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?
On the Illusions of Libertarianism
Richard Koubeck commented suggestively on my critique of those who might consider voting for the Green candidate for President, that I should have included in my critique those who were considering voting for the Libertarian candidate. They, too, ought to realize how ill-informed and destructive their action would be. And Dick is, of course, correct, but not for the same reasons.
Libertarians act as if we are all isolated individuals, who come with a more or less inherently fixed nature, and are basically in complete control of our choices, and fully responsible of what we make of our lives. And they tend to see the government — almost always the national government — as the primary threat to our individual liberty: Taking through taxes the money that we have earned through our initiative and hard work and re-distributing it to undeserving others; or telling us how we should live our lives, thus constraining our individual freedom of choice. Gary Johnson, Libertarian Presidential candidate gives voice to these views by opposing, among others, a minimum wage, government mandated health insurance, practically all environmental regulations, and the government operated safety net, including Social Security.
But the entire Libertarian enterprise is misconceived, from the bottom up. It begins with a world view that makes no sense. It completely fails to appreciate the extent to which the human being is by nature a social being, whose basic feelings, thoughts, values, and actions are shaped by the moral and institutional contours of the wider society. Libertarians act as if government is the only significant institution that constrains the actions of the autonomous individual, but that is absurd. We are constrained, shaped, supported, sustained, and guided by institutions — formally and officially organized or informally enforcing rules and guidelines of “normal” behavior, and even of thought — practically every moment of our lives. Even more, there are numerous legally established institutions, such as corporations, as well as the conditions for the obtaining, maintaining, using, and transferring private property, that shape our social status, wealth, power, and life’s resources and opportunities at least as pervasively as do the official actions of government.
In fact, the so-called and celebrated “free market” is a giant illusion, and con game. There is no such thing as a “free market.” All markets are CONSTRUCTED, the result of numerous actions of society and government, as to how property can be obtained, maintained, transferred, taxed, and protected.
Even more, there is a very good reason why internationally we are so concerned about “failed states”. Not only can they become the breeding ground of piracy and terror, but, as Thomas Hobbes made so patently clear already in the 17th Century, without effective government, all human relations tend to degenerate into a “war of all against all” in which the life of man is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” What Libertarians have done is confuse the completely legitimate and defensible moral concern for, and even celebration of, the value of individuality, with the completely non-sensical “metaphysical” claim of the unbridgeable freedom of the so-called autonomous individual celebrated by the perverse doctrine of Individualism. But of that, more at another time — though one can check out Chapter 7 of my “Critique of Western Philosophy and Social Theory,” which addresses these issues in detail.
Don’t be Deluded into Voting for the Green Party.
Being a party to discussions among disaffected Bernie supporters or Green Party advocates is like living in an alternate universe. They act as if there is no significant difference between Hillary Clinton and the Democratic program and Donald Trump and the Republican program. And they claim that their vote for the Green Party will make an important statement about their rejection of mainstream politics, thus advancing their vision of a progressive agenda. When pressed on these issues, they often make the claim that if enough of those similarly disaffected can be reached by their campaign, Jill Stein has a chance of being elected. To be quite precise, I heard Jill Stein make precisely that claim at this year’s Left Forum, and Cornell West made the same claim on a recent Bill Maher program.
Besides the evident absurdity of that claim – by any realistic assessment, she would be “lucky” to obtain 5% of the vote, and most likely will be closer to 2-3% — one must wonder at the purposes hidden behind their absurd claim. Cornell, for example, is far too intelligent not to know that what he is saying is absurd. So one can reasonably wonder at the psychological motivations hidden behind his expressed views. But speculation about such psychological motivations are beyond my immediate concern. What could possibly be a rational argument for voting for the Greens? One would have to believe that there is no significant difference between electing Trump or Clinton, or that the Green “protest vote” will significantly influence the future behavior of American politics. But is either position tenable?
