Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Peddling the Mythology of Continuous Neoliberal Progress

eand  |  Every year of my life so far, it seems, some wise and learned old man publishes a book which recites the same old gruesome and weird myth, almost word for word. It’s like groundhog day, but for…

The myth goes like this. Capitalism! Yay! It saved the world! The latest such person is Steven Pinker, and it’s his third? fourth? book proclaiming so. Needless to say, it must be something people feel the need to hear, over and over again,a And so it’s very much a modern myth: a tale we tell, ritually, to comfort ourselves. But from what, exactly? Probably from the sinking feeling, that, right about now, the myth is probably about as true as Snow White being rescued by Prince Charming, which is to say, not very.

Have you looked at the stronghold of capitalism, the United States, recently? It’s not exactly bubbling over with prosperity, whether it’s called happiness, sanity, wealth, democracy, or wisdom. If capitalism didn’t save America, the most capitalist society in human history — how could it have saved anyone else? The myth falls apart the very instant we think about it, instead of recite it. So what happens if we go on questioning the fairy tale that capitalism is the Prince Charming of human progress, or, if you like, the magical perpetual motion machine of neoliberalism? What might we discover?

(The first thing we’d probably think is that no one in their right mind should be proclaiming “progress!!” in a summer when ruinous heatwaves due to climate change are sweeping the globe, and so are pulsating waves of fascism — both catastrophic depletions of natural and civic capital. The true story of capitalism, in other words, is as much about catastrophic hidden costs, or “externalities”, as much as “benefits” . Those costs are obvious, though, if we care to look. Centuries of slavery. Segregation. Colonialism. Speculative frenzies which lead to depressions, which cause world wars. No accounting of capitalism is complete with any of those — but for that precise reason, because it’s the logic of capitalism, “accounting” isn’t the way we should think of human progress at all.)