Have you read Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine? If you are in the USA, you may have seen the Public Service TV series called Commanding Heights, which was based on it. It’s a marvellous book, I’ve just finished it, one that shows you things that were in front of your eyes but you had not noticed, or had noticed but not paid due attention to. It is about the rise of market fundamentalism and the disasters which that has unleashed upon the world since 1973, the date of the violent overthrow of democracy in Chile, which, by coincidence, is also the year in which my novel-in-progress opens.

When I lived in Africa in the 1980s, the crimes of the international financial institutions on that continent were no secret: basically forcing countries in debt to sacrifice their children by denying them health and education so that bankers could sleep easily at night secure in the knowledge that the bad loans they had made would be repaid at any cost. That, it seemed to me, was in the nature of bankers; what seemed more scandalous was how little anyone outside Africa was bothered. People in Europe would care very deeply when famine hit Africa, and fork out enormous sums to alleviate the suffering it caused, but were oblivious to the suffering meted out by human institutions. Well, as you know, what went round came round, and since 2008, when many of the less rich countries in Western Europe got into trouble over their finances, international financial institutions have been forcing market fundamentalism on them in return for debt relief. And guess what? The people in those countries do not like it.

Now, I live in one of the affected countries, and boy, do people moan. About the loss of their jobs, their children’s future, decaying public services, you name it. Quite right, too. But they do not actually do very much, here in Italy. Klein’s book was published in 2007, before “disaster capitalism” turned its attention to Western Europe, but she would accurately have predicted people’s initial reaction here: they were shocked into inactivity. Klein details how, in Latin America, it took over 20 years before governments started to stop taking the medicine that was killing them. People in Europe, with more hindsight available to them, may swallow less before they say “We’re not going to take it!” I hope I live to see that day.


One useful way of seeing history is that it offers us two main theories for why things go awry (Murphy’s Law, no relation): the balls-up theory and the conspiracy theory. The latter says that things go wrong because tightly-knit groups of politically or economically motivated men cause them to do so for their own ends. The former says that people would like things to work to everyone’s benefit, but we are just too incompetent to make that happen. Klein is clearly in the conspiracy camp; I’ve always been in the balls-up camp, which is a hard place to be in Italy, where mafias and politicians traditionally feed off each other out of public sight. I had thought that Italy was exceptional, in this as in so many other ways. Maybe it is not.

It is irresistible for a science fiction writer to imagine where market fundamentalism will lead us, if it manages to continue its current dominance unchecked. Unfortunately, I think we have already seen the answer, in the cult classic film Zardoz, in which the rich live a genteel life inside a high-tech bubble which physically excludes the poor, whom the rich continually urge to renounce sex and kill each other. It is the ultimate gated community, although in the real thing the bubble will have to be opaque, because transparency helps people to see not just into fundamentalism, but through it.


Bryan Murphy is a British writer who lives in Turin, Italy. He is currently working on the second draft of a novel set in Portugal in the 1970s. You can find his e-books here: His individual blog is at: . Bryan also welcomes visitors at .

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8 thoughts on “TWO THEORIES OF HISTORY by BryanMurphy

  1. Kenneth Weene

    I think that it is the nature of mankind to screw up its world. Why? Because we try to create cooperative living situations (societies, communities, governments) while actually being incredibly competitive.

  2. Micki Peluso

    Excellent post, Bryan.
    I can agree on some things but if we did not have the competiveness innate within us, we would not have the inventions, technology, advances in medicine, etc. Greed always enters the picture but it would in any event since it is inherit to mankind–sadly. Marxism and socxialism are great in theory buit have been proven not to work. People tend to blame the rich but if we did not have them the economy would collapse because they give the most to the poor–not always out of altruism but to avoid paying high taxes. If the rich collapse the whole economy wil have a trickle down effect and we may be back to living like the Native Americans–which has its merits but it would be a stagnant life.