One might argue that Nader’s 2000 campaign did influence the future of American politics, but only by denying Gore the Presidency. That certainly did not advance progressive politics, but it did give us the Bush tax cuts, the Iraq war, and the Right-wing Supreme Court that gave us Citizens United and the evisceration of the Voting Rights act, to mention just a few of the most obvious results. Just think of the difference in future Supreme Court nominees between a Clinton and Trump administration, to understand the inevitable disaster that could be awaiting us.
As for the United States Green Party providing a progressive alternative to anything, that belief flies in the face of everything that the Green Party has actually done over the last 50 years. They talk a good game, but they do not do anything effective. I have for years watched them operate on Long Island, and they spend their time attacking “the System” and the Democratic and Working Families Parties as “sell-outs” – while rarely ever attacking the Republicans. But they devote little energy to building an effective political party on a day-to-day basis. Only mobilizing energy in political campaigns where they can run a candidate “to the left” of Democrats in districts where the Democrats could beat the Republicans, thus effectively drawing support away from the Democrats. The best that can be said of those campaigns is that they have been historically totally ineffective. Other than that, they engage in random and almost universally random acts of ineffective protest, but have had no significant influence on the political process and are generally not paid any attention to. I can think of no significant policy result to which they have contributed, even the successful opposition to fracking in NYS was accomplished primarily by more “establishment” opposition, such as that of the WFP, Citizen Action, the Sierra Club, etc. I could go on at length about the destructive nation of the Green Party – which talks a progressive game, but only effectively weakens the progressive movement – but I will rather reproduce a recent article from The Nation Magazine which does an effective job in making the national case against supporting the Green Party from one who used to be a member.
Your Vote for Jill Stein Is a Wasted Vote
If you want to join a party that has no chance of effecting progressive change, the Greens are for you!
The Nation, SEPTEMBER 21, 2016
If the last three presidential elections are any guide, 75 to 90 percent of those who say that they’re planning to vote for Green Party candidate Jill Stein in November won’t follow through. Yes, there are some dedicated Green voters, but much of the party’s support is an expression of contempt for the Democrats that evaporates in the voting booth. I’m a registered independent and a supporter of the Working Families Party, and my disdain for the Greens springs from my own experience with the party. I agree with much of the Greens’ platform, but when I went to Green Party meetings, I found a wildly disorganized, mostly white group that was riven with infighting, strategically inept, and organized around a factually flawed analysis of American politics. There are effective Green parties in Europe, but ours is a hot mess. And while the Greens’ bold ideas are attractive, what’s the point of wasting one’s time and energy on such a dysfunctional enterprise?
The Green Party claims to have “at least” 137 members in elected office. That might sound respectable, but that’s 43 fewer than it had in 2003. And there’s a reason that number is shrinking: The Greens focus the lion’s share of their limited resources on getting their quixotic presidential campaigns on the ballot rather than on building the party from the bottom up. One could argue that running presidential campaigns earns candidates like Stein and David Cobb (for whom I voted in 2004, in a safe state) more media attention, but that hasn’t resulted in a growing number of seats for the Greens. The hyper-local Working Families Party, which backed 111 candidates in New York State alone last year—71 of whom were successful—makes headlines by winning fights over things like minimum-wage hikes and school funding rather than running symbolic presidential campaigns.
The Green Party’s primary pitch to voters on the left is that there still isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between the two major parties. When Ralph Nader made that claim in 2000, there was a kernel of truth to it. Today, that claim requires a great deal of dishonesty to make. By every measure, Democrats and Republicans have moved toward their respective ideological poles since the 1990s. According to Pew Research, since 2011, the most conservative Democrat on Capitol Hill has still been more liberal than the most liberal Republican, based on their aggregate voting records. It’s also true of the Democratic base—according to Pew, the share of Democrats who hold “mostly or consistently liberal” views almost doubled between 1994 and 2014. And it’s true of the 2016 party platform, which Bernie Sanders, among others, hailed as the most progressive in the party’s history. Today’s low-information voter is as likely to be aware of the major-party candidates’ differences as a highly engaged voter was in the mid-1970s.
You might notice that Greens tend to steer the conversation away from the myriad issues—health care, education, abortion, gun control, climate change, and on and on—where the Democrats and Republicans are diametrically opposed, and toward foreign policy and national security, where there really is significant overlap between the major parties’ policies. I agree with the Greens on many of those issues. But they’re not sufficient to substantiate the claim that there’s no difference between the Democrats and Republicans at all.
And the Greens’ critique of the Democrats is often unmoored from reality. Stein goes beyond (rightly) criticizing the Obama administration’s strategy in the aftermath of the 2009 coup in Honduras by charging that then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave it “a thumbs-up.” (Not only did the US oppose the coup, American embassy personnel tried to talk Honduran military officials out of it.) During her 2012 campaign, Stein consistently claimed that the 2009 stimulus plan “was mostly tax breaks for the wealthy.” The truth is that tax breaks accounted for 38 percent of the plan, a majority of them targeted toward low- and middle-income households. That’s not criticism from the left; it’s a dishonest, scorched-earth campaign against the only party that can keep Republicans out of the White House. (And if you think that Stein wouldn’t have attacked Bernie Sanders with the same vigor if he were the nominee, then it’s a safe bet you’ve never attended a Green Party meeting. Remember that the Greens ran candidates against Ralph Nader in both 2004 and ’08.)
Two disastrous wars and a few Wall Street–precipitated recessions have helped push the Democratic Party leftward. Demographic changes in the electorate have made it less reliant on courting white swing voters. But the shift in the party was in large part a result of tireless work by the Democrats’ own base, passionate progressives who pushed the party to change.
Many Greens think that their vote isn’t wasted because it sends a powerful “message” to Washington. But why would anyone in power pay attention to the 0.36 percent of the popular vote that Jill Stein won in 2012, when 42 percent of eligible voters just stayed home? Political parties are merely vessels. The Green Party provides a forum to demonstrate ideological purity and contempt for “the system.” But the Democratic Party is a center of real power in this country. For all its flaws, and for all the work still to be done, it offers a viable means of advancing progressive goals. One can’t say the same of the perpetually dysfunctional and often self-marginalizing Greens.
I have chosen to reproduce the following article by Robert Borosage because it beautifully sets forth the context within which we need to understand what’s involved in building an effective political movement that can bring systemic progressive social change to the United States. Building a movement cannot be done overnight, nor by the election of any one person, no matter how intelligent, dedicated, visionary, and honest. And it can not be successful simply by believing, and evening advocating, the most ideal policies. It requires working cooperatively with a wide range of allies, effectively addressing the concerns and needs of its actual and potential constituencies, creating and linking together an effective web of progressive organizations, and building one’s supporters into the institutional fabric of the society in a way that provides them with the power to bring about the desired systemic progressive social change.
What is most dangerous for the building of that truly effective social movement, is the siren song of those who advocate the ideal progressive programs and will refuse to work with any groups or individuals who do not share their “correct”agenda. The best and most dangerous version of that for building the progressive movement that we desperately need are those who say “Bernie or Bust,” for then, bust it will be. Even more destructive are those who follow Jill Stein and the Green Party, and by so doing drain vital support from the forces for effective progressive change. We will no doubt suffer for years to come, in untold ways, for the disaster perpetrated on the US — and on the world — by Nader’s destructive 2000 Presidential campaign. His efforts effectively brought us, among much else, George Bush’s election, the Iraq invasion, the Bush tax cuts, the Citizens United Supreme Court, and the Great Recession of 2008. That will be Nader’s enduring legacy. We must not let it happen again. And well meaning progressive idealists must not confuse their ideals with the effective policies that can build a progressive political movement. Fortunately, Bernie Sanders understands that quite well. So must we all. Here’s Borosage’s article.
“The Sanders Endorsement and the Political Revolution
Even as Bernie Sanders was endorsing Hillary Clinton Tuesday in New Hampshire, expressions of dismay and outrage from his supporters flooded social media. Naturally, Donald Trump piled on, tweeting that Bernie Sanders “has totally sold out to corrupt Hillary Clinton,” and that his supporters are “not happy that he is selling out.”
