THE BLOG
11/18/2013 05:57 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Cause of Public Good in Peril: Free-Market Deceptions and the Breakdown of the Collective Consciousness

"Can it be believed that the democracy which has overthrown the feudal system and vanquished kings will retreat before tradesmen and capitalists?" - Alexis de Tocqueville

Civilization is not a fiscal exercise nor is it one that is going to be guided by the quest of economic self-interest. It is especially not going to be led by a cabal of giant transnational corporations and international banking organizations and ruled by the intangible logic of the money markets. Yet, that is our current narrative as we continue to unwaveringly trust in the theory of economic rationality and economic stewardship as the progressive way to move society forward, compelled by the inevitability of global economic and technological forces.

The unstoppable march of technology is one thing. The crafting and implementation of economic policy is quite another. And the inevitability of globalist economics is only so because we've been told it is. Even in the face of thirty years-worth of evidence, culminating in a so-called Great Recession, a stubbornly anemic recovery, and the emergence of a two-tier society, without a beat, elected officials confidently double-down on the very ideology that has produced these events and perpetuated these conditions, continuing to pursue policies that wreak more havoc on peoples and nations-states than promote long-term stability of any kind.

It is a myopic perspective: forgetting the historical experiences of humanity at great risk and refusing to acknowledge any inherent flaws of the free-market system amidst an a-symmetrical recovery, policy-makers have chosen to further entrench an economic regime that accepts the normalization of spectacular boom-to-bust economic cycles, the hegemony of an ever-volatile financial sector, and the expansion and concentration of financial-industrial control at the expense of the nation-state and to the detriment of citizen interests and power, subjugating the cause of the greater public good, relegating it to a vestige of a quainter world of a century gone-by.

The laissez-faire principals that define this era of liberalized economic policies are rooted in revisionist recollections of the nineteenth-century experience with free-trade. Combined with the advantage of a century's-worth of technological progress and a brazen theory that leadership is not provided by people but by innate forces of the marketplace where a natural equilibrium supposedly exists, the globalization movement was devised as both an equalizing and a uniting force for the world. A noble but deceptive initiative.

From its inception, the globalist construct was deliberately infected by a political strain - neo-liberalism or economic rationality- with a militant agenda to inextricably link the promotion and facilitation of international trade and commerce to an ideology that distrusts and outright disregards governments' crucial role in human development, social progress, and as the guardian of general welfare, even though no natural or even necessary connection exists. Equipped with an extreme anti-government sub-text, veiled in a capitalist fervor, and disguised by the jingoism of freedom-speak, so began a radical political and cultural revolution as much as an economic transformation.

It's not a difficult sell. No one especially loves government and even moderate disdain for governments' inefficiencies can be easily exploited. Moreover, government has been grossly overreaching in the creation of the surveillance state, trampling Constitutional rights, adding fuel to anti-government sentiment. But government fulfills very necessary roles and functions in the areas of social justice, economic equality, and other domains of general public good where market principals do not belong or do not work.

In a world where the complexities of population growth and immigration, rapid urbanization, environmental degradation, poverty, healthcare, education, and culture and identity, not only persist, but are also compounding as we become evermore interconnected, government is a vital and the only possible steward and resource capable of such general welfare leadership. A functional, responsible government, especially when focused on the aforementioned, is also what fundamentally makes a democracy a meaningful one.

Forgetting that economics is merely a dependent of civilization however, neo-liberalism, in all its intellectual naiveté, takes the worldview that human existence can be abstracted, processed exclusively through a commercial prism, and that issues of a social nature are merely subsidiaries of economic development; civilization is viewed as a monolithic whole, discounting languages, religions, cultures and traditions, tribes, nations, and especially today's nation-states. It aims to strip-away the relevance of political borders - as arbitrary as some of them may be as vestiges of colonialism- and recast regional and national issues as global ones, reducing all of their solutions down to a single theory: the expectation that unfettered economic leadership across territories would positively reformulate all other aspects of human lives without much need for government at all.

