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Neoliberalism Is a Killer

Biden's recent characterization of Putin applies to this dominant ideology as well.

Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives at Armando Escalon Airbase in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, on June 1, 2009—just weeks before the military coup. (Photo: US Department of State/flickr/cc)

Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives at Armando Escalon Airbase in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, on June 1, 2009—just weeks before the military coup. (Photo: US Department of State/flickr/cc)

The presidents who control more than 90 percent of the world's nuclear arsenal had a bit of a spat the other day. Though the exchange ended indecisively it serve to highlight important moral issues in both foreign and domestic policy. In an interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos, President Joe Biden—asked to characterize his Russian counterpart—labeled him "a killer." Soon thereafter President Vladimir Putin shot back with a comment to the effect of takes one to know one.

"When we evaluate other people, states and nations, we always seem to be looking in the mirror. We always see ourselves. We always pass on to another person what we ourselves are in essence," Putin added.

"In childhood, when we argued with each other, we said: 'He who calls names is called that himself.' This is no coincidence, this is not just a childish joke, it has a very deep psychological meaning."

Putin's comment seems the more reflective, but he spent no time applying the insight to himself. What strikes me is how well each leader's harsh characterization of the other best fits himself. Most Americans have little trouble applying the labels bully and murderer to Putin even as they gloss over the horrendous total of murders committed by every American president. (In a joke that set the record for tastelessness President Obama smirked that he "is really good at killing people.")

Life under the Roman Empire gave St. Augustine of Hippo ample opportunity to reflect on the role discourse can play in whitewashing state violence.

From Ch.4 of The City of God:

Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; i…. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly the name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity. Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, What you mean by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while you who does it with a great fleet are styled emperor.

What allows or encourages this failure to acknowledge or recognize the modern nation state as upscaled pirate ship? There is probably no universal answer that would apply to every stage of the American empire or to other empires, but the contemporary fusion of some fundamentalist strains of Christianity and predatory forms of capitalism are surely an important foundation of contemporary empire. The relegation of evil to a sphere outside ourselves encourages confidence in our righteousness.

Chris Hedges expands on this theme: "The world was divided into us and them, the blessed and the damned, agents of God and agents of Satan, good and evil. Millions of largely white Americans, hermetically sealed within the ideology of the Christian Right, yearn to destroy the Satanic forces they blame for the debacle of their lives, the broken homes, domestic and sexual abuse, struggling single parent households, lack of opportunities, crippling debt, poverty, evictions, bankruptcies, loss of sustainable incomes and the decay of their communities.”

Neoliberal capitalist ideology further sanctifies this binary worldview, as Hedges continued, "Capitalism, because God blessed the righteous with wealth and power and condemned the immoral to poverty and suffering, is shorn of its inherent cruelty and exploitation. The iconography and symbols of American nationalism are intertwined with the iconography and symbols of the Christian faith. In short, the worst aspects of American society are sacralized by this heretical form of Christianity."

Evangelical Christianity and neoliberal capitalism, besides sharing the eagerness to externalize evil, became extraordinarily forceful agents in American politics. Understanding how this happened is a story full of lessons for social justice advocates of all types.

Though many on the left are accustomed to thinking of the religious right and big business as kissing cousins, these two groups have partially discrepant doctrines and policy proposals. In 1970 even astute critics hardly predicted they would form an alliance of any sort. Most fundamentalists were a-political. Yet how have they managed not only to collaborate but also even to increase their influence? Just as with members of the top 1% percent, identity needs play a key role.

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Identity can also be also multifaceted and a bit slippery around the edges. William Connolly, author of Capitalism and Christianity, American Style, argues that identity is expressed not only in formal doctrines but also in underlying sensibility or gut sense about the world:

"One possibility is that amidst the creedal linkages and differences the parties also share a spiritual disposition to existence. Their ruthlessness, ideological extremism, readiness to defend a market ideology in the face of significant evidence, and compulsion to create or condone scandals against any party who opposes their vision of the world, express a fundamental disposition toward being in the world….The element of identity most significant to this movement… is the insistence by its members that they are being persecuted unless they are thoroughly in power, and the compensatory sense of special entitlement that accompanies the rise to power of a constituency that so construes itself.”

