Fareed Zakaria's Manifesto

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.

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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."

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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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