Empathocracy: A 2017 Alternative to Neoliberalism

Well, the general consensus is that 2016 was a prick of a year and it’s hard to disagree: carnage in Syria, trucks careening into crowds, a legion of baby boomers dying, an alarming shift to the far right, and of course Russia’s ascendancy

You can almost hear Vladimir Putin’s laugh from here. I’ve never heard it but I’m guessing it’s tyrannical, like the sound a hyena makes post coitus. Oh, I imagine he and his Kremlin cronies must have spent the year cackling, whether they were bombing Aleppo to kingdom come (the reason is still not clear, although the ensuing refugee crisis certainly helped destabilize Europe) or watching as their shadow blotted the European landscape.

A weakened, post-Brexit Europe – caught between fragmenting ideals of social welfare, immigration and liberal democracy – was the perfect Christmas present for Putin, far greater than anything rubles could buy. Then, to top it off, like a scantily clad Marilyn Monroe emerging from a massive cake, he received (and perhaps aided in) another gift in the form of he-who-must-not-be-named, the racist, sexist, xenophobic, real-estate-debt-expert president elect who gets all giddy-13-year-old-schoolgirl over Putin.

(My refusal to write his name is an attempted ‘fuck you’ to mass media – you know who you are – for giving validity and credibility to his joke of a campaign…you kept on giving and giving and giving, you selfless bastards.)

For these reasons, the current climate feels singed with uncertainty and tumult. Yet, from the fire, we can find solace in the ashes. We can emerge from the murky waters of neoliberalism. To do so, we need a new, inclusive, collectivist belief system that strikes a chord with young and old alike, that transcends borders and religions and re-markets a few post-war socially democratic principles.

1. Social democracy / setting the scene / shift to current system

“There was much in it I didn’t understand, in some ways I didn’t even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.”

– George Orwell

camille-pissarro-painter-europe-fields

Thaw, Pontoise by Camille Pissarro (1872). Picture: Camille Pissarro

In the 1930s, the oft-quoted British economist John Maynard Keynes wrote that uncertainty was a corrosive force and argued in favour of social democracy, a social security state based on governments spending big to keep unemployment low and the equality gap in check.

A decade later, as Nazi and Ally blood seeped into every sinew of the region, European nations chose to enact these Keynesian policies. They allocated huge budgets to recovery and rebuilding and subsequently the equality gap remained low, employment rates improved and communities grew accustomed to universal healthcare, educations and unions. These are broad brushstrokes, but for the most part Europe recovered, and gradually the horrors faded.

While Europe concentrated on its collectivist recovery, America played sheriff on the world stage. Unlike Europe, war remained an option for Washington, thanks in part to fighting wars offshore and thereby limiting civilian casualties; in the 20th century, the US incurred very few civilian deaths compared to countries like the USSR or China, which lost over 15 million each. Hence, it’s little wonder the US remains a military society, fixated on national defense spending and an idolization of violence and guns.

Economically, the US favoured a more capitalist democracy, a planned economy run by business where wages and prices were driven down while profits kept rising, where competition and innovation generated opportunities and wealth for a select few but destroyed jobs, bankrupted firms and impoverished communities in the process. At the same time, the baby boomer generation on both sides of the Atlantic began to have greater disposable income, which resulted in a progressive era of united mass action. But it also spawned the desires of the individual, shifting the rhetoric from ‘how can we better society’ towards ‘how can I get ahead’.

2. Neoliberalism / a bit about trains / greed is not good

“There are no conditions in life to which a man cannot get accustomed, especially if he sees them accepted by everyone around him.”

– Leo Tolstoy

pyramid-of-skulls-paul-cezanne-1901

Paul Cezanne’s Pyramid of Skulls (1901). Picture: Paul-Cezanne

As social democracy eroded, a more nimble, more attractive model rose as its usurper, a temptress renowned for self-absorption, narcissism and fatal consequences in the long run. They call her Neoliberalism but her street name is Inequality (supposedly because she comes at will, and often).

