Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Sociology of Neo-Liberalism in One Easy Lesson. . . .

Looking back now over many years, I think we can say that Stephen Harper’s goal during his time in politics has been fairly simple and clear. The overarching goal has been to make government less able to respond to the social needs for the people. This is, essentially, the very purpose of the Neo-Liberal agenda. Upon reflection this goal seems rather bizarre. Why would someone want to weaken a fundamental socioeconomic institution to the point where it can no longer properly respond to the population and can no longer provide social and economic skeleton of society?

By weakening government’s ability to respond to peoples’ needs, Neo-Liberals make people more vulnerable to the demands of the market. By weakening the education system and gradually taking away elements of the social-safety net you make people more vulnerable to the demands of employers, you make them less able to, for example, demand higher wages, organize their workplace, and be choosy about what kind of jobs they will take. But, again, this seems, prima facie, a rather strange objective. But to understand this goal you have to understand the social model within which Neo-Liberals are operating.

Neo-Liberalism is, in a way, a symptom of a wider disease; the disease of corporatism. Over the past century or so the (so-called) public corporation has gradually become the primary socioeconomic institution, the one that is taking over from the old institutions such as the church, the family, and even the individualist entrepreneurial spirit. Where ‘good’ Catholics were once the children of the Church, Neo-Liberals are children of the big corporation. They see the corporation as the primary institution for the creation of wealth and power, the model on which social behavior and socioeconomic ambition must be based. Thus, Neo-Liberals work toward the supremacy of this corporate model. The entire social pattern of Neo-Liberals, and the pattern that they are trying to foster in others is one of anticipatory-socialization toward pleasing, toward fitting in to the institution of the corporation.

Thus, to Neo-Liberals, their agenda of weakening government seems like common sense. If the corporation is the primary social institution, the institution by which society is to create wealth and by which individuals are to gain financial and social success, then it simply makes sense to strengthen corporate power over the whole of society. It makes sense to Neo-Liberals to weaken people’s ability organize, to demand higher wages and better working conditions, to be choosy about what jobs they take and what hours they work. By weakening people’s ability in this regard you strengthen the corporation’s power over society in general, thus further strengthening the primary socioeconomic institution on which Neo-Liberals see society to be now based.

The majority of conservatives in society really don’t understand that this is what is going on. To do so would be to commit the crime of sociology. The danger of understanding the underlying social changes that the Neo-Liberal agenda implies is what is at the root of contemporary conservative ‘know-nothingism.’ If people understand the root causes of social behaviors there is a danger that they will understand what is really happening and the implications of making the corporation the central social institution. In the middle-ages the average person certainly didn’t understand that the Inquisition was a very basic way for the Church to broaden and strengthen its overall social, political, and economic power. Rather the average person in the middle-ages believed what they were told, to wit., society was full of sinners and they needed to weed them out in order to strengthen society. Similarly today, average people just ape Neo-Liberal talking points, such as - “Taxes are too high, we need to lower taxes.” They don’t understand that by aping such talking points they are actually contributing to a fundamental shift in our model of socioeconomic power.

Perhaps more important than what your average gullible conservative thinks is the question of what you average left of centre citizen thinks. You see, by failing to understand the sociology of Neo-Liberal corporatism, many traditional left of center citizens are also falling into the grip of the changing social model. Thus, the NDP, for example, is becoming a Neo-Liberal political party not because of any one particular policy, but because it has begun to operate in the very mode of corporatism. By falling into the discourse of low-taxes, balanced budgets, fiscal restraint etc., NPD supporters are falling into a classic case of anticipatory-socialization and they are only strengthening the corporate model that is at the very heart of Neo-Liberalism. By changing the priorities of your discourse you change the discourse itself, and when you change discourse you change understanding. This corporate model has also become a central element in the very organization of the NDP and other ‘left of center’ political institutions. By aping the organizational structures of corporatism, such institutions are actually embracing the very model itself.