At the core of this theory is the belief that the national collective is increasingly obsolete. Identity has been re-fashioned and is conceived as product of consumer choices dependent on the accumulation of wealth; people are defined by individual lifestyles today not the traditional community. We now exist as groupings of like-minded consumers not citizens and common interest as public good is increasingly a foreign concept that offends as a perceived infringement on personal liberty.

That interwoven characteristics and complexities of peoples and cultures across varied societies that have persisted for centuries and bind communities together can be extracted from our existence, guided by the principals of a single economic theory and based on the premise of unadulterated self-interest is at once wildly ambitious and utterly ridiculous. It is incredulous too that the simplicity of this approach to the world, with the innocence of its assumptions, has been successful in becoming the default ideology of countless governments regardless of political persuasions.

Originating in the US and adopted by the major powers largely at the behest of financial organizations that have been its key drivers, neo-liberalism, owing to its transient-nature, is an ideology that long-ago became gospel to both the Right and the Left in a swiftly-achieved consensus now normalized and accepted as the new economics 101. Political theatrics aside, make no mistake about it, both sides of the political divide adhere to the same economic orthodoxy and the same policy fundamentals with only minor, rhetorical differences around the edges; liberals trying to reconcile their greater social consciousness but still filtering it through the economic prism.

To be sure, the institutionalization of lobbying within governance and the influence of wealth and corporate money in financing campaigns has created and perpetuated this single-ideology rule, but lawmakers and citizens alike do have a natural pre-disposition to the broad generalities of economic rationality. First, as a characteristic linked to capitalism and to romantic notions of economic freedom and second, as a result of coming of age during the neo-liberal revolution themselves. It is no coincidence that the widespread acceptance of the ideology has paralleled the proliferation of management schools and that the advent of the management degree as a veritable right of passage has paralleled the rightward recalibration of politics generally; management schools have been proselytizing for over thirty years, disseminating the virtues of globalist economics with a remarkable level of conformity at home and especially abroad where it has sold well in countries where democracy is flimsy at best and the traditions of social and economic justice are less entrenched, even nonexistent.

Masked by a pro-business message within the context of a voracious consumer society, neo-liberalism, packaged and marketed to the masses as the free-market, has taken on a decidedly populist form as its working and middle-class cheerleaders so aptly prove. Given the simplicity of the ideas on which it is based, the free-market is a brand that is hard to resist. It is a even more difficult to deny given the technology now at the center of it and refashioning our daily experience in incredibly captivating ways. The concept of the free-market in the abstract has become so naturalized that it is espoused as good-old fashioned capitalism being spread around the world for the betterment of all. But the free-market is not quite capitalism; at best, it is a mutation of it, and the common interchangeability of the terms free-market, free-enterprise, and capitalism, as if it were merely a question of semantics, is evidence of the prevailing ignorance about the economic regime under which we live -- ignorance fueled in large part by the grand myth that individual freedom and free-makets are mutually exclusive and that free-markets necessarily free men.

There is no requisite connection between political and social freedom and the power and reach of the transnational financial-industrial complex that is the main beneficiary of this free-market. The cause of free man is irrelevant, a convenient, albeit romantic association used as a selling point. Given the nature of neo-liberlism's a-political appeal on the Right-Left spectrum, the free-maket transcends the once-absoluteness of old-world political systems; from Iceland to India, the US to Uruguay, Canada to China, it is a system that has been penetrating and transforming to varying degrees, vastly different national political models and countries with vastly different social complexities. And while it masquerades as democratizing insomuch as it creates a commonality of consumer culture amongst countries, that the free-market is actually a democratic political force is merely a slick branding message perpetuated by the chorus of its proponents: corporate technocrats, money market specialists, economists, lawmakers, and the endless stream of political commentators who fill the airwaves.