Those gathering under #selloutsanders are, of course, a small minority of activists. Polls show that 85 percent of Sanders voters are ready to support Hillary Clinton, and that number will surely grow when the Democratic Convention launches her formal candidacy. But the sentiment is real. The Sanders insurgency was fueled by a revolt against the big-money politics that Clinton personifies. Clinton delivered one of her most populist speeches in response to the Sanders endorsement, but doubts about her commitments are widespread, even among those intending to vote for her.
Sanders, however, did not “sell out.” His endorsement was carefully framed. He began by celebrating the extraordinary movement that grew behind his candidacy – 13 million votes, hundreds of thousands of volunteers, 2.5 million small donors, victories in 22 caucuses and primaries and 1,900 delegates. “Together, we have begun a political revolution to transform America and that revolution continues. Together, we continue the fight to create a government which represents all of us, and not just the one percent – a government based on the principles of economic, social, racial and environmental justice.”
Sanders has it right. It will take a political revolution to transform our politics, revive our democracy, and make government the instrument of the many and not just the few. That is not a task of one campaign or one presidency. The movement has to build – in fits and starts, waves and tides – over time. And Sanders is right: The next step in building that movement is defeating Donald Trump and electing Hillary Clinton as president.
The Movement Must Work To Crush Trump
Populist movements in this country have often floundered on the shoals of race and nativism. The established are quick to play on racial division or fears of the other to divide working and poor people. The South perfected this politics, but it works, sometimes with greater subtlety, across the nation and across party lines. Clinton fended off Sanders’ surge in part by contrasting her social liberalism – “breaking down barriers” for people of color and women – with what she termed Sanders’ “single issue” focus on the economy. Sanders succeeded in winning the majority of votes of African Americans under 30, but the political revolution has work to do to consolidate a powerful multiracial movement for fundamental change.
Thrashing Donald Trump is the next step in that process. Trump has risen as a fake populist, preying on racial and nativist fears. His slurs against Mexican immigrants, Moslems, blacks and women are classic, if raw, politics of division. His bet is that he can profit from consolidating the votes of white working and middle-class men by stoking their fears and anger.
The Sanders political revolution – the activists, the volunteers, the young, the independents looking for a new politics – have to be central to making November a resounding rejection of the politics of division. There is no way to consolidate a broad multi-racial populist majority without standing up shoulder to shoulder with the people of color who are the targets of Trump’s venom. It is not enough that Trump is beaten; he needs to be routed, repudiated. And that can only happen with the energy of the movement that Sanders has helped to build.
Fighting on Our Agenda
For the movement, there is a profound difference between a Clinton presidency and a Trump presidency. One needn’t harbor hopes that there is a populist Superwoman hidden beneath Hillary Clinton’s Clark Kent pantsuits to see this.
If Trump is president, Republicans surely control the House and most likely the Senate. They set the agenda. We will spend the next four years fighting against reaction – austerity budgets, massive increases in defense spending, attacks on choice, civil rights, environmental protection. They’ll seek to repeal Obamacare, financial reform and President Obama’s climate initiatives. As Sanders noted, Trump carries the right’s agenda – against the minimum wage, against extending Medicaid, denial of climate change and more. And of course, there is the Supreme Court.
The populist movement will be forced to fight battles that have already been won, to defend half-measures – like Dodd-Frank financial reform and Obamacare – from getting rolled back. In those defensive battles, virtually every Democrat looks like a hero. Against the nightmare, even the dimmest bulb seems like a dawn. Corporate Democrats gain cheap grace by standing up boldly for Dodd Frank or Obamacare. The space for left alternatives – and for education about those alternatives – virtually disappears.
