Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Contemporary Movement Republicanism Owes More to Market Fundamentalism Than It Does Even to Religious Fundamentalism

Lately, hereabouts, I've been pointing out the indebtedness of Movement Republicanism -- and its current climax and crash in the Killer Clown College of the present Bush Administration -- to market libertarian rhetoric and thought (to put it generously).

This argument enrages especially those libertarians who have the good sense at least to recognize and despise Bush's despotism. "Anti-war" libertarians (among them, many current boosters for the candidacy of libertopian flavor of the month Ron Paul) who refuse to own up to the definitive trace of their own market utopianism in the plans and then edicts of neoliberal reconstruction that articulated the very war and occupation they now claim resolutely to oppose are a special case of the more general principle.

But it should go without saying that one doesn't escape culpability for one's part in ruinous outcomes just because one has the sense to recoil from the spectacle of that ruin as it unfolds. And this is especially so when complicit parties not only fail to recognize their conspicuous part in disasters decisively of their making but then actually go on in or even redouble their evangelical efforts, releasing ever more urgently and hysterically the energies of ruin even as they superficially decry some of the evident and horrifying consequences.

Another passage in David Harvey's A Brief History of Neoliberalism (which I cannot recommend highly enough to your attention) seemed to me striking in this connection:
We can [understand] neoliberalization either as a utopian project to realize a theoretical design for the reorganization of international capitalism or as a political project to re-establish the conditions for capital accumulation and to restore the power of economic elites…. [T]he second of these objectives has in practice dominated. Neoliberalization has not been very effective in revitalizing global capital accumulation, but it has succeeded remarkably well in restoring, or in some instances (as in Russia and China) creating, the power of an economic elite. The theoretical utopianism of neoliberal argument has, I conclude, primarily worked as a system of justification and legitimation for whatever needed to be done to achieve this goal. The evidence suggests, moreover, that when neoliberal principles clash with the need to restore or sustain elite power, then the principles are either abandoned or become so twisted as to be unrecognizable. This in no way denies the power of ideas to act as a force for historical-geographical change. But it does point to a creative tension between the power of neoliberal ideas and the actual practices of neoliberalization that have transformed how global capitalism has been working over the last three decades.

Market libertarian (in Harvey's phrase, "neoliberal") formulations provide the rationale for social and economic policies that serve incumbent elites in a way that is doubly difficult to unknot.

First, articles of market fundamentalist faith are utterly unrealized (not ot mention being, in fact, unrealizable, because they are at root incoherent, as witness: (a) that markets express a "spontaneous order" hampered by rather than articulated by state actors, (b) that there are no rational conflicts between people despite overabundant evidence to the contrary, (c) that optimizing for "efficiency" is one and the same thing as general welfare even when it is achieved through the externalization of the costs and risks of enterprise, (d) that market outcomes are uncoerced by definition whatever the circumstances may be, and so on) and, hence, immune from criticism from real-world perspectives.

As such, Second, they would have no real-world life at all except that they provide ongoing justification for policies that in fact straightforwardly preferentially benefit incumbent elites, which policies are treated as wavering cave-wall projections of the bonfire of market fundamentalist pieties. The disasters and failures that ensue from literally every this-worldly application of these libertopian pieties is always attributed by its True Believers as an expression of the debasing presence of the State, and so every failure always only confirms the faith, and the ferocity of this accumulating commitment always only enables further, disastrous, plutocratic "mis"-applications of the faith.

In short, plutocratic policies, which are the only actually realizable applications of market fundamentalist faith, will also always only be taken as mis-applications of that faith by its faithful. Hence, the failures of market ideology will always function to bolster it, and hence continue to fuel the politics of elite incumbency (that is to say, in our time, in the ongoing consolidation of a neoliberal/neoconservative corporate-militarist global order) in which market ideology, quite contrary to the self-image of some of its partisans, has its entire realized worldly life.

2 comments:

Martin Striz said...

The way I see it, evolutionary systems exist at many levels. The most obvious is a natural ecosystem, but the marketplace of ideas, democracies (where politicians are the agents under selection), and economic markets are all forms of evolutionary systems. They can all create "order" or "complexity" out of chaotic starting conditions. The question is whether that order is something that we want.

Natural ecosystems are replete with self-serving replicators that would run roughshod over the terrain and destroy everything in their path if given the chance -- and occasionally they do. Deliberative human morality rejects much of what natural ecosystems produce.

