Saturday, July 23, 2011

Janine Wedel Makes My Head Rattle and Hiss

I think I'm in a state of near head-explosion from reading Janine Wedel's Shadow Elite, such is the mix of shrewd insight, salty anecdote and intolerable internal contradiction that she seems to have thrown together.

Start with the title which seems (like so many titles these days) a mismatch.  Okay granted, it is about "elites" and they are in "shadows," but this is not a general sketch of such elites (for that, you might better turn to David Rothkopf's Superclass.  It is rather better described as a about the dissolution of government and the kidnapping of government powers and responsibilities by private persons for the private purposes.

I think she is definitely onto something here and some parts of her book serve admirably to understand the nature and progress of this dissolution.  The trouble is, she gets tangled up in half a dozen stories which, even if they overlap, do not match each other and in some ways do not serve her purpose at all.

Perhaps the best part of the book is her study of the rise of contracting-out, and the attendant "revolving door"--but really not so much a revolving door as a system of apprenticeship whereby the aspirant learns his trade on the government dime and then takes his accumulated skill and knowledge off to greener pastures. If you have read this far into this note, you are probably the kind of person who thinks you know a good bit about this process (and perhaps you have participated).  But I'd say Wedel does a commendable job of showing just how pervasive the process has become--not just in the defense department, but around virtually every service the government purports to provide.   And Wedel does an excellent job of some of the important ways in which (whatever its virtues) this process of conracting-out can do harn.  A diffusion of responsibility for one--nobody knows quite who is in charge of what.  And perhaps most important, the privatization of information--perhaps the one resource that a responsible government in a market economy can help to provide.

So far so good, but none of the rest of her main stories fit nearly so well into her framework.  Perhaps her favorite, for example,  is the story of what one might-call think-tank government, and in particular, the spectacular chronicle of the neocons, running back to their birth in the manger outside the office of Senator Henry Jackson.  She tells the story well although not obviously better than it has been told before.  But I think it may prove just the opposite of what she wants to prove.  Here we have a crowd who, after all, very far from wanting to privatize government power are seeking to take it over for a highly specific public agenda.  They may use think tanks and such for r&r, but their highly explicit goal is to take over the White House, thankyouverymuch, and rule the world.

I think the problem here may be that Wedel hasn't made up her own mind what a proper government should look like. The giveaway is an early chapter where she offers up as personal narrative that I suppose is intended to show us how she came to understand the world as she does.  The story is an account of her time as a young person in Poland Before the Fall, in the company of two women, mother and daughter.  who had to make lives from themselves under constraints that were at best highly inhospitable.  It's a wonderful yarn about people who had long since come to understand that the Government was Not Their Friend; rather it was an obstacle to be got round, and get round it they do, with energy and imagination and wit and guile.

On its own terms it's a great read but it is not all clear what Wedel wants us to learn from it--or, indeed, what she learns from it herself.  With  background like this, what would we expect people like her hostesses to do when freedom broke out--start acting like Danes?  Not likely; civic virtue is one of those achievements like an English garden,where you have to start hundreds of years ago.  To run an effective modern state on the basis of citizens like this will take prodigies of statesmanship and massive doses of good luck.

But the point is--who can blame them?  I'm remembering Bertholt Brecht again--if the government has lost the confidence of the people, why doesn't the government just elect a new people and start over?

It is this background that helps to illuminate the the third and I think most ambiguous of her major stories--her account of the shock-therapy privatization of Russia, administered by a gang of true-believer technocrats under the auspices of Harvard University.  Once again, her account is dynamic and readable; once again it is not exactly news.   And on any account, the privatizers have a lot to answer for--not least because of a couple of the principals entangled themselves in a massively bone-headed scheme of self-dealing.  Surely anybody looking back form the resource/gangsterism of the Putinocracy will have to ask?  Wasn't there a better way?

In the imagination, sure there was a better way--in the imagination there  is always a better way.  But let's remember this is the old Soviet Union we are talking about here--as massive and repressive as (almost) any state in recent memory, in all of history.  Almost any self-regarding private person is going to know that he damn well wants to work for its collapse.  The chief, perhaps the only, irony, is in the end, how easy it was--how the Soviet Union, when it was good and ready, lurched and groaned and fell down in a heap.  "Privatization" in this perspective is not a dirty word.

None of this is to say that Wedel is exactly wrong about anything she says, big or small.  Her individual stories are well told; her general point is inarguable.  What it does mean is that we've got a whole lot more work to do in thinking through the question of just what is the proper role of government in the post-apocalyptic era,  and how (not at all less important) we can persuade ourselves and each other that we have--or can--build a structure worth serving.  Will we bring it off?  Probably not. The complications are great enough that the best of intentions won't be sufficient to save us.  Meanwhile Wedel offers a bit of a flashlight into the dark, but if we are going to go further, we will need a lot more illumination.

No comments: