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Attacking The Neoliberal Ideology

The organizing question of the first phase of my neoliberalism project was how neoliberalism became the dominant discourse in the US. We looked into the dogma of neoliberalism and some of its pillars, particularly neoclassical economics, especially William Stanley Jevons. We looked at history, with Veblen, Arendt, Polanyi and others. I looked at Foucault, the Frankfurt School, and Pierre Bourdieu, and then read a bit of current Marxism through Wood, and a more or less orthodox defender of capitalism, Scott. These readings led to my current view.

I began the project with the view that the post-WWII economic system had morphed into neoliberal capitalism in the 1970s. I now think of our current economic system as capitalism operating with few constraints and having coopted government to act on its behalf and against the interests of most Americans. The removal of restraints and the coopting of government were driven by an ideology, neoliberalism. The ideology was created by a small group, mostly economists. It explains and justifies domination by wealthy capitalists and inspires acceptance of that domination by most Americans.

Neoliberalism began to take over in the early 1970s when the post-WWII economy faltered. The rich began to pour money into pushing the theory that free markets are crucial form of freedom. One important reading on this subject is Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom. Driven by huge sums of money, neoliberalism appears to be nothing more than another effort by the dominant class, meaning the rich and powerful, to justify its dominant status both for itself and for the subjected class, meaning the rest of us.

As an aside, I note that economists see themselves as uniquely positioned to explain the workings of society to us drudges, barely able to lift our heads from the machinery of production and shake the noise from our brains so we can hear the fruits of their genius. In support, I offer Friedman’s take on racism from Capitalism and Freedom,3 p. 94.

… [T]here are real problems in defining and interpreting discrimination. The man who exercises discrimination pays a price for doing so. He is, as it were, ”buying” what he regards as a “product.” It is hard to see that discrimination can have any meaning other than a “taste” of others that one does not share. We do not regard it as “discrimination” or at least not in the same invidious sense if an individual is willing to pay a higher price to listen to one singer than to another, although we do if he is willing to pay a higher price to have services rendered to him by a person of one color than by a person of another. The difference between the two cases is that in the one case we share the taste, and in the other case we do not. Is there any difference in principle between the taste that leads a householder to prefer an attractive servant to an ugly one and the taste that leads another to prefer a Negro to a white or a white to a Negro, except that we sympathize and agree with the one taste and may not with the other? I do not mean to say that all tastes are equally good.

In the second part of this series, I intend to look at two issues. First, what do academic studies say about ideologies, especially their creation, and their effect on those who adopt them. Second, what can be done to attack an ideology and dislodge it.

As to the first part, I have several hypotheses.

1. Ideologies are cognitive structures shared by a large number of people. People use them to to to orient their choices, to justify their actions, to explain the outcomes of their behaviors, and to explain themselves to others. They become tools to understand society as a whole. Ideologies do not spring magically into the collective mind. They are constructed by humans, and reflect the personal interests of the constructors to a greater or lesser extent.

2. Ideologies have meaning only when articulated. People may share a set of structures, but it’s when they begin to use the structures to talk about, and thus to share, their a) guides to behavior, b) public justifications for their actions and c) explanations for outcomes, that the ideology can be seen to dominate the discourse.

3. The people who articulate the structure can make it work for their benefit by careful construction of the tenets of the ideology.

4. Once the tenets are established, people reason with them instead of considering the actual facts of a situation.

5. Once an ideology is articulated, it becomes possible to see the real organizing principles, the interests served, and the people responsible. The organizing principles may never be articulated by the creators. This leads to the double movement of ideologies, identified in the case of neoliberalism by Philip Mirowski’s. See, e.g., Never Let A Serious Crisis Go To Waste.

I’ll be looking at literature on ideologies to see whether any of these intuitions are correct.

As to the second part, dislodging the discourse, there seem to be two opposing views. One is that you can’t replace something with nothing, so you have to have a replacement ideology before you can hope to dislodge the dominant ideology. The other pole is that first you change the facts on the ground for the better. This shows people that the old ideology produced bad results. That makes room for a new ideology that explains the good outcomes. The second view seems to be motivating the new breed of Democrats, who want change to meet problems, but aren’t interested in adopting a preplacement ideology. Of course, plenty of Democrats cling to their “We’re neoliberals, but not ugly like those Republicans” mantra. This includes most of the current leaders of the Party, who are hooked on big money from corporate interests.

I don’t like either view. I think you have to have some explanation for changes besides meeting pressing needs in order to have a coherent program. Even in the early stages of change, there should be motivating principles. Fortunately as I struggled to get started on this part of the project, I found this fascinating article in the New Yorker, a profile of the philosopher Elizabeth Anderson titled The Philosopher Redefining Equalitysd. It seems to me that she teaches a number of the ideas that I have written about, including the pragmatism of John Dewey who I wrote about at FDL, and what it means to be free in a system where capitalists control much of our lives. I’ll be reading her work and commentary in dealing with the second part.

Finally, a word about current politics. I think the motivating principle of neoliberalism is that the rich should be in charge of everything, not just the economy. In current political discourse, people, including me, say that many Democratic politicians, including Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, are neoliberals. It’s important to understand the reason I think this way. I don’t think Democratic politicians believe that the rich should run everything. They do, however, privilege what they call “market solutions” and tweaks to the current system over the massive change that is obviously needed. They may not be neoliberal in principle, but they are neoliberal in action. To me this is a meaningful distinction. It means that any Democrat is a better choice than any Republican, but that it’s possible to be better. I worry that if there are no articulated principles for evaluating new policies, there is a danger that neoliberal principles will be used. I see PAYGO as an example of this concern.

