Commentary: Last week, “Antsy in the Agora” wondered if politicians were out to get her. We got as far as stating that politicians are a mix of self-dealing scoundrels and sincere public servants, and much of our media focuses on personalities while ignoring ideology. In particular, we need to address the ideology that has come to be called neoliberalism, but first we need to do some review.
We think of ourselves as mostly divided between liberals and conservatives, but this doesn’t tell us how a person thinks. For instance, someone with a liberal attitude toward gun ownership – let people have guns and keep government out of it – is often labeled a “conservative.”
Among conservatives and liberals there are various beliefs owing much to classical liberalism: its embrace of individual liberty and economic self-interest. Here there was a strong belief in free markets and a strong suspicion of government interference, unless it was to protect producers. A small government was deemed necessary for maintaining the rule of law and protecting property, because otherwise we would brutalize each other in a Hobbesian state of nature. Free markets were seen as more trustworthy than democracy or bargaining with labor. Inequality was seen as inevitable and even as a stabilizing force.
We tend to equate free markets with democracy while disavowing democratic interventions that would redistribute power, wealth, or property. Conservatives argue for small government but make exceptions, some embracing a large military or state intervention against contraception, euthanasia, or abortion. There is a belief that tax cuts should benefit the wealthy so they will invest and stimulate economic growth.
Many in the working class identify as conservative, too. They are suspicious of government yet believe in social order, revere authority, and may desire greater Christian identity in schools and state bodies. Individual liberty yields to property rights. There are disagreements among conservatives regarding immigration, race relations, free trade agreements, and foreign policy.
Liberals are also champions of the capitalist system, but believe more should benefit from it. In the 20th century, liberals supported large public sector programs providing services, protections, and economic stimulus the free market would not, while protecting capitalism from popular revolt – which is what FDR’s “New Deal” was about. Liberals embrace personal diversity and secularism to an extent that makes conservatives uncomfortable, but when it comes to the economy they are avid defenders of corporate investments and globalism. They oppose socialists, who view capitalism as intrinsically unstable and inhumane, even more vigorously than their conservative partners. As liberal Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi said at a televised town hall last winter, “We're capitalists, and that's just the way it is.”
Under the development called neoliberalism, democracy is more than ever defined as the liberty to seek profit; citizenship as consumerism; and freedom as an acquisitive individualism, not a commonwealth. Instead of the market being one way we interact, it is the model for all human interaction. Institutions that distribute power to the working class have been shrunk, marginalized, replaced with top-down corporate management, and order has been imposed through increased surveillance and a normalized state of emergency. The historic mistrust for democratic interference in economic relations finds its end in militarized civil spaces.
This is not to leave you in despair, Antsy. We still have the means to confront these ideas and propose new ones, through politics and civil resistance; but these capacities will wane if we don’t use them.
Algernon D’Ammassa writes the “Desert Sage” column for the Deming Headlight and Sun News papers. Share your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.