Aristocratic Neoliberalism

For the Old Mole Variety Hour, June 24, 2013

Aristocratic Neoliberalism

 

Although mainstream discourse continues to refer to the US and many other nations as “democracies,” it is pretty obvious that our societies are democratic in name only.  The two major parties in the US represent somewhat different branches of the corporate, financial, and military power structure.  No candidate or point of view that questions the continued domination of that power structure has a prayer of getting a serious hearing in a political campaign.  In the economic sphere in which we must work to survive and whose commodities we must purchase to meet our basic needs, everything about production and labor, including whether there is work for us, and the conditions in which we must work, is determined by a class of super-rich owners and managers whose only responsibility is to profit.   In short, we live in an authoritarian plutocracy, not in a democracy. 

 

Can this domination of our lives by a tiny elite be justified?  For the most part we just don’t ask, distracted as we are by the spectacle of electoral politics which produces the illusion that elections somehow determine government policies, an illusion that persists in spite of a long history of broken promises by politicians who present one face when running for office but merge back into the ruling elite once in office.  The dominance of corporate profit-making over our lives is obscured by the mythology of a free market in which corporations produce what we freely demand and where we freely choose our jobs and our careers.

 

But the underlying philosophy of neoliberalism – the primacy of the unregulated market – provides a positive, but mostly unspoken, rationale for the rule of the wealthy.  A recent article by Cory Robin demonstrates that at its roots – in the work of its intellectual fathers – Joseph Schumpeter and Friedrich Hayek—neoliberalism  is profoundly anti-democratic.  (All quotes are taken from Robin’s article.)

 

Friedrich Nietzsche despised the crass values of the market, but he also hated socialism and democracy.  At a time when slavery was being abolished around the world and socialist movements were underway, Nietzsche made “the claim that  slavery belongs to the essence of a culture.”.  In an early work, Nietzsche denounced the modern era for its dedication

…to the “dignity of work.” Committed to “equal rights for all,” democracy elevates the worker and the slave. Their demands for justice threaten to “swamp all other ideas,” to tear “down the walls of culture.” Modernity has made a monster in the working class: … it has the temerity to see itself and its labor as a work of art. Even worse, it seeks to be recognized and publicly acknowledged as such. 

Nietzsche was a big fan of ancient Greece whose vast cultural an military achievements rested on slavery.  The immortal works of the few had infinitely more value than the lives of all the slaves, even though those enslaved lives were necessary to those cultural achievements. 

Throughout his writing life, Nietzsche was plagued by the vision of workers massing on the public stage—whether in trade unions, socialist parties or communist leagues. … “There is nothing more terrible,” he wrote…, “than a class of barbaric slaves who have learned to regard their existence as an injustice, and now prepare to avenge, not only themselves, but all generations.”

            A generation later, free market economists located the creative forces in society not in the artist, writer or warrior, but in the entrepreneur.  For Joseph Schumpeter, writing in the 1940s, 

the entrepreneur possesses “extraordinary physical and nervous energy.” That energy gives him focus (the maniacal, almost brutal, ability to shut out what is inessential). …It is the entrepreneur’s ability to recognize that sweet spot of novelty and occasion (an untried technology, a new method of production, a different way to market or distribute a product) that enables him to revolutionize the way business gets done. Part opportunist, part fanatic, he is “a leading man,” Schumpeter suggests … overcoming all resistance in order to create the new modes and orders of everyday life. 

In the competition of the market, “the entrepreneur emerges as a legislator of values and new ways of being.”

To act with confidence beyond the range of familiar beacons and to overcome that resistance requires aptitudes that are present in only a small fraction of the population and that define the entrepreneurial type.…

And yet even as he sketched the broad outline of this legislator of value, Schumpeter sensed that his days were numbered. Innovation was increasingly the work of departments, committees and specialists. 

Friedrich Hayek, writing in the 1960s, argues that the freedom to create and market products must be universal because, we can never know in advance from whom the next big thing will come.

Deep inside Hayek’s understanding of freedom [Robins argues]… is the notion that the freedom of some is worth more than the freedom of others: “The freedom that will be used by only one man in a million may be more important to society and more beneficial to the majority than any freedom that we all use.”

The overwhelming majority of men and women, Hayek says, are simply not capable of breaking with settled patterns of thought and practice; given a choice, they would never opt for anything new, never do anything better than what they do now. 

Hayek is explicit that the “the possession of vast amounts of wealth and capital, even—or especially—wealth that has been inherited, is necessary for the creation of new values. 

Often, says Hayek, it is only the very rich who can afford new products or tastes. Lavishing money on these boutique items, they give producers the opportunity to experiment with better designs and more efficient methods of production. Thanks to their patronage, producers will find cheaper ways of making and delivering these products—cheap enough, that is, for the majority to enjoy them. What was before a luxury of the idle rich—stockings, automobiles, piano lessons, the university—is now an item of mass consumption.

The most important contribution of great wealth, however, is that it frees its possessor from the pursuit of money so that he can pursue nonmaterial goals. Liberated from the workplace and the rat race, the “idle rich”—a phrase Hayek seeks to reclaim as a positive good—can devote themselves to patronizing the arts, subsidizing worthy causes like abolition or penal reform, founding new philanthropies and cultural institutions. …

            Two important lessons can be learned from Cory’s analysis of neoliberal anti-democratic ideology.  First, we must understand how deeply contemptuous the thinking of our ruling elite is of democracy, of the ability of ordinary people to govern the direction of the institutions that rule our lives.  So there is no point in arguing with the elite by appealing to the principles of democracy.  Second, we might acknowledge the point that creating new values, new ways of life, requires freedom from the workplace and the rat race, but rather than surrender this creativity to the “idle rich,” we need to organize immediately around the freedom of everyone from work – through shorter work weeks and/ or a guaranteed national income. 

 

 

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