Sunday, January 15, 2017

Neoliberals know the price of everything and the value of nothing

My father likes to say that some people know the price of everything and the value of nothing. The same could be said of the neoliberals of the world, who--in case you missed my previous piece--are now transcendent in most policy circles across the world.

To review, the neoliberal agenda is one of deregulation, unfettered trade, fiscal austerity (with the attendant reduction in social programs), privatization and tax reduction. Fundamental to the neoliberal ideology is that government regulation and planning of economic activity are inherently flawed and cannot bring about the desired ends of efficiency, prosperity and social harmony.

Instead, price is the great and sufficient transmitter of information across the economy and across society at large. Price is the best barometer for all decisions. Hence, the emphasis on privatizing almost everything in society including education and health care.

Neoliberals believe that voting with your money is at least, if not more important, than voting in elections in a free society. The freer the market, the more choices consumers will have, and the more competitive the market, the better the quality will be.

There are several problems, of course, with the price mechanism. First, it only takes into account costs which are directly borne by the provider of a product or service. So-called externalities such as pollution and climate change are not tallied in the price. In order for those costs to be included, say, by the imposition of a carbon tax, the government would have to intervene, something not consistent with neoliberal ideas.

Second, such a monomaniacal focus on price alone pre-empts a broader view of social goals, reducing them merely to price signals. But not every social good can be reduced to a price signal in a nominally "free" market.

Here we have a case of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. The neoliberal who ignores climate change sacrifices a habitable climate for his or her children and grandchildren in favor of cheap prices for goods and services now. This is the supposed "economic rationality" which the neoliberal espouses because he or she does not seem to know the VALUE of a habitable climate. What the neoliberals would like you to believe is that a neoliberal world is inevitable--which translates into a suicide-by-climate-change pact among peoples.

The theorists, policymakers, propagandists and business leaders also tell us that "globalization"--another vague, but central tenet--is inevitable, that it is a product of technological change, that it is akin to a natural law which we cannot violate without consequences.

In fact, it is nothing more than a conscious set of policies set out in worldwide trade agreements administered in part by the World Trade Organization--policies that favor the wealthy over everyone else and which break down national barriers (read: eliminate protections against the destruction of local industries and agriculture) that hinder the free flow of capital and goods (and, of course, the search for profits). As it turns out, French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu tells us in his book of essays Sociology is a Martial Art, "the global market is a political creation."

It is no accident that neoliberals advocate neither for the globalization of a minimum wage nor for the globalization of free education nor for the globalization of universal health care. Why is that? Well, these areas of social uplift are considered merely to be cost centers which reduce competitiveness. But if these were available to everyone, then no country or industry would be at a disadvantage. So, it becomes obvious that the neoliberal agenda is to UNDERMINE all these social goods in order to lower costs (that is, lower wages, benefits, and taxes) and to increase profits by pitting one country against another in a race to the bottom of the social ladder.

Moreover, creating anxiety and uncertainty among employees, even ones at the highest level, is actually the point. Such anxiety and uncertainty hinders them from taking risks in participating fully in society as political actors.

The same logic would apply to environmental, health and safety regulations designed to protect workers, consumers and the population at large. If you want your country to be competitive, it is best to keep such regulations to a minimum.

Bourdieu points out that neoliberal policymakers are obsessed with the "confidence of the markets." Why, he asks, are they not equally concerned about the "confidence of the people"? Recent developments such as the decision by British voters to exit the European Union and the election of Donald Trump to the presidency in the United States suggest that the confidence of the people in the neoliberal globalist experiment is becoming shaky.

Bourdieu adds that instead of a universal minimum wage, we get what economist Frédéric Lordon calls the "minimum guaranteed shareholder income."

Any demand that education, health care, pensions and other benefits for workers be maintained, let alone expanded, is now styled as old-fashioned and backward-looking. These benefits must be "reformed" (read: destroyed). In fact, basic protections for the middle and lower classes are some of the most important human achievements ever, Bourdieu explains. Rolling them back isn't progress, it is anti-progress.

The neoliberal agenda styles itself as a revolution--the Reagan revolution, the Thatcher revolution--and anyone who opposes it is labeled parochial, retrograde and opposed to the march of progress. What these supposed "revolutions" really turn out to be are the latest versions of a very old system of wildcat crony capitalism supported by a combination of corporate and state power in which the corporations tell the state how to govern.

