Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Democracy vs. The Free Market

There has been a lot of discussion lately about the supposed polarization of the United States around increasingly extreme ideological positions. Jon Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity” was premised on ratcheting down the increasingly wacky dialogue on the Right and the Left in favor of constructive discussion and moderation.  Ted Koppel, in a recent Washington Post opinion piece, discussed the growing prominence of ideological journalism exemplified by Fox News and MSNBC and how ideological news is marketed to conservatives and progressives as a commodity. Both Stewart and Koppel make important points. Koppel in particular does a great job explaining how consumerism has changed journalism and the way Americans view the news. But while Americans may appear to be more ideologically driven now than at any other time in recent history, it does not seem to be making much difference in Washington or even in state capitals. What is going on here?

The reality is that the political class has largely signed onto one consensus ideology, neoliberalism, and has declared neoliberalism to be the non-ideological “respectable center.” All deviations from the respectable center are declared the crazy fringe. In order to participate in the political system, candidates usually must show that they are good, respectable neoliberals.

None of this is terribly surprising given the history of liberalism. We hear a lot about how free markets will bring forth democracy and freedom, but the truth is that neither classical liberals nor neoliberals are particularly devoted to democracy.  Classical liberals largely opposed democracy because they were afraid that the majority of the population, being poor, would vote for policies such as nationalization and a progressive income tax that would benefit them but not benefit the rich. The neoliberals have a similar opposition to democracy, although they tend to be a bit more prudent about the way they frame the issues. For example, instead of simply calling the people the “Mob” and talking about how dangerous and stupid the Mob is, neoliberals fall back on slogans like “neutrality,” “independence,” or “expertise.” Usually the neoliberals will then propose to create some body independent of the political process (which could potentially be influenced by the Mob) to take care of economics matters. Privatization is probably the most extreme version of this philosophy, where whole government functions are taken out of public hands and given to private actors. The end result is a soft dictatorship of money and bureaucracy. The country ends up being run like a giant corporation by and for the directors and shareholders, that is, the very wealthy and their political retainers.

Now, a populist of course recognizes that this situation is unacceptable. The State should be responsive to the public, even if it means occasionally marching against market logic. After all, why would anybody, especially a social conservative, want to see their country run on market logic alone? We already saw the awful injustices of laissez-faire capitalism in the 19th and early 20th centuries and found them intolerable.  In today’s secular Western world, how can conservatives really make arguments against legalized prostitution, legalized abortion, easy divorce, or any other portions of the social libertine agenda when we are forced to accept the rule of the market and the elite classes who are often anything but conservative in their social outlook? And in any event, we know from history that the “free market” is often just a euphemism for protecting privilege; socialism for me but not for thee.

All the handwringing over the proliferation of ideology among the masses is thus largely misplaced. The real problem is the neoliberal ideological consensus among the elites.  In an era when moderation increasingly means supporting brutal austerity for working people in order to pay off the gambling debts of the global financial industry, perhaps moderation is not such a good thing. Maybe we need people like William Jennings Bryan, who were willing to be called crazy by the elite establishment and its lapdogs in the press, but who knew that they were fighting the good fight for the people.


  1. Excellent points.

    Many sociologists go so far as to say that there is no such thing as a "free market". Truly, there will always be control and cost, the only differences are who has the control (elitist consensus instead of government), and who eats most of the cost (the middle class, the working class, indigenous people around the world, people who live in resource rich lands, and the planet itself).

    The reason we don't have more people like WJB is because... well, everyone is so scared of being called names. That combined with blind misplaced faith in the "free market" from the masses, who believe either they have a chance (no matter how small) to get rich, or that elitists are more trustworthy than the government.

    I'm not surprised that the news has become another weapon for neoliberalism... whatever will be next?

  2. Hi CA Constantian,

    Thanks for the comment. I agree with you. There is a lot of pressure to not criticize neoliberalism. Look at what happened to Obama, who is nowhere near as populist as William Jennings Bryan, at least in my opinion. He gets called a Communist, a fascist, a Maoist, etc., even though he is only slightly to the Left of Bill Clinton, and even then it is arguable that he has only intervened as much in the economy as he has because the recession pushed him in that direction (the stimulus, for example, which was probably not large enough anyway and contained too many tax cuts as opposed to direct government spending). I can only imagine what Glenn Beck and friends would be calling William Jennings Bryan if he were alive today.