Working to Cure the Neoliberal Disease.
What it Takes to Destroy an Awful Bug.
By Robert Kadar and Joe Brewer
A lethal parasite has infected the brains of politicians and economists all over the world. It is so invasive that it has defeated all attempts to control or eradicate it since its emergence decades ago, and we are still far from having an effective vaccine or way to prevent its transmission. The virus, known by its species name Neoliberalism Economicus (in lay terms, it is just called Neoliberalism), indiscriminately latches onto the brains of both liberals and conservatives. It turns social consciousness into ego-centrism, cooperation into unconscious greed, and it only gets worse as it mutates and spreads.
Once infected, the virus takes control of the host’s neocortex and converts rational thought into fantasy. The host begins to believe in ideas such as harmonious free-markets where people can act and do whatever they want, a deregulated financial industry that correctly responds to market signals and can dump compounding debt onto society without costs, and corporations that can maximize shareholder value without hurting employees, communities, or the environment.
This insidious virus doesn’t stop there. It leads its host to believe that government’s sole purpose for existing is to ensure that corporations and ultra-rich individuals aren’t restrained by rules because, if they were, economic growth would cease and wealth wouldn’t trickle down to the rest of society. Furthermore, there’s no need for government regulation when a natural order known as the invisible hand creates prosperity for all!
As a brief aside, cultural viruses like Neoliberalism Economicus are natural and quite common. The epidemiology of culture goes by the field name cultural evolutionary studies and deals with the spread of ideas and how human culture evolves when beliefs, values, normative behaviors, and social practices mix and mingle with each other. The study of cultural viruses is a major concern for cultural evolution researchers.
Examples of cultural viruses that have proven to be adaptive for human societies (meaning they increased their ability to survive, reproduce, and outcompete any rivals they might have) can be found everywhere in human history. One that has been particularly effective is the notion of a polity — the concept of a state or province to which all people are members that transcends family or tribe. Ancient polities like the Roman Empire and Sumeria each united very pluralistic and diverse cultures into a unified political organism with great military power. Modern-day polities include nations — the United States, England, France and so forth — as well as larger bodies like the European Union.
When we consider polities to be cultural viruses, what we are saying is that they capture the minds of those who fall under their spell. Many will fight and die for their polity, even though it is nothing more than a shared social construct (albeit one with tremendous benefits for its members). The polity virus spreads as low-ranking members of the community emulate those with power and status. It also serves to unite those of common rank by creating a sentiment of brotherhood and sisterhood. These social bonds are what enables the polity to arise in the first place and are also what keeps it in place once it has taken root in the minds of its citizenry.
What we are finding with Neoliberalism Economicus is that it is not adaptive for individuals or societies. Rather it works like a parasite that bleeds energy away from its host with false stories that appear beneficial at first but are ultimately deadly. The virus grows by perpetuating fictions. These fictions are attractive because their appeal does not rely on facts but rather on the need for power and status. The neoliberal narrative has remained compelling in part because it appeals to powerful interests in society and those who emulate them. As billionaire venture capitalist Nick Hanauer proclaims:
Significant privileges have come to capitalists like me for being perceived as “job creators” at the center of the economic universe, and the language and metaphors we use to defend the fairness of the current social and economic arrangements is telling. For instance, it is a small step from “job creator” to “The Creator”. We did not accidentally choose this language. It is only honest to admit that calling oneself a “job creator” is both an assertion about how economics works and a claim on status and privileges.
It’s no surprise that many of our elites spend billions of dollars paying organizations and politicians to design and spread messages that characterize themselves as the kingpins of the economic order. Who wouldn’t want to be the infallible hero of a story daily embedded into people’s consciousness? But they can’t be entirely to blame because little do these mythological heroes realize their minds are under the control of a deviously intelligent bug!
The infected fail to see that viruses don’t have foresight for how their present actions affect the long-term survival of its host. From the virus’s perspective, the future doesn’t even exist, so it might as well take all it can get now. This short-termism has had damaging consequences; from radical income inequality and mass poverty to ecological destruction and financial collapse. In the end, neoliberalism is a threat to all, liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican, even those who use it to maintain their status and power. It’s time for a global vaccination program.
Introducing the Vaccine — Evonomics Magazine!
Science is necessary to solve the problems of modern existence — but alone it is not sufficient, because most people and institutions rely upon narratives that provide simple guides to action. Narratives and metaphors inside our minds are like filters for understanding and perceiving our complex world. They motivate us to behave in certain ways. They define what we think is possible, impossible, likely or unlikely. They give rise to the governance frameworks that are put in place across the span of years and decades.
This has been the key signature of success for Neoliberalism Economicus. It has provided the public and our politicians with stories about how the world works (and how it is supposed to work) but in reality it has only lead to the short-term gains of a few at the expense of everyone else. The intellectual foundations of Neoclassical economics have added a legitimacy to these stories. Homo-economicus and general equilibrium theory — according to those infected by neoliberal thinking — lend scientific credibility to their policy agendas and worldview. But neoclassical economic theory is a failed paradigm. Its foundational assumptions about human preferences and economic systems were shown to be flawed many decades ago. And yet it has proven to be extraordinarily tenacious at maintaining its dominance. This stranglehold is now slowly loosening.
