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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.

Notes on Trumpian Motion Series

Posts in this series; some of the terms I use are described more fully in these posts.
Trumpian Motion
Negative Responses to Trumpian Motion
Economic Elites Drive Trumpian Motion
Beneficiaries of Trumpian Motion
Notes on Trumpian Motion Series

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1. I try to keep these posts to a reasonable length, which means leaving out a lot, especially a lot of supporting history. I appreciate the additional history provided by several commenters, including especially EarlOfHuntington in several of these posts.

2. One of the issues in this post is the conflict between cultural capital and religious capital. This is not a struggle over money. Instead, using Bourdieu’s terms, the struggle is for symbolic power, the power to define the way we understand ourselves, our society, and the world we live in. We shouldn’t assume that either the holders of cultural power or the holders of religious capital are trying to get rich from the struggle. It’s perfectly possible that both groups are acting in good faith.

This struggle is similar to the struggle between neoliberal and Keynesian economists, as I describe here. Most of us want to be right and to make a contribution to society. I might even reluctantly agree that Milton Friedman was acting in good faith. Whatever the motives of the teachers, most students are motivated by a desire to succeed in their chosen profession, and not by lust for money. In the same way, the religious right is no doubt convinced it is acting in the name of the Almighty, trying to bring light to the gentiles, no matter what might have motivated Billy Sunday or Aimee Semple McPherson or their ilk. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of money-grubbing charlatans in both groups.

Bourdieu says that the various forms of capital can be exchanged for each other. Cultural power can be used to acquire economic power, and to a lesser extent, vice versa. Religious capital can be exchanged for economic capital as well. In the near term, however, they exist for their own sake. In the intermediate term, there is a lot of exploitation of symbolic power for money. That’s why we have Statutes of Mortmain.

3. The important issue addressed in this series is power. For that reason, I avoid discussion of political parties. All nations, not just the US, are governed by the rich directly or indirectly. In the US, the elites have decided to do so explicitly. In state after state we see billionaires and centi-millionaires running for high office with the sanction of whichever party they choose to endow. The billionaire class publicly states its plans to purchase offices.

I say in the first post in this series that underlying Trumpian Motion is an ideology, neoliberalism. Another reason to leave out political parties is that both parties share that ideology, though they express it differently.

Neoliberalism might be understood as a symbolic structure, but if so, it is imposed on us by the economic elites through what Bourdieu calls symbolic violence. There is nothing organic about neoliberalism. It was constructed to be a bulwark against socialism and communism, and to enhance the power of the economic elites. See Philip Mirowski’s book Never Let A Serious Crisis Go To Waste. In contrast, the symbolic structures generated by the cultural elites and by religion both directly connect to human nature. The former arises out of curiosity and reasoning. The latter arises from human spirituality. They differ in many ways, but they both meet real human needs and real human potential.

I think neoliberalism is an ideology and nothing more. It’s a tool used by economic elites to gain and preserve their power and keep the rest of the citizenry in their place.

4. I talk about the truce between economic capital and cultural capital throughout the series, and I say that the economic elites have ended the truce. Bourdieu attributes the power of the cultural elites to their ability to reproduce their class without interference. A big part of the truce was to permit this to continue. But that’s over now to a large extent.

There is plenty of evidence of this every day in the media. The economic elites use their power to defund state governments, forcing them to slice education funding. Among other things, the increased tuition led colleges and universities to direct curricula away from the humanities and even from basic science into technology that can produce immediate returns to capital. Tenured positions are becoming rarer, as is steady employment. Badly paid and treated adjuncts comprise more than half of university teachers. Here’s a story in the New York Times about how rich conservatives in Arizona are funding a program in Arizona:

In Arizona, the Legislature has taken a direct role, fostering academic programs directly from the state budget and sidestepping the usual arrangement in which universities decide how to spend the money. Lawmakers are bankrolling the new School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State, and the University of Arizona’s Department of Political Economy and Moral Science. Locally, they are better known as the “freedom schools,” and not always admiringly.

Their creation reflects a cultural struggle within academia, one that some conservatives believe requires government intervention to counter a liberal professoriate.

These changes are a direct attack on the ability of the cultural elites to reproduce themselves.

5. When I started reading David Swartz’ book Culture and Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu, I had no idea what I was getting into. I planned to read Bourdieu’s book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, but I needed an introduction to the vocabulary he uses. I have thought for a long time I needed a language for discussing power in all its forms. For now, this is the language I think works.

6. I like this series. I have made some changes to the posts, and will continue to do so.

7. Swartz writes very clearly. I feel comfortable with what I learned from his book, maybe too comfortable. Any errors in these posts are mine alone.

The Origins of Totalitarianism: Conclusion

The point of this series was to examine the conditions which led to the rise of Fascism in the 1930s to see if there are useful insights that might guide our understanding of conditions in the US today. In introduction to this series, I suggested several points of convergence, and over the last three months I have tried to flesh out those ideas.

The book has problems. The history focuses on Europe, so it isn’t helpful in understanding the rise of totalitarianism in Russia. There is much less focus on the economic situation in post-WWI Germany and Austria than I would expect. Arendt talks about the the large number of superfluous people, the mob and the masses, but there is little discussion of how or why that happened. Fortunately we already read The Great Transformation by Karl Polanyi, so we have some idea about that. The reasons for the displacement don’t seem important to Arendt’s thesis, but the absence is jarring.

It seems to me that the most significant condition that led to the rise of fascism in Germany was the large number of displaced and unsettled people, which I think is the result of economic upheaval due to the costs of WWI and the reparations imposed on Germany. That mob was egged on by politicians and media pushing propaganda about the ideology of the Nazis and setting up scapegoats, especially the Jews. Another important factor was the lack of resistance from elites. But the Nazis would have been limited to the margins if not for the large number of people with no place in society. These are the superfluous people. They have no role in the productive sector of society, and no place or position to hold them reasonably close to the bounds of society. Here’s how Arendt explains it:

The totalitarian attempt to make men superfluous reflects the experience of modern masses of their superfluity on an overcrowded earth. The world of the dying, in which men are taught they are superfluous through a way of life in which punishment is meted out without connection with crime, in which exploitation is practiced without profit, and where work is performed without product, is a place where senselessness is daily produced anew. … P. 457.

That is true in the US and elsewhere today. People aren’t stupid. They know that they are superfluous. They know they have no power, no security and no real hope of either. They hate it. When they see people fired from long-term jobs and told they only get severance if they train foreign replacements to do their jobs, it makes them sick inside. When they are told that their jobs are going to Mexico, and it’s “strictly a business decision” but 1400 people are going to be fired, they are angry and hostile. They know that they mean nothing to their employers, and nothing to politicians. And mostly they know they mean nothing to the elites who dominate the political process and the economy, and who set the system up to screw everyone else. They know the elites despise them as the the NRO’s Kevin Williamson and David French loudly say. They know the elites and specifically the tribe of economists, knew that they would be screwed by NAFTA and other trade deals, and didn’t lift a finger to stop that from happening on the grounds that it all works out for the beset on average. So what if the rich elites took all the gains? The liberal elites will come up with incremental tweaks to fix everything, and the conservatives will resist and nothing will change, and they don’t worry because it isn’t them or their families.

Other factors work into this poisonous stew. There is an ideology: the neoliberal myth of the almighty market, the supercomputer that works out all the details as long as mere humans do not interfere with its mysterious workings. This ideology permeates every aspect of our society, from claims that markets pay what you are worth to the strange idea that businesses should operate public schools.

Liberals deny that they share the ideology, but since 1992, the liberal elites have pushed “market-oriented” solutions to every problem. We can’t use a Pigovian tax system to solve problems, especially a tax on fossil fuels or securities transactions. We need a market solution: cap and trade. Schools are a problem, but we can’t throw money at them like they do in socialist hells like Finland. We need the market solution of charter schools competing with public schools, with the public schools funded primarily by local property taxes, so rich areas get good schools and screw the poor. We can’t have single payer health insurance. We put the insurance companies and big Pharma firmly in control of which working age people get health care and cost of health care for all of us. Liberal elite theory results in the creation of new government sponsored “markets” which create opportunities for rich people and corporations to screw over consumers, like Enron did for electricity.

Then there are scapegoats. The primary targets are minorities, especially African-Americans, but recently the unemployed and the working poor. The neoliberal ideology justifies scape-goating. It tells people that if you don’t succeed, it’s your own fault because this is the best of all possible systems. The losers are labeled as leeches and takers by the winners. The ideology justifies their smugness and their sociopathic demands to cut the social safety net.

Neoliberalism is also an excuse for hating immigrants and Muslims, who are coming here to take the jobs of deserving people, so it actually works to deflect the anger of the first group of scapegoats, at least for those who take the bait.

The conservative elites, such as they are, support this neoliberal ideology, and in pursuit of winning elections add the rejection of science and the imposition of ancient religious prohibitions and standards. The liberal elites are fine with the ideology, though they continue to support Enlightenment values, and occasionally offer a patch to salvage one or two lives. But when the crunch comes, they always side with the ideology and the establishment candidate.

Conclusion

As I reread the posts in this series, I realized how angry I am about the way politics operates here. I am repulsed by the elites who act as if there were no alternative. I am nauseated by liberal wonks whose views of what is possible are claustrophobic. They are the descendants of the liberals who told me and my generation that nothing could be done about the murderous war in Viet Nam. I cannot stomach the conservative elites. They are the scum who think their mission on earth is to undo the New Deal; the direct spawn of the John Birchers and the McCarthyites and the rest of the fear-mongers. They are the wreckers.

Polanyi says that when a social structure imposes too much stress on too many people it has to change. We don’t know how many disaffected people there are In the US, but it is clear that there is an enormous number, in both parties and among the unaffiliated, and that change will come. The US has always prided itself on its openness to change. We believe that everything will work out for the best, because we are the exceptional people, the City on the Hill. We assume that change will be for the best. Arendt points out the sickening reality: some changes are deadly.

Index to all posts in this series