The news of one of neoliberalism’s champions kicking the bucket has eventually trickled down to heteconomist land. Few keystrokes will be wasted here on that score other than to lament that she did not take neoliberalism with her. The truth is, she couldn’t, even if she’d wanted to. Why? Because it is widely embraced, and few will let go, present company mostly excluded, of course. Is this the fault of progressives? A failure of progressive “messaging”? I say we can spare ourselves the hand-wringing. For the time being, most people, in their actions at least, are nasty pieces of work. Yes, in our society nastiness is encouraged. The problem is systemic. Is this much consolation?
There was a reminder of this today in a comment by jrbarch:
I was in a ‘Human Services’ office the other day and all that I could see was an economic prison camp with a lot of hypnotised people on both sides of the counters. … I think If I had mentioned a BiG [basic income guarantee] I wouldn’t have gotten out of there alive! … I think people will have to revalue what is precious before any major changes can happen – and precious to the heart of a human being more so than mind or body.
Without meaning to be negative – scrap that, the negativity is fully intended – I doubt there is much prospect of the majority re-evaluating priorities any time soon. Maybe this is just the pessimistic outlook of someone living at the “arse end of the world” (the private and apt description of this nation by a former prime minister). Down here, it is obvious what the majority wants: more for itself, less for others, cruelty to refugees, meanness to the unemployed, intolerance, war on foreigners, wider inequalities of income and wealth, austerity, privatization of public utilities, more raping of the environment, dumbing down, “reality” television, and other crimes against the universe too numerous to mention.
Perhaps there is some kind of awakening occurring on the rest of the globe? I hope so. That would mean we at the arse end of the world would attempt to imitate it twenty years from now. Or maybe prospects are just as grim there as here, with neoliberalism as entrenched as ever?
Jim O’Reilly has a good post on a somewhat related topic of political groups seeking to “reclaim the center”. As far as I can see, those who claim the center for themselves typically value and push for greed, cruelty, and the various crimes against the universe partially listed above. As Jim notes:
There are few terms in our political discourse more abused than “the center”, having as it does the valuable connotations of being non-radical, reasonable, intelligent, and moral. It’s way past time we assign it a proper meaning.
I propose we consider political views “central” if they’re rooted in the real world and conform to the basic moral philosophies common to the major world religions and philosophical works.
Compassion, Schopenhauer tells us, is the basic center of morality and that view is widely shared in most religious and philosophical traditions. Veblen perceptively linked the brotherly love aspect of Christianity to the instinct of workmanship and its serviceability to the common good. Without getting any more philosophical, I think it’s reasonable to claim that compassion, brotherly love, and the common good are reasonable distillations of widely shared moral teachings and are therefore fundamentally centrist.
From what I can tell, anyone who attempts to live by basic moral teachings that are currently held up as mainstream (e.g., the teachings of Jesus, in the West), will be treated as an extremist by the same mainstream that professes to believe in these teachings.
The social objectives of progressives largely align with these mainstream teachings, compassion being central, and this must partly explain the hostility we confront. For the majority, these objectives are to be piously mouthed, never put into practice, in fact actively opposed if expressed through action. The social objectives themselves are not radical at all. Rather, most people’s lives are radically at odds with the religious or philosophical claims they make for themselves.
A basic income guarantee should be a no brainer in societies where government macroeconomic policy deliberately ensures some people who want a job will not be able to obtain one. It is radical to suggest otherwise.
But most people clearly do believe otherwise. Most of those in the middle class who have come under financial stress since the onset of crisis, and who may currently consider their situation unfair, evidently didn’t care about those who were in a similar predicament prior to the crisis.
For the past forty years the middle class has:
– voted for high unemployment on the understanding that it wouldn’t apply to them;
– were indifferent to the withdrawal of social safety nets for the dispossessed and marginalized;
– celebrated the liberation of money capital and enslavement of child labor;
– offered no critique of the Art of Modern Finance until it offended their aesthetic sensibilities personally;
– smiled on Western military aggression and extreme deprivation of the poor of the world, or turned a blind eye.
But now we’re meant to care that the Joneses might lose their McMansion in Shitsville, granny’s afraid of the scary immigrants, and uncle talks back at talkback radio.
When the suffering affects middle-class people directly, they suddenly discover a social conscience. But when they think the neoliberal policy agenda will leave them personally unscathed, their concern soon goes missing.
By the same token, if the positions of a poor person and a rich person were reversed, how quickly would the “values” and political positions of the two hypothetical individuals reverse as well? Probably, in most cases, pretty darn quickly.
My guess is that if it were up to the majority, things might well be worse for the poor than what the ruling class currently thinks it can push through politically. In all likelihood, the attack on personal liberties and the rise in recent years of police brutality against those who oppose the current social injustices through protest would be more – not less – extreme if the majority had its way. (On police brutality, it’s hard to go past this article from 2011: Read This Before You Protest: An Open Letter to Occupy Portland from a Public Defender. Hat tip to Antipas Ministries for this link.) There might well be more war, not less, more environmental destruction, more poverty, more bigoted foreign policy, harsher conditions on welfare recipients, and so on, if the majority had its way.
Most people were bigots in Jesus’ day, or Gandhi’s day, or whoever’s day, and most people are bigots today.
One view, as jrbarch discusses in his comment, is that all this is just a dream or illusion:
Where is the movement, where the rest on that shore?
There is no water, no boat; no oars-man there
There is not so much as a rope to tow the boat, nor a man to draw it
No earth, no sky, no time, no-thing is there: no shore, no ford!
There, is neither body nor mind: and where the place that shall still the thirst of the soul? You shall find naught in that emptiness.
Be strong, and enter into your own body: for there your foothold is firm. Consider it well, O my heart! Go not elsewhere.[Kabir]
[A]ll of you good folk treat [macroeconomics and the economy] as very real! I have been making some sort of attempt to bridge the two worlds but I can see it is impossible for me. It needs experience. Seen from the perspective of economics the above from Kabir would seem other worldly, ethereal. Seen from a place I know within myself it is perfectly straight-forward and substantial – the earth, humanity and the play we have enacted for ourselves ‘other-worldly’. Unreal in fact. Incredibly unconscious.
Maybe all this is just a game to see how low we are capable of stooping?
Whether it’s real or just an illusion, of course progressives should continue to defend and promote their basic values, which are broadly in line with what the majority claim to believe but deny through their actions. But I see little point in hand-wringing (though we do it so well!). The lack of social progress is not primarily due to the inadequacy of progressive efforts to promote positive change. We can be the change we want to see in the world, and we can try our best to encourage such change at the societal level, but the majority also has to come to the party if things are to get better for all the world’s people.
I don’t disagree with jrbarch that we can and should go within, and am open to the possibility that this is key to seeing through illusion, but a hungry person, or a sick or injured person, does not have much hope of achieving this before their basic needs and economic security are met.