The Beatification of Homo Economicus
PublishedMay 17, 2016 CategoryThe Hidden Dissuaders

The Beatification of Homo Economicus

The aura of unquestionable truths with which the arch-priests of neo-liberalism and their corporate retainers have cocooned their dismal verities over the four decades of their control of our societies surely deserves its latin tag… and none better than Homo Economicus, with its discreet distancing of women (other than the hallowed matriarch, Margaret Thatcher).

Like me, you may be helped by Pankaj Mishra’s useful definition:

“Homo economicus: who seeks to replace all other human values and interests with cost-benefit calculations, rampages across the globe in personal relations as well as the workplace, higher education and political institutions. Pulverising the welfarist state, and even a sense of community, contemptuous of history and tradition, he sentences hundreds of millions to economic and psychological insecurity. This scorched earth universalism incites, as Santayana warned, a lava-wave of primitive blindness and violence”.

‘The Sound of Cracking’ LRB, August 2015.

Yet how could these things have come about, our resistance have been so inept, and our hard-won democratic freedoms so weakly surrendered? The ground is thickly strewn with these – still unanswered – questions and the low-conviction guesses about what might or should be done.

This is likely to remain so until there is a more open and robust recognition that – in the more fully mature neo-liberal regimes now spreading rapidly beyond the Anglophone to other globalising markets – the Corporate/Government policy dichotomy has effectively disappeared. They have evolved a congruence of shared priorities, against the more distant ‘third party’ interests of their citizenries, which represents a seismic change in the structures and governance of our societies. This is the true cause of the much-talked of disaffection of citizens with the political processes they see around them and, as ever, their clearer perceptions of the ‘real’ realities – of work, health, education of their children and austerity. They need the recapture of our language from neocon grub-speak to liberate and re-energise their fuller meanings.

There is also a more frequent triggering of fundamental constitutional questions which seem unlikely to be honestly acknowledged or addressed by the neo-liberal species of administration. Notorious among these was the 21 January 2010 decision of the US Supreme Court to remove any restrictions on corporate freedom to deploy their rich treasuries on the election of their friends, clearly sign-posting the next stage in the accelerating corporate take-over of US politics. UK governments, with different constitutional constraints, are contriving ways to restrict union contributions to minority parties to distort the democratic balance. Meanwhile, the growing recourse to semi-secret ‘Trade Agreements’ (of the discredited TTIP kind) remains at the leading edge of a growing Government/Corporate ‘cosying’ outside the democratic norm.

And my questions about how these things could have been allowed to happen in previously open societies holds little traction in the neo-liberal mind-set, since the latter typically overlooks and subverts the ‘soft’ persuasive power and influence of those we used to call our ‘public intellectuals’; that wise, unelected group of trusted (and unpaid!) disseminators of ideas invited in to our bigger social dialogue when the richest of wisdom and balance were needed.

During the Cold War many intellectuals, on the left as well as the right, had been tempted by the fleshpots of privilege “even becoming eager dispensers of technocratic wisdom to financial and political power, and rationalisers of imperial war-making” (Mark Greiff “The Age of the Crisis of Man. Thought and Fiction in America. 1933-73”).

A retro 19th century craving for universal mastery and control was rekindled in 1989 (fall of the Berlin Wall) among many members of what Tony Judt called the ‘crappy generation’ – the one that grew up in the 1960s in Western Europe or in America, in a world of few hard choices, economic or political. Judt’s indictment extended beyond Bush, the Clintons, Blair and the neo-con publicists to the ‘traditional liberal centre’ of the New York press – the New Yorker, New Republic, Washington Post, NYT – which had ‘degenerated into an acquiescent service class’.

These were the desertions which allowed the neo-liberal subversion to take place and consolidate. The much heralded Anglo/US ‘Special Relationship’ has been central to it, and its dissemination, since the Reagan/Thatcher misalliance of the Eighties. Despite its carefully contrived aura of irreplaceable permanence and unquestionable loyalties, however, it will owe the more significant seeds of its forth-coming destruction to the Bush/Blair rerun of that oldest cautionary tale in the history canon – hubris… we have the unfinished crappy outcomes of their Iraqi and Afghan wars; desperate refugee migrations on a heart-wrenching scale; the diaspora of jihad; and uncorrected banking regimes, poised to repeat the apocalyptic failures of the 2007/8 financial crisis.

So the first priority, and main purpose of this series, must be to explode the bathetic myths of TINA, pour light on some of the covert ways in which its gullibly innocent acolytes have been, and are, radicalised into the love-less neo-liberal faith.

A major watershed on the way to the irreversible forthcoming nemesis of this inhuman creed has undoubtedly been the Pikerty revelations, and the not-yet-fully digested evidence of the sustained plundering and confiscation of our own, our children’s and our earth’s assets over many years. But the Orwellian and Packardian techniques of language and motivational control have been well-learned by the neoliberal ideologues, and their persistent bids for control of our media (BBC next?), schools, universities and satellite ‘business schools’ have deeply infiltrated the collective consciousness and will need much more sustained effort and attack to remove.

The Sound of Cracking gets louder; it’s time to wake up and be on the move.

Next time: “Re-claiming the Language”