For about 35 to 40 years depending on where you live we have been ruled by a pervasive political and economic system. This system is called neoliberalism, but to many this is considered the only viable economic option. So lets get a working definition from one of the foremost academics on this topic. David Harvey suggests; “neoliberalism is a political project carried out by the corporate capitalist class, as they felt intensely threatened both politically and economically towards the end of the 1960’s into the 1970’s. They desperately wanted to launch a political project that would curb the power of labour’.
Much of the general public are totally unaware of, or unable to explain what neoliberalism is, it can appear as some kind of natural order, rather like the theory of evolution or gravity. Alternatively for others it seems the more you try to make sense of it, the more you realise you start sounding eerily similar to an unhinged Neo in the film ‘The Matrix’. There is no doubt that the neoliberal project has been a conscious effort to snatch more power away from the majority, thus returning it to the already rich and powerful. Neoliberal supporters and their beneficiaries clearly have one primary goal, which is to convince society to continue consuming and producing at a ravenous pace. This destructive ideology offers no positive connection to humanity or has anything favourable to offer the masses, but it does make a few psychopaths very rich.
Furthermore, it fails to provide any utility beneficial to the wider society and yet we continue to feed this monster through our obsession with external gratification. We have been told, particularly in the western world that we are selfish creatures, constantly inventing ways to maximise self-interest. This opinion of human nature being entirely self-serving is supported by questionable theories, one such popular tale is of ‘homo economicus‘. Although this narrative has constantly been refuted by many, such as renowned behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman, this tall story among others still persists today.
Despite reams of evidence to suggest our current system is truly beneficial only for the richest and the most socially connected in society; for example, 26 of the world’s richest people have more wealth than the poorest 50% of society (3.8 billion people), alas the juggernaut continues. We are told that there is no other way, that capitalism and free trade has lifted more people out poverty than any other system. When we look closely at this bold claim, it is found to be disingenuous at best. Granted some nations have done well from free trade, but others have suffered. In fact, research offers that most nations tend to do better for all with some form of a mixed economy. Freer trade certainly has not contributed to lifting millions of people out of poverty.
Take China for example, millions have been lifted out of poverty, but this has been achieved by embracing free trade with other nations, while adopting mercantilism. This is the deliberate manipulation of the system utilising protectionism and state capitalism. This form of economic policy can be seen in South Korea, Japan and even Germany. To support this point, as recently as 1987, China had the same per capita GDP as India, now it has three times that of India.
To continue with the status quo, the rich (who are also the most powerful) need a believable story to keep the pitchforks off their manicured lawns. One of these regularly repeated tales is known as ‘trickle down economics’, the premise being that the wealth of the richest will trickle down to the minions. I like to refer to this as ‘golden shower economics’, as we are being regularly pissed on by the ‘obnoxious classes’. Contrary to this capitalist myth, the stats suggest that the gap between the rich and poor is the widest for over 50 years, which makes a mockery of the ‘theory’, however, despite this, capitalism continues to thrive unabated.
To maintain this extreme form of capitalism, despite evidence suggesting it undoubtedly fails the majority of us, there is a need for distraction. This is something that arises in many forms, rendering much of society into a intellectual slumber. Rarely do people sitting on their sofas while watching ‘Gogglebox‘ contemplate such questions as; is this system honestly the best we can do in the 21st century? Conservative and right wing adherents instinctively will proclaim that this is indeed the best system available. Of course, this belief was strengthened following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, which was of sorts, a political ideological coronation. Other people on the other hand are just apathetic to politics, assuming all politicians are the same and that nothing will ever change. While many are happy to be ignorant consumers, so long as they can purchase the newest iPhone, a pair of Louboutin’s or whatever other item fills the gaping hole in their soul.
Outside of any internal ambivalence to politics, there are a multitude of external distractions, just in case the rigours of daily life become unbearable or just mind numbingly tedious. There are a plethora of choices to divert your attention, from; vacuous TV programmes, all consuming video games, countless sporting events, staring blankly at your phone or even the hero worshiping of celebrities. Television channels are now packed with empty headed, inane wannabees, who adorn ‘reality’ TV shows from Love Island in the UK to New Zealand’s nauseating ‘Married at First Sight’.
Meanwhile, glorified caravan park talent show supremo Simon Cowell presides over his many creations. Regularly using his shows to catapult one of his hopefuls to #1 for Christmas, thereafter, to be forgotten (hopefully) forever. It’s a fair assumption to conclude that trashy TV is more popular with the female population, however, men are also supplied with ample distractions, often in the form of sport.