Democracy rooted in the fundamentals of social justice and economic equality is neither a pre-condition nor a post-condition in free-market-practicing states. In the free-market, such ideals are actually subordinate to the inalienable rights of corporations and the respect for multi-lateral agreements, contracts, and the most important component of all, debt. It is an economic system that best flourishes in jurisdictions that are ideally corrupt and much less free; where people are muzzled or at best, where populism is a sideshow of diffused public power and influence. The free-market is really about liberating capitalism not people. It is about subjugating nations and peoples to a system of complex international economic rules and regulations under the guise of business development and individual empowerment. Going beyond the rather simple idea of fostering economic growth and trade, the free-market is the anti-thesis of what free societies stand for: it places broad-based market principals, corporate interests, and especially the rules of international finance ahead of the general welfare of humanity and the best interests of nation-state, a reality that undermines the fundamental existence of a democracy.

Government as an institution that binds people together via shared identity and a common set of values, an entity that harnesses people's voices and power is of little importance in the globalist mindset; such identity and, by extension, nationalism are regarded as passé. Through the neo-liberal intellectual lens, self-interest is the new public good; market leaders, the most efficient and effective stewards for a globally-integrated society, and giant transnationals catering to consumers, the 21st Century alternative to government. The trappings of national interest are no longer existential qualifiers: the confines of neo-provincialism, that is, of states bounded by geography, social obligations, historical and human experience are irrelevant in the new world as a free-marketplace. We are meant to believe that market dynamics alone improve the social and economic mobility of millions of people around the world thus eliminating the need for, and attachment to, a central governmental institution. The emergence of a two-tier society that has paralleled the three-decades-long experiment with free-market policies suggests otherwise, of course.

Eradicating poverty, for example, is a worthy but deceptive neo-liberal intent; a flagrant myth of the free-market song-book. We are consistently being told how the system is "lifting millions of people out of poverty" but for millions of people, particularly in developing countries, their standard of living actually drops. From rural, community-settings where they live off the land with family structures in place, people move into urban slums where filthy water, raw sewage, and alienation are the norm; they work at over-burdened factories in buildings that are often poorly constructed and over-worker capacity. If it isn't factories collapsing or turning into death traps as fire ravages through them, then the endless hours and loneliness drive these workers to suicide. A better life indeed. But because a dollar's-worth of income can be measured, according to Western theoretical statistics, they have taken a step-up, not down. Meanwhile at home, socio-economic disparity is an inconvenient truth that neo-liberals choose to ignore, chalking it up to individuals' character flaws in their sink-or-swim matrix of society.

Human welfare however, is a real collateral cost of free-market policies. The metaphysical transformation of people, that is, human abstraction, is a key component of the globalist model, and is an off-shoot of the economic self-interest tenet. In the technocrat-devised free-market system individuals have been re-conceptualized as economic machines reduced to two functions: workers and consumers. Implied in this is the post-modern suggestion that people no longer have an emotional connection to places and communities with all the pesky cultural attachments and political sensibilities; it is the basis for, and explains the implementation of policies and tools that are being used to chip away at the effectiveness of the nation-state and relevance of government.

The establishment of pan-national trade organizations such as the World Trade Organization, the introduction of a common currency in Europe, and the unending appetite governments have for free trade agreements, -the next generation expected to bestow upon corporations political power to challenge national laws and regulations- have whittled away national sovereignty as lawmakers everywhere, having been sold on the merits of liberalized economies and not wanting to be left out of the party, have been surrendering their power to an intangible international managerial system, relinquishing their independence to navigate their societies according to the needs and the will of their people. In the free-market paradigm, leaders' ability to control policy - economic, social, and cultural- is being stymied by a system that places the good of markets ahead of the good of people.

Blinded by the glamour of Wall Street surges, the political elite's relentless focus on austerity in the aftermath of the financial crisis is symptomatic of governments' obedience to the financial system and money markets specifically, that now effectively influence, if not outright control, national agendas, particularly of weaker states. It is a system where faceless traders across the globe judge government policy in real-time, 24 hours-a-day. Never mind that trading money is inflationary, speculative, and unproductive, in the midst of anemic job growth and stagnating wages, budgetary discipline has been given top priority on the demands of market logic, not the demands of citizen interests or of broader national interest. This is the manifestation of neo-liberal doctrine that has effectively moralized debt: the elimination of debt as the new public good.