If Clinton is president, the political revolution will not have won. But we will fight on our agenda – sometimes with and sometimes against the president. Sanders made that clear in his endorsement, focusing on the promises exacted from Clinton in the course of the campaign and the platform fights: a $15 minimum wage, commitment to rebuild America, further health care reform – opt-in to Medicare at 55, a public option, Medicare empowered to negotiate bulk discounts on prescription drugs, a more than doubling of resources for community health care centers, progressive tax reform, tuition-free college for over 80 percent of students, action on climate change, comprehensive immigration reform, reform of our broken criminal justice system. Clinton responded by pledging to push for populist reforms, including opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Clinton will be looking to cut deals with Republicans, and her foreign policy team is likely to be an utterly terrifying combination of neo-conservative and indispensable nation interventionists.
But the terrain of the debate will shift. The Sanders movement can challenge Clinton when needed – beginning with Obama’s lame, lame-duck session attempt to cram through the TPP, challenging Clinton appointments if she seeks to revive the Wall Street-Washington revolving door, exposing the tax bribe to global corporations to gain funds for infrastructure investment, etc. Clinton will forward an increase in the minimum wage; the Sanders movement can demand $15.00 and push for it in states and localities across the country. She’ll call for paid family leave and paid sick days; the Sanders movement can support, and push at the state and local level. The political revolution can challenge any backsliding the promise for tuition free education or real action on climate change. It can join with her to push comprehensive immigration reform and criminal justice reform.
In these battles, the difference between the Wall Street wing of the party and the Sanders-Warren wing of the party will be stark. The political revolution can challenge corporate Democrats, and create space for real populists to challenge them. The battles will help deepen the understanding of Americans about the core issues at stake.
Time to Build
A Clinton presidency will be a reform presidency, but it won’t be nirvana. She’ll have no mandate for the radical economic changes this country needs. She’ll face a Republican Party, hopefully chastened, but certainly rabid in its hatred for her. The tepid economic recovery is already slowing. There is no sign that Clinton’s predilection for intervention abroad has been sobered by experience. In 2020, the reapportionment election year, the Republican money establishment will gear up for a swing election, a reaction that could consolidate their hold on state legislatures and statehouses.
The political revolution that fueled the Sanders campaign must continue to build. It must use the battles during Clinton’s first term to deepen popular understanding, to consolidate a multi-racial movement, to reach out to disaffected working and poor people to show there is an alternative – and it is not on the right. It has to mobilize to demonstrate that business as usual cannot continue. The massive, non-violent demonstrations in support of Black Lives Matter illustrates what can be done. The entrenched interests must be challenged frontally, uncomfortably, so they too understand that something must be done. The political revolution can then capture the energy for change to challenge those in both parties who are standing in the way.
Sanders has it right: The next step is to work to ensure that Donald Trump is routed in 2016, and to use the Democratic platform as the minimum standard that all Democratic candidates must endorse. Sanders isn’t selling out; he is staying in, loyal to the political revolution that he has helped to build.”
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 progressives should be pleased by the current campaign
Given the completely unpredictable nature of the current political campaign, it is probably somewhat of a fool’s errand to offer the following comment, but I’ll offer it nonetheless. Yesterday’s primary results make it almost certain that Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic Presidential candidate, and that if Donald Trump does not obtain the Republican designation — either on the first ballot, or through the results of a “brokered convention” vote — there will be some not so mild confrontations within that Party. If he does obtain the designation, there may be some significant Republican defections, though I rather suspect less than expected. Having said that, from the perspective of one who shares practically all of the views expressed by Bernie Sanders — and thus, obviously, would love to see him elected President — I believe the current primary results are the best that progressives like myself could hope for. Let me briefly suggest why, knowing that there is much more that needs to be said on these matters.
- I sincerely doubt that Bernie could have been elected. I know that current polls say differently, but I think they completely fail to take into consideration the kind of withering attack that he would face not only from Republicans, but from the mega-rich and the media, both from the mainstream and from the Radical Right of Talk Radio.
- Bernie’s campaign has laid the groundwork for the mobilization of the kind of revolution that he has called for. That is not something that can be done overnight, but will take time and expanded organizing. He has given public “main stream” political legitimacy to the ideas of Occupy — which they were incapable, and even uninterested, in doing. And he has mobilized vast numbers of previously “silent” — particularly youthful — citizens that can now, hopefully, be brought into the on-going progressive network of organizations such as MoveOn, US Action, National People’s Action, the Alliance for a Just Society, the Citizen Action network, the Working Families Party, Planned Parenthood, the Sierra Club, etc. These offer the opportunity to move the Democratic Party — and the country — in a far more progressive direction.
