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.
America Today: in Mythology and Fact
America has been engaged in a deeply rooted cultural-political Cold War that has been more or less simmering for decades. But it has been brought to the surface in a way that has come to effectively dominate the current political campaigns by the confluence of two additional factors. These are what I call, 1) the closing of the international frontier, and 2) the consequent squeeze on the capacity of neo-Liberal political economy to continue to provide for even a modicum of economic growth for middle America. For the purposes of this post, I will be far too brief. But let me outline the structure of this argument, to which I have already referred in some prior posts.
1) Stage One, brilliantly developed by Colin Woodard in his “American Nations”, concerns the ethno-national regional structure of America’s pattern of settlement. That has created in effect two fairly distinct moral-political coalitions whose values and world views are almost polar opposites. They can not even agree on a set of common facts, or impartial criteria to evaluate arguments. And with the proliferation of modern media outlets, it is as if each coalition lives in its own self-contained world. This ethno-national and regional polarization has even been augmented by what social scientists refer to as the “big sort,” as people tend to relocate to areas inhabited by like-minded residents.
To vastly over simplify, drawing directly on Woodard’s analysis, we have the Deep South led coalition that basically includes Appalachia and the Far West, confronting New England, New York, and the West Coast, fighting over their ability to gain the support of the Hispanics, expanding from the Southwest, and the people of what one might refer to as the Midwest. (The development and migration patterns of African-American communities — as well as of Hispanic communities — has, of course, greatly complicated this simplified picture.) It is important to realize that these opposed coalitions tend to have quite opposed conceptions of the nature of government, the community, the individual, business, the market, religion, the family, the role of women, and of course, race. Clearly, each of these issues could be the basis of a volume on its own. But enuf said of this for the present.
2) These conflicting moral, political, religious, and racial orientations are increasingly impacted by, and having to come to terms with, what I am calling the closing of the international frontier of American expansion. As I have developed this point in my chapter on “The American Enterprise,” Chapter 8 of my “Critique of Western Philosophy and Social Theory,” growth has been the mantra of American development. First across the great North American continent. And when that expanding frontier closed in the late 19th Century, the United States started building its international empire. Throughout the middle of the 20th Century it more or less could set the terms of its economic and military hegemony.
That capacity for relatively unconstrained economic growth, which fueled the significant enhancement of the material quality of life of most Americans, even if far from equitably, has increasingly had to confront growing limitations coming from: the Cold War, the emergence of the Third World, the development of economic counterweights first from Japan, then from China, India, Russia, Brazil, South Africa, South America, and the European Union. And, more subtly, and pervasively, having so reluctantly to deal with the increasing constraints on previously more or less unconstrained economic growth which is the meaning of the ecological crises. All of these have increasingly squeezed the economic capacity of the United States to more or less grow at will, and use that growth to “buy off” the support of the American people.
3) This leads to final dimension of this triangular confrontation; the challenge of, and to, American “free enterprise”, neo-Liberal capitalism. Here, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s brilliant book, “Winner-Take-All Politics,” nails the political offensive of the ruling capitalist elites beginning in the 1970s to the squeeze placed on their capacity for relatively unconstrained economic growth. (Though the authors focus is primarily on what they see as a corporate counter-offensive to the politics of the Great Society and the counter cultural movements of the 60s, I think we need to place all of that within the wider historical context suggested by my previous remarks.) Two examples of that historical squeeze, for example, that the authors do not mention is the oil embargoes and consequent gas lines of the early 70s, plus the action of Richard Nixon to end the dollar’s convertibility with gold that took place in 1971.
But the point is well documented by the authors as to the institution of a sophisticated political offensive, mobilizing the corporate community. Initially working primarily through the Republican Party, and increasingly co-opting the Democratic Party, the corporate world has been able to create a public consensus against government and in support of privatization, deregulation, tax cuts for “the job creators,” on behalf of the “Free Market” and “Free Trade,” and thus they have been able to re-write the rules of the political and economic game in such a way as to vastly expand their power and wealth, at the expanse of the vast majority of Americans. Thus they have been able to garner the vast majority of whatever benefits from the narrowing space for US economic growth remains possible, while squeezing middle America. And that squeeze is hurting more and more. And more and more people are no longer trusting the elites that have been selling them their neo-Liberal snake oil — however confused most Americans are about what has been happening to them, and who and what are to blame.
