What Wretches Feel: Neoliberalism is dying, we must replace it with something better

What Wretches Feel: Neoliberalism is dying, we must replace it with something better July 2, 2016
Photo by Jan McLaughlin (CC BY 2.0)
Photo by Jan McLaughlin (CC BY 2.0)

“The global economy is not working for the majority of people in our country and the world. This is an economic model developed by the economic elite to benefit the economic elite.”- Sen. Bernie Sanders

“The true strength of our democracies … must not be allowed to collapse under the pressure of multinational interests which are not universal, which weaken them and turn them into uniform systems of economic power at the service of unseen empires.”- Pope Francis 

The neoliberal status quo is in its death throes in both the United States and the United Kingdom.  We should not mourn its passing.

From the perspective of Wall Street, London’s financial district, and many corporate boardrooms on both sides of the Atlantic, the last thirty years have been a veritable Golden Age. However, for the common people of both nations, a pitiless storm has been raging. And to paraphrase Pope Leo XII, they have been abandoned in the midst of the tempest- left prey to the greed and “hardheartedness” of the rich on the one hand, and exposed to buffeting by faceless economic forces far beyond their control on the other.

Their plight is real.

Our political and economic elites, however, have responded to their cries for help with callous indifference and comic ineptitude in equal measure. This failure is the root cause of the political insurgencies- Trump, Sanders, and now Brexit- occurring in the US and UK today.

Elite condescension towards the demos will not douse these flames. Rather, it operates like an accelerant, because the underlying political and economic grievances are both broadly-shared and legitimate. Simply put, we have created a system whose benefits are disproportionately captured by far too few, and whose burdens are disproportionately borne by far too many. Even worse, it is one built on a mistaken understanding of our nature that does not serve a truly human purpose.

Unsurprisingly, it fails the most basic tests of economic and social justice.

And it is unsustainable. The only question worth asking now is- what comes after the wind subsides?

Neoliberalism: A Bonanza for the Few, a Raw Deal for the Many

Catholics are uniquely placed to help formulate an answer to that question because the Church has been one of neoliberalism’s fiercest and most consistent critics. Indeed, during his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Pope Francis even wrote that “[n]o one can accept the precepts of neoliberalism and consider themselves Christian.” He was undoubtedly correct.

As I wrote previously in an article for ABC Religion & Ethics, according to another perceptive critic of neoliberalism, Wendy Brown, it is “more than a mere economic theory or political program; it is a totalizing ‘form of political reason and governing that reaches from the state to the soul.’ Under neoliberalism, the agora subsumes the polis – everything, including politics, social relations, education, religion and the environment is commodified, commercialized and subjected to the utilitarian analysis of the market.”

From a public policy standpoint in the US and the UK, neoliberalism has been characterized by zealous free market dogmatism expressed through deregulation, particularly of the financial sector and of global capital flows, and international free trade agreements, privatization, reduced taxation of the rich, and cuts to public social benefit programs for the poor in the name of balanced budgets and fiscal austerity.  In the words of a recent (critical) report by the International Monetary Fund:

The neoliberal agenda… rests on two main planks. The first is increased competition—achieved through deregulation and the opening up of domestic markets, including financial markets, to foreign competition. The second is a smaller role for the state, achieved through privatization and limits on the ability of governments to run fiscal deficits and accumulate debt.

Underpinning all of this is a flawed understanding of the human person- homo economicus. Essentially, homo economicus is a pitiable beast blindly blundering about in a quest to maximize his profits or pleasure in the most efficient way possible while pursuing his own understanding of his narrow self-interests. Beauty, tradition, responsibility, and familial or fraternal bonds have no place in his calculations- he understands only the material and the immediate, and values objects and people (the distinction is admittedly blurry for him) solely based on their utility in achieving his own objectives. Needless to say, his is a solitary existence.

This crimped creature populates our economic theory. He is the consumer always chasing the next new shiny thing and accumulating more McShit. He is the CEO closing factories, laying off workers and slashing salaries without care or concern either for prior service loyally rendered or for the damage done to others, because it yields him a higher profit margin. He is the banker charging ruinous usurious interest rates simply because he can. He is the coal industry executive gazing out at an idyllic mountain vale and then strip mining it. He is the corporate executive cutting corners on worker, consumer and environmental safety and ignoring every regulation he can get away with just to make another dollar. But he is more than that. He is also the husband neglecting his own children, or abandoning his wife and family because they place unwelcome demands on him, or just simply bore him.

He is the throw-away man required by a throw-away culture.

The neoliberal era has lasted more than thirty years. It began in the US and UK with Thatcher and Reagan, but the Democrats and Labour- in the form of Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, for example- are complicit in it too. And from the perspective of too many American and British working families, it has been an unmitigated disaster, a time of declining or stagnating income, constricting opportunity, mounting debt, and the experience of intensifying forms of social and economic insecurity and instability, that has devastated localities as diverse as Ohio and Pennsylvania mill towns and former industrial and mining centers in the North of England.

In practical terms, the neoliberal era has coincided with a period of growing inequality and social/political exclusion. And as even the IMF has acknowledged, neoliberal policies are at least partly to blame.

The statistics are stark. In the words of Bernie Sanders, globally:

the wealthiest 62 people on this planet own as much wealth as the bottom half of the world’s population — around 3.6 billion people. The top 1 percent now owns more wealth than the whole of the bottom 99 percent. The very, very rich enjoy unimaginable luxury while billions of people endure abject poverty, unemployment, and inadequate health care, education, housing and drinking water.

