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Michael Bonner: Neoliberal extremism is the true tyranny of our age

Commentary

Review of: Tyranny, Inc.: How Private Power Crushed American Liberty—and What to Do About It
Author: Sohrab Amari
Publisher: Forum Books, 2023

If I asked you to imagine an extremist, who would you think of? If someone said that dangerous ideas had been floating around lately, and have been corrupting our institutions and politics, which ideas would occur to you? Contemporary extremists insist that there is only one viable form of political order, and it should be the same everywhere: political and cultural institutions everywhere should be altered so as to conform with their ideology; and if you don’t fall in line, they will force you. What image takes shape in your mind?

No doubt this description of contemporary ideologues would seem extreme to practically everyone. Or at least it would until the name of the ideology is revealed. Is it some form of religious fundamentalism? Or perhaps one of the old 20th-century ideologies like fascism or bolshevism back from the dead? The answer, I would say obtusely, is yes. Contemporary extremism is all those things in one horrible package: a mixture of blind faith, absolute ideological certainty about its own political and social prescriptions, and an outlook on the future more akin to prophecy than real history.

I am referring to neoliberalism: the ideology that still pervades the West, and which has been all the more successful for passing virtually unnoticed. Neoliberalism took a serious knocking in the crash of 2008, but true believers still preach a doctrine of the total supremacy of economic and market forces. Nothing can be allowed to stand in their way. National borders, local customs, government regulation, inherited religion, family bonds—nothing can be allowed to diminish the making of money. Economic activity, the ideologues say, obliges people to put aside differences, to rise above parochial concerns, and so forth. That is their main article of faith; it is especially true, they assure us, of trade between countries, since nothing is more likely to transform erstwhile rivals into friends than making them rich, apparently.

Like all ideologues, the proponents of neoliberalism also insist upon uniformity. Regional differences are inconvenient for multinational companies trying to do business, and so they must be flattened out. If you want a sense of the homogeneity favoured by today’s ideologues, consider the delegates to a meeting of the World Economic Forum or a gathering of international management consultants: they look and sound the same, wear the same clothing, and repeat the same bland jargon.

By historical standards, a drab internationalist elite for whom everything is a question of money is highly unusual. And in his 2022 book Liberalism and Its Discontents, even Francis Fukuyama called neoliberalism “extreme.” But, you may ask, how is it dangerous? And where is the faith and the prophecy? I am exaggerating, of course, but only slightly. The danger was manifest in the late-20th- and early-21st-century vision of globalization which gutted Western industry and manufacturing and moved jobs overseas. The populist backlash was baked in from the beginning, and it was only a question of timing. And yet, Western elites were wholly unprepared for it. That’s where the blind faith comes in: no matter how catastrophic their failures, our extremists cannot see that they were wrong. They still maintain that globalisation and outsourcing were inevitable and irreversible. Events were unfolding from the 1990s onward in conformity with a millenarian vision, of which Francis Fukuyama was the main, albeit widely misunderstood, prophet. Those who had heard the neoliberal Good News, but who had not yet converted, would be enlightened by force. Such was the apparent goal of liberal interventionism since the end of the Cold War, though it cannot be said to have been very successful.

The neoliberal reforms in 1990s Russia led to chaos and the rise of Vladimir Putin. Offshoring to China may have lowered the cost of many consumer goods, but it failed to make China any less authoritarian—and has in fact generated a backlash against Western materialism and deracination. Most extreme of all, though, was the economic regime imposed by the Bush administration upon Iraq after the 2003 invasion. Every Iraqi asset apart from oil was opened to foreign investors who were allowed to expatriate all profits. All tariffs were cut or removed altogether, and personal and corporate taxes were dropped to 15 percent. Collective bargaining was practically outlawed, foreign soldiers and contractors were granted immunity from Iraqi law, and the entire Iraqi army was disbanded and put out of work. Iraq is doing better now than in 2003, but it is hardly the capitalist paradise prophesied by The Economist.

