14 March 2011
To the editors of The Monthly:
It is not particularly surprising to find a venture capitalist with pretensions to ever greater power writing a floppy paean to a celebrity historian of the ‘Everything-As-It-Is-Is-Great’ school of history. There aren’t many other ways to actually be a celebrity historian these days, or a venture capitalist for that matter, unless you accept things as they are and explain at length why they should be so. Yet Malcolm Turnbull’s review of Niall Ferguson’s latest ode, ‘The Way Things Are (Huzzah, Huzzah),’ is remarkable in many respects. It isn’t just his painfully obvious conclusion, that prosperity and private property are the mutually reassuring bulwarks of ‘freedom.’ Nor is it the apparent fact, assumed but not in evidence, that these appear to be the only guarantees of ‘freedom’ to ever exist in history. It isn’t even the uncomfortable fact that Ferguson’s and Turnbull’s works can persist in their singular trajectory despite that daily reminders of the epic failures of the system they love so deeply. Maybe Ferguson in particular should take a road trip from his beloved Harvard to Wisconsin and speak to those who have just lost all rights to bargain for the cost and conditions of their labor.
It is the agonies in Wisconsin that hint at what is most surprising in Turnbull’s missive: the contemporary goliath of what we seem to be calling prosperity from which so many similar tunes have sprung can not even be remotely regarded as exemplifying the model phenomenon of liberty he unhesitatingly extols. Like most prosperous places, the United States’ wealth economic power did not grow from free labor set to work adding value to private property. As the economists and economic historians Michael Hudson and Jeffery Sommers argue, the US is not alone in this regard:
‘Most wealth in history has been acquired either by armed conquest of the land, or by political insider dealing, such as the great US railroad land giveaways of the mid 19th century. The great American fortunes have been founded by prying land, public enterprises and monopoly rights from the public domain, because that’s where the assets are to take.’
(http://www.counterpunch.org/hudson03112011.html; see also Hudson’s Superimperialism at http://michael-hudson.com/books/super-imperialism-the-economic-strategy-of-american-empire/)
The prosperity of the United States was born in large part out of an enormous volume and variety of ‘free’ resources worked into exchangeable forms through the slave trade, by colonies of the poor and indentured on stolen land taken from others who weren’t thought to be using it properly if they were recognised to be using it at all. Then when all the free resources were gone, there followed closely behind the many very necessary wars waged to keep the prosperous in the lifestyles to which they have become accustomed. This is the world we have inherited, a world in which there are virtually no more targets on which the vast system of private wealth in the US can train its extractive mechanisms except onto the backs of teachers, firefighters and public employees.
What is most surprising is that your publication, a self-imagined bastion of independent thought, would even bother with reviewing such a book at such a time by such a correspondent. This is especially true when there are so many other far more worthy works of scholarship which examine in harrowing and illustrative detail the links between America’s ‘prosperity’ and its extraordinary systems of ‘unfreedom’ on which it rests, including the world’s largest prison system and it’s many sectors of exploitative, informal, unprotected labor, to take just two examples you might consider.