Sunday, February 23, 2020

Neoliberalism's Sharp Elbows

In 2004, American intellectual, Henry Giroux, wrote "The Terror of Neoliberalism: Authoritarianism and the Eclipse of Democracy."

The following review from Amazon seems to capture the gist of Giroux' warning:
This book argues that neoliberalism is not simply an economic theory but also a set of values, ideologies, and practices that works more like a cultural field that is not only refiguring political and economic power, but eliminating the very categories of the social and political as essential elements of democratic life. Neoliberalism has become the most dangerous ideology of our time. Collapsing the link between corporate power and the state, neoliberalism is putting into place the conditions for a new kind of authoritarianism in which large sections of the population are increasingly denied the symbolic and economic capital necessary for engaged citizenship. Moreover, as corporate power gains a stranglehold on the media, the educational conditions necessary for a democracy are undermined as politics is reduced to a spectacle, essentially both depoliticizing politics and privatizing culture.  
A couple of years later, American investment guru, Warren Buffett, spoke of the "class war" that Republicans were warning threatened America.
“There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”
This morning's BBC news podcast had an item about Brazil's strongman, Jair Bolsonaro. It reported that Bolsonaro has boasted that he wants Brazil to mirror himself, his beliefs, and, presumably, his utter contempt for democracy, even decency itself. He wants to change the "culture" of Brazil. Perhaps he sees himself as a latter-day Juan Peron.

At CBC's web site there's an item about American open mouth radio host, Dennis Prager, who will be a keynote speaker at (where else) the Manning Centre next month. Prager recently said it was "idiotic" that people could not use the N-word.
Prager was responding to a caller on his radio show, The Dennis Prager Show, who asked Prager why he used an anti-Semitic slur on his program but would not use "the N-word." 
"The left doesn't give a damn about [anti-Semitic slurs]. That's why. The left runs the country in the culture," Prager said. "The Republicans have the Senate and the presidency, and that's very important. But the culture? And the more the left controls, the more totalitarian it is."
Asked about Prager's remarks, a spokesman for the Manning Centre said "meh."
Troy Lanigan, president of the Manning Centre, said he had not heard of Prager's comments before CBC News reached out but he's "OK with some controversy" as "conservatives tend not to be part of the cancel culture movement."
Like it or not, Canadians live under the neoliberal order. We bought our membership during the Mulroney/Thatcher/Reagan era. At the time we really didn't give it much thought. The warnings from the left went unheeded. The critics, after all, just wanted to hold us back.  Now, decades later, it's becoming apparent those warnings were prescient.

Our federal government is neoliberal. The opposition is neoliberal. Ditto for our provincial governments, even under the NDP. We know nothing else. It can seem that our political, economic and cultural memory has been erased. That explains why so many still cling to the mantle of progressives when it has become an empty word. Ask yourself what neoliberalism means to you. What are the many facets of neoliberalism, how do they operate, what impact have they had on you, what lies ahead?

