Sunday, May 26, 2024

Quinn Slobodian (via the author’s website)

Like many Cambridge residents, Quinn Slobodian has “soft leftist politics, rather than hard leftist politics.” His newest book, however, describes leaders who are much more extreme. From Milton Friedman to Peter Thiel, Slobodian’s “Crack-Up Capitalism: Market Radicals and the Dream of a World Without Democracy” describes the history of radical libertarians and the danger of ultracapitalists. Already available in the United States, U.K., Germany and other places, the book is well-reviewed. Slobodian has also written two previous books: “Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism” and “Foreign Front: Third World Politics in Sixties West Germany.” His political commentaries also frequently appear in The New York Times, Guardian and New Statesman. Slobodian presents “Crack-Up Capitalism” at Harvard Book Store on Wednesday. We talked with him Monday over Zoom; the conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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What inspired you to start writing “Crack-Up Capitalism”?

Part of the motivation behind the book was that we tend to think of the period since the end of the Cold War as a time of increasing global connection. The classic book title is “The World is Flat” by Thomas Friedman. There is this idea that all of the world’s nations are now in direct competition with one another, and they’re doing so inside a single world economy. The world economy that I was trying to chart out in the book is actually a lot more fragmented and disunited than we might think. Interestingly enough, there are some political actors who are quite happy about that and are keen on accelerating the crack-up – the disintegration – of the economy. The book is an intellectual history of the people who have a motivation to see political breakup and dissolution of existing territories happen.

When did you first become interested in globalization and its effects?

I was born in 1978 and came of age in the 1990s, which was definitely the high point of the globalization talk. “Nations are toast. They’re headed to the dustbin of history. We all live in one big economy now, one global village” – this was the narrative surrounding my youth. In my late teens, there was some mobilization against this version of globalization, which people thought was actually just being used to disempower workers. The most famous high point of the movement against globalization was a 1999 protest against the World Trade Organization in Seattle, but there were similar protests all over the world and all over the United States. These protests inspired me because they suggested that globalization didn’t just have to be disempowering, but that there could be some kind of collective action to grab the reins of this galloping horse of economic globalization and make it work for the people rather than making us work for the world economy. “Crack-Up Capitalism” is intended as a bit of a warning signal for some of these extreme possibilities for the future. And implicitly, it is also a call of hope for opposition to such potential outcomes.

What is dangerous about capitalist extremism?

If we reflect on our everyday life, a lot of our interaction with other people is governed by commercial relationships. We pay for certain services and then people do things for us. We do things and then get paid for our services. We have contracts with our employers, with the people who lend us money, with the delivery service – everything is a monetized transaction. Most people see that as something that needs to be balanced out by a different relationship to other humans. They believe that there should also be a way that we interact with each other that is not only through money and through commodification. That can mean the well-being of the planet itself, health care, higher education or public transport. In my opinion, all of these things should not be up for sale, and should instead be considered human rights. Then it becomes startling to study the ideologies of the people who are described in the book, who have the exact opposite ideas. They believe that everything should be subjected to the logic of buying and selling and contracting. The very dynamic of democracy suggests that our lives shouldn’t only be about monetization, but that we should have intrinsic rights. The radical libertarians, also sometimes called anarcho-capitalists, in my book don’t believe in states at all. For them, democracy just stands in the way of more efficient outcomes and more productive uses of the world’s resources. It’s worth looking straight in the face of these kinds of visions because they are consistent with trends that already exist in the world we live in. To have a better future we need to figure out ways to work against that tendency, which makes people see each other only in terms of their utility, and their relative standing on the hierarchy of value. It would be great if we had other ways of seeing humans.

What can be done to stop such ideological movements?

I am a big advocate of local- and community-level experiments. You can create things like community land trusts, tool banks and skills sharing. There’s all kinds of ways that you can modify everyday life that doesn’t require a new law being passed or a new president being elected. It’s just a matter of sticking at it and keeping an eye on the most devoted and far-out radicals that are trying to coopt and disable the political system itself.

Do you believe that people are aware enough of ultracapitalism?

There is a tendency to create supervillains out of people like Peter Thiel, for example, and to give the false impression that everything bad about society is only a result of the actions of a small number of people. Yet there needs to be a balance of attention to the ultracapitalist radicals, which is what my book has been doing, and the work of someone like Matthew Desmond, for example, who just wrote a new book about poverty in which he focuses on public education, funding and zoning laws and all the kinds of ways that the 25 percent and not just the 1 percent are helping to increase economic inequality in this country. So I don’t think that the whole enlightenment project is exhausted just by focusing on these far-out characters, as I do.

What reactions have you gotten to “Crack-Up Capitalism”?

It’s been more or less supportive, which has been nice. Even people who I didn’t think would like it have been supportive so far. An example is the former chancellor of the exchequer in Great Britain, Kwasi Kwarteng, which is sort of the second most powerful position in the country. He reviewed the book a few weeks ago for London magazine and was pretty positive about it, which is strange to me because he himself is a pretty avowed libertarian. And he didn’t seem to be deterred by the rather extreme nature of the characters and the schemes and strategies I described in the book. As he put it, “If your utopia is one of economic freedom, then finding the path to it can be difficult.” It seems that he welcomes these unorthodox methods at some level, which is troubling personally for me, but it also suggests that I must have got something right in my attempt to diagnose a deep belief on the part of people who see economic freedom as the most important value in human life.

What do you believe is important about your book?

When an academic like myself chooses to write for people who are not academics, it likely means that you are trying to add something to the public conversation that you haven’t seen as much of. For me, I feel like especially in the United States there’s a tendency to get caught in a kind of navel gazing or tunnel vision about the state of America itself as a nation with its troubled history. It’s very hard for Americans to pay attention to the rest of the world, even progressive and leftist Americans. It’s often hard to know where to begin and how to understand places that you haven’t been yourself. So my work as a historian, and in this case as a more public-facing intellectual, is just to try to do my small part in expanding out the lens that people use to see the problems of the world. In my book, I recognize places that may seem very distant, like Dubai or Honduras, but also have an important role in previewing what kind of capitalism might be waiting for us.

  • Quinn Slobodian reads from “Crack-Up Capitalism: Market Radicals and the Dream of a World Without Democracy” at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Harvard Book Store, 1256 Massachusetts Ave., Harvard Square, in conversation with Northeastern University’s Moira Weigel. Free. Information is here.