“Self determination: the choice to be whatcha want to be. And I wanted to be… rich!”
Having ended the previous post on the effectiveness of satire, it occurred to me that none has been more brutally cuttingly of the political right than the 1992 mockumentary Bob Roberts, the story the ‘anti-Bob Dylan‘ folksinger/ Wall Street trader running for the US Senate in Pennsylvania. Roberts effectively lampoons both political slickness in modern election campaigning and the corrupt American relationship between free market institutions, social conservatism, and intelligence operations in the wake of the Iran-Contra Affair. Though an exceptional example, it reminds me of the thread that binds these three seemingly contradictory forces of the right: economic choice as both the ultimate freedom and an effective tool for social coercion, or what I call the Manny State.
Since the 1970’s and 80’s, the mainstream right has successfully blended free market capitalism and social conservatism that now dominates Western political and economic institutional thinking. The rallying cry has been for a minimally regulated free market and the preservation of ‘social order’.
The basis of this approach relies on competing left-right interpretations of freedom. The right emphasises negative liberty, or the freedom to do: speech, movement, ownership of private property. The left places more emphasis on positive liberty, or rights for opportunities such as housing, education, and healthcare.
For the right, the exchange between consumer and producer is an ultimate expression of freedom. With all individual actions within the marketplace, all public decisions become consumer ones – whether purchasing a TV, ethical ones such environmentally friendly lightbulbs or shower heads, choosing a party to vote for, or how to discipline your children. A commercial enterprise also becomes an individual, so is free to make decisions and use resources with minimal restriction – evident in the US Supreme Court case Citizens United v Federal Election Commission in 2010 that ended limits on corporate political donations as an individual right. In their critique of Pope Francis and the Catholic pronouncement against free market capitalism, the Economist defends market society, arguing that “Markets should create possibilities, within which moral choices can be made, not iron certainties” – or that moral choices are market ones. Even collective consumer action is being challenged. The recent Australian Government proposal to ban consumer boycotts even attempts to redefine consumer social or environmental intervention as a barrier between individual consumer and producer exchange.
Social conservatism, when allied with free market thinking, preserves traditional family roles that were influenced by Industrial Revolution capitalism. Women provided unpaid labour such as child rearing, housework, and care for sick relatives – which underpinned the sole breadwinning male. Gays, lesbians, and transgendered defied traditional reproductive roles (hence the evolution of homosexuality from sin to mental illness during the 19th century/ Industrial Revolution). This similarly applies to welfare. Excessive government monitoring of welfare payments to the unemployed, solo parents, and those with disabilities divides society between two camps: the idle who defy traditional economic roles and the taxpayer with oversight akin to a 12 month consumer warranty. The replacement of universal welfare, health, and education with often less spending on more targeted assistance reinforces a perception that a person’s position is based on individual choices alone and possibly fosters resentment towards those who receive forms of assistance that others are not. Similarly, the correlation between higher imprisonment rates and the increase in poverty and inequality in countries that have adopted both free market policies and usually consequent law and order policies effectively denies the negative social consequences of society where economic freedom of choice is paramount.
There is an attempt to extend this concept of economic freedom to a globalised world through intelligence sharing and multilateral trade agreements. States have historically used coercion to open markets rather than extend democracy. Examples of this are explored in-depth by British filmmaker Adam Curtis in his documentary ‘The Trap’. These include Reagan’s support for Contra rebels in Nicaragua through arms deals with Iran in the 1980’s, deregulation and privatisation in Russia in the early 1990s, and invasion and use of unsuccessful free market economic policies in Iraq in 2003. Recent revelations of cooperation between the Five Eyes, increased judicial power these intelligence agencies to obtain and share personal information of individuals, cooperation between agencies and search engines and social media sites, and allegations of spying on foreign rival corporates raises the questionable relationship between state and private sector to potentially violate personal consumer privacy with minimal oversight.
Also indicative is the movement towards regional trade agreements such as the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which go beyond past efforts at tariff and subsidy reductions towards creating narrow definitions of competition that reject the role of state intervention for ethical reasons – including environment concerns, bulk pharmaceutical purchases by state authorities, and single payer healthcare. This concept is broadly accepted by mainstream left politicians as enforcers of these agreements when in power. Noted globalisation academic Jagdish Bhagwati claims that the decline of more accountable appeals approaches by states through the WTO in favour of regional agreements and mechanisms influenced by corporate lobbyists undermines national sovereignty. This is especially relevant with TPP negotiations and proposal for corporates rather than singular sovereign states to challenge national regulations in court – similar to NAFTA.
Despite popular belief in a domineering, left-wing nanny state, both mainstream left and right institutions, thinkers, and politicians use different conceptual approaches to freedom that often overreach. The nanny approach is well-meaning but is often unwilling to go challenge the roots of injustice, maintains the fundamentals of a free market society, and often relies on consumer choice as a solution. The manny approach favours an idea of freedom, but one so narrow that it must depend on subtle or overt coercion to maintain itself – whether ideological rejection of economic intervention or the resultant possibility of manipulation of prices, legislation, or labour standards by individual companies, monopoly or cartel networks, lobbyists, and traditional cultural institutions. Both are ill-suited to serving the complex nature of human relationships and our relationships with and between institutions.