Democracy and the Future of the Quest for Freedom Ninth Installment

Democracy and the Future of the Quest for Freedom

Ninth Installment

“The very design of neoliberal principles is a direct attack on democracy.”
― Noam Chomsky,
Hopes and Prospects


In this week’s blog in this series on the future of democracy and the quest for freedom, we will expose the anti-democratic nature of neoliberalism and its corresponding insatiable greed for amassing more wealth at the expense of the environment, other species, human dignity, people’s self-determination and perhaps the very existence of humans as a viable species.

Neoliberalism is Anti-democratic

Neoliberal ideology and the policies that flowed from them were first and foremost, anti-democratic and anti-working class. In the 1970’s

Neoliberalism involved not only the restructuring of institutions to ensure that the anti-inflation parameter was enforced, but also the removal of barriers to competitions in all markets, and especially in the labor market. Breaking the inflationary spiral involved, above all, disciplining labor. By accomplishing this, it secured the confidence of industrial as well as finance capital . . . neoliberalism was essentially a political response to the democratic gains that had been previously achieved by working classes and which had become, from capital’s perspective, barriers to accumulation . . . Neoliberal practices did not entail institutional retreat so much as the expansion and consolidation of the networks of institutional linkages to an already globalizing capitalism. [1]

While neoliberalism presents itself as an expansion of freedom (in a very narrowly defined economic scope) in reality there is a reformulation of state institutions, especially as regard to shifting the balance between “coercion and consent, between the powers of capital and popular movements, and between executive and judicial power, on the one hand, and powers of representative democracy on the other.”[2]

Other contradictions between the theory of neoliberalism and its practice have also been revealed through the course of the last forty years. Harvey summarizes these as follows:

  1. On the one hand the neoliberal state is expected to take a back seat and simply set the stage for market functions, but on the other it is supposed to be activist in creating a good business climate and to behave as a competitive entity in global politics.
  2. Authoritarianism in market enforcement sits uneasily with ideals of individual freedoms. The more neoliberalism veers toward the former, the harder it becomes to maintain its legitimacy with respect to the latter and the more it must reveal its anti-democratic colors.
  3. While it may be crucial to preserve the integrity of the financial system, the irresponsible and self-aggrandizing individualism of operators within it produces speculative volatility, financial scandals, and chronic instability.
  4. While virtues of competition are placed up front, the reality is the increasing consolidation of oligopolistic, monopoly, and transnational power within a few centralized multinational corporations.
  5. At the popular level, the drive towards market freedoms and commodification of everything can all too easily run amok and produce social incoherence. The destruction of forms of social solidarity, and even . . . of the very idea of society itself, leaves a gaping hole in the social order. . .. The reduction of ‘freedom’ to ‘freedom of enterprise’ unleashes . . . negative freedoms.
  6. Neoliberalism in its pure form has always threatened to conjure up its own nemesis in varieties of authoritarian populism and nationalism. [3]

One of the main outcomes of the unfolding of these contradictions is the dissolution and disjunction of the relationship of the nation and the state. Neoliberalism creates a globalized elite that really has no necessity of affiliation or affinity to a particular nation or nationalism even while it uses the position and influence of the state of that nation to further the interests of a segment of the global elite. “In principle, neoliberal theory does not look with favor on the nation even as it supports the idea of a strong state . . . the neoliberal state needs nationalism of a certain sort to survive, (one that) mobilizes nationalism in its effort to succeed” in the global market place. [4]

As such, neoliberalist political positions concerning the nature of the state as it relates to the involvement of the citizenry in governing or in democratic values and experiences is at best ambivalent and at worst antagonistic. This contradictory position on the nature of the state is most apparent in those countries that profess to be ideal democracies, that is, the Western nations of Europe and North America. The state has existed in different forms and expressions over time and is based on a fundamental contradiction which grows out of the evolution of private property and control of the means of meeting society’s needs by one group over another.

