Greed, Exploitation and Deceit in Sheep’s Clothing:  Answer is, “What’s Neoliberalism?”

For at least 10 years, I’ve become increasingly distressed about the rapid and dramatic growth of economic injustice and inequality in the US. People in all walks of life, our elected officials, and the media have talked about stagnating wages, unemployment, and accelerating homelessness, but seldom is there any deep, critically-minded discussion of the underlying dynamics.  At best, we hear that unemployment this month is down or up.  We know that in the aftermath of the “mortgage crisis there was a major “recession” (really a “depression”), but the media, and the powers that be, didn’t want to call it that)

Liberal Democrat President Obama bailed out the banks and talked about the importance of taking care of “main street”, but neither he nor any significant number of elected officials of either party have done anything for us who live on main street.  Certainly, nothing has been done for those living in blankets in the alleys off of main street. Now, with Trump in office and Republican control of both houses (with the help of gerrymandering), there may be tax cuts for the wealthiest and most fortunate, and along with that, greater belt tightening and increasing debt for those of us in the “middle” class, and poverty and homelessness, for the rest, who are the most marginalized. And, we have heard about similar things going on in Europe, and perhaps worse in some countries, like Greece.  Ever since the era of Regan in the US and Thatcher in Great Britain in the 1980s, we have heard about “austerity” policies. “Austerity” is a euphemism, which is part of the deceit used to conceal the exploitation and greed that is at the heart of an economic policy called “neoliberalism”. “Austerity” sounds like what parents implement when their kids are spending too much of their allowance on candy, or video games.  However, most people have been simply spending “too much” on food and housing, and trying to get out debt. The real problem is not the lack of self-discipline by the vast majority of citizens, but rather the economic policies of neoliberalism—with the runaway greed and exploitation promoted by the wealthiest members of our society and their (not, our) elected officials,

What’s going on? Noam Chomsky, Henry Giroux, Naomi Klein and others have written about it, and they, and others call it “neoliberalism.”  Sounds pretty good? Right? “Neo” means “new”—that sounds nice and shiny, and “liberal” sounds, well, it sounds “liberal”—conservatives may not like “liberal” but too many of us who like to think of ourselves as cosmopolitan, open-minded and forward thinking, so that sounds pretty good, too.  Right?

Wrong!!! We need to probe beneath the surface here.  That’s something we try to do at WISR—look beneath the surface appearance of things to see if we can figure out the underlying dynamics.  And, although we take seriously immediate problems, we also try to look at the “bigger picture” and take a long-term view of things.

That’s why I was delighted when WISR alumnus, Dr. John Borst, emailed me a link to his excellent power point presentation and analysis of “Economic Justice: Reversing Runaway Inequality” (available at: )  As a result, John came up from Southern California this past week to lead a three-hour seminar with 9 WISR students, 3 faculty members, and one community guest participating, about half of them joining in by phone or video conference. The rest of this blog post is devoted to sharing some of the ideas put forth in John Borst’s presentation and comments added by the participants, along with some of my further thoughts that were stimulated by the excellent discussion.

Craig McCaleb pointed out that the phrase “Neoliberalism” does not communicate well to others, so “Predatory Capitalism” might be a better phrase to use in explaining the social ideology underlying the forces that are contributing to runaway inequality.  We turned our attention to a discussion of some of neoliberalism qualities. A key goal and outcome of neoliberalism is the privatization of all sectors. John added that neoliberalism is a “utopian” (utopian for the top less than 1% at least) project to achieve social control.  The interests of the business community and those owing capital supersede the interests of all others.  As WISR student, Mark Wilson added, “The country IS on the right track (but only) for the people who own it.”   Some of the ensuing discussion pointed to the disturbing reality that in the US today, we no longer have Government by the people, by the citizens (i.e., Democracy), but by those who have the power, money, and wealth. Also, the government is for the wealthy power elite and their corporations. This is a problematic extension of the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United–corporations are people. In effect, as such, they “vote.”  And, there is strong evidence that the weight of their vote is based on the extent of their “size”—that is, their power and wealth as corporations. We no longer have one person, one vote, since in practice, votes are acquired by having the funds to pay for media ownership, lobbyists, and manipulative campaigning strategies.

