Text of a talk that I gave on October 9, 2011:
First, a few words about why I wrote this book [Globalization and the Demolition of Society]. The book’s subject is neoliberalism and why it’s a dire threat to the planet. Neoliberalism is a word that’s well known outside the U.S. but not well known in the U.S., which is peculiar given that it's the doctrine that both the GOP and the Democrats have adopted over the last thirty years. The term comes from the meaning of liberal as put forth by the 18th century social philosopher Adam Smith who extolled the virtues of the free market left alone without any interference by the government. It’s called neoliberalism because it’s the neo revival of Smith’s laissez-faire approach.
Neoliberalism is the philosophy, politics, and policies that serve the interests of globalization. It is, in short, the political expression of globalized capital. Neoliberalism is the book’s subject matter, but the goal of my book is to wage a fight in the realm of ideas to discredit the ruling ideas on the level of theory and of practice, to show how flawed, illegitimate, and dangerous the ideas and policies that dominate are, how racked by crisis and contradiction the people in charge are, how this is a systemic problem and not one that can be fixed by merely changing the faces in power, to critique prevalent ideas such as postmodernism and libertarianism that are offered in ostensible opposition to neoliberalism to show where they fall short, and to demonstrate the extraordinary power of revolutionary theory to give people the tools they need to really come to grips with what’s going on, why it’s going on, and what the people can do to wrest a radically different outcome from this awful trajectory of events.
I wrote this book to treat these topics at the highest level of sophistication in order to impact the scholarly community and the world of ideas, but the examples I use are ones that everyone can relate to and understand because I want this book to be read very widely. I’ve assigned earlier iterations of the book to my senior seminar class with tremendous results, with many students telling me that it has fundamentally changed the way they see the world.
The book is very ambitious in its scope and has been years in the making. Debra Sweet describes it as several books in one so I can’t give you more than a taste of what’s in it. A website is partially up to supplement and reflect the outlook and strategy of the book at http://dennisloo.com and I encourage you to get involved with it.
For today, I’m going to focus on three areas from the book. The first has to do with why I call neoliberalism perhaps the most dangerous movement in human history. The second is related to this and is one expression of it, the “war on terror.” And the third has to do with democratic theory and why it’s actually an obstacle to authentic popular rule.
Why do I call it maybe the most dangerous movement in human history? Neoliberalism combines three specific attributes: unparalleled power in terms of the resources and technologies that the neoliberals possess and control, hubris (there’s no adequate synonym for hubris but it is the extreme version of swagger and self-exaltation; it’s what the ancient Greeks said was the sin that comes before the fall), and a truly radical rejection of objective reality.
Another way of expressing this is that the neoliberals have an unprecedented capacity to do damage to the social fabric and the biosphere (witness for example, global warming and the BP oil spill) and an unparalleled indifference to the results of what they’re doing, a degree of indifference that borders on the clinical definition of insanity. One of the things that Obama benefited from when he was running for the presidency was the contrast between his facility with language and the fact that he could write sentences with dependent clauses and W’s stupidity and simplicity. But what Obama shares in common with Bush is his willingness to play fast and loose with the truth. As Stephen Colbert has put it, facts matter not at all anymore. Obama has been carrying forward and going further than Bush dared and been legitimating it all, which is why I think he should go down in history as one of the worst presidents ever for that reason alone. Bush was the Decider and Obama is the Legitimizer.
The neoliberals’ rejection of objective truth is based on a philosophy that elevates the individual above the group, in fact it severs the organic connection between the individual and the group. When you elevate the individuals’ wants above the needs of the group and of the environment what you’re doing is claiming that individuals owe nothing to the group and you are negating the realm of necessity. You’re saying that there is only freedom and no corresponding necessity and that individuals should act as if there are no bounds to what they can have and no need to pay attention to objective realities and to others. Former BP CEO Tony Hayward told a group of Stanford graduate students in 2009 that he has a plaque on his desk that says, “If you knew you could not fail, what would you try?” This is the kind of hubris and radical rejection of objective necessities that leads directly to the stake driven into the heart of the Gulf of Mexico producing the BP oil catastrophe.