I know plenty of women who enjoy sports, but essentially it’s men who become totally immersed in the live drama and frequently take leave of their senses. Am I suggesting we shouldn’t have interests outside of the important issues of the world? Of course not. It is, however, a problem when we perceive the final of ‘X’ Factor, the Champions League Final or the winner of MasterChef as premier events within the calendar year. Marx suggested religion was the “opiate of the masses”. I would offer that our current opiate is more likely to be our endless array of weapons of mass distraction that transports us to a place where life is simple and our innermost thoughts can remain buried deep within.
Of course, any acknowledgement of distraction mechanisms wouldn’t be complete without the mention of the media. Professor of linguistics at MIT Noam Chomsky discussed the role of the media in his book with Edward S Herman ‘Manufacturing Consent‘. In this, they suggested that the media was built on levels, with each outlet aiming at a particular segment of the populace. For example, there are mainstream papers such as ‘The Sun’ (UK) all the way through to the New York Times (US), which Chomsky often describes as ‘elite media’. Online outlets such as Buzzfeed, Huffington Post and the Mail Online are considered mainstream on both the left and right. Meanwhile, radio provides general channels all the way through to outlets such as RNZ National (New Zealand) and BBC radio 4 (UK). Incidentally, Chomsky would declare that these last two stations would be apart of the ‘elite media’ which is also referred to as the ‘agenda setting media’, aimed primarily at the wealthy or professional people.
Propaganda does not work haphazardly, a huge amount of thought goes into it and many techniques are employed for a specific effect. Here are four basic techniques that are regularly used to elicit a particular response.
- Activating strong emotions.
- Responding to audience needs and values.
- Simplifying information and ideas.
- Attacking opponents.
Activating strong emotions – Propaganda exponents play on human emotions in an effort to direct audiences towards the required reaction. These are simply mind games designed to exploit people’s fears and prejudices. Messages can be specifically created in order to propagate a level of excitement and arousal, bypassing critical thinking. Emotions that are generally manipulated are; fear, hope, anger, frustration and sympathy.
Responding to audience needs and values – Effective propaganda supplies a narrative, language and themes that appeal directly, sometimes exclusively to certain groups. These could be as diverse as ethnic identity, hobbies, personal aspirations and beliefs. A propaganda campaign at times can also be universal to create a sense of unity and belonging. The more personally relevant the message is, the greater the effect is likely to be, as people will tend to pay attention and absorb key ideas.
Simplifying information and ideas – Truths, half truths, opinions, lies and falsehoods are all used in propaganda. Successful propaganda generally utilises simple stories that are familiar and trusted. There is a repeated usage of metaphors and imagery, this is designed to make the narrative to appear natural or “true”. Oversimplification can invariably be adopted as an effective means of replacing critical thinking. It is also something in which the audience seeks in order to reduce complexity.
Attacking opponents – Propaganda can be practiced as a form of political and social warfare, used to vilify and identify opponents. It often questions the legitimacy, credibility and character of ones opponents and ideas. This approach produces an ‘us or them’ effect, which stifles any opinion outside of this binary framework. It serves to targets individuals, destroy reputations, incite hatred, cultivate indifference and exclude specific groups of people.
As well as these techniques routinely being exploited by the media, it’s worth recognising that despite the illusion of choice regarding TV programmes or more importantly news outlets, our real choice does not match our perceptions. Take the US, despite the many channels that are on offer, just 6 corporations own 90% of media. These six are; Comcast, TimeWarner, News Corp, Disney, Viacom and CBS. Although technically CBS and Viacom are owned by the same company that being National Amusements.
Here in New Zealand, one could argue considering the population (under 5 million), we have a comparative abundance of choice. There are currently 4 main media corporations and one crown entity, which comprises of Māori TV, Television New Zealand and Radio New Zealand. Despite this, oftentimes there is a feeling that each outlet is providing a similar narrative. Rarely in the mainstream world do you witness any criticism or questioning of the economic/political system we reside under.
This is unsurprising as these corporations presenting their interpretations of events are ingrained in the neoliberal machinery. It takes a long metaphorical journey to the outer margins of journalism to find any media outlet offering an opposing view regarding capitalism. One of the few such outlets can be traced in the UK, that being the long running Morning Star (now primarily online), unsurprisingly derided by the mainstream media. Despite the obvious failures of neoliberalism, there is still a relative paucity of criticism or more importantly coherent ideas as a response to capitalism. This is severely disappointing, especially considering Karl Marx began critiquing capitalism over a hundred years ago.
Neoliberalism has been allowed to stumble along, as many of the young and politically active, have shifted the focus of their attention away from global concerns towards the self. This postmodern inspired form of activism targets perceived inequality regarding; race, gender and sexual identity. It is wholly introspective, with the participants generally being associated with the group they support. In this sense society as a whole is viewed entirely through a group oppressor-oppressed dynamic, creating fertile ground for the oppression Olympics. On this occasion there are no participation prizes, as is the norm nowadays, this time the group enjoys the hugely sort after title of ‘victim’.
