Thursday, April 29, 2010
Wednesday, April 28, 2010
Tuesday, April 27, 2010
In this précis I would like to focus not on his solution but rather on his foundation in the first chapter which talks a lot about More and Better. Apparently they went together before but nowadays they do not and so we need to choose if we want More or Better. But what does he mean? More is the prosperity produced by the market. The prosperity produced by logic of capitalism has lead, McKibben argues, to the ideology of economic growth as a panacea, which we refer to as market fundamentalism. Better is not well defined but there are hints that Better is the same thing as the proverbial “common good.” What I think he means by Better can be inferred from the section in the introduction about the problem of focusing on growth. Growth “generates inequality and insecurity.” It is “bumping up against physical [read: environmental] limits.” And lastly, those of us who do financially benefit from growth are no longer happier according to every survey and measurement. Therefore, we can derive that Better means an equitable distribution of wealth, a healthy relationship with the environment and overall happiness of people.
The way he attempts to challenge that capitalism and Better go together is problematic. The effect by the end of the first chapter is underwhelming. In fact, it is insulting and presumptions when he asserts that his premises are “radical”. Saying “the planet actually belongs to each of us,” (pg. 28) and questioning whether money makes us happy (pg. 30) are neither radical nor new things to do. But back to the point. His major assumption about the historical role of capitalism plays into the same the treatment of the market we have seen from the a-team. On page 11 it says about capitalism in the 21st century that the “magic can run out,” and that we cannot “keep the magic going.” He never attacks the basic premises of capitalism yet still considers it a major problem that growth is leading to more wealth inequality. This opens the door to say that our system is basically “magical” (and workable) and that the inequalities are caused by something other than the market.
The second reason we receive for needing a major change in our society is the insurmountable environmental limits to growth. Besides the depletion of fossil fuels the chief limit is the destruction of the environment. McKibben distinguishes between two kinds of environmental damages: activity that pollutes and activity that contributes to global warming. Pollution can be fixed through appropriate legislation because it results from “something going wrong” (pg. 22). Carbon emissions which causes destruction (as opposed to pollution) of the environment, however, is “caused by doing too much of something, not by doing it badly” (pg. 22). More importantly, it cannot be fixed because it is built into the system. I find the difference between the two to be simplistic and wrong. I see pollution, carbon emissions, global warming, dirty water, etc. as intertwined and all emanating from the shortcomings of the market. Does a car that emits carbon and increases global warming not also pollute the air?
McKibben makes the point that nations can and have responded well to pollution through policy. As for climate change, McKibben claims that western governments never truly committed to lowering emissions and never adopted policies or signed onto international environmental agreements. He fails to connect capitalism and the ideology of growth to the environmental degradation. The degradation seems to be the result of bad policy and decision-making and that maybe we should try before we overhaul our ideas.
The there reason we need a change in our societies relies on an examination of happiness which I think largely fails. But this requires its own précis. Approaching the rest of the book, I am highly suspicious of his call for a “new utilitarianism.”
Monday, April 26, 2010
Tuesday, April 20, 2010
I think Klein’s analogy of free market reform and torture is pretty apt, and she successfully establishes some pretty solid parallels between the metaphorical shock and the literal shocks used to rewrite problematic personalities. However, it sometimes feels like she stretches this analogy too far, and ends up talking about torture far more than necessary. Her characterization of free market reform as a three-step shock process seems a bit contrived, and it’s not entirely clear to me why the third step warrants so much attention, and why it is even included as a step at all. While the first two steps in free market reform are plausibly characteristic of most attempts to implement Friedman’s theories in the real world, the “third shock,” torture of political dissenters, is not something that is unique to Friedman’s capitalism. Torture has historically played a large role in the establishment of any dictatorial regime, including socialism, which is essentially the opposite of laissez-faire. Despite this fact, Klein seems to think it’s necessary to endlessly go into detail about specific acts of torture that occurred during the establishment of corporatist governments in particular, as if these descriptions would reveal something fundamental and unique to free market reform. It seems like Klein’s characterization of torture as the third shock is just a thinly veiled excuse to include excessive descriptions of torture. It’s actually kind of insulting, because it feels almost like Klein is attempting to subtly apply the very same psychological shock tactics that she criticizes in order to make her argument about disaster capitalism. In Chapter 1, The Torture Lab, Klein provides a very personal and disturbing account of Gail Kastner, who was subjected to brainwashing experiments funded by the CIA. Klein’s description of the experimental conditions, as well as the lasting effects on Kastner’s life, is pretty nightmarish and unsettling. This chapter, in addition to providing an in-depth description of the torture which Klein claims is analogous to capitalist reform, also shocks the reader by very effectively discrediting the United States government and possibly undercutting/destroying the reader’s assumptions about the world. You know, if you’re that kind of reader who has faith in the American government and believes the CIA to be not entirely evil. This initial shock has the effect of making the reader more receptive to Klein’s later claims, when she gets into the actual substantial part of her argument on disaster capitalism.