With social democracy on the fritz, neoliberalism took the world by storm. It created an ideology of private corporations governing governments and individualism taking precedence over collectivism. Governments like the Thatcher-Raegan axis of evil enacted tax and employment reforms, bank deregulations, rampant mergers and acquisitions, and privatization of industries.

On paper, neoliberal policies sound attractive. Take the privatization of an expensive public service. Government makes money off the sale, the service improves and investors profit. It makes sense, right? But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Underneath lie titanic questions.

To paraphrase the fabulous Tony Judt in his posthumous book When the Facts Change, most of these services were inefficient and making a loss, meaning private companies purchased public assets at discounted rates. Under such conditions, the private sector reaps any profits, but who gets lumped with the losses? That’s right, the state, otherwise known as you and I.

Under Thatcher, UK public assets were sold off at deliberately low prices, which resulted in a net transfer of £14b from the taxpaying public to stockholders, plus £3b(!) in bank transaction fees. That’s £17b (the GDP of Paraguay) going from the state into the private sector. Not only is this a grievously inefficient use of public resources but private investors also had assurances they’d be protected; the state eliminated the risk, leaving private companies with surefire bets.

Judt uses trains as an example. He admits that station cafes and newsstands are better as private entities but that trains are a social service. A private company can conduct express routes between popular destinations and charge what they want but they neglect, say, the poor pensioners in remote villages. Someone still has to provide this loss-generating service. The result is short-term economic gain offset by long-term damage to our community. Only collectivity can pay the cost of running such services. When the UK privatized railways, it was investing just £9 per head while France was contributing £21, Italy £33. This demonstrates how others saw trains as a social provision and kept routes to remote regions to help sustain local economies.

And this is just one example. The overarching point is not whether the private sector can conduct operations more cheaply or efficiently, but what dangers come from diminishing the value of the state, something vital we share with our fellow citizens. If Thatcher is right that ‘there is no such thing as society, just men and women’, what will bind us together?

Throw these issues into the cauldron and witness a hodge podge of shit, sombre reading and a skyrocketing population left to feed on scraps rise to the surface. It’s no coincidence that inequality and polarization grow more prevalent each year. Nor that crime, injustice and the disparity between first and third world nations keep rising. That’s what happens when a few gain a lot while the rest gain much less, if at all.

What this means is that, while you’re busy fighting to get your child into the right school or waiting in line to see a doctor, big wigs in Brioni suits gaze out from their towers and bet each other over how long it’ll take you to miss your mortgage payment.

What this means is that guards and cameras appear everywhere, science and creativity are smothered and all the while we’re left to fill out more forms. Wasn’t the whole point of technology to make processes more efficient? Yet forms keep getting longer. Admin seems more time-consuming now than when an office full of temps clacked away on their typewriters and sent a ream of paper cannoning up a glass tube.

What this means is our acceptance that ATMs are foolproof but voting machines, perhaps the only democratic instrument we have left, are wholly inaccurate; this is surely one of the most transparent examples of finance overtaking politics.

What this means is private prison companies insidiously profiting off incarceration rates, literally feeding off the poor’s perpetual battle to feed their families and keep a roof over their heads. After all, it’s much easier to lock up a young black weed dealer than a white-collar investment banker guilty of fraud. Sometimes they even collude with judicial and enforcement agencies to favour their prisons or to dish out stiffer punishments. As they say, you can put lipstick on a pig but it’s still a pig. And our justice systems are flat-out racist, or at best classist.

What this means is a rampant proliferation of private contractors and middlemen, for governments to farm out important work on the basis that it’s cheaper. As a result we lose reciprocal services (transport, mail etc) and the state simply becomes a shell hijacked and controlled by the private sector for competitive advantage.