What Giroux wrote of in 2004 has recently been the subject of several scholarly articles that reveal authoritarianism to be nothing more than terminal or late-stage neoliberalism. Our incomplete grasp of neoliberalism has blinded us. There is a good primer on neoliberalism that was posted at NewPolitics in the summer of 2015, "Neoliberalism, Austerity, and Authoritarianism." It's a handy guide to understanding the neoliberal order.
Ask anyone what neoliberalism means and they’ll tell you it’s an economic system that corresponds to a particular economic philosophy. But any real-world economic system has a corresponding political system to promote and sustain it. Milton Friedman, who has become known as the father of neoliberal thinking, claims in his text Capitalism and Freedom that “the role of the government … is t o do something that the market cannot do for itself, namely, to determine, arbitrate, and enforce the rules of the game.”* While neoliberalism’s advocates like to claim that the political system that corresponds to their economic preference is a democratic, minimal state, in practice, the neoliberal state has demonstrated quite the opposite tendency.
...The original liberals, or classical liberals as they are usually called, were those Enlightenment-era thinkers of Western European origin who desired to limit the authority of the feudal state and defended individual rights by restricting the power of the state, the crown, the nobility, and the church. The “neo” prefix serves as a romantic symbol, an attempt at establishing a (sometimes forced) common ground with historical figures like Adam Smith and the classical liberals, who challenged the tendencies of the monarchy to interfere in the economy for its own gain, producing inefficiency. Neoliberal economic thinkers are famously known for deriding government intervention in the economy, precisely because they trace their foundation to a period when markets were seen not just as a source of better economic outcomes, but as a weapon to challenge concentrated political power.
...Friedrich Hayek, whose text The Road to Serfdom, published in 1944, is arguably the most celebrated of the neoliberal canon, sought to show how government interference in the economy forms the basis of fascist and other totalitarian regimes, contrary to the then widely accepted notion that it was capitalist crisis that had produced fascism in Europe. For Hayek, the strong state, whether in the form of fascism, Soviet communism, or the creeping socialism of the British Labour Party, was to be eschewed. 
If neoliberalism springs from a desire to combat the growing power and influence of the state, how is it that neoliberalism has produced not only a very robust state apparatus, but, as I will argue, an authoritarian one? The answer is that neoliberalism in practice has been quite different from its theory.
The neoliberals claim to eschew the state yet they have moved to capture it.  In the States we watched as the process began with legislative capture, the evolution of America's "bought and paid for" Congress. This begat regulatory capture in which regulatory boards and tribunals became dominated, that is to say controlled, by men and women seconded directly from the regulated industries themselves. Today America has a powerfully undemocratic president, a man whom some theorists claim is the "culmination" of the neoliberal revolution. And, of course, Trump has made a priority of stacking the deck in his appointments to the US Supreme Court and other federal courts, grooming them with "reliably conservative" jurists. Thus the corruption of the signature branches of American government is complete, the vaunted system of checks and balances neutralized.
As David Harvey points out in A Brief History of Neoliberalism, the neoliberals’ economic ideals suffer from inevitable contradictions that require a state structure to regulate them. The first of these contradictions revolves around the role of law to ensure the individual’s superiority over the collective in the form of private ownership rights and intellectual property rights (patents and copyrights). A judicial system is necessary to designate and regulate the interaction between private actors on the market.
The second contradiction derives from the elites’ historical ambivalence regarding democracy and mass participation. If the people were free to make decisions about their lives democratically, surely the first thing they would do is interfere with the property rights of the elite, posing an existential threat to the neoliberal experiment. Whether these popular aspirations take the form of drives towards unionization, progressive taxation, or pushing for social policies that require the redistribution of resources, the minimal state cannot be so minimal that it is unable to respond to and crush the democratic demands of citizens. After all, as pointed out in the first contradiction, the neoliberal state exists in theory to guarantee the rights of the individual over the demands of a majority.
The inevitable ascendancy of authoritarianism is what Giroux termed the "eclipse of democracy."
Any method that seeks to subvert the democratic demands of citizens, whether through force, coercion, or social engineering, is authoritarian. I argue here that the neoliberal state is authoritarian in two distinct but related forms. First, the historical imposition of neoliberalism on nation-states is the result of anti-democratic forces. Second, the maintenance of neoliberalism requires a market society achieved through a transformation in civil society. For this transformation to take place, welfare states must be slimmed down by austerity policies in order to turn over to the market potentially lucrative sectors of the social economy (in health care, education, social security, and so on). Public resources must become privatized; the public good must be produced by private initiative. Neoliberal economic policy can only function with a state that encourages its growth by actively shaping society in its own image, and austerity is the tool to push for that transformation. While the subversion of democracy is clearly authoritarian, the drive towards a market society and the social engineering necessary to maintain that society are further expressions of the de facto authoritarianism of neoliberalism and the neoliberal state.
Neoliberalism needs to ensure its own survival by bending civil society, political institutions, and democracy to its will.

A state that so blatantly puts the rights and needs of one small class of citizens over others cannot be installed without a struggle. And further analysis shows us that once neoliberal regimes come into power, a certain degree of social engineering and coercion are necessary in order to guarantee the submission of the population and ensure the smooth accumulation of capital.
The neoliberal order, ideology, culture is a revolutionary process that we failed to see until it was probably too late.

As democracy wanes, social cohesion fails and what had been a more or less harmonious society succumbs to tribalism. It leads to an "us versus them" society that, as it splits, weakens and becomes easy prey for guys like Trump, Orban, Bolsonaro, Erdogan and many others of their ilk. To those of us who don't drift to the far right this looks like a nightmare because it is.

How do we unravel all of this? How do we excise the rot? Have we left it too late? Possibly, probably. In my opinion the way back must begin with democratic restoration. Unless and until we achieve that we're trapped. "Consent of the governed" must be given meaning again. 

You can't engage the public will when one party can form a solid majority government on the strength of fewer than two votes out of five. When a party wins a majority with a minority of votes cast that disenfranchises the majority of the electorate. When the party that takes that majority then proceeds to renege on its fundamental election promises, it operates without a legitimate mandate. That's not democracy. False majority is phony democracy and there's nothing benign about it. That is why you see powerful interests, special interests routinely prevail over the public interest. That corruption of democracy is the subject of the 2014 study out of Princeton by Gilens (Princeton) and Page (Northwestern).  They traced how America gradually morphed from democracy into plutocracy.

Social cohesion in the United States is fractured. It's claimed that the US has not been so divided since the Civil War. Can anyone say Canada is not on the same path?

As democracy wanes, social cohesion fails and what had been a more or less harmonious society succumbs to tribalism. It leads to an "us versus them" society that, as it splits, weakens and becomes easy prey for guys like Trump, Orban, Bolsonaro, Erdogan and many others of their ilk. To those of us who don't drift to the far right this looks like a nightmare because it is.

When I set up my blog 14 years ago I dedicated it to the "restoration of progressive democracy." There's been little sign of democracy rebounding in the meantime. For all the valid arguments against it, electoral reform is the key to arresting this slide. If we reject it, we reject representative democracy in a multi-party state and the alternative is the one we're experiencing now.

Unfortunately Justin is no philosopher prince. He was not gifted with his father's intellectual prowess. He embraces neoliberalism and rejects electoral reform/democratic restoration. There's not a lot he can do for Canada wearing those blinders. He certainly cannot arrest the atrophy of democracy in our country. He can't steer us away from the day we might have a Trump of our very own.

(Photo - Jair Bolsonaro live streamed himself riveted to the television for a full hour while Donald Trump proclaimed his exoneration in the Senate impeachment trial)

No comments: