Public Talks for 2018
“American Philosophy: it’s originality, and practicality, from progressive education to science, law, and democracy.” Gold Coast Library, 1/17 7pm.
There is much that is unique about the development of the United States of America, as well as much that is not. Original visions have struggled with quite traditional values and attitudes throughout our history. American Philosophy, in giving voice to the possibilities of America has made original contributions to Western Philosophy, developing our ideals while critically analyzing our limitations. Touching on a wide range of areas, from education and politics, to religion and science, we will provide a perspective on this development, and suggest some of the fault lines that mark contemporary experience.
“Making Sense of Recent Elections: what can we learn from the unexpected election results in America, Britain, and elsewhere?” South Huntington Library, 1/24 7pm
First the British vote to withdraw from the European Union, then the American election of Donald Trump startled experts and deranged established political expectations and institutions. Similar forces have seemed to be at work at other European countries, though with modified results. What are we to make of these election results, and what do they portend for the future of Western liberal democracies? These are the kind of issues we will seek to address.
“Trump’s America: what is its vision, program, and the nature of its support.” Gold Coast Library, 2/7 at 7pm
We will explore the significance for America of the election of Donald Trump. What were the conditions that laid the groundwork for his election? Who voted for him, and why? And what are the possible consequences?
“Fantasyland: Reflections on America’s Character and Culture”
3 lectures at Hutton House, LIU Wednesdays 2/14-28 from 1-3pm.
In these Reflections on America’s Character and Culture, we will explore:
Who we are. The cultures, ethnicities, and belief systems that have built the U.S. How we developed. Some of the major challenges we have faced, and how we addressed them. Our growth, expansion, and Manifest Destiny. The emergence of the “cultural Cold War” that has come to dominate our politics. The Trump phenomena. And the divergent paths now before us.
“Manifest Destiny and the Meaning of America: thinking about our history and its contemporary relevance.” Syosset Library, 3/1 at 2pm.
Americans have always believed that we are an exceptional people. From the Puritans landing at Plymouth Rock, seeking to build “a city upon a hill” that all the world would view as an example of how all should live, through the 19th Century notion that we had a “manifest destiny” to occupy the entire North American continent “from sea to shining sea.” As a nation, we continue to believe “that God shed his Grace on thee.” We joined WW1 “to save the world for democracy,” and continue to believe that we are the beacons of “The Free World,” with an obligation and responsibility to preserve the values that have made us great. What is that belief system? What are its origins? How has it operated to guide our history? And what are its implications for us as a nation today? These are the issues I hope to address.
“The American Dream: what it means and what are its prospects.” Elmont Memorial Library, 4/6 12:30 pm
Since its inception, one of the central meanings of America has been the opportunity to make something of one’s life. America offered the promise, and quite often the reality, of a continually improving standard of living for oneself and for one’s children. This sense of individual possibility, rooted in personal freedom and basic human rights became a beacon for people across the world. That became the wider significance of the claim that we were « as a city upon a hill » for all the world to see what life could become. In recent times, however, this vision has become increasingly uncertain. What has been happening to the American Dream? Why is that? And what can we do about it?
Worker Cooperative Initiative of Long Island
Increasingly, we are seeing globalization cannibalize local businesses, destroy jobs, and drain money from the local economy. At the same time, working people are being placed in the position of having to compete with low cost labor in non-union states without serious environmental protections, or with exploited labor in Third World countries, or simply told that their jobs will be transferred overseas. Meanwhile, local communities lose the capacity to control their quality of life, preserve their environment, and plan for sustainable economic development. Thus, they cannot preserve family-supporting jobs and keep profits circulating in the local economy, sustain local business, and provide an adequate tax base for local services.
To address these pervasive challenges, the Long Island Progressive Coalition has inaugurated its “Worker Cooperative Initiative of Long Island,” as part of our contribution to the growing national movement to create a more Cooperative Economy. Worker cooperatives are viable businesses in which the workers are the primary decision-makers. Workers elect a board of directors on the base on one worker one vote. As worker-owners they hire and supervise management, and guarantee that the business remains local, and the profits circulate in the community. Thus they protect workers from outsourcing or exploitation by large multi-nationals, empower them on a daily basis, enhance the workplace experience, and give workers a legitimate experience of pride and ownership. And given the large number of successful Long Island family-owned businesses whose baby-boom owners have no succession plan, they offer an effective means to preserve numerous viable local businesses for their workers and the community.