But one thing is certain. Americans have not yet even begun to have a public conversation about these fundamental changes in our historical situation, and what we can and should do about it. We continue to act as if it’s politics (and economics) as usual. And that cannot last. But this political campaign is the first in which this squeeze has begun to fundamentally challenge the control of the Neo-Liberal elite.
Making “provisional” sense of current American politics.
There are three historical currents underlining our current Presidential campaign which need to be appreciated if we are to more adequately grasp the dramatic and somewhat unprecedented events that have captured the American imagination and media. Let me first list them, then briefly elaborate. In future posts, I plan on discussing each of them in greater detail.
Those currents are: 1) the profound antagonisms between several of the major ethnoregional “nations” that have created the mostly dis-United States from its founding, and have been “at war” ever since; 2) the closing off, first of the national, and, more recently, of the international, “frontier” that permitted and fueled more or less continual American political, military, and economic expansion; and 3) the dynamic structure of American capitalist institutions, driven by privatization and the imperative to grow at all costs. Now for a brief elaboration.
- The determinative (American) political struggle (since 1877),” writes Colin Woodard in “American Nations”, “has been a clash between shifting coalitions of ethnoregional nations, one invariably headed by the Deep South, the other by Yankeedom.” (p, 295) This resulted from ideological-cultural-regional consolidation following upon the termination of Reconstruction. This tended to align the Scots-Irish of an expanded Appalachia with the people of the Far West (excluding the West Coast) under the leadership of the Deep South. These are areas that are, for the most part, militaristic, evangelical, individualistic, anti-governmental, authoritarian, with strong racist currents, and strongly anti-social reformist, rather celebrating a “private Protestantism.” They have long been in opposition to the social reformers stemming from the Communitarian “Public Protestantism” of the New England Puritans, in alliance with metropolitan New Yorkers, and that culture primarily transported from New England to what Woodard cleverly calls “the Left Coast.” Success has tended to go to that ethnoregional alliance that substantially can win over majorities of the people of the mid-west and the expanding Hispanics from the Southwest. We can see this alignment and its struggles playing out in general in the Red v. Blue (& Purple) states, and the constituencies supporting distinct Presidential candidates.
- Still more briefly, let me note that, after the closing of its continental frontier at the end of the 19th century, the U.S. pursued its economic growth through the creation of an imperial “empire”. But, with the emergence of the Cold War, followed by resistance in the Third World and South America, and then the emergence of major economic and military powers in China, India, Brazil, the EU, and even Russia and South Africa, constraints on US unlimited growth were bound to take place. (See Chapter 8 on “The American Enterprise”, in my “Critique of Western Philosophy and Social Theory” for a detailed discussion of this economic squeeze, and its expected domestic backlash.)
- Finally, the dynamics of American Capitalism require unending growth to provide an economy whose “rushing tide can lift (most) all boats,” though certainly never equitably. But, with its continually culturally destabilizing dynamic, wedded to fundamental inequities in power and wealth, the squeeze on capitalism’s growth was bound to confront a deep sense of resentment from betrayed expectations, leading to scapegoating of the more marginalized.
Such frames my understanding of the current Presidential campaign, and its prefiguring of the forthcoming challenges facing the United States. Of this, more in future blog entries.
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.
Reflections on the Current State of US politics
As the 2016 election process begins in earnest, I thought it would be helpful to review the following selection from my chapter on “The American Enterprise”, from my most recent book, Critique of Western Philosophy and Social Theory. While the book was published a few years ago, the basics of the chapter were written in the early 70s. I think they were fairly prescient — and I believe their analysis sheds light on the current state of US culture and politics.
…from the middle of the nineteenth century onward the United States became “the most thoroughly Reformed Protestant Christian Commonwealth the world has ever known” To be an authentic Christian in America thus comes to require each individual to personally undergo a “re-birth” experience–to be “born again”–which, as time tends to institutionalize religious experience, seems to demand that every few generations need to carry out their own “revivalist” movement in order to challenge that inevitable sedimentation of religious practice through a “great awakening.”
