Tag: neoliberalism

Neoliberalism in any guise is not the solution but the problem

Today’s quotation-as-title is from Nancy Fraser, whose short book The Old Is Dying and the New Cannot Be Born in turn gets its title from a quotation from Antonio Gramsci.

It’s an excellent book; quick to read, straight to the point, and it helped me to understand some of what is going on at the moment in both US and world politics.

First, let’s explain terms, as it is a book that presupposes some knowledge of political philosophy. ‘Neoliberalism’ isn’t an easy term to define, as its meaning has mutated over time, and it’s usually used in a derogatory way.

There’s a whole history of the term at Wikipedia, but I’ll use definitions from Investopedia and The Guardian:

Neoliberalism is a policy model—bridging politics, social studies, and economics—that seeks to transfer control of economic factors to the private sector from the public sector. It tends towards free-market capitalism and away from government spending, regulation, and public ownership.

Investopedia

In short, “neoliberalism” is not simply a name for pro-market policies, or for the compromises with finance capitalism made by failing social democratic parties. It is a name for a premise that, quietly, has come to regulate all we practise and believe: that competition is the only legitimate organising principle for human activity.

Guardian

To me, it’s the reason why humans go out of their way to engineer situations where people and organisations are pitted against each other to compete for ‘awards’, no matter how made-up or paid-for they may be. It’s a way of framing society, human interactions, and reducing everything to $$$.

In that vein, the most recent issue of New Philosopher, features an essay by Warwick Smith where he uses the thought experiment of an AI ‘paperclip maximiser’. This runs amok and turns the entire universe into paperclips:

I recently heard Daniel Schmachtenberger taking this thought experiment in a very interesting direction by saying that human society is already the paperclip maximiser but instead of making paperclips we’re making dollars — which are primarily just zeroes and ones in bank databases. Our collective intelligence system has on overriding purpose: to turn everything into money — trees, labour, water… everything. It is also very good at learning how to learn and is extremely good at eliminating any threats.

Warwick Smith

This attempt to turn everything into money is basically the neoliberal project. What Nancy Fraser does is identify two different strains of neoliberalism, which she explains through the lenses of ‘distribution’ and ‘recognition’:

  • Reactionary neoliberalism — moving public goods into private hands, within an exclusionary vision of a racist, patriarchal, and homophobic society.
  • Progressive neoliberalism — moving public goods into private hands, while using the banner of ‘diversity’ to assimilate equality and meritocracy.

The difference between these two strands of neoliberalism, then, comes in the way that they recognise people. Note that the method of distribution remains the same:

The political universe that Trump upended was highly restrictive. It was built around the opposition between two versions of neoliberalism, distinguished chiefly on an axis of recognition. Granted, one could choose between multiculturalism and ethnonationalism. But one was stuck, either way, with financialization and deindustrialization. With the menu limited to progressive and reactionary neoliberalism, there was no force to oppose the decimation of working-class and middle-class standards of living. Antineoliberal projects were severely marginalized, if not simply excluded from the public sphere.

Nancy Fraser

It’s as if the Overton Window of acceptable public political discourse served up a menu of only different flavours of neoliberalism:

Ideologies are oriented within a narrative that spans the past, present, and future. We can argue over visions of what education should look like within a society, for example, because we’re interested in how the next generation will turn out.

In Present Shock, Douglas Rushkoff explains that instead of shackling themselves to ideologies, Trump and other populist politicians take advantage of the 24/7 ‘always on’ media landscape to provide a constant knee-jerk presentism:

A presentist mediascape may prevent the construction of false and misleading narratives by elites who mean us no good, but it also tends to leave everyone looking for direction and responding or overresponding to every bump in the road.

Douglas Rushkoff

What we’re witnessing is essentially the end of politics as we know it, says Rushkoff:

As a result, what used to be called statecraft devolves into a constant struggle with crisis management. Leaders cannot get on top of issues, much less ahead of them, as they instead seek merely to respond to the emerging chaos in a way that makes them look authoritative.

[…]

If we have no destination toward we are progressing, then the only thing that motivates our movement is to get away from something threatening. We move from problem to problem, avoiding calamity as best we can, our worldview increasingly characterized by a sense of panic.

[…]

Blatant shock is the only surefire strategy for gaining viewers in the now.

Douglas Rushkoff

We might be witnessing the end of progressive neoliberalism, but it’s not as if that’s being replaced by anything different, anything better.

What, then, can we expect in the near term? Absent a secure hegemony, we face an unstable interregnum and the continuation of the political crisis. In this situation, the words of Gramsci ring true: “The old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

Nancy Fraser

No matter what the question is, neoliberalism is never the answer. The trouble, I think, is that two-dimensional diagrams of political options are far too simplistic:

Political compass, via Wikimedia Commons

For example, as Edurne Scott Loinaz shows, even within the Libertarian Left (the ‘lower left’) there are many different positions:

Lower left cultural differences within the zone of solidarity (Edurne Scott Loinaz)

The Libertarian Left has perhaps the best to offer in terms of fighting neoliberalism and populists like Trump. The problem is unity, and use of language:

When binary language is used within the lower left it does untold violence to our communities and makes solidarity impossible: if one can switch between binary language to speak truth about capitalists and authoritarians, and switch to dimensional language within the zone of solidarity with fellow lower leftists, it will be easier to nurture solidarity within the lower left.

Edurne Scott Loinaz

For the first time in my life, I’m actually somewhat fearful of what comes next, politically speaking. Are we going to end up with populists entrenching the authoritarian right, going back full circle to reactionary neoliberalism? Or does this current crisis mean that something new can emerge?