But don’t get me wrong. I like The Shock Doctrine a lot. It’s my favorite so far.
Sunday, April 18, 2010
Friday, April 16, 2010
The Shock Doctrine
Naomi Klein’s main thesis in The Shock Doctrine intends to attack the central claim of capitalism, “that unfettered free markets go hand in hand with democracy” (p. 22), by instead demonstrating how, “this fundamentalist form of capitalism has consistently been midwifed by the most brutal forms of coercion…the rise of corporatism-was written in shocks” (p. 22-23). Klein argues that disaster capitalism (new market), and corporatism (new political ideology), have developed based on Milton Friedman’s Chicago School Economics model. This model encourages “waiting for a major crisis, then selling off pieces of the state to private players while citizens were still reeling from the shock, and then quickly making reforms permanent” (p. 7). In order to implement his model, Friedman advocated taking advantage of moments of collective trauma, where citizens are disoriented and fearful, in order to engage in a reconstruction which, “began with finishing the job of the original disaster by erasing what was left of the public sphere and rooted communities, then quickly moving to replace them with a kind of corporate New Jerusalem” (p. 10). Disasters create a clean slate to build upon. The exploitation of human emotion after a disaster has created the shock doctrine.
Klein uses the metaphor of torture to develop her argument on the psychological effects of shock on a community, which allow disaster capitalism to prosper. Klein associates directly that the shock doctrine attempts to, “achieve on a mass scale what torture does one on one in the interrogation cell” (p. 20). This metaphor is especially interesting to me because as a psychology and rhetoric major, I have extensive background in both the psychological studies she is referring to as well as an attuned eye for gaps in logic. Therefore, I will use this précis in order to closely read the effectiveness of this metaphor in relation to Klein’s larger argument. This metaphor is an interesting rhetorical maneuver because it is both logically inaccurate, yet still remains to be surprisingly emotionally compelling. I was intrigued by the ability of this metaphor to oddly persuade me despite the constant red flags of its flawed logical reasoning. Due to this peculiar experience I had with the metaphor, I will first examine the faulty logic in the metaphor and then will examine why it is still so compelling.
Klein defines torture as “a set of techniques designed to put prisoners into a state of deep disorientation and shock in order to force them to make concessions against their will” (p. 19). By this definition, there does seem to be a direct correlation between the function of torture and the disaster capital because in both cases the person is in a psychological state of shock, which allows them to agree to things they normally wouldn’t agree to. Torture is aimed to eliminate the two main factors that inform a person they are still alive, “continuous sensory input, and our memory” (p. 43). Directly attacking these two basic factors of being human was in effort to “unmake and erase faulty minds, then rebuild new personalities on that ever- elusive clean slate” (p. 34). This end goal is where Klein connects the concepts between torture and disaster capital- on the idea that trauma can recreate a clean slate on which they can build upon. After looking at the actual effects of torture, however, it is clear that this metaphor is very weak.
