In his seminal political essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” the dissident playwright and philosopher Vaclav Havel argued that becoming empowered requires us to “live in truth,” which means facing up to the uncomfortable reality that we are not solely victims of the political and economic order we live under, but sometimes also enablers who play into its myths and cover up its lies. We turn the lies into truth and come to believe it is the only way to get through, the only way to survive in what we are told again and again is a “dog-eat-dog” world.
It is this uncomfortable truth that inevitably raises the question: Why has neoliberalism succeeded so well? The answer is unsettling precisely because it implicates all of us — at least all of us who live in industrial capitalist countries. Even if we are not equally blameworthy in creating such a monstrous ideology, we have all, in some measure, been co-opted into accepting neoliberal capitalism’s false premises and promises.
It is quite true that domestic and international economic and political structures that legitimize neoliberal capitalism are oriented by, and in the interest of, an elite corporate class. Yet in the wake of the 2007-2008 financial crisis — the worst economic crash since 1929 — there has been no massive global uprising or any sustained call for radical institutional reform (with the exception of the short-lived grassroots Occupy Wall Street movement, and to some extent, France’s Yellow Vests movement).
Continuous rebellion and dissent leading to revolution has not happened because we appear to have tacitly bought into an ideology that ensures our own powerlessness to transform ourselves or our societies. The good news is that this is changing. In the last few years, many have become conscious of the fact that civilizational collapse as a consequence of human-caused climate disruption is directly attributable to an economic and political system that views the Earth and everything that lives on it as an inexhaustible means for individual and corporate profit.
For the first time in human history, we are confronted by the near certainty of global ecological catastrophe and its resulting political and economic breakdown — not as a consequence of natural causes, nor the vengeful act of a deity, but as a result of deliberate human choice. The brutal reality is that the present world of neoliberal economics and politics simply could not have survived had we not gradually acquiesced to it. So how did this happen?
The Beginnings of Neoliberal Thought
Let’s begin with the following truism: When compared to more brutalizing regimes of dominance and militaristic authoritarianism throughout history, we do have a greater measure of freedom today. With the emergence of liberal social rights and the United Nations recognition and validation of international human rights after the horrors of two world wars, the corporate power elite and the governments that do their bidding implicitly understood that there would no longer be any toleration for political ideologies whose goal was to brutally repress human beings. So, the question for the latter was always how to ensure that the right class continued to be in a position of control and dominance, while at least providing the appearance of freedom and democracy for everyone else.
First, what is required is the semblance of choice and economic power — an ersatz form of freedom realized through the mythical “self-organizing” and “self-correcting” “free market.” Free-market laissez-faire monopoly capitalism is expressly designed to counter any attempts by government to impose regulations on behalf of the public good that might impede profit, and to redefine citizens wholly as consumers. Human well-being is thereby reduced to a purely economic index.
Secondly, what is required is the semblance of democracy by way of electoral representative politics organized and paid for by moneyed interests. Lastly, what is required is the semblance of liberal institutional arrangements (education, social security, health care, policing, environmental and labor regulatory bodies) that increasingly do not serve public interest, but protect and serve private profit and business interests.
In conjunction with ersatz freedom of choice, democracy and the semblance of public institutions which appear to further or protect the public good, there is also what Havel might have called the semblance of liberal dissidence — those persons, regulatory bodies and political parties who make a pretense of fighting on behalf of the public good and in favor of health, labor and environmental rights, while continuing to forward a corporate rights agenda behind the backs of citizens.
In the contemporary world, the corporate capitalist class and the neoliberal governments that do their bidding have been able to maintain the upper hand not through sheer force or brutality, but because they have gradually been allowed to corrode democratic institutions and eviscerate the commons and, therefore, any sense of mutual obligation and responsibility humans have toward each other.
Neoliberalism and Instrumental Reasoning
It is crucial to recognize here that modern capitalism from the 19th century emerged in tandem with a particular sort of instrumental reasoning — the sort of use-oriented reasoning that seems innocuous and practical because it enables us to “get things done.”
When we want to realize a particular end — say, build a house or mend a fence, we reason in an instrumental fashion — that is, we calculate what we need to do in order to successfully realize an end or achieve a goal. Instrumental reasoning does not tell us why we value ideas such as justice, love, courage, or why we care about other human beings, other animals or the planet. It is not about understanding or valuing the world, but always about how to succeed at realizing a goal in the most orderly and efficient way.
Modern bureaucracies and the administrative state are founded on instrumental rationality. However, when divorced from deeper human concerns about social and environmental justice, instrumental reasoning can become dehumanizing, hegemonic and, indeed, life-annihilating.
Imperialist bureaucracies and Nazi death camps were grounded in a form of instrumental reasoning detached from any sort of deeper value-oriented rationality that might speak to notions of human rights or dignity. The goal of genocide was enacted through Nazi bureaucracy and enabled by instrumental reasoning that was orderly, precise, lawful and lethal.