It’s important to note that the status of each group, therefore, by association the fate of the individuals contained within these groups, are decided purely on the basis of melanin levels, sexuality and the configuration of genitalia. This is evident regarding feminist slogans such as ‘toxic masculinity’, ‘patriarchy’ and ‘rape culture’. Individual or changeable considerations, such as class, economic status and educational attainment are conveniently dismissed. I strongly suggest that if we were to use the ‘individual’ parameters as above, most ‘identarians’ would be considered privileged and therefore requested to relinquish their ‘hard’ earned victim status badges.
It’s this sort of postmodern doublethink, now masquerading as ideologies such as ‘intersectional feminism’ that promotes politics for narcissists. Embraced primarily by Millenials and now Gen Z, it is used to quelle any opposition, stifle freedom of speech in the name of diversity and ultimately change societal rules for their benefit. This movement possesses a distinctly puritanical quality, that seeks to control what we think, say, feel and do. Generally speaking this brand of activism produces absolutely zero benefits for the majority of society. Despite these misgivings, unsurprisingly identity politics has been embraced by many mainstream political parties, generally in the west.
In recent times a penchant for identity politics is now considered one of the hallmarks of the left. Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Justin Trudeau and Barak Obama, are all big supporters of Social Justice. We really need to ask the question, why do some of the most powerful people in the world appear to take an interest in identity politics. One suggestion could be that identity politics is just another method of keeping people occupied, while the ‘grown ups’ continue to preside over increasing inequality and the bombing of more sovereign nations. Meanwhile, Social Justice Activists seem to be more engaged with tackling ‘mansplaining‘ or the merits of ‘Halloween costumes‘, rather than fighting poverty, economic inequality, climate change or the many illegal wars scattered around the world.
At the risk of stating the obvious, neoliberalism is not compatible with the wellbeing of most people, because profits and wealth become purposefully concentrated at the top. It cannot work in harmony with reducing the rate at which we use our natural resources or care about the damage intensive production causes our planet. Capitalism demands infinite growth on a planet that has finite resources. Many of the processes that drive constant production demanded by this system are leading to irreparable damage to our only home. Despite the warning signs, there is still ambivalence towards any suggestions that maybe, we need a change of system.
Unfortunately, the majority of people in the ‘anglosphere’ appear to be completely obsessed with themselves. This could be displayed through endless selfies plastered on the internet to prop up their flagging self-esteem or a shopping trip, hoping a new bag will help acquire that extra hit of dopamine required to survive the day. As a society, since Thatcher and Reagan we have been groomed to consume tirelessly. We now conveniently fit with the ruling elites idea of a utopic society, made up of consumers and producers. This giant sociological pyramid scheme is cunningly designed so individuals have just enough money to buy the products the oligarchs push, even if governments are often required to top up low wages.
In the west we are told we have freedom and liberty, but this is often confined to the choice of products we would like to purchase, not the quality of life. But, even this idea is a flawed premise. If freedom is on a sliding scale, rich people have greater access to money, thereby, infinitely more freedom than the poor, due to the greater range of products they can buy. But surely, freedom and liberty goes a little deeper than just stuff? Just a quick glance at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, confirms this suspicion. If you’re on the lowest level, as we know many people are all over the world are, you clearly have no access to either freedom or liberty. In contrast, there are people chiefly due to cold hard cash who can access the top level of the pyramid. All of this glaring inequality can take place in the same city on a daily basis and yet we don’t bat an eyelid.
The world is primarily a capitalist planet. All you have to do is peruse the countless business treaties linking many nations together. These deals have no perks for the average person, but are wholly designed to protect corporate interests against sovereign nations and their people. With all this in mind I’m quite confident in proposing that capitalism, more specifically neoliberalism is behind most of our problems. As a utilitarian, I would argue that our major issues are the ones that effect the most people with greatest impact, such as death. Unnecessary deaths surely must rank number 1, while the causes of these are varied, many have links to neoliberalism such as; wars, poverty, disease and suicide.
Frustratingly, many people casually watch disaster after disaster shown on the news, on TV or maybe online and mutter, “well there is nothing we can really do”. It appears we have resigned ourselves to this deeply unfair, unsustainable, catastrophic ideology and in many ways this assessment appears true. The rich are the ones who can afford to lobby the government, effectively bribing elected representatives, while us mere mortals have a comparatively tiny voice, with no agency. We’ve watched TV, drunk and shopped ourselves into a hedonistic stupor. Now, we have either no interest or little idea as to what is truly going on in the world or what to do about it. This is exactly what the propagandists want, for the world to remain powerless, zombified and blind to mass injustice. Historically speaking, large-scale issues such as these are often resolved through some form of a conflict, often revolution. Just saying.