08 January 2008

No security in supercapitalism

Begin with Bobby Kennedy's words on the quality of life:
"Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product ... if we should judge America by that, counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans."
Now go to George Lakoff's essay on neoliberalism — that's Clinton's and Blair's Third Way — at the Rockridge Institute. Lakoff posits that:
In neoliberal thought there is the belief that markets can be effectively regulated to serve those interests, which leads to recommendations for technocratic changes to existing markets as one means to achieve progressive ends. Under the domestic version of neoliberal economics, many progressive moral goals can be achieved through private enterprise as an efficient means to moral ends. Though conservatism sees the market itself as defining moral ends, neoliberalism shares with conservatism the idea that the market can be efficient and serve moral ends. This is why neoliberal thought has no problem with health care solutions that involve profit-maximizing private insurance companies.

The neoliberal emphasis on "systems" often causes a loss of focus upon the progressive morality that lies beneath their political and policy solutions. Specific references to progressive values disappear from their messages. So do references to the government functions of protection and empowerment. Neoliberals may begin with the morality of empathy and responsibility for oneself and others, but their faith and focus soon shifts to the abstract, to complicated systems and intricate public/private solutions. Empathy, the moral force that holds together our democracy and the engine of community, is reduced to sentimentality and shunted aside.
Compare that with Tony Judt's review of Robert Reich's book, Supercapitalism. In that book, Reich himself outlines the problem with "supercapitalism," noting that in 2005 the wealth of the (Wal-Mart founders) Walton family was about the same ($90 billion) as that of the bottom 40 percent of the US population: 120 million.

Inexplicably, Reich doesn't see this as a problem; he finds no basic fault in a system that is wiping out the middle class. Or if he does, he sees it as pointless to complain about it as it would be to complain about the unfairness of aging. It's just there, as far as he's concerned.

Judt differs. And he doesn't believe that "supercapitalism," for which the health insurance industry is in many ways the poster child, will necessarily last — for two reasons, first of which:
this story is not very appealing. It leaves a lot of people out, both at home and abroad; it wreaks havoc with the natural environment; and its consequences are unattractive and uninspiring. Abundance (as Daniel Bell once observed) may be the American substitute for socialism; but as shared social objectives go, shopping remains something of an underachievement. In the early years of the French Revolution the Marquis de Condorcet was dismayed at the prospect of commercial society that was opening before him (as it is opening before us): the idea that "liberty will be no more, in the eyes of an avid nation, than a necessary condition for the security of financial operations." We ought to share his revulsion.

The second source of anxiety is that the never-ending story may not last... [and if so] we might do well to take a second glance at the way our twentieth-century predecessors responded to the political challenges of economic uncertainty. We may discover, as they did, that the universal provision of social services and some restriction upon inequalities of income and wealth are important economic variables in themselves, furnishing the necessary public cohesion and political confidence for a sustained prosperity—and that only the state has the resources and the authority to provide those services and enforce those restrictions in our collective name.

We may find that a healthy democracy, far from being threatened by the regulatory state, actually depends upon it...

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