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"Courting Catastrophe: Neoliberalism's Provoking of Disasters on the Micro and Macro Levels"

“Courting Catastrophe: Neoliberalism’s Provoking of Disasters on the Micro and Macro Levels”

By Dennis Loo (4/27/13)

This is the text of Dennis Loo's 4/24/13 talk at the University of California at Riverside

In this talk Loo begins by honing in on the philosophical foundation of neoliberalism and then traces the consequences of that philosophy in two major arenas: its provoking of disasters and its undermining of the basis for the broad sections of the people to cooperate peacefully with authority, creating the necessity for authority to adopt authoritarian measures vis a vis the people (while still giving lip service to the “rule of law,” “democracy,” and “liberty”).

In brief, neoliberalism believes that “reality” is determined through political, military, and economic might, not objective reality separate from human perception. Neoliberals believe that they can make real what they want to make real and that through their power they can obliterate any other “realities” and views. This extreme position is something that neoliberals share with religious fundamentalists and postmodernists.

In the Q &A after his talk several different issues were raised, such as the complexity of the problems we face relative to the forces in play and whether or not Loo’s critique of postmodernism’s sharing of the same epistemology as neoliberals and religious fundamentalists is necessary and/or warranted. In the first vein, one professor argued that Loo’s critique of postmodernism was unnecessary to his larger project of critiquing neoliberalism. Another person in the audience who teaches in the History Department objected that the three movements are different: while neoliberalism declares what reality is, as do religious fundamentalists, postmodernist historians say that there is no privileged interpretation of history: all interpretations of history are equally valid.

The problem with this postmodernist view, as Loo put it, is that it hampers postmodernists and those influenced by postmodernism – both inside and outside the academy - from engaging in activities in the real world and leaves you unable to challenge decisively the perspectives of neoliberals or religious fundamentalists since all perspectives are equally “valid.” If there is no independent criterion to compare one’s interpretation to – empirical facts – then there is no basis on which to decide what is true or at least truer or not. Debates about what should be done in public affairs and private matters - Did Iraq have anything to do with 9/11? Does Iran have a nuclear weapons program? Is abortion an indispensable right or murder? Is torture real and should it be halted and torturers prosecuted or do the people being held at Gitmo have power over their lives? And so on – become impossible to settle and can only be “settled” by one’s preferred way of seeing. Fragmentation can only result. Reason is thrown out the window.

While the political stance of postmodernists is generally at odds with neoliberalism and religious fundamentalism, postmodernists are hamstrung in their opposition to the latter two by their rejection of any independent verifiable criterion outside of one’s own or one’s group’s interpretation.

It is impossible to determine and agree upon facts and the best interpretation of those facts if you have abandoned the idea that facts actually exist. As someone that Loo cites during the Q &A put it, he would love to be asked at a postmodernist conference by an attendee where the hotel parking lot is so that he can reply: “It’s wherever you want it to be.” As a professor in the audience put it in the aftermath of the event, neoliberals, religious fundamentalists, and postmodernists all take a “step back” from their philosophical positions since they cannot actually live their lives fully consistent to their philosophy. We live in a materially real world after all.

Thank you for inviting me.

I am going to be discussing today certain parts of the arguments that I lay out in my book Globalization and the Demolition of Society.

Let me begin by defining “neoliberalism”: neoliberalism (NL) is a doctrine based upon liberalism in the Adam Smith sense – the best society is achieved by letting market forces rule both public affairs and private matters. One of this paradigm’s assumptions is that everyone in society is interested in maximizing personal monetary gain. Another is that personal autonomy is the pinnacle of human development. Liberty, according to neoliberalism’s godfather Frederick Hayek, is the ability of the individual to do whatever they want, regardless of what others think, and thus by implication, regardless of what objective reality allows. Neoliberals hold that any attempts to seek the public good or protect the common interest are foolish and counter-productive. The common good, to the extent that they even believe that there is such a thing, is obtained through everyone pursuing his or her personal self-interest, which is equated with material opulence.

As Maggie Thatcher, who was buried last week, and who as the British Prime Minister beginning in 1979 was the first major first world leader to explicitly seek to institute neoliberal policies, put it: there is no such thing as society, there are only individuals and families. Thus, in the neoliberal view, there is nothing but the individual and that individual’s immediate family.

