This column is drawn from notes that Chris Hedges wrote in preparing for a debate held today by the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. Hedges, speaking from Princeton, N.J., argued for the motion: “Be it resolved, politics isn’t working as usual. It’s time for a revolution.” Opposed was David Brooks, an op-ed columnist for The New York Times who spoke from Washington, D.C. A podcast of the contest will be available later.
Karl Popper in “The Open Society and Its Enemies” warned against utopian engineering, massive social transformations led by those who believe they found a revealed truth. These utopian engineers carry out the wholesale destruction of systems, institutions and social and cultural structures in a vain effort to achieve their vision. In the process, they dismantle the self-correcting mechanisms of incremental and piecemeal reform that are impediments to that vision. History is replete with disastrous utopians — the Jacobins, the Marxists, the fascists and now, in our own age, the globalists, or neoliberal imperialists.
The ideology of neoliberalism, which makes no economic sense and requires a willful ignorance of social and economic history, is the latest iteration of utopian projects. It posits that human society achieves its apex when individual entrepreneurial actions are free from government constraints. Society and culture should be dictated by the primacy of property rights, open trade — which sends manufacturing jobs to sweatshops in China and the global south and permits the flow of money across borders — and unfettered global markets. Labor and product markets should be deregulated and freed from government oversight. Global financiers should be given control of the economies of nation-states. The role of the state should be reduced to ensuring the quality and integrity of money, along with internal and external security, and to privatizing control of land, water, public utilities, education and government services such as intelligence and often the military, prisons, health care and the management of natural resources. Neoliberalism turns capitalism into a religious idol.
This utopian vision of the market, of course, bears no relationship to its reality. Capitalists hate free markets. They seek to control markets through mergers and acquisitions, buying out the competition. They saturate the culture with advertising to manipulate public tastes and consumption. They engage in price fixing. They build unassailable monopolies. They carry out schemes, without checks or oversight, of wild speculation, predation, fraud and theft. They enrich themselves through stock buybacks, Ponzi schemes, structured asset destruction through inflation, asset stripping and the imposition of crippling debt peonage on the public. In the United States, they saturate the electoral process with money, buying the allegiance of elected officials from the two ruling parties to legislate tax boycotts, demolish regulations and further consolidate their wealth and power.
These corporate capitalists spend hundreds of millions of dollars to fund organizations such as Business Roundtable and the Chamber of Commerce and think tanks such as The Heritage Foundation to sell the ideology to the public. They lavish universities with donations, as long as the universities pay fealty to the ruling ideology. They use their influence and wealth, as well as their ownership of media platforms, to transform the press into their mouthpiece. And they silence heretics or make it hard for them to find employment. Soaring stock values, rather than production, become the new measure of the economy. Everything is financialized and commodified.
These utopians mutilate the social fabric through deindustrialization, turning once-great manufacturing centers into decayed wastelands, and the middle and working class, the bulwark of any democracy, into a frustrated and enraged precariat. They “offshore” work, carry out massive layoffs and depress wages. They destroy unions. Neoliberalism — because it was always a class project and this was its goal — redistributes wealth upward. “Robbed of the protective covering of cultural institutions,” Karl Polanyi writes in his book “The Great Transformation,” human beings “perish from the effects of social exposure” and die as “victims of acute social dislocation.”
Neoliberalism, as a class project, is a brilliant success. Eight families now hold as much wealth as 50% of the world’s population. The world’s 500 richest people in 2019 added $12 trillion to their assets, while nearly half of all Americans had no savings and nearly 70% could not have come up with $1,000 in an emergency without going into debt. David Harvey calls this “accumulation by dispossession.” This neoliberal assault, antagonistic to all forms of social solidarity that put restraints on amassing capital, has obliterated the self-corrective democratic mechanisms that once made incremental and piecemeal reform possible. It has turned human beings and the natural world into commodities to be exploited until exhaustion or collapse. The ruling elites’ slavish devotion to corporate profit and the accumulation of wealth by the global oligarchy means they are unwilling or incapable of addressing perhaps the greatest existential crisis facing the human species — the climate emergency.
All competing centers of power, including government, have now been seized by corporate power, and corrupted or destroyed. We have undergone what John Ralston Saul calls a coup d’état in slow motion. It is over. They won.
At the same time, these utopians, attempting to project American power and global dominance, launched invasions and occupations throughout the Middle East that have descended into futile quagmires costing the United States between 5 trillion and 7 trillion dollars. This utopian project in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and, by proxy, in Yemen has killed hundreds of thousands, displaced or made refugees of millions, wrecked cities and nations, created failed states that incubate radical jihadist groups and fatally weakened American power. Indeed, these wars, some now in their 18th year, are the greatest strategic blunder in American history. The utopians — culturally, linguistically and historically ignorant of the countries they occupied — believed in their naiveté that they could implant democracy in places like Baghdad and see it emanate out across the Middle East. They assured us we would be greeted as liberators; the oil revenues would pay for reconstruction and Iran would be cowed and defanged. This was no more achievable or grounded in reality than the utopian scheme to unfetter the market and unleash worldwide prosperity and liberty.
Once a cabal — monarchial, communist, fascist or neoliberal — seizes power, its dismantling of the mechanisms that make reform possible leaves those who seek an open society no option but to bring the system down. The corporate state, like the communist regimes I covered in Eastern Europe, is not reformable from within. The failures that plague us are bipartisan failures. On all of the major structural issues, including war and the economy, there is little or no divergence between the two ruling political parties of the U.S. The concentration of wealth and power in the hands of an oligarchic elite, as Aristotle warned, leaves only two options — tyranny or revolution. And we are fast on the road to tyranny.
