Friday, March 29, 2013

Market Totalitarianism

In a recent post I referred to conservatives who would prefer to return to the failed strategy of every person for themselves when it comes to retirement security as "free market totalitarian ideologues."

The term actually occurred to me (and I expect I am not the originator or first user) when wondering how we let conservatives and libertarians get away with referring to surrendering popular sovereignty to the cold, imperious and unfeeling hand of so-called "market" mechanisms to decide nearly all of society's big questions and solve (or not solve) its problems.  How is that "freedom"?

My liberalism embraces the idea that the decisions that affect my life are not all made by people who merely see me as a revenue source to be maximized or a cost to be minimized for their personal benefit.  That thinking, feeling human beings would retain the capacity to direct society's direction and outcomes.  This is the heart of democracy.  I can accept market mechanisms solving certain issues where they are known to work well enough but in no way is it the default choice, and the loss of democratic control over the result has to be understood as a drawback, one which the upsides in the arrangement have to be worth it.

Let's look at drug research.  One big problem with market driven drug research is that the big pharma companies are mostly interested in generating patentable slight variations of their existing patented drugs in order to keep a steady stream of economic rent flowing.  But that problem aside, they are overwhelmingly interested in first world medical problems, hence the obvious bias toward things like heart disease, sleep disorder and erectile dysfunction drugs.  But are these really the socially optimal places for drug research resources and talent to be deployed?  What about curing malaria or polio?

In the society that market totalitarians want to build, the democratic impulse to have government ensure research into non-profitable but lifesaving treatments takes place would be curtailed and left to the market to decide.  Naturally they're rarely this specific as to propose, say a constitutional amendment banning government funding of such research, but the more general constraints they favour (such as requiring legislative supermajorities to raise taxes along with strict balanced budget laws) would make such things practical impossibilities.

Further constraints take myriad form in the intricate network of treaties and trade rules that comprise what we call "globalization" - if government X funds cancer research, government Y (at the behest of corporations) will cry "subsidization!  Unfair trade practices!" and sanctions could result.

If there aren't specific rules to prevent government acting, globalization sets up such a race to the bottom as to make many other democratically favoured policies economically challenging or outright unfeasible.  Minimum wage laws (and increasing them) are nearly universally popular yet the incessant refrain from the right is that any polity raising its minimum wage will see itself losing jobs to neighbouring ones that now have lower prevailing wages (or labour regulations or unionization rates or anything else ordinary people like to have that makes their lives better but is bad for big business and now fast becoming economic suicide).

This is the world of market totalitarianism, one in which democracy no longer means anything, because no polity exists that is capable of restraining a globalized business elite.

It's also no coincidence that the right so hates the United Nations (which is a terrible insult to national sovereignty) but loves giant multilateral corporate approved (if not corporate written) trade treaties which go much further than anything the UN ever proposes in terms of stomping on national sovereignty, with measures allowing corporations to sue national governments in special corporate friendly venues and be compensated for "losses" due to actions of that government.  Whereas the UN operates mostly openly and its treaties are negotiated in giant open conferences with plenty of real debate and published drafts, these trade treaties are negotiated in secret and presented to national legislatures as faits accompli, where each legislature faces an awful choice of accepting some awful deal "as-is" or being the lone hold out and losing out on whatever pitiful benefits the agreement brings.

From a class and power relations standpoint it is obvious enough that conservative elites think this way because they are, or represent the people who most benefit from this arrangement, global business elites.  The "free market" is a useful abstraction in some circumstances, but in reality it is mostly about this tiny billionaire class who make the majority of the decisions we call the "market."  Whether a given country has a currency crisis is really not very much about whether masses of people around the world decide to sell of that currency, or the government bonds they own from that country, but what a few billionaire level people or corporations decide to do.  They may not really coordinate in any direct sense, but it remains that yours or my opinion about whether say, Greece's latest austerity measures are acceptable is not going to determine whether or not there is a run on Greek debt and a big spike in interest rates for Greek bond issues.

But the rest of us should not let them get away with calling these arrangements of society "freedom" - where democratic governments are helpless to respond to the demands of their citizens for fear of punishment by imperious market forces that are immune to popular will.  This is market totalitarianism and inch by inch it continues to quite literally take over the world.

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