Market-Driven Hysteria and the Politics of Death

If we take seriously the ideology, arguments and values now emanating from the right-wing of the Republican Party, there is no room in the United States for a democracy in which the obligations of citizenship, compassion and collective security outweigh the demands of what might be called totalizing market-driven society; that is, a society that is utterly deregulated, privatized, commodified and largely controlled by the ultra-rich and a handful of mega corporations. In such a society, there is a shift in power from government to markets and the emergence of a more intensified political economy organized around three principal concerns: deregulated markets, commodification and disposability. In spite of the current failure of this system, right-wing Republicans and their allies are more than willing to embrace a system that erases all vestiges of the public good, turning citizens into consumers, while privatizing and commodifying every aspect of the social order – all the while threatening the lives, health, and livelihoods of millions of working class and middle class people.

If we listen to the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck and an increasing number of their ilk, free-market fundamentalism is not only sexy, it is an argument against the very notion of politics itself and the power of the government to intervene and protect its citizens from the ravages of nature, corrupt institutions and an unregulated market. In this discourse, largely buttressed through an appeal to fear and the use of outright lies, free-market capitalism assumes an almost biblical status as an argument against the power of government to protect its citizens from misfortune and the random blows of fate by providing the most basic rights and levels of collective security and protection. Before he died, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt advocated precisely for such rights, which he called a “second bill of rights,” which included the right “of every family to a decent home. The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health. The right to adequate protection form the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident and unemployment. The right to a good education.”[1] That is, those social, economic and individual rights that provide a secure foundation for people to live with dignity and be free to become critical and engaged citizens, capable of both expanding their own sense of agency and freedom while being able to work with others to fulfill the demands of an aspiring democracy.

But in the truncated notion of freedom espoused by the right-wing extremists of a market-driven society, democracy is a deficit, if not pathology, and freedom is reduced to the narrow logic of an almost rabid focus on self-interest. This is a truncated version of freedom, defined largely as freedom from constraint – a freedom which, when not properly exercised or balanced, loses its connection to those obligations that tie people to values, issues and institutions that affirm “the existence of a common good or a public purpose.”[2] This type of depoliticizing inward thinking with its disavowal of the obligations of social responsibility and its outright disdain for those who are disadvantaged by virtue of being poor, young or elderly does more than fuel the harsh, militarized and hyper-masculine logic of reality television and extreme sports; it also elevates death over life, selfishness over compassion and economics over politics. But more so, it produces a kind of dysfunctional silence in the culture in the face of massive hardship and suffering. There is more than moral indifference and political cynicism at work here; there is also a culture for which there is not much room for ideals, a culture that now considers public welfare a pathology, and responsibility solely a privatized and individual matter. This is a politics of disinvestment in public life, democracy and the common good. Hence, it is not surprising that we hear nothing from the faux populists Beck, Limbaugh, Hannity, and other cheerleaders for an unchecked capitalism about a market-driven landscape filled with desolate communities, gutted public services and weakened labor unions. Nor do they say anything about a free-market system that in its greed, cruelty, corruption and iniquitous power relations creates the conditions responsible for 40 million impoverished people (many living in their cars or the ever-growing tent cities), and 46 million Americans without health insurance – one result of which, according to a Harvard University study, is the needless deaths of 45,000 people every year.[3] Nor do they register any alarm over a system that, according to a recent study released by the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, claims that “lack of adequate health care may have contributed to the deaths of some 17,000 US children over the past two decades.”[4] What do they have to say about a deregulated market system with its corrupt financial institutions shipping jobs abroad, swindling people out of their homes and gutting the manufacturing base of US industry? What do they have to say about a political system largely controlled by corporate lobbyists? Or insurance companies that pay employees bonuses when they maintain a high level of rejections for procedures that can save people’s lives. Not much. All they see amid this growing landscape of human suffering and despair is the specter of socialism, which amounts to any government-sponsored program designed to offer collective insurance in the face of misfortune and promote the public good.

For right-wing extremists, a market-driven society represents more than a tirade against “big government”; it constitutes a new kind of politics that privileges exchange values and quick profits over all noncommodified values, resists all forms of government intervention (except when it benefits the rich and powerful or uses force to maintain social order), celebrates excessive individualism and consolidates the power of the rich along with powerful corporations – currently coded as mammoth financial institutions such as the insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies and big banks. Moreover, the ability of this previously devalued market-driven system to endlessly come back to life is truly astonishing. How can the Dick Armey’s of the world be featured in The New York Times as if their ideology and ruthlessness is worthy of a major news story? How is it that an endless number of ex- and current politicians, who are wedded at the hip to corporate interests, can be taken seriously as spokespersons for the larger public? And as the fog of social and historical amnesia rolls over the media and the country in general, it does so in spite of the current financial crisis, the debacle following Hurricane Katrina and the in-your-face payout of big bonuses by institutions that were bailed out by the government. Clearly, market fundamentalism is alive and well in the United States, suggesting that it also works hard through the related modalities of education and seduction to induce the public to conform to the narrow dictates, values and dreams of totalizing market society, regardless of how disruptive it is of their lives. Shouting against the evils of big government does little to register or make visible the power of big corporations or a government that serves corporate rather than democratic needs.

