JR'S Free Thought Pages
The Totalitarian Nature of Neo-Liberalism
The Freedom to be a Slave
One of the ideas for which Vladimir Lenin is best remembered is his understanding of freedom, particularly his distinction between formal and actual (real) freedom. For Lenin, we can never escape the questions of (1) freedom for whom and (2) to what purpose. Actual or real freedom is the ability to actually choose the range of coordinates themselves, altering the goal posts one might say, and not merely a preset predetermined set of options within given parameters; that is, those imposed by the ideology of neoliberal state capitalism.
One is reminded of Anatole France’s famous quote:
La majestueuse égalité des lois, qui interdit au riche comme au pauvre de coucher sous les ponts, de mendier dans les rues et de voler du pain.
“In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread.”
Whatever you think of Lenin, he was an authentic intellectual and surely right in pointing out that capitalism is not synonymous with genuine democracy or real freedom. Moreover, the much-touted claims by the business classes to “freedom” and “democracy” are clearly conditioned by their own desires, obsessions and conceptions. Their notions of freedom and democracy are inextricably tied to the interests of their own parasitic class and thereby constricted by a whole series of limiting conditions such as the freedom of corporations to trade, plunder resources, wage predatory imperialist wars to augment opportunities to resource extraction and to exploit their uninhibited access to cheap labour (slavery being wage labour taken to its logical conclusion in capitalist economics) and increased profit. Costs and other unpleasant externalities such as air pollution and contamination of soil and ground water are offloaded onto the people according to the principle of “privatizing profit and socializing costs”. But the question arises; what about the freedom of labour to move about freely and their right to liveable wages, safe working conditions and benefits? For Lenin (and Marx), workers are mere commodities or resources that are objects of exploitation by the bourgeoisie and their right to rob them of their real wages (the infamous surplus value) and autonomy. What about freedom of the media? Under capitalism’s hegemony, it is merely the freedom for the wealthy and privileged rich to own and control the various forms of media, including the press, in order to indoctrinate the masses into their class views (false consciousness) and create a docile populace of worker bees and drones that can be easily manipulated and controlled. What about parliamentary or representative democracy? Isn’t this another scam in which parliamentarians are simply pawns and instruments of wealth and power, like the police, military and surveillance apparatus? The ultimate determining factor is the dominance of capitalist ideology, which generates its devious forms of political representation and set of laws that further its own agendas; that is, “democracy” as we know it operates within strict parameters defined by capitalist ideology.
Hidden within parameters of putative formal freedom specified by neo-liberalism and its ideology of untrammelled corporate globalism, we are offered the “freedom” to exploit one another, as consumers to purchase primarily superfluous products spun out by corporations, including the “freedom” to choose among predatory privatized corporate controlled healthcare conglomerates in the United States as opposed to the government single payer system in most of Europe and Canada that provide far superior outcomes at far less cost. The paradox of (especially doublespeak Republican) politicians in the US who claim that universal healthcare deprives individuals of their freedom of choice is a fraud since they are effectively promoting freedom of healthcare choice without actual freedom of choice. Ask anyone in Canada, Denmark or Norway which system they prefer and which is representative of real freedom.
In our phoney democracies we are informed by corporations and other wealthy icons of the capitalist oligarchy that we are free because we have the non-choice of voting in farcical elections every four years for two or more platinum spooned wealthy capitalists who will protect your interests. We are also told that the equally farcical free market is merely an exchange between equal subjects who meet in a benign marketplace as if the exploitive relationship between employer and worker represents an even playing field of equal partners.
