Neoliberalism and the Beirut Explosion
Back when people were still allowed to say such things, the famous defense attorney Clarence Darrow used to confess that he liked filling his juries with Irishmen because, no matter how heinous the crime, they’d look at the accused, cross themselves, and mutter, “There but the grace of God go I.”
Darrow’s story is worth keeping in mind now that a massive ammonium-nitrate blast has leveled much of Beirut. Although terrorism can’t be entirely dismissed, it looks like the cause is something more prosaic, i.e. years of government neglect and decay. Ammonium nitrate is a compound used to make both fertilizers and explosives. Due to its inherent instability, it should have been sold off or moved to a safer location. Instead, local officials looked the other way as more than 2,700 tons of it piled up in a waterfront storage depot for years. It was always somebody else’s responsibility as long as it didn’t go off. But now that it has, it’s the fault of an entire political system based on corruption, religious sectarianism, buck-passing, and the belief that public breakdown doesn’t matter as long as people can continue building up their private empires.
Government, you see, is for poor people who have nothing else to fall back on. But what did the quick and clever care if society sank to greater and greater depths? The more it did, the more they would soar above.
But such attitudes aren’t quite so easy to maintain now that the commercial hub has been reduced to dust and debris, are they?
But it’s not just upper-class Beirutis who turned their backs on society in this way. Since the neoliberal revolution of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and Milton Friedman, the trend has been well-nigh universal. Basically, neoliberalism is a form of revved-up capitalism that holds that energy shortages, deindustrialization, burned-out cities, and other woes of the 1970s were the fault of economic regulation and over-generous welfare programs. Crime was rising because bureaucrats and intellectuals were encouraging a culture of resentment among the poor. Unemployment was on the upswing because government giveaways encouraged workers to go on the dole. Industry was collapsing because environmental regulations were squeezing profits to the bone.
The litany goes on and on. The solution, meanwhile, was always the same: privatize, de-regulate, slash corporate taxes, and lower interest rates so that the wealthy could borrow and invest. Government was dismantled as a consequence, the financial markets went into overdrive, and the economic elite embarked on a spending spree greater than that of the Roaring Twenties. The story was much the same in an energy-rich Middle East. After the religious wars of the 1970s and 80s, Beirut emerged as a major financial hub, a place where Persian Gulf sheikhs could recycle oil profits, shop, and shower cash on a favorite belly-dancer at an upscale brothel. It was all so giddy and exciting that it was easy to overlook massive political corruption, the vast slums on the city outskirts, and the fact that basic services such as electricity and garbage collection had simply stopped working.
“Capernaum,” a 2018 Lebanese movie about a boy who sues his impoverished Christian parents for bringing him into such a miserable world, summed up the chaos brilliantly. The casinos were bursting, and stylish boutiques jostled for space. But the underlying social and economic decay was crushing the poor underfoot.
When oil prices crashed in the wake of Covid-19, the entire rickety structure collapsed. Money stopped flowing into Lebanese banks, the national currency plunged eighty percent, joblessness ballooned, and huge protests broke out in the streets. Government descended into paralysis. The Aug. 5 explosion was the coup de grâce, a sign that the damage was irreparable. Beirut was truly and completely broken.
This is where Clarence Darrow comes in. If other countries have been spared the same, it’s only because of luck, fate, or divine mercy. A few nations that have maintained high levels of public services may be better off, although they’re probably more vulnerable than they realize. But the countries that embraced neoliberalism in full are teetering on the edge of disaster.
There’s no better example than the United States. Rather than teetering, in fact, it’s already gone over. After all, the U.S. is a society once so sure of itself that it imposed neoliberal policies on other countries and smashed them to smithereens if they refused. From Central America to the Middle East, the ground is littered with the broken bodies of résistants. But now the U.S. is reeling from an overdose of its own medicine. Its economy is faltering, its international standing is plummeting, and its political system has broken down to the point that the November elections may well end in fighting in the streets. With the daily death toll from Covid-19 now at more than 1,200, it’s the equivalent of a Beirut-sized explosion in a half-dozen cities per day.
For years, critics warned that America’s ultra-fragmented healthcare system was heading for disaster, that health standards were declining out in the hinterlands, and that the underfunding of all-important agencies like the Centers for Disease Control was going too far. But no one listened. And why should they when all the experts agreed that privatization and budget cuts were irreversible?
So nothing was done. With less than five percent of the global population, consequently, the United States now accounts for more than 22 percent of world coronavirus deaths. States like Florida, California, Texas, Georgia, and Arizona have more active cases than Spain, Italy, France, Germany, and the UK combined. America continues to blame other countries for its troubles, but the real problems are at home. If you don’t believe it, just ask Lebanese protesters who have taken to the streets yet again. They’ll give you an earful.