Our Current Climate

So here are some examples of what I find odious in the everyday mediascape.

Bruce Sterling links to a talk by noted futurologist Paul Saffo, in the course of which Saffo praises the government of Singapore as an exemplary sort of “democracy”; Saffo says (I paraphrase) that the social contract between the government and the people in Singapore is that the government promises not to be corrupt, to make the trains run on time, to foster a good business climate, etc., and the people in response promise not to rock the boat by opposing the government or making any sort of unseemly political and economic demands. Wonderful for capitalism and capitalists; not so wonderful if you are an underpaid guest worker in that good business climate.

Meanwhile, a New York Times article describes how Angela Merkel has high popularity ratings as Chancellor of Germany, precisely because she has dropped the Thatcherite threats on which she campaigned, and has instead refrained from dismantling the welfare state. The article bemoans the fact that Merkel hasn’t been able to pursue her reforms, because the German people are “more than content to let the state care for them, from kindergarten all the way to retirement,” because they “have not been trained for the last 20 or 30 years to take responsibility for their own lives.” As usual in neoliberal discourse, “responsibility” is a code word for leaving everyone who isn’t rich to suffer, and in fact blaming the victims for the very fact that they have been so left out in the cold. It’s the way that the supposedly “progressive” (i.e. anti-Bush, “blue state”) NY Times adopts this sort of neoliberal worldview as being a self-evident truth, not even worthy of debate, that so disgusts me.

Rant over; this blog will now return to its usual highminded programming.

5 Responses to “Our Current Climate”

  1. Steve, please expand on your implicit critique of “neliberal discourse”. I am honestly not sure I understand the motivation behind the critique. The first half of this post I get. Saffo is obviously celebrating a fascist fantasy that is modern singapore. But the second half I don’t get as much. What is the critique? Basically, that neoliberal worldviews don’t go far enough? They presume too much and therefore implicitly endorse a kind of hidden suffering?

    What is the alternative? I am not suggesting that neo liberalism is the “end of history” or anything, I guess I just yearn for positive critique. If such an oxymoron can exist. I feel like I am left wing as they come, but I have started to tire of the likes of Chomsky, etc because I never hear specific positive constructions. Always trenchant critique. And in a world where an avowed “marixist socialist” like Christopher Hitchens can go on tv and celebrate the war mongering of a mostly overt fascist administration, I suppose the old categories just don’t really apply anymore.

    But obviously the NY Times is an establishmentarian rag and so they are going to presume their ideology as “self-evident” no matter what they think. That is how hegemons operate. Should we be surprised? The only farce is when a right wing administration attacks the NY Times claiming that they are too “liberal”.

    Maybe I just suffer from the fact that I was born post Nixon. So neoliberalism is like the air, I don’t realize it is there until something replaces it like water.

  2. Gordon — think of it this way. Most societies, throughout human history, and even when they were politically and socially oppressive in all sorts of ways, have at least had some ethic of caring for the poor, sick, elderly, and unfortunate members of their communities. Western societies today are the richest societies in human history, and yet the ruling ethos of the last thirty years has been to cut off any such support, and instead, under the rubric of “personal responsibility”, to blame the victims of discrimination, accident, or misfortune for their own troubles. I think that this is barbaric and inhumane. Given the overall wealth of Western industrialized countries, the excuse that the society “cannot afford” this sort of assistance, because of the need to remain “competitive”, is simply a lie. It should not be a surprise that, in the few countries, like France and Germany, where some modicum of social assistance still exists (unlike the US and the UK, where this has already been destroyed), people are apt to resist its being taken away. To say that this is because the populace has not been “trained” to assume “responsibility” is both disingenuous and obscene.

  3. Most societies, throughout human history, and even when they were politically and socially oppressive in all sorts of ways, have at least had some ethic of caring for the poor, sick, elderly, and unfortunate members of their communities.

    I don’t disagree with the political sentiment. A social safety net is a hallmark of a morally advanced society. But it strikes me that the welfare state is a mostly modern 20th century invention. It seems hard to argue that things were that pleasant for the underclass in Dickens’ England, or Socrates’ Greek slave society (as just two examples). We don’t have debtor’s prisons, just revolving credit card debt and credit score point systems. Maybe it is worse, maybe not, but I think I would much rather live in today’s climate as a poor person. And believe me I grew up dirt poor, foodstamps, rural, and all. Of course any social safety net that we have today is really an outgrowth of hard fought policies of the progessive, new deal era in the first half of last century. And I certainly don’t disagree that this is under attack politically and economically.

    Personally, in America, I attribute this decline to the arrogance of LBJ and the Vietnam war. Even though he helped usher in the “great society” he was a janus headed war monger. And as a result the political liberal label was tarnished. And it is not that the steely hearted right wing presented any meaningful alternative to the war mongering. It just seems that the effect was a corrosive cynicism on the part of the left in this country. And am I not sure how to overcome that or if we have ever really recovered.

    Ironically we have a president today who remains a war monger and holds no pretention of a progressive domestic agenda. And you are certainly correct that is obscene.

    I just want to know how we get back on track. But I do get a sense that dramatic change is coming. Especially via healthcare. There is too much information out there and these know nothing elitists who think they are contributing to the larger dialog haven’t a clue what is coming. When I see these hacks in the mainstream media they strike me as scared dinosaurs. It really is remarkable how there is really “no there there”. Especially how it is such a marked contrast to all the blogs out there. But maybe is all for naught.

  4. pete says:

    [quote]
    I think I would much rather live in today’s climate as a poor person.
    [/quote]

    this is something that bothers me too whenever i try to formalise my anti neo-liberal feelings. i don’t doubt that the gap between rich and poor is wider than ever, and that the rhetoric of responsibility is contemptible, but regardless of all this, the above counter-argument still rings true, and is bound to be brought up by any neo-liberal/neo-conservative you try to argue with.

  5. Lem Pitkin says:

    Spent a week in Singapore a month ago and mostly shopped for books at Kinokuniya, the Japanese owned bookstore on Orchard Road. Nice selection. I bought Anti-Oedipus, The Fold and a new abridged edition of Decline of the West. Has there ever been an historian so inclined to the baroque as a point of departure? He certainly seems well acquainted with Leibniz and for that matter anyone else who ever wrote a book.

    You really don’t see much poverty in Singapore. When you try to tip your taxi driver he’ll hand it back as change. You have to make it clear you’ll be offended if he persists in refusing your munificence. Wasn’t Empire of the Sun set in Singapore? It’s such a contrast to what I see every day in Manila where the poverty obscures so much of that which has real value.

    The most interesting people I met in Singapore were a Polish couple, a Filipina married to a Pole whose parents grew up speaking German. Her English was much better than his, but he taught her all the Polish she knows. He understood me perfectly when I explained that my ancestors came to America from Cedynia. The Germans called it Zehden.

    I love to watch Deutsche Welle and listen when Angela Merkel makes televised speeches. I’ve never heard German spoken with such a musical inflection. I think that’s the secret to her success there. When she speaks, the Germans hear how their language was meant to sound.

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