Is Neoliberal Capitalism God’s Gift to Humanity?

It helps to remember that exploitative economic systems are not “God’s Will” for humanity.

It has become commonplace to assume that the particular variety of corporate capitalism we live with today is the best of all possible worlds — as if the ideology behind it was channeled from up on high and chiseled into stone by a prophet on the mountain. But is it really the case that Neoliberalism (the ideology behind corporate capitalism) is a Gift from God that we have to accept at face value?

Lucky for us, even the scantest survey of history reveals how naive (and arrogant) it is for the defenders of this particular economic faith to make such a ridiculous claim. They have fallen into line with every kind of fundamentalist tribalism that came before — asserting the supremacy of their worldview against all other possible perspectives.

Why does this matter so much? Because we see in the recent release of the Panama Papers that their global cabal of free marketeers have created a planetary-scale racket of theft and hoarding. As I argued earlier this week, this needs to be framed as systemic corruption because a carefully designed system of tax havens, trade agreements, shell companies, and more were deployed to make it happen.

And despite their claims of “progress” things like wealth inequality are getting worse by every credible measure both within countries and across them. It is as if a cohort of morally-compromised plumbers were hired to syphon fresh water away from the village. There may not be a great sucking sound from the global network of tax havens that, according the Tax Justice Network, has swindled at least $21 trillion dollars from the productive economy. But there is a suctioning of money happening all around us, even if we are not able to hear it in the digital transfers taking place in bank accounts owned by Russian-doll labyrinths of anonymous shell companies.

Who owns these shell companies? We have to break them apart and look in side.

How did the pernicious logic of Neoliberalism become so entrenched in our minds? There is a full story of the Mont Pelerin Society, the rise of a vast network of think tanks and media organizations over the last half century, and the systematic dismantling of New Deal types of legislation that give rise to social democracy. (A great book that goes into tremendous detail about this history is Master of the Universe: Hayek, Friedman, and the Birth of Neoliberal Politics.)

Suffice it to say, this particular religion was built up brick-by-brick in a systematic manner — via a Trans-Atlantic Partnership of business investors, public intellectuals, and their minions. It is not ordained by God. This is the work of flesh-and-blood human beings.

Back to the question that started this essay, is it true that better models of governance and economic development exist that are superior to the “deregulate, hoard, and let it all trickle down” philosophy that has wrought so much havoc on the world in the last 40 years?

The answer is a resounding YES!

Let us consider a few historic examples first. I’ll just offer two for the sake of brevity:

  1. The Majority of Hunter-Gatherer Societies :: I don’t want to romanticize a fictitious Nobel Savage here, but it is true that for 99% of human history our ancestors lived in egalitarian communities where social norms were actively used to keep cheaters and bullies from taking more than their fair share. Whether we look at this through the lens of civilization as disease (the emergence of “modern” health epidemics that came with agriculture and beyond) or in the life of leisure enabled by people living within their landscapes as part of sacred mythologies, there is something to be learned about the cultural wisdom that kept our lineages alive across the span of 100,000+ years.
  2. 19th Century United States :: In this fascinating study of post offices and technology innovation, we see that government investments in the creation of large-scale infrastructure projects (with corporations having very limited power — chartered for limited duration to achieve particular goals) gave rise to strong economic health for society overall. By providing a reliable system for communication, patent processing, legal enforcement of contracts, and limited liability protection for business activities, the government was able to operate symbiotically with small businesses to strengthen communities and provide a revenue model for taxes to be reinvested in societal infrastructure that grew the economy. It wasn’t until the deregulation of financial markets in the early 20th Century (the Age of Robber Barons) that speculative finance decoupled from the productive economy and caused the market crashes leading to the Great Depression.

We can already see two things by looking back in time. Firstly, there is a long history of human social groups functioning well by having their institutions serve the entire society. This was the case for small-scale hunter-gatherers and for large-scale, rapidly industrializing economies. Secondly, we can see that it was the very logic of Neoliberalism of deregulating and financializing markets that brought an end to both kinds of economy. Destruction of natural environments and displacement from land — in a word, colonialism — have brought an end to many indigenous cultures. And the Great Depression arose the last time this pernicious economic religion took hold of legislatures in an industrial society a century ago.

In the present day, we have many examples of economies that function well specifically because they reject Neoliberal logic. The most famous are the Nordic countries — places like Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Norway — that have public trusts for natural resources (oil in Norway), universal health care systems, strong protection of worker rights, progressive taxation, and excellence in the management of government bureaucracies.

We can even see the success of regional economies, like the one in Seattle where I live, that perform better than the national economy because we have strong, pro-active municipal and county governments; conservation and management networks for rivers, fisheries, and woodlands; protected public lands; and more that helped us ride through the turbulence of the recent market crash.

So we can definitively say that there are many better alternatives than the debt-based, deregulated and financialized market systems whose modus operandi is the extraction and hoarding of wealth in the hands of the already super rich.

We can do better. And in this time of convergent global crises ranging from mass poverty and inequality to human-caused climate change and deterioration of ecological systems, we must do better.

Onward, fellow humans.