In the gig economy, described by George Monbiot in a recent article called Revolt of the Robots, we have become little more than an Orwellian liberal dictatorship as we are informed by our corporate masters that we now have the freedom to repeatedly re-invent ourselves as autonomous atomized worker entrepreneurs-in-ourselves throughout our entire lives, scrambling and competing for ever-diminishing low paid employment, most of which is part time of short duration. Retirement will eventually arrive – at death. Within this stifling system, the entrepreneurial slave workers, unlike corporations and big businesses that depend on laws written for them and fed a steady stream of government subsidies and corporate welfare, must deal with risks over which they have no control and no resources or power to survive. Attending college or buying a home translates into a lifetime of debt peonage. This is a far cry from the mafia don geniuses of finance and banksters who literally demolished the global economy in 2008 and were handed golden parachutes by the nanny corporatist state (the big trade union for corporate oligarchs), deemed “too big to fail” (which makes about as much sense as “too small to fail”).
Anyone who holds on to the notion of social democracy that existed in the three decades following World War Two is accused of wanting to “escape from freedom” (a la Erich Fromm) by clinging mindlessly to the old order of economic security, stability, solidarity and community inherent in “outdated ideologies”.
So, in current conditions of unprecedented global economic inequality and diminishing economic opportunity for our young people, conditions resembling corporate autocracy, why is there not rioting in the streets? Where are the Che Guevara revolutionaries and mass uprisings? Sadly, as the history of prior revolutions have shown, people do not rebel when conditions of the lower layers of society are incredibly terrible and desperate, but rather when those who actually have tolerable lives become disappointed with what minimal benefits and crumbs from their chins their masters have promised or conceded to them.
What we need to happen is for people to reject carte blanche the current edition of the “masters of mankind” (Adam Smith’s infamous expression) by a total rejection of the status quo of the current neo-liberal political order. There are many examples of earlier insurrections, but permit me to offer a strategy based on a recent historical example we might follow.
Successful revolutions have invariably entailed not only small networks of intellectuals, activists and agitators, but large scale solidarity, cooperation and collaboration from the populace. This was the case in the overthrow of the 300 year tyranny of the Tsarist monarchy in the 1917 Russian Revolution as it was in 1989 during the toppling of the Romanian Stalinist tyrant Nicolae Ceauşescu. In a desperate effort to restore the diminishing docility and servitude within the masses, Ceauşescu organised a huge rally of support in the centre of Bucharest. The instructive scene, with unfortunately a not so uplifting ending for the Romanian people, is described by Yuval Noah Harari in his book Home Deus. Can we in the West follow this script and purge our own countries of the parasitic corporatist robber baron billionaires and their government lap poodles in our phoney “liberal democracies”?
From Homo Deus, “Long Live the Revolution” (pp. 154-160), Y. N. Harari:
“Over the previous months the Soviet Union had withdrawn its support from the eastern European communist regimes, the Berlin Wall had fallen, and revolutions had swept Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia. Ceauşescu, who had ruled Romania since 1965, believed he could withstand the tsunami, even though riots against his rule had erupted in the Romanian city of Timişoara on December 17th. As one of his counter-measures, Ceauşescu arranged a massive rally in Bucharest to prove to Romanians and the rest of the world that the majority of the
To the cheering of the seemingly enthusiastic crowd, Ceauşescu mounted the balcony overlooking the square, as he had done scores of times in previous decades. Flanked by his wife Elena, leading party officials and a bevy of bodyguards, Ceauşescu began delivering one of his trademark dreary speeches. For eight minutes he praised the glories of Romanian socialism, looking very pleased with himself as the crowd clapped mechanically. And then something went wrong. You can see it for yourself on YouTube. Just search for ‘Ceauşescu’s last speech’, and watch history in action.
The YouTube clip shows Ceauşescu starting another long sentence, saying, ‘I want to thank the initiators and organisers of this great event in Bucharest, considering it as a—’, and then he falls silent, his eyes open wide, and he freezes in disbelief. He never finished the sentence. You can see in that split second how an entire world collapses. Somebody in the audience booed. People still argue today who was the first person who dared to boo. And then another person booed, and another, and another, and within a few seconds the masses began whistling, shouting abuse and calling out ‘Ti-mi-şoa-ra! Ti-mi-şoa-ra!’
The moment a world collapses: a stunned Ceauşescu cannot believe his eyes and ears.