The apostles of neoliberalism may have failed abroad, but they have had astounding success coercing their fellow citizens in the West. This is the grim state of affairs described in Sohrab Ahmari’s new book Tyranny, Inc.: How Private Power Crushed American Liberty—and What to Do About It.

Readers will be relieved that this book is not yet another mock-serious screed alleging that higher taxes are tyrannical. Nor does it deal with your grandfather’s tyranny: the kind of despotism exercised by an overbearing state, and widely feared throughout the 20th century. Nazi Germany and the Soviet Empire were the two main examples, whereby state power crushed and dominated all aspects of life, replacing or co-opting all civil society groups. This sort of coercion is indeed fearsome, as are the extreme ideologies that animate it. But, says Ahmari, we in the contemporary West have established a new kind of tyranny, inspired by neoliberal extremism, exercised not by the state but in spite of it.

This despotism takes shape amidst what Marxists would call “the withering away of the state.” Marxists expected that the weakening of state power would coincide with the advent of communism when the state and those who owned the means of production would be wholly deprived of coercive power. As the state diminished, the “government of people” would give way to the “administration of things” like economic policy, allocation of resources, and so forth, and there would be no further possibility of coercion. But the Marxists were wrong. In fact, the exact opposite of their expectations has come to pass, since the vacuum left by the retreat of the state has been filled by private actors, mainly large corporations, whose despotic tendencies are almost entirely unchecked. This happened because modern state power stops where the market begins; and the result, as Ralph Nader predicted in the 1990s, is “…a subordination of human rights, of labour rights, consumer, environmental rights, democracy rights, to the imperatives of global trade and investment.” Accordingly, private actors pose as great a threat to personal freedom as tyrannical governments.

Ahmari presents some sobering examples and examines them in a little over the first half of the book. Last-minute scheduling that puts low-wage workers at the mercy of their bosses; asset-stripping by acquisitive investors; CEOs who care for nothing but enriching share-holders; abuse of the bankruptcy process by corporations in order to avoid class-action lawsuits—these are all instances of “the private coercion of the many by the very few,” and invariably justified by the alleged “free choice” of its victims. There is also the depressing story of Eddie Lampert, the rapacious former CEO of Sears, who utterly destroyed a once great pillar of middle-class American prosperity by maximising cash flow without re-investing in his company, selling off assets, and artificially inflating the share price until finally filing for bankruptcy.

But the real villains of the book are the Sackler family who owned Purdue Pharma and who closely oversaw its business. The revolting tale of the opioid epidemic, which the Sacklers caused, is becoming better known. Less well known is the Sackler’s abuse of the Chapter 11 bankruptcy process to avoid both personal liability and any admission of wrongdoing. They even handpicked the district as well as a notoriously favourable judge for filing their Chapter 11 petition.

I have been hearing denunciations of such abuses since I was a teenager in the 1990s when all good people supposedly knew that globalisation and neoliberalism were inevitable processes of history. Those who dissented, like Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, and Ralph Nader, tended to belong to what was then known as the Left, and many were widely regarded as crazy. Very few mainstream conservatives, if any, were moved by the critiques of offshoring, sweatshops, and big-box stores driving out small, local businesses—though they should have been. And the heavy emphasis on freedom after the collapse of the USSR failed to include the huge asymmetry of corporate and individual power. The difference now is that the mainstream Left has abandoned left-wing economics, having been thoroughly converted to neoliberal ideology. And the corporations who attracted left-wing populist ire in 2008 have all pacified their opposition with woke sloganeering. Consider Ahmari’s example of a corporate executive who opens her meeting with a solemn declaration of her pronouns and a land acknowledgement before a minatory speech warning all her underlings against joining a labour union.

A visitor to a mall wearing a mask past by a Nike store in Beijing on Monday, March 29, 2021. Ng Han Guan/AP Photo.

In contrast, some (but by no means all) elements on the Right are beginning to understand that contemporary social and economic problems were caused by the ideology that they held in highest esteem at the end of the 20th century. And yet, as it seemed to me at the time, there was no way to talk about the problem until the mid-2010s. And I would never have predicted that Donald Trump, with all his fulminations against offshoring and bad trade deals, would be the Lenin to Ralph Nader’s Marx, but here we are.