This view that there is no such thing as the entity that I and many of the rest of you devote our careers to studying – society - is the philosophical foundation for what I argue is the most dangerous movement in history.

Here is an overview of what I’ll cover in my prepared remarks.

I’m going to dissect further the philosophic foundation for neoliberal thought and briefly explain why it is fatally flawed. On that basis I will then trace this peculiar philosophy to two outcomes: a) its provoking of disasters and b) its undermining the basis for cooperative relations between the public and authority and therefore its increasing reliance upon deception and state-sponsored and state-inspired repression and violence to maintain order. I will then conclude with observations and suggestions about a way out of this ever-expanding disaster. My approach to the matter of the disasters that neoliberalism generates, by the way, differs from that of Naomi Klein, but more on that later.

As to the first point regarding NL’s philosophical foundation:

NL is the political expression of globalization. It could not continue to exist and prevail without the degradation of the meaning of truth. (p. 2)

What is most problematic about globalization isn’t that it widens the gap between those with wealth and those with far less, leaving people in want and creating unnecessary suffering and deaths, or that it rips up the social fabric, or that it is precipitating and accelerating environmental degradation and disasters, endangering the very planet that we live on, or any of the other profound troubles that my book chronicles and analyzes.

These problems are catastrophic on an epic scale – the demolition of society. But to get a handle on what has been happening to us collectively, we have to first be clear about why it is happening and what it is in its totality because if we don’t, we won’t be able to change course. We need to know where we are, how we got here, and why it continues to be so difficult to change course, before we can have a chance to actually change course. 

Globalization’s most troublesome dimension is that it is first and foremost based upon a philosophy that distorts the very meaning of truth. Globalization and neoliberalism represent a fundamental attack on humanity’s historic pursuit of truth.

Neoliberals scoff at the notion that there is such a thing as objective reality and objective truth. They believe that through their economic and political power that they can simply manufacture what is true and erase that which they don’t like. Put another way, in their view, might makes right and lack of might means you have no say about what is true and what is right. Might is so mighty, in fact, that it can ignore objective realities and necessities and simply by virtue of might’s strength, dictate what will be true and what people will believe to be true.

As a Bush senior aide put it to Ron Suskind in 2002, explaining that the people in the White House and their supporters were all members of the “faith-based community” rather than the “reality-based community”: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” (p. 4)

Some might wonder if the neoliberals are just pretending to be proponents of the idea that power means that you get to decide what is true. Their rupture with objective reality in their philosophy is in fact profound. They have company in this in two movements that on the surface appear to be oppositional to the neoliberals: Islamic fundamentalism and postmodernism.

The fact that al-Qaeda and its ilk are putative rivals of U.S. imperialism is well known. What might be surprising is that postmodernism shares with the neoliberals anything at all since postmodernists don’t like and are critical of neoliberals’ policies. What religious fundamentalism (of all varieties, including Christian fundamentalism) and postmodernism share with neoliberalism is their common hostility to science and reason and to the foundation which science and reason rest upon: the existence of an objective world outside of human consciousness. There is a difference between saying that interpretation comes into play in everything and saying that all that exists is interpretation.

If an objective world does not exist outside of our consciousness of it, then science is a waste of time in its pursuit of identifying the laws of physics when such a world doesn’t in fact exist outside of our fabrication of it. Postmodernists, like religious faith believers, think that people create truth and facts and that one can choose to believe what one wishes. They believe that power consists of the ability to dictate what others believe to be true. This is in stark contrast to the philosophy and theory that drives science – that the more that we understand about the material world outside of our perception of it, the more freedom we can create out of the necessity that we discover. Humankind has learned how to fly, for example, but we did so by learning about gravity’s realities, studying aerodynamics and thrust, and by designing and manufacturing materials strong and light enough to fly, not by convincing ourselves that we can keep ourselves in the air if we just believe it strongly enough.

One expression of this contempt towards objective reality and the needs of the community, environment, and society is concentrated in a slogan that Tony Hayward used to have sitting on his desk when he was head of BP and before the BP Gulf of Mexico catastrophe. It said: “If you knew you could not fail, what would you try?”

