Is This the Best of All Possible Worlds?

If you adopt the framework of your adversaries to begin with, you have already conceded the battle to them.

By Dennis Loo

As I read this morning that stock markets around the world were shuddering and tumbling as governments around the world scurry about like rats in an attempt to restore confidence and prevent even worse from happening, I found myself wondering aloud: if capitalism is so wondrous, then how come it is wracked by crisis so often? If its greatest rival, communism, is long gone, and it has had no major economic or political rivals for decades, then why is everything so awful and worrisome for the vast majority of the world’s people? Why is the planet in danger of ruination from global warming and mass extinction of species?

If triumph for capitalism and the U.S. way of life looks like all of what we see happening around us, then what must defeat look like?

If you want to understand why what is is, then you have to get to the heart of it. You can’t just say, “I want to go there and let’s move in that direction.” You have to develop a deep understanding of why things are the way that they are first and what’s keeping you and everyone else stuck where we collectively are. This means examining theory and looking at the foundations of processes and systems.

As the economist John Maynard Keynes once said, “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.” (The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, New York: Prometheus Books, 1997, p. 328.)

One of the foundational assumptions of capitalism is that greed is good and that individual striving is thwarted by guarantees for jobs and income. Last week, for example, Matt Damon responded testily and correctly to a libertarian radio station reporter’s criticism of teacher tenure with this: “A teacher wants to teach, Why else would you take a sh- -ty salary and really long hours and do that job unless you really loved to do it?"

Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and the rest of the right-wing media pilloried Damon for this, claiming in essence that job insecurity is the only thing that motivates people to work hard.

It’s interesting that neoliberals think that the greatest idea they’ve ever heard was that everyone is driven by material incentives. It’s funny for one thing since they make such a fetish of claiming that everyone is an individual and everyone’s got their own individual ideas that make them so clearly individuals. Yet they contradict themselves by insisting that everyone everywhere and for all time has been identical in that everyone is motivated by material incentives. If everyone was so individual and different, then wouldn’t you have to argue that what motivates people is equally diverse? If not, then isn’t everyone then just the same and not such individuals?

One of the themes in my new book Globalization and the Demolition of Society is that if we are to change the perilous and destructive direction that the neoliberals are taking the entire world down, then we have to deeply understand their worldview, their theory, and replace their theory with something else that actually reflects the real world and that embodies values that will sustain the planet rather than destroy it.

One of the passages where I take this on follows. If you adopt the framework of your adversaries to begin with, you have already conceded the battle to them (e.g., as Obama did in the debt “debate” and has done on “national security,” “the war on terror,” a woman’s right to choose, and almost everything else). In the passages that follow, I refer to functionalist theory. I do so because functionalist theory forms a large part of the premises for the neoliberal philosophy. This is from Chapter Seven of my book.

“Functionalist theory assumes that societies require a hierarchy for their overall welfare. The people who occupy leading and disproportionately-rewarded positions do so because they perform exceptionally important functions and they are particularly worthy due to their skills; to get them to fill these crucial posts they must be disproportionately rewarded; others who are less talented cannot fill the elites’ shoes and therefore occupy the less well-rewarded positions; if people are doing what they are most suited for, then the whole society benefits.

“This argument seems plausible, but functionalists conflate several different factors in justifying social inequality. To begin with, they equate incentive with material rewards. While people obviously differ in their abilities, the people who assume leadership posts do not necessarily have to be materially rewarded more substantially for what they do. Teachers, for example, carry out exceedingly important tasks for a society, as do parents, yet they are not well compensated. They do what they do for reasons other than the material rewards. The American dictum that implicitly celebrates moneymaking, 'Those who can, do, those who can’t, teach, and those who can’t teach, teach teachers,' overlooks the fact that if everyone avoided teaching because they were all so good at other jobs, there would be no one to teach the young and the untrained. Would all children and teens be autodidacts then? Is not outstanding teaching one of the critical skills in any society at any time in human history? How does the accumulated knowledge and experience over millennia get passed along otherwise? Is everyone who home schools their children the best teacher for all subjects? Where do these home school parents get the materials such as books for their children to read if not from people who are writing books in order to teach?

“While everyone needs to be motivated to work and to excel, the nature of the reward does not necessarily have to be material. A society that equates material rewards with success and that relies upon material success to motivate people is also saying—and must say—that success equals having things that others do not have. This turns society into a zero sum game of winners and losers and structurally encourages a sense of entitlement among the ‘winners’ that they are better than the ‘losers’ and that they merit goodies and respect that should not be granted to the less deserving hoi polloi. Is this the meaning of a good society: the leaders think of themselves as so much better than everyone else? Because there is only a finite amount of monetary and material incentives to go around, more for a few people means less for most others. Moreover, if the incentive must always be external to the job or activity itself, then something is wrong with the work or activity; what makes it not rewarding intrinsically? Perhaps the activity needs to be changed so that those who do it gain satisfaction from the act of doing it. Not all jobs are amenable to that change, which is why the less desirable activities such as cleaning up need to be shared.

“Material rewards as the incentive means that social solidarity, what functionalists value more than anything else, is actually undermined by the structure’s inherent logic that people participate in a zero sum game in which many must be deprived so that a few may benefit a great deal. Rewarding people with non-material incentives, on the other hand, does not function as a zero sum game if what is being honored is cooperation and dedication to the group. Physicians in the US customarily make much more than the average worker. People will commonly cite doctors’ expertise and the importance of what they do as the reason for this inequity. In countries outside of the US, physicians perform equally important work for their patients but are not paid nearly as much. Is this because people in the US need more incentive to become physicians? Is it because physicians outside of the US are not valued as much as within the US?

“If we stopped paying brain surgeons as much as they now earn, would that mean that everyone now performing brain surgery would put down their scalpels and say: ‘Well, I’m not doing this any more.’ Would the people who are paid well now and/or honored for their work refuse to do their jobs if they were paid less? If outlandish salaries were no longer paid to TV network anchors (such as the $20 million per year that CBS pays Katie Couric) and if CBS, for example, paid their anchorperson, say $200,000 per year, would this mean that they would not be able to find a good person to anchor their nightly news broadcast? I should imagine that there are some people for whom the reward of fame, exposure, influence or service to the society would mean that they would be willing to do the job for a relative pittance in dollars. Not that CBS would have to do this, but the point here is obvious. These jobs would continue to be done because the monetary compensation is not the only reason why people do such jobs.” (Pp. 313-315)