Things did not need to turn out this way, says Ahmari. Neoliberal extremism was not inevitable. It came about as a sort of “counterpunch,” as he says, to the “socially managed capitalism” in the aftermath of the Great Depression. The dispensation of the New Deal and the trente glorieuses (the thirty glorious years of prosperity after the Second World War) were terminated in the 1970s and 1980s as inflation rose, wages stalled, organised labour was crushed, and the economy became increasingly financialised. As Ahmari reminds us, more than twice as many Americans now work for private-equity-controlled firms as for the federal government and military combined, and the share of the economy dominated by hedge funds has risen from $2 billion in 1976 to at least $2.4 trillion now. This has made a great many people very rich, and vastly enlarged the wealth of the top 10 percent. But it has hollowed out the middle class and immiserated the working man—a dangerous situation which, as Peter Turchin would remind us, has provoked civil wars and revolutions in the past.

What is needed is a return to the principles of “socially managed” or (as Ahmari prefers) “political-exchange” capitalism and an end to the neoliberal order. That is Ahmari’s main recommendation. The basic idea is to “return markets to their proper place as a component of politics,” with greater emphasis on things like the right to unionise, domestic manufacturing strategies, higher minimum wages, and so forth. Something of the sort has happened before, when the Gilded Age of the robber barons gave way first to trust-busting, and then the New Deal. “The new arrangement,” says Ahmari, “was neither the laissez-faire utopia of the free marketeers nor the classless society imagined by orthodox Marxism. What mattered was that it achieved its purpose, safeguarding the weak and the political community as a whole against private tyranny, however imperfectly.”

And the new dispensation, though it originated under the Democratic presidency of FDR, was safeguarded and expanded under the Eisenhower-Nixon Republican Party with its environmental protections and encouragement of blue-collar unions. This can, and should, happen again. But, this time, it will not be fat, top-hatted industrialists who get cut down to size, but the managerial technocrats, or the upper echelons of the laptop class.

This brings us back to extremism. The kind of extremism that attracts the most attention these days is obviously not neoliberalism. Depending on your perspective, it is either a cabal of trolls on social media egging each other on and discomfiting normies, or it is a mob of woke imbeciles trying to ruin someone’s life for using the wrong pronouns. No one thinks of a dominant ideology as extreme, but in the case of neoliberalism, this is exactly how we should see it. More seriously, we should remind ourselves that a given form of extremism always invites an equal and opposite reaction. It is in the best interest of Western elites to moderate their political economies, lest an equally extreme and more violent ideology present itself as the only force capable of resisting the dominant consensus.

My advice to Western political classes regarding a New Deal 2.0 is—to steal a slogan from one of the great villains of 1990s globalisation—Just Do It. But that is easier said than done, of course. Correcting the asymmetry between big business and workers will not sit well with the self-styled conservative (but actually libertarian) donor class, nor will it jibe with the New Left’s race- and sex-obsessed partisans. It may take some time till mainstream parties can once again discuss economic class; but, if and when they do, it will be a welcome change from the gormless and interminable slugging match about wokeism. Ahmari’s new book may well do much to hasten this change.

Stuart Thomson: Reporters should take Poilievre’s combativeness as a challenge

Commentary

One of my best memories from journalism school was when John Baird visited for a Q&A session and had the time of his life.

Baird was the infrastructure minister and in the early stages of rolling out the government’s economic action plan, a massive stimulus program designed to jolt the economy out of the doldrums that followed the Great Recession.

He stood in front of 30 or so bright-eyed journalism students, all keen to pin him down on something or another, and ripped us to shreds one by one.

When it was my turn to ask him a question I had already seen several of my classmates go down in a blaze of glory so I wrote out my question and tried to find the exact wording that would stump the minister.

I asked him if he was worried about cost overruns or scandals arising from this massive blast of infrastructure spending and before I’d finished my sentence Baird cut me off.