The LIPC has initiated a series of related campaigns that can contribute to the creation of a Cooperative Economy Ecosystem capable of sustaining a growing local cooperative economy. These efforts include:
- Exploring possibilities of worker buyouts of existing businesses as a way of addressing the “Silver Tsunami” of aging family owned businesses.
- Exploring possibilities for the creation of new small businesses, with particular focus on addressing unmet needs for jobs, products, and particular services of minority communities.
- Working with Sepa Mujer to create a minority owned worker cooperative for its members.
- Working with the Hofstra Law Clinic and with faculty at LIU Post on research and development.
- Developing close working relationships with major cooperative development organizations, including The Working World, the Center for Family Life, the Democracy Collaborative, the Union-Coop movement, and the North American office of the Mondragon cooperatives.
- Creating materials for, and organizing, a public education campaign.
- Becoming part of The Working World’s Peer Network.
- Creating a Long Island Task Force on Building Community Wealth.
- Creating a LIPC Board Steering Committee for the Worker Cooperative Initiative.
- Developing a Professional Resource and Technical Advisory Board.
If you have any questions or comments, feel fee to share them with me.
I have been asked by many what is meant by Neo-Liberalism, the doctrine that underlies the pervasive “conventional wisdom,” that explains and “legitimates” the policies and programs that have become dominate in the world economy over the last 40+ years. They have been promoted in America by the leadership of both major political parties — with, of course, some significant differences in emphases — though not, of course, by Bernie Sanders, which is what makes the success of his candidacy so remarkable.
In seeking to explain Neo-Liberalism, I came across the following article by George Monbiot, which I thought it worth re-producing for wider public consumption. (George Monbiot’s new book, How Did We Get into This Mess? George Monbiot is the author of the best selling books The Age of Consent: a manifesto for a new world order and Captive State: the corporate takeover of Britain. He writes a weekly column for the Guardian newspaper. Visit his website at http://www.monbiot.com.)
I have made a few minor modifications, and added a brief addition pointing the way to an alternative political economy, of which I will have more to say in the future. But here’s the essence of his analysis.
“It’s as if the people of the Soviet Union had never heard of communism. The ideology that dominates our lives has, for most of us, no name. Mention it in conversation and you’ll be rewarded with a shrug. Even if your listeners have heard the term before, they will struggle to define it. Neoliberalism: do you know what it is?
Its anonymity is both a symptom and cause of its power. So pervasive has neoliberalism become that we seldom even recognise it as an ideology. We appear to accept the proposition that this utopian, millenarian faith describes a neutral force; a kind of biological law, like Darwin’s theory of evolution. But the philosophy arose as a conscious attempt to reshape human life and shift the locus of power.
Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. It maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning.
Attempts to limit competition are treated as inimical to liberty. Tax and regulation should be minimised, public services should be privatised. The organisation of labour and collective bargaining by trade unions are portrayed as market distortions, that impede the formation of a natural hierarchy of winners and losers. Inequality is recast as virtuous: a reward for utility and agenerator of wealth, which trickles down to enrich everyone. Efforts to create a more equal society are both counter-productive and morally corrosive. The market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve.
We internalise and reproduce its creeds. The rich persuade themselves that they acquired their wealth through merit, ignoring the advantages – such as education, inheritance and class – that may have helped to secure it. The poor begin to blame themselves for their failures, even when they can do little to change their circumstances.
Never mind structural unemployment: if you don’t have a job it’s because you are unenterprising. Never mind the impossible costs of housing: if your credit card is maxed out, you’re feckless and improvident. Never mind that your children no longer have a school playing field: if they get fat, it’s your fault. In a world governed by competition, those who fall behind become defined and self-defined as losers.
The term neoliberalism was coined at a meeting in Paris in 1938. Among the delegates were two men who came to define the ideology, Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. Both exiles from Austria, they saw social democracy, exemplified by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and the gradual development of Britain’s welfare state, as manifestations of a collectivism that occupied the same spectrum as nazism and communism.