Neoliberals’ intimately related idea that market forces should take charge of everything is not even possible to implement because of the fundamental nature of capitalism, which inevitably leads to monopoly. Why? Because the essence of capitalism is the pursuit of profits. In order to maximize profits you must attempt to either take over or destroy your competition, i.e., get bigger and eventually become a monopoly. Because of economies of scale (it’s cheaper to make things if you’re bigger) as well, monopoly is the inevitable result of capitalism. And when you are a monopoly, guess what? You control what government does and government will not allow you as a monopoly to go bankrupt because you are “too big to fail,” so the forces of ”free enterprise” are inevitably suspended because the very forces of the free market that are animated by profit lead to monopoly!
In 2008 banks were holding risky financial derivatives of $183 trillion (thirteen times the size of the U.S. economy). They are now carrying, as of late 2011, $248 trillion. As I put it in my book:
“The worst and most alarming news here, in other words, is not that 9/11 was an inside job, a grand conspiracy hatched within the highest US government echelons. It is instead that 9/11 and other disasters such as the BP Deepwater Horizon catastrophe are due to the normal and ordinary workings of capitalism, and specifically neoliberal policies. That is much more distressing than believing that 9/11 was an inside job.” (p. 163)
These dangers have a lot of different dimensions to them but let me just mention one of them, which brings me to my second point: the so-called War on Terror.
Neoliberalism rests upon the logic that making the people more insecure means more profit. From the neoliberals’ perspective, the fewer protections that the public has such as unions and regulations, pensions and job security, the better. That is why we’re seeing a concerted assault on the New Deal. The result of this process is that the benefits of going along with the status quo are being systematically decimated and the inevitable result of this is that people are going to get frustrated and angry and rebellious. How do you maintain order then in the face of the fact that you are constantly sticking it to the people? You have to rely more and more on coercion, intimidation, and fear mongering, which is why we see the rule of law being undermined continuously, imprisonment rates the highest in the world despite the crime rate falling since the early 1990s, and the use of torture and assassination openly.
The particular expression of this in the “War on Terror” is that the WOT requires that anti-state terror continue in order to justify the measures of the WOT and the security state apparatus that it has spawned. If anti-state terror was to stop, the WOT would have to end. That is why GOP spokespeople and even Democrats have said in public that having terrorist incidents occur is a good thing, not a bad thing. As Michael Scheuer, for example, ex-CIA officer in charge of the bin Laden group put it on Glenn Beck's show, “The only chance we have as a country right now is for Osama bin Laden to deploy and detonate a major weapon in the United States.”1 Thus, Obama and the US government need al-Qaeda just as much as al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups need the US’s WOT. Terrorism breeds terrorism. The only way out of this is to challenge the underlying logic of the WOT with a slogan like “It’s a War Of Terror” and to fight for the moral high ground that Americans lives are no more precious than any other nation’s people’s lives.
I now want to turn to my last point for this talk: democratic theory.
A radically different conception of what constitutes authentic popular rule is needed. The reason why the people never seem to be in charge, no matter how hard the people might try, and the reason why democracy seems like that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, always eluding our grasp, is not because a good idea isn’t being properly implemented but because of problems with the idea itself: democratic theory is fatally flawed. The theory doesn’t reflect how social dynamics actually work, how opinions are created and spread, how great disparities of wealth lead inevitably to the wealthy actually running things, and it doesn’t even address itself at all to the real objective and material difficulties that humanity must overcome in order to accomplish progressively authentic popular rule. These flaws in the theory explain why authentic popular rule has not been achieved and cannot ever be realized until a theory that takes these matters into consideration replaces democratic theory and becomes the leading theory.