Is it any wonder that such physical and psychic exuberance and material success were often experienced as practical signs of God’s favor, and taken as evidence that the successful had been so blessed by God that they could feel confident they were among God’s elect–that, in fact, God had shed his grace on them, literally crowning “thy (collective) good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea.”? Nor is it any wonder that this entire process was understood and found articulation through the language of the religious tradition out of which it emerged–thus seeing material accomplishments in trade, commerce, and conquest as divinely sanctioned.
The “divine election” that resulted from each individual’s success in working out their personal salvation through dedication and hard work–the freedom of enterprise to choose one’s life style and to bear the burden or reap the success of one’s individual effort–increasingly becomes the operative meaning of freedom and democracy, with Harry Truman even replacing Roosevelt’s “freedom from want and fear” with “freedom of enterprise.”
Thus private enterprise marginalizes Christianity’s communal spirit as well as classical Republicanism’s concern for the polity and civic well-being.
Tensions were ever-present, however, between the collective nature of the initial undertakings, without which none of them could have succeeded, and both the unlimited and uncontrollable opportunities for individual initiative that were offered by a practically unlimited frontier and the overwhelming pre-occupation of Reformed Christianity with the individual’s sense of guilt for his/her own sinfulness and the deep need of each person to work out their own salvation. Thus Habits of the Heart nicely contrasts the vision of collective and communal salvation of Winthrop’s “city upon a hill” with the more individual and down-to-earth turn that Benjamin Franklin gives to the moral program of Cotton Mather, what was then called the “Protestant ethic”, re-baptized as the American “work ethic”, however much now more honored “in the breach than in the observance thereof.”
Although, by the mid-20th Century, Americans had become far less enamored of the requirement of actually working to earn their wealth and power, they still felt the need to defend its possession in the name of its having been earned. Americans both justify those who “have it made” as having earned their success by personal hard work and ability–developing those “god-given” talents to their fullest so as to excel in the competitive struggle that is the condition of human life–and hold those who have failed to realize the opportunities provided by the free market and democratic society as individually responsible and implicitly morally culpable. Such individuals can only be “saved” from the condemnation their failure justly sanctions by both assuming full personal responsibility for it, and turning themselves over to the power of spiritual rebirth that will make them new individuals. It is but one more irony of American Protestant individualism, that not only is it given birth, sustained, and even nurtured by the collective culture, but the spiritual re-birth possible for the failed and fallen can only come to be within the context of a sustaining community, whose role is to both encourage self-abasement and to nurture individual responsibility. But whoever said that cultures are thematically linear and dramatically un-ambivalent and coherent.
It is here that we must situate the emergence in the last quarter of the twentieth century of the “New Right”, the “Moral Majority”, and the election first of Ronald Reagan, then of George W. Bush. The “politics of nostalgia” bemoans the fading of “The American Dream.” The psychic loss roots in the disintegration of local communities and traditional moral values, themselves the casualties of the unbounded faith of Americans in individual initiative and the “free market.” Meanwhile, Corporate America, legitimized by a faith that it itself has in fact long given up, uses these movements as cover for its efforts to recapture the economic and political initiative at home and abroad. This revitalized imperial mission in the service of private accumulation calls for military expansion to protect the free world from the “threat” of the “demonized”, first the Russians, then the Chinese and the Arabs. Who knows what others will have to be (con-)scripted to play the role of the “Evil One”.
But the contradictions are pervasive. As the unconstrained free market search for profitability undermines settled community life and traditional values, the latter gives expression to its attendant and increasing anxiety with more fervent support for expansion of the imperatives of corporate profitability. As the public sphere increasingly deteriorates under the push of unbridled corporate expansion, individuals retreat ever more into the privatized worlds of home and church, themselves ever more subject to the vagaries of a corporate power less and less understood and controllable. Meanwhile, the home becomes a bastion of security under continual threat from a public world, dominated by the corporations, but increasingly experienced as the locus of potential criminal assaults from them–themselves but the most pervasively exploited segments of a deteriorating social order in which it is every man or woman for him or herself. Thus the home (or church) as refuge is felt to be under constant attack. Similarly with the psyche, in this marketing world of idealized individualism, where every one is encouraged to compete for success at the expense of others, and to market him or herself in order to present the most attractive package. Americans can no longer know whether others are sincere, or simply more clever in the way they present themselves in order to seem so. Not only is the home and family disintegrating under the impact of competitive individualism, but personal relations cut loose from the ties of sustaining communities, and increasingly from settled, not to say extended, families, tend to be reduced to short term contracts in which one must withhold one’s deeper feelings for fear of their being used against one. In any case, since moving is so pervasive, and human relations of such short duration, to get too involved risks a personal suffering to which only a masochist would look forward.