The marketplace of ideas (wherein the scientific enterprise is an evolutionary system with a unique set of strict selection pressures) is an efficient way to produce a lot of good ideas, but also a lot of ideas that exploit human psychological frailties. That's the trade off, but we accept it because the positives outweigh the negatives.

So, even if economic markets allocate limited resources in the most efficient manner, the question is whether the order that they produce is something desirable and morally justifiable -- whether corporations and their behavior is morally justifiable. Is the trade off worth it, and to what extent and in what ways is controlling the market desirable?

I leave that as an exercise to your readers.

Dale Carrico said...

The marketplace of ideas (wherein the scientific enterprise is an evolutionary system with a unique set of strict selection pressures) is an efficient way to produce a lot of good ideas, but also a lot of ideas that exploit human psychological frailties.

I disapprove the description of rhetoric as a marketplace of ideas (how does an unexpected kiss or the introduction of a pun into a conversation complicate such a model, for example?) as well as the possible implication that scientific enterprise is the paradigmatic mode of rationality, rather than, say, just one key mode among many other modes of reasonable belief ascription.

That's the trade off, but we accept it [rhetoric as both logos and pathos] because the positives outweigh the negatives.

But do we "accept it"? Does this primal scene really happen? Let's say "we didn't" accept the proferred tradeoff. What could that possibly mean? Everybody starts shooting? It doesn't seem to me that we decide to talk through our problems with our friends on the phone or bargain for goods in the market or listen to our teachers because we've done a cost-benefit analysis, at least not in the sense that I think you mean here.

Did you decide to be a language-user? Did you decide to be an American? My point is not to say that we should opt out of social contracts we never consented to but to emphasize the extent to which we are habituated into public practices that put us in a position to assume the critical stance on the basis of which we subsequently question these practices or "choose" among them on the basis of criteria like "efficiency" or "familiarity" or what have you.

Certainly there are rhetorical calculations that direct the concrete gambits of which conversation and persuasion consist in their many instances, but it seems fanciful to suggest that there is some meta-efficiency that nudges us into sociality or language use in a larger sense.

But once we dispense with this notion the strong analogies you are positing between marketplaces for goods, ideas, politicians, Darwinian survival in a niche and so on loses some of its force. If I'm getting what you're saying.

So, even if economic markets allocate limited resources in the most efficient manner, the question is whether the order that they produce is something desirable and morally justifiable -- whether corporations and their behavior is morally justifiable. Is the trade off worth it, and to what extent and in what ways is controlling the market desirable?

Aren't you impelled into this view of things by your initial metaphor, in which order arises from chaos through evolutionary rather than planned processes? What we call "markets" are a host of trading protocols in historically and geographically specific social contexts -- they then get posited as "natural" or "chaotic" as a metaphorical matter, and then certain other conducts get posited as "control" or "hampering" of these acts of trading.

The politics here are smuggled in long before questions of "efficiency" enter the picture, and indeed these political positing largely frame the way we talk of the efficiencies at hand.

As with language use, rhetoric, bargaining, and so on, the metaphorics of "spontaneous order" create a descriptive language for collective behavior which stealths in crucial political conclusions that then tend to seem to "arise" inductively from accumulated observations but really are simply implicit premises inevitably "deduced" from initial framings of the phenomena at hand.

You ask whether what corporations do is morally justifiable, if the tradeoffs of innovation/efficiency presumably introduced by the legal fiction of the corporate-person form are "worth it" and so on -- to whom? Do all those who are affected by these tradeoffs have access to this scene of "decision"?

Of course, there is a welcome and rising tide of anti-neoliberal popular and academic and activist discourse to suggest that a real conversation may finally be at hand where these matters are concerned, pretty much for the first time since Reagan/Thatcher.

But wherever people come out on these questions, I would note that these debates would surely constitute a mode of democratic contestation that should nudge you to elaborate the definition of democracy with which you seem to begin here -- in which democracy seems to be just a matter of selecting representatives from available candidates rather than encompassing a wider and deeper range of efforts at education,k agitation and organizing.

By the way, I fully see the sense of the angle you are taking up here, and I am stressing the contrarian responses that occured to me in reading it simply because they seem to me to be the most clarifying ones as I struggle to articulate my own as yet unsettled viewpoint on these matters.

I mean no disrespect or denigration -- I suspect you know that already but sometimes commentators here seem not to grasp that disputatious discourse can be the sign not of disrespect but precisely of respect. No doubt my acerbic temperament and weakness for wordplay exacerbates the confusion on this score. But anyway, just wanted to be sure my response neither offends nor seems to signal a desire to be offensive!