Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Iraq, five years later

We don’t know how you feel, but it’s somewhat hard to even properly listen when news from Iraq are coming up. So numbed and used to bombs, casualties and barbarian acts have we become that it really takes a ‘jubilee’ to make us remember, that: yes, of course, there is still a war going on in Iraq!

So here we were last week, five years since the ‘liberation’ of Iraq. Ah, and there was another ‘newsworthy’ item: the 4,000th US casualty was reported – no scores on Iraqi civilians though, they don’t ‘count’…

Not only have the news been basically all the same for the last five years, but so have been the interpretations. Pretty much "Bush’s incompetence, Oil and Halliburton" is what it mainly boils down to. In our view, there is one exception though: Naomi Klein’s recent book ‘The Shock Doctrine’.

OK – lets get this out of the way straight upfront: Klein is an activist, writes with a certain angle and probably some of her theses might be closer to legend building than to solid interpretation. This aside, the book is a fascinating read for everybody attempting at understanding the contemporary role of business and politics in society.

Starting in the 1970s Klein provides an excellently researched overview over the link between introduction of liberal, free market economic policies and the use of ‘shock’ in the form of violence, terror and intimidation by governments or powerful elites to achieve this end. Examples range from Chile, Bolivia, Poland, China, Russia, Indonesia, South Africa up to - post 9/11 - the US and other Western democracies.

The book provides a stunning analysis of the driving agents, forces and ideas behind the spread of global capitalism. It is a gripping read to anyone interested in business ethics for at least three reasons:

  • Ever wondered why CSR, business ethics, corporate citizenship etc. has risen so sharply on corporate agendas recently? Klein provides a systematic account of how frameworks for economic activity have been changed towards less regulation and more discretion – and thus responsibility - of private actors (corporations that is).
  • So, academic research and ‘ideas’ are just for filling the shelves of the ‘ivory towers’? Klein’s book provides a different story: Milton Friedman’s love affair with dictators of the likes of Pinochet or Deng Xiao Ping or with CEOs-cum-politicians such as Cheney and Rumsfeld had a significant influence on how billions of lives are shaped today. As a young economics professor, Jeffrey Sachs’ ideas – according to Klein – had disastrous effects on countries like Bolivia or Poland. So the book makes a strong case that studying and applying academic research in fact is tremendously powerful.
  • Where are we heading? Klein shows that the systematic privatization of utilities, public transport, health care, correction facilities (i.e. prisons) and education in the last 20 years were just the beginning. The Iraq war is probably the first attempt by a government to fight a war where everything other than core strategic directions is privatized and run by for-profit corporations. Love it or hate it - corporations will face more and more claims for transparency, accountability and commitment to the public interest – all core topics for business ethics.

In short – looking for an inspiring read? Klein’s book won’t disappoint even if you don’t agree with everything.

1 comment:

  1. Klein is not the first to reflect on the time taken for ideas to percolate into the mainstream. Marginson noted in a paper on the influence of Hayek in education - (MARGINSON S., (1992), The free market: a study of Hayek, Friedman and Buchanan, Monograph No. 1, Public Sector Research Centre, University of NSW.) that new ways of thinking take time to become new ways of doing or being. He suggests ideas translate into common action some 20 to 30 years after they have been debated, discussed and reflected on in an academic arena. This rings true about much of the writing over the last century, and relates to the themes on ethics governance and CSR. Arguably, the business academic community is still grappling with notions of how to respond to values, ethics or the role of corporate social responsibility (CSR) in their disciplines. How such ideas will become embedded in public policy or day to day business/management practice is still contentious. However changes in corporate law and corporate governance guidelines in the past five years in many countries suggest rising community expectations relating to corporate and executive behaviour is taking place. Perhaps the recent collapse s in the finance industry in France and US may create a new wave of academic reflection. Itill be interesting to see.


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