There are a number of different facets to this that I get into in my book, especially in Chapter Five, and also throughout the book from different angles, but I want to focus in this part of my talk on just a few aspects. The first aspect has to do with democratic theory’s postulating the idea that democracy equals the majority sentiment. That view seems simple and straightforward enough. But how do these ideas that are shared by so many people come to be in the first place? Where do they come from and how, out of all the ideas that can be thought and are thought, does a single one grip a lot of people? To put it simply, democratic theory treats a mass sentiment as if it arises from a majority of the people independently of each other and independent of the processes by which a single idea gets propagated. In so doing, democratic theory obscures a key distinction between opinion-leaders and those who take their cues from opinion leaders. Moreover, even if a mass sentiment were present without anyone spreading it, for that sentiment to become actualized, for it to become actualized as a public policy, it has to be organized and become focused. Some individuals have to provide leadership for that to happen.
How does a sentiment actually get organized and focused? New ideas and new ways of doing things, ranging from fashions in clothes to new musical trends to political and scientific movements, always begin within a small body of people, sometimes as small as one or two people, who recruit a group around them. This small fraction’s views, if that fraction succeeds, gets eventually adopted by 1% of the people and that 1% set the tone for the rest of the population who move in response to that leading 1%. All social movements and all revolutions and all less noticeable everyday developments occur this way.
Here’s how I put it in one place in Chapter 7:
“Groups of people do not move into action as a block with everyone marching to the same beat and responding at the same pace to the same precipitating factors. Moving groups into political action requires triggering the advanced individuals first and foremost. When a car is stuck in mud, getting it unstuck involves giving the leading tires some traction so they can pull the entire vehicle out of the mud.
“Preventing movements from being mobilized requires neutralizing and paralyzing the subject group’s advanced individuals. Mass sentiments cannot be mobilized and become real unless they are focused and organized; for that to happen leadership is required... Leadership and masses of people are necessary complements to each other; leaders must have a social base and a following, and the masses cannot express themselves without their leaders. This gap between the leaders and the led has always been with us, predating even the appearance of castes and classes, and will never go away.
“Leaders can play either a facilitating role toward good ends or they can hinder what should be done. Their actions or inactions reverberate powerfully on those who follow them. The Democratic Party’s refusal, for example, to pursue Bush and Cheney’s impeachment, prosecution for their crimes, and removal from office, and its refusal under Obama to hold anyone accountable for the Bush regime’s confessed crimes has had a disorienting and destructive impact on the sentiments and outlooks of the people who still look to the Democrats for leadership. Some of the people who, a few years ago, would have blanched at the very idea of torture and indefinite detentions and condemned them roundly can now be seen justifying them. The fault here does not lie primarily with Democratic Party followers. People who still follow the Democratic Party, just as those who follow the GOP’s lead, are doing what can be expected: they are conforming to the groups that they consider the legitimate political authorities.” (p. 330)
I’m going to take up this question of alternative legitimate political and/or moral authority in a little bit because we are finally seeing the extremely promising appearance in embryonic form of the social base for this in the Occupy WS actions. But first, to sum up this first point: one of the things that democratic theory overlooks and gets wrong is the actual relationship between leaders and the led. Democratic theory muddles them up. It attributes leaders’ actions to what the majority wants. It claims that the government does what it does because the people want it to do that. This conflates two distinctly different parts of the process – leaders and led - and in doing so, in falsely claiming that the people are already in charge (because they can vote!), democratic theory actually negates the actual role that the people can play with the right kind of leadership.
People don’t, for example, choose to go to war. Governments declare war and prior to declaring war they prepare public opinion to get enough people convinced that a war must happen before they can mobilize the people to take up arms and go off and kill and be killed. They have to wage a massive and ongoing propaganda campaign because they are asking people to endure an exceptional level of sacrifice that puts a huge strain on any state and society.