  3. Salvatore Buttaci

    Market Fundamentalism works because world compassion takes a backseat to greed. Those who have in abundance care little for those who have in scarcity. They want to maintain their power at the expense of those who want only life’s necessities and who do not seek to take their wealth. And who enables the rich to go untouched and progressively richer? The politicians with upturned palms!

    Thank you, Bryan, for an excellent article!

  4. Bryan Murphy

    Thank you all for the interesting comments so far. I think we would agree that humanity’s inherent tendency towards greed, selfishness, etc. does not mean that we should regard greed, selfishness, etc. as positive values, nor organize our societies to give them maximum reward.
    The fundamentalist fallacy can be seen very clearly in the case of the vitamin pill industry. We need vitamins to live healthy lives, but most of us get the vitamins we need from the food we eat, and there is a point beyond which putting more vitamins into our body makes it less healthy, not more healthy still. Vitamins, like “free markets”, are good for us up to a point. When we leave it up to market forces to decide which children get a decent education, and which sick people live or die, we have, arguably, gone beyond that point.
    But which of the two major theories of history do you think offers the better explanation of why things go awry? Does it happen mostly because of well-meaning incompetence or because of ill-intentioned design?

  5. Marta Merajver-Kurlat

    Bryan, if you’ve been reading the news about Argentina, you know you’ve laid your finger on a sore spot with us. The answer to your question can probably be found at a middle point between well-meaning incompetence and ill-intentioned design. It would seem as if there were a “power-seeking” gene. This not only applies to politicians but to what is generically called “the market”, in my lay opinion a misnomer for a relatively small number of people whose greed is insatiable and who encourage ignorance in order to accumulate both money and power. Ordinary people do not give much thought to these issues. They go along with the tide. In my country, those who warn against the dangers of doing so are labelled “terrorists” or destabilizers. Viviane Forrester’s “The Economic Horror” best depicts crude savage capitalism in the world. It should be compulsory reading for the young, but of course vested interests have successfully prevented it from spreading. Ill-intentioned design resorts to well-meaning incompetence in order to keep the status quo. Thank you for an eye-opening article on a fundamental flaw ailing our societies. I would very much like your thoughts to reach a much wider audience.

  6. Martha Love

    Bryan, thank you for this essay on the state of Italy and on the larger questions of why things go so awry in our world. I was just in Italy in May of this year and had the opportunity to stay with an Italian family in Tivoli, close to Rome. They were explaining to us how there are so many young people there in Italy now with college degrees and that there are no jobs available for them and how depressing that was for the young. And, they explained, that the recent influx of thousands of desperate immigrants from troubled countries like Syria have made it hard for the government to take care of everyone’s needs. As one would expect, crime is high on the streets (we were pick pocketed twice while later in Naples, even though pre-warned by our friends of this now out-of-control illegal activity by desperate people). How did it get that way? We are talking about Italy—one of the nicest places on the planet, known for it’s longevity diet! My guess is that it is both greed and incompetence that causes deterioration of a country’s resources and life quality. And to some degree, this condition in Italy could be chalked up to growing pains of worldly cultural evolution.

    I found that the Italian people I met were very much alarmed by the problems in Italy, but not really oriented toward banding together to join others in affirmative action to make changes. Some of this reluctance to fight back together politically was because they were distracted by the ongoing soccer games that took their attention. But in part also it seemed they had a more individualized method of how things should be taken care of—you could say a more “vigilante” approach—that had not yet emerged into action to try to take care of their problems. So, I would still wait and see if Italy has it in them to try to overcome this time of economic hardship, as Italians may just have their own way of taking care of their problems.

  7. Bryan Murphy

    Thank you, Marta and Martha, for your considered replies. I shall long remember – and quote, if I may – a couple of your insights: “Ill-intentioned design resorts to well-meaning incompetence in order to keep the status quo” and “a more individualized method of how things should be taken care of”, respectively. Since the days of Thatcher, we have got used to the notion that “There Is No Alternative”. However, I think there always are alternatives to fundamentalism of any kind.


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