It's capitalism's fault - again

Even well-meaning and courageous intellectuals seem to have little grasp of economics.

In the wake of our failed war Israel's ever-active media spinners are seeking to distract attention from those truly responsible by blaming - of all things - capitalism. They claim that a capitalist ethos that putatively dominates Israeli society undermines the spirit of solidarity and sacrifice, leaving Israel defenseless. In addition, they blame, as usual, Binyamin Netanyahu and his defense cuts for allegedly leaving the IDF unprepared for war. Nehemia Strassler of Haaretz has already debunked the defense-cut accusation, demonstrating that the defense budget was not really reduced, and that the problem was not lack of funds but the misallocation of still-plentiful resources. The capitalist guilt argument cannot be dismissed as yet another mindless expression of the anti-capitalist mentality so prevalent among Israel's left-leaning elites, since it was advanced by Ari Shavit, Haaretz's leading columnist. Shavit, an acute observer with strong convictions, is also open and fair-minded. Almost alone among his fellow left-leaning intellectuals, he has always been contemptuous of political correctness, at great risk to his career. In his 1998 classic piece "The year of hating Bibi" he courageously defended Netanyahu from a media assault that he described as a "fundamentally unethical… lynch atmosphere" designed to destroy a political opponent. Before the recent elections Shavit also warned - again in contrast to most of his media colleagues, who rallied to support Ehud Olmert's bid for premiership, while repeating their ugly campaign against Netanyahu - that Olmert's superficial and populist policies posed a grave danger to Israel; this notwithstanding the fact that Olmert was planning further withdrawals, which Shavit fervently advocated. SO SHAVIT'S argument must be tackled seriously. Especially since in his most recent crie de coeur, in two pieces published during the war, "A spirit of utter folly" and "Systemic failure," Shavit mercilessly enumerated the many failures of Israel's polity and laid special blame on Israel's elites. By discarding Israel's nationalist and collectivist ethos and replacing it with an individualist anti-patriotic lore, he says, they robbed Israel of its ability to survive in the Middle Eastern jungle. A dogmatic political correctness deprived young Israelis, Shavit claims, of "the tools to deal with the reality of an existential (inter-religious and inter-cultural) conflict…" between Arabs and Jews. It made Israelis focus excessively on the Palestinian issue and accept "the baseless assumption that the occupation is the source of evil… preventing peace… and perpetuating the instability" (a conviction Shavit seemed to share, it should be noted). Our elites, Shavit continues, "identified (the IDF) as an army of occupation… rather than an army defending feminists and homo-lesbians from the fanaticism of the Middle East (sic), they became alienated from it." They also fomented an illusion of normalcy, while our universities, we may add, infected our elites with a subversive, post-modernist dogma that rejected nationalism, military strength, market economics and Zionism. SHAVIT IS wrong, however, when he ascribes the subversive attitudes of Israeli elites to all of Israeli society. His projection contradicts the strong distinction he himself makes in his pieces between our weak elites and our brave people. It was refuted by the amazing spirit of solidarity and sacrifice both civilians and soldiers displayed in the recent war. Shavit also mistakenly ascribes the elites' lack of communal commitment to the putative allure of capitalism and "privatization" - when in fact our elites, even our business elites, are mostly rabidly anti-capitalist, while Israeli "privatization" has been mostly a sham, a sale of state assets to political cronies. The real source of our elites' failure is not an imagined capitalist spirit (the "cruel Thatcherism" that rules according to the phobic fantasies of our unrepentant socialists and monopoly-plagued Israeli economy), but the failure of collectivism. It was the breakdown of the false socialist ethos that engendered the cynicism that led to the plague of postmodernist nihilism. It was a corrupt, state-generated crony capitalism that further encouraged their nihilism. But to appreciate the disastrous dynamic of failed socialist systems like Israel's (or Eastern Europe's) and to understand that crony capitalism has no affinity with market economics, one has to understand economics. Shavit, alas, like most of our university-indoctrinated elites, does not really appreciate the crucial role of economics. This is why he repeats a claim first made by Prof. Shlomo Avineri, the doyen of Israel's leftist political science community, who falsely blames a putative Israeli capitalist ethos for an imagined lack of a communal spirit. UNLIKE MOST of his postmodernist and neo-Marxist colleagues, Avineri, an expert on the early Marx, is not a "post- (namely, anti-) Zionist." He is an urbane scholar. But market economics drives him - as it does other Marxists - to distraction (he asserted, when Friedrich Hayek's classic, The Road to Serfdom was translated into Hebrew, that Hayek was merely a political hack and the book a cheap propaganda tract). He and Shavit refuse to acknowledge that it was socialism that inflicted ruin on Zionism, undercutting its economic viability and transforming it into a radicalized, contentious, badly politicized movement torn by nepotistic competitions for government favor and plagued with huge wasteful and corrupt bureaucracies; a fact so evident from the sad social and economic bankruptcy of socialism's greatest pride, the kibbutzim, the moshavim and the many Histadrut enterprises - despite the great privileges governments granted them, and their strong dominance of Israeli society. This blindness is why, despite his courageous exposure of the serious failures infecting Israel, Shavit's analysis remains part of the problem rather than a lead to a solution.