Class Warfare Blog

May 31, 2018

The Insidiousness of Neoliberalism

aka The Empire Strikes Back

It may end up being a great irony but the grand American Experiment, the first major attempt at modern self-government (We don’t need no stinkin’ royalty.”), may end up having been created under a misapprehension.

When the U.S. Constitution was created the “founders/drafters” assumed (there’s that word again) that the “people” in power, running the government for “the People,” would be folks just like them: wealthy landowners who had the education and the time to apply their experience and powers of thought to the enterprise. I imagine that it was quite a shock to them when in short order, the propertied, wealthy (male) class was eschewed for politicians of the “middling” sort (merchants, craftsmen, you know “middling” types). I love the sheer disdain embedded in the term middling.

Well, never mind, the natural superiority of the wealthy class will win out, plus there was money to make in expanding the borders of the country and reaping the harvest provided by their god. Just clear off the Indians and bring in the salves and voila! When that was fairly well done, the wealthy got back to wealth accumulation in the forms of gold and property resulting ultimately in the Gilded Age of the late 1880’s–1890’s. Labor was oppressed, racism was rampant, women were subdued, and technology was creating opportunities to make money hand over fist. There were so many immigrants seeking work that wages were so low that the wealthy had servants galore. Gosh, can it get any better than this?

A small hiccough fell into the process of elevating the rich, and keeping them elevated, in the form of the Great Depression and World War II, the aftermath being a common understanding in ordinary Americans that “we were all in this together” and paying attention to the common good as opposed to solely individual rights was “a good thing.” That couldn’t be allowed to continue, of course, as that attitude was blocking the return of the rich to their rightful place of guiding society (for their own benefit, of course). The New Deal had to be remade into the “No Deal” of Donald Trump.

Then along came neoliberalism (beginning slowly in the early twentieth century, a horse the rich could ride where they wanted to go (back to the top). Neoliberalism exalted the individual, eschewed any kind of collective action by citizens save the military and police (to protect wealth from theft) and courts (to protect contracts). Free markets were the mechanism that would deliberate societal concerns, those and the innate actions of individuals as economic actors with free will (and greed). Think Ayn Rand here. Think the Koch brothers.

“Realize that the neoliberals are not working toward their ideal world, they are putting the finishing touches on it right now.”

Neoliberalism involves the elevation of individuals and the diminishment (or elimination) of collective action and any responsibility to the environment, the future (our children), the body politic, or people in general. Corporations that used to have major goals like “to be good citizens in their communities,” now are guided solely by the goal of increasing shareholder value, a concept that is bogus in the first place but serves the goals of neoliberalism, so it was elevated.

This is becoming hardwired into our culture. While I am very grateful for all that has been done to make my life what it is, via a quite inexpensive education down to a system of roads that encourages me to travel, the idea of gratitude is being reduced to “acknowledgement of a debt,” something only losers would acknowledge. The idea of debt forgiveness has been eliminated from many branches of our culture, especially Christianity (a long term effort). Consider the Lord’s Prayer. The specific variants I address are those which say “and forgive us our debts” versus those who say “and forgive us our trespasses.” In the ancient world debt jubilees were quite common, a period at the end of which all debts had to be settled or forgiven. It was hard-wired into Judaism but struggles to find any footing in Christianity or the modern world. Debt forgiveness was eliminated along the way in favor of debtor’s prisons and “pounds of flesh” and the IMF.

Neoliberals prefer the version of the Lord’s Prayer that uses the word “trespasses” (surprise, surprise), but I remember my mother saying the prayer in church, using the word “debts.” A 2000 year old argument that neoliberals have come down on one side of.

Since individuals are paramount, only the “deserving” warrant government help and there are very few of those in neoliberal minds. Blacks are shiftless and dangerous “takers.” Hispanics are lazy and untrustworthy, etc. Both breed too much.

In neoliberalism capitalism is exalted while removing all obligation of capitalists to the larger society (via the cult of shareholder value) as mentioned. “Free markets” and “competition” are promoted but the neoliberals really prefer market capture (think of Microsoft in its boom days, not quite a monopoly but close enough, and all of its anti-competitive actions) with government protection thrown in (think of the bank bailouts of 2008-9).