In The Road to Serfdom, published in 1944, Hayek argued that government planning, by crushing individualism, would lead inexorably to totalitarian control. Like Mises’s book Bureaucracy, The Road to Serfdom was widely read. It came to the attention of some very wealthy people, who saw in the philosophy an opportunity to free themselves from regulation and tax. When, in 1947, Hayek founded the first organisation that would spread the doctrine of neoliberalism – the Mont Pelerin Society – it was supported financially by millionaires and their foundations.
With their help, he began to create what Daniel Stedman Jones describes in Masters of the Universe as “a kind of neoliberal International”: a transatlantic network of academics, businessmen, journalists and activists. The movement’s rich backers funded a series of think tanks which would refine and promote the ideology. Among them were the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Centre for Policy Studies and the Adam Smith Institute. They also financed academic positions and departments, particularly at the universities of Chicago and Virginia.
As it evolved, neoliberalism became more strident. Hayek’s view that governments should regulate competition to prevent monopolies from forming gave way, among American apostles such as Milton Friedman, to the belief that monopoly power could be seen as a reward for efficiency.
Something else happened during this transition: the movement lost its name. In 1951, Milton Friedman was happy to describe himself as a neoliberal. But soon after that, the term began to disappear. Stranger still, even as the ideology became crisper and the movement more coherent, the lost name was not replaced by any common alternative.
At first, despite its lavish funding, neoliberalism remained at the margins. The post-war consensus was almost universal: John Maynard Keynes’s economic prescriptions were widely applied, full employment and the relief of poverty were common goals in the US and much of western Europe, top rates of tax were high and governments sought social outcomes without embarassment, developing new public services and safety nets.
But in the 1970s, when (the implementation of) Keynesian policies began to fall apart and economic crises struck on both sides of the Atlantic – with the end of the post-WWII investment boom and the oil embargoes — neoliberal ideas began to enter the mainstream. As Milton Friedman remarked, “when the time came that you had to change … there was an alternative ready there to be picked up.” With the help of sympathetic journalists and political advisers, elements of neoliberalism, especially its prescriptions for monetary policy, were adopted by Jimmy Carter’s administration in the United States and Jim Callaghan’s government in Britain.
After Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan took power, the rest of the package soon followed: massive tax cuts for the rich, the crushing of trade unions, deregulation, privatisation, outsourcing and competition in public services. Through the IMF, the World Bank, the Maastricht treaty and the World Trade Organisation, neoliberal policies were imposed – often without democratic consent – on much of the world. Most remarkable was its adoption among parties that once belonged to the left: Labour and the Democrats, for example.
It may seem strange that a doctrine promising choice and freedom should have been promoted with the slogan “there is no alternative”. But, as Friedrich Hayek remarked on a visit to Pinochet’s despotic Chile – one of the first nations in which the programme was comprehensively applied – “my personal preference leans toward a liberal dictatorship rather than toward a democratic government devoid of liberalism.” The freedom neoliberalism offers, which sounds so beguiling when expressed in general terms, turns out to mean freedom for the pike, not for the minnows.
Freedom from trade unions and collective bargaining means the freedom to suppress wages. Freedom from regulation means the freedom to poison rivers, endanger workers, charge iniquitous rates of interest and design exotic financial instruments. Freedom from tax means freedom from the distribution of wealth that lifts people out of poverty.
As Naomi Klein documents in The Shock Doctrine, neoliberal theorists advocated the use of crises to impose unpopular policies while people were distracted: for example, in the aftermath of Pinochet’s coup, or the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina, which Milton Friedman described as “an opportunity to radically reform the educational system” in New Orleans.
Where neoliberal policies cannot be imposed domestically, they are imposed internationally, through trade treaties, such as the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership, incorporating “investor-state dispute settlement”: offshore tribunals in which corporations can press for the removal of social and environmental protections. When parliaments have voted to restrict sales of cigarettes, protect water supplies from mining companies, freeze energy bills or prevent pharmaceutical firms from ripping off the state, corporations have sued, often successfully. Democracy is reduced to theatre.