In order to expose the lack of logic in this metaphor, I will use examples of the two main types of torture discussed. First I will discuss the effects of isolation- intended to “deprive people of their sense of who they are and where they are in time and space, [so] adults can be converted into dependent children whose minds are a blank slate of suggestibility” (p. 48). Isolation was a torture technique that deprived the mind of stimulation, causing it to force itself upon itself (p. 48). Isolation not only caused regression to childlike states, but also led to schizophrenic like symptoms, such as hallucinations and delusions. Secondly, I will talk about the effects of electroshock therapy intended to “depattern” old psychological patterns to make way for new ones (p. 36). Electroshock therapy has been known to produce devastating deficits on a person’s cognitive function leading to profound amnesia and regression to a childlike state. By erasing memories and instantly subtracting years from their life, shock therapy provided “a means to blast his patients back into their infancy, to regress them completely” (p. 38). By Klein’s descriptions, both of these torture techniques attempt to make the blank slate by creating schizophrenic hallucinations, an irreversible childlike state, and a complete loss of all human memory. The scientists were never successful at “remaking” anyone, and instead only destroying them. Therefore, even if they are creating a blank slate, torture tactics just seemed to destroy and not rebuild. Where is the connection between the blank slate of torture and the blank slate of collective trauma?
There is no connection between torture tactics and collective trauma because in order for corporatists to move in and capitalize on fear, the people must remember the fear. The people must remain adults so that they can implement the imposed changes. Collective traumas do the opposite of creating a blank slate on people’s minds; they leave a scar on their minds that allow them to justify the new changes. Corporatists are only taking advantage of the fact that everyone feels the same way about change at the same time- everyone is sad and everyone agrees they have to rebuild. While the people are busy grieving is when they install permanent changes without people noticing because any growth seems better than nothing. Disaster capitalism takes advantage of people who have an increased mental burden and have matured in their perspectives of what is important in life. The only real blank slate in disaster capitalism is the physical buildings that have fallen and must be rebuilt from scratch. The types of psychological trauma that occur from torture versus disaster is so different that they do not both create the same type of blank slate for which to rebuild. The shaky connection between torture and disaster capitalism based on the connection between the trauma and the blank slate is shattered by Klein’s inability to match the function of the trauma in both situations.
Although Klein’s metaphor is logically flawed and it is evident that torture really bears little resemblance to the mechanisms operating in disaster capitalism, why did I find myself originally so compelled by this rhetorical maneuver? After some introspection, I realized that human nature is to be emotionally aroused by conspiracy theories. Klein presents the economic Shock Doctrine as a conspiracy of big business to take advantage of the powerless victims of disaster. She presents the electroshock therapy in torture as a conspiracy of how Ewen Cameron used innocent patients as his guinea pigs for torture treatments without them consenting to it. Cameron turned patients into prisoners of their own mind. The shock of the scandal arouses human emotion. By using the word “shock” in regard to the torture and the disaster capitalism and by laying out the intense machinations fraught with evil intentions, the audience is compelled to feel taken advantage of. Hearing about how others were in a moment of weakness and so brutally taken for a ride by psychiatrists (Cameron) and economists (Friedman), Klein shocks the audience. By disrupting previous knowledge, Klein shocks us into anger so that we become a blank slate for which she can write her theories. She opens the book in this emotionally stimulating manner specifically to shock the audience and create the tabula rasa she needs to have them agree with her claims. Klein’s metaphor does not have to make that much logical sense because its only function is to incite disorientation and fear in the reader to impose these new changes. The torture metaphor is used as a technique to implement the shock doctrine on her readers. It is compelling strictly due to its emotions and how it sets up the reader to agree to her theories on capitalism.
Wednesday, April 14, 2010
In Chapter 5 of Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums, entitled “Haussmann in the Tropics,” he starts off with a quote by Gita Verma, explaining that “The root cause of urban slumming seems to lie not in urban poverty but in urban wealth” (95). Immediately, the reader can speculate this chapter might be examining the strained relationship between the upper class and the urban impoverished. Especially in comparison with other chapters, this quote seemed to be much more in conversation with the actual argument he makes in the chapter. “Haussmann in the Tropics” is set up in a way to explore the dynamic between the upper class and the lower-class slum population first by a brief schematic overview of their land to population ratio, the conflict over urban space that this entails, followed by a deeper look into the effects of urban beautification and development on slum populations, and finally an exclusive look into the isolated and luxurious lifestyles of the Third World upper class.