All this happened live on Romanian television, as three-quarters of the populace sat glued to the screens, their hearts throbbing wildly. The notorious secret police – the Securitate – immediately ordered the broadcast to be stopped, but the television crews disobeyed. The cameraman pointed the camera towards the sky so that viewers couldn’t see the panic among the party leaders on the balcony, but the soundman kept recording, and the technicians continued the transmission. The whole of Romania heard the crowd booing, while Ceauşescu yelled, ‘Hello! Hello! Hello!’ as if the problem was with the microphone. His wife Elena began scolding the audience, ‘Be quiet! Be quiet!’ until Ceauşescu turned and yelled at her – still live on television – ‘You be quiet!’ Ceauşescu then appealed to the excited crowds in the square, imploring them, ‘Comrades! Comrades! Be quiet, comrades!’
But the comrades were unwilling to be quiet. Communist Romania crumbled when 80,000 people in the Bucharest central square realised they were much stronger than the old man in the fur hat on the balcony. What is truly astounding, however, is not the moment the system collapsed, but the fact that it managed to survive for decades. Why are revolutions so rare? Why do the masses sometimes clap and cheer for centuries on end, doing everything the man on the balcony commands them, even though they could in theory charge forward at any moment and tear him to pieces?
Ceauşescu and his cronies dominated 20 million Romanians for four decades because they ensured three vital conditions. First, they placed loyal communist apparatchiks in control of all networks of cooperation, such as the army, trade unions and even sports associations. Second, they prevented the creation of any rival organisations – whether political, economic or social – which might serve as a basis for anti-communist cooperation. Third, they relied on the support of sister communist parties in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe. Despite occasional tensions, these parties helped each other in times of need, or at least guaranteed that no outsider poked his nose into the socialist paradise. Under such conditions, despite all the hardship and suffering inflicted on them by the ruling elite, the 20 million Romanians were unable to organise any effective opposition.
Ceauşescu fell from power only once all three conditions no longer held. In the late 1980s the Soviet Union withdrew its protection and the communist regimes began falling like dominoes. By December 1989 Ceauşescu could not expect any outside assistance. Just the opposite – revolutions in nearby countries gave heart to the local opposition. The Communist Party itself began splitting into rival camps. The moderates wished to rid themselves of Ceauşescu and initiate reforms before it was too late. By organising the Bucharest demonstration and broadcasting it live on television, Ceauşescu himself provided the revolutionaries with the perfect opportunity to discover their power and rally against him. What quicker way to spread a revolution than by showing it on TV?
Yet when power slipped from the hands of the clumsy organiser on the balcony, it did not pass to the masses in the square. Though numerous and enthusiastic, the crowds did not know how to organise themselves. Hence just as in Russia in 1917, power passed to a small group of political players whose only asset was good organisation. The Romanian Revolution was hijacked by the self-proclaimed National Salvation Front, which was in fact a smokescreen for the moderate wing of the Communist Party. The Front had no real ties to the demonstrating crowds. It was manned by mid-ranking party officials, and led by Ion Iliescu, a former member of the Communist Party’s central committee and one-time head of the propaganda department. Iliescu and his comrades in the National Salvation Front reinvented themselves as democratic politicians, proclaimed to any available microphone that they were the leaders of the revolution, and then used their long experience and network of cronies to take control of the country and pocket its resources.
In communist Romania almost everything was owned by the state. Democratic Romania quickly privatised its assets, selling them at bargain prices to the ex-communists, who alone grasped what was happening and collaborated to feather each other’s nests. Government companies that controlled national infrastructure and natural resources were sold to former communist officials at end-of-season prices while the party’s foot soldiers bought houses and apartments for pennies.
Ion Iliescu was elected president of Romania, while his colleagues became ministers, parliament members, bank directors and multimillionaires. The new Romanian elite that controls the country to this day is composed mostly of former communists and their families. The masses who risked their necks in Timişoara and Bucharest settled for scraps, because they did not know how to cooperate and how to create an efficient organisation to look after their own interests.”