The home as refuge roots a “new feudalism” which is the social counterpart of the emerging “new colonialism” of the world of transnational corporations. In the contradiction between private accumulation and public decay–each feeding the other in a descending spiral–the “American Dream” withers, giving place to a resentful, revenge-prone, frightened psyche, seeking redress from them for what they are doing to it. At home, they are blacks, gays, women’s libbers, radicals, druggies, and aliens of various sorts. Abroad, they are bandits, Commies, Russians, drug lords, Arabs, Ayatollahs, terrorists, and those who “front” for them. All of this fits well with the economic imperatives of transnational corporations for a world free of political impediments to their search for profit, and free of those who would resist the life style which bureaucratic organization imposes upon its workers. (Of course, there are imperatives of behavior different for the ruling elite than for the rest of us, but that is another story.) At the center of this dynamic resides the twin axes of privatization and growth, as the ideological and psychic poles of attraction which seem to draw forth the energies of all Americans.
Section 4: Privatization and Growth: the universal elixir
America’s psychic needs have been coordinated with its cultural and institutional dynamic. Privatization and growth have thus been dialectically linked. Privatization has nourished and been nourished by the continual growth of the American Enterprise. The “American Dream” is the idealized expression of an unfettered individualism riding the crest of the wave of enterprise as it flowed across the continent, then washed onto alien shores, drowning under military arms and libratory rhetoric communities, nations, and peoples with the temerity to resist. Growth has made privatization possible, both by expanding the space for action and by providing the reduplicative commodities that might be individually possessed and privately used. Privatization, in turn, has fed growth through the creation of multiple needs, thus expanding the market for a practically unending series of “necessities”. What better marketing possibilities than those provided by the proliferation of suburban residences whose ideal was to be the self-sufficient refuge from the storms of public life. From dish-and clothes-washer and dryer, to swimming pool, tennis court, personal stereo, TV, games, toys, books, and, hopefully, cars — to each his own. In fact, middle class suburban Americans tend to apologize if they are not able to provide each of their children with their own room. Of course, such privatization helps avoid the need to share, to learn to accommodate one’s personal aspirations to the desires of others, and to develop the skills to constructively respond to conflictual interpersonal situations in an equalitarian fashion. The motto for group interaction has become “Lead, follow, or get out of the way,” as one poster so aptly puts it. The nuclear family has been the paired down social infrastructure whose light baggage was well suited to follow the dictates of the market in the search for advancement, while promising to each member both emotional support and personal space. Whether it can deliver on either is another question; as are the related concerns of the extent to which a family needs wider community roots in which to flourish, and whether psychic health is sustainable in the long run when grounded in such a narrow range of personal relations, themselves without historical depth.
Behind the nuclear family, however, and the twin dynamics of privatization and growth that have vitalized it, resides the institutionalized requirements of capitalism, both for expanding markets and a fluid labor force. As transnational corporations have consolidated their competitive position–horizontally, through the conquest of producers of similar commodities; vertically, through control of the process of production from raw material to marketed final product; and through diversification of product line and range of profitable endeavors–they have become quasi-autonomous empires, operating across political boundaries. Owing allegiance to no community, nor, increasingly, to any country, they are less and less geographically locatable. They exist rather as a network of operations. Localities are reduced to sources of exploitable raw materials, sources of cheap or skilled labor, markets, or tax havens. Transnationals shift resources around to take maximum advantage not only of climate, geography, and natural and human resources, but also to maximize political, economic, and military leverage. The world-wide scale of their operations facilitates the subtle, and often not so subtle, blackmail which seeks to insure a “favorable climate for business investment.”