After dedicating a few pages to the way the inequalities between the rich and poor map out geographically or spatially, most of which is probably common knowledge for the reader, he discusses the ways in which the state will push the poor out of urban spaces for a number of reasons. He quotes Jeremy Seabrook in discussing one of these reasons, which is urban development and building, where he recites, “the word ‘infrastructure’ is the new code word for the unceremonious clearance of the fragile shelters of the poor” (100). Davis continues to show how words such as infrastructure and urban development convey the exact opposite for many of the poor, who are sacrificed instead of provided for by the state. He continues to hint at this idea of the state as a threat, often times as a deceptive threat. Davis writes, “When it comes to the reclamation of high-value land, ideological symbols and promises made to the poor mean very little to the bureaucrats in power” (101). Furthermore, these behaviours on the part of the state become more farcical in practice because of their purpose in deceiving the international community, such as is often times the case when Third World countries host international events such as the Olympics or IMF-World Bank meetings.
In discussing the “beautification campaigns” by the state, he touches upon the way in which slum-dwellers are seen and treated as “dirt” that needs to be disposed of in order for the streets to be clean (104). Immediately, one could extend this horrifying rhetoric to that of ethnic and social cleansing campaigns. For instance, in Colombia, where such social cleansing campaigns have been rampant, impoverished, marginalized people are termed as desechables, literally meaning throw-aways. This kind of language is adopted and used over and over again to the point that its implications go unchallenged. The power of this rhetoric is immense, and when considering several other factors at work here, it is a rhetoric that must be interrogated. The overshadowing goals of development and beautification sponsored by the state, coupled with the isolated upper class of the Third World, eerily recreating floating Southern California lifestyles (115), both function in a way that normalizes the goals and actions advocated for in this kind of discourse, all the while nullifying the voices and lives of countless individuals.
While this chapter does not target a specific ideology to make its argument against, it nonetheless points out a pattern of behaviour and rhetoric by state powers, sometimes in favour of the upper class or even in anticipation of international festivals and events, which needs to be addressed. This kind of behaviour is an integral part of the problem of slums because of the way this kind of action can get normalized and, although indirectly, be made morally acceptable by others, such as with the Olympics. With that said, how is Davis, if at all, attempting to speak to our complacency with these kinds of politics and practices? Where are we in this process? How is his rhetoric effective or ineffective in conveying the urgency of this problem and our implication in it?
Monday, April 12, 2010
Aaron Benavidez, 13875347
Planet of Slums primarily argues that the informal sector promotes a wretched existence for millions of people—those vulnerable to exploitation, violences, filth, sickness, and premature death. This argumentative gist can be encapsulated in the following phrase lifted from “A Surplus Humanity”: “If the informal sector, then, is not the brave new world envisioned by neoliberal enthusiasts [enter De Soto], it is most certainly a living museum of human exploitation” (Davis 186). This explicit thesis is supported by: the chapters that are devoted to illustrating “the most ghoulish part of the informal economy;” the section on the nine myths or “epistemological fallacies” of informality; and the following rhetorical question that haunts the "Epilogue": “But if informal urbanism becomes a dead-end street, won’t the poor revolt?” (190, 178, 201).
Throughout the Planet of Slums, Davis argues toward the attention of two types of readers. First, Davis write for a Economist or New York Times reader or someone of that ilk who might be endlessly excited by page after page of statistics and graphs while simultaneously blind to the fact that his book lacks a steady commitment to deep locality or the examination of particular historical and social contexts. He assumes his readers would not exact a critique that questions his globetrotting statistical gaze at the detriment of a more socially imbedded project. Second (and pertinent to our discussion last week), Davis addresses the De Sotoians of the world who, like “massiah[s] of people’s capitalism,” argue for too easy solution to informalization (Davis 80).
To be sure, the aims of Planet of Slums include both the bleak exposition of lives rendered precarious by structural adjustment programs via neoliberal policies and a call to action to address this mass immiseration. However, the book largely fails on both accounts since Planet of Slums demonstrates an effacement of the precariate depicted in the text, which disarms any significant impetus to act on behalf of the precarized.
