Chomsky: What America's 'Crisis' Means to the Rest of the World
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Large-scale state intervention in the economy is not just a phenomenon of the post-World War II era, either. On the contrary, the state has always been a central factor in economic development. Once they gained their independence, the American colonies were free to abandon the orthodox economic policies that dictated adherence to their comparative advantage in export of primary commodities while importing superior British manufacturing goods. Instead, the Hamiltonian economy imposed very high tariffs so that an industrial economy could develop: textiles, steel, and much else. The eminent economic historian Paul Bairoch describes the United States as “the mother country and bastion of modern protectionism,” with the highest tariffs in the world during its great growth period. And protectionism is only one of the many forms of state intervention. Protectionist policies continued until the mid-twentieth century, when the United States was so far in the lead that the playing field was tilted in the proper direction—that is, to the advantage of U.S. corporations. And when necessary, it has been tilted further, notably by Reagan, who virtually doubled protectionist barriers among other measures to rescue incompetent U.S. corporate management unable to compete with Japan.
From the outset the United States was following Britain’s lead. The other developed countries did likewise, while orthodox policies were rammed down the throats of the colonies, with predictable effects. It is noteworthy that the one country of the (metaphorical) South to develop, Japan, also successfully resisted colonization. Others that developed, like the United States, did so after they escaped colonial domination. Selective application of economic prinicples—orthodox economics forced on the colonies while violated at will by those free to do so—is a basic factor in the creation of the sharp North-South divide. Like many other economic historians, Bairoch concludes from a broad survey that “it is difficult to find another case where the facts so contradict a dominant theory” as the doctrine that free markets were the engine of growth, a harsh lesson that the developing world has learned again in recent decades. Even the poster child of neoliberalism, Chile, depends heavily on the world’s largest copper producer, Codelco, nationalized by Allende.
In earlier years the cotton-based economy of the industrial revolution relied on massive ethnic cleansing and slavery, rather severe forms of state intervention in the economy. Though theoretically slavery was ended with the Civil War, it emerged again after Reconstruction in a form that was in many ways more virulent, with what amounted to criminalization of African-American life and widespread use of convict labor, which continued until World War II. The industrial revolution, from the late nineteenth century, relied heavily on this new form of slavery, a hideous story that has only recently been exposed in its shocking detail in a very important study by Wall Street Journal bureau chief Douglas Blackmon. During the post-World War II “golden age,” African Americans were able for the first time to enjoy some level of social and economic advancement, but the disgraceful post-Reconstruction history has been partially reconstituted during the neoliberal years with the rapid growth of what some criminologists call “the prison-industrial complex,” a uniquely American crime committed continuously since the 1980s and exacerbated by the dismantling of productive industry.
The American system of mass production that astonished the world in the nineteenth century was largely created in military arsenals. Solving the major nineteenth-century management problem—railroads—was beyond the capacity of private capital, so the challenge was handed over to the army. A century ago the toughest problems of electrical and mechanical engineering involved placing a huge gun on a moving platform to hit a moving target—naval gunnery. The leaders were Germany and England, and the outcomes quickly spilled over into the civilian economy.