In the context of contemporary neoliberal capitalism, instrumental reasoning plays a pivotal enabling and legitimating role. If my end or goal is wealth or profit, then any means that will help me efficiently achieve this end is “rationally” acceptable, and even laudable.
When this sort of instrumental reasoning is married to a capitalist theory of human nature that views human beings as egotistic, competitive self-maximizers, and a neoliberal theory of economics and politics based on imperialism, technical control and domination of the planet, it must inevitably displace any sort of deeper value questions about the quality of life, the well-being of human communities and health of the biosphere.
From an instrumental reasoning perspective, we as a society have bought into the seductive discourses and practices of neoliberal capitalism by embracing the myths of individual consumer freedom and self-empowering entrepreneurship. The exercise of virtues that enable us to flourish as communities and nations are all jettisoned when instrumental reasoning and neoliberal capitalism become hegemonic.
Even when we appear at times to resist the logic of unjust outcomes that goes with neoliberalism, or question its theoretical or moral legitimacy, the fact remains that our politics, mainstream newspapers and electronic media, schools of economics and institutional arrangements, have been infiltrated, disciplined and systemically reframed by neoliberal doctrine, and legitimated through utilitarian calculation and instrumental reasoning.
Indeed, even the false mantra that “there is no viable alternative to capitalism” pervades modern thinking to such a degree that a wholly different kind of economics and politics has often seemed unthinkable to many. There is no need for brute force nor even overt forms of propaganda in such a world because the central presuppositions of neoliberalism have been normalized and mainstreamed in everyday society.
Moreover, transnational corporate class interests are protected by private security and public police forces; they are fortified and universalized by international bodies, such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, corporate lobby groups, Chambers of Commerce, Business Councils and roundtables, neoconservative think tanks, corporate super PACs and nonprofit corporate front groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council that draft legislation in the interests of corporations, and against environmental regulations, corporate taxation and labor rights.
Given all of the above, any talk of revolution or even the notion of mass citizen uprising resistance or rebellion might seem to be nothing less than delusional.
That is, until now.
Neoliberalism Versus the Climate
If there is one thing that history has made clear to us again and again, it is that no human construction is eternal, all-pervasive or invulnerable to change. Reality has a way of disrupting the status quo, messing up well-laid plans and invalidating conventional pieties.
In the last 20 years, reality has asserted itself in a way unprecedented in human history. For the first time, we are imminently threatened as a species because we have chosen an economic and political system that treats the planet as if it were no more than a means for infinite exploitation and individual wealth, rather than a limited Earth that only conditionally provides the possibility for all forms of life.
In an unprecedented way, what has come into focus today is both the limiting nature of instrumental reasoning and the life-destroying impact of neoliberal capitalism to which it is wedded. Climate disruption as a consequence of human-caused planetary warming has brought into sharp focus two stark and undeniable truths:
- For the first time in human history, we have put more than a million different species at risk of extinction including our own.
- The economic system of capitalism and its most recent neoliberal configuration is the principal cause of the present climate crisis that threatens human and other species’ survival.
The growing recognition of the above truths has pressed us to finally ask deeper questions about what we really value: the quality of life, the well-being of human and other forms of life, the health of our communities and food systems, and the safety and dignity of persons in the context of massive climate disruption.
For the first time, we are asking how is it that we have come to accept the kind of instrumental rationality and neoliberal economic and political system that not only dehumanizes us as individuals but will inevitably destroy life as we know it. Those who financially benefit from the system of neoliberal capitalism would have us believe that we cannot change or transform the world into a better, more equal, more caring, environmentally sustainable and responsible place. But the fact is there are individuals and groups emerging and multiplying around the world whose actions demonstrate the neoliberal capitalist worldview is no longer viable. They are doing unprecedented things: putting forth Green New Deals that forward new ways of thinking and doing economics and politics; investing in and building environmentally sustainable alternative energy systems and modes of transportation and agriculture; demanding food sovereignty; and promoting local forms of banking, governance and sustainable living.
What has become apparent to the rapidly growing numbers who are building alternative ways of living is that capitalism must end. Historically, critiques of capitalism focused on worker alienation and exploitation, imperialism, profound disparities of wealth, market instability and the erosion of democracy. However, all of the latter pale in comparison to the critique of capital based on the very foreseeable potential it has to completely destroy the very conditions of possibility for life itself.
For the first time in the history of humankind, we are forced to admit that gradualism, half-measures and tinkering will no longer suffice. We either completely break with capitalism and the neoliberal ideology that enables it, or we face extinction. Economic and political systems that destroy the Earth, gradually erode human freedom and undermine social, environmental and economic justice only appeared unstoppable because we once saw them as inevitable, necessary or absolute. With the rise of climate change consciousness, we now see them for what they have always been: contingent human choices and deliberate human constructions that we must not accede to any longer. That will require a revolution — not just in thinking and lifestyles but fundamentally in our politics and in our economics.
At the end of his essay Havel concludes that the real question is whether a better future is really all that distant: “What if, on the contrary, it has been here for a long time already, and only our own blindness and weakness has prevented us from seeing it around us and within us, and kept us from developing it?”
What if, indeed.