The neoliberal agenda undermines the hard-won gains of average people whose autonomy and independence--far from being undermined by social insurance programs--are predicated on a degree of financial security and access to health care and education which allow meaningful participation in democratic life. This participation would be what philosopher Isaiah Berlin refers to as "positive freedom," that is, the ability to take action based on our resources and previously developed capabilities.

The neoliberal agenda also threatens to undo any progress we've made so far in addressing the myriad existential environmental challenges that threaten to undo civilization as we know it.

We would not presume to understand the Sun by examining merely one wavelength of light coming from it. We would not presume to understand the forest by examining one tree. Nor would we presume to know all of humanity and human society by examining one individual. But somehow neoliberals believe that we can understand and govern society by focusing on price alone.

What gets sacrificed in such a system is social stability and harmony and a habitable biosphere inside which we can all live and prosper. This is what is now at stake when we know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He has been a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and is author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at


Anonymous said...

Well said.

With regard to:
"a very old system . . . of corporate and state power in which the corporations tell the state how to govern"
no less an authority than Il Duce - Mussolini - is credited with remarking:
"the corporations and the state as one - that is fascism."

With regard to trade, it would seem to me unwise to ignore the fact that trade is by far the most potent driver of global change - for good or ill - and has been as far back as we can discern.

For example, DNA of Einkorn wheat has been found at a UK mesolithic site from ~8,000BP (6,000BC) - which at the time was not being grown anywhere nearer than the southern French coast. The logistics of that grain supply are impressive, being at a minimum: - by canoe up the length of the Rhone, on foot across the watershed, by canoe down the length of the Seine, and by hide-on-frame boat (sailed or paddled) ~ 135 miles across the English Channel to the north coast of the UK's Isle of Wight, plus the return journey carrying whatever was given for the grain.

While I share your abhorrence of the Viking economics underlying the facade of 'Free Trade' (being roughly: "Trade when you must; Pillage when you can; Rape when you get the chance!") the alternative of 'Trade Protectionism' has not shown remotely desirable outcomes for ordinary people - on the contrary, the nationalism that drives it empowers the same bandits, but does so under a more adversarial geopolitics that has repeatedly fomented wars on an ever greater scale. Neither of these trade policy options deserves popular support.

What is needed (AFAICS) is an entirely new approach, extending governments' proper regulation of the market beyond, for instance, requiring that all traders will use a chosen set of weights and measures accurately, or will face severe consequences.

(Due to the rise of “Artificial Stupidity” that sees 3,999 characters as over the limit of 4,096, this post has to be in two halves).

Anonymous said...

- Continued -

What is needed now is the measurement of goods' 'external' costs and benefits, to include both societal goods such as employment pay and conditions and ecological goods such as the recovery of a stable climate, and the application of tariffs to encourage or discourage their importation accordingly. To this end there are some production practices (such as knocking out womens' front teeth to make them efficient at stoning dates) and some goods (such as heroin and cocaine fuelling the modern slave trade) that can't be tolerated. But there are also grey areas where some goods from one country's production will have a better score on production and use impacts than those goods made in another country, while for other goods the reverse may be true.

By providing an open door to goods with better production-and-use-impacts [PAUIs] than our own, our producers are encouraged to improve their performance; and by progressively closing the door to imports with worse PAUIs than the home production, along with sending one half of the resulting tariff revenues to small producers in the exporting nation to help improve their performance, the fundamental influence of international trade is re-oriented.

From being a zero-sum game serving the ever-greater centralization of wealth by ever-increasing liquidation of societal and ecological assets, it shifts to the market-led encouragement of best practice globally. It will require a sophisticated research and evaluation secretariat (funded out of a % of tarrif revenues) and no doubt some nations now under the sway of the laissez-faire neo-liberalism will need to feel badly left out before they'll accede to such a change. But given that we face a collapse of critical resources on which geopolitical stability is wholly reliant, the present trade regime and its dire alternative have to be replaced.

I'd suggest the title of "Trade Stewardship" for the arrangement proposed above, and would be much obliged if you'd care to put your mind to exploring the idea's potentials and practicalities, and let me know what you think.

Lewis Cleverdon