This spiritual disposition in turn is nourished by and intensifies deeper existential anxiety, in particular resentment of the “obdurate fact of mortality and a world in which one cannot will the past again. “ There are no re-dos in life. Such fears and anxieties are seldom expressed directly and not always consciously acknowledged. To do so would undermine the tactical and psychological efficacy of the compensatory moves. Nonetheless the anxieties are not without effect. They are expressed in moods, facial expressions, tone of voice, as well as substantively in demands for black and white standards, demonization of one’s opponent and advocacy of harsh punishment of those who deviate from these standards.

Intensities across lines of partial creedal differences can resonate with each other. The positive feedback loops can fashion movements that spiral well beyond the expectations of early supporters or advocates. Thus the problems not only for progressives but also for such luminaries as Karl Rove. During Donald Trump's rise to power in the Republican Party Paul Krugman pointed out: "{T}he elite has lost control of the Frankenstein-like monster it created. So now we get to witness the hilarious spectacle of Karl Rove in The Wall Street Journal, pleading with Republicans to recognize the reality that Obamacare can't be defunded. Why hilarious? Because Mr. Rove and his colleagues have spent decades trying to ensure that the Republican base lives in an alternate reality defined by Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. Can we say 'hoist with their own petard?'"

Hedges adds that the GOP's is "an ideology of hatred. It rejects what Augustine calls the grace of love, or volo ut sis (I want you to be). It replaces it with an ideology that condemns all those outside the magic circle. There is, in relationships based on love, an affirmation of the mystery of the other, an affirmation of unexplained and unfathomable differences. These relationships not only recognize that others have a right to be, as Augustine wrote, but the sacredness of difference. This sacredness of difference is an anathema to Christian fundamentalists, as it is to imperialists, to all racists. It is dangerous to the hegemony of the triumphalist ideology. It calls into question the infallibility of the doctrine, the essential appeal of all ideologies. It suggests that there are alternative ways to live and believe.

How to live differently? We might start by rethinking borders. Nations are not natural, preexisting entities but are products of struggle and exploitation. Coalitions across borders can illuminate that history and strive to address the ugliest injustices.

From the days of the Monroe Doctrine on the U.S. has treated Central and South America as wholly owned subsidiaries. That has included support for even the most vicious authoritarians as long as they were hospitable to U.S. multinationals. FDR is purported to have called Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza "an SOB, but he’s our SOB." Take the recent example of Honduras, one home of those seeking asylum.

In a late May 2019 conversation on Democracy Now! between Amy Goodman and Dana Frank, University of California Santa Cruz scholar, Goodman reminded listeners that a "military coup… deposed the democratically elected Honduran president, Manuel Zelaya, which the U.S did not oppose."

Frank added, "when we talk about the fleeing gangs and violence, it's also this tremendous poverty. And poverty doesn't just happen. It, itself, is a direct result of policies of both the Honduran government and the U.S. government, including privatizations, mass layoffs of government workers..." Those policies damaged not only Honduran workers but also paved the way for deindustrialization here in the United States. Merely spending $1 billion per year on relief to Central American nation as the Biden administration proposes hardly begins to address the harm generations of elites did to the whole political economy of that nation.

Democracy is precious. Reinhold Niebuhr famously argued: Man's capacity for good makes democracy possible. His propensity for evil makes it necessary. The U.S. faces a dilemma in which one of its major parties is explicit in its opposition to democracy. Those who share love and admiration for a pluralizing world must unite across differences of race, class, gender, and theology in their efforts to restore our democracy.

Nor should we merely play defense. Berkley legal theorist Steven Vogel argues: "The inequality snowball model, [the way markets and regulatory policy interact and further inequality] and its extreme variant in the United States of the past 40 years, also suggests that political institutions are critical to the capacity to reform. That means that political reforms such as limiting corporate campaign contributions or expanding voting rights may be pre-requisites to enacting a marketcraft reform agenda. Likewise, it suggests that those elements of the agenda that constrain both the political and the market power of dominant firms—such as antitrust and labor regulation—should be prioritized because they could doubly constrain the inequality snowball."

Important as these issues are citizens cannot count on Congress to move them. The reluctance to take on the filibuster, which currently blocks most egalitarian and climate centered reform, is only the latest sad example. Filling that void is the challenge to all of us.

John Buell

John Buell

John Buell has a PhD in political science, taught for 10 years at College of the Atlantic, and was an Associate Editor of The Progressivefor ten years. He lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. His most recent book, published by Palgrave in August 2011, is "Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age." He may be reached at jbuell@acadia.net

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