Tag Archives: neoliberalism

The Art of the Possible

Detail from “The Effects of Good and Bad Government,” Caleb Ives Bach (1985).

What is “reality”? One answer: If I punch the wall, I hurt myself; if I step out the window, I fall. These are the principles I can accommodate myself to or manipulate or (for a short, inglorious period) choose to defy for some doomed reason or another.

Another answer comes from the first: Reality sets the bounds of the possible, the terms of debate, the imaginative limits we need to work under. Thus for politics, that art of the possible, reality says that there are winners and losers, that on certain issues, maybe all issues, we’re dealing with a zero sum game; your health or theirs, your safety or theirs, your children or theirs. There’s only so much space, so many chairs, so much goodwill to go around. Everybody’s hands are tied, no one is ever really responsible.

I’ll admit, in this second sense, I find I’m tired of reality, a shifting and twisting declaration of what cannot be argued with or challenged that comes down to things are as good as they can be, they stand to get worse if you agitate about that fact too much, and perceived reality is the only reality worth discussing (if you feel your hands are tied, does it matter whether or not they are?). Leibniz proposes in his Theodicy that the best of all possible worlds requires some of us to do evil, to fail, and to struggle. In the grandest understanding of space and time, if all could be encompassed and understood, that might be true enough. Politically, however, it’s a little much to swallow. Continue reading

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The Other Neoliberals

Charles Peters, founder and president of Understanding Government, speaking at the presentation of the Prize for Preventive Journalism, September 30, 2008. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Charles Peters, founding editor of Washington Monthly and president of Understanding Government, speaking at the presentation of the Prize for Preventive Journalism, September 30, 2008. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The University of Chicago historian William Sewell once observed that uses of the term “structure” in academic discourse far exceeded any attempts to define it. These days, it seems the same is true of neoliberalism.

For Norwegian political scientists Dag Einar Thorsen and Amund Lie, for example, neoliberalism is the notion that “the only legitimate purpose of the state is to safeguard individual, especially commercial, liberty, as well as strong private property rights,” but they also acknowledge that neoliberalism, as they see is, is only “loosely demarcated.” To political theorist Wendy Brown, it is “a governing rationality through which everything is ‘economized,’” “every entity (whether public or private, whether person, business or state) is governed as a firm,” and which “casts people as human capital who must constantly tend to their own present and future value.”

While there might be slight disagreements about what, exactly, the concept entails, the voluminous commentary implies a rough consensus that it involves heavy doses of deregulation, free trade, and privatization. Within the academy, particularly among members of the post-Marxist Left, the term has come to serve as the primary explanation for what is wrong with today’s global political economy. From Milton Friedman and the Chicago school of economics to Margaret Thatcher to Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton to—well, name just about any recent political leader apart from Raul Castro—it would seem that a global governing cabal is responsible for the neoliberal order that is ineluctably pauperizing all but an ever-narrowing elite in our precarious winner-take-all economy. Neoliberalism spans the oceans, from the United States and Australia to Chile and Egypt, and its influence is said to be overwhelming. For City University of New York anthropologist David Harvey, “neoliberalism has become a hegemonic discourse with pervasive effects on ways of thought and political-economic practices to the point where it is now part of the commonsense way we interpret, live in, and understand the world.”

It would seem, then, that journalist Randall Rothenberg’s 1984 assertion that “the future belongs to the neoliberals” was quite prescient. But the neoliberalism that Rothenberg had in mind was something slightly different, a related but distinct concept—and one that been has largely been lost in the current academic discourse of neoliberalism. In its heyday in the 1980s, this “other neoliberalism” was associated not with Reagan but with a subset of his Democratic political rivals. Its political and intellectual leader was Gary Hart, a senator from Colorado, with other prominent figures including Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas, Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt, and journalists like Charles Peters of The Washington Monthly. In political terms, these other neoliberals argued for revisiting and modifying some of the ideological and methodological bases of postwar American liberalism—namely the use of federal government programs to assist in bringing about a more equitable distribution of wealth—while stopping well short of the free-market fervor advocated by the likes of Reagan and Thatcher. In this sense, it would be tempting to cast the other neoliberals as little more than watered-down versions of the “normal neoliberals.” Continue reading

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From the Archives: “Public Health, Public Enemy?”

A well-to-do mother resistant to her daughter's doctor using a vaccine from their neighbour's child; illustrating the narrow-mindedness of the petty provincial middle classes. Wood engraving by G. Du Maurier, 1872. Wikimedia Commons.

A well-to-do mother resistant to her daughter’s doctor using a vaccine from their neighbour’s child; illustrating the narrow-mindedness of the petty provincial middle classes. Wood engraving by G. Du Maurier, 1872. Wikimedia Commons.

In our Spring 2014 issue, the philosopher Donna Dickenson discussed the rise of personalized medicine in her essay, “In Me We Trust: Public Health, Personalized Medicine, and the Common Good.” Dickenson’s essay considered topics outside of the antivaccination movement, but we’ve excerpted her comments on it here in light of the recent outbreak of measles at Disneyland and the subsequent discussion in the media. You can read the whole article—including her wider analysis of personalized medicine—here.

Consider the antivaccine movement, which is of even greater importance to public health than hostility to communal blood banking. The first and only contagious disease to have been completely eradicated, smallpox, was defeated through vaccination. But as medical historian Arthur Allen notes in Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine’s Greatest Lifesaver (2007), “While vaccination seems to be more efficient and safe than ever before, public ambivalence about the practice has rarely been higher.” A growing body of public opinion appears to view public health programs as no less threatening—and possibly even more so—than the diseases they are meant to protect us from.

It is not so difficult to understand why many people view those diseases as less of a threat than they used to be. In the nineteenth century, all social classes were more or less equally vulnerable to epidemics of maladies such as cholera, smallpox, and typhus. Perhaps those who had their own wells, provided they were clean, were somewhat protected against cholera arising from contamination of the public water supply, but that would mainly apply in rural areas. Whether rich or poor, city dwellers were all at risk. Infectious disease was no great respecter of social hierarchy.

But the very success of public health programs against the mass contagious diseases of the past, at least in better-off parts of the world, now leaves cancer and heart disease as the leading causes of mortality. For example, statistics for the United Kingdom in 1912 listed bronchitis, tuberculosis, pneumonia, and measles among the top ten killers, whereas pneumonia remained the only infectious disease among the ten leading causes of death in 2012. Ischemic heart disease and lung cancer occupied the first two slots in the 2012 figures. With the exception of a few tumors to which there is a viral link (such as Kaposi’s sarcoma, a tumor caused by human herpesvirus 8), heart disease and cancer strike one individual at a time, despite loose talk about “the cancer epidemic.” We die at an older age, but we increasingly die of individualized illnesses. Those are the ones many of us fear most.

Yet that doesn’t entirely explain why so many of us not only seem complacent about infectious disease but fearful of one of the most important mechanisms for preventing it. If anything has reached epidemic proportions, it is the distrust of government vaccine programs. Again, though one might get a different impression from high-profile campaigns in the United States against the vaccines for measles, mumps, and rubella, including appearances on The Oprah Show by prominent vaccination opponents, this sense of beleaguered hostility is not just an American phenomenon. A commenter on a Daily Mail newspaper article about a supposed link between the “swine flu” jab and a “killer nerve disease” wrote,

I find it very interesting that the vaccine does the opposite of what it’s supposed to do. Is anyone open to the thought that this is intentional? That the people in power are using this as a means for population control? And the fact that governments are in the process of making the vaccine MANDATORY?

Continue reading

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