You’d try to drive a stake into the heart of the Gulf of Mexico and not even imagine, let alone properly prepare against, a catastrophic environmental disaster.

Neoliberals, religious fundamentalists, and postmodernists share a similar theory about reality. They believe that if enough people believe something to be true, it makes it true. This is nonsense. Does not knowing that you have AIDS make you safe from dying from AIDS? Does not accepting the necessities attached to the fact that the U.S. is holding you prisoner in a torture facility make you immune to being tortured to death?

These literal textualists (those who believe that truth resides entirely in words) do not believe in necessity. Instead, they are proponents of a version of “freedom” that is separated from having to recognize necessity’s existence.

One of the consequences of that theory/philosophy is the view that if you wish to change society, you must put all of your energies into changing the way people see the world. What is true is true because many people see it that way. So the solution if you want to change things is to get more people to see it the way that you do and once they do, “reality” has been changed.

Neoliberalism is a philosophy - and the politics and policies based on that philosophy - that advocates for and defends the interests of globalization. Those who want to further the process of globalization adopt neoliberalism as their credo. If we are to understand what globalization is, and what the philosophy, politics, and policies are that represent and advocate for globalization, then we have to get clear on what truth is. 

Before he was elected, Obama stated that he had studied the Constitution and that his faith in it prompts him to do the right thing about the treatment of prisoners, i.e., reinstate habeas corpus, ban torture, and close Guantanamo. He has not closed and doesn’t appear to ever plan to close Gitmo, has not reinstated habeas corpus and in fact has openly gone further than Bush dared by engaging in preventive detention, and has banned waterboarding but not other forms of torture. This illustrates perfectly that just because a person says that something is does not make it so.

Individuals are often deceived about reality, and more so today than a few decades ago, because of the rise of an extremely influential right-wing media empire that sets the terms overall that other corporate media to a large extent operate within, because neoliberalism’s doctrine is the dominant orthodoxy and because neoliberalism cannot continue to be dominant without the distortion of truth. As a result, all too many people lack the theoretical and conceptual tools that would allow them to distinguish between falsehoods and truths. People must have the tools they need to respond appropriately and effectively to what is going on.

Besides the fact, as Marx put it, that the ruling ideas of any epoch are the ideas of the ruling class, one’s interpretation of the world is largely influenced by the paradigm(s) he/she adheres to and one’s paradigm is also strongly influenced by one’s material status. A paradigm can be defined as a lens through which one perceives the world/reality. For instance, a person who cannot find regular gainful employment is more likely to perceive himself/herself as a victim of the system, whereas a banker is more likely to perceive himself/herself as a deserving and proud product of the system. The state of mind and conditions of each of these individuals will influence their interpretation of reality; it will lead them to certain conclusions in terms of what they think needs to be done, or not.

For the most part, people are not aware that the paradigms they embrace contain assumptions and value judgments that often misrepresent what is really going in the empirical world. This is why I argue that “coming to grips with what is going on involves facts, but it also involves understanding what different paradigms are based on and the difference it makes which paradigm is used.” (p. 21)

By severing the individual from the group, neoliberal philosophy creates the basis for personal and societal level catastrophes since their pursuit of whatever the individual wants against the group’s needs ruptures the actual relationship between the individual and the group. It can be analogized to cancer cells that behave as if there is no host that they are part of, multiplying themselves heedlessly until they kill the host organism. This also extends into the realm of how one should handle the relationship between humanity and the environment. It is a mutually interdependent relationship rather than one in which humanity can act unilaterally as if it is autonomous. There is much more to be said about this, but I want to now turn to the next part of my presentation.

The question of an unstable social order and the greater likelihood of violence arises because social inequality grows tremendously under neoliberal policies. Corporate profits are enhanced when the working class and middle classes are deprived of alternatives to working at reduced wages, when the social safety net is curtailed or eliminated, and when the whole world becomes capitalism’s warren to roam in search of the lowest wages and where environmental rules are weak to non-existent. When the socialist camp disappeared and capitalism became the only game in town, whole swaths of the American workforce became superfluous from the perspective of capital and the world record-breaking incarceration rates in the U.S. and the more punitive criminal and repressive public order policies become ways of putting under lock and key and surveillance those who would otherwise rebel against their conditions. Under neoliberal regimes, the probability that the public will resist the relentless growth in the ranks of those who are being deprived of opportunity and the very means to life correspondingly grows.