Sometimes wars become unpopular enough that an anti-war movement succeeds in ending that war. Sometimes that anti-war movement is so successful that they also topple the government. How does such a thing ever happen? If mass resistance to the wars are to happen, enough to eventually end the war, some brave individuals must first stand up and declare that they will not fight. They inevitably face resistance to their stand and generally this doesn’t occur until well after the war has been going on for a while because of the power of governments to manipulate public opinion and because of people’s natural tendencies to be protective of their government and their spontaneous tendencies towards nationalism, which is why only the bravest individuals are willing to endure the kickback that they will encounter when they refuse to fight. But the resistors’ stand is absolutely indispensable to showing the way for others who have felt much of the same things as the ones who first stand up, but have not acted and were waiting for someone else to do it first. What happens when someone stands up and concentrates what others have been thinking in a more nebulous and tentative way? People say: “That’s right! That’s what I’ve been thinking!” And by acting on their views, emerging or existing leaders are showing others that it can be done. They have modeled for others a different path that can be taken. Mass public opinion always and everywhere starts in small groups and then spreads.
So that is the first point: public opinion doesn’t develop spontaneously among most of the public independently of one another and become a major factor in the shaping of public policy or people’s behavior without first being brought into focus through leaders who play critical roles in shaping that opinion. This occurs at all levels of the society, including within the family and between friends and co-workers but most of all at the highest levels of the state and media. This is why those who decry the state of public policy in this country and who blame the average American for the situation, saying they’re too passive, ignorant or philistine, are missing the fact that it isn’t the people who primarily determine these things.
Public policy in particular isn’t reflective of what a majority of people actually thinks most of the time. Public policy reflects the operating consensus of those in power who have successfully created either a real or, more often, simulated, majority consensus around their position. What matters is not what the actual majority sentiment is, what matters is who determines what sentiment is presented as the majority sentiment. A major way that this gets determined in actual practice is that the people who really run things determine behind close doors which candidates are going to be considered the serious candidates for office. Everyone who isn’t dubbed a “serious candidate” receives at best passing mention in the media and isn’t allowed to participate in the major debates. In this fashion, it is very easy to determine what approaches are going to be allowed. Parents do the same thing with their children when they tell their kid that they can eat the peas or the carrots but they have to eat one or the other. If the child eats the carrots, do this mean that the child democratically decided what it was going to eat?
This is also how major public policy questions are determined: by framing an issue in a certain fashion, the framing of the question predetermines the possible solutions that will be considered. Everything else is ruled off the table. I use a number of examples of this in the book. For instance, the “support the troops” slogan that was concocted to try to defuse the anti-war movement frames the issue as one of “you’re either for the troops or against the troops.” As long as you adopt the “support the troops” framing, you can’t oppose the war that those troops are fighting and to oppose the war you’d have to substitute a different interpretive frame for the issue such as “This war is unjust.”
The only way that another path can be taken in society is if a sufficiently popular alternative group or individual who by acting brings others to their side is able to get their framing of the issues to contend society-wide against the one that is being put forward by the ones who currently run things. This is what happened in the 1960s around the question of the war and civil rights and the oppression of women. Would “law and order” and “the domino theory” (which justified the Vietnam War) prevail or would “social justice” dominate? As I demonstrate in the latter part of Chapter Two of my book, social insurgency was successful for a time in making “social justice” the dominant interpretive frame in the society, blocking elites’ efforts for a period of several years from setting the terms in the society. This is a very important lesson for us and the future with respect to the central importance of mass movements, issue framing, and opinion making and why these things matter, and not elections.
The question on the table now with the OWS protests is do the 1% get to decide or do the interests of the 99% prevail? This 99% motif is very effective because it reframes the slogans that have up till now been on top of “market forces should decide everything,” “the interest of the individual overrides everything else” and “what matters more than anything is material wealth.”
What is involved here and always is a question of which values lead. Values are not something that exist separate and apart from real material relations. Values reflect different ways of organizing relations among the people, organizing the economy and the society as a whole, what incentives and disincentives there will be to motivate people, and how the people should relate to nature. When I say a majority, by the way, I’m not necessarily talking about the numerical majority. I’m using the term in the sociological fashion of the dominant perspective = the majority.