The harsh political realities and challenges to creating change are very much related to what’s going on with the economy.  The power grab that is eroding our democracy is deeply intertwined with what’s going on economically—the privatization of most everything—schools (e.g., charter schools) and prisons (with profitable slave labor), the proposed privatization of retirement (ending social security), and the continued privatization of health care (even under Obamacare), among others. With increased privatization, comes not only less governmental control, but the removal of citizen engagement and decision-making over the future of our country. Further, given the growing environmental crisis, those of us who live on this planet and who will pass on to future generations what’s left of this planet, have been taken out of the game of life and put on the sidelines.  Only those who are among the extremely wealthy and powerful are left on the playing field. The best we can do is to cheer for one team or the other. With the two-party system as it is, with both parties beholden to the interests of the most wealthy and powerful—no matter which team wins, we all lose.  As John Borst aptly emphasized we need to study Political Economy—politics and economics as interrelated, if we’re going to see how to change things.

Still, we all need to find ways to get back on the what’s left of our democracy’s playing field and try to make a difference. However, in the midst of this runaway inequality, which weighs so heavily on so many people, it’s not easy to have the time and energy to read, listen and think about why things are so bad.  The media obscures what’s going on. And, for most people, it’s hard to even take a deep breath in the midst of trying to meet one’s immediate everyday needs. Mobilizing and organizing people to make a change is not easy.

I would suggest that a first step, but only a first step is to learn more about neoliberalism, the wolf in sheep’s clothing. The clothing talks of freedom and liberty, the right of everyone to have an opportunity to succeed, to become wealthy and powerful. Terms like “free trade” sound good—the word “free” is cherished by most everyone, except “free trade” isn’t so great the way it’s framed. It doesn’t give blue collar workers more freedom of access to the outsourced jobs resulting from the free trade policies.  We’re also told by the clever advocates of predatory capitalism, “Don’t let government stifle your initiative, don’t let government tax you and give your hard-earned money to welfare deadbeats.”  According to the neoliberal theory and practice, Government—defined as an institution to protect everyone’s interests, and especially those less fortunate—is corrupt because it is not based on a “free market economy” where supposedly everyone has control over their destiny.  Except it’s a lie.  The deck is stacked.  The rules of the game are written by those powerful and wealthy enough to buy legislation.  Legislation primarily serves the interests of the powerful, and makes just enough concessions to others to keep the sheep’s clothing intact.   Some liberal Democrats will support and even propose mild reforms, by criticizing the harshest versions of neoliberalism—that is, they will advocate for modest, but limited, spending on welfare, education and health, while keeping the free market economy in place and protecting the interests of the most powerful and wealthy. They will advocate for valuable and just social reforms like gay marriage, which cost those in power little or nothing. Obamacare is a perfect example of a mild and ineffective reform—somewhat improved access to health care for many, while allowing insurance companies to continue their profiteering.  As a result, Obamacare is unnecessarily costly (it provides profits to the insurance companies), and it is subject to criticism by the neoliberal colleagues who have a position that takes a harder line. And, we spend twice as much per capita on health care as do Canadians, and with poorer health outcomes.  Cuba does better as well.  If you are born poor, or with even a modest income, you are likely to have access to much better (and free) health care in Cuba.  For example, their infant mortality rate has been lower than the rate in many low-income US communities.  And of course, many European nations have high quality, free health care.

Don’t take my word for these assertions–observe what’s going on around you, use your curiosity and critical-mindedness, and quite importantly, seek out and evaluate alternative media. I recommend that you consider the following excellent online sources of information and food for thought: Nation of Change, Truthout, Color of Change, In These Times, and Southern Poverty Law Center, among others. Seek out your own sources, and share them with me and others.  Don’t rely only on CNN and The New York Times. For revealing stories from one former insider about the severe limitations of such media as the New York Times, read Chris Hedges book, Unspeakable. Freedom of the Press is eroded by the monied interests who own the major and most visible sources of the “news”.