Davis’ rhetoric in Planet of Slums renders the precariate without particular histories, engaging testimonies, or extended narratives that might bear witness to their experiences. In fact, the very few individualized narrative accounts offered by Davis involve an intermediary whose presence eclipses any possibility of protracted, agonized vocality: Public-health expert Eileen Stillwagon for Lovly Josaphat; UN worker Rasna Warah for Mberita Katela; Filip De Boeck for Vany; and photograher Vincen Beeckman for the boy who said he ate 800 men (Davis 142, 197-198). Lovly, Katela, Vany, or the boy never stands alone to speak her or his own story. Even more, the few narratives depicted by Davis fail to resonate a vulnerable, finite human in the state of precariousness since Davis so often blunts the narrative account into brevity rather than generosity. Take, for example, the three-year old Vany who only get seven lines to make his case for the way his identification as a witch potentially renders him precarious.
But the situation get’s worse. Davis’ depiction of the precariate as deviants mired in filth demonstrates a dehumanizing rather than explanatory gesture. Judge, for example, the representations of the 10-year old boys who are so desperate for survival that “plastic solvent bottles wedged between their teeth, brandishing balls of human excrement” function as techniques for survival (Davis 139). Instead of thematizing human suffering and survival more generally, Davis contextualized the anecdote as further evidence that the precariate “lives in shit” (137). Other examples abound: the “slum-dwellers” who abort fetuses (135), the slum insurgents (203-206), “dwellers of slums” who sell their daughters to textile factories (187), etc. Even the zoological figurations—rat (127) and hawk (143)—that function by metonym, and catachresis, respectively, obliterate the vulnerability (and the humanity) experienced by the precariate.
The overwhelming logos dimension and its obsessive concern for making a case through statistics, charts, graphs, and numerical figures additionally suffocates the few pleas potentially available for demonstrations of precariousness. Nothing appears to blunt the subjective register, for example, than in “Slum Ecology” where Davis assesses urban environmental vulnerability not by individual testimony, but by the following sterile, cold equation: risk = hazard x assets x fragility (124). True, Davis’ excessive attention to the logos dimension, to an extent, complements the demands of rendering visible objective violence—global, institutional, structural violations that prescribe order and legibility. However, in obscuring testimonies that might otherwise give blood and guts to the precariate by an over-saturation of the objective register, Davis loses the possibility of an ethical demand upon the reader. The address fails. It disarms obligation.
Lastly, in Planet of Slums, the global precariate rarely appears situated near death—but rather as surviving or (even further from death) managing or lingering. A survey of the representations of the precariate underscores the point. Davis endlessly and unflinchingly frames the identity of the precariate in ways that emphasize habitation/inhabitation rather than precariousness more generally: city dwellers (Davis 19), slum dwellers (23, 46, 130), residents of slums (23), urbanites (26), urban poor (27), illegal dwellers (29), urban newcomers (30), squatters (33, 38, 122), pioneer settlers (121), slum residents (129), shantytown renters (180), and (my favorite) pavement dwellers (36). Rather than depicting the precariate on the verge of death or as already dead by the invisible hand of structural violence, Davis’ emphasis on dwelling implies a lingering survival that requires no real response from the reader. In fact, the rhetoric of endless statistics in “The Urban Climacteric” obsessively underscores a proliferation of the precariate at large (a million strong and growing, he seems to suggest), thereby obfuscating inestimable deaths.
All the above silence the viability of Davis’ critique and our mobilization from it.
Davis, Mike. Planet of Slums. London: Verso, 2007.
A precis. Bear with me.
Reading the first half of Planet of Slums, I found myself hard-pressed to draw out a conspicuously polemic opinion about the urban poverty so at its core, an opinion freighted with particular biases and presumptions that appear to be purely analytical yet function with distinctively ideological intent. This is not to say that the text has no apparent opinion or that it succeeds completely to present its ideas as purely analytical or rational. It could just be my inherent thick-headedness for economic study that causes the blurred position of the text in my mind. Regardless, it would appear to me that rather than blurring its position, the text in fact engages in a pursuit of tangible facts that are utilized to provide an account of the life of the world’s urban poor excluded from the wrangling of polemical opinion. That is to say that the position of the text would seem to be found in the way in which it provides a “factually-based” account for the realities of life for the urban poor rather than in opinions that it would presumably take regarding urban poverty.