The reason that it has been so difficult to change political discourse and political priorities in recent years is the very same reason that the Inquisition lasted for so long. When you questioned the legitimacy of the Inquisition (besides putting yourself in personal danger) you were questioning what had become, for many people in Europe, common sense. For most people a challenge to the institution of the inquisition was a challenge to what people saw as common sense notions such as sin and evil. People saw evil and sin all around them, they were there, and the Inquisition was rooting them out and making society better as a result. Thus it was very difficult for the Renaissance Humanists to make people understand it was the very model of apostolic power that needed to change. Similarly, it is very difficult to make your average, say, NDP supporter understand that it is the very model of corporatism that has to be challenged, and it has to be challenged in the way we talk and the way we organize. Otherwise, the sociology of Neo-Liberalism goes merrily on. 


Rural said...

Excellent post Kirby, almost makes that Neo-Liberalism 'tag' clear to me!

Owen Gray said...

An excellent post, Kirby. Neoliberalism has now become conventional common sense. It's no accident that Mike Harris chose the meme, "The Common Sense Revolution."

Brian Dundas said...

Interesting and thoughtful analysis kirby. It seems to me that, as was predicted by some at the time, the primary method in which neo-liberalism was systematically ingrained as "common sense" among the populace was the constant caving (w apologies to k.d. lang) of "left" parties and politicos. Third way, constantly tacking right and giving credence, to the neo-liberal paradigm. All for short term power and the fantasy/rationalization of "limiting the damage." Boy what the centrists have wrought.

Anonymous said...

The Inquisition was only required *because* people rejected the supremacy of the Catholic Church. It's purpose was to eliminate heresy. The very existence of Inquisition presupposes "dangerous" dissent, and an existing rejection of the "common sense" of "good v. evil" (as defined by religious authority). The hypocrisies of the clergy and church hierarchy were evident to all people wherever they occurred. In some places, in some times, the Church was dominant. In other times and places it was weak and subordinate.

Kirbycairo said...

@ Anonymous - We obviously cannot retrace the history of the Inquisition here. Indeed the power of the Church varied in different regions of Europe. From its initial growth with the persecution of the Cathars and groups like the Brotherhood of the Free Spirit, the Inquisition was an irregular institution that grew and contracted in fits and starts. (Much like Neo-Liberalism has done) But the more or less continuous effort to extend the Inquisition whenever and wherever possible by certain elements of the Church speaks to their desire to extend the Church's hegemony. To say that the "hypocrisies of the clergy and the church hierarchy were evident to all people wherever they occurred" is grossly counterfactual. Furthermore, the everyday problems and hypocrisies of the clergy were often local in people's minds (the same way, for example, the corruption of a Neo-Liberal government are local and not associated by people with the wider rightwing agenda). As books like Henry Kamen's on the Spanish Inquisition demonstrate, the institution of the Inquisition was often supported and often operated as a kind of background institution legitimized in people's minds as an essential public service. I would say that it structural served as a primary effort by elements of the Church to maintain ideological hegemony. This is pretty basic and I see no evidence to the contrary.

Kirbycairo said...

@ Anonymous BTW, One could equally argue (and I think that Noam Chomsky has) that Neo-Liberalism was necessary "because" the post-war movements for social justice challanged the hegemonic power of capitalism.

Lorne said...

An excellent and thoughtful analysis, Kirby. I will be sending this along to others.

thwap said...

Great post Kirby!!!

I would argue though that there have been cases of where leftist governments ignored balanced budgets and corporations and were ruined by the limits of their own country's economic resources; the passive resistance of their own business class; international economic realities; and/or their own incompetence.

Which is not to say that any country which spends on its people and ignores neo-liberal analysis is doomed. Just that the example of doomed cases will have been magnified in their minds in our neo-liberal culture.

Also within the context of your view of society, the increasing corporatization of the media, and its pervasive, 24-hour reach, mean that "loose cannons" are brought to the attention of the party CEO quicker and these CEO's have to defend their corporate brand against this taint all the faster.

Your post today is an excellent intro for why we need my personal hobby-horse: "Workers As Citizens." It's like the secret button in the movie of Good vs Evil, where you can supposedly bring down the Bad Guy at the height of his powers by activating the one powerful thing that he can't control but which could destroy him.

Giving the human beings their human rights within their workplaces; through democracy in the wider society, neutralizes the power of the corporate monolith.