What is unique and particularly disturbing about this hyper-market driven notion of economics is that it makes undemocratic modes of education central to its politics and employs a mode of pedagogy aimed at displacing and shutting down all vestiges of the public sphere that cannot be commodified, privatized and commercialized. Consumers are in and citizens are out. Fear and lying are the discourses of choice while dialogue and thoughtfulness are considered a weakness. To a greater extent than at any other point in liberal modernity, this regime of economic Darwinism now extends economic rationality “to formerly noneconomic domains [shaping] individual conduct, or more precisely, [prescribing] the citizen-subject of the neoliberal order.”[5] Most crucially, this struggle over the construction of the market-driven consumer subject, especially as it applies to young people, is by and large waged outside of formal educational institutions, in pedagogical sites and spaces that are generally privatized and extend from the traditional and new media to conservative-funded think tanks and private schools.[6] As corporate-controlled spheres and commodity markets assume a commanding role educating young and old alike, pedagogy is redefined as a tool of commerce aggressively promoting the commodification of young people and the destruction of noncommodified public spaces and institutions. How else to explain that it is almost impossible to read about educational reform in the dominant media except as a tool to educate people for the workforce? In other words, education is a form of commerce and nothing more. Education for democracy today sounds a lot like the idea that health care for everyone is socialism. Clearly, what we are witnessing here is not just the rise political theater or media-driven spectacle in American society, but a populism that harbors a deep disdain for democracy and no longer understands how to define itself outside of the imperatives of capital accumulation, shopping and the willingness to view more and more individuals and groups as simply disposable waste products no longer worthy of the blessings of consumption.

As moral and ethical considerations are decoupled from the calculating logic and consequences of all economic activity, the horrendous human toll in suffering and hardship being visited upon all segments of the American population is lost in the endless outburst of anger, if not hysteria, promoted by right-wing extremists – shouting for a return to the good old days when financial institutions and money markets set policy, eventually ushering in one of the most serious economic crisis this country has ever faced. As the values of human togetherness, community, friendship and love are once again subordinated to the notion that only markets can give people what they want, the culture of fear and cruelty grows in proportion to the angry protests, the threat of violence and the unapologetic racism aimed at the Obama administration. In part, this is exemplified in not only the endless public pronouncements that make a market society and democracy synonymous, but also in the ongoing celebration, in spite of the near collapse of the mortgage sector, of the excesses of the new Gilded Age. Like those dead bodies that endlessly return in George Romero’s film classic “Night of the Living Dead,” right-wing Republicans and Democrats are back shouting from every conceivable platform to demolish any vestige of reform that relies on “big government.” The right-wing infatuation with the word “death,” as in the fictitious claim about Obama’s death panels, is telling – more a projection of their own politics than a serious critique of health care reform. Despite a change in US political leadership, these forces – if left unchecked – will continue to promote and fight for a transformation of democratic governance and citizenship until they are both completely destroyed.

As democracy is increasingly reduced to an empty shell and the rise of a corporate and punishing state looms heavily on the 21st-century horizon, the market-driven principles of deregulation, radical individualism and privatization penetrate all aspects of daily life. Such market-driven values and their accompanying power-shaping institutions now profoundly influence the very nature of how the American public think, act and desire. All of which are increasingly wedded to the epicenter of a grotesque consumer culture, whose underside is a heartless indifference to the suffering and hardship of the millions of people without jobs, homes, health care and, increasingly, hope. The current fight against health care reform is not really just about fixing a terribly iniquitous and broken system; it is a struggle against the prospect of a better future for young people, the poor, the excluded and those struggling to stay alive in America. What are we to make of an ideology that moves from dismantling the welfare state to embracing the punishing state, an ideology that increasingly turns its back on those individuals for whom the prisons are now deputized as the only welfare institutions left in America, or, if they are lucky, find themselves in one of the emerging tent cities found under bridges and located in other invisible landscapes – used in the past to get rid of waste products, but now used to dump poor working class and middle class families?

Where is this hysteria going given that we now have in office an administration that refuses to fight for the ideals it campaigned on? We get a glimpse of where it is going in the tirades let loose recently by people like Sarah Palin, a dumber than dumb version of Ayn Rand, and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minnesota), who, when she is not calling for members of Congress to be investigated for their communist sympathies, is railing against Obama’s socialism. In leading crowds in Washington, DC, recently with the chant, “kill the bill,” Bachmann displays not simply an angry protest against the reform of health care. On the contrary, there is a much broader notion of politics at stake here, one in which she and others are protesting for an utterly privatized and commodified society where corporations and markets define politics while matters of life and death are removed from ethical considerations, increasingly subject to cost-benefit analyses and the calculations of potential profit margins. In this scenario, each individual is on their own in confronting the many systemic problems facing American society, each of us responsible for our own fate, even when facing systemic problems that cannot be solved by isolated individuals. This politics of hysteria and ruthlessness that is now on full display in America is not just an attack on the social state, big government, the public sphere and the common good, but the very essence of politics and democracy. This is truly a politics that celebrates death over life.

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    Notes:

[1]. For an excerpt of Roosevelt’s call for a second bill of rights, see Bill Moyers, “Interview with James Galbraith,” “Bill Moyers Journal,” (October 30, 2009). Online at: http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/10302009/transcript4.html.

[2]. Bill Moyers, “Interview with James Galbraith,” “Bill Moyers Journal,” (October 30, 2009). Online at: http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/10302009/transcript4.html.

[3]. US Census Bureau Press Release, “Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2008,” US Department of Commerce, Washington, DC. (September 10, 2009). Available online at: http://www.census.gov/Press-Release/www/releases/archives/income_wealth/014227.html.

Paul Klayman, “Harvard Study: 45,000 People Die Every Year,” Institute for Southern Studies (September 18, 2009). Online at: http://www.southernstudies.org/2009/09/uninsured-die-every-year.html.

[4]. Editorial, “Lack of Health Care Led to 17,000 US Child Deaths,” Agence France-Presse (October 29, 2009). Online at: www.truth.org/1030099?print ,

[5]. Wendy Brown, “Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics” (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), p. 41.

[6]. For an excellent analysis of the control of corporate power on the media, see Robert W. McChesney, “The Political Economy of the Media,” (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2008).