Fareed Zakaria's Manifesto

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Recently
by Matt Taibbi: Back
in the U.S.S.A.

"Deep
down we all have a Puritan belief that unless they suffer a good
dose of pain, they will not truly repent. In fact, there has been
much pain, especially in the financial industry, where tens of
thousands of jobs, at all levels, have been lost. But fundamentally,
markets are not about morality. They are large, complex systems,
and if things get stable enough, they move on."

via Zakaria:
A Capitalist Manifesto | Newsweek Business | Newsweek.com.

From a distance
I’ve always vaguely admired the skills of Newsweek’s
Fareed Zakaria, who is maybe this country’s preeminent propagandist.
Any writer who doesn’t admire what this guy does is probably
not being honest with himself, because being the public face of
conventional wisdom is an extremely difficult job – and as
a man of letters Zakaria routinely succeeds, or pseudo-succeeds,
at the most seemingly impossible literary tasks, making the sensational
seem dull, the outrageous commonplace, and rendering horrifying
absolutes ambiguous and full of gray areas.

Whereas most
writers grow up dreaming of using their talents to stir up the passions,
to inflame and amuse and inspire, Zakaria shoots for the opposite
effect, taking controversial and explosive topics and trying to
help rattled readers somehow navigate their way through them to
yawns, lower heart rates, and states of benign unconcern. He’s
back at it again with a new piece about the financial crisis called
“The Capitalist Manifesto,” which is one of the first
serious attempts at restoring the battered image of global capitalism
in the mainstream press.

This writer
has done work like this before, using a big canvas to rework an
uncooperative chunk of history in the wake of a crisis. Zakaria
is probably best known for his post-9/11 “Why Do They Hate
Us?” article, a sort of masterpiece of milquetoast propaganda
that laid the intellectual foundation for a wide array of important
War on Terror popular misconceptions, not the least of which being
the whole “They hate us for our freedom” idea. One of
Zakaria’s central arguments in that piece was that poor struggling
Arabs were driven to envious violence by the endless pop-culture
reminders of American affluence and progress. It was just too much
to take, seeing all those cool blue jeans and all that great satellite
TV.

In one exchange
in that piece Zakaria talks with an elderly Arab intellectual who
scoffs at Zakaria’s suggestion that Arab cities should try
to be more like globalization-friendly capitals like Singapore,
Seoul and Hong Kong. The old Arab protests that those cities are
just cheap imitations of Houston and Dallas, and what great and
ancient civilization would want that?

I thought the
old Arab’s comment was funny, but Zakaria imbued it with serious
significance. “This disillusionment with the West,” he
wrote, “is at the heart of the Arab problem.” And while
witty Arab potshots at tacky southern strip-mall meccas like Houston
were significant enough to put high up in Newsweek’s
seminal piece about the root causes of 9/11, things like America’s
habitual toppling of sovereign Arab governments and installation
of ruthless dictators like the Shah of Iran were left out more or
less entirely (Zakaria managed to write a whole section on the Iranian
revolution without even mentioning that the Shah come to power thanks
to a CIA-backed overthrow of democratically-elected Mohammed Mosaddeq,
whose crime was ejecting Western oil companies from Iran).

Not that Osama
bin Laden and his followers aren’t all homicidal lunatics who
should be doused in barbecue sauce and tossed in a shark tank, but
Zakaria’s piece did a monstrous disservice to Americans by
glazing over the sources of Arab anger. He portrayed America’s
enemies as jealous dupes, who chose to swallow the religious extremism
fed to them by those opportunistic mullahs who stepped into the
power vacuum left by ineffectual socialist strongmen like Nasser.
(The neat rhetorical trick of making the current political bogeyman,
Islamic terrorism, a descendant of the last political bogeyman,
socialism, should not go unnoticed by admirers of the propaganda
art).

As is the case
with almost everything Zakaria writes, there was a grain of truth
in such a portrait, but it had the convenient benefit of almost
completely absolving America of wrongdoing in the ongoing Shakespearean
death-struggle for oil that is recent Middle Eastern history. Appallingly,
Zakaria even compared America’s bloodlusting pursuit of Middle
Eastern resources (a history that includes numerous CIA-backed coups
and more than one brutal war) to the frolicking of Tom and Daisy
in The Great Gatsby – i.e., toppling governments and
arming Saddam Hussein against Iran is like a bunch of ginned-up
rich folk knocking over the china. “America has not been venal
in the Arab world,” he wrote. “But it has been careless.”

