some criminologists call “the prison-industrial complex,” a uniquely American crime committed continuously since the 1980s and exacerbated by the dismantling of productive industry.

People cannot be told that the advanced economy relies heavily on their risk-taking, while eventual profit is privatized, and ‘eventual’ can be a long time.

The American system of mass production that astonished the world in the nineteenth century was largely created in military arsenals. Solving the major nineteenth-century management problem—railroads—was beyond the capacity of private capital, so the challenge was handed over to the army. A century ago the toughest problems of electrical and mechanical engineering involved placing a huge gun on a moving platform to hit a moving target—naval gunnery. The leaders were Germany and England, and the outcomes quickly spilled over into the civilian economy. Some economic historians compare that episode to state-run space programs today. Reagan’s “Star Wars” was sold to industry as a traditional gift from government, and was understood that way elsewhere too: that is why Europe and Japan wanted to buy in. There was a dramatic increase in the state role after World War II, particularly in the United States, where a good part of the advanced economy developed in this framework.