Key to the text’s approach to providing an accurate account for life in urban poverty is its examination of the definition of “slum” in “The Prevalence of Slums.” It tracks the cultural uses and connotations of the word as it became synonymous with ideas of illegality and immoral behavior while consistently invoking what is quickly named the “classical definition” of a slum, “characterized by overcrowding, poor or informal housing, inadequate access to safe water and sanitation, and insecurity of tenure” (22-23). This eschews a definition formed by conceptualizations of the causes of slums, instead relying on characteristic effects (what I would call “consequences”) of the existence of slums in particular regions of the world. It would seem to follow that, according to the given definition of “slum,” in order to provide an accurate account of the life in a slum, one would examine the effects, the consequences, of living a slum life. Quickly: by “consequences,” I do not mean to imply that anything is “deserved” by an individual living in urban poverty but that by living in such circumstances one’s life becomes subject to anything that such a life entails. To return to the matter at hand, in providing its account for slum life, the text, mirroring the definition it provides for “slum,” draws focus on the effects of urban poverty rather than what “urban poverty” means.
With that, the text characteristically provides a whole host of facts that are oftentimes overwhelming for the conscience to comprehend. I find it important to note that throughout “The Prevalence of Slums,” and the majority of the opening half’s data-streams, these facts are not used to support the text’s arguments but are used to provide the actual account of life for the urban poor. As it pours out its facts, the text hints at an amalgam of potential causes of urban poverty, especially the reasons for the heightened flight to urban areas. Yet, it remains primarily devoted to unveiling factual data in a practical manner. More than that, it appears to strategically overwhelm the reader with factual data. Facts, when presented with a preeminent sense of practicality, are hard to ignore. As the text slowly unveils all the intricate machinations of extralegal property (e.g. how slumlords engage in a duality of legally owning property while managing it in an illegal fashion), it becomes apparent that ideas of capital and assets, the world of formal property, have no room in a life spent avoiding the impenetrable and uninterested system of formalized capital. How could a life that exists outside of the formal system expect to benefit from it?
From there, I’d stretch to claim that the text’s “opinion” may be that capitalism, representing formal property systems, is inherently engaged as a contributing agent in the practical realities of slum life. However, it remains an extrapolation rather than anything I can explicitly point to in the text. Its precision in overwhelming the reader with its breadth of data keeps it cleverly free from any outright polemical stance. At least…so far. Let’s not get presumptuous.
Sunday, April 11, 2010
Davis is definitely playing for what we as a class have pinned down as the “B team”. That comes across most clearly in his willingness to identify a neoliberal set of destructive forces that define a new super poverty based in urban centers. Unlike the text CEHM, Davis is able to identify the features and structure of the neoliberal project that he is citing as responsible for a ‘Planet of Slums’ filled with the new urban poor. Most importantly this book lets loose a barrage of horrific imagery and information to contextualize exactly what the new urban poor are up against.
Despite not being on the inside of the system and lacking a distinct confessional tone, Davis does a better job of describing the basic workings of American imperialism through his discussion of “soft imperialism” (75). Perhaps not being an insider simplifies his explanation. He explains NGOs and connects the dots with far less self-aggrandizement than John Perkins in CEHM. Davis’s location of the IMF within the system and illumination of structural adjustment programs all yield a much clearer description of free market tactics that endorse American interests at the cost of the global poor. He describes the IMF and World Bank acting as “bailiffs” as they offer the “poisoned chalice of devaluation, privatization, removal of import controls and food subsidies, enforced cost-recovery in health and education, and ruthless downsizing of the public sector,” (153). In this light, the IMF and World Bank free market reforms contribute to the growing poverty affecting the Third World, rather than helping spread human rights through economic growth as the A tem would want to suggest.
Davis, in conjuring the image of abject poverty, is responding to what Hernando de Soto would characterize as an asset rich type of poverty. The way Davis talks about the new urban poor refutes de Soto’s argument by problematizing de Soto’s claim that the global poor hold assets that cannot be unlocked. By focusing on the danger and the destitution of the urban poor Davis renders a clear more realistic picture of the problems facing the global poor-- that their position is one of insecurity and toil. This rendering demystifies the ‘mystery’ of capital by showing extremely poor urban dwellers don’t have any capital. Also Davis takes a different approach to the extralegal status of the poor by illuminating how extralegal/illegal activities make the poor vulnerable to exploitation. Without legal rights the poor often find themselves at the mercy of those who do.
