Sunday, July 7, 2013

Samán, Kimberly Clark, and Toilet Paper

Eduardo Samán, President of Idepabis (the governmental consumer’s protection office in charge of controlling prices), declared yesterday that the recent shortages of toilet paper in Venezuela were part of destabilizing plot against the country: “The ultra-right forged a coup plan in which the United States company Kimberly Clark was involved.” 
According to Samán, Kimberly Clark had claimed lack of dollars was the reason for its failing production of toilet paper.

Analysts argue that a combination of factors, including distortions produced by the fixed Bolivar/Dollar exchange rate, decreasing production due to expropriations, and an overall anti-business environment, among others, are the real causes of recurrent shortages in Venezuela.

Notice that, for Samán and other government officials that have been quoted in this blog, there is a lack of agency in these economic explanations that they seem to find unconvincing. For Samán the economic policies of the government are not the problem: price controls, expropriations, and state ownership of the means of production, are just what a society in transition to socialism is supposed to be doing. If things go wrong, the root of the problem must be elsewhere. There must be evil agents, “wreckers and saboteurs,” that are hoarding products, sabotaging production, wrecking the energy grid, corrupting governmental agencies in charge of controls, etc.

Conspiracy theories are theodicies that rely on strict forms of social agency and direct causality: evil just doesn’t happen, or is the product of impersonal social or natural causes, or is the result of unintended consequences of actions. Instead evil is produced by a concrete somebody who is a powerful agent and can be singled out as the enemy.

Compare this with the assessment made by Charles Taylor of the pre-French Revolution way of framing economic problems in his book Modern Social Imaginaries (Duke, 2004, p.130):

      “Two things seem crucial to this mentality. First, it leaves very little place for impersonal mechanisms. It had no place for the new conception of the economy, where shortage and glut are explained by certain state of the market, which in turn can be affected by events in distant lands. If prices rise, it´s because the engrosser is hiding stocks to exact a higher tribute from us. Of course, people knew that harvests could be good or bad, and that in this sense, shortages were also natural phenomena. But they thought that within certain limits, the powers in charge were able to bring the necessary supplies from elsewhere to avoid at least the most dramatic hikes. This was another sign, if one likes, that theirs was a mentality of subjects, who tended to attribute to their rulers powers that they don’t in fact have. This is also a mentality at the antipodes of capitalism, because it has no place for an economy ordered by impersonal laws, central to a new political economy; besides, it tends to demand an interventionist remedy for every evil.

          This belief in the power of direct intervention reflects the second important facet of this mind-set: if things go wrong, it´s always someone’s fault. One can identify the evildoer and act against him. What’s more, because the responsible agent is always an evildoer – not the unconscious and unwilling cause of some misfortune, but a malevolent, even criminal agent – action against him means not just neutralizing his actions, but also punishing him. An elementary sense of justice demands this. But there was something more: retribution often has the sense not only of punishing a wrong, but of purging a noxious element.”

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