Our conventional political wisdom, here in the United States, tends to see utopians as lefty egalitarians of one sort or another, clueless reformers and revolutionaries who just don’t understand how the “real world” operates. But today’s most clueless utopians, suggest recent reflections from political economist Abby Innes, actually hail from the right end of our political spectrum. These utopians see the marketplace as humanity’s only “sphere of true freedom” and government as the most direct threat to that freedom, an outlook on the world that most typically goes by the label of “neoliberalism.”
This “neoliberal” tag, for most Americans, could hardly be more confusing. “Neoliberals” have next to nothing in common with the New Deal and Great Society “liberals” of the mid-20th century, reformers who believed that government has an essential role to play in the economy, a responsibility to watch over and protect the public interest on everything from wages, hours, and working conditions to corporate advertising and mergers.
Neoliberals believe the exact opposite. They see corporate execs, notes Innes, an analyst at the London School of Economics, as “honorable wealth builders for the nation” whose “self-regulation” will always be “superior to state action.” By minimizing that state action, neoliberals hold, societies can match up supply and demand “with perfect, frictionless efficiency.” In this “perfect, frictionless” world, “omniscient shareholders” will “automatically” recycle profits into investments that benefit us all.
This ecstatic embrace of the market has roots that go back to the early 1800s, roots that withered substantially in the mid-20th century. Market worship, as the influential economic historian Karl Polanyi put it in 1944, amounted to “a doctrinaire delusion.” But this delusion would come back strong in the 20th century’s last quarter, on both sides of the Atlantic. With Margaret Thatcher’s UK election in 1979 and Ronald Reagan’s electoral triumph in 1980, neoliberalism’s basic tenets would become the standard gameplan that American presidents – of both parties — preached and practiced.
Today, four decades later, we all live with the sobering result. Our United States has turned into what Innes calls a “late-stage materialist utopia,” a heaven for the corporate chiefs who run our economy and corrupt our politics, a deeply unequal hell for millions of households struggling to gain — or maintain — anything close to middle-class status.
In our late-stage materialist utopia, the rich and the corporations they run have not shrunk government. They’ve captured it. And with this capture, political parties themselves risk becoming, notes Innes, “targets for those who choose politics for primarily private gain.” If these self-interested souls rise to the political summit, political parties then become little more than “corporate brokers who oversee the continuous distribution of public revenue and rents into private hands.”
“A populist, authoritarian politics,” observes Innes, “becomes the effective way to corner this market.”
We are left beholding a utopia for the wealthy. A public sector ever more corrupt, a private sector ever more rapacious, squeezing those of low and modest income at every opportunity and “reinvesting” the resulting profits in ever greater payouts to shareholders and executives.
Can we escape this “late-stage materialist utopia”? We certainly can, but only if we focus our political energies on leveling down the spectacularly intense concentration of wealth and power that undergirds our contemporary political paralysis, economic precarities, and hateful intercultural confrontations.
Spectacularly intense? How else can we describe the concentration of wealth we’ve experienced over the past four decades. Ten American deep pockets, the Bloomberg Billionaires Index informs us, ended 2021 with personal fortunes worth over $100 billion. Back in 1982, the year Forbes inaugurated its annual list of America’s 400 richest, the nation’s wealthiest individual held a mere $2 billion net worth, a fortune worth just $5.8 billion in today’s dollars.
That first Forbes 400 in 1982 listed just 13 U.S. billionaires, most of them connected to Big Oil, an industry busy profiteering off America’s most lucrative tax breaks. The combined total fortune of those 13 1982 billionaires: around $55 billion, in today’s dollars. As of this past fall, the United States boasted 745 billionaires, with a combined net worth over $5 trillion.
Can mere mortals ever seriously challenge a concentration of wealth this enormous? Sure. We Americans of modest means have done that challenging before — and had significant success.
In America’s original Gilded Age, the decades that bracketed the end of the 19th century, our super rich held fortunes that, in relative terms, towered over the nation just as fiercely as grand fortune does today. But decades of egalitarian struggle would shear those grand Gilded Age fortunes down to a fraction of their peak value, and, in the 1950s, the United States would go on to give birth to a marvel never before seen anywhere in the world: a mass middle class.
Maybe some day we’ll come to see 2021 as the modern-day peak of grand private fortune in the United States. Maybe future historians — if we do our part in the year ahead — will point to 2022 as the year that peak began to pass.
Sam Pizzigati co-edits Inequality.org. His latest books include The Case for a Maximum Wage and The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970. Follow him at @Too_Much_Online.
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