But the emergence of the balanced budget as the new morality has little to do with public good. It is purely opportunistic: a way to sell the weakening of government to the public and gain populist support for stripping the institution of many of its functions, turning them over to the private sector wherever possible. If public programs are too costly, then they must be cut irrespective of the long-term social and economic consequences, forgetting that public programming does not exist in a vacuum and is the by-product of historical experience. Public debt is "stealing from future generations," we are told, a now-classic line used by some lawmakers who routinely call for the outlawing of debt -- lending even more credence to the notion of its immorality. There are irresponsible debt levels and long-term debt is a major issue to be sure, but there are responsible reasons to incur debt and appropriate ways to manage it.

Ironically, even with this continued moralizing dominating the political discourse, we live in an era of extraordinary levels of debt. The reason? Debt is an incredibly lucrative business. And since the free-market system has been co-opted by the world of international finance, it has become very big business. Financial markets love debt-laden entities and weakened government can be achieved regardless of fiscal discipline. In fact, irresponsible debt levels hamper government even more, not just forcing their hand to cut public programming in a wholesale fashion, but also possibly leading countries to bankruptcy and to the selling-off of assets, potentially national treasures, at fire-sale prices. In this respect, international financial organizations are not only debt pushers, they are also debt parasites that are prepared to feed off the carcasses of failed states. States as slaves to debt, shackled by the laws of international finance pose the most serious existential threat to civilization going forward with the potential to leave whole nations devoid of legacies for their future generations.

This situation is made even more dire by the fact that this so-called free-market system is a centralized economic model. It may seem counter-intuitive, especially given all the emphasis on deregulation and the ballyhooed talk of market principals, but the free-market is actually a highly-regulated affair. It is a system that very much resembles the worst of big, old world government models that can strangle the creativity of a people and prevent society from flourishing. In the free-market, power has just been transferred from public sector technocracies to the private sector technocracies of giant corporations for whom the system is expressly designed to serve. It is still centralization but international in scope and corporate in nature. It is a system characterized by an obsession with corporate size, reach, and power, much to the detriment of real capitalists and especially to the disadvantage of entrepreneurs: it is virulently anti-competitive in that it not only limits competition, destroying it in a vulture-like way, but it also promotes the rise monopolies and worse, international oligarchies. The examples of industries consolidating, concentrating, and integrating run the gamut from aviation to media.

If the world is one big marketplace, then the companies have to be big to serve that marketplace. So the thinking goes. But big corporate structures are slow, less agile, risk averse, and lack creativity. They are pre-occupied by gigantism and are by default management-intensive, run by many levels of managers for whom structural size is a measure of success. Power is sought through the extension of structure, not through creative expansion involving research and development and increased sales by identifying and tapping new market segments; the quest for size replaces a drive to innovate and the fixation on moving goods and parts, masquerading as trade, distracts from actual economic productivity. When these companies ultimately stagnate, - and they always do - they go discount shopping for intellectual property, snapping-up smaller more creative companies that are highly successful in their niche and often have a media buzz surrounding them. Yahoo buying Tumblr being a fairly recent and pertinent example. Such mergers and acquisitions don't grow the economy in any way, but they typically create enormous amounts of debt, a windfall only for the financiers who arranged the transactions.

The quest for size and this discount-shopping form of capitalism is also stripping countries of their sophisticated economic drivers. The result of foreign takeovers in the name of market principals, or simply to escape taxes and regulations, corporate headquarters are dwindling in major cities around the world, leaving many nations' metropolises hollow business centers. This is the emergence of the new hinterland: small, token headquarters are left behind as mere regional subsidiaries of bigger corporate masters. These new transnational giants are unwieldy entities that don't relate to any one nation anymore, even their home-base countries. They know no meaningful nationalism and share no sense of civic pride or concern for nation-building. For these organizations waving the flag is merely part of a good public relations exercise that is repeated in any number of countries where they conduct business. It is patronizing patriotism at its best meant to appease the local populations in the 'regions'.