The foot shoulders of this movement have primarily been Republicans, you know, the “Family Values” proponents. To them, though, a family is lead by an individual, a man of course, making the family an extension of an individual. All of their “family values” stem from there … well as long as the individual men acknowledge the authority of a higher power, for whom the wealthy are a stand in and for whom all of the major religions work.

“The neolibs claim to want to shrink big government, yet they never actually do it. Governmental power is how they will enforce their will over the masses. They do not want less of it, no matter what they say.”

Privatization of public enterprises (schools, post offices, military, etc.) were initially lauded because “government = bad” but when that argument didn’t fly, they carried the water on this effort claiming the government was inefficient, that private ownership and competition would make for a more efficient effort. They ignored the fact that competition creates winners and losers and when it came to our children and delivering the mail, we didn’t want winners and losers. All of the data, so far, have shown the efforts to privatize schools have been less than successful, more costly, and worse, rife with corruption, so evidence is being ignored over ideology (and campaign contributions). The point of strategies like privatization, though, are not just about a preference for the private sector over the public sector, the goal of these strategies is to radically alter power relations, weakening pro-public forces and enhancing the lobbying power and commitment of the corporations that take over public services and resources, thus advancing the plans to dismantle democracy and make way for a return to oligarchy. The majority will be held captive so that the wealthy can finally be free to do as they please, no matter how destructive.

Neoliberalism is, at its core, anti-democratic.

And if you want to see the world as these oligarchs see it, all you need do is open your eyes. When Black citizens in Missouri protested police brutality, they were met with riot police and tear gas and arrests and dogs and prosecutions. But when white supremacists staged a protest rally, the police attacked those opposing the protest. Neoliberals definitely see things in black and white terms. Similarly there are myriad examples of polls of voters identifying things like laws requiring universal background checks to buy guns, but on which Congress still acts to benefit their donors, like the NRA lobbyists. The chances of getting legislation passed that was requested by poor people is zero and by rich people, near 100%. But realize that the neoliberals are not working toward their ideal world, they are putting the finishing touches on it right now.

As additional proof, look at state power being used to reduce state power. If the Republicans are in charge, they use the federal government’s power to restrict the state’s powers and the state’s powers to restrict local government’s power. In Oklahoma, fracking was causing hundreds if not thousands of earthquakes. Several local governments passed rules that limited the rights of frackers in their municipalities until the science of the earthquakes could be pinned down and fixed. The response? The Oklahoma legislature (and Texas, and …) passed a law forbidding the local governments from intervening and the frackers kept working. Localities pass a $15 minimum wage and some states respond by withdrawing the power of the munis to do that.

Neoliberalism is a-n-t-i-d-e-m-o-c-r-a-t-i-c, boys and girls.

The neolibs claim to want to shrink big government, yet they never actually do it. Reagan didn’t do it. G.W. didn’t do it and D.T. won’t do it. Governmental power is how they will enforce their will over the masses. They do not want less of it, no matter what they say.

If I may quote a recent book author:

The United States is now at one of those historic forks in the road whose outcome will prove as fateful as those of the 1860s, the 1930s, and the 1960s,” writes Duke Historian Nancy MacLean. “To value liberty for the wealthy minority above all else and enshrine it in the nation’s governing rules, as Calhoun and Buchanan both called for and the Koch network is achieving, play by play, is to consent to an oligarchy in all but the outer husk of representative form.

Neoliberalism is a cult of the individual in a collective enterprise (one man, one vote, no?). It is no surprise that those who advocate “we each go it alone” are those best equipped to do so (the wealthy). The bigger question is: will we let them get away with it? We have so far.

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March 3, 2017

Neoliberal Roots

I was reading a very good piece on the privatization of public education posted by the wonderful Yves Smith (Dismantling Public Education: Turning Ideology into Gold by Alex Molnar)—which I highly recommend—when a particular section struck me. Here it is in full:

“The major education reforms of the past 35 years — education vouchers, charter schools, tuition tax credits, and education savings accounts — all seek to remove public schools from the control of elected bodies; to subject them to the ‘laws’ of the ‘market’; and to put them at the service of the economic elite. The world being called into existence is based on the belief that anyone, but not everyone, can succeed—a world of winners and losers, each of whom has earned his or her fate. Thus, as British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, one of neoliberalism’s foremost champions, proclaimed: “’There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.