Neighborhoods, localities, and even nations, thus become but manipulable instrumentalities within the world-wide empires of transnational giants. The corporate network is replacing the nation state, instituting a New Colonialism, or, perhaps better, the Re-colonization of the New World and Retro-colonization of the Old World. Of course, these new colonizers are no longer small expeditionary forces carrying the national flag, but transnational conglomerates controlling market forces and international movements of capital, backed up by the “legitimate” military might of the “home” country–as well as its not so legitimate secret police with their subterranean alliances with the secret services of the “client” states. Increasingly, their power is being given transnational legal expression through purported “free trade” agreements that guarantee the free movement of capital at the expense of local or national autonomy and democratic self-government.
This New Colonialism can thus destroy jobs and relocate factories, or blackmail communities into accepting lower wages, granting extraordinary tax benefits, weakening environmental and health and safety regulations, and allowing the deterioration of social and human services; in short, the community is held hostage to the power of international capital. A vicious spiral is set in motion, as the lack of effective local control furthers the process of neighborhood deterioration, which itself increases the individual’s urge to withdraw from public involvement in community affairs. The retreat to the privacy of the home offers itself as a refuge from the impotence, disillusion, and social disintegration, of which rising crime rates and growing juvenile delinquency and drug use become the symbolic expressions. (With wages being driven down by corporate globalization, and the social wage being progressively undermined through competitive disadvantage, and more and more families needing to have more than one wage earner, and for each of them to work ever longer hours, the process of withdrawal from civic engagement is still further exacerbated.) Of course, the less one is attached to one’s community, the easier it is to pack up and move on. Such mobility, while quite suitable to corporations, only serves to reinforce the same descending spiral. Thus the world-wide market under corporate domination furthers the disintegration of communal bonds and collective morality.
As for the privatizing retreat of individuals into the refuge of their home–fleeing from an alien world felt to be out of their control–it is motivated by a growing resentment at the failure of personal expectations. The resultant anger tends to be directed not at the corporate forces responsible, but rather toward the major victims of exploitation. Those reduced to ghettos, poverty, and the violent struggle to keep their head above water–whether through disorganized crime or organized rebellion–tend to become targeted as the primary threats to the “American way of life”. Thus the legitimately engendered experience of vulnerability is easily and effectively translated at a conscious level into a pre-occupation with crime. Merging with the reality of a disintegrating social world that tends to increase actual criminal activity, the public portrayal of domestic dangers conveniently focuses upon “alien” minorities, themselves the major victims of transnational capitalism, effectively directing public attention away from systemic corporate evils toward individual criminality where such criminals tend to be young, male, poor, and black or hispanic. Middle America is led to believe that the major internal threat to its health and well-being comes from “the black,” “the poor,” or the immigrant, those “below them” in the socio-economic hierarchy, rather than from those above them, the wealthy and the corporate establishment. And why should they question those at the top? They are the ones who have made it, and deserve what they get. If we, on the other hand, have not made it as well, and if those below have not made it at all, well it’s simply our or their fault. Perhaps we will make it yet. Such, at least, is the “conventional wisdom”.
Thus TV programs often treat one-on-one crime by such individuals as the major dramatic problem in life. Local TV news is generally little more than sensationalized reporting of crime and disasters, interspersed with sports, weather, and commercials. Discussions of work-place hazards, contamination of air and water, deterioration of the “public sector” (except as an expression of “bureaucratic” indifference or union corruption), are covered at best in passing, with reference to individual failures without consideration of institutional factors–except, that is, for the occasional swipes at government bureaucrats, corrupt union officials, or greedy and lazy workers. While “bureaucrats” are fair game, “executives”–certainly as a class–seem to be almost beyond reproach, regardless of the few “rotten apples in the bunch.”
No wonder that the retreat into the private home is increasingly offered as an idyllic refuge from a “dog eat dog” public world. If the American’s home is his or her castle, improved electronic security systems are rapidly becoming the moats by which they seek to protect themselves from unwanted intruders, not to speak of the increasing development of gated communities. This process of re-feudalization constitutes a desperate attempt to avoid the inevitable effects of a world market, dominated by the profit requirements of transnational corporate empires, whose subtly disintegrative impact is completely undetectable by even the most sophisticated home burglary alarm systems.
