Over the last four years, I have been researching a little-explored area of economic history: the way that crises have paved the way for the march of the right-wing economic revolution across the globe. A crisis hits, panic spreads and the ideologues fill the breach, rapidly reengineering societies in the interests of large corporate players. It's a maneuver I call "disaster capitalism."
Sometimes the enabling national disasters have been physical blows to countries: wars, terrorist attacks, natural disasters. More often they have been economic crises: debt spirals, hyperinflation, currency shocks, recessions.
More than a decade ago, economist Dani Rodrik, then at Columbia University, studied the circumstances in which governments adopted free-trade policies. His findings were striking: "No significant case of trade reform in a developing country in the 1980s took place outside the context of a serious economic crisis."
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Do the free-market policies packaged as emergency cures actually fix the crises at hand? For the ideologues involved, that has mattered little. What matters is that, as a political tactic, disaster capitalism works. It was the late free-market economist Milton Friedman, writing in the preface to the 1982 reissue of his manifesto, "Capitalism and Freedom," who articulated the strategy most succinctly. "Only a crisis — actual 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."
A decade later, John Williamson, a key advisor to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank (and who coined the phrase "the Washington consensus"), went even further. He asked a conference of top-level policymakers "whether it could conceivably make sense to think of deliberately provoking a crisis so as to remove the political logjam to reform."