Authorities' ability to maintain social stability when the material basis for social stability is being undermined across the board by their policies poses itself as an acute and ever-expanding problem, not matter who is in the White House and how convincing his or her rhetoric is. The increasing occurrence of popular upheavals and authorities' use of force to prevent and put down rebellions and revolutions are both therefore to be expected.         

The paradox here is that the rhetoric of prosperity and emphasis on security and the measures enacted to supposedly ensure the public welfare and security are doing the very opposite: the security state rests upon a system and policies that are the greatest source of instability in the world today. The “war on terror” (WOT) in particular employs state terror and feeds a cycle of great violence, both on the individual level and on the societal level. The WOT is itself only a particular product as well as virulent expression of the neoliberal world:

[T]he forces insisting that order is under siege and that repression and extralegal measures are necessary to cope with that disorder are the same forces creating disorder in the society by dispossessing increasing ranks of the people, endangering the planet’s biosystem, and provoking greater and greater levels of social insecurity (p. 153).       

The most dangerous aspect of this is not what Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine exposes, that neoliberals are deliberately triggering disasters, as bad as that is and as much as they sometimes do consciously provoke some disasters. The problem is more fundamental and damaging than that: it arises from the very nature of capitalism/imperialism and neoliberalism in particular:

The worst and most alarming news here . . . is not that 9/11 was an inside job, a grand conspiracy hatched within the highest US government echelons. It is instead that 9/11 and other disasters such as the BP Deepwater Horizon catastrophe are due to the normal and ordinary workings of capitalism, and specifically neoliberal policies. That is much more distressing than believing that 9/11 was an inside job. (p. 163)

This goes deeper, then, than the individuals in charge. It grows out of the dominant systems in place and can only be resolved through a revolutionary systemic change. Why do I say that neoliberalism is the most dangerous movement ever when there are other movements such as that of the fascists of the 1930s and 1940s? Neoliberalism is the doctrine that rules the roost worldwide today and the doctrine endorsed by both the GOP and Democratic Parties – with mostly rhetorical differences between them and their different social bases that require their distinguishing themselves from the other party in order to appeal to their social bases. Even long-existing social democratic countries such as Sweden and New Zealand have been accommodating themselves to and bending to its NL’s will. NL presents today a lethal combination of attributes:

Neoliberals’ hubris and monopoly over state power, their control over resources (both material and ideological), the potency of contemporary technological capacities, and their startling indifference to their policies’ rupturing of the social fabric and endangering the biosphere, make them an unparalleled threat in human history.

Nathan Freier, a DoD analyst, reaches similar conclusions to myself about the dangers here, even though he approaches this from an entirely different perspective. As Freier puts it, “The likeliest and most dangerous future shocks will be unconventional… Their origin is most likely to be in irregular, catastrophic, and hybrid threats of ‘purpose’ (emerging from hostile design) or threats of ‘context’ (emerging in the absence of hostile purpose or design). Of the two, the latter is both the least understood and the most dangerous.” (Bodfacing added, pp. 133-134.)

Corporations operate on the logic that it is cheaper to pay for lawsuit claims against them for wrongful death and injury due to their ignoring or under-responding to safety issues than it is to carry out their businesses with the safety and welfare of the public and environment in mind. Under neoliberal logic, businesses, especially big business, are allowed to now largely self-police rather than being regulated. Since self-policing works as well as any other unsupervised activity (not well!), the normal course of business and governmental decisions are now fraught with hidden hazards for the public. The ordinary is now the source of peril.

The financial system is a particular instance of this. As L. Randall Wray, Professor of Economics at University of Missouri, Kansas City put it in November 2010, describing the situation prior to the 2008 housing market collapse: “In the end, the US financial system (and perhaps many others) became nothing but a massive criminal conspiracy to defraud borrowers.” (p. 174) That criminal conspiracy continues today as the norm.

