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crisis in opportunity: naomi klein on disaster capitalism

September 30th, 2008     by piKe krpan     Comments

Beyond my requisite Women’s Studies viewing of Marilyn Waring’s Who’s Counting: Sex, Lies and Global Economics (which is kick-ass), I hate economics. Economy talk makes me mad. It’s because pundits talk about it as if it’s something more precious than life itself. Same with the market. Or capital. I like my political talk to start and end with living beings and their rights to live, work, and die with dignity.

Ok, ok, I’m also intimidated by economic talk - even with university courses in macro and microeconomics under my belt. It’s been a long road to realizing that my lack of confidence isn’t just my own personal failing, but this feeling is rooted in the way that economic theory is purposefully held outside the reach of ordinary people. We are led to believe that the economy is a precious stone that can only be handled by a few experts.

My friends and I have been trying to talk through the big news from Wall Street this week on the proposed (and now failed) government-led bailout of the US economy. None of us feel capable to explain it, or understand it. How can anyone even think about allocating $700 billion to the very crooks who created this whole mess?

Lucky me, my union local gave me a free ticket to go see Naomi Klein talk about her new book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism last night. This post is mostly a synopsis of her talk, which is also available as an audio file, if I manage to get you intrigued.

While the sheer number of dollars in the bailout is unbelievable, I’m not that surprised that government thinkers decided that giving money to bankers was a good way to solve the problem. After all, they’ve been doing it for years. With decades of neoliberal governments behind us, the bankers and the government have long been playing for the same team: global capital. Where governments were once expected to regulate global capitalism, thereby limited the money-grab party by big businesses, now they’re pouring the drinks, Naomi explained.

And now we’re in crisis, they say. Our precious stone is turning to dust. People are afraid. On the election campaign, Stephen Harper has been trying to scare us with “bad times ahead” talk - and is trying to convince us that he’s the leader to get us through it. (Yeah right.)

We are in shock because we don’t know how to explain what has happened, Klein said. This economic meltdown is really disorienting because we understand the world through our stories, and we’ve got no story for this. The rapid changes in the global economy have overwhelmed us, and made us believe that we can’t comprehend or fix them using people power. Instead, we figure we need government or big business or economic experts to figure out this so-called crisis and explain it to us with their stories.

But let’s remember that crises are moments that are produced and manipulated by people in power. Naomi Klein calls crisis a “democracy avoidance tactic” - Remember the Patriot Act, anyone?

We don’t need government and big business to do our thinking for us. We are more powerful than we think. We just need to remember our own stories, Naomi says - the stories of our social movements, our neighbours, our communities, our allies, and our resistance.

In so doing, we have something to learn from the indigenous activists and warriors of Turtle Island, who ground their activism in a ongoing 500-year history of community resistance to colonialism. We need to remember this narrative, not the one that says greed takes all.

Remember the stock market crash of 1929? And the regulations on finance that came after, including the establishment of a social safety net in Canada? Naomi reminded the audience that these reforms weren’t single-handedly proposed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, or Tommy Douglas in Canada. Douglas didn’t create universal health care in Canada. Instead working-class people - in social movements, in direct action, in the streets - created the conditions for what Milton Friedman calls the politically inevitable in this quote:

“Only a crisis, real or perceived, produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.”

Klein told us the story of when people lost their homes to bank foreclosure during the Great Depression, and their furniture was tossed onto the streets, neighbors picked it up and put it back into the homes. With their arms and legs and hearts and minds, they refused to let their dignity be taken. They demanded a different economic system.

Today we need a different system, people - not one that offers working class people a small piece of the ownership pie by offering unsustainable mortgages that big financiers trade back and forth, squeezing every once of profitability out of them until the whole housing bubble bursts and working class people lose it all. We need investments in social housing, we need rent control; and these are social measures that don’t have much capacity to make money, but that instead provide stability and dignity for working class people. We need to remember that these measures are possible if we keep them alive - in conversations, in policies, in rallies, in media. After all, if we can pay for a war in Iraq or Afghanistan, why can’t we pay for housing, health care and postsecondary education?

So how do we keep these stories and possibilities alive? Naomi says we have to keep our memories long. We have to hold onto our narratives of resistance, our history of direct action. And instead of a Q & A, Naomi invited representatives of these amazing groups up onto the stage to talk about the alternatives that they are keeping alive:

No One Is Illegal Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid Tyendinaga Support Committee Ontario Coalition Against Poverty Department of Culture

Check them out - there are so many rallies for these groups coming up in the next few weeks. Go out and get inspired!

Tags: activist report, news flash

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