passionate intensity & the washington concensus

A recent talk by Naomi Klein entitled “Lost Worlds” about the supression of populist alternatives to global capitalism and the struggle to realize them. The whole speach can be found at DemocracyNow!

NAOMI KLEIN: As we think about reaching this other possible world, I want to be very clear that I don’t believe the problem is a lack of ideas. I think we’re swimming in ideas: universal healthcare; living wages; cooperatives; participatory democracy; public services that are accountable to the people who use them; food, medicine and shelter as a human right. These aren’t new ideas. They’re enshrined in the UN Charter. And I think most of us still believe in them.

I don’t think our problem is money, lack of resources to act on these basic ideas. Now, at the risk of being accused of economic populism, I would just point out that in this city, the employees of Goldman Sachs received more than $16 billion in Christmas bonuses last year, and ExxonMobil earned $40 billion in annual profits, a world record. It seems to me that there’s clearly enough money sloshing around to pay for our modest dreams. We can tax the polluters and the casino capitalists to pay for alternative energy development and a global social safety net. We don’t lack ideas. Neither are we short on cash.

And unlike Jeffrey Sachs, I actually don’t believe that what is lacking is political will at the highest levels, cooperation between world leaders. I don’t think that if we could just present our elites with the right graphs and PowerPoint presentations — no offense — that we would finally convince them to make poverty history. I don’t believe that. I don’t believe we could do it, even if that PowerPoint presentation was being delivered Angelina Jolie wearing a (Product) Red TM Gap tank top and carrying a (Product) Red cell phone. Even if she had a (Product) Red iPhone, I still don’t think they would listen. That’s because elites don’t make justice because we ask them to nicely and appealingly. They do it when the alternative to justice is worse. And that is what happened all those years ago when the income gap began to close. That was the motivation behind the New Deal and the Marshall Plan. Communism spreading around the world, that was the fear. Capitalism needed to embellish itself. It needed to soften its edges. It was in a competition. So ideas aren’t the problem, and money is not the problem, and I don’t think political will is ever the problem.

The real problem, I want to argue today, is confidence, our confidence, the confidence of people who gather at events like this under the banner of building another world, a kinder more sustainable world. I think we lack the strength of our convictions, the guts to back up our ideas with enough muscle to scare our elites. We are missing movement power. That’s what we’re missing. “The best lacked all convictions,” Yeats wrote, “while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Think about it. Do you want to tackle climate change as much as Dick Cheney wants Kazakhstan’s oil? Do you? Do you want universal healthcare as much as Paris Hilton wants to be the next new face of Estee Lauder? If not, why not? What is wrong with us? Where is our passionate intensity?

What is at the root of our crisis of confidence? What drains us of our conviction at crucial moments when we are tested? At the root, I think it’s the notion that we have accepted, which is that our ideas have already been tried and found wanting. Part of what keeps us from building the alternatives that we deserve and long for and that the world needs so desperately, like a healthcare system that doesn’t sicken us when we see it portrayed on film, like the ability to rebuild New Orleans without treating a massive human tragedy like an opportunity for rapid profit-making for politically connected contractors, the right to have bridges that don’t collapse and subways that don’t flood when it rains. I think that what lies at the root of that lack of confidence is that we’re told over and over again that progressive ideas have already been tried and failed. We hear it so much that we accepted it. So our alternatives are posed tentatively, almost apologetically. “Is another world possible?” we ask.

This idea of our intellectual and ideological failure is the dominant narrative of our time. It’s embedded in all the catchphrases that we’ve been referring to. “There is no alternative,” said Thatcher. “History has ended,” said Fukuyama. The Washington Consensus: the thinking has already been done, the consensus is there. Now, the premise of all these proclamations was that capitalism, extreme capitalism, was conquering every corner of the globe because all other ideas had proven themselves disastrous. The only thing worse than capitalism, we were told, was the alternative.

Now, it’s worth remembering when these pronouncements were being made that what was failing was not Scandinavian social democracy, which was thriving, or a Canadian-style welfare state, which has produced the highest standard of living by UN measures in the world, or at least it did before my government started embracing some of these ideas. It wasn’t the so-called Asian miracle that had been discredited, which in the ’80s and ’90s built the Asian “tiger” economies in South Korea and Malaysia using a combination of trade protections to nurture and develop national industry, even when that meant keeping American products out and preventing foreign ownership, as well as maintaining government control over key assets, like water and electricity. These policies did not create explosive growth concentrated at the very top, as we see today. But record levels of profit and a rapidly expanding middle class, that is what has been attacked in these past thirty years.

What was failing and collapsing when history was declared over was something very specific in 1989, when Francis Fukyama made that famous declaration, and when the Washington Consensus was declared, also in 1989. What was collapsing was centralized state communism, authoritarian, anti-democratic, repressive. Something very specific was collapsing, and it was a moment of tremendous flux.

And it was in that moment of flux and disorientation that several very savvy people, many of them in this country, seized on that moment to declare victory not only against communism, but against all ideas but their own. Now, this was the Fukuyama chutzpah, when he actually said — and it seems so strange to read it now — in his famous 1989 speech, that the significance of that moment was not that we were reaching an end of ideology, as some were suggesting, or a convergence between capitalism and socialism, as Gorbachev was suggesting, it was not that ideology had ended, but that history as such had ended. He argued that deregulated markets in the economic sphere combined with liberal democracy in the political sphere represented the endpoint of mankind’s ideological evolution and the final form of human government.

Now, what was interesting and never quite stated in this formulation was that you basically had two streams: you had democracy, which you can use to vote for your leaders, and then you had a single economic model. Now, the catch was that you couldn’t use your vote, you couldn’t use your democracy to reshape your economy, because all of the economic decisions had already been decided. There was only — it was the final endpoint of ideological evolution. So you could have democracy, but you couldn’t use it to change the basics of life, you couldn’t use it to change the economy. This moment was held up as a celebration of victory for democracy, but that idea, that democracy cannot affect the economy, is and remains the single most anti-democratic idea of our time.


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