A further example of this is the problem of global warming and how it is being handled, or better stated, not being handled:

While Obama believes global warming is a danger, the measures being undertaken to slow it fall grievously far below what is necessary at this point. As James Hansen, whose proven track record on anticipating the course of global warmings’ progressive danger signs makes him the most credible scientist around, has forcefully warned, the point of no return has already been passed and emergency measures are needed. In a 2003 report commissioned by Andrew Marshall and written by former Shell Oil Head of Planning Peter Schwartz and California think tank Global Business Network’s Doug Randall, the Department of Defense (DoD) itself warned of the convulsive effects that global warming in the not distant future will wreak in the form of forced migrations of tens of millions and wars over resources critical to actual survival; the DoD described this as a threat “greater than terrorism.”

The research suggests that …adverse weather conditions could develop relatively abruptly, with persistent changes in the atmospheric circulation causing drops in some regions of 5-10 degrees Fahrenheit in a single decade. Paleoclimatic evidence suggests that altered climatic patterns could last for as much as a century, as they did when the ocean conveyor collapsed 8,200 years ago, or, at the extreme, could last as long as 1,000 years as they did during the Younger Dryas, which began about 12,700 years ago. . . .

Rather than decades or even centuries of gradual warming, recent evidence suggests the possibility that a more dire climate scenario may actually be unfolding. . . . 

As famine, disease, and weather-related disasters strike due to the abrupt climate change, many countries’ needs will exceed their carrying capacity. This will create a sense of desperation, which is likely to lead to offensive aggression in order to reclaim balance. Imagine eastern European countries, struggling to feed their populations with a falling supply of food, water, and energy, eyeing Russia, whose population is already in decline, for access to its grain, minerals, and energy supply. Or, picture Japan, suffering from flooding along its coastal cities and contamination of its fresh water supply, eying Russia’s Sakhalin Island oil and gas reserves as an energy source to power desalination plants and energy-intensive agricultural processes… [Emphasis added.]

The response from the Pentagon’s spokesperson Dan Hetlage to this report was interesting:

We did not expect any White House response to the Pentagon on this report. Andrew Marshall is our Yoda, our big thinker who peers into the future. But it’s all speculation. It was very ethereal, very broad in scope. It wasn’t like, “Oh, wow, that totally debunks the president’s stand on global warming,” because it was merely a thought exercise. We don’t have a crystal ball. We don’t really know.[i] [Emphasis in the original.]

They “don’t really know.” When astronauts go into space, the backup systems NASA creates to protect the astronauts and their missions are multiple in nature in case the first few fail. The scenarios they run in preparation for outer space travel are diverse and complex. These efforts are protecting a handful of people in space; yet, when the entire planet is at risk, the trigger for action is based on whether or not they know for certain that something will happen. Of course, at the point when the dangers are manifest and present, action in response is much too late. This is the equivalent of packing the entirety of humanity into one big car and those in charge of the welfare of the passengers deciding that they are not going to put on any seatbelts because they do not know for certain that there will be an accident. (Pp. 166-168)

If global warming is, according to the DoD itself, a greater threat than terrorism, then the abject failure to address global warming fully and the corresponding huge diversion of resources to the WOT are catastrophically bad decisions. But the full dimensions of this failure and the dangers that it is sowing are only evident if you are willing to think outside of the box of the authorities’ narrow-minded perspective.

Bureaucracies’ basic characteristics are a contributing factor to this picture. They perpetuate inequalities by promoting subordination, secrecy and deception, and ultimately the concentration of power and the attribution of privileges to elites. They also primarily “focus on process more than on results.”

What does it tell us about the nature of the contemporary and near term future world that disasters that arise out of the very context of our collective lives are a) certain, b) unlikely to be properly foreseen, c) extremely unlikely to be adequately prepared for, and d) more dangerous than any planned hostile actions?

As they laud their respect for the rule of law and for democracy and liberty, neoliberals have been systematically insulating the government and corporate world, especially the highest executive levels, from the people’s opinions and voices, creating an executive that is not accountable or even supervised by any other governmental branch or by the People. This reflects a momentous shift in governmental norms worldwide that begin in the 1970s known as public order policies that treat everyone as a suspect and where governmental coercion can be used upon you pre-emptively, even if you have committed no crime. What was displayed as a dystopian future in the film Minority Report, in other words, is now the emergent standard of governance. These policies have been instituted under the signboard of the “war on terror” but their inception date from before 9/11 and are not being carried out because of anti-state terrorism. This explains the adoption of expressly fascist laws such as Obama’s open use of assassination of those he alone has designated as enemies of the state and the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012 that, upon Obama’s request, included American citizens picked up on U.S. soil as among those who can, simply by accusation, be arrested and held indefinitely without a right to challenge their detention.