Zakaria’s
Capitalist Manifesto is another such grandly fuzzy apologia,
a broad exercise in shifting any blame for a big crisis away from
a certain unblamable segment of society, only this one is much worse.
In his take on the financial crisis he offers a few basic points:

  1. Gosh it
    sucks that the crisis happened, but it’s not as bad as people
    say. Remember how people used to pick on Internet stocks –
    well, look at Twitter!
  2. The solution
    to what ails capitalism is more capitalism.
  3. There will
    be a great public desire to tighten up the laws governing the
    economic sector, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves!
  4. You know
    what’s a great idea? Voluntary self-regulation.
  5. You can
    make all sorts of interesting collages just using a bunch of dollar
    bills and a Photoshop program.
  6. If we could
    just all learn to be better people, everything will turn out fine.

His description
of the root causes of this financial crisis are about what you’d
expect from a man who invoked The
Great Gatsby
to explain the mentality of the murderer of
4,000 people. When he mentions the objectionable behaviors that
led to the loss of trillions of dollars in wealth and untold numbers
of lost jobs and misery, he does so with distant, clinical language,
like he’s describing something seen through a telescope, disappearing
over the horizon. In fact his method of describing the “moral
crisis” that led to the financial implosion was to begrudgingly
admit that many people were less than nice. Here’s how he put
it:

"Most
of what happened over the past decade across the world was legal.
Bankers did what they were allowed to do under the law. Politicians
did what they thought the system asked of them. Bureaucrats were
not exchanging cash for favors. But very few people acted responsibly,
honorably or nobly (the very word sounds odd today). This might
sound like a small point, but it is not. No system – capitalism,
socialism, whatever – can work without a sense of ethics
and values at its core. No matter what reforms we put in place,
without common sense, judgment and an ethical standard, they will
prove inadequate. We will never know where the next bubble will
form, what the next innovations will look like and where excesses
will build up. But we can ask that people steer themselves and
their institutions with a greater reliance on a moral compass."

This is a beautiful
piece of writing. Describing the misdeeds of Wall Street in the
last decade by saying “few people acted… nobly” is
sort of like saying that Stalin was “not always sociable”
or O.J. Simpson was “not always committed to preserving life.”
I mean, talk about a freaking understatement. Forgetting entirely
the other insane lies in this passage (my favorite being the one
about bureaucrats not taking cash for favors – I guess he means
except for Bob Rubin taking $130 million or whatever from Citi after
pushing through that merger), that “not so noble” bit
is where Zakaria earns his money.

Because if
you get into the actual gory details of what went on in those years,
there’s just no way you come out of that story not wanting
to see every banker on Wall Street strung up by his testicles. The
crimes of this era were monstrous thieveries, committed against
ordinary people in a highly systematic and organized fashion with
the aid and compliance of a bought-off government, and the only
way you can not perceive what happened as a profound indictment
of capitalism is if you blow off the specifics entirely and try
to hide the details in vague, airy words like “irresponsibility”
and “excesses.”

Because the
specifics matter. It’s one thing to say that Citi wasted some
of the money taxpayers sent its way via the bailout; it’s another
thing to say Citi wasted some of the taxpayers’ money by upholstering
the pillows on the private jet Sandy Weill took to Mexico over Christmas
vacation with Hermes scarves. It’s one thing to say Wall Street
bankers felt pressure to chase profits; it’s another thing
to say they achieved those profits by systematically robbing a whole
generation of pensioners and working-class homeowners, under the
noses of the politicians they bought with tens of millions in campaign
contributions.

Zakaria works
hard to tell the crisis story minus these outrageous details. Then
he goes on to argue that, basically, nothing should be done. He
says we mostly just need a “gut check”; we, all of us,
need to rediscover that little voice in all of us that says, “if
it doesn’t feel right, we shouldn’t be doing it.”
I mean, that is actually what he wrote. No one needs to go to jail,
we don’t need to worry about who’s to blame, we just need,
you know, do a better job using our trusty moral compasses to navigate
the seas of life. It’s classic Zakaria in the sense that he
attacks ugly political phenomena with tired clichs and hack pablum
until you’re almost too bored to keep your eyes open, then
in the end reduces it all to a dumbed-down t-shirt that carries
us forward to another cycle of political inaction: Laissez-faire
capitalism doesn’t rip off people, people rip off people! Amazing
stuff – God bless him.

This article
originally appeared on True/Slant
and is reprinted with permission.

June
27, 2009

Matt
Taibbi is the author of The
Great Derangement

and Spanking
the Donkey
.

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