Monday, March 3, 2008

Different but the same

I have been reading a couple of books recently which deal with Twentieth Century history from very different writers. The first was re-reading Paul Johnson’s Modern Times, covering the period from the end of the First World War to the nineties. The second was Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, not a history as such but a book that covers a range of post-war events in support of her shock doctrine theory.

On the surface you couldn’t imagine two more different writers. Johnson is a conservative, Catholic writer, closely associated with and supportive of Margaret Thatcher and her free-market reforms in the 1980s. Klein, on the other hand, is the darling of the anti-globalisation movement and is very critical of the free market and globalisation. What struck me, however, were the similarities rather than the differences between the two books.

In Johnson’s book there are some main threads that he picks up in his history of the twentieth century. He lays the blame for many of the problems and tragedies of the twentieth century firmly at the door of the tendency in this century towards utopian solutions to society’s problems. He argues strongly that the arrogance that makes people feel that they know how the ideal society should be organized, and the conviction that revolutionary change is therefore necessary to achieve this utopian dream, leads inevitably to moral relativism, totalitarianism and corruption. The idea that they are working towards some utopian future leads to the justification of atrocities in the here and now in order to achieve them. The examples he gives are those that you would expect; Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Pol Pot etc. He is conservative in the sense that he thinks that these radical tabula rasa solutions are doomed to failure and ignore the needs of real people. He sees the work of leaders like Reagan and Thatcher as a move back towards a more liberal world, based on individual freedoms and gradual progress.

Klein comes from a very different perspective and certainly when it comes to particular historical figure and events her analysis couldn’t be more different. Her descriptions of figures like Pinochet, Thatcher and Yeltsin, for example, are very different from Johnson’s, to say the least. That said, for me, the central and most interesting argument of Klein’s is not the Shock Doctrine described in the title (which is often quite poorly argued) but rather her placing of the free market policies advocated by Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of economics in precisely the utopian, tabula rasa-like sphere that Johnson describes so well in taking apart left-wing movements in the twentieth century. Klein, rather than being the radical that many would imagine her to be, is in fact a conservative. A conservative of the left rather than the right, for sure, but a conservative none the less.

Klein argues also that the Chicago School free market advocates have gone down a similarly utopian path to the communists described by Johnson, arrogantly believing that their economic system leads to an ideal society and justifies extreme measures to achieve it. Like the utopianism described by Johnson, Klein argues that this utopian vision leads also to moral relativism, supporting dictators like Pinochet for example and turning a blind eye to the atrocities because they were less important than the utopian economic reforms. Like Johnson, she also argues that these utopian visions do not serve the real needs of people who don’t want the slate wiped clean but want gradual reform and development within a democratic framework. It also leads to corruption, as in totalitarian regimes, with people taking the opportunity to line their own pockets whilst telling themselves that they are serving a higher cause. Johnson and Klein have different targets but their criticisms of those targets are remarkably similar.

All in all, reading these two books together drives home for me the point that the late nineteenth and twentieth century cul-de-sac of left and right based politics has been a disaster. What we need, rather than the utopian solutions of either the right or left, is a return to the classic liberalism of individual freedom and a pragmatic approach to what Karl Popper calls ‘piecemeal engineering’, trying to improve institutions and solve problems in a practical way, based on the needs of real people and with democratic institutions that enable the people to remove leaders when they go against the needs of people.

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