Sunday, November 11, 2007

Organize, educate, agitate

Essential reading

"In the social sciences I think 'scientific objectivity' or 'neutrality' is a vain hope and it is better to examine critically oneself and announce one's bias because there is bound to be one. It begins with your choice of subject and who it is going to be useful to. You can do research that will benefit the powerful. People used to assume that I was working on what we used to call the Third World and superficially it may have looked that way, but not in my mind. But the Third World did happen to be the place where the power relations played out most obviously and caused the most damage to human beings, whether it was US food aid, agribusiness corporations or IMF structural adjustment policies. I suppose the main thing is that the scholar-activist or public scholar has a popular, progressive, political constituency and considers him/herself in the service of this constituency. I find most academics -fortunately with a lot of exceptions-are not really interested in the power relations of any given topic in the social and political and economic sciences. Mainstream economists are probably the worst! I've never done anything but study power, that's what is both interesting and important to me.

Politics does not happen that way. Politics happens because people work very hard. True, it takes numbers, so there is this element of a multitude, but numbers are not enough. You have to have ideas which have to be generated and propagated. The right has done this so much better than people on the left. They do everything better: money, mission, myth-creation, management. They have a very clear idea of what they want, which is to take over the concepts and thought processes throughout the world so that everyone is thinking inside their box. Just as fish have no idea they are swimming in water, people have no idea they are swimming in neoliberalism - that's the victory of the right. Many things become believable and plausible (like Corporate Social Responsibility), because everyone is naturally a 'good citizen', and we will be kind and just to each other naturally, so there is no need for constraints or laws. Amazing!

I recently did a short analysis on Friedrich Hayek and his idea of economic freedom, which has nothing to do with genuine existential freedom. It is the freedom to use your money as you wish-including private yachts. The rich have no responsibility to pay for, say, the education of poor children. For the past 300 years, at least in the Anglo-Saxon philosophical tradition, we've been trying to separate this notion of freedom in the Hayekian sense from freedom of religion, of speech, personal freedoms, including the right to one's private life and to own property. Neoliberals have managed to conflate economic freedom, market freedom, with other kinds, which derive from the enlightenment.

They have been quite successful in creating coherent programmes based on market freedom. When practised abroad, it is called the 'Washington consensus' and at home it is 'Thatcherism' or 'Reaganism'. But it is the same thing. It aims at destroying trade unions; everyone must be free to fight for a job but not have compensation, not have welfare. If they could destroy the public health system, they would.You would be free to pay for private health insurance, but that is your choice. If you fall ill and don't have insurance, too bad, you had a choice. I looked into the right-wing secular and religious foundations which have spent billions of dollars to attain cultural hegemony. This is the subject of a forthcoming book; I call them the right-wing Gramscians, because they understood Gramsci's concepts of cultural hegemony and what he called the 'long march through the institutions', and they have been truly successful."

Read this excellent interview with Susan George. As usual, she draws in very simple terms, but without being simplistic, the current politico-economic map of the world. It frightens me how minimal this debate is in Lebanon and the Arab World, how much the local medias and academics are impervious to this approach. Note her take on the alternative globalization movement and on transnational activism: "True, there is a movement now, but at that level there is no machinery. If you don't have democratic machinery you cannot force the World Bank to behave in a different way." Organize, educate, agitate: isn't this what the Fabians used to say?

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