“This is a world in which the poor must be judged by the rich to be ‘deserving’ of private charity rather than one that allows collective action through the democratic political process to secure the common welfare.”

That final sentence rang a bell for me. It connected in my mind the current neoliberal disdain for the poor with the efforts of Franklin Roosevelt’s administration to address the ravages of the Great Depression. At that time (the 1930’s) the Roosevelt’s New Deal administration wanted to get money back in people’s hands by the shortest possible route. Many Americans were reluctant to admit they need the help but finally, driven by desperation, they applied for “relief.” But the rate at which the funds allocated to this were being disbursed was impossibly slow and Roosevelt ordered his right-hand man, Harry Hopkins, to look into it. It turned out that the people hired to distribute the funds were spending most of their time ensuring that the poor felt shame for their current state. So, before you could get a little money (it was a pittance), you first needed a heap of humiliation and shame just for asking. Hopkins put an end to then standard practice of shaming the poor and the money soon flowed much faster and people felt positive effects sooner.

So, what could be the source of this need on the part of large swaths of the American people to make sure that poor people feel shame associated with their economic state? Are Americans uncharitable? No, quite the contrary. So, what is it? A clue may be in the phrase quoted above “the poor must be judged by the rich to be ‘deserving’ of private charity rather than one that allows collective action through the democratic political process to secure the common welfare.” Americans tend to honor wealth as a sign of hard work and industry and business smarts. That honor conveys a certain rectitude as well as high social position. So, rather than Americans striving to be pigs at the public trough as they are oft portrayed by Neoliberals, they are just the opposite.

There is one more strain woven into this attitude and I think it is the Protestant Work Ethic which emphasizes that hard work, discipline, and frugality are a result of a person’s salvation in the Protestant faith. Taken to an extreme, the people wedded to this ideology condemn the poor because they obviously lack “hard work, discipline and frugality” otherwise they wouldn’t be in need of assistance.

This is yet another example of religion tainting otherwise worthy collective attempts to assist those less fortunate, especially in an age when the rich have transferred so much wealth out of middle class and poor pockets into their own.

July 30, 2016

Why the Inequality?

Well, bubbie, it wasn’t by accident!

From How ‘Competitiveness’ Became One of the Great Unquestioned Virtues of Contemporary Culture by William Davies, a Senior Lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London (Posted on July 30, 2016 by Yves Smith)

“I suggest that we need to understand how competition, competitiveness and, ultimately, inequality are rendered justifiable and acceptable – otherwise their sustained presence in public and private life appears simply inexplicable.

“And yet, this approach also helps us to understand what exactly has broken down over recent years, which I would argue is the following: At a key moment in the history of neoliberal thought, its advocates shifted from defending markets as competitive arenas amongst many, to viewing society-as-a-whole as one big competitive arena. Under the latter model, there is no distinction between arenas of politics, economics and society. To convert money into political power, or into legal muscle, or into media influence, or into educational advantage, is justifiable, within this more brutal, capitalist model of neoliberalism. The problem that we now know as the ‘1%’ is, as has been argued of America recently, a problem of oligarchy.

“Underlying it is the problem that there are no longer any external, separate or higher principles to appeal to, through which oligarchs might be challenged. Legitimate powers need other powers through which their legitimacy can be tested; this is the basic principle on which the separation of executive, legislature and judiciary is based. The same thing holds true with respect to economic power, but this is what has been lost.

“Regulators, accountants, tax collectors, lawyers, public institutions, have been drawn into the economic contest, and become available to buy. To use the sort of sporting metaphor much-loved by business leaders; it’s as if the top football team has bought not only the best coaches, physios and facilities, but also bought the referee and the journalists as well. The bodies responsible for judging economic competition have lost all authority, which leaves the dream of ‘meritocracy’ or a ‘level playing field’ (crucial ideals within the neoliberal imaginary) in tatters. Politically speaking, this is as much a failure of legitimation as it is a problem of spiralling material inequality.