Another paradox of neoliberalism is that universal competition relies upon universal quantification and comparison. The result is that workers, job-seekers and public services of every kind are subject to a pettifogging, stifling regime of assessment and monitoring, designed to identify the winners and punish the losers. The doctrine that Ludwig von Mises proposed, would free us from the bureaucratic nightmare of central planning has instead created one.
Neoliberalism was not conceived as a self-serving racket, but it rapidly became one. Economic growth has been markedly slower in the neoliberal era (since 1980 in Britain and the US) than it was in the preceding decades; but not for the very rich. Inequality in the distribution of both income and wealth, after 60 years of decline, rose rapidly in this era, due to the smashing of trade unions, tax reductions, rising rents, privatisation and deregulation.
The privatisation or marketisation of public services – such as energy, water, trains, health, education, roads and prisons – has enabled corporations to set up tollbooths in front of essential assets and charge rent, either to citizens or to government, for their use. Rent is another term for unearned income. When you pay an inflated price for a train ticket, only part of the fare compensates the operators for the money they spend on fuel, wages, rolling stock and other outlays. The rest reflects the fact that they have you over a barrel.
Those who own and run the UK’s privatised or semi-privatised services make stupendous fortunes by investing little and charging much. In Russia and India, oligarchs acquired state assets through firesales. In Mexico, Carlos Slim was granted control of almost all landline and mobile phone services and soon became the world’s richest man.
Financialisation, as Andrew Sayer points out in Why We Can’t Afford the Rich, has had similar impacts. “Like rent,” he argues, “interest is … unearned income that accrues without any effort.” As the poor become poorer and the rich become richer, the rich acquire increasing control over another crucial asset: money. Interest payments, overwhelmingly, are a transfer of money from the poor to the rich. As property prices and the withdrawal of state funding load people with debt (think of the switch from student grants to student loans), the banks and their executives clean up.
Sayer argues that the past four decades have been characterised by a transfer of wealth not only from the poor to the rich, but within the ranks of the wealthy: from those who make their money by producing new goods or services to those who make their money by controlling existing assets and harvesting rent, interest or capital gains. Earned income has been supplanted by unearned income.
Neoliberal policies are everywhere beset by market failures. Not only are the banks too big to fail, but so are the corporations now charged with delivering public services. As Tony Judt pointed out in Ill Fares the Land, Friedrich Hayek forgot that vital national services cannot be allowed to collapse, which means that competition cannot run its course. Business takes the profits, the state keeps the risk.
The greater the failure, the more extreme the ideology becomes. Governments use neoliberal crises as both excuse and opportunity to cut taxes, privatise remaining public services, rip holes in the social safety net, deregulate corporations and re-regulate citizens. The self-hating state now sinks its teeth into every organ of the public sector.
Perhaps the most dangerous impact of neoliberalism is not the economic crises it has caused, but the political crisis. As the domain of the state is reduced, our ability to change the course of our lives through voting also contracts. Instead, neoliberal theory asserts, people can exercise choice through spending. But some have more to spend than others: in the great consumer or shareholder democracy, votes are not equally distributed. The result is a disempowerment of the poor and middle. As parties of the right and former left adopt similar neoliberal policies, disempowerment turns to disenfranchisement. Large numbers of people have been shed from politics.
Chris Hedges remarks that “fascist movements build their base not from the politically active but the politically inactive, the “losers” who feel, often correctly, they have no voice or role to play in the political establishment.” When political debate no longer speaks to us, people become responsive instead to slogans, symbols and sensation. To the admirers of Donald Trump, for example, facts and arguments appear irrelevant.
The invisible doctrine of the invisible hand is promoted by invisible backers. Slowly, very slowly, we have begun to discover the names of a few of them. We find that the Institute of Economic Affairs, which has argued forcefully in the media against the further regulation of the tobacco industry, has been secretly funded by British American Tobacco since 1963. We discover that Charles and David Koch, two of the richest men in the world, founded the institute that set up the Tea Party movement. We find that Charles Koch, in establishing one of his think tanks, noted that “in order to avoid undesirable criticism, how the organization is controlled and directed should not be widely advertised.”