However rooted in the traditional idea of small government, the anti-government-speak emanating from the political and economic elite is really about advancing a neo-liberal vision of the world. It is the market versus government in the starkest of terms, as if the two cannot co-exist, let alone be complimentary in moving society forward. The crusade against government has little to do with empowering 'the people' and everything to do with empowering markets, corporations, and whole industries at the expense of people, communities, and country; neutering government for the good of private profit under the guise that market leaders are moral and ethical stewards of society. The rhetoric is exceptionally patriotic, the requisite shout-out to the free-market, a calculated link with deliberate implications: to have people identify the free-market brand with their own personal freedom and to extoll the model in the abstract and sell it as if it were as American as apple pie. In this age of disinformation, it's an easy sell.

A macerated, ideologically-driven discourse that places economic theories-as-truth above practical reality, factual historical experiences, and human condition is the backdrop of a misinformed and attention-deficit citizenry swayed by incessant soundbites generated by the corporate gatekeepers of a 24-hour, 'news' cycle. With a heavy emphasis on ratings-generating infotainment on a seemingly repetitive loop, the transformation of news organizations by subjecting them to an entertainment business-model has resulted in a world where reporting is becoming a rarity and facts are easily discarded. A shallow, partisan grasp and misrepresentation of the issues is the intention. It fuels the governing gridlock that is interpreted as incompetence, subsequently commanding the widespread cynicism that leads to voter apathy. This is a deliberately crafted environment that serves special interests powerfully, ultimately preserving their hegemony over government and control of the public's agenda.

While the degeneration of traditional mass media has been formidable in fomenting the current political morass, it is the advent of the blogosphere that has played an equally impressive, complimentary, and arguably catalystic role in poisoning the discourse and transforming the early-touted information-age into not only the age of disinformation but also the age of division. The internet may be connecting people, but it is not necessarily a uniting force, instead creating fractured factions of people amidst the web's aggressive and hateful tonality; moreover, it is actually turning us inward as we become increasingly self-absorbed with our own image and consumed by lifestyles via texts and Tweets, on Facebook and Instagram. The paradox of this culture of connection is that it has fostered a social context now working on its own to perpetuate a weakened collective consciousness that is affecting national cohesion. Lifestyle and consumer communities are, after-all, isolated from the real life concerns of fellow countrymen.

Compounding this is the passage of time that is severing us from the lessons of those seminal historical moments that shaped the 20th Century -- lessons that are now wholly taken for granted especially by younger generations rising. For example, even though the legacies of the New Deal and the Great Society are still very much a part of our daily lives, there is very little sense for these major initiatives and why they were necessitated in the first place; while they may be fundamental to the working of our society acting as both stabilizers and equalizers, most people do not grasp nor do they appreciate the importance of certain programs and what society would actually look like without them. This cocky age of technology is entrenching a new, singular state of being, where history is increasingly considered exactly that: history. The cause of the greater public good as a function of our common interests has become a faded concept of a society formerly humbled by historical circumstances and experiences that now seems out-of-place in an overly technocratic, financial-modeled, and tech-driven world. It is the dawn of an invincibility complex: we've become hardcore believers in the fool-proofness of our new tools, methodologies, and theories.

With a dwindling living-memory, especially in the halls of power, the farther we get from the days of the Great Depression and the ravages of sequential World Wars, the breakdown of the collective consciousness seems to worsen. Shared experiences of extreme hardship, especially in a former age when a personal credit line could not hold us over for a month or a year, when everyone, regardless of wealth and status, was effectively brought to their financial knees, is increasingly a tale of a bygone era. Strategic wars are waged, but the reality is we are a pampered lot, far removed from the combat zones, divorced from the battlefield reality; such sacrifice is relegated to those in uniform and their families, as the rest of us are told to go shopping. Economic hardship continues but the constituency most affected is too alienated to effectuate change while personal debt keeps the rest of us mindlessly afloat.