The state is, therefore, by no means a power forced on society from without . . . Rather, it is a product of society at a certain stage of development; it is the admission that this society has become entangled in an insoluble contradiction with itself, that it has split into irreconcilable antagonisms which it is powerless to dispel. But in order that these antagonisms, classes with conflicting economic interests, might not consume themselves and society in fruitless struggle, it becomes necessary to have a power seemingly standing above society that would alleviate the conflict, and keep it within the bounds of “order”; and this power, arisen out of society, but placing itself above it, and alienating itself more and more from it, is the state.[5]

Neoliberalism’s version of democracy is one that pushes the limits of these antagonisms toward a breaking point. Later we will discuss the crises of democracy in the twenty-first century as it relates to freedom and rights, and the attack on the foundation of democracy, that is, equality, by those who have, as Ranciere characterizes it, “a hatred of democracy.”[6] For now, suffice it to say that, as always, the democratic republic’s objective function is to allow for the governing in the interests of an economic elite and the preservation of the specific formulation of property while giving an illusion of control to its citizens by promoting the institutions of the state as being in existence to further the common good.

Perlas and Harvey have both noted that the interests and institutions of elite globalization is imposed on countries and economies throughout the world in the name of democracy and rights based on the view that

the inalienable rights of individuals (and, recall, corporations are defined as individuals before the law) to private property and the profit rate trump any other conception of inalienable rights you can think of . . . the neoliberal regime of rights must be geographically expanded across the globe by violence (as in Chile and Iraq), by imperialist practices (such as those of the World Trade Organization, the IMF, and the World Bank) or through primitive accumulation (as in China or Russia) if necessary. By hook or by crook, the inalienable rights of private property and the profit rate will be universally established. [7]

Perlas, writing from a view of one who has seen the impact of globalization on his own country, the Philippines, notes that “globalization can give certain elite segments of humanity the power to impose a living hell on earth. . . unleashing a dangerous blend of economic, ecological, cultural, and political crises.”[8] He then goes on to elaborate some of the specifics created by the implementation of neoliberalist policies over the last forty years.

  • “Ruthless growth” is forcing close to 2.4 billion people to live in poverty, keeping them from developing as full human beings. Meanwhile 358 billionaires have assets equivalent to the collective assets of those 2.4 billion people.
  • “Jobless growth” means that economies can boom while underemployment and unemployment remain rampant. Factories are closing down in record numbers and relocating to cheaper sites. . . Automation is expected to result in an unemployment rate of 80% for many countries.
  • “Futureless growth” results from elite globalization that consumes and destroys nature. Global climate change, massive desertification, destructive mining, dangerous forms of genetic engineering and pesticides that poison 25 million people per year – these are only a few of the many life-threatening environmental disasters conspiring to rob humanity of its biophysical stage for continued spiritual evolution.
  • “Rootless growth” refers to the cultural erosion and decay that often accompany economic growth fueled by elite globalization. The spiritual and more socially oriented cultures of hundreds of tribal minorities and mainstream traditional societies are being wiped out by the onslaught of the materialism of elite globalization.
  • “Voiceless growth” is economic growth devoid of respect for human rights and democratic process essential to modern societies. Totalitarian governance is justified on the basis of material prosperity, in effect, promoting the emergence of well-fed human animals stripped of their spiritual humanity.
  • To these five undesirable forms of growth, we can add a sixth. “Meaningless growth” results when unhealthy forms of growth inflict soul and physical turbulence and illness, blocking the creativity of the human spirit. The resulting loss in creativity, perspective, meaning, hope, and morality expresses itself in suicide, violence, drug addiction, crime, and other desperate deeds.[9]

While this is a lengthy quote, it is a complete indictment of the negative impact of neoliberal policies and practices on the people, cultures, and economies of the world held in the grip of global capitalism. These policies and practices know no borders and wreak havoc both domestically and internationally, as the global elite have equal disregard for the conditions of populations no matter where they reside.

In the last nine weeks we have delved into the complexity and interrelationship of the assault on democracy by global capitalism in its neoliberalist form, along with an explication of the difference between the myths perpetuated about democracy today versus the reality of everyday life for the majority of the population. Next week we will begin an attempt to layout some ideas  that may point to a way forward, an exit, if you will, from the dire straits we find ourselves in.

[1] Panitch & Gindin, 2012, p. 15.

[2] Harvey, 2007, p. 78.

[3] Harvey, 2007, pp. 79-81.

[4] Harvey, 2007, pp. 84-85.

[5] Engels, F. 1972. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Moscow, USSR. Progress Publishers. p. 166.

[6] Ranciere, J. 2014. Hatred of democracy. London, UK. Verso.

[7] Harvey, 2007, p. 181.

[8] Perlas, 2000, pp. 60-61.

[9] Perlas, 2000, pp. 61-62.



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