- Bernie’s campaign has already moved the Democratic Party, and its presumptive nominee, to the Left. Clearly, one cannot expect her to stay there without sustained pressure from this newly mobilized Left — given her past history and the Obama Administration’s neo-Liberal policies — but the groundwork and mobilization to do that is now possible.
- Trump’s garnering the Republican nomination offers both the weakest possible opponent to a Democratic victory, and one whom I believe is surprisingly less dangerous than would be a Cruz, Rubio, or Kasich election. (No doubt that last remark calls for an explanation which I cannot provide here. Simply let me assert that, terrible as he obviously is, he is less beholden to and captured by the full neo-Liberal program of the Republican Establishment. But that discussion will have to be postponed for the present.) Thus,
- Hillary’s election is the more likely. And, with all her liabilities (see a few comments on this below), she will be presenting a reasonable corporate liberal agenda, including probably a few new Supreme Court justices. And hopefully, contributing to the election of a Democratic Senate with an enhanced progressive majority, plus a reasonable increase in Democratic representation in the House. But
- The major work will still be to build the national progressive movement state-by-state, while maintaining pressure on a Hillary administration. And if the Republican convention degenerates into a political brawl, so much the better for discrediting the Radical Right, and weakening its hold on that Party.
- Having said all this, progressives, whatever their proclivities, will have to actively support Hillary’s campaign, whatever their misgivings, while building on Bernie’s momentum. This is certainly NOT the best of all worlds, but it’s the one we live in, and we must make our choices as effective as possible. There will be only two significant alternatives before us, and no outcome is foreordained, especially in a country in which either Party begins any national election probably with more than 40% of the electorate committed in advance to vote for their candidate. And the possible election of a Republican is not something to take lightly.
As for a suggestive comment on the campaign so far, and an evaluation of the politics of Clinton and Obama, let me share my personal abridgment of insightful comments offered by Bill Curry, former White House counselor to President Clinton and a two-time Democratic nominee for governor of Connecticut. These were offered immediately after Bernie’s remarkable victory in Michigan. He then wrote, and I excerpt with a few important personal modifications for which he is MIT responsible:
“You wouldn’t know it from watching TV last night or reading the national papers this morning but Bernie Sanders’ Michigan win ranks among the greatest upsets in presidential primary history. Should he win the nomination it will be go down as the biggest upset of any kind in American political history. If he wins the election it will change the fundamental direction of the nation and the world.
Some key lessons, obvious to everyone but the media:
- The old politics is over. The fault lines of the new politics are not cultural issues like guns, abortion and same-sex marriage that divide the Democratic and Republican bases. They are issues of political reform and economic justice that divide both party’s elites from both parties’ bases, and the American people from their government. On these issues we find the elites of both parties shockingly alike. Among them: global trade; financial deregulation and prosecution of financial crimes; (attacks on) the social safety net including Social Security, Medicare, a living wage and health care for all; above all, (being quite comfortable with) the “soft corruption” of pay to play politics.
There’s a name for the bipartisan consensus of party elites: neoliberalism. It is an inconvenient name for many reasons but mostly because it seems odd that the worldview of the Republican elite would be an ideology with the root word ‘liberal’ in its name but it is true, nonetheless. and may even shed a little light on the open, bitter breach between GOP elites and the party base. Democrats stayed loyal longer to their elites for two reasons. One is their love of two very talented politicians, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, whose charm and verbal dexterity masked deep differences with the base. The other is their fear of Republicans.
I often talk to Democrats who don’t know Obama chose not to raise the minimum wage as president even though he had the votes for it; that he was willing to cut Medicare and Social Security and chose not to prosecute Wall Street crimes or pursue ethics reforms in government. They don’t know he dropped the public option or the aid he promised homeowners victimized by mortgage lenders. They don’t know and don’t want to know. Their affection for Bill and Barack — and their fear of Republicans — run too deep.