In my opinion, Davis is a heavy hitter on the “B team”.
Thursday, April 8, 2010
I do not know much about Hernando De Soto but I can bet he lives a life of tokenization. Market fundamentalists have found the most mobilizable and legitimizing figure possible in him. How nicely he escapes critiques of privilege. At this point, however, my précis will cease to speculate on the place of De Soto in the polemical world of pundits and their detractors. I will focus on The Mystery of Capital and how he is actually the one creating a mystery and at the same time skipping some hurdles at which most market fundamentalists stumble. Without butchering the meat of his argument, I can safely say that his prescription for the problems of wealth disparity and underdevelopment is paperwork. What the West has that the rest of the world does not is a bureaucratic “representational process” that gives people confidence in the worth of material possessions, without which they are in effect, “dead capital” (pg. 6).
This book starts with the question, (or statement) Why Capitalism Triumphs In the West and Fails Elsewhere. What does that mean? Are we to assume capitalism has triumphed already? Or that it is in the process of triumphing and will eventually totally triumph? And triumph against whom? Quickly it is apparent that what he means to ask is, “why is the West wealthy and the rest of the world poor?” Tis a worthy question. And De Soto tells us that the answer is not simple. We can appreciate that economics are not always told in one lesson. Yet the real question he asks is still a little different. We are not going to learn about the relationships and interdependent among all parts of the world. It is not going to be an argument that explains the poverty of the Global South as a historical process of exploitation and accumulation. The real question, if De Soto were to be explicit is, what does the West have that the rest of the world does not which make it so that there are disparities?
There is a history of racialized discourse surrounding that question and the audience for which this book is intended is wary to fall into that trap. Assuming the benevolence of American empire and the superiority of capitalism, what could possibly be the explanation for national failure? For good reason we are well primed to stay away from essentialist explanations that look to race to explain economic disparity. De Soto knows this and knows that many justifications of capitalism employ racism to wash away stains in its logic. He calms our worries with the statement that people of the Global South are not “helplessly trapped in obsolete ways, and are not the uncritical prisoners of the dysfunctional cultures” (pg. 5). It also helps that he is Peruvian and not another white guy. We, educated middle class people of the West, need not feel guilty as we choose to be persuaded by this book.
Now, we can finally examine De Soto the magician. Poof! Now you see it, now you don’t. One page 7 De Soto talks about the great fortune of the world’s poor but how it is so unfortunately invisible. The poor people are secretly and quietly saving untold amounts of money that never counts as capital. Titles, deeds, and documents for this fortune are what separate impoverished people from establishing their own land of endless opportunity. With that move De Soto, like magic, solves the problem of poverty. When he says “only the west has the conversion process to transform the invisible to visible” (pg. 7) he never stops to ask why people of the global south and their ways of life are not seen by capitalists. He never stops to consider the agency of sight. Who has the power to see, to recognize, and to confer legitimacy is a colonial relationship he simply ignores. I could spend forever writing about how the West actually dismantled the representational process of the countless colonized cultures. I could talk about how implementing western-type bureaucracies of ownership has stolen so much from poor people and their nations. I could talk about how false and oppressive the notions of development and modernization, which he mobilizes are. But ignoring these issues is what makes his argument so compelling. He promises to dispel the mystery and skip ahead in a productive way.
While De Soto claims to illuminate the mystery of capital he actually constructs the term capitalism is a way that is very mysterious and misleading. He uses words he refuses to explain and define. How does capitalism work? What are privatization and foreign direct investments? How about free trade? Tariffs? Stabilizing currencies? They are all lumped under capitalism and capitalism equals good. De Soto takes for granted their role and effect in support of his side of the political debate. He ignores how problematic they are. Capitalism does not need to be explained in this book. It acts as an essential force of civilization and societies must makes adjustments to accommodate its logic. Of course their some negative effects but those are only more symptoms of not making the necessary adjustments.
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