A further and quite pervasive effect of these disintegrative forces that is almost invariably missed is their impact on youth. Members of the last two generations of the Twentieth Century were probably the first in American history that could not reasonably expect to achieve a better material standard of living than their parents. Sensing, though not yet clearly grasping, the closing door of material advancement, they had at the same time to confront a culture that no longer offered a believable sense of historical mission. Americans will not “make the world safe for democracy”, however much its leaders proclaim that as their mission. The innocence and hope that was the meaning of the journey into the New World has given way first to a post-Vietnam, post-Watergate cynicism and disillusion, then to a fear of terrorism and the alien other. Americans have turned inward in increasing preoccupation with narrow and short-range personal goals. This self-centeredness has been encouraged by corporate advertising that, driven insatiably to increase sales, has expanded needs–often through the generation of anxiety about personal inadequacy, as trivially as that with bad breath or the lack of white teeth–and then justified immediate satisfaction of them. The traditional Protestant work ethic has been an inevitable victim of advanced capitalism’s “consumer society”, as the ethic of “self-indulgence” replaces that of self-denial and constructive effort. (It has even been provided with an economic rationale in the need to continually expand consumer demand in order to sustain economic growth.) Youth are thus invited to partake in the “celebration of commodities” at a time when it is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain a satisfying job.
Meanwhile, as the future becomes shortened and narrowed, the demands of discipline and hard work are less impressive. Then there is terrorism and the bomb, as both symbol and reality–not to speak of “global warming” and the depletion of the ozone layer. Lurking on the horizon of our future, placing everything in doubt, is the sense that collectively we may have no future. What can long-term commitments mean in the face of this patent and uncontrollable reality? What can call youth to serious and sustained effort in such a world? Joined to the loss of history consequent upon the disintegration of extended family and settled community life, renewed each day by the narrowed vision and condensed time frame of commercial media, contemporary youth must make sense of their life and its possibilities confronting a world whose future is temporally shortened and culturally narrowed almost to the point of irrelevance. Cut loose from ties that can bind, sustain, and vitalize, many, with practically unlimited choices before them, drift purposelessly before the abyss, prey to each succeeding fad, caught up in an unending series of heightened moments leading nowhere.
If this analysis correctly portrays the dynamic forces currently tearing apart the “American Dream”, an exploration of possible alternative responses is all the more urgently called for. The strategies of Corporate America are fairly clear. With “The American Enterprise” being so pervasively squeezed, corporate strategy vacillates between trying to placate, channel, or repress dissatisfaction on the home front, and efforts to buy out, intimidate, or destroy challenges to its world supremacy internationally. From the “benign” managed capitalism with some welfare emoluments of the “Eastern Establishment” to the militant, proto-fascistic urgings of the Far Right, Christian fundamentalism, and the Military-Industrial-Security apparatus, the logic of trans-national ascendancy and corporate profitability remains the same. It is, however, beyond the scope of this chapter to explore these conflicting strategies, their institutional foundations, and ideological expressions. Whatever these may be, one thing remains clear: business as usual is no longer possible, and the powers that be know it well. We need only recall the 1975 report of their Trilateral Commission to the effect that the world is suffering from “an excess of democracy”, not to speak of the “failure” of the Welfare State upon which the entire Reagan program was explicitly predicated.
On the other hand, this analysis suggests the need for an effective strategy to counter the growing imperial corporate offensive. It should be obvious that any such strategy requires both the development of an organized political opposition and the creation on an alternative world view that would make such an opposition credible. Such an opposition would have to be rooted in those social groups and institutions whose essential interests conflict with the imperatives of the transnational conglomerates. Further, any such attempts to effectively mobilize a political alternative must also come to terms with the psychic dynamics of American character, which is so deeply wedded to the myth of personal success through aggressive domination of the alien other–whether it be nature or other human beings–that it experiences material accumulation and social domination as essential psychic needs, (Not to mention the way in which this dynamic tends to be glossed in terms of America’s divine mission to bring freedom and democracy to the world.) If Americans are not “Number One” they tend to feel themselves to be failures. Without a concrete strategy to effect affect, to transform a concern with quantity into one for quality, a preoccupation with exclusive goods into a concern for inclusive goods, any such constructive strategy is bound to fail. And such a strategy must be rooted in a compelling narrative that makes sense of personal effort by placing it in a wider and ennobling worldview, which worldview must disabuse itself of any claims to a divine world mission or providential destiny for America.