“The result is a condition that I term ‘contingent neoliberalism’, contingent in the sense that it no longer operates with any spirit of fairness or inclusiveness. The priority is simply to prop it up at all costs. If people are irrational, then nudge them. If banks don’t lend money, then inflate their balance sheets through artificial means. If a currency is no longer taken seriously, political leaders must repeatedly guarantee it as a sovereign priority. If people protest, buy a water canon. This is a system whose own conditions are constantly falling apart, and which governments must do constant repair work on.”

June 27, 2016

Giving the Lie to GOP Desires for “Original Intent” Constitution Interpretations

The GOP has a desire, embodied previously in the person of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, for the U.S. Constitution to be interpreted only on the basis of what the Framers intended when they drafted the document. This, of course, ignores the numerous times the Framers mentioned that they didn’t want to tie the hands of future generations, even providing the mechanism to amend the document and which they availed themselves of immediately with ten, count ‘em, ten amendments right off of the bat!

The Southern Baptist Convention has supplied a recent form of this desire for original intent in the form of a resolution:

RESOLVED, That we strongly urge the President to nominate strict constructionist judges who seek to make decisions based on the original intent of the United States Constitution and, therefore, faithfully interpret rather than make law or impose their political views on the nation . . .

This desire is just a smokescreen or, worse, it indicates the ignorance of the speakers. Too often, people in politics are perfectly happy to let others do their thinking for them and this yearning for a country defined by the “original intent of the Framers” may be one of them.

Ironically, the actions of this age’s neoliberal conservatives is acting in direct opposition to the intent of the Framers of the Constitution. Note I said “neoliberal,” not liberal. Neoliberals are acolytes of the “Free Market” who favor privatization, fiscal austerity, deregulation, free trade, and reductions in government spending in order to enhance the role of the private sector in the economy. This is clearly a philosophy in service to oligarchs and the already wealthy.

The game plan of the neoliberals is to diminish collective actions and thinking on the part of U.S. citizens by convincing us that we are the sole determinant of our future, that we are individual actors, not groups or a society as a whole. Margaret Thatcher, former Prime Minister of the U.K. and Robin to Ronald Reagan’s Batman (The roles might have been reversed in the U.K.), had the grace to state that idea in a straightforward manner when she said: “… there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.”

Clear enough?

Does the phrase “divide and conquer” ring a bell?

Now, contrast this approach with that of the Framers of the Constitution. The Framers educated themselves on the life cycles of republics because it was clear to them from the beginning that we would be some form of self-governing republic. They were very focused on the death throes of those republics (“Half our learning is their epitaph.” Thomas Dawes, Jr.) All of the examples of republics available to them to study were, of course, failed republics (Greece, Rome, etc.). Most of the countries around the globe in the later 18th century were monarchies with kings and queens having some form of divine right to rule. There were no grand republics to model the U.S. on, all had failed at that point. So, they studied the source of the failures and tried to protect their creation from that. The lifeblood of a republic was, in their estimation, public virtue. By public virtue, they did not mean religious virtue (which may be the source of the Southern Baptist’s confusion) by public virtue they meant this:

“Public Virtue entailed firmness, courage, endurance, industry, frugal living, strength and above all, unremitting devotion to the weal of the public’s corporate self, the community of virtuous men.”
(Novus Ordo Seculorum, p. 70, my emphasis)

If I may quote John Adams (from a letter to Mercy Warren), “The must be a positive Passion for the public good, the public Interest, Honour, Power and Glory, established in the Minds of the people, or there can be no Republican Government, nor any real liberty.” The public passion, he wrote, “must be superior to all private Passions. Men must … be happy to sacrifice … their private Friendships and dearest Connections, when they stand in Competition with the Rights of Society.”

So, the GOP, whose policies are in direct contradiction to the intent of the Framers are claiming the direct opposite. The Framers wanted us to put the needs of society over individual desires, the GOP wants you to put your and your family’s needs at the top and fuck the rest, they are on their own.

It is a Brave New World indeed!

 

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