Now that the Democrats have taken the House and seem to have momentum going into the election cycle, these distinctions are critical. We need to have this discussion openly, and without regard to the defenders of the dominant class. After all, the dominant class is the tiniest of minorities. It has no justifiable claim to its dominance, and we need to make that obvious.

Update: I forgot to thank Eureka for a comment that crystalized my thinking about how to proceed.

Democracy Against Capitalism: Conclusion of the Conclusion

Index to all posts in this series.

My original plan for the multi-part conclusion was to show the differences between the analysis of Ellen Meiksins Wood in Democracy Against Capitalism and the views of Bruce Scott in Capitalism: Its Origins And Evolution As A System Of Governance. I quickly found a number of similarities in their views of capitalism and its dangers. I expected to find differences in their views of democracy, that Scott would edge away from Wood’s view that democracy is failing us, based primarily on what appears to be an early draft of Chapter 13 of his book. I was wrong. Scott also believes that democracy as practiced today is failing at the task of controlling the excesses of capitalism.

As evidence, this is from the very last paragraph of the epilogue:

This brief look at the role of the firm in a capitalist society suggests that achieving accountability for firms is a vital aspect of a successful, decentralized system of decision-making. At the same time, it suggests that achieving such accountability on a continuing basis as conditions change is anything but a simple task. As a result, market frameworks can be expected to be continually contested between the firms, the regulators, and other societal interests that are affected. We should expect that some measure of distortion is the rule rather than the exception.

That’s from page 639, so not really a brief look. Scott blames neoliberalism, though he doesn’t use that term. Instead, he argues with Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom throughout the first part of his book, so effectively that the reader cannot take Friedman’s neoliberalism seriously. In a scholarly work such as this, the following counts as invective.

A second view, and arguably a very influential one among US economists, was that capitalism is a self-regulating system based upon voluntary transactions among consenting adults. This view, which has drawn little benefit of any historical perspective, is perhaps best exemplified by Milton Friedman and the Chicago School. P. 12.

In Scott’s telling, the US chose to separate the economy from the rest of society, and turned over management of the economy to the private sector, subject only to rules enacted by the political arm. That led to frequent financial crises and then to the Great Depression. Scott sees the New Deal as the government’s response to unbridled capitalism, and bases his model on the interregnum.

But then he confronts the obvious: beginning in the 1970s the political arm wrecked the regulatory framework of laws, regulations and institutions that held capitalism under light but firm control. Without controls, capitalism now threatens to democracy itself as firms have once again become strong enough to control governments at all levels, just as they were from the 1870s through 1932. In his discussion of the Great Crash of 2008, he again criticizes neoliberalism, this time Alan Greenspan. According to Scott, Greenspan’s ideology has no basis in reality or values, and it caused damage to millions of Americans.

As to the impact on democracy, Scott says:

Democracy is premised on the notion of moral equality among individuals and the freedom of self-determination; inequalities beyond some limit become incongruous. Capitalism, on the other hand, is premised upon the notion of granting individuals economic freedoms to develop their talents and resources, as well as “the primary freedom of choice in the market place.” Though individuals are subject to governance through regulated forms of competition, those who excel in that competition receive higher rewards, which they are allowed to retain and build upon to achieve still further advantage. How can two systems based upon such differing premises manage to be mutually stabilizing let alone mutually supportive? P. 96; fn omitted. The quote is from a third party.

Scott doesn’t offer a path to change, but then there’s no reason he should in a scholarly history of economics. Wood believes that nothing will change unless the working class leads the way. I took up the issue of class in the Marxist sense here, but I think the Marxist definition in terms of relations to the means of production is nearly useless today. Instead, I propose that the working class consists of those who must sell their labor to live. It includes a large number of managers and professionals who have not accumulated wealth, and those who suffer the stress of trying to live a middle class life when the things that life requires steadily increase in cost while wages and salaries remain stagnant. With that definition Wood is right: no change will come without the insistence of the workers.

And here’s the fun part: they seem to agree that capitalists are the problem. Wood is a Marxist, so her view is expected. Scott is a genteel defender of capitalism, as a review of the section on the Great Crash reveals. He thinks it was caused by

… mistaken ideas and beliefs among the major actors themselves. These mistaken ideas led to repeated policy mistakes. P. 616, fn omitted.

As a side note, bland justifications like this are sprinkled throughout the text, and that’s why I see Scott as a defender of capitalism. Anyway, by “mistaken ideas” he means neoliberalism. He says bluntly that the capitalists caused the Great Crash and were not held accountable by being fired for incompetence, but he ignores the their fraud. P. 639.

Neither Wood nor Scott engages with any of the theoretical ideas I took up in my discussions of Polanyi, Arendt, Veblen, the Frankfurt School, Foucault, or Pierre Bourdieu.

And finally, neither Scott nor Wood offers a path forward. Regulate capitalism or die, they say, but they offer nothing to those of us trying to figure out what is to be done.

As I see it, there is a general agreement running across all these writers that capitalist ideologies, first laissez-faire and now a more sophisticated neoliberalism, is a serious problem for democracy. In theoretical terms, it seems to me that neoliberalism is imposed by the capitalists on society as an act of what Bourdieu called symbolic violence. The ideology offers the dominant class (capitalists) a tool for maintaining their position while the dominated class (everyone else) accepts that dominance as right and just, because it is the outcome of the ideology they accept and follow.

This suggests a strategy for serious change. Attack neoliberalism directly and forcefully as a theoretical ideology with no factual basis, just as Scott claims. In doing so, you aren’t condemning markets or competition. You are attacking an invented theory used by the dominant class to pretend that its dominance is natural and just. A good bit of what I’ve written in these posts is directed at ways to attack neoliberalism, but I’m no Frank Luntz and do not know how to turn these ideas into practice. Still, that’s what I think we have to do.

Democracy Against Capitalism: Conclusion Part 3

Index to all posts in this series.

In the first two parts of this conclusion, I describe the views of Ellen Meiksins Wood, based on her book, Democracy Against Capitalism, and the friendlier vision of capitalism offered by Bruce Scott. See posts 12 and 13 in the index for links. In this post I examine some of the similarities between the two views.

1. Both Scott and Wood use the principles of historical materialism, the basic idea underlying Marxist scholarship. It holds that the social structures that exist at any point are the result of an evolutionary process, and are contingent on the specific circumstances of each society and the actions of individuals and the society as a whole. Scott does not use the term historical materialism, and he certainly isn’t a Marxist, but doesn’t exactly repudiate Marx either.

Karl Marx supposed that liberal markets would be dominated by capitalists (i.e., powerful economic actors), which would lead to their domination of the political system as well. There was some truth to this at the time that he wrote, and it can certainly still happen today, but it is not a necessary outcome as he supposed. P. 62.

However, Scott does follow the general principles of historical materialism. He compares the evolution of capitalism in the US to its evolution in other societies and to the evolution of the economies of other societies. This gives him an outside vantage point which he fully uses.

2. Wood and Scott agree that the separation of political economy into politics and the economy was central to the evolution of capitalism. Wood opens with a discussion of this separation and its importance. Scott emphasizes the role of human agency in the evolution of capitalism.

This essential human role means that capitalism is a mix of sociology, administration, politics, economics, and law, and that any theory of capitalism must include not only an economic level but also a political level, what I call here the third level of political authority. P. 50.

Scott says that capitalism shifts governance of the economy to the private sector through a three-tier system: a democratically elected political authority, institution/infrastructure intermediaries, and firms, with all three levels acting and interacting. This is close to Wood’s view that the private sector controls the economy subject only to the barest intervention by the state. Scott seems to agree with Wood’s assertion that the private sector controls the lives of the productive sector with little or no democratic oversight. Scott doesn’t address this latter point except indirectly. See, e.g. pp. 128, 448, 455, and others. Wood and Scott agree that democratic control of the economy is crucial to a balanced society. Both would benefit from reading modern scholarship on this issue and its history. For those interested, a good place to start is Michel Foucault, Discipilne and Punish, the subject of this post.

3. Wood relies on Marx’ laws of motion of capitalism and other formal statements of Marxism. She goes to some lengths, as do other Marxists, to define terms. Scott echoes this. He carefully analyzes a number of definitions of capitalism and finds them wanting, before moving on to his own definition.

Scott’s definition is based on his observations of the way capitalism works. Marx also described capitalism as he saw it and Scott says Marx was right to think that capitalism would eventually become a struggle between the capitalists and the proletariat, because government had not begun to intervene at that time. See p. 29.

4. Wood insists that Marxian descriptions of the economy are the most accurate, and her book tries to apply those principles to the way things are today. Her recommendations for change and the road to change are straight out of Marx.

Scott is committed to capitalism as the best way to manage the economy. He recognizes that there are problems, but he sees deviations from his model as something to be corrected, not as the natural working of the system. For example, take cable companies. Government and the cable companies arranged the system from the outset to entrench their monopolies in a process that totally ignored public input. The government doesn’t force any real competition, as it does in France, or intervene in price-setting. Absent competition, it’s hard to call cable a capitalist market, or a market at all. That isn’t a deviation from Scott’s model, it’s the way US capitalism works. At some point the deviations from the model tell us that we should rethink the model. We could, for example, treat the model as an ideal form, and use it to change a system. Or we stare coldly at the real problems we face and come up with a new model.

Wood’s commitment to Marx leads to failure to come to grips with the changes in the organization of society and technology in the century since Marx wrote, and her apparent failure to come to grips with non-Marxist thinkers, including Foucault, the Frankfurt School, and Pierre Bourdieu among those I have read for this project. Scott doesn’t discuss these either, even as he says that to analyze capitalism properly we have to take politics and sociology into account. P. 50. Neither focuses on the actual problems facing our society, especially climate change.

5. Both Wood and Scott reject neoliberal doctrine without exactly acknowledging it. Wood thinks that neoliberalism is just the name of the ideology developed to support the form of capitalism Marx predicted. See this article, which I took up in post 6 in the linked index. Scott is equally dismissive. See, e.g. p. 62; here’s a brief taste:

Followers of Friedman tend to not only overlook but also actively reject this role of government in the capitalist system. According to them, informed, voluntary, and bilateral transactions are the essence of a self-regulating capitalist system and therefore that system can and must be free from governmental coercion. But in reality, coercion is to be found in most capitalist markets; large firms coerce those that are smaller, a patent holder enjoys market power, an employer typically authorizes only one employee to make a job offer to a prospective employee, and employees may or may not organize to bargain in a similar format.

As I have said repeatedly in this series, you don’t have to be a Marxist to reject neoliberal capitalism. All it takes is a clear head and a willingness to stare at reality.

Democracy Against Capitalism: Conclusion Part 2

Index to all posts in this series.

The Marxist views of Ellen Meiksins Wood in Democracy Against Capitalism give a bleak picture of capitalism which I contrasted with the view offered by Bruce Scott, the Paul Whiton Cherington Professor of Business Administration, Emeritus, at the Harvard Business School. Scott’s paper, The Political Economy of Capitalism is apparently a draft of a chapter of a book he wrote titled Capitalism: Its Origins and Evolution as a System of Governance. The book is available here.

The paper gives a picture of capitalism as an organic system that evolves as it encounters new things, rather than as a physical system, one subject to the laws of physics and chemistry. Scott calls capitalism a form of indirect governance of the economy. Here’s an extended quote from the paper that gives a fair picture.

Capitalism, as I define the term, is an indirect system of governance based on a complex and continually evolving political bargain in which private actors are empowered by a political authority to own and control the use of property for private gain subject to a set of laws and regulations. Workers are free to work for wages, capital is free to earn a return, and both labor and capital are free to enter and exit from various lines of business. Capitalism relies upon the pricing mechanism to balance supply and demand in markets; it relies on the profit motive to allocate opportunities and resources among competing suppliers; and it relies upon a political authority (government) to establish the rules and regulations so that they include all appropriate societal costs and benefits. Government and its agents are held accountable to provide physical security for persons and property as well as the laws and regulations. Capitalist development is built from investment in new technologies that permit increased productivity, where a variety of initiatives are selected through a Darwinian process that favors productive uses of those resources, and from the periodic modernization of the legal and regulatory framework as indicated by changing market conditions and societal priorities. Capitalist development requires that government play two roles, one administrative, in providing and maintaining the institutions that underpin capitalism, and the other entrepreneurial, in mobilizing power to modernize these institutions as needed.

I leave it as an exercise for the reader to work out the wide variances between his conceptualization of capitalism and real live capitalism. I will only point out the most obvious problem: the externalities of pollution are not corrected by any regulation or law, efforts to do so have been struck down by the courts, and the coming disaster cannot and will not be fixed by capitalism.

In the book, Scott says that he was dissatisfied with existing histories of capitalism because they were observational rather than explanatory. What he found lacking was human agency. This book is his attempt to incorporate human agency into the history of the evolution of capitalism.

When human agency is taken into account, the story of US industrial development in the 19th century becomes one of competition between those who wanted to empower firms to grow and become more productive and inevitably more powerful politically as well as economically, and those who wished to establish a regulatory framework to protect the public from the abuse of private power by those same firms, for instance, through regulation of railroad rates and/or by restricting the rights of firms to grow through mergers and acquisitions. P. xxi.

Scott claims that our current system features two systems of government, one for the economy and one for all other matters. The economy is managed by private interests, under rules and laws created by the central authority and by intermediary institutions. He calls this indirect governance of the economy. The other part of society is governed directly by the central authority. He identifies a three tier system of governance for the economy, using a sports analogy. In Olympic sports, there are the athletes and the games at one level, the governing bodies of the sports at another, and the top tier is occupied by the Olympics organization. By analogy, there are business firms at the first level of the economy, then institutional foundations, such as regulatory authorities, and then the elected officials at the third level.

In sports, as indeed in capitalism, political authorities play two distinct roles: one administrative, in maintaining the existing system of playing fields and enforcing the existing rules, and the second entrepreneurial, in mobilizing power to win the needed votes in the legislature in order to admit new teams, change the locations or timing of competition, change the rules and regulations, and/or change the distribution of revenues. Book, p. 50.

It’s possible to see the US system of capitalism as Scott describes it, at least in abstract theoretical terms. I don’t think he has solved the human agency question correctly. At least in the parts I’ve read so far, Scptt doesn’t discuss power relations in capitalism. For Wood, power relations are central to capitalism. She identifies those relations as the social relations between producers and capitalists: domination, exploitation and appropriation. Compare that with the description in the quote from Scott’s paper above: workers are free to work for wages (or not), capitalists are free to invest seeking a return (or not). What happens to workers who don’t work for wages? What happens to capitalists who don’t invest? The different outcomes are obvious: the workers starve, and the capitalists lives off their money.

Scott also understates the problems created by the power of the capitalists inside the organizational structure he describes. He is clear that capitalists have the ability to lobby, buy politicians and regulators and courts, and to rig the system in their favor. He recognizes that some of the gains of capitalists are the result of the “deliberate distortion of [market] frameworks for private advantage” but calls them by the bloodless term “externalities”. From the paper:

While small imperfections can be overlooked as acceptable aspects of an imperfect process, large, deliberate distortions for private gain are likely to add to the income inequalities in the society, creating and/or sustaining a vicious circle in which the markets serve as a way for the rich to exploit the poor. On the other hand, if a poor majority were to take political power in a country or region it could use that political power to shape institutions to disadvantage the rich, including to take their property.

Fear of letting the poor have a significant role in government has motivated the dominant classes throughout history, with few concrete examples of the horrible possiblity of losses by the rich.

And I’ll say again, capitalism isn’t going to fix the coming planetary disaster. In fact it’s going to make it worse by insisting on pumping more carbon dioxide and other chemicals into our environment. The continued profitability of huge swathes of the economy depends on it. As long as the economy is governed solely by the profit motive, there can be no solution.

Update.

Commenter Anon raises an interesting question: can the bloodless quality of Bruce Scott’s account of capitalism be attributed to Scott’s life work in the Harvard Business School. There is a partial answer in the Preface, which may be the single most useful preface I have ever read. He describes the evolution of his ideas, complete with the names of individuals, including his research associates, who helped him formulate them, and books and experiences that were important.

For those interested, this is worth reading, and I have a better understanding of the question Anon raises. In short, I think Scott has a framework grounded in standard economics and standard political science. He works at moving away from it, as is evident in his flat rejection of neoliberalism (he doesn’t use that term), as well as by his clear affinity for a form of capitalism. Thus, he finds himself in the gap between the structured views of capitalism we see in Wood, and the materials he found useless or dead wrong. He wants to construct a different view, but he tries to salvage as much as possible of the views he’s always held.

I’ll add a discussion of the similarities between Scott and Wood in the next part of this extended conclusion.

Democracy Against Capitalism: Conclusion Part 1

Index to posts in this series.

I didn’t see a precise definition of capitalism in Democracy Against Capitalism by Ellen Meiksins Wood, though it’s obvious Wood is talking about capitalism in the UK and the US. Here’s a definition I found in a 2006 paper by Bruce R. Scott, the Paul Whiton Cherington Professor of Business Administration, Emeritus at the Harvard Business School. The paper is titled The Political Economy of Capitalism.
Scott offers this definition of capitalism taken from the Palgrave Dictionary of Economics:

Political, social, and economic system in which property, including capital assets, is owned and controlled for the most part by private persons. Capitalism contrasts with an earlier economic system, feudalism, in that it is characterized by the purchase of labor for money wages as opposed to the direct labor obtained through custom, duty or command in feudalism…. Under capitalism, the price mechanism is used as a signaling system which allocates resources between uses. The extent to which the price mechanism is used, the degree of competitiveness in markets, and the level of government intervention distinguish exact forms of capitalism. P. 2-3, fn. omitted.

He comes up with a slightly different definition, and I’ll come back to this paper in another post. I doubt this definition would be acceptable to Wood, because it hides the reality of capitalism. For example, it says that in feudalism, one class “obtains” labor from another, which is probably not how peasants experienced it. She would at least state that almost all social systems enforce some form of expropriation by a dominant class, and discuss the mechanisms of that domination and expropriation in capitalism. She would want to discuss the logic that operates in capitalism, which I take to be something like this.

a. The goal of individual capitalists is to increase the amount of capital under their control.
b. The point of capitalism as a system is to produce returns to capital. Those returns come from producing goods and services for sale at a profit.
c. Capitalists only produce goods and services for sale. Capitalists produce nothing that cannot be sold for a profit.
d. Any means that can be used to increase the returns to capital will be supported by capitalists. These include cheating on taxes, use of tax havens, pollution, screwing workers, supporting tax cuts and tax advantages for capital (lower capital gains rates, ending Estate Taxes, lower marginal rates, special depreciation rules, outright exemptions for certain types of income, extortion of state and municipal governments for tax benefits), fighting unions, bribing legislators, regulators and executive branch officials, the list is endless and as far as I know has never been assembled in one place.

These four points aren’t laws, in the sense of the laws of physics. They are simple observations of the actual behavior of the capitalist class. They paint a bleak picture of capitalism, utterly unlike the way capitalism is portrayed in the media, by the government, by politicians, by educators and even by religious leaders. Wood argues, essentially, that any benefits it confers were forced by workers or governments, and are under constant assault. Violations of laws by capitalists are never punished as the serious crimes they are. Which executive of BP, Transocean or Halliburton went to jail for blowing up a drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 people and poisoning the waters? No one is accountable for the damage done by capitalists behind the corporate shield, whether to the environment or to the people they employ.

I’ve gotten in the habit of referring to our current system of capitalism as neoliberalism, but for Wood, the capitalism we see today is just the logical growth of capitalism as Marx predicted, following the logic described above. When Marx wrote, capitalism had a solid foothold in England, but it had yet to reach its full extension. In both England and the US there were many artisans and free farmers who owned their own means of production, and were free from the imperatives of the marketplace. They had the ability to feed and shelter their families with little or no recourse to a market economy. They were for the most part free to sell or retain their production for their own use. Outside of Europe and the US, pre-capitalist economies were the dominant form.

That is no longer the case. It is very difficult for any not-rich person to provide for themselves and their families without selling their labor to capitalists. That is just as true of software engineers as it is of doctors and plumbers. No one, even the rich, can provide the necessities of life without using markets.

Wood argues that we have nearly reached the situation Marx predicted: a society of two classes, capitalists and producers. The capitalists provide some level of sustenance to those they hire, and the rest are dependent on the state or they are on the street. Or they die. The difference between the value produced by workers and their pay is sucked up by the capitalists. Although Wood doesn’t mention it, the financial sector eats up some of the sustenance received by the workers. All of us are forced to participate in a system dominated by the rich.

This system is supported by neoliberalism, an ideology dreamed up by economists and other academics. There is no point of contact with democracy. In fact, there is good reason to think that neoliberalism would work better in an autocracy or an aristocracy, and some conservatives, such as the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, think the 17th Amendment (direct election of Senators) should be repealed as a step in that direction.

The main goal of neoliberalism is to provide a theoretical basis for denying governments the power to interfere with the business activities of capitalists, an utterly anti-democratic goal. Most people spend a huge part of their time working and commuting to work, and thinking and worrying about work. Corporations now make decisions that have massive impacts on individual lives, and on society, with little or no input from government or non-rich individuals or society, and regardless of whether they serve any purpose that outweighs the damage. It’s absurd to say that the bulk of our lives should be controlled by the decisions of the rich and powerful with no democratic control. But it’s just fine under neoliberal theory. To be very specific, holders of private capital have created the current planetary environment, which is rapidly becoming inhospitable to human life. A theory that supports their efforts to do so is suicidal.

As I say, it’s a bleak picture. In the next part I look at a somewhat less somber picture.

Democracy Against Capitalism: Index To Posts

This list will be updated with links to the conclusory post or posts on Democracy Against Capitalism by Ellen Meiksins Wood, and all posts are updated to include a link to this post. As a reminder, I read this book on a Kindle, and it didn’t give page numbers. All citations are to the Kindle location, as best I could tell.

This book turned out to be very difficult going. Part of it was my own unfamiliarity with the vocabulary of Marxist thought, where even the definitions are hard to understand concretely. Part of it is that most of the previous books engage with a history I’m vaguely familiar with, while the primary issues of Marxist thought relate to the transformation of feudalism into capitalism, and from monarchy to liberalism. Wood adds detailed discussions of ancient Greek and Roman history that I didn’t knowabout. Understanding these transformation required a lot of background reading. Another difficulty is that I’m not familiar with any of the work Wood cites. Unlike most writers, Wood only engages with Marxists, with the exception of Karl Polanyi, whose work she mentions briefly.

But mostly it was difficult because it is a criticism of capitalism from outside capitalism. All of the other books I’ve discussed take capitalism as a given, and do not even offer much of a definition. At most, they criticize it from inside the bounds of capitalism. This orientation makes it very difficult for those of us raised to believe that the only option to capitalism was pure evil.

I mention these difficulties because I think this perspective is worth the difficulties of learning a new set of ideas. Even if some of the book is jargon, the value is there, and it’s worth wading through.

I did not write about Chapters 5, 8, or 9. Chapter 5 focuses on Wood’s view of Weber. The latter two chapters concern the social issues on which the left was focused during the late ’80s and early 90s. Wood argues that these issues are important, but that they were diverting leftists from the economic issues that have always been at the center of left theory. Maybe progressives are relearning the political reality that food and shelter are at the forefront of the lives of almost everyone. I generally agree with that view and have written about it repeatedly.

In my introduction, I mentioned a post by Eric Levitz, a writer at New York Magazine. I hope people will take the time to read this excellent discussion of relationship between capitalism and democracy, and the article by Jedidiah Purdy linked in it. As I have said throughout this series, you don’t have to be a Marxist to see the problems capitalism creates, and I think these two pieces illustrate that nicely.

1. Introduction To New Series.

2. Competing Stories About Wages.

3. The Separation Of Politics And Economics.

4. Capital In A Fiat Money World.

5. Base, Superstructure and More Definitions.

6. Neoliberalism.

7. Class.

8. Notes On Class.

9. Markets.

10. Democracy.

11. Liberalism.

Conclusion, Part 1 on Capitalism

12. Democracy Against Capitalism: Conclusion Part 1.

13 Democracy Against CApitalism: Conclusion Part 2.

[Photo: Annie Spratt via Unsplash]

What Happened To The Cultural Elites: Entertainment Workers

Posts in this series
What Happened To The Cultural Elites: Changes In The Conditions of Production

What Happened To The Cultural Elites: The Capitalist Celebration

Related Post
Symbolic Violence in Neoliberalism. This post describes symbolic structures and cultural producers which I call symbolic workers here.

The entertainment we enjoy helps us to understand our society, how we fit into it and what we might expect from our interactions with it. Some of what we learn can become part of our habitus, our predispositions in dealing with the world. I don’t have much of a framework for this, but I’m just going to plunge ahead. I know that this is too broad, so caveat: not all violence, not all romances, not all symbolic workers, etc; also hooray for escapism.

My general view is that the idea of markets has totally taken over the entertainment field, with bad consequences for individuals and our society. Every creative idea has to get access to a channel controlled by big capital. That requires getting past gatekeepers who are only interested in ideas with the potential for profit. That means sticking to the conventional wisdom, or at least not straying far from it. If you can’t get access, your idea is limited to small channels, and it only gets into public notice if it goes viral. Few things go viral, meaning that many clever ideas go nowhere.

In this post I’ll take two examples of the results: the culture of fear and violence, and reinforcement of the stereotypes of the relations between men and women.

I never thought much about the violence in the movies and on TV until I saw the 1991 movie, The Silence of the Lambs, starring Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster, and directed by Jonathan Demme. Here’s Roger Ebert’s review. He describes it as a horror movie, and true enough, the movie is terrifying and horrible. But it’s also a work of art, specifically murder and torture depicted artfully.

Rembrandt, The Slaughtered Ox, 1655, Louvre, Paris

Now I see the violence in movies and TV shows, and as ugly as it is, it doesn’t compare with cable news channels. They love shock and awe of bombing and missile attacks, and talk somberly about the regrettable loss of human life alongside tributes to our brave troops, all with the accompaniment of patriotic music. Local news competes on the basis of fires, car crashes and murders.

Michael Moore looked at the issue of gun violence in the US in his documentary Bowling For Columbine. He doesn’t draw firm conclusions, but points to several possible explanations, one of which is the culture of fear in the US. In the movie Moore interviews sociologist Barry Glassner, whose book The Culture of Fear was one of the influences behind the movie. I haven’t read the book, but here’s a review featuring an interview with Glassner.

“The public has become skeptical and critical of the news media in recent years – and part of the reason has to do with ignoring truly important concerns and compounding others beyond all reason,” said Glassner.

The sociologist ended up spending five years poring over more than 10,000 newspaper, radio and television accounts of social issues, and he discovered a distinct pattern.

“Scratch the surface of any pseudo-fear and you’ll find a wide array of groups that stand to benefit from promoting the scares, including businesses, advocacy organizations, religious sects and political parties,” Glassner said.

What Glassner and Moore portray is the contrast between the US self-description as the glorious Home of the Brave and the reality, a large population of bed-wetters. The bed-wetters aren’t brave, but they are full of bravado, much of it centered around their guns. They see themselves the brave men standing on the wall protecting us from immigrants and criminals. I’m pretty sure these images came from movies and TV shows.

Another major part of the entertainment business is books. Here’s a nice review of statistics on the industry, showing that one of the big genres is romance novels. Not coincidentally, romance is a big part of TV and movies. There are several cable channels devoted to this genre, including Lifetime and Hallmark. Romance books, movies and sitcoms reinforce the stereotypes of women. Ebert noticed a version of this in his review of Silence of The Lambs:

The movie has an undercurrent of unwelcome male attention toward [Jodie Foster’s] character; rarely in a movie have I been made more aware of the subtle sexual pressures men put upon women with their eyes.

In the horror/thriller genre, the primary role played by women is helplessness, and the male provides that help, rescuing her, or avenging her. That works in the romance genre as well. Here’s a blurb for a book currently on the Amazon Best Seller list for romance:

“Let’s get married.”

That was the last thing I had in mind.
Then I saw Holly, a curvy redhead in a tight green dress.
I knew she was mine. And I had to claim her.

Reading on we find out Holly been taken by a drug cartel, and he’s going to have to rescue her. Also, he’s a hot billionaire. There’s a whole subset of these books where the hero is a hot billionaire. It’s great that hot billionaires are just like regular guys only more so, built like linebackers and just dying to marry a random pretty grade school teacher or college dropout trying to make enough money to go back to college and learn to work with autistic children.

Hallmark movies are asexual versions of these books, only cheaper. The goal of the woman is to get married; the goal of her friends and family is to get her married; and it all works out and is sealed with a chaste kiss.

There is no sense of the real world in these movies. The couple never sleep together. They don’t talk about politics or housework or work or children or any of the other things dating couples get to eventually. No one lives in fear of job loss, or any kind of insecurity not related to getting married. The writers never get the details right; they seem indifferent to the way things work in the real world. There is always someone with a wise word about love that sounds like something from a self-help book. Of course these movies and books are escapism, but they reinforce stereotypes of the relations between men and women and a positive view of capitalism.

As Glassner says in the quote above, fear-mongering isn’t spontaneously generated. It’s stirred up by people seeking an advantage of some kind. They don’t do this directly. Instead, they hire symbolic workers and set them to work creating the symbolic structures that benefit them. In the first two posts in this series, I describe some of the overall influences affecting all cultural producers, the consolidation of employment and consequent reduction of entrepreneurial opportunities, and the general acceptance of capitalism as a given, rather than as a contested theory.

Our entertainment is created by large organizations funded by large pools of capital. That’s true of movies, television, professional sports and music. Workers in the entertainment field are subject to the pressures of commercialism, which cuts against their individual creativity and intellectual autonomy. And, they all accept the capitalist system as the overall structure of society and social relations.

The people who write romances books, make horrifyingly violent movies and operate cable news and local news are only able to reach the public through gatekeepers, all of which are large conglomerates. All of these symbolic workers are subject to the bureaucratic pressures affecting all salaried employees, and the hierarchy of these businesses ensure that the gatekeepers don’t screw up and let something subversive into the public arena.

As the entertainment industry has coalesced into a few giant players in each area from movies to television to publishing, the intellectual freedom and creativity of symbolic workers has been narrowed to a tiny range. Conglomeration is great for reproducing the class structure, and for reinforcing the conventional wisdom. The symbolic workers in this business aren’t intellectually autonomous in any real sense. No matter what they think of their jobs, they are merely doing the work of reinforcing the symbolic structures desired by their employers.

Three Things: Non-Nuclear Proliferation

The entire social media universe has been panicking over Fearless Leader’s whacked-out statement on North Korea at the end of his bigly speech yesterday on opioids. His hyperbole was on par with his decades of hawkishness about nuclear weapons, so both unsurprising while infuriating.

What I want to know: did he say what he did to distract from the Trump-Russia investigation underway, and/or did he say what he did roughly 30 minutes before the stock market closed for somebody’s benefit? I’d love to know who might have been short selling yesterday afternoon and this morning after his recent petulant tweet hyping the stock market’s record highs. Things don’t look good today, either, in spite of calming noises from Secretary of Exxon Tillerson.

[source: Google Finance]

Whatever. Let’s look at some non-nuclear matters.

~ 3 ~

The New York Times’ op-ed, Our Broken Economy, trended yesterday morning on Twitter and is still making waves today. It’s a pretty good read with compelling charts, if not very deep. Morons across the internet have misinterpreted what it tells us, which is that income has stagnated or fallen for the majority of the U.S. while the income of the uppermost 1% to .01% has skyrocketed in less than a decade. Loss of leverage in wage negotiations due to union busting and the skyrocketing cost of secondary education have held back the lower 80%.

What has most recently ‘weaponized’ the growth of income, while destroying any illusion of the American dream? In my opinion, three things contributed the most:

— the loss of Glass-Steagall Act and the subsequent unmooring of the financial industry from risk-reducing practices which siloed capital;

Citizens United, which exacerbated the trend toward regulatory capture;

— the financial crash of 2008 and the subsequent loss of wealth for the lower 80% in terms of savings, investments, and property ownership.

But a fourth, rapidly growing factor is making difference and may also be exploding as an unintended consequence of legislation passed in 2007 requiring a larger percentage of margin on commodities trading. Algorithmic trading, conducted out of sight, skimming from every trade, on stocks rather than on commodities and at inhuman speed and scale, has increased unearned wealth but only for the very wealthiest.

Matt Bruenig says we must confront capital. Yes, but I think the appeal to do so is based in fairness, a universal ethic. A system which distorts pricing by not allocating true and full costs of the commons consumed to products and services  sold is unfair. It is not a ‘free market’ and certainly not a fair when the playing field isn’t level and not every business pays for what it consumes of the commons.

And it’s not fair when businesses deliberately suppress wages below workers’ real cost of living. That’s slavery. We don’t need charts to tell us something is wrong when the prevailing wage won’t provide meager shelter and food.

~ 2 ~

The effect of Michigan’s criminal state government on Flint doesn’t remain in Flint. More than 70 new cases of Legionnaires disease have been reported in southeastern Michigan; this time the state’s health authorities have been prompt about reporting them, unlike the shoddy reporting around cases 2-3 years ago directly related to the water in Flint.

I will bet good money many of these new cases have a link to Flint since the water system has still not been completely replaced.

Eclectablog reminds us Flint’s Water Crisis is now at Day 678 and the city has yet to be made whole though Michigan’s Gov. Rick Snyder admitted he knew that Flint’s drinking water was poisoned with lead. There are still Flint residents who cannot drink their tap water without the use of a water filter.

Given the outbreak of Legionnaires disease, I wonder how many more Michiganders may actually sicken and die because of Rick Snyder’s handling of Flint’s financial emergency and the water system.

~ 1 ~

You might already have read about the lawsuit filed against Disney for its failure to protect children’s privacy; I know Marcy tweeted about it. More than 40 applications Disney developed and sold collect information without consent about the kids using them, putting them at risk, in violation of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).

But here’s what really bugs me about this on top of the privacy problems: Disney not only had a history with violating COPPA; the government went after them in 2011 and 2014 for problems with Playdom and MarvelKids. Disney must have known competitors Mattel and VTech had problems with their network-enabled electronic toys breaching children’s privacy circa November 2015. Why did Disney fail to remediate their 43 applications more than 18 months ago when both Mattel and VTech were under fire?

Disclosure: I own Disney stock. And yes, I’m thinking shareholders should be pissed off about this failure to disclose a material risk in financial reports BEFORE parents filed a lawsuit.

~ 0 ~

That’s it for now. See you tomorrow if we haven’t already been fried to a crisp. This is an open thread – treat each other nicely.

Thursday Morning: Better than a Week

You know the joke: 4:30 p.m. is better than an hour away from 5:00 p.m., right? Thursday is better than a week away from the weekend. For folks traveling home for the Lunar New Year holiday in China, there are four days left to get home, and the train stations are crazy-full. But today is better than five days away from family and friends.

Goldman Sachs questions capitalism
YEAH. I KNOW. I did a double-take when I read the hed on this piece. In a GS analysts’ note they wrote, “There are broader questions to be asked about the efficacy of capitalism.” They’re freaking out because the market isn’t acting the way it’s supposed to, where new entrants respond to fat margins generated by first-to-market or mature producers.

I wonder how much longer it will take them to realize they killed the golden goose with their plutocratic rewards for oligopolies? How long before they realize this isn’t capitalism at all?

Whistleblower tells Swiss (and banks) to get over themselves on whistleblowing
Interviewed last week, former UBS banker Bradley Birkenfeld said, “We have to make some changes in Switzerland — it’s long overdue … The environment there is hostile toward people exposing corruption.” Birkenfeld’s remarks prod Swiss lawmakers currently at work on whistleblowing legislation. When passed, the law is not expected to offer protections employees have in the U.S. and the UK (and we know those are thin and constantly under attack). But perhaps the law will prevent cases like Nestle SA’s suit against a former executive who disclosed food safety risks. That suit and another alleging a former UBS employee libeled the bank may be affected assuming the EU adopts the same approach toward whistleblowing and corruption reduction.

“Computer failure” at IRS halts acceptance of tax return e-filings
No details about the nature of the “computer failure” apart from a “hardware problem” or “hardware failure” appeared in any reports yesterday afternoon and overnight. The IRS expects to have repairs completed today to allow e-filings once again; filings already submitted are not affected.

FBI agent on new car purchases: entering ‘wild, wild west’
Four cybersecurity experts spoke at a meeting of the Automotive Press Association in Detroit yesterday, one of whom was an FBI cyber squad agent. The feedback from the speakers wasn’t reassuring, apart from the observation by a specialist from a start-up automotive cyber security firm that they did not know of a “real world incident where someone’s vehicle was attacked and taken over remotely by someone hacking into the vehicle.” A lawyer whose firm handles automotive industry cyber threats undercut any feeling of relief with an observation that judges aren’t savvy about cyber crime on vehicles. I think I’ll stick with my old school car for a while longer.

The Repair Coalition formed to protect the ‘Right to Repair’
Speaking of old school car, I hope I can continue to get it repaired in the future without worrying about lawsuits for copyright violations. We’ve already seen tractor owners in conflict with John Deere over repairs, and exemptions to copyright for repair have been granted only after tedious and costly effort, and then to the farmer only, not to their mechanic. Hence the emergence of The Repair Coalition, which takes aim at repealing the DMCA’s Section 1201 — terms in it make it illegal to “circumvent a technological measure that effectively controls access to a work protected under [the DMCA].”

It’s long been an American ethic to “Use it up, wear it out, make do, or do without,” an ethic we need to restore to primacy if we are to reduce our CO2 footprint. Repairing rather than tossing goods is essential to our environmental health, let alone a necessity when wages for lower income workers remain stagnant.

That’s a wrap — I could go on but now we’re better than a day away from Friday. Whew.