Similarly, in the United States, “the top one-tenth of 1 percent now owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent.”  And the situation is only getting worse. A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute found that  the top 1% captured over 85% of all new income growth in the United States between 2009 and 2013! This is occurring at the same time as record corporate profits are being earned and a widening gap between ballooning CEO and executive compensation and median worker pay is going unabated 

And yet, even as vast amounts of wealth are being concentrated at the top, ordinary American and British working families continue to struggle. The jobs lost in the last recession simply haven’t returned and for far too many of us, there’s been no recovery. Again, in Bernie Sanders’ words:

In the last 15 years, nearly 60,000 factories in this country have closed, and more than 4.8 million well-paid manufacturing jobs have disappeared. Much of this is related to disastrous trade agreements that encourage corporations to move to low-wage countries.

The result is clear- our elites prosper, even as the rest of us tread water, or begin to drown.

Needless to say, such massive inequality creates political and social, as well as economic, problems.

Socially, our blinkered quest for profits has, in the words of Italian economist Stefano Zamagni, destroyed local communities, “social relations, family relations, and the environment.” And for too many, it has robbed labor of much of its dignity. At the same time, the social and economic chaos that is characteristic of deep poverty in America has been creeping ever upward and is now contaminating the lower middle and working classes as well- it is becoming part of their lived experience, and even where it is not it casts a long shadow over them. Rising mortality rates for white working class Americans point to a simple truth- to paraphrase Pope Francis, our neoliberal economy literally kills working people. Combined, we have created an epidemic of desperation and despair, and a toxic stew of rage.

Seen in this light, the wonder isn’t Trump, Sanders, or Brexit, but rather that they took so long in coming.

A better alternative: Social Democracy, Solidarity, and the Common Good

The lesson of neoliberalism is that an impoverished understanding of the human person produces equally desolate visions of our political, economic, and social life.

But replacing it is no simple task- neoliberalism’s premises have become the common ground of our public discourse, the unquestioned assumptions defining not only the spectrum of permissible policy alternatives, but the way we prioritize and order our lives. They are, in other words, simply taken for granted.  Therefore, in order to jettison it, we need an equally comprehensive alternative form of political reason. But more than that, what is required is a well-articulated, appealing, and positive vision of a more participatory politics and a more human economy. We must replace the current utilitarian narratives of winners and losers, of privilege and predation on the one hand, and degradation and dispossession on the other, with a new more inclusive story premised on dignity, mutuality, and making common cause together. The predicate for doing this successfully is broadly-shared agreement on meaning– on who we are, where we are going, and why.

In particular, we must learn to see and think of ourselves not as atomized individuals pursuing our own selfish ends and pleasures, but rather as social beings existing in community with others. And in our neoliberal world, there can be no more dangerous act of thoughtcrime than recognizing that our value as  human beings does not depend on what we produce or consume.

In addition, we must recover a vision of the common good. This is essential, because it dethrones the self, the short-term, and the utilitarian, and replaces them with a more cooperative and communitarian vision of shared social purpose. It transforms lonely consumers and producers busily pursuing narrow private ends into stewards tending a common garden. As a result, a vision of the common good subverts the dominion of the market over all of our political and economic lives.

Radical individualism is the ethos of the ancien régime; social solidarity, that of the revolution.

But although this is revolutionary, it isn’t necessarily new.  Instead, it is a very Catholic vision, something, to quote Peter Maurin, “so old that it looks new,” and the best vehicle for pursuing it is a political philosophy and economy rooted in the principles of Catholic Social Teaching.

As both Blue Labour and the Red Tories in the UK understand, CST permits a fusion of left-wing economic policy with aspects of social conservatism and the right’s traditional concern for subsidiarity.  In particular, a political philosophy and economy informed by principles drawn from CST will facilitate the development of  public policies that put the quest for private profits to socially useful public purposes while simultaneously creating a more equal distribution of shared “reward, risk and responsibility amongst all stakeholders” in society. This does not involve an outright rejection of markets, but rather a recognition of their limits, and their lack of utility when unmoored from any vision of the common good.

More broadly, such a politics would seek to (1) empower families, communities and civil society, including churches and labor unions, as bulwarks against the power of the market and the state, and as incubators of individual virtue and social conscience, (2) create, through regulatory policy and civil law, a more equitable distribution of wealth and of economic risks and rewards in order to narrow the chasm separating neoliberalism’s current winners and losers, (3) secure living wages for workers at home, and fair trade with nations abroad, (4) encourage the development of cooperative and employee-owned enterprises and the utilization of alternative models of business organization and governance, such as co-determinism, that reflect the interests of other corporate stakeholders besides shareholders, (5) strengthen the social contract as a hedge against precarity and to establish a basic floor below which no human being can fall, (6) invest in public institutions, goods, and services such as education, research and development, transportation, and infrastructure, and (7) foster a more representative and inclusive political process- one in which the voices of the common people are heard and the power of money is diminished.

Is such a politics possible in post-Christian Britain and heretic America?  In the latter at least, Bernie Sanders has demonstrated the (to our cloistered elites) surprisingly broad appeal of his own version of democratic socialism- a political orientation that, in the words of then-Cardinal Ratzinger “was and is close to Catholic social doctrine, and has in any case made a remarkable contribution to the formation of a social consciousness.”  Whether a more explicitly  “Catholic” socialism, one that offered a left-wing progressive economic populism informed by certain right-wing truths about the nature of the human person, the importance of the family, and the legitimacy of attachments to place and locality, would generate equal support remains to be seen. But it is the best alternative on offer, and certainly preferable to governance by bankers or bigots.

And we’ll never know, unless we find the courage to make a start.

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