This is an era that has redefined success as the measure of financial wealth; the accumulation of vast sums of money for the sake of accumulating vast sums of money, the ultimate show of that success. The by-product of insatiable consumerism, we have become an instant-gratification society seduced by varying degrees of luxury and the desire to live like the rich and to be famous. Ours is a vicarious culture being lived through the lens of celebrity and not just the Hollywood kind anymore: the movie star has been replaced by the celebrity business tycoon - from bankers to bakers, from media barons to petrol oligarchs, the lavishness of their lifestyles, we are meant to believe, is everyone's destiny. It is no surprise then that neo-liberalism, in all its pro-business machinations, has become so widely revered an ideology.

The idolization of the CEO-as-hero has emerged from this economic-lifestyle prism, suggesting that great civic leaders have management degrees and pedigreed resumes of corporate experience - because managing a company is the same as leading a country. Lawmakers, more interested in satisfying extremist partisan sects at the expense of the country's best interests have become the poster-children for the cult of self-interest: the once-selfless nature of public service has been tainted by the quest for power and the guarantee of future riches once outside of government. With these leaders at the helm, when issues relating to public good are brought to the fore and concern is raised over income and wealth inequalities, elitist cries of class warfare start to ring-out, distracting us from the real issues. It is but a twisted argument by a group of self-appointed untouchables, themselves enjoying the benefits of redistribution, who prove that the ideal of American individualism has been co-opted by a poisonous selfishness and that the real moral decay chipping away at society is in fact greed, and worst of all, self-aggrandizement.

If government should be held in disdain, it is not necessarily because it is slow, inefficient, or ineffective, of which it can be all those things. But there are distinct differences between a long line at the post office, the dysfunctional state of Congress, and the corrupting influence of big money in the political system. The substantive debate over the role of government is not about its size; it is not about creating or preventing a nanny-state; it is certainly not an irrationally extreme choice between capitalism and socialism with all its Cold War intonations as some would have us believe; it is about the need to have a functional institution that upholds common values for the long-term good of the public. With a population increasingly disengaged from the community and misinformed about the issues, democracy is in a potentially perilous state; ever-lower voter turnouts in West is an ominous trend and no doubt partly a product of the naval-gazing society we have become. It is a condition that is allowing us to take our institutions and vital public programs for granted and be convinced that a simplistic economic theory is the basis and guarantor of our continued freedom.

With an agenda driven by special interests and the political establishment consumed by their ideological tug-of-war, the abstract debate over big versus small government remaining at the forefront and lacking substance, there is a deficiency of governance and leadership at a time when it is needed the most. The inevitability of living in a new geo-political realm - courtesy of globalist economic policies - where there are fewer 20th Century foes and more 21st Century economic competitors actually demands a pivotal, if re-adjusted governmental role in society. If we are going to continue to implement free-market policies there is a greater need to have a strong but effective government to ensure long-term social cohesion as a matter of national security; upheavals and revolutions are borne of dire social inequalities and the concentration of economic power. Democratic values and institutions therefore become more important -- not less; as do key publicly-funded programs and other initiatives, especially in the areas of healthcare and education.

Civilization is a joint project that requires as much heavy lifting on the part of government as it does leadership of the market. Its greatness is neither going to be defined by the size and power of its corporate entities and how well governments balance ledgers nor by the hoarding of wealth by a few. A collective will and effort is required to accomplish the big projects that all of society benefits from; once achieved, those same projects become a unifying force. Right now, we are sorely lacking the vision, stuck in a technocratic prism of so-called leadership where proving theories and models of a flawed ideology is the conditioned fixation; it is no surprise that we are so divided and seemingly rudderless. Aren't we really robbing future generations today by failing to build something for tomorrow? They aren't called The Greatest Generation for nothing.