What is more dangerous – to be in a cage where you can see the bars, or one where you can’t. Is it more dangerous to know that you are being controlled or to believe that you are free to choose while being just as constrained?
We live in a free society. So long as you own your own house. So long as you don’t have any debt. So long as you have access to healthcare. So long as you don’t break the law. So long as you don’t piss off your boss. So long as you have a job or a stable form of income. So long as you have enough money for retirement. So long as you don’t criticize Israeli war crimes, or American war crimes, or capitalism.
Much like the sprawling terms and agreements page, written in deliberately obtuse legalese, you hit the ‘I accept’ button without reading, and lo and behold, you accept the social contract to live in a free society. After all this is the era of individual empowerment – you can choose what gender you are, who you marry (or don’t marry), what brand you buy, what type of Uber you want, what person you swipe right on. We must be free right? We have more choices of mayonnaise than Louis XIV or Joe Kennedy. We have iPhones and microwaves, clearly these are metrics we can use to say we have it better now than the richest of the rich a few generations ago.
But just like that terms and agreements page you agreed to without reading, the more you start to look into what all these Latin derived legal terms means, the more you start to realise you’ve been had. That underneath all this technical jargon and fancy newspeak is nothing more than a modern day version of an ancient shaman babbling in tongues. Just like the Pharaohs would call upon their magicians to bamboozle the slaves with their magic tricks to keep them docile, we have our own set of modern day magicians pulling financial rabbits out of the hat to tell us it’s all going to be okay. Just trust us, and don’t look too closely.
Instead of obscure Latin today we use words that everyone has heard but don’t quite understand what it means. Take neoliberalism, the evil boogeyman responsible for everything from Brexit to Trump to millennials. Everyone and their fourteen followers on twitter will mumble about neoliberalism when you ask them to explain anything that goes on in our society, but what exactly does it mean.
Neoliberalism is the belief that the market principles of laissez-faire capitalism (‘let do’ or let the market decide instead of the government) should govern all of society – flowing downstream from economics into politics and culture. It is the belief in the ‘entrepreneurship’ of individuals, that the cream rises to the top, that competition breeds success and that there shouldn’t be any interference in the natural order. This is a pervasive ideology that is writ into the very fabric of society in everything we do and how we perceive and understand the world.
We are told to ‘sell ourselves’ in our resumes and interviews, to create our ‘personal brand’ via social media outlets, to cultivate a carefully managed and marketable digital persona as a means of standing out from the crowd in order to rent our labour to the lowest bidder.
When it comes to dating it is referred to as a market, “I’m off the market” [I am in a relationship] “know your worth hun” [don’t settle for a low bid] “I’m going to play the field” [shop around]. Even the concept of slut shaming is rooted in economic principles of supply and demand – women who sleep around are ‘easy’ [e.g. they flood the market and crash the price] – societies that castigate and ostracise women for their sexuality have a high premium on the value of sex. There is a reason why many traditional societies have a ‘bride price’ that requires their virginity be kept intact as proof of purchase, enforced by language like “used woman, leftover women, ruined women” and this is seen even in our free societies. Women who engage in slut shaming behaviour [e.g. in Italian the word for whore – putanna – is the same as nothing) are attacking those who undercut them in order to shore up their own market value, a social tariff to protect their goods. Like OPEC for dancing the horizontal tango. It is reflected in our language, “don’t buy the cow if you can drink the milk for free”, “if you like it then you should have put a ring on it”, “shake your money maker” to the extent that we don’t even bat an eye to consider how this ideology has permeated every aspect of our lives.
The average American is exposed to thousands of media messages a day. The majority of these messages are produced by a small number of marketing firms and have overarching themes – the most important of which is to get you to buy their product. You cannot opt out of this system. From the moment you are born to the moment you die; you are bombarded in your every waking moment by these messages. Your formative and developmental years are fundamentally shaped by carefully selected and focus tested messages, micro targeted to you as an individual consumer. In any other situation this would be called propaganda and indoctrination. If I bombarded you every day with thousands of media messages about the glory of socialism you would accuse me of brainwashing, yet somehow we are unable to connect the inverse when it comes to neoliberalism. You might have ten thousand different messages but ultimately they are all saying the same thing, this is how propaganda has always operated.
If you were to pick up your smartphone or turn on the TV what sort of messages do you see? You are not hot enough, successful enough, rich enough, cool enough, popular enough, talented enough BUT if you buy this that will change, if you choose our brand with its connotations of wealth and status and power that will change. We laugh at the LYNX ad where a man sprays himself with AXE to be swarmed by hordes of sexy women but we overlook the fact that it is very clearly working. You don’t spend hundreds of man hours, pay millions of dollars, and take up advertising slots on something that doesn’t work.
We overlook individuals like Oprah who preach the gospel of neoliberalism by saying it is all about your attitude, your mindset, your failings and that if you believe hard enough and sacrifice enough to the altar of the free market you will achieve your dreams of wealth and celebrity. We look up to people like Kanye who epitomises the inherent narcissism and egocentrism of neoliberalism, of wanting to be so talented and special that we can make millions for being our extra special self in a world full of nobodies. Or people like Kim Kardashian and Instagram celebrities who are famous for being famous, of having a distinct look and brand and style.
We call out to charismatic and talented individuals to save us all, to fix all these huge problems we don’t quite understand, to guide us upward toward the stars on a mountain of other peoples’ corpses. We don’t even question the idea of history being driven by a few people at the top, instead of the masses at the bottom. Our portrayals of change are always fixated on individuals instead of movements, Martin Luther King and not the Freedom Riders and countless others who suffered every humiliation and brutality with dignity and courage. We whitewash and sanitise and omit the uncomfortable truths of our past, MLK’s commitment toward economic justice and his condemnation of American war crimes, Malcolm X and the Black Nationalist movement and the crucial role they played. It frees us of the personal responsibility to take action because we can always count on someone else, a boy who lived, a prince who was promised, to come along and save the day. We willing surrender our own power by voting in a pre-selected candidate to represent us instead of taking action at the mass level because we have forgotten what we are capable of.