“Do you have any examples of what you’re talking about?” he said.

I groped for examples and came up with a newsy U.S. scandal about a “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska. That allowed Baird to pontificate about the differences between the U.S. system and the Canadian one and my question mostly went unanswered.

To be entirely truthful, I considered it a victory. I got out of there alive without looking too stupid.

At the time, it felt like a reality check. Baird’s performance seemed like a preview of what life would be like if I reached my goal of someday covering politics for a living.

Don’t ask a lazy or unfocused question, I told myself, because these people will absolutely pounce on you.

But strangely, those responses from Baird were some of the most intense I’ve ever seen in journalism. And to be clear, Baird had a smile on his face for much of it. He was just having fun in a low-stakes situation.

I have seen reporters get extremely heated with politicians and other public figures, sometimes to a degree that I considered unprofessional or excessive. I’ve also seen flashes of ire behind a politician’s eyes in response to my questions, but it always subsides into a calm and measured response.

Until Pierre Poilievre came along, anyway.

When Poilievre cut a reporter off mid-sentence last week to clarify an accusation that he was “dog-whistling to the far Right,” it brought me back to that day in journalism class.

Poilievre asked who was making that accusation and when informed by the reporter that it was unnamed experts, he asked which ones. After a brief back-and-forth, Poilievre told the reporter that her question was based on a false premise and seemed, to him, like a “CBC smear job.”

Up until that last part (it wasn’t even a CBC reporter), Poilievre seemed to be on solid ground. If he is to respond to accusations that he is either an extremist or courting extremists, it seems perfectly reasonable to ask for an example or some evidence.

But of course, like anything in politics, it shouldn’t just be taken at face value.

For Poilievre, the short-term benefits of this strategy are obvious: his supporters dislike the media and it’s fun to watch him take on reporters like this. Clips of Poilievre raking journalists over the coals are especially popular on YouTube.

The long-term benefits are harder to see, though. Poilievre has been undergoing a “softening” of his image lately, and these prosecutorial exchanges seem to conflict with that. Swing voters usually don’t like argumentative people, even if they are right (and sometimes especially when they are right).

The other effect for Poilievre might be that reporters start doing what I unsuccessfully tried to do once I realized Baird was going to interrogate me. I put a little more effort into my question and I started to think about my strategy for getting a good answer.

It’s easy to see why most politicians don’t argue with bad or lazy questions, though. Instead, they nod sagely, as if they are impressed with it, and then rumble through their talking points. Pushing for a better question actually makes their job harder.

As it says in the Bible, and in every NFL training camp since time immemorial, iron sharpens iron. Poilievre may be inadvertently forcing reporters to think twice as hard about their questions and their story premises, pushing them into a little more research than they may otherwise do and generally making his life more difficult.

It’s also worth considering that the social media world, and the way it divides us into ideological tribes, provides bad incentives to reporters the same way it does for politicians. For a journalist courting a left-wing audience, sparring with Poilievre is valuable, the same way heckling Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would be for a journalist seeking a right-wing audience. These tribal social media incentives tend to be contrary to the health of our democracy and its institutions.

It also puts more emphasis on the process of journalism than its result. Because scrums and interviews are such a big part of a journalist’s day, and because they can be exciting, adrenaline-pumping moments, it’s easy to put too much importance on them.

Of course, it’s vital to get politicians on the record, and to report on it when they don’t answer our questions, but the key mechanism for accountability is not the question screamed at a hapless politician or its tepid response, it’s the news stories that get written afterward.

Most big scandals start off with a “no comment,” or a talking point, or a flimsy denial“The allegations in the Globe story this morning are false.” and the bickering in the scrums isn’t even a footnote.

There is a temptation among reporters to see any kind of pushback or criticism as an assault on our role in the democratic process. We should be careful about that. It’s worth considering that the kind of spirited exchanges we’re used to seeing in question period might be good for us in scrums and interviews.

And anyway, the YouTube content will be great.