When Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill that stripped Walt Disney World of its special zoning – a move critics said was blatant retaliation for Disney’s opposition to DeSantis’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law – he spotlighted for many people the Magic Kingdom’s unique status as a “special taxing district” that, for more than half a century, operated exempt from almost all state laws and regulations.
It may have surprised many that Mickey and Minnie Mouse’s all-American home would be a private, 100-square-kilometre governing jurisdiction that prioritized corporate health over local residents’ welfare, but certainly not historian Quinn Slobodian (Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism). The latest title from the prolific, Canadian-born Wellesley College professor in the history of ideas documents the worldwide explosion of such corporate-controlled, extra-legal territories, and illustrates how the planet has become increasingly subdivided into medieval-style city-states or “zones” run according to the dictates of private capital.
In this meticulously researched study, Slobodian explains the labyrinthine machinations that have revolutionized the global political and economic landscape at the behest of a mega-rich minority. In 1986, the well-to-do could only take advantage of 176 regions for “wealth hoarders”; that number now stands at an astounding 5,400, with far-reaching consequences for the majority of the world’s population.
Variously known by such anodyne terms as “export processing,” “special administrative,” and “enterprise” zones, these states-within-a-state provide free reign to libertarian investors who constantly scan the globe for new opportunities to squirrel away their riches and avoid taxation, labour standards, environmental protections, and any notion of social responsibility. Accompanying this metastatic phenomenon, Slobodian finds, is a fracturing of civil society marked by the language of an energized alt-right who tout cryptocurrency, gated communities, charter schools and secession movements.
A gifted storyteller, Slobodian frequently references the worlds of cyberpunk, live-action role playing, and dystopian fiction – which traditionally envisage bleak futures where drone-like humans lifelessly serve the super wealthy – and finds their real-life contemporary counterparts everywhere from Singapore, Silicon Valley, and London’s Canary Wharf, to Dubai and Liechtenstein. Along the way, he deftly distills economic theory and political history, providing readers with a coherent roadmap that connects seemingly disparate dots to present a clear-headed analysis of a world that often seems disjointed and inexplicable.
At times, Slobodian’s character studies of the men and institutions who fetishize economic freedom read like Kurt Vonnegut caricatures. Indeed, the think tanks of these radicalized, unfettered market dreamers who call themselves anarcho-capitalists (and seek to exhaust the resources of the state before dismantling it) could appear in a Marvel Comics’ police lineup of evildoers. There’s the John Randolph Club (named for a slaveholder who declared, “I love liberty, I hate equality”), the Trilateral Commission, the Cato Institute, the notorious Koch Brothers, and one particular villain, Murray Rothbard, whose writings called for a repeal of the 20th century.
Slobodian cleverly shows how such characters avoided dismissal as crackpots and inveigled themselves into universities, advisory bodies, editorial boards, and political parties. His insightful prose details precisely why a recent U.S. presidency that shamelessly valorized selfishness and greed was no aberration, but rather the logical result of a decades-long process seeded in part by two seemingly polar opposites that found common cha-ching across the Cold War’s stark political divide. Slobodian barely contains his mischievous sense of irony in recounting how Chairman Mao’s 1970s embrace of super-charged capitalist export zones on the Chinese coast dovetailed with Chicago economist Milton Friedman’s courting of Chile’s Pinochet dictatorship to promote his state austerity measures and derision of democracy.
It’s in the crucible of 1970s neoliberalism and the corporate counterattack against 1960s progressive changes that Slobodian roots out the proponents of a torqued laissez-faire compact who sought to insulate themselves from civil society’s responsibilities while redefining freedom away from the lens of human rights to a purely economic calculation. In this worldview, support for repressive, anti-democratic, “free market” regimes from Hong Kong (where the leader is called Chief Executive) to the torture states of Latin America was justified as long as bottom lines continued to show up in the black.
Crack-up Capitalism is particularly valuable for illustrating the insidious manner by which gradual chipping away at the welfare state and “shock doctrine” attacks combined to erode and eliminate basic rights in both the Global South and designated pockets of North America and Europe. Slobodian illustrates the damage from Reagan’s ramped-up deregulation and free-market idol Margaret (“there’s no such thing as society”) Thatcher’s brutal dismantling of city structures that prioritized such impediments to profit as rent control, accessible child care, primary health clinics, and safe, responsible municipal services.
In charting the development of these semi-feudal regimes, Slobodian also painfully reminds readers of the human guinea pigs who suffer from economic engineering experiments that refine greed’s best practices while exploiting predominantly female sweatshop labourers and perpetually rootless migrant workers – a 21st-century pool of indentured servitude producing cheap plastic toys and building gleaming office towers.
Crack-up Capitalism is a critical wake-up call, even though it can at times read like a doom scroll. It also curiously leaves out Canadian examples (such as Wexit’s secessionists, Stephen Harper’s federally legislated public-private partnerships program, and the remarkably portable Canada Foreign Trade Zone program) where these anti-democratic ideas have found purchase. While Slobodian finds hope in the Hong Kong democracy movement’s years-long battle to break the shackles of corporate rule, his book could have used more examples of where, and how, grassroots initiatives are organized to push back against the dangerous trends he documents.
Ultimately, Slobodian’s research is a public service, revealing the roots of a rot many have hitherto been unable to name and confront. By opening that portal, he trusts us to take the next steps, confident that in knowing the beast, we might better be able to slay it.