Neoliberals’ insistence on what amounts to dictatorial powers and their campaign to override the rule of law is necessary because if their true agenda were publicly unveiled, it would go down to ignominious defeat since their agenda means the relentless exploitation of the vast majority of humanity and the pillaging of the environment. Neoliberal policies systematically stick it to the public and deprive them of the means to life. Given this, there is no way that they can stay in power if they don’t utilize increasingly unfettered forms of power. That explains the yawning gap between what they’re doing and what they are saying about what they’re doing: they can only get their way through misrepresentation, manipulation, and force. Authorities’ forcible evictions of the Occupy encampments in spite of and in fact, in significant respect, due to the popularity of Occupy, are an example of authorities’ intolerance for dissent and exposés of their policies.

As people around the world grapple with neoliberal policies’ negative consequences, different ideas contend about what the best path to take is. Some argue that state power is no longer relevant. I argue by contrast that state power is the key focal point of struggle between neoliberals (whether they’re neoconservatives or the “Democratic” version of neoliberalism) and those who want a radically different world. State power remains fundamental. By contrast the outer shell of political power (electoral campaigns, elections, speeches, debates, legislative votes, judicial decisions, and so on) are mainly public relations designed to convey the impression of democratic and lawful decision-making, with the real decision-making occurring behind closed doors.

Violence, at least some degree of violence, is an inherent part of the political struggle and is often the price to pay for social change. One only needs to look at recent revolutions that have occurred throughout the world, such as the end of apartheid in South Africa, or the more recent uprisings in the Middle East, to come to that conclusion.

Neoliberals are implementing public order policies, i.e., policies that are supposedly aimed at preventing the unlikely “generalized and ubiquitous foe,” instead of more tangible and specific public threats. Neoliberals waste a lot of effort and resources in the implementation of those policies, which are damaging to society, and are mostly ineffective and illegal. The overwhelming amount of data collected by intelligence agencies on a daily basis to supposedly thwart potential terrorist threats and hunt down alleged terrorists illustrates this point (on the order of four times as much data collected daily as resides in the entire Library of Congress). One of the main problems with having access to too much irrelevant information is as follows:

If you have too much data, then connecting dots becomes extremely difficult because you have too many possible threads to perceive and millions upon millions of irrelevant data points obscuring those threads. It is like trying to find multiple needles in a haystack while haystack after haystack after haystack is being dropped on you in an avalanche of hay.(p. 151)

No one is exempt of becoming a target of those methods, i.e., anyone can be and in fact everyone is targeted as a suspect. This environment fosters a climate of ubiquitous fear and threat based on nothing but smoke, something that I describe as “a cacophony of threatening noise.” The U.S. government has a huge stake in maintaining that climate of ubiquitous fear and threat because it warrants and legitimizes the need for more social control. In turn, those repressive measures help the government pursue their hidden agenda (i.e., profit-making and increased political power).

The net result of all of this? An inherently unstable and increasingly destabilizing system that generates tremendously damaging endemic and episodically catastrophic results. That is a conclusion that can be reached even if we were to not even consider the question of the inherent injustice of it all.

Instead of ushering a utopia of abundance for all, the triumph of the capitalist world over the socialist camp by the end of the 1980s has brought and is bringing the capitalist dystopia to us, the worst of which is yet to come, but the disastrousness of it is multidimensional and there to be seen by those not blinded to it.  There is a way out of this madness. It mush be based upon a challenge to the logic of the system itself.


“We are not fundamentally solitary, autonomous, and exclusively self-interested individuals driven to maximize personal material rewards; we are beings who are primarily shaped by our relationships, especially those generated by our society’s political and economic structures. Individuals do not principally give systems the character that those systems possess; systems and structures principally shape individuals’ behavior.” (p. xi)

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