Wednesday, 1 February 2012

I'm all for capitalism ...

This article and a letter to the Editor were submitted to the Press but neither were published. I can't imagine why.


I have always assumed that the Christchurch Press Letter of the Week award went to a letter that impressed the editor with its insight, clarity, wit, pertinence etc. In other words one that was well written – as judged by quality journalistic standards.

I am therefore at a complete loss to explain the reasoning behind awarding Letter of the Week to an ahistorical, illogical, racist and foolish rant.  (http://www.stuff.co.nz/the-press/opinion/6073917/I-m-all-for-capitalism)

If a letter purports to refute the arguments in an article The Press has published, surely one of the criteria for being well written is that it actually addresses the article. But the writer just used it as a peg on which to hang his ignorant and offensive views.

To illustrate the benefits of the ‘flow down’ of industrial capitalism, the writer concocted the most polar opposite societies he could think of. Against the ‘sky scrapers of New York’, his washing machine, car and cell phone, organic salad and lattes, he painted a picture of 'primitive creatures' who live in mud huts on the Niger Delta ‘raping and pillaging each other’ and mutilating women and little girls.

It’s hard to know where to begin responding to such a daft letter and the notions that gave rise to it (I hesitate to grant them the status of beliefs) but – let me at least comment on what offended me the most - its ahistoricism and racial stereotyping.

The writer, D McFarland, declared himself a supporter of laissez-faire capitalism but avoided the fact that laissez-faire capitalism has never actually existed, and the closer a country (or the world) gets to it, the more chaotic the system becomes.

Pure laissez-faire capitalism has never existed for the very simple reason that it doesn’t work. Like the notion of the ‘invisible hand of the market ‘– it’s just bafflegab – an ideological justification of the notion that efficient and effective economic self-organization will automatically flow from unfettered economic self-interest.

We’ve seen recently where partly fettered economic self-interest leads – and we are now all paying for it – literally and figuratively.

As a fan of laissez-faire capitalism I’m sure McFarland would agree with The Economist, which, as the mouthpiece for laissez-faire capitalism in the mid 19th century, argued against the government food aid to the starving Irish during the famine of 1846-49 on the grounds that it would ‘violate natural law’.

I can pretty much guarantee he wouldn’t acknowledge the historical fact of the tens of millions of others who died as a result of the disease, famines and droughts that were directly caused or exacerbated by the free market ideology of the late 19th century. I doubt he’d be concerned about the 45 million Americans who currently live in poverty, or the 100,000 New Yorkers who are homeless in the shadows of those skyscrapers, including almost 20,000 children. Or the fact that an estimated 1 in 3 British kids and 1 in 5 Kiwi kids lives in poverty. I think it’s safe to assume that he hasn’t even thought about the role that the 21st century’s stinking slums and sweatshops play in underpinning his relative prosperity. And I’m certain he has not faced up to that fact that the lifestyle he currently enjoys could slip from his grasp as quickly as the fishing and agricultural lifestyle of the peoples of the 9 states of the Niger Delta was ripped from their grasp by – oh, yes - those protectors of the people and the environment, the oil companies Shell and Chevron - aided and abetted by local sociopaths, as is always the case.

For anyone interested in the planet, the gas flares in the Niger Delta are reckoned to be the world’s single biggest contributor to greenhouse gases – which is a ‘flow down’ that affects us all and may put McFarland’s concerns about cell phones, salads and washing machines firmly in their place.

History tells us that neither ethics nor equity will enter the capitalist market equation unless people wrest the means, both to achieve them and to protect them, out of capitalism’s tight fist.

McFarland and people like him clearly don’t realize it – but they owe most of what they value as much – and arguably more – to the people who fought for individual and collective freedoms and for fetters on the type of economic self-interest which leads to the sort of desperate situation that exists in places like the Niger Delta.

But it’s convenient to ignore or deny the role that Africa, via the slave trade and colonialism, played in the emergence and growth of capitalism. It’s acceptable to write out of history the ‘flow down from the Industrial revolution’ that Africa got which, for the most part was the other face of industrial capitalism – the extreme poverty, brutality and political instability that accompany the affluence and relative freedoms we (still) enjoy in the developed world.

I respect his right to his opinion but I have to say that I found McFarland’s particular opinion quite profoundly offensive and deeply depressing.

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