This excellent post by Wayne Woodman is an essay by Dick Philipsen, who summarises quite succinctly why ‘the system’ has gone too far in privileging private gain over the public good. Covid-19 has brought this crazy situation into sharp relief, where we absolutely depend on those who have been least well regarded and rewarded over recent years.
Adam Smith had an elegant idea when addressing the notorious difficulty that humans face in trying to be smart, efficient and moral. In The Wealth of Nations (1776), he maintained that the baker bakes bread not out of benevolence, but out of self-interest. No doubt, public benefits can result when people pursue what comes easiest: self-interest.
And yet: the logic of private interest – the notion that we should just ‘let the market handle it’ – has serious limitations. Particularly in the United States, the lack of an effective health and social policy in response to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak has brought the contradictions into high relief.
Around the world, the free market rewards competing, positioning and elbowing, so these have become the most desirable qualifications people can have. Empathy, solidarity or concern for the public good are relegated to the family, houses of worship or activism. Meanwhile, the market and private gain don’t account for social stability, health or happiness. As a result, from Cape Town to Washington, the market system has depleted and ravaged the public sphere – public health, public education, public access to a healthy environment – in favour of private gain.
COVID-19 reveals a further irrational component: the people who do essential work – taking care of the sick; picking up our garbage; bringing us food; guaranteeing that we have access to water, electricity and WiFi – are often the very people who earn the least, without benefits or secure contracts. On the other hand, those who often have few identifiably useful skills – the pontificators and chief elbowing officers – continue to be the winners. Think about it: what’s the harm if the executive suites of private equity, corporate law and marketing firms closed down during quarantine? Unless your stock portfolio directly profits from their activities, the answer is likely: none. But it is those people who make millions – sometimes as much in an hour as healthcare workers or delivery personnel make in an entire year.
Simply put, a market system driven by private interests never has protected and never will protect public health, essential kinds of freedom and communal wellbeing.
It has long been evident that the extreme neo-liberalism that followed Ayn Rand’s views has had a malign influence on the world economy leading to massive inequality. And the system is now like an unstable house of cards. Matthew Wright explains in this super post.
A good deal of what I’ve been seeing of late on social media – but also in mainstream journalism – revolves around the notion that the Covid-19 pandemic will be the trigger for a shift away from the neo-liberalism that has characterised leading western economic policies since the early 1980s.
That might be right. Back then this ideology was trumpeted as a ‘more sophisticated’ approach than the liberal democratic western policy mixes of the mid-twentieth century. When the eastern bloc fell over in the early 1990s its triumph seemed complete. History, Francis Fukuyama declared, had ended as a result. From then on, The Future would consist of a changeless neo-liberal nirvana.
Well, quite. It was an absurd statement, curiously built on the same faulty assumption that Karl Marx had applied to his thinking in the 1840s: that societies, by nature, move towards an ideal end-point – a meaning summed up…
Forty years of the great neoliberal globalisation project has taken its toll in terms of destroying jobs and communities across the West. Of course there have been winners and losers, and as ever the super winners are the rich and super rich.
As many commentators have observed, the resulting discontent has been a major cause of the phenomena of ‘Brexit’ in the UK and ‘Trump’ in the US.
Europe has been protected from some of the extremes of neoliberalism by its tradition of social democracy and looking after the people. The European Commission, for all its faults, has been a bulwark against some of the forces of free trade, not afraid to take on the biggest corporations.
What a paradox then, that Brexit appears to be leading the UK into the hands of a free market right wing. The UK parliament, lacking even any safeguarding constitution, will be the only defence against global forces driven by the rich and powerful. Trade will appear to be all that matters in the global race to the bottom – surely creating more of the problems that are so concerning to people who wish to rip up the European project.
More paradox in the US, where electors appear to have chosen a leader from that very super rich class that has caused the problems they are concerned about – moved jobs to China, kept their money out of the country rather than invest, fought against social and environmental changes, demanded tax reduction or simply avoided paying taxes… Of course, his chosen team is mostly also from that class.
Paradoxically, it is just possible that reality and the occasional influx of common sense will ensure that it turns out all right. Let’s hope so.
Featured image ‘Killer chihuahua’ by David Shankbone, via Wikimedia Commons
One of the frustrations that led me to start this blog was that there are problems quite apparent with current Western countries and the world ‘system’ that were essentially being ignored or sidelined by current generations of politicians – climate change, inequality, financial crash inadequately addressed, over-influence of corporations, uncontrolled movement of people, and so on…
Of course, these frustrations are shared by many, each with their own different emphasis. This is what has led to the rise of, to name a few: UKIP, Brexit, Corbyn, Saunders, Trump,…
It was refreshing to read Martin Jacques’ article in The Guardian, The death of neoliberalism and the crisis in western politics, which succinctly identifies what is going on. We are actually seeing a crisis in the globalising neoliberal order that has dominated for 30-40 years, since ushered in by the rise of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Every system/paradigm has built-in limitations and contradictions that eventually clarify the need for its own transformation, so it comes as no surprise.
A system founded on self interest and without fundamental moral foundations is not likely to last beyond a generation or so.
Martin Jacques is well known for his book and TED talk on China. It was in 1966 that Robert Kennedy popularised the supposed Chinese curse ‘May he live in interesting times’. Kennedy went on to say:
“They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also more open to the creative energy of men than any other time in history.”
Featured image of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan at Camp David 1984,
courtesy of White House Photographic Office, via Wikimedia Commons