The depth of the challenge now facing America should thus be clear. Torn between frontier and garden, between individual and community, the American psyche is easily whipped into action against mythological enemies at home and abroad. If we fail to combat the America of executive supremacy, national secrecy, capitalist audacity, and imperialist penetration–almost always in the name of promoting freedom and democracy–America will be unable to avoid the disaster of benign fascism toward which it has been more than creeping.
The revitalization of America thus requires both the breaking of the power of the large corporations and the remolding of the psyche of Americans. Unless the success orientation rooted in the competitive accumulation of material wealth and personal privilege is transformed into a more modest communal attitude, the growing hostilities now tearing at the fabric of America’s personal and institutional life will not be able to be controlled. Save, that is, for the imposition from above of an increasingly repressive techno-bureaucratic order by those established bureaucracies of power and wealth. Such an order will protect the hierarchy of privilege of the controlling establishment while maintaining the class-based social antagonisms that permit the redirection of middle Americans’ latent hostilities at the pressurized under-classes at home and the Evil Enemy overseas.
America’s choices are at least relatively clear. Either it develops a moderately decentralized social system that, in coming to terms with its natural and social environment, revitalizes public life, or it faces the growing institutionalization of a mass society rooted in hierarchic privilege and repressive social control, coming, no doubt, in the guise of “national security” and in order to protect “the American Way of Life”.
Further Remarks on the Human Population Epidemic
Jerry Kendall responded on my Facebook page to last week’s post Countering Human Epidemic of Unlimited Population Growth” by challenging my statement that human population growth constituted an epidemic that threatened the ecological sustainability of life on the Earth. Rather, to be revise, he asked, “Am I reading you correctly? Humans are an epidemic? If that is a major premise for a policy discussion where do we end up? Better to start with the inherent worth of people. Yes, as you say scarcity etc. is a reality, policy has to prioritize people as ends not as means and certainly not as diseases.”
I thought his comments, which suggested that what I wrote was not adequately clear, were worthy of a slightly more expansive response than I there provided, particularly because they suggested that my blog could lead to important misunderstandings. So let me briefly elaborate.
It’s not that the human being per se is a pest. Each human being ought to be treated with respect, as much as their actions permit and justify. And they ought to be provided with the objective conditions that make that respect capable of realistic realization. (The details for which are complicated, and deserve much more detailed consideration than can be addressed in this comment, but which I will address in future entries.)
But one thing should be clear and indisputable. Such enhancement of human well being cannot happen if the ecological conditions that make possible the development of life on planet Earth are destroyed. And uncontrolled population growth, linked as it is and must be, with the increased exploitation of the Earth’s resources and the increased accumulation of unrecycleable outputs of production, will inevitably destroy the earth’s capacity to decently sustain living beings. Thus, unlimited human population growth is effectively an emerging ecological catastrophe. it threatens to destroy the ecological conditions necessary for civilized human existence. And an economic order that requires unlimited population growth is one that is on a collision with disaster.
But I suspect that Jerry and I are in basic agreement effect, namely that we should address the human being as worthy of being treated with decency and respect, and that we should do all that we can to promote conditions that enhance those possibilities. And these are, of course, sentiments that I share completely. That is one of the reasons why I have long been a member of the Ethical Humanist Society of Long Island, one of whose operating values is that “we choose to attribute worth to every human being”. (It is important to note in passing, that the emphasis must be placed on the word “choose”, as values are not intrinsic to the natural world, but are a human contribution. For a more detailed discussion of this issue, see my “Critique of Western Philosophy and Social Theory”,)
We must therefore find a way to fundamentally transform the structure of our economic system to one that is ecologically sustainable, and that can and does put an end to unlimited population growth. That was my point, and remains valid.