Which brings up a critical corollary point to the preceding: since there are a variety of sentiments among the population at any given time, many of which are contradictory to each other, including the ideas within the very same individual, what values get foregrounded and a majority or leading sentiment mobilized around it to see it moved forward? This is really what public policy making is all about.
To answer that question I have to first get into addressing this question: what is democracy for? Should it be understood as a means to an end or as an end in itself? Virtually all of the time when people say they’re for democracy what they mean without stating it explicitly is that they are for democracy as an end in itself; democracy is a good in and of itself. But this question needs to be broken down and different parts teased out. I want to do that briefly here and note that I owe this basic distinguishing of means from ends in democracy to Bob Avakian who wrote about this in a book called Democracy: Can’t We Do Better Than That?
If democracy is understood as an end in itself, then the fact that every adult gets the opportunity to express his/her opinion and gets to vote on the question and the votes are fairly counted and the discussion before the vote is allowed to occur freely, then democracy has been fulfilled. That is why they have a saying around election time that goes: It doesn’t matter who you vote for as long as you vote. So when I heard that as a teenager I asked myself, then why should I vote at all if it doesn’t matter how I vote? The focus in this definition of democracy is on the process, not the result. In fact, the result is irrelevant because democracy as an end in itself means that whatever the majority voted for is what we will do, no matter how ill informed or wrong-headed the majority vote might be.
When I talk about this with my students I sometimes put it this way: Shall we vote about what time it is? Does it make sense to decide what kind of operation someone who is in danger of imminent death needs by holding a vote of all the personnel who work in a hospital? Of course, you want to rely on the people who have the most medical expertise. So the point here is clear: how good a decision is matters and good leadership is indispensable, not only because good leaders reflect the best aspects of the group that they lead but because there is a real objective world out there outside of our consciousness and it matters to the entire society whether what we’re doing is wise for the people and the planet or not. And if that is true, then democracy should be better understood as a means to an end, rather than as an end in itself. Otherwise, treating democracy as an end in itself merely continues to serve as a cover for the fact that elites actually run society in their own interests, pretending that the people run things.
There is obviously a lot here to delve into in depth but let me leave this particular subject by saying that we cannot have authentic popular rule as an end point but only as a process that we are striving progressively to achieve. Why? Because the long-standing division of society into classes and other divisions means that many people have been left out of getting the kind of training that they would need to make good decisions and that in order for them to be able to act politically in a meaningful and useful way, the leading individuals and the structure of the society have to be transformed into one in which the doors were opened to the people learning how society really works and being exposed to the very best that society has to offer. Debates and discussion should sweep the society and characterize the everyday nature of society. We are seeing this happen right now in a beginning way finally with the OWS actions. That discussion and debate informed by real information and by a theory that promotes this and that is dedicated not merely to the rhetoric that everyone should have their say but more importantly to the pursuit of what’s true is a proposition that this bookstore is dedicated to. There are millions of conversations going on right now reaching into the texture of people’s everyday lives that have been sparked by the OWS actions. It is a model and the raw material for a radically different world.
Durkheim, whose functionalist theory provides a theoretical justification for democratic theory, argued that a university education should not be given to workers because it would only make them dissatisfied with their lot and make them rebellious. I point out in my book that this shows that Durkheim, despite his belief in the natural inequality of people, didn’t think that workers were incapable of understanding the significance of what they were being exposed to with a university education. On the contrary, if workers didn’t get on at least some fundamental level the meaning of a higher education, then there would be no harm in exposing them to it. It’s only harmful as Durkheim saw it, because they WOULD understand its significance. Now he doesn’t spell this out explicitly because if he did the invalidity of his point would be obvious. You have to read my book to find that little gem! I’m not saying that everyone would become a world-class philosopher and artist and political scientist if exposed to broad horizons and fine generalizations, but if people in the society as a whole were exposed to the best that society and humanity has to offer, then they could not be easily fooled and misled and they would rise up and demand that society be transformed from the bottom up. And that would be a very fine thing indeed!