Neoliberal utopianism, because it suppresses the freedoms to organize, to regulate and to protect the common good and empowers the freedoms to exploit and consolidate wealth and power, is always fated, Polanyi writes, to end in authoritarianism or outright fascism. The good freedoms are lost. The bad ones take over.
Neoliberalism has given rise to the worst form of monopoly capitalism and greatest level of income inequality in American history. The banks and the agricultural, food, arms and communications industries have destroyed regulations that once impeded their monopolies, allowing them to fix prices, suppress wages, guarantee profits, abolish environmental controls and abuse their workers. They have obliterated free market competition.
Unfettered capitalism, as Karl Marx pointed out, destroys the so-called free market. It is hostile to the values and traditions of a capitalist democracy. Capitalism’s final stage, Marx wrote, is marked by the pillage of the systems and structures that make capitalism possible. It is not capitalism at all. The arms industry, for example, with its official $612 billion defense authorization bill — a figure that ignores numerous other military expenditures tucked away in other budgets, masking the fact that our real expenditure on national security expenses is over $1 trillion a year — has gotten the government to commit to spending $348 billion over the next decade to modernize our nuclear weapons and build 12 new Ohio-class nuclear submarines, estimated at $8 billion each. We spend some $100 billion a year on intelligence —read surveillance — and 70% of that money goes to private contractors such as Booz Allen Hamilton, which gets 99% of its revenues from the U.S. government. We are the largest exporters of arms in the world.
The fossil fuel industry swallows up $5.3 trillion a year worldwide in hidden costs to keep burning fossil fuels, according to the International Monetary Fund. This money, the IMF notes, is in addition to the $492 billion in direct subsidies offered by governments around the world through write-offs, write-downs and land-use loopholes.
Taxpayer subsidies to the big banks — JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo and Goldman Sachs — are estimated at $64 billion a year, an amount roughly equal to their typical annual profits.
In 1980 freight trains were deregulated. The number of Class I railroads shrank from 40 to 7. Four account for 90% of the industry’s revenue. Nearly one-third of all shippers have access to only one railroad.
President Bill Clinton’s Telecommunications Act of 1996 was touted as a way to open the cable industry to competition. Instead, it saw a massive consolidation of the industry into the hands of about half a dozen corporations that control what 90% of Americans watch or hear on the airwaves.
The airline industry, freed from regulation, was rapidly consolidated. Four airlines control 85% of the domestic market. They have divided the country into regional hubs where they extort fees, fix prices, cancel flights at will, leaving passengers stranded without compensation, and provide shoddy service.
The pharmaceutical and insurance corporations that manage our for-profit health care industry extracted $812 billion from Americans in 2017. This represents more than one-third (34.2%) of total expenditures for doctor visits, hospitals, long-term care and health insurance. If we had a public health system, such as in Canada, it would save us $600 billion in costs in a single year, according to a report by Physicians for a National Health Plan. Health administration costs in 2017 were more than fourfold higher per capita in the U.S. than in Canada ($2,479 versus $551 per person), the group notes. Canada implemented a single-payer “Medicare for All” system in 1962. In 2017, Americans spent $844 per person on insurers’ overhead. Canadians spent $146.
Neoliberalism cannot be defended as more innovative or more efficient. It has not spread democracy, and by orchestrating unprecedented levels of income inequality and political stagnation has vomited up demagogues and authoritarian regimes that falsely promise vengeance against ruling elites who betrayed the people. Our democracy under this assault has been replaced with meaningless political theater.
As the academics Benjamin Page and Martin Gilens detailed in their exhaustive 2017 study “Democracy in America?”:
the best evidence indicates that the wishes of ordinary Americans [have] little or no impact on the making of federal government policy. Wealthy individuals and organized interest groups—especially business corporations—have … much more political clout. … [T]he general public [is] … virtually powerless. … The will of majorities is … thwarted by the affluent and the well-organized, who block popular policy proposals and enact special favors for themselves. … Majorities of Americans favor specific policies designed to deal with such problems as climate change, gun violence, an untenable immigration system, inadequate public schools, and crumbling bridges and highways. … Large majorities of America favor various programs to help provide jobs, increase wages, help the unemployed, provide universal medical insurance, ensure decent retirement pensions, and pay for such programs with progressive taxes. Most Americans also want to cut “corporate welfare.” Yet the wealthy, business groups, and structural gridlock have mostly blocked such new policies. …
There should be no debate about how to effect change. Piecemeal and incremental reform is always preferable to the inevitable anarchy any power vacuum creates. The problem is that our utopian engineers in their giddy dismantling of an economic and democratic system, as well as their draining of state resources in the wars they prosecute overseas, have dynamited the tools that could save us. They have left us no option but to revolt and remove them from power.
We will carry out sustained acts of civil disobedience to bring down these corporate oligarchs or live in an Orwellian tyranny, at least until the climate emergency renders the human species extinct. Regulations, laws, planning and control are not the enemies of freedom. They keep capitalists from extinguishing freedom, denying justice and abolishing the common good. The freedom of the capitalist class to exploit human beings and the natural world without restraint transforms the freedom for the many into freedom for the few. That was always the point.