Johann Hari: Markets need regulation, and lots of it

Enron continued unchecked until the lights started to go out all over California
Click to follow
The Independent Online

This is the story of two great political experiments. The first has been conducted in the United States over the past 25 years, and it tested a simple question: what happens if you give the right everything they want, if you make their every dream into a reality. and set corporations free from regulation and safeguards?

The second experiment has been conducted in Argentina over the past five years, and lies at the opposite end of the political spectrum. It asks: what if you took hundreds of businesses from their owners and handed them to their workforces to run, in assemblies based on one-worker, one-vote? What if you tried democracy not just at the level of the nation-state, but also at the level of the workplace?

These experiments are captured in a twin-set of superb documentaries gliding with a glint out of America's current Golden Age of popular non-fiction film-making. (Michael Moore, we have something to thank you for). Enron - The Smartest Guys In The Room is released this Friday, while Naomi Klein's film about Argentina, The Take, is released later this year.

At a time when we are encouraged to think that there is only One True Way to make a market economy work - the right's way - these films reveal a bigger truth. Markets are essential (every country that has suppressed them has quickly regressed to universal poverty and famine), but they come in a thousand different forms. It is foolish to speak about "capitalism" as one big homogeneous block. There are a thousand capitalisms, some humane, some horrendous.

Let's look first at America's grand experiment in regulation-trashing. It is hard to think of two men who epitomise the Reagan-Bush vision of deregulation better than Jeffrey Skilling and Ken Lay. They were among the very first campaigners in Washington DC for deregulation of energy markets, and as heads of Enron they bankrolled Bush's road to the White House with the biggest donations in town. When one of their colleagues retired from the Enron board, Daddy Bush sent him a Valentine video saying: "You have been fantastic to the Bush family. I don't think anybody did more than you to support George."

Lubricated by Enron's cash, the Republicans proceeded to dismantle all the laws and regulations that had been built up during the 20th century. Skilling declared: "Money is the only thing that motivates people," while regulations and unions are for socialist pansies. Enron had started as a natural gas company, but with deregulation the firm "financialized" the industry, moving from dealing with the dull, old gas that came down the pipeline to trading energy as if it consisted of stock options. If it sounds convoluted, that's because it was - Enron was effectively a giant pyramid scheme, using a hundred accounting tricks to create the appearance of industry where in reality there was next-to-nothing. But all the security guards employed by the state to ensure this would not happen had been sacked; all the guard dogs had been put down. Enron continued unchecked until the lights started to go out all over California.

After deregulation, Enron moved into the California electricity market and discovered its greatest scam yet. The company found a great way to push up the electricity stock-price: plunge the state into blackout. If electricity was scarce, the price would soar - so Enron execs phoned paid lackeys at power plants across the state telling them to "get creative" and find an excuse to turn out the lights.

The result was that whole cities were plunged into darkness, thousands were trapped in elevators, hospital operations were disrupted, and old people died in the baking summer heat. As Ken Lay counted the profit, he joked: "You know the difference between the Titanic and the state of California? At least when the Titanic went down the lights were on."

Of course, there have always been corporate criminals, but Enron was a virus that could only thrive and breed and succeed beyond imagining in the insanitary conditions of deregulation. Enron was hardly incidental to the vision of the US corporate elite - their Bible, Fortune magazine, called them "America's most innovative company." The American right's grand experiment revealed - as the great economist Karl Polanyi warned in the 1940s - that markets are not "self-regulating", they need government regulation, and lots of it, or they spiral out of control.

The Argentinean experiment emerged, in a strange way, from the failures of this earlier experiment. Throughout the 1990s, the International Monetary Fund undemocratically imposed Enron-capitalism on Argentina. It demanded that the government dismantle all democratic controls and regulations on businesses, promising this would lead to greater economic growth.

In reality, it led to the biggest economic collapse in the country's history. In 2001, Argentina's economy - previously the most successful in Latin America - collapsed virtually overnight. Some $40bn (£22.3bn)was wrenched from the country in 24 hours, and there were no regulations left to stop it.

A middle-class country was suddenly pauperised. Children who once ate American fast food were reduced to rummaging through trashcans.

But in the rubble, an experiment began. Many of the factories and hospitals in Argentina were abandoned by their foreign owners, so the workers, rather than succumb to starvation, decided to take them over and run them as democratic co-operatives. Naomi Klein's film studies the Zanon ceramics factory, which was declared a fabricia sin patrones (factory without bosses).

As with new co-operatives across the country, the management now consisted of an elected core accountable to monthly meetings of the workforce. The result? The factory has become more successful than ever, increasing output by 20 per cent and taking on reams of new staff. This pattern has been repeated in the hundreds of Argentina's impromptu co-ops.

I recently met up with Jose Julian Penunuri, a 36 year-old worker at the factory, who explained how much more "human" the workplace was now: "We still have to discipline people or even dismiss them if they don't do their work properly, but the terrible insecurity I had before, going from one six-month contract to another, is gone."

Naomi Klein has visited many of the sweatshops that have spread like sores across the developing world, and she believes she has found in the Argentine co-operatives a real-world alternative, a way for poor people to benefit from markets while retaining democratic control over their lives. From the wreckage of market fundamentalism, one more democratic form of market economics has precariously emerged as an example to the world.

The Enron slogan was "Ask Why." After studying the results of these long experiments, after picking through their damning findings about the Enron-capitalism still forced on so much of the world by the IMF and World Bank, it's a question that hangs eerily in the air.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

Comments