The words used by neoliberalism often conceal more than they elucidate. “The market” sounds like a natural system that might bear upon us equally, like gravity or atmospheric pressure. But it is fraught with power relations. What “the market wants” tends to mean what corporations and their bosses want. “Investment”, as Andrew Sayer notes, means two quite different things. One is the funding of productive and socially useful activities, the other is the purchase of existing assets to milk them for rent, interest, dividends and capital gains. Using the same word for different activities “camouflages the sources of wealth”, leading us to confuse wealth extraction with wealth creation.
The anonymity of neoliberalism is fiercely guarded. Those who are influenced by Hayek, Mises and Friedman tend to reject the term, maintaining – with some justice – that it is used today only pejoratively. But they offer us no substitute. Some describe themselves as classical liberals or libertarians, but these descriptions are both misleading and curiously self-effacing, as they suggest that there is nothing novel about The Road to Serfdom, Bureaucracy or Friedman’s classic work, Capitalism and Freedom.
For all that, there is something admirable about the neoliberal project, at least in its early stages. It was a distinctive, innovative philosophy promoted by a coherent network of thinkers and activists with a clear plan of action. It was patient and persistent. The Road to Serfdom became the path to power.
Neoliberalism’s triumph also reflects the failure of the left. When laissez-faire economics led to catastrophe in 1929, Keynes devised a comprehensive economic theory to replace it. When Keynesian demand management hit the buffers in the 1970s, there was “an alternative ready there to be picked up.” But when neoliberalism fell apart in 2008 there was … nothing. This is why the zombie walks. The left and centre have produced no new general framework of economic thought for 80 years.
Every invocation of Lord Keynes is an admission of failure. To propose Keynesian solutions to the crises of the 21st-century is to ignore three obvious problems. It is hard to mobilise people around old ideas; the flaws exposed in the 1970s have not gone away; and, most importantly, they have nothing to say about our gravest predicament: the environmental crisis. Keynesianism works by stimulating consumer demand to promote economic growth. Consumer demand and economic growth are the motors of environmental destruction.
What the history of both Keynesianism and neoliberalism show is that it’s not enough to oppose a broken system. A coherent alternative has to be proposed. For Labour, the Democrats and the wider left, the central task should be to develop an economic Apollo programme, a conscious attempt to design a new system, tailored to the demands of the 21st Century.”
A movement has developed in the US that now seeks to provide that alternative to Neo-Liberalism. It has been pioneered primarily by the Democracy Collaborative, and set forth briefly by Gar Alperowitz in his recent book What Then Must We Do? Going under the name of The Next System Project, or Community Wealth Building, this movement seeks to develop a place-based economic model in which communities begin to take control of their own resources and develop their own capacities. Initiatives are now underway all across the country, from worker cooperatives, to land trusts, from participatory budgeting, to public and cooperative banking and energy companies, from B corporations to community development working with “anchor institutions.” This effort can be checked out on the internet, and will be discussed further by me in the future.
Why Hillary’s Defense of Wall Street Contributions is Backwards.
When Bernie Sanders challenges Hillary Clinton about her astronomical speaking fees from Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street financial interests, she responds by challenging him to name one specific vote that she changed because of receiving money from Wall Street. To which he responds by reiterating, correctly, of course — but slightly besides the point — that corporations and wealthy people don’t give such contributions out of personal generosity, but because they expect to get something for it. Which is obvious.
But the entire issue is framed backwards by Hillary, for obvious reasons. It’s not that Hillary Clinton changed votes because she received large corporate contributions from Wall Street, it’s that she received those contributions because Wall Street already knows they can count on her votes. They know that she is a corporate Liberal who fundamentally shares their economic and political world view. Thus they know they can count on her continuing support, and wish to reward and encourage her actions, and provide her with the wherewithal to carry on. That is why she was so enthusiastic in her support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership while serving as Secretary of State, why she did not take a position against Fast Track early on in the campaign, when she did not feel she had to worry about Bernie Sanders’ primary challenge, and why her late found opposition to TPP has been mild, with no commitment to stop it if she gets elected — as Bernie Sanders has promised to do.