- Hillary Clinton has neither their deft personal touch nor protean verbal skills. When she tries to distract the base or paper over its differences with elites, voters see through her, even if, in their hearts, they don’t want to. In Michigan she tried to smear Sanders as a foe of the auto bailout. Before that she sent Chelsea and Bill out to say Bernie would kill Medicare. Each time she ended up only hurting herself. She has tried to co-opt Sanders’ positions on global trade, climate change, military adventurism, a living wage and universal health care.
It’s always too little, too late. Voters sense she’s just moving pawns on a chess board in part because she can never explain her change of heart and often doesn’t even try. She switched horses on global trade in a blog post, on the Keystone pipeline at a grammar school event. In a recent debate she left fracking to the GOP governors who covered themselves in glory on Obamacare, as if it were a states’ rights issue. With her Super PAC (and hers and Bill’s breathtaking haul of $153 million in mostly corporate speaking fees), she is the living avatar of pay to play politics. She shouldn’t be the Democratic nominee for president because she doesn’t even know it’s wrong.
She remains woefully out of touch with the public mood in other ways. This week she began telling voters she and Bernie were pals and that it was time to wrap up their little primary so she could focus on the Republicans. As anyone outside her tone deaf campaign could have told her, she came off as entitled, presumptuous and condescending. The voters aren’t done deciding yet. When they are, they’ll let the candidates know. When party and press elites parroted her line, it had the same effect on Democrats as Mitt’s anti-Trump speech had on Republicans.
- The performance of the press has been abysmal. Watching CNN and MSNBC last night was painful, as was reading the Washington Post or the New York Times this morning. The TV coverage was of a piece with all other 2016 election coverage. Last night FOX, CNN and MSNBC kept cameras glued on Trump for 40 minutes as he delivered a bizarre, rambling rant in which he talked about himself, his opponents and some steaks he was either selling or giving away.
As Bernie made history, CNN kept sending poor John King to its political trivia JumboTron to relate what various Michigan counties did in primaries or caucuses eight or 20 years ago. An MSNBC panel consisting of Brian Williams, Rachel Maddow, Gene Robinson, Lawrence O’Donnell and Chuck Todd dove right into a discussion of who Hillary might choose as her running mate; an actual progressive perhaps, given Bernie’s little showing in Michigan. … The hour ended with Maddow summarizing the state of play this way: “The frontrunners had a good night.” This morning the Times led the story this way: “Senator Bernie Sanders’s defeat of Hillary Clinton prolongs a race she seemed to have locked up, although she won Mississippi handily.” He sure did.
Clinton has been helped in her quest by her party, by big business, and by top-down endorsements from progressive lobbies many of which broke members’ hearts to deliver them. But no one’s helped her more than the media. I know full well this hasn’t always been true for the Clintons and I also know not all the help is intentional. But the media helps her in several ways.
One way it helps is just by sharing her ideology. This is especially true of younger journalists at establishment venues like the Times and NBC or at web sites like Vox. These are mostly very bright people who see the world as Hillary does. (I’d call it neoliberalism 2.0 but it’s just like the Beta version.) They are Democrats first for cultural issues. They identify with elites, even know a few power couples and view the current corrupt rules of the game as laws of nature. It’s one reason why not one of them saw any of this coming.
But it’s not the only reason. Their employers put horse-race journalism ahead of all else, so nothing ever gets illuminated — not Trump’s business resume or Hillary’s or Bernie’s political resumes, or their very real policy differences. When Hillary sweeps vital differences under the rug to be replaced with stale tactical arguments, the reporters are perfect patsies — because all they know are tactics.
In the end, thinking only tactically makes you a bad tactician. When revolution’s in the air polls, money and ads mean far less. Reporters who know nothing else can’t conceive how voters choosing among a democratic socialist, a pay-to-play politician and a fascist might pick door number one. They bought Hillary’s myth of inevitability, ….”