The greatest danger of neoliberalism is it creates an invisible cage that gives us all the illusion of freedom, while simultaneously depriving it. By shifting the locus of responsibility away from systemic policies and systems of power (economic, social, and political created by the few and imposed on the many) toward the lone individual it creates a self-perpetuating matrix, an ever expanding Panopticon. We all judge each other and viciously attack those we see as competition in a perpetual war of all against all in the daily voyeurism of social media. Poor people and immigrants are lazy and leaching off MY money from MY taxes to spend on drugs while I can barely afford to pay MY bills and healthcare. Individuals born of poor circumstances who do rise up, the statistical outliers, are presented as the norm and are co-opted into maintaining the status quo by insisting that anyone else could do it, without looking at all the factors responsible.
Wealth vindicates itself by claiming that they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and engage in pseudo-intellectual masturbation because it simultaneously alleviates the burden of responsibility on their part in maintaining an unequal system, while letting them pat themselves on the back as hard working and virtuous. It is the logical conclusion of the Just World Hypothesis – the belief that the world is a fair and just place where everyone gets what they deserve, unsurprisingly pushed for by the most advantaged members of society who don’t experience the unjust parts of it. Life seems remarkably fair and just if all you have ever experienced is preferential treatment – you have no frame of reference to compare it with. When the upper and middle classes live within economically homogenous communities, attend the same elite schools and universities with peers from similar backgrounds, it is very easy to believe that you got there by your individual merit rather than the inherent advantages you were born into, and this has been shown time and time again across different studies.
Unless you are the Kwisatch Haderach – conscious as a sperm cell or an egg and able to manipulate the circumstances of your birth by sheer force of will – there is no great achievement in being born into wealth and maintaining it. You are simply the least stupid of all local competitors (your siblings). Just like you don’t have to be the faster than a cheetah to survive, merely faster than the slowest runner, there is nothing remarkable about someone being given every advantage in life being successful – if anything you would argue that is the baseline expectation. But we’ve conned ourselves into believing the opposite is true because it is these people who can speak the loudest in the marketplace of ideas. We don’t have talk shows and newspaper columns for people who don’t make it. We rarely interview the guy who came second in our winner take all society.
This isn’t to say that the world exists in Manichean black and white terms of absolutes. There are always exceptions to the rule, and a grain of truth in even the most baldfaced lie. There are plenty of people who despite enormous hardship are able to succeed, but the point of a free society shouldn’t be to fixate on the few who make it, but rather to look at the ones who don’t and to ask ourselves why. Why is it that the richest country on the planet, where if the wealth were equitably distributed across every household each family would have 760,000 USD, there are 42 million people who live in abject poverty comparable to the conditions in the developing world. Why is it that after four decades of neoliberal policies we have declining wages, declining life expectancy, more mental health issues, more homelessness, less jobs, and fewer opportunities? Why do almost two thirds of Americans have less than a thousand dollars in savings and that Americans pay disproportionately more for healthcare to receive lower quality services? Where is the long promised growth that would trickle down from deregulation, tax cuts, and empowerment of the wealthy?
Could you possibly believe that we live in a free society where we are required to spend at least forty hour a week in an institution that resembles a totalitarian state – where we have no control over the conditions of our work, we can be summarily fired for angering a superior, have no say in the direction of the company or its decisions, and are subject to the whims of a small number of individuals at the top – in order to merely survive. If the choice is between obedience or starvation can that be considered a decision made voluntarily of one’s own free will.
The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was to convince the world that he doesn’t exist – the greatest danger of the invisible cage is we do not see the bars. Facebook and Google control what information we are allowed to see. The liberal class allow us to critique the excesses of capitalism but not capitalism itself, and dictate the boundaries of the discussion. The choice is between the lesser of two evils and never a better set of choices. To advocate for any form of genuine change is to be labelled a radical and an extremist, a fringe loon who doesn’t understand ‘the real world’ by those who don’t read any evidence that contradicts their views, as not understanding economics by those who never went past supply and demand.
The challenge that lies before us is not just to critique the failings of the system but to offer a viable alternative. It is to reject the individual loneliness of apathy and to embrace solidarity. It is to engage against the pervasive ignorance and conditioning of a society on the brink of collapse by sharing better ideas. Because regardless of our opinion on how things are and how we are doing, it will affect us all. We are already seeing the rising anger of the forgotten, the revenge of the surplus population we have condemned to poverty. It is up to us to speak into the ideological vacuum that is left in the wake of neoliberalism, lest we surrender it to more dangerous ideologues that have already taken root.
It is up to us to see the bars of the invisible cage so we can think of a way out.
 https://fred.stlouisfed.org/graph/?graph_id=369801 (divided across 124 million households)
 http://www.nber.org/digest/aug15/w21216.html (note statistics on unemployment are based on those who are unemployed and still actively looking for work, those who have given up or are out of work for a prolonged period are not included in official statistics. Statistics on employment also do not factor in underemployment or part time employment)
 https://archive.org/stream/pdfy-NekqfnoWIEuYgdZl/Manufacturing%20Consent%20%5BThe%20Political%20Economy%20Of%20The%20Mass%20Media%5D_djvu.txt (also available in documentary form)
Born somewhere between the old world of Korea and the new world of New Zealand Isaac is an award winning writer, teacher of literature and nomad currently residing in Nanjing.