But Bernie has seemed to be unwilling to make this obvious point about her being a corporate Liberal — forcing her to make that promise of rejecting TPP if elected — because this would force him to criticize Obama as the corporate Liberal that he is. And Bernie obviously feels that he needs to downplay his opposition to Obama’s economics, perhaps because of his fear that that would alienate large sections of the Black vote, and possibly, of the Democratic base. And thus when Hillary responds to his challenge on her taking large Wall Street donations with noting that Obama did likewise, Bernie is left on the defensive, and his responses are weak.
Bernie would be on more solid ground, and true to his beliefs and proposals, if he would recognize that Obama is a corporate Liberal. That’s why Obama chose the economic advisors he did, why no corporate executives went to jail for ripping off the economy, why the Tea Party and the Left is justly outraged by the bailout of Wall Street and the failure to protect homeowners from foreclosures, why neither Clinton nor Obama want to talk about breaking up the big banks, why they have no major policies that would really address the increasing growth of income inequality, and why Obama is doing everything in his power to push through the corporate-designed TPP, against the opposition of the majority of the Democratic Party — which is, in this case, supported by the Tea Party!!
Bernie Sanders is correct in his claim that only a “political revolution” can significantly change the politics of this country, putting Main Street in power instead of Wall Street — however dubious such a revolution may be. And that Hillary Clinton — however much vastly to be preferred to any of the (corporately-controlled) Republican alternatives — is a corporate Liberal who would truly constitute continuity with Obama’s economic and political Wall Street-friendly agenda. We could do far worse. We may do far worse. But we need to do far better if we are to counter the growth of American oligarchic power, revitalize and preserve American democratic traditions, and effectively address the long-term structural threats to representative government.
As every now knows — primary thanks to the Occupy movement — American society is more unequal than ever. The wealth gap is even far worse than most Americans think, with, for only one example, the ration of the pay of CEOs of major corporations to that of their average workers having gone from about 40 to 1 in the early 1970s to now more than 400 to 1 by most reports. And this wealth gap has both been created by explicit political actions (and non actions), as carefully analyzed by Hacker and Pearson in their excellent book, Winner Take All Politics, and reshaped the political landscape through gerrymandering, right-wing corporate domination of talk radio, the stacking of the courts, and a series of horrendous legal decisions, primarily the Citizens United case in which the court effectively abolished the ability of government to control campaign spending.
Thus, what has been the American vision, and self-understanding, of our democracy as a representative government characterized by “one person, one vote, has effectively become a corporate plutocracy, run by and for the “one percent.” And, as we organize and struggle to limit the disasters of such an effective corporate and right-wing “coup d’etat,” we recognize that this necessary and vital struggle is a long and up hill battle unless, and until, we change the underlying structure of our economy, which guarantees wealth and power to those at the apex of the global corporate conglomerates that control our economy and politics. So that while we continue to “fight in the trenches,” educating and mobilizing the populace to understand what has happened, and to limit, and where possible, to undo, the disasters of “one percent politics,” we need to begin to lay the groundwork for a more egalitarian and truly representative economy and politics.
In many places across this country, and often out of local necessity, that is fortunately already happening. We need to understand, popularize, and build on this emerging — “under the radar” — movement for “Building Community Wealth through Cooperative Community Economic Development.” The vision for this movement has been succinctly outlined by Gar Alperowitz in his book that I have taken as an organizing manual, What Then Must We Do? He has followed up that work with the creation of “The Next System Project.” These efforts are linked to many others, most notably The Democracy Collaborative and the Community Wealth web sites. I am seeking to implement this vision locally through the Long Island Progressive Coalition’s Task Force on “Building Community Wealth,” and statewide through the Citizen Action of New York’s Task Force of the same name.
Cooperative Development can be understood as a systemic effort to build an alternative democratic, effectively egalitarian, and truly representative economy within the interstecies of American corporate capitalism. (A suggestive understanding of this process is presented in Worker Cooperatives and Revolution, by Chris Wright.) Such a cooperative economy has numerous aspects, procedures, and structures, among which can be included movements supporting worker cooperatives, participatory budgeting, public banking, community land trusts, B corporations, credit unions, Mondragon-type integrated cooperatives — as with the Evergreen coops in Cleveland, linked to key community “anchor institutions” — and government-supported worker training and support centers. Of all of this, more to follow. But I invite everyone to start thinking of how you can participate wherever you are in this process of people taking control of their local economy.