Neo-Liberalism and the Death of Democracy

By Harold DeRienzo

In my last blog, “National Health” Care, I posed the question of whether or not our country was in the state of decline.  This question was based on the philosophical analogy of government as a “body politic,” one that functions as a whole only as well as each of its parts function.  And further, if vital physiological components suffer, then the prognosis overall is anything but good.  To paraphrase Rousseau, then “the man dies, or the state dissolves.”

Of course, this likely will seem unrealistic and confusing to the typical American.  Hasn’t the type of lively debate and disagreement we are now experiencing marked our democratic experiment over the last 230 plus years?  Why does this type of political bickering now seen so destructive of a collective way of life?  What has changed to make this type of disagreement so volatile and potentially destructive?  For an answer, we have to look no further than the economy, and one of the main culprits of our current dysfunction, neo-liberalism.

This country was based upon a concept of democracy – a word (and concept) derived from the Greek: “demos” (the people) and “kratos” (power).  Though sloppy and frustrating at times, democracy is possible where a nation of people worked within a decentralized economy.  That decentralization served a number of democratic needs: (1) where there is local economy, there is local community; (2) local economies necessarily accommodate communication between and among people with divergent political views; (3) decentralized economies produce decentralized political power.  As power was decentralized, local politics was not only lively, but vital.  Those sent to Washington were sent to ensure that each political community received some benefit from our collective national wealth, benefits that ranged from laws that were mutually agreeable and supportive, to fiscal arrangements that allowed for wealth transfers from richer to poorer parts of the nation.

But, with neo-liberalism, we have broken down trade barriers; established trade rules that primarily benefit transnational corporations; focused economic policy on promoting only two outcomes – producing the highest profits, and the lowest prices, possible.  This misguided focus has created the greatest income and wealth disparity this nation has ever known – a fact which, in and of itself, ought to be seen as anathema to democracy.  But it has also transformed this country into one with economic and political systems that are now centralized and operating mostly out of Washington D.C.  So now, when voters send their elected officials to D.C. they expect them to fulfill their specific needs and political desires from the only place where there is real political relevance, a relevance that is in no way tempered by locally generated economic relations.  We have destroyed community.  In the process, we have destroyed our formerly diverse and decentralized economy, and perhaps our democracy.  As stated so eloquently by the 20th Century American philosopher John Dewey, “Only when we start from a community as a fact…can we reach the idea of democracy which is not utopian.”

Of course, my liberal friends will accuse me of betrayal of the very democratic ideals that I espouse.  But that is the problem with liberals – they insist on separating laws and politics from economics.  It is just not possible.

To be clear, I am not promoting a return, as Isaiah Berlin warned against, “to a dead past.”  What I am promoting is a return to democracy, based upon an economy that is decentralized, where those aspects of our economy that actually need to be centralized are supported, and those that do not are localized.  I am promoting a return to fairness whereby everyone who works, has the opportunity to live with dignity and pride.  So, for example, there is no reason, except to maximize profit and promote the lowest cost possible for a pound of bacon, that we have to permit farms that raise and slaughter upwards of tens of thousands of hogs annually, farms with sewage pits that ultimately leach into our aquifers, produce hydrogen sulfide and emit methane gases that neurologically damage people in surrounding areas.  There also is no reason, except to maximize profit and maintain $1 happy meals, to pay subsistence wages to fast food employees.

The very word “economy” is derived from the Greek, and it originally was used to describe a household’s management of its resources for the benefit of all within that household.  We need to, and in so doing defy liberal dogma, view our political economy as existing for the sole purpose of benefitting all within our political system.  If this is still possible, such policies will promote local economies, foster the revival of local communities, and breathe life back into our democracy.  Short of this, our grand experiment in democracy may well be doomed.


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