finem respice

Redefining Capitalism To Suit Anti-Capitalists

Submitted by ep on Wed, 04/15/2009 - 03:44

I spent a good deal of time reading and absorbing The Independent's stark and haunting take on Dubai,1 nicely cited today by Megan McArdle.2 I have spent quite a bit of time in Dubai and seen a number of sides of the "Middle Eastern Shangri-La," not least of which being the experience of a female expat in the jurisdiction. I can only describe this last as characterized both by the constantly disconcerting presence of an ill-defined malice (perhaps best understood as a sort of ambient white noise of potential danger) and the occasionally terrifying and instant materialization of real, even mortal danger from this shapeless white snow of audio. (This last I know only second hand, having watched the arrest of a friend without accompanying her into custody).

I was more than dimly aware of the plight of the lowest underclasses in Dubai, but it took Hari's article to click-sift the signal from the noise. For Westerners, the threat truly is an ill-defined background noise that requires of one only moderate effort to ignore- perhaps as the droning of engines on an aircraft, or a light ringing suggestive of tinnitus- until someone like Hari asks suddenly and aloud in an elevator car "do any of you hear that noise too, or is it just me?" With that attention what was a rather well concealed- or perhaps one should rather say "well ignored"- and insidious oppression becomes alarmingly clear.

On reflection, it is eminently clear that Hari is not exaggerating when he articulates the role of a "slave class," that being the caste of indentured servitude that has built Dubai's gaudy pyramids- and with alarmingly similar cost. But something about both Hari's article and the rest of the expositive work on Dubai that has surfaced in the last year has nagged at me subtly for some time. This was something I could not perfectly articulate until recently, when I finally found it early on in his piece, a single lunge closing his introduction with sharp and driving finality:

Few places in the world manage to visually represent the current failure of global neo-liberal capitalism as starkly as the Gulf Emirate of Dubai.3

It is a misconception so bold and so brazen that it, in the fashion of hiding in plain sight, dares one to challenge it- and, Dubaiesque, finds few takers. Ironically, it is a concept as insidiously seductive for some as Dubai's own marketing mirage. And as to the complexity of this mirage, it says something that the vast majority of "pictures" of Dubai returned in any search turn out to be artist's renderings of future skylines rather than actual photographs of present or past skylines. It takes only a little reflection to recognize that illusion is Dubai's first and most lucrative export, and that efforts to perpetuate it are, at once, very extensive and well practiced. This willingness to accept mirage as image, both in the case of Dubai and in the form of Hari's prose, is indicative of an increasingly prevalent attitude that bears both some scrutiny, and more than some debunking: that Dubai bears even the faintest resemblance to "global neo-liberal capitalism," whatever that is.

As a showcase for the evils of capitalism, Dubai has become something of a common display. From the more blatantly dishonest intellects:

Milton Friedman's beach club: Dubai, in other words, is a vast gated community, the ultimate Green Zone. But even more than Singapore or Texas, it is also the apotheosis of the neo-liberal values of contemporary capitalism: a society that might have been designed by the Economics Department of the University of Chicago.4

To what has become the almost trite offense of culturally indoctrinated xenophobia:

Welcome to the ultimate sociopolitical model for the 21st century: a Blade Runner-esque melting pot of neo-liberalism and "subterranean" economy, Sunni Arab Islam and low taxes, souks and artificial islands, a giant warehouse and a tourist paradise, life in the fast lane and post-modern slavery. The model spells out an apolitical, consumer-mad, citizenship-free society.

[...]

Dubai represents the essence of globalization at work - globalization, of course, interpreted as the ineluctable triumph of Western laissez faire, where world trade means economic rights trump political rights.5

It defies explanation how a state with debtors' prisons, no bankruptcy proceedings to speak of, slave labor punctuated by the seizure of workers' passports and brazenly broken employment contracts left unenforced by local authorities, almost non-existent freedom of the press, arbitrary and draconian drug enforcement, a ban on homosexuality punishable by lengthy prison terms, government filtering of the internet, rank favoritism in the form of selective enforcement against non-citizens, massive subsidization of the Emirati caste for everything from housing to education, labor laws that make it near impossible to fire a citizen but that grant effectively no rights at all to expatriates, academic oppression by the secret police, no religious freedom of any kind, no woman's suffrage, no men's suffrage, massive, unchecked deficit spending, and, to top it all off, a totalitarian monarchy with what amounts to unlimited power, could even remotely be described as "global" "liberal" "neo" or "capitalist," much less a poster state for "global neo-liberal capitalism." The only real laissez faire aspects of Dubai's existence are lax immigration policies (until one is unemployed) and the absence of income tax. Hari is so taken with the Dubai-as-capitalist-paradise theme, and just to make sure we didn't misunderstand his prose as something other than an indictment of capitalism- or perhaps because he just can't help himself- he closes by intoning in sarcastic context "Dubai is Market Fundamentalist Globalisation in One City."

And, really, could there be anything more absurd than associating Dubai with Milton Friedman in any way other than to highlight Friedman's belief that economic freedom, true economic freedom, has the effect over time of corroding authoritarian regimes? In this connection it isn't particularly hard to point out that the widespread exposure to the citizens of more liberal democracies (France and Great Britain in particular) has, in the case of Dubai, managed to do at least some good- though it seems quite small in comparison to the massive walls of oppression that still dominate.6

I have grudgingly come to the conclusion that the prevalence of this error is mostly inadvertent. That capitalism has become so aligned in the minds of its critics with conspicuous wealth or excess, that the two are linked wherever wealth and excess is found. A sort of sloppy disregard for causality, as it were, such that concentrated wealth must, a priori derive from the evils of capitalism (rather than a source so obvious that you were able to write 4 pages on it before running badly aground: a totalitarian, slavery-subsidized, theocratic state). In a sort of crude way this perverse and wordy haiku is a great compliment to capitalism, though possessed of neither the wit of brevity nor the elegance of meter. There are fates much worse than being associated, albeit erroneously, with the quick accumulation of wealth wherever it is found- provided wealth in and of itself does not, as any annual income above £25,000 obviously does Hari,7 intrinsically offend you, that is.

  1. 1. Johann Hari, "The Dark Side of Dubai," The Independent (April 7, 2009)
  2. 2. Megan McArdle, "Why Bankruptcy Matters," Asymmetrical Information (April 14, 2009).
  3. 3. Ibid.
  4. 4. Mike Davis, "Fear and Money in Dubai," New Left Review 41 (September-October 2006).
  5. 5. Pepe Escobar,"Dubai Lives the Post-Oil Arab Dream," Asia Times (June 7, 2006).
  6. 6. The first inklings that homosexual rape might actually be a crime and recognition, grudgingly accepted after rather pointed French boycotting efforts, of AIDS as a real and serious problem in Dubai, are both recent examples of social progress in Dubai forced by exposure to Western ideals and the financial pressures of a state dependent largely on tourism and foreign capital for prosperity.
  7. 7. Johann Hari, "The One Lesson of This Crisis is the Need for a More Equal Society," The Independent (April 15, 2009).
[Art Credit: Unknown Artist "The Burj Al Arab Hotel," Photograph (Unknown Date), Unknown Source. The Burj Al Arab Hotel battles for the title of "image" against evening sand, fog and the other forces of "mirage" in Dubai's night sky.]

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