What this means is that globalization and capitalism bring countries closer together but also amplify inequality and economic instability, which leads to a dissociation and devaluation of humans. If you can afford it, go buy a womb or a kidney from a poor soul in a third world country, where humans are seen as mere commodities. Or just pick up a picket sign and join the anti-immigrant movements gaining traction.

What this means is a burgeoning IT industry that makes it easier than ever for the wealthy to make money. According to David Graeber in The Utopia of Rules, new technology: creates more debt by giving employers the ability to create ‘flexible’ hours, destroys job security, generates a massive increase in working hours and destroys union movements. Meanwhile, despite major funding, we still can’t solve the common cold.

What this means is a world where WalMart’s wealth ($90b) is now more than 40% of the US population and where the world’s richest eight people have the same wealth as the poorest 50%! And this trend is worsening…

3. Trend reversal / re-energize  / epoch of empathocracy

“Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future,

And time future contained in time past.”

– T.S. Eliot

edward-hopper-automat

Edward Hopper’s Automat (1927). Picture: Edward Hopper

In freeing ourselves from the widespread notion that the state knows best, we’ve ended up on the other end of the spectrum. But a healthy democracy depends on a regulatory state in a world increasingly polarized. No individuals can survive long without shared purpose and common institutions, yet this is exactly what politics dominated by financiers entails.

Profound writer George Monbiot explains that today’s society is suffering an ‘age of loneliness’ because, “the war of every man against every man – competition and individualism – is the religion of our time.” He quotes a recent study, which revealed that 40% of children chose wealth and fame as their sole ambition, before concluding: “If we are to break this cycle and come together once more, we must confront the world-eating, flesh-eating system into which we have been forced.”

This problem lies as much in policy as language; neoliberalism has changed our very mindset. We no longer see a proposal as good or bad but through lenses of efficiency, productivity, GDP benefitting, growth contributions…and by restricting ourselves to profit and loss criteria, we’ve shifted away from instinctive human conditions.

It’s either very troubling or comforting to know that Adam Smith foresaw all this in the 18th Century. He predicted the admiration of wealth, the despising of poverty and a commercial society where the difference between freedom and the freedom to make money has never felt so meaningless, where our liberty is merely a necessary framework for financial operations:

“This disposition to admire, almost worship the rich and powerful, and to despise, or at least neglect the poor is the great most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.”

He claimed morality should be the driver for economic conversation and political decisions, which is exactly what we need to reclaim in order to break free from the shackles of the Age of Loneliness and to enact collective policies that reverse the growing equality gap.

We must remind ourselves of the achievements of the 20th century, along with the consequences of our heedless rush to dismantle them. We need some of the fundamental principles of social democracy to reverse these selfish desires and create inclusive harmony. But social democracy needs a modern rethink and some much-needed PR. At present it has little distinctive to offer. It requires a new brand and a game plan we can rally behind.

For now, for want of a better alternative, let’s call it Empathocracy.

Step 1: Get active

This doesn’t require much explanation. It’s not radical. But for Empathocracy to succeed, for it to even stand half a chance of getting off the ground, an active, sustained groundswell is needed.

Obama, echoing Saul Alinksy and other community organizers, spoke of this need to strive together to achieve a common good in his recent farewell speech (whatever your views on the man, he sure can deliver a speech):

“We weaken democracy when we write off the whole system as inevitably corrupt. Instead of retreating into our own bubbles and do nothing, all of us, regardless of party, should be throwing ourselves into the task of rebuilding our democratic institutions…

If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing. If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures and run for office yourself. Show up. Dive in. Stay at it.”

Step 2: Reinvigorate government

An important step in getting active is to bring back a strong, reenergized government. By eviscerating the state’s responsibilities, we’ve diminished its public standing and are left with ‘gated communities’, wholly independent of collectivism. The state must once again sell itself as an incarceration of collective interests, purposes and goods. Being for the people, it must fight for the institution of welfare as a right, its provision a social duty. All the while, it must know its limitations and not force doctrines down our throats.

