What is the function of government in a capitalist society? Naomi Klein has stated the neoliberal answer in clear terms: “governments exist to create the optimal conditions for private interests to maximize their profits and wealth….” [p. 80] The trickle down myth is then added to claim this is in the general interest of society because profits and economic growth benefits everyone.
With this agenda it should not be surprising to find widespread anti-government sentiment among the populace. Government is seen as bad and less government is better. It is precisely due to the anti-democratic view of neoliberal government that it and the political elite who champion neoliberalism lack legitimacy.
By contrast, in a genuine democracy, government is an instrument through which a community promotes the common good. One way it can do that is by making available those common resources that can support the human development of its members. Institutionally this takes the form of public goods or other types of commons.
The thrust of neoliberal ideology is to privatize everything, taking common resources (even those built at public expense) and commodifying them so as to be able to realize a profit from their use. This then leads to economic inequality. As Ronald Reagan famously said: “I always want America to be a country where someone can get rich.” [Note: ‘someone’, but not everyone.] The role of government is to facilitate private enrichment.
Neoliberalism is the default logic of governance in a capitalist society in the absence of social movements pressing for support of the interests of the popular classes. It takes such pressure to force ruling elites to moderate policies in their favor, if only to maintain social stability. This often results in the creation of public goods. But when popular pressure wanes, the capitalist state reverts to its neoliberal function, privatizing these public goods. Privatization of a public good breaks it away from the community and subjects it to the will of a private owner. No longer serving the interest of the community, it serves the interest of its owner.
It is that privatization that we are now called on to resist in the age of Trump. This Administration is imposing a veritable tsunami of privatizations, attempting to complete the destruction of the New Deal/Great Society programs that have been undermined bit by bit over the last 3 ½ decades. Now as we wake up to the clear and present threat to public goods that have sustained us, we can better appreciate their value to us. With this increased consciousness we may now be better able to press for an expansion of public goods.
A public good is a commons that is provided by government. There are other commons that are provided by communities. But it is the public ones that are now under attack due to the hostile corporate takeover of the government. There is now a concerted campaign to complete the privatization and commodification of education, health care, the internet, transportation infrastructure, public lands, prisons, security, even the military. As corporate capital is hungry for places to invest, it looks to these public goods as potential profit centers. Every area of social life is being subordinated to the logic of capitalism and its markets. This has the effect of fragmenting society and de-socializing individuals who are “freed” from social solidarities and thereby become vulnerable to unregulated corporate forces in the market.
As we resist this neoliberal offensive, we need to be clear about what we are for. What is our vision of an alternative? We need more than a program that is a laundry list of what we are defending. We need to connect the dots by showing how they fit together in a coherent vision of a better society. The Leap Manifesto links them with a value, the value of caretaking. A caring society is a compelling alternative to the lovelessness of the present neoliberal order. [p. 99] But I think we need to make the ethics of caring concrete by outlining how it can be institutionalized. We need to institutionalize it in an expansion of commons.
In fact, more than a utopian vision, the ethics of caring is the real basis of some exiting commons. A commons is a resource available to the members of a community (whether local or national) that is governed democratically by that community so as to better contribute to the human development of its members. Examples of such commons abound. They range from the public library and fire department, public schools and the internet, to the health care system and law enforcement/judicial system. These contribute to human flourishing and are common because they can better benefit all when shared rather than held as private property. Then, of course, there is that greatest commons of all – the planet. Now we are seeing what happens when a commons is not governed in the common good and private interests are allowed to ravage it.
Like all institutions, the commons educates us to a way of being. While a capitalist market educates us to a competitive individualism, a commons educates us to a nurturing community. And through the participation of the commoners in the governance of the commons, we are educated to democracy.
Now while existing commons are under threat of privatization and we are called on to defend them, we have an opportunity to call for their expansion. While neoliberals seek to strengthen the reign of private profits in our health care system, this is the time to demand health care as a right and call for its socialization as a public good. In this as in other areas, we need to boldly put forth the vision of expanded free access to common resources that enrich us all. A caring society requires social institutions that guarantee and protect the commons.
The neoliberal concept of the human being is what economists call “homo economicus.” Economic man is a purely self interested individual seeking his own economic advantage in the marketplace. He is shorn of any moral restraints, compassion for others, or sense of responsibility to the community or others. He is an amoral, asocial atom.
This homo economicus is usually understood to be an abstraction. It is recognized that in reality we are social beings, with meaningful relations with others and moral sentiments, living in communities. Nevertheless, as Naomi Klein points out, with Donald Trump we have a neoliberal man, a personification of homo economicus. He is a nearly pure product of neoliberal capitalism. In him we can see mirrored what neoliberalism is making us. It is from that that we recoil in horror. [pp. 10, 48, 140, 257-9]
That is why a genuinely human alternative vision to neoliberalism roots us in human collectivities, in communities. We are not only economic beings, we are also moral beings with a social identity. We care for others as well as for self. That is why we common together with others in a community to share resources that contribute to the fuller human development of all.
As we struggle to resist the neoliberal world, we come together to build vibrant, resilient communities. Ours is a vision of a society based on solidarity, of collective empowerment, of public institutions that nurture the fuller development of all humans. Ours is a struggle to reclaim a human world.