Monday, September 29, 2014

Neoliberalism Has Made Us What We Are Today - And That Isn't Pretty

Neoliberalism is a social, political and economic model best suited to those with psychopathic personality traits.

That, in any case, is the conclusion of Paul Verhaeghe, who dissects neoliberalism and what it has done to us in The Guardian.

"Thirty years of neoliberalism, free-market forces and privatisation have taken their toll, as relentless pressure to achieve has become normative."

"..the financial crisis illustrated at a macro-social level (for example, in the conflicts between eurozone countries) what a neoliberal meritocracy does to people. Solidarity becomes an expensive luxury and makes way for temporary alliances, the main preoccupation always being to extract more profit from the situation than your competition. Social ties with colleagues weaken, as does emotional commitment to the enterprise or organisation.

"Bullying used to be confined to schools; now it is a common feature of the workplace. This is a typical symptom of the impotent venting their frustration on the weak – in psychology it’s known as displaced aggression. There is a buried sense of fear, ranging from performance anxiety to a broader social fear of the threatening other."

The bullying reference struck me because it is precisely what I hear mid-level public servants complain has spread through their work place.  Performance anxiety, job insecurity, the sense of fellow workers being threatening.  That seems to have taken hold since the arrival of the Harper regime.

"...Our society constantly proclaims that anyone can make it if they just try hard enough, all the while reinforcing privilege and putting increasing pressure on its overstretched and exhausted citizens. An increasing number of people fail, feeling humiliated, guilty and ashamed. We are forever told that we are freer to choose the course of our lives than ever before, but the freedom to choose outside the success narrative is limited. Furthermore, those who fail are deemed to be losers or scroungers, taking advantage of our social security system."

A good measure of Social Darwinism has been inculcated in us.  Even those most vulnerable to it seem to embrace it.  It's powerfully corrosive of social cohesion, an attribute that we, as a people, will need to find our way through the travails that await us this century.  "Every man for himself" becomes a mantra for social ruin.

"A neoliberal meritocracy would have us believe that success depends on individual effort and talents, meaning responsibility lies entirely with the individual and authorities should give people as much freedom as possible to achieve this goal. For those who believe in the fairytale of unrestricted choice, self-government and self-management are the pre-eminent political messages, especially if they appear to promise freedom. Along with the idea of the perfectible individual, the freedom we perceive ourselves as having in the west is the greatest untruth of this day and age.

"The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman neatly summarised the paradox of our era as: “Never have we been so free. Never have we felt so powerless.” We are indeed freer than before, in the sense that we can criticise religion, take advantage of the new laissez-faire attitude to sex and support any political movement we like. We can do all these things because they no longer have any significance – freedom of this kind is prompted by indifference. Yet, on the other hand, our daily lives have become a constant battle against a bureaucracy that would make Kafka weak at the knees. There are regulations about everything, from the salt content of bread to urban poultry-keeping."

Yes, indifference, disengagement, disaffection are the usual by-products of today's neoliberalism.  There are those, such as our prime minister, who have learned to exploit this.  The fewer citizens who turn out at the polls the better for Stephen Harper.  He needs merely appeal to the fears, resentments and bigotry of a small segment of the voting public, barely 20% of eligible voters, to achieve a majority provided enough other eligible voters can be kept away from the ballot box. 

"...There are constant laments about the so-called loss of norms and values in our culture. Yet our norms and values make up an integral and essential part of our identity. So they cannot be lost, only changed. And that is precisely what has happened: a changed economy reflects changed ethics and brings about changed identity. The current economic system is bringing out the worst in us."

This very economic system that brings out the worst in us is still accommodated by our political classes - all of them.  There's a reason there is not one federal leader today - Conservative, Liberal or New Democrat - speaking out against the scourge of neoliberalism, much less offering the public a "New Deal."  Mulcair, trying to stay ahead of the shadow of Horwath, is claiming to have turned Left but it's an unconvincing performance. 

So what are we to do?  A vote for Harper or Trudeau or Mulcair is still a vote for the continuation of neoliberalism at the expense of social democracy.  It is a vote for social and economic feudalism, the relentless advance of increasingly illiberal democracy. 

There's a study coming out of Princeton this fall that addresses the death of democracy in the United States and the ascent of plutocracy and the corporate state.  We need to pay close attention to those findings because the same process is already well underway here in Canada.  If we don't defend democracy it is at risk of remaining in name only.


Anyong said...

I'm presently reading "Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty.
1. What are the grand dynamics that drive the accumulation and distribution of capital? Questions about the long-term evolution of inequality, the concentration of wealth, and the prospects for economic growth lie at the heart of political economy. But satisfactory answers have been hard to find for lack of adequate data and clear guiding theories. In Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty analyzes a unique collection of data from twenty countries, ranging as far back as the eighteenth century, to uncover key economic and social patterns. His findings transform debate and set the agenda for the next generation of thought about wealth and inequality.
Piketty shows that modern economic growth and the diffusion of knowledge have allowed us to avoid inequalities on the apocalyptic scale predicted by Karl Marx. But we have not modified the deep structures of capital and inequality as much as we thought in the optimistic decades following World War II. The main driver of inequality—the tendency of returns on capital to exceed the rate of economic growth—today threatens to generate extreme inequalities that stir discontent and undermine democratic values. But economic trends are not acts of God. Political action has curbed dangerous inequalities in the past, Piketty says, and may do so again.
2. Watch for this one: Harper is and will try to do away with OAS as it is a drain on the country from all those presently retired people. Does the retirement of Baby Boomers have something to do with this as well?

The Mound of Sound said...

Yeah, I'm also trying to read it. A few years ago Stiglitz wrote "The Price of Inequality" which is a good introduction to "Capital." If you search this blog you can find a Wall Street Journal interview with Nouriel Roubini who argues that Marx was right, capitalism is self-destructive.