The current lack of political talent, charisma and gravitas helps breed our climate of passivity and distrust, which in turn leads to low voting numbers and a continuation of the status quo. We must entice the strongest crop of graduates back into politics instead of snazzy consulting agencies, law firms and investment banks, who snap them up like TVs on Boxing Day. The pool of politically aware youth gets culled further by single cause issues (Greenpeace, Peace Corp etc.) and their heartfelt desire to enact change. This cycle must be broken.

Step 3: Create simple policies

What if we began by quantifying humiliation as a cost and wellbeing as a benefit? We might find the provision of social services cost-effective in reaching common objectives. From this rationale, we begin to ask important questions such as: What cost do we put on depriving people access to basic services? How much are we willing to pay for a good, moral society? What are the indecencies of an unrestricted market? And why do they offend our sense of justice? What damage will we do to future generations if we do nothing to curb our reliance on fossil fuels and unsustainable practices like intense farming?

Using empathy as the primary motivator, Empathocracy’s first port-of-call would involve a Marshall Plan type shift from our overspending on defense. It would also entail a real evolution of tax because tax fairness, financial reform and strengthening the ombudsman and financial protection agencies are issues that need to be solved.

Implementing a Thomas Piketty progressive wealth tax would reject the current cognitive dissonance from those who want things to be better but cry foul whenever higher taxes and welfare reforms are proposed. How about a Milton Friedman flat tax, which would at least open transparency and close some of the current loopholes. Or a Tobin style tax on  exchange rate transactions. Changes like these then generate funds to experiment with alternative economic models, like a guaranteed universal wage for everyone, a la Utrecht, the largest city in the Netherlands.

With effective reforms, Empathocracy’s greatest legacy would be a loan to our successors, to be distributed towards public infrastructure, mass transit, renewable energy, education, food sustainability and tackling this century’s greatest battle: the climate.

Step 4: Stay active

Whatever the chosen policies, transparency and ethics must be at its core. This is a given. And the key to this is communication. None of these policies are new. Far greater minds than mine have thought them up. Some of them are centuries old (Thomas Paine advocated for a guaranteed universal income in 1797). But it’s about translating them into language, packages and achievable targets.

To do so, sustained action is necessary, not just an Arab Spring nor a temporary occupation of Wall Street, but a concerted effort that rises from the ground like a leviathan. Yes, it will be a slog. We may end up more Sisyphus than Dionysus. But which of these two great Greek figures was happier?

With a government and policies we can believe in, today’s mess can be rectified. Hopeful overtures do exist. There’s a legion of conscientious, switched-on people out there, and the rise of sentient figures like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn shows a level of discord. We just need to band together. We need to believe we can change, and believe we can enact change too.

Disharmony, greed and dehumanization will be the epitaph of neoliberalism. But the christening of the next political ideology has yet to be determined, and I am afraid, not in the uncertainty we face but in the crystalline power we have always possessed.

Writing about the pitfalls of neoliberalism left me with a bunch of leftover material about social media. Stay tuned for that. In the meantime, lighten your mood by checking out some fresh music or a cracking list of 2016 movies.

This article plundered some great sources, including but not limited to:

  • Saul Alinsky
  • Angela Davis
  • Tony Judt
  • David Graeber
  • Matt Taibbi 
  • George Monbiot
  • Naomi Klein
  • Thomas Piketty

Check them out.

rene-magritte-infinite-recognition-2

Inifinite Recognition by Rene Magritte (1963). Picture: Lee Cai Jun

2 Comments

  1. […] you liked this post, feel free to read a bit about the perils of neoliberalism, which the serious side of me recently wrote about. Happy listening and reading, […]

  2. […] Stay tuned for another update shortly. In the meantime, here’s the latest song list to listen to. And if you’re interested in world affairs, economics, neoliberalism and things like that, make sure you check out my long read on Empathocracy. […]

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