John Buell

Alternatives to Market Myths

Why does the myth of “free markets” have such staying power even after the financial collapse of 2008? Part of the answer lies in the limited scope of the contemporary welfare state. Democrats, while recognizing the need for some stimulus at the height of the crisis, have largely abandoned any commitment to full employment, to unions, or to expansion of the benefits that once helped forge the New Deal coalition. The age of big government is over says Bill Clinton. The net result for many working class Americans is economic marginalization, leaving many vulnerable to these pro-business, “job creating” agendas.

The media also have played a large role in sustaining this agenda. They have become increasingly consolidated and heavily dependent on the good will of state regulators and thus not likely to engage in presenting alternatives to the market mythology. Although media do not speak with one voice, the range of debate is relatively narrow, with MSNBC seldom going beyond mild reformist critique of the market.

If Democrats’ abandonment of full employment and a generous welfare state along with a compliant media contribute to the problem, mitigating it will require more than re-regulation, as in a restoration of Glass-Steagall’s separation of investment and commercial banking. Costas Lapavitsas, author of Profiting Without Producing: How Finance Exploits Us All, reminds us that the increasing role of financial speculation in contemporary capitalism depended on more than simply deregulation. Deregulation was part of the processes of transformation of corporate governance, bank practices, and household needs. New regulations are part of reversing these trends, but in Lapavitsas’s judgment they need to be accompanied by “policies that create a new outlook for production and trade that puts investment and jobs at the forefront … It is impossible to bring this change about without a new spirit of intervention in the nonfinancial sector.” We also need financial institutions “that would support production and employment but also allow people to use finance in a beneficial way in everyday life.”

But can economic policy alone give us the public spirit that must be part and parcel of these reforms? Predatory neo-liberal capitalism’s survival even after financial collapse cannot be explained merely in economic terms. These formal political beliefs cannot be simply disassociated from underlying personal fears, anxieties, and convictions.

In an interview in the May 2012 Believer John Hopkins political theorist William Connolly warns us that the need for public provision and a regulatory state reminds many of inescapable human vulnerability. That sense of vulnerability can inflect the tone and substance of politics in different directions. For some it leads to claims that God backstops the market, and virulent responses to those who claim otherwise. Those who have enriched themselves in this predatory economy portray themselves — and are portrayed by the corporate media— as winners, who do God’s — or at least their fellow citizens’ — work. The poor are seen as “takers,’ and that term often takes on highly racial overtones. (Opposition to climate change theory shares similar theological assumptions. Man is deemed to have dominion over the natural world. Markets are smooth and predictable as is climate and mastery of each leads to greater mastery of the other.)

The demand by some secular liberals that religion should be kept out of politics or the claim by neo Marxists that religion is epiphenomenal and contemporary capitalism is explained primarily by the “forces and relations of production” is counterproductive. Attempts to exclude religious concerns from politics only intensify fundamentalist religious hostility to economic and social liberalism and may have helped cement the unlikely coalition of socially conservative evangelicals and neo-liberal business leaders.

What might be the source of a counter coalition? Lapivitsas calls for a “new public spirit of operation” in the world of credit and finance. But from where does that spirit emanate and how does it validate itself? To paraphrase Rousseau’s famous paradox, it takes good citizens to make good laws but it also takes good laws to make good citizens. Rousseau resolved the paradox by postulating a wise, benevolent, and disinterested founding father at the beginning of the republic. But if that resolution really hides injustices and seems wildly implausible in a world of rapid and intense cultural encounters perhaps we are better in acknowledging the force of the paradox and negotiating it. Rather than excluding religion from politics or counting on economic practices and institutions to deliver a public spirit, far better to welcome a wider and deeper religious discourse. Ideally we might recognize the likelihood of intractable divisions among certain fundamental philosophical convictions. And since even the most widely participatory processes will include some rotten timber from the past and function in a world of flux, a completely just public spirit may never be fully achieved. Politics will thus be an ineliminable aspect of social life.

Though economic reform can be sustained only by a more inclusive and vigorous democratic politics, some movements cannot be invited to the party. Efforts to suppress voter turnout, either through modern day poll taxes or voter ID laws, must be rejected even as the role of money in politics is curbed.

Within the framework of a more open politics a range progressive movements inspired by different theological and philosophical perspectives might combat — both through their policy gains and modes of interaction — the resentments that help shape the tone and substance of much contemporary politics.

Ideally even as they respectfully disagree across philosophical and theological lines, social gospel Catholics, secular liberals, Gaia proponents, process theologians, and neo-Marxists might work for climate justice and greater economic, race, and gender equality. Ideally this new public spirit would be sustained by and would sustain more receptivity to proliferating modes of being, including right to die initiatives that secrete and grow out of a more relaxed orientation to death.

Thus environmental philosopher Thom Van Dooren, author of Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction, opens up alternatives to Christian fundamentalists’ view of death as punishment through reflections on vultures. “They remind us that death must be thought of not as a simple ending but as completely central to the ongoing life of multispecies communities in which we are all ultimately food for one another.”

Sometimes surprising alliances on specific issues are possible between right and left. Ralph Nader argues persuasively that the list of issues would include resistance of current corporate trade treaties and to current and future bank bailouts.

One potentially fruitful area for a politics across conventional divisions is long working hours. Reductions in the standard workweek as productivity expands were a staple of American politics in the hundred years from 1870-1970. These reductions create jobs at far less cost to the treasury. They also extend benefits to workers of all political, religious, and life style predilections. A shorter workweek affords individuals time for family life and personal development controlled neither by the state nor the corporate dominated market. Creating experiential challenges to the myths of the market may be the most effective counter. With more free time the need for perpetual self-discipline and the kinds of suppressed hatred of the human condition this can often breed may be mitigated. At least that is my hope.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

From The Progressive Populist, March 1, 2015

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