Still, the predatory capitalism that is supported by the neoliberal philosophy continues to shout out its commitment to freedom and liberty. Unfortunately, this view of “freedom” is warped, hollow and without integrity. The neoliberal political economy is based on the freedom to NOT abide by the Golden Rule. The Neoliberal political economy leads to a society where we are NOT “expected to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  Here’s just one illustration. The US tax code, even without the harsh tax cuts for the rich currently proposed by Trump and the Republican politicians, does not support the Golden Rule. Why? Those advocating for increasingly lower taxes on the rich are those who benefit most from our society—from our military that fights wars serving their interests, and from our infrastructure on which they rely very significantly, for example. They would not be so unconcerned about homelessness, stagnating wages, lack of affordable health care, deteriorating public schools, and mass incarceration of African Americans, if they thought that they or their relatives might end up being in a vulnerable circumstance where they might be so seriously hurt by the tax system and our economic priorities. The philosopher, John Rawls, has suggested a theory of justice that requires people to make decisions about society as if they did not know what their place in society might be.  This hypothetical (and unrealistic) circumstance is a way of stating that if we abide by the Golden Rule, we will make decisions, not based on our narrow self-interests, but rather based on what would be the fair, compassionate, and just thing to do. Thus, we will treat the interests of everyone as important without using the prejudice of knowing about our own (sometimes, fortunate) circumstances.

The neoliberal “ethics” of a predatory capitalist political economy is based on the abstract ideal of a “free marketplace”, and it puts profits over people, and competition over justice and the Golden Rule. Trickle down economics argues that the masses will benefit from the increased wealth of the very elite class, because a little bit of their wealth will trickle down to everyone else.  This assumption is reminiscent of Marie Antoinette’s infamous statement about the French masses, prior to the revolution, when she dismissively commented upon learning that many people did not have bread to eat, “Let them eat cake.” I would suggest that the political economy of neoliberalism, at least as it is currently gathering greater momentum is not “trickle down economics” but  “suck up economics”.  Increasingly the most powerful and wealthy people in our society are proposing, passing and implementing laws and policies which suck up as much of the little remaining funds from the middle and lower classes as they can get away with doing.

 So, going forward, look at the political economy of our country, and ask yourself, “is this ‘suck up economics’?” And, “how can I join with others to redirect our country toward a more just political economy, one that is consistent with our democratic ideals and perhaps also an ideal of justice that is more in line with the Golden Rule of ‘Do Unto Others as You Would Have Them Do Unto You’.”

 There is much more to write about John Borst’s recent seminar (and one planned for January), and I have more of my own thoughts to share about this crucial matter.  I plan to write another blog post on this very soon.  Please look for it.


Profile photo of John Bilorusky

About John Bilorusky

John Bilorusky is President of WISR and Member of WISR's core faculty. John was one of WISR's four founders in 1975, and WISR has been, and will continue to be, the hub of his professional and community involvements. John received his BA from the University of Colorado (cum laude in Physics and cum laude in General Studies) in 1967. He received his MA from the University of California at Berkeley in 1968 and his PhD in Higher Education from UC Berkeley in 1972. He has also held major faculty appointments in the College of Community Services at the University of Cincinnati (1971-73), in the Social Sciences Interdisciplinary Studies at UC Berkeley (1970-71) and at University Without Walls-Berkeley (1973-74). He has actively written and published in the field of adult learning and social change. He lives with his wife, Janet, and 18-year-old twins, Kyle and Nicole. Janet is a nurse at the Regional Center of the East Bay, serving and supporting people with developmental disabilities. Kyle and Nicole are currently enrolled at Berkeley City College. He has an adult son, Clark, who has a Master's in Asian American Studies from San Francisco State, and who lives with his wife, Donna, and their two children, Ilaw and Tala, in Vallejo, CA. Clark provides Tech Support in the Union City School District.
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