Imposing Extreme Capitalism: Killing Democratic Alternatives

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Naomi Klein at the annual conference for the American Sociological Association broadcast by Democracy Now:

if we look back at the past thirty-five years, we see this slamming of the door on alternatives just as they are emerging repeating again and again. Many of you were here for the opening address from Ricardo Lagos, the former president of Chile, who talked about another September 11th, which was another one of those moments, a far more significant one, when a very important democratic alternative, the real third way, not Tony Blair’s third way, but the real third way between totalitarian communism and extreme capitalism was being forged in Chile. And that was the great threat.

And we know that now through all of the declassified documents. There’s a really revealing one: a correspondence between Henry Kissinger and Nixon, in which Kissinger says very bluntly that the problem with Allende’s election is not what they were saying publicly, which was that he was aligned with the Soviets, that he was only pretending to be democratic, but that he was really going to impose a totalitarian system in Chile. That was the spin at the time. What he actually wrote was, “The example of a successful elected Marxist government in Chile would surely have an impact on — and even precedent value for — other parts of the world…The imitative spread of similar phenomena elsewhere would in turn significantly affect the world balance and our own position in it.” So that alternative, that other world, had to be blasted out of the way, and extreme violence was used in order to accomplish that.

Now, this kind of preemptive attack on our democratic alternatives, the persistent dream of a third way, of a real third way, has come up again and again. And this is what I discuss at length in the book, but I want to mention a couple of examples — unless I’m totally out of time? OK — examples of moments where there was a similar sense of effervescent possibility of being able to breathe more and dream more fully.

One of them was in Poland in 1989. June 4th was the day of the historic elections in Poland that elected Solidarity as the new government. They hadn’t had elections there in decades. And this was the event that really set off the domino — what’s now referred to as the domino effect in Eastern Bloc countries — and ultimately resulting in the breaking apart of the Soviet Union. But it’s worth remembering what it actually looked like in June of 1989. In Poland, people didn’t think that history was over, because they had just elected Solidarity as their government. They thought that history was just beginning and that they were finally going to be able to implement what the movement, which was a labor movement, had always seen as the third way, the third way not taken. Now, Solidarity’s vision was not a rejection of socialism. They said that they were calling for “real socialism,” as socialists often do, and it was a rejection of the Communist party. They were everything that the party was not: dispersed where it was centralized, democratic where it was authoritarian, participatory where it was bureaucratic. And Solidarity had ten million members, which gave them the power to completely shut down the state.

So when people went to the polls and elected a Solidarity government, what were they voting for? What did they think they were voting for? Did they think that they were voting to become a free market economy on the model that Francis Fukuyama was talking about? No, they didn’t. They thought they were voting for the labor party that they had helped to build.

And I just want to read you a short passage from Solidarity’s economic program, which was passed democratically in 1981. They said, “The socialized enterprise should be the basic organizational unit in the economy. It should be controlled by the workers’ council representing the collective” and should be operated — cooperatively run by a director appointed through competition, recalled by the council, workers’ cooperatives. So the idea was to get the party out of control of the economy, to decentralize it and have the people who were doing the work actually control their workplaces. And they believed that they could make them more sustainable.

Now, did they get the chance to try that, to act on that vision of a worker cooperative economy as the centerpiece of the economy, to have democratic elections but still have socialism? Did they get that chance when they voted for Solidarity? No, they didn’t. What they got was an inherited debt, and they were told that the only way that they would get any relief from that debt and any aid is if they followed a very radical shock therapy program. Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that the person who prescribed that shock therapy program was Jeffery Sachs. And I — no, I say that because I really had hoped that we could debate these different worlds, because there are differences, there are real differences that we must not smooth over.

Now, in 2006, 40% of young workers in Poland were unemployed, 40%, last year. That’s twice the EU average. And Poland is often held up as a great success story of transition. In 1989, 15% of the Poland’s population was living below the poverty line. In 2003, 59% of Poles had fallen below the line. That’s that opening of that gap. That’s what these economic policies do. And then, we can say we’re very, very worried about the people at the bottom, let’s bring them up, but let’s be clear about what we’re talking about. These jarring levels of inequality and economic exclusion are now feeding a resurgence of chauvinism, racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, rampant homophobia in Poland. And I think we can see, actually, that it’s inevitable that this would be the case, because they tried communism, they tried capitalism, they tried democratic socialism, but they got shock therapy instead. After you’ve tried all that, there really isn’t a whole lot left but fascism. It’s dangerous to suppress democratic alternatives when people invest their dreams in them. It’s risky business.

That's why give a damn. That's what to give a damn about. Most power possible for all people each over his or her own life.

Read all of Naomi Klein's speech at Democracy Now's site or CommonDreams.org:
http://www.democracynow.org/article.pl?sid=07/08/15/1432250
http://www.commondreams.org/archive/2007/08/16/3219/