Header image by Guillaume Paumier used under a Creative Commons license

Sometimes even to live is an act of courage

Thank you to Seneca for the quotation for today’s title, which sprang to mind after reading Rosie Spinks’ claim in Quartz that we’ve reached ‘peak influencer’.

Where once the social network was basically lunch and sunsets, it’s now a parade of strategically-crafted life updates, career achievements, and public vows to spend less time online (usually made by people who earn money from social media)—all framed with the carefully selected language of a press release. Everyone is striving, so very hard.

Thank goodness for that. The selfie-obsessed influencer brigade is an insidious effect of the neoliberalism that permeates western culture:

For the internet influencer, everything from their morning sun salutation to their coffee enema (really) is a potential money-making opportunity. Forget paying your dues, or working your way up—in fact, forget jobs. Work is life, and getting paid to live your best life is the ultimate aspiration.

[…]

“Selling out” is not just perfectly OK in the influencer economy—it’s the raison d’etre. Influencers generally do not have a craft or discipline to stay loyal to in the first place, and by definition their income comes from selling a version of themselves.

As Yascha Mounk, writing in The Atlantic, explains the problem isn’t necessarily with social networks. It’s that you care about them. Social networks flatten everything into a never-ending stream. That stream makes it very difficult to differentiate between gossip and (for example) extremely important things that are an existential threat to democratic institutions:

“When you’re on Twitter, every controversy feels like it’s at the same level of importance,” one influential Democratic strategist told me. Over time, he found it more and more difficult to tune Twitter out: “People whose perception of reality is shaped by Twitter live in a different world and a different country than those off Twitter.”

It’s easier for me to say these days that our obsession with Twitter and Instagram is unhealthy. While I’ve never used Instagram (because it’s owned by Facebook) a decade ago I was spending hours each week on Twitter. My relationship with the service has changed as I’ve grown up and it has changed — especially after it became a publicly-traded company in 2013.

Twitter, in particular, now feels like a neverending soap opera similar to EastEnders. There’s always some outrage or drama running. Perhaps it’s better, as Catherine Price suggests in The New York Times, just to put down our smartphones?

Until now, most discussions of phones’ biochemical effects have focused on dopamine, a brain chemical that helps us form habits — and addictions. Like slot machines, smartphones and apps are explicitly designed to trigger dopamine’s release, with the goal of making our devices difficult to put down.

This manipulation of our dopamine systems is why many experts believe that we are developing behavioral addictions to our phones. But our phones’ effects on cortisol are potentially even more alarming.

Cortisol is our primary fight-or-flight hormone. Its release triggers physiological changes, such as spikes in blood pressure, heart rate and blood sugar, that help us react to and survive acute physical threats.

Depending on how we use them, social networks can stoke the worst feelings in us: emotions such as jealousy, anger, and worry. This is not conducive to healthy outcomes, especially for children where stress has a direct correlation to the take-up of addictive substances, and to heart disease in later life.

I wonder how future generations will look back at this time period?


Also check out:

The endless Black Friday of the soul

This article by Ruth Whippman appears in the New York Times, so focuses on the US, but the main thrust is applicable on a global scale:

When we think “gig economy,” we tend to picture an Uber driver or a TaskRabbit tasker rather than a lawyer or a doctor, but in reality, this scrappy economic model — grubbing around for work, all big dreams and bad health insurance — will soon catch up with the bulk of America’s middle class.

Apparently, 94% of the jobs created in the last decade are freelancer or contract positions. That’s the trajectory we’re on.

Almost everyone I know now has some kind of hustle, whether job, hobby, or side or vanity project. Share my blog post, buy my book, click on my link, follow me on Instagram, visit my Etsy shop, donate to my Kickstarter, crowdfund my heart surgery. It’s as though we are all working in Walmart on an endless Black Friday of the soul.

[…]

Kudos to whichever neoliberal masterminds came up with this system. They sell this infinitely seductive torture to us as “flexible working” or “being the C.E.O. of You!” and we jump at it, salivating, because on its best days, the freelance life really can be all of that.

I don’t think this is a neoliberal conspiracy, it’s just the logic of capitalism seeping into every area of society. As we all jockey for position in the new-ish landscape of social media, everything becomes mediated by the market.

What I think’s missing from this piece, though, is a longer-term trend towards working less. We seem to be endlessly concerned about how the nature of work is changing rather than the huge opportunities for us to do more than waste away in bullshit jobs.

I’ve been advising anyone who’ll listen over the last few years that reducing the number of days you work has a greater impact on your happiness than earning more money. Once you reach a reasonable salary, there’s diminishing returns in any case.

Source: The New York Times (via Dense Discovery)

Is the gig economy the mass exploitation of millennials?

The answer is, “yes, probably”.

If the living wage is a pay scale calculated to be that of an appropriate amount of money to pay a worker so they can live, how is it possible, in a legal or moral sense to pay someone less? We are witnessing a concerted effort to devalue labour, where the primary concern of business is profit, not the economic wellbeing of its employees.

The ‘sharing economy’ and ‘gig economy’ are nothing of the sort. They’re a problematic and highly disingenuous way for employers to not care about the people who create value in their business.

The employer washes their hands of the worker. Their immediate utility is the sole concern. From a profit point of view, absolutely we can appreciate the logic. However, we forget that the worker also exists as a member of society, and when business is allowed to use and exploit people in this manner, we endanger societal cohesiveness.

The problem, of course, is late-stage capitalism:

The neoliberal project has encouraged us to adopt a hyper-individualistic approach to life and work. For all the speak of teamwork, in this economy the individual reigns supreme and it is destroying young workers. The present system has become unfeasible. The neoliberal project needs to be reeled back in. The free market needs a firm hand because the invisible one has lost its grip.

And the alternative? Co-operation.

Source: The Irish Times