New paradigmatic ideas in economics are being formulated by a small group of creative thinkers within and outside of academia. The latest synthesis of complexity and evolutionary science offers a more realistic and productive way to understand what it means to be human and how economies function. Economies — as complexity and evolutionary economists now understand — aren’t simple, linear, and predictable like machines. Rather they are complex, nonlinear, and difficult to predict like ecosystems. Human aren’t only rationally self-interested, utility maximizers. Rather we are often irrational, highly pro-social, and care more about our relative position than our absolute position within social hierarchies. Just these simple differences of understanding can lead to dramatically different ideas and solutions on how to deal with the challenges of the 21st century. There’s many more new understanding that will revolutionize how we think about markets, governments and our role in society. This will be unveiled on the pages of our new online platform Evonomics Magazine.
Evonomics Magazine is the next evolution of economics. It hasn’t launched yet but we want our future readers to come along with us on the learning journey to reveal how the latest scientific paradigm has new implications for understanding real-world economies. We believe the combination of the latest scientific paradigm and narratives (grounded by the science) will be a potent vaccine for neoliberal thinking.
We’re creating this magazine because we know great ideas don’t always spread on their own. Powerful stories and messages are needed to illuminate important new perspectives. With the latest media techniques and tools from marketing, communications, and advertising, we will offer catchy, simple, and thought-provoking narratives, and will put forth the new science of economics.
Future generations deserve a better economics…..
Our advisors for Evonomics Magazine include economists, evolutionary biologists, complexity scientists, financial analysts, psychologists, policy researchers, CEOs, activists, venture capitalists, and more.
The Evonomics Advisory Team:
David Sloan Wilson, Evolutionary Biologist
Peter Turchin, Mathematical Biologist
Rory Sutherland, Advertising Guru
Sarah van Gelder, Editor for the New Economy
Victor Hwang, Venture Capitalist
Jonathan Kochmer, Ecosystem Valuation Researcher
KoAnn Vikoren Skrzyniarz, Convener of Business Change Makers
Terry Burnham, Biological Economist
George Cooper, Financial Strategist
Jason Collins, Evolutionary Economist
Finn Jackson, Business Strategist
Steve Roth, Serial Entrepreneur
Ulrich Witt, Evolutionary Economist
Robert Frank, Behavioral Economist
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Your First Dose of the Vaccine is Here!
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Want to inoculate yourself against the Neoliberal virus? Read some of the books below and train your mind to see how it gets in. Peruse these materials and immerse yourself in a different web of economic concepts. Then you’ll be prepared to help us create the next economic worldview for the 21st century.
Right now we are growing our list of advisers and engaging in dialogue with members of the research community to seed the launch of our online magazine. In the coming weeks, we will share our plans for growing this community dialogue and bringing it into the mainstream.
Lastly, we welcome you here and look forward to embarking on this journey together. Sign up for our newsletter to stay involved in the fight. And bring others into the tribe by sharing this article with your friends.
The following economic books will inoculate you against the core assumptions of Neoliberalism:
- The Origins of Wealth by Eric Beinhocker
- The Rainforest by Victor Hwang
- Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure by Tim Harford
- The Gardens of Democracy by Nick Hanauer and Eric Liu
- Money, Blood and Revolution by George Cooper
- Positive Linking: How Networks and Incentives Can Revolutionise the World by Paul Ormerod
- Debunking Economics — The Naked Emperor Dethroned? by Steve Keen
- Complexity and the Art of Public Policy: Solving Society’s Problems from the Bottom Up by David Colander and Roland Kupers
- A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution by Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis
- The Darwin Economy by Robert Frank
- Cultivating Conscience: How Good Laws Make Good People and The Shareholder Value Myth: How Putting Shareholders First Harms Investors, Corporations, and the Public by Lynn Stout
- The Penguin and the Leviathan: How Cooperation Triumphs over Self-Interest by Yochai Benkler
- Complexity and the Economy by Brian W. Arthur
- Economics of Good and Evil by Tomas Sedlacek
- Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious by Gerd Gigerenzer
- Is Shame Necessary?: New Uses for an Old Tool by Jennifer Jacquet
- The Future of the Commons: Beyond Market Failure and Government Regulations by Elinor Ostrom
- The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths by Mariana Mazzucato
- The Mind of the Market: How Biology and Psychology Shape Our Economic Lives by Michael Shermer.
- Free Market Madness: Why Human Nature is at Odds with Economics — and Why it Matters by Peter Ubel
- Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism by George A. Akerlof, Robert J. Shiller
- Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others by David Sloan Wilson
- War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires Peter Turchin
- Conceptualizing Capitalism: Institutions, Evolution, Future by Geoffrey Hodgson
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Share the antidote and help us vaccinate the leaders of tomorrow against this plague that has wrought so much damage onto the world.