When you’re comparing extreme left and extreme right economic systems – namely aggressive free-market capitalism versus communism or socialism – I’ve always felt like the left-wing options are held back by the USSR and what happened under Stalin (and I suppose everything that happened under Mao in China too. The Great Leap Forward still fucks me up). Whenever far left economic policy is discussed, someone inevitably jumps in to remind everyone that hardcore communism has been tried before – in a way that extreme capitalism has not – and millions upon millions of people suffered and died. I know that it holds me back in my own head from conceiving of more radical lefty economies as safe and viable options (though ‘radical’ is the operative word, as there is a chasm between a market-based economy with a developed welfare state and full-on Stalin-style communism. It is very much a spectrum).
Now, this is not to say that there haven’t been right-wing governments who have enacted untold terror (the list is, sadly, extensive) though as far as I knew until recently, enacting extreme free market capitalism was not the aim of these authoritarian states. I thought of Nazi Germany, which may have used the economy as tool, but was ultimately motivated by racism, nationalism and a desire for ethnic cleansing. Despite having a decent grasp of twentieth century history, I didn’t know of any major totalitarian regimes motivated by implementing radical free market reforms.
Then I picked up the Shock Doctrine, a 2007 book about disaster capitalism by one of my favourite socialists, Naomi Klein, and it blew my mind.
As I have come to learn more about economics, social justice and the ways in which different governments choose to serve their citizens, I find myself sliding unstoppably to the economic left (I have been firmly rooted in the sociopolitical left for… my whole life, really, but as an economically privileged person, as one of the few people who has obviously benefitted from capitalism, it took longer to parse out these parts of the world and come to a more informed opinion, though, as with all my views, it is still a work in progress). When I compare countries, market-based or not, with strong social safety nets, an effective welfare states, better wealth distribution, along with also being democracies, to nations without those protections (of which the starkest example has to be the USA), it just seems… better. It is so obviously better for the vast majority of citizens. So while I could throw my arms in the air, say “fuck everyone who isn’t as lucky as I am,” and continue to extol the virtues of the market, I can’t really support capitalism in its current form and profess to give a shit about the billions of people around the world who are oppressed by our unforgiving economies.
(Crucially, I think there must be some middle ground. I have never been a person of extremes, so I don’t think extreme capitalism, communism or socialism is the answer. Scandinavia is the oft-lauded example. They operate via markets but with high taxes and extensive, well-funded social programs. Though they are also extremely strict about immigration and remain ethnically homogenous, suggesting that preserving ‘the nation’ may well be key to getting support for this kind of economic paradigm. Ugh. Why is the world so complicated?!)
Anyway, back to the book. This book blew my mind. I had no idea that, in the 1970s, there were horrific coups and oppressive regimes in Latin America, all with the aim of implementing free-market capitalism across the continent. This is the example I have been grasping for to balance out everything I know about the Soviet Union, to show that power can corrupt leaders across the political and economic spectrum, and that capitalism too has inspired bloody regimes. Friedman considered Latin America as the laboratory for this kind of economic experiment, and after its ‘success’ (enormous numbers of people were tortured, disappeared or killed and the economy went into free fall, but a tiny proportion of the ruling elite became unspeakably rich – yay?) the Friedman-trained neoliberals enacted similar shock programs in Poland, Russia, China, South Africa and Iraq, among others. Killing people, planning political coups and creating oppressive regimes full of poverty have been features of the capitalist project since its inception… and I had no idea. How did I not know about this? Did you?
Klein explains in the book how the ultimate motivation of these uprisings was obfuscated, with the economic aims and human consequences becoming separated in the minds of those telling these stories. Friedman would denounce the violence while praising the extreme privatisation and open trading borders, as if the latter was not directly responsible for the former. I knew that capitalism killed, as when it comes to poverty and inequality, the death toll is always rising. Whether it’s homeless people on the streets of London or an uninsured college student in America or a mother going hungry to feed her children in Thailand, people have always died when most of the wealth is concentrated at the top and healthcare, food, shelter and water are human rights only in name, but not in practice. However, I didn’t know of a coordinated murderous rampage, not unlike the actions of certain communist dictators of years past, that had the expressed aim of implementing neoliberal market policy, until now. It turns out that aggressive capitalism has been the aim of many political and economic shocks of the last fifty years, starting in Chile and Argentina before suffusing much of the developing world.
Why has this shocked me so much, if you’ll pardon the pun? Because it feels like a severely glaring omission from our history lessons, when the economic aims of the USSR are common knowledge among many Westerners. To believe that extreme left-wing economic policy can only go so far before abject disaster naturally limits that extent to which people feel a move to the economic left is a viable option. For as long as we believe that capitalism, though flawed, has not left behind its own trail of bodies and police states, it will always seem like the slightly safer option, no matter how much current experience suggests otherwise. This is so dangerous, because it turns out that there is ample history to show that free market capitalism is as deadly a force as any totalitarian communist, and remains motivated by a power-hungry, corrupt elite. Perhaps the biggest success of the capitalist project is that it implemented its ideals without most people realising that that was the ultimate aim.
As I said before, I do think there must be a middle ground between these economic systems, as is attempted, with decent success, by a few progressive countries around the world. As with everything in life, nuance is paramount, and trying to enact the most extreme form of any economy will always be challenging and require some method of squashing the naysayers (of which there will be many if your aims are truly radical, regardless of which side you’re on). But to believe that all the capitalist experiments we’ve seen have avoided much of the fear, repression and death of communist cultures is misguided. Capitalism has left behind its own trail of bodies and torture. The most impressive feat might be that many of us don’t know that they’re there.