As we all know, there’s journalism, and then there’s journalism. And in turns out, there’s also economic fundamentalism so fanatic that its proponents would endorse a regime characterised by extraordinary cruelty and violence because that regime implemented its economic programme of choice.
The Wall Street Journal placed itself in that latter category with a 4 July editorial on the coup in Egypt. “Egyptians would be lucky”, the Journal opined loftily, “if their new ruling generals turn out to be in the mold of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, who took power amid chaos but hired free-market reformers and midwife a transition to democracy”.
Pinochet, of course, was the Chilean general who with likely CIA backing launched a coup against the democratically elected president of Chile, Salvador Allende. Allende’s socialism threatened U.S. hegemony in South America, and from the outset the U.S. was at pains to undermine his government and make an example of Allende. When the president found himself in conflict with the judiciary and congress, Pinochet acted. During the 17 years of military dictatorship which followed, the general was the darling of Margaret Thatcher (who defended him until his death) and Ronald Reagan.
Pinochet perfected many of the dark arts used today by terrorist institutions, official and irregular, ranging from Al Qaeda to the CIA: torture, kidnappings, disappearances, state murders, etc. Over 3,065 people were killed for “disappeared”. Nearly 40,000 more were detained and tortured. Ideological dissidents (and their families), whether actively opposing the government or not, were targeted, and with the aid of the CIA and its authoritarian fellow-travellers in Latin America, Pinochet’s campaign of terror went abroad through the infamous Operation Condor.
Celebrated writer, Isabel Allende, offered an incisive account of what Pinochet’s Chile came to be in 2006, worth reading in full.
“In Chile”, she wrote, “where friendship and family are very important, something happened [under Pinochet] that can be explained by the effect that fear has on the soul of a society. Betrayal and denunciation snuffed out many lives; all it took was an anonymous voice over the telephone for the badly named intelligence services to sink their claws into the accused, and, in many cases, nothing was ever heard of that person again”.
In some ways anticipating the WSJ’s 2013 defence of Pinochet’s regime with reference to Egypt, Allende wrote that “the figures of economic growth, which won the Wall Street Journal’s praise, did not represent real development since 10 per cent of the population possessed half the nation’s wealth, and there were a hundred people who earned more than the state spent on all social services combined. According to the World Bank, Chile is one of the countries with the worst distribution of income, right alongside Kenya and Zimbabwe.
“The head of a Chilean corporation earns the same, or more, than his equivalent in the United States, while a Chilean labourer earns approximately 15 times less than a North American worker”.
In Chile under Pinochet, while those economic indicators representing the health of the corporate classes improved, those representing the welfare of the poor went into decline. By hewing to the economic orthodoxy of the United States and neoliberal global financial institutions, Pinochet’s regime was able to obtain economic support that would have been denied to Allende; not because that orthodoxy “worked”, but because by propping it up in Chile, its ideological proponents could “prove” its validity, in the same way that they worked to undermine socialist experiments.
I’m not surprised that the WSJ would endorse “free market” policies. But I’m a little surprised that their fanaticism has reached the point that they would endorse the idea that their grubby little theories which make a virtue of inequality and exploitation are so important that they are worth thousands of lives lost and tens of thousands ruined; worth democracy deferred, speech silenced, and thought put under the gun.
Because if Pinochet is best remembered for presiding over an authoritarian regime and perfecting the tactics of terror, free market economics and neoliberalism are at the end of the day nothing more than their own kind of authoritarianism, making noises about liberty while trapping people in economic bondage. They ask people to commit themselves to structured inequality, holding out the promise that, of their own volition, those at the top will eventually concede some of their spectacular wealth (if not their command of the economy) to those languishing at the bottom.
And the “free market” itself becomes a fetish, something beyond criticism, and end in itself irrespective of how its harsh implementation affects those who see their salaries and quality of life decline, who lose their jobs, lose their homes, lose their ability to bargain with employers, and ultimately lose their democracy.
It is a government of terror, which practised the economics of exploitation and disenfranchisement—nothing more and nothing less—which is being defended by the Wall Street Journal. Egyptians should be so lucky, the crackpot editorial board believes, from its bunker, to be blessed to suffer under such a regime.