I’ve recently been reading a book called Harperism by Donald Gutstein, an analysis of the different topics of the ideology underlying the Stephen Harper government, and how Canada’s wing of think tanks connected with the Mont Pelerin Society (especially the Fraser and MacDonald-Laurier Institutes) develop and support that ideology.
Reading Gutstein’s book helped finally get an uncomfortable idea through my head. However much I may have dismissed much of the extreme ranting of my hardcore libertarian former friends G and C as generally crazy, their ideas actually motivate the most influential think tanks in the world whose publications and conferences shape the ideologies of conservative and centrist political parties.
Those ideas are from the works of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, the new liberalism that arose from their critique of the principles of government through central planning which emerged from their confrontation with totalitarianism. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom* features arguments that all forms of government central planning, even something as ordinary as subsidized housing, are part of the same continuum as Stalinist totalitarianism. He argues that any form of collectivism, especially trade unions, were also totalitarian.
* The thing right now is, and I’ll admit this for full disclosure, I’ve never actually read The Road to Serfdom cover to cover, only bits and pieces here and there. As I’ve come to grips with the general political climate in which I’m developing, researching, and eventually composing the Utopias manuscript, I know I’ll have to engage with it. Hayek strikes me as the 21st century’s great political nihilist born 100 years too early.
According to Gutstein, Hayek’s ideas have inspired the neoliberal think tank network’s mission statement, that economic freedom is the essence of political freedom. Such freedom is freedom from state interference in how you produce and trade goods and services.
Throughout the 20th century, the Western political democratic left was defined by social democracy, governance that sees the primary solutions to social ills in state central planning and large-scale action. These think tanks have been so successful that they’ve pretty much shut most of the old solutions of the social democratic left out of popular consideration.
Mont Pelerin think tanks have tremendous intellectual and media influence on popular culture, and the ears of transformative conservative governments and political parties. They also have the regular funding of many wealthy and corporate supporters. Economic freedom concepts have appeared in popular culture so frequently and for so long that their ideas, which used to be considered dangerously fringe, are now the new right-leaning consensus of general political morality.
The political left today can’t respond to the neoliberal challenge with traditional social democratic solutions. Economic freedom’s values of libertarian individualism overcame social democratic values of collective welfare through a fair bureaucracy. What I see in the social movements of the contemporary left are the new values to overcome libertarian individualism.
Network politics literally turns the individualism of liberal and libertarian philosophy against itself. The state and its police powers are villains here too.** But the villains are also the oligarchs who would accumulate so much wealth that they suck enough capital from wider society to send aggregate demand spiralling down.
** Really, network politics has a more complex knowledge of the police powers of the state than the neoliberal and libertarian tradition, thanks to Foucault’s biopolitical analysis of state institutions.
Social democracy was about the state ensuring the collective good of all. Libertarianism is about removing all constraints on individuals to seek their private goods. Network politics is about individuals understanding how all their private goods rely on public processes and self-organizing support and action to grow and protect them.
Here’s an example of what I’d call network politics operating on the local level. It’s yesterday’s statement of principles from my old friend Chris as he launches his exploratory committee for a Newfoundland NDP leadership run. He has three main points.
1) End all corporate and union donations to political parties, so all donors would be individuals, families, and households. He frames it as a direct assault on cronyism and corruption in government, a clear statement of distrust of the state, especially at the local level where the links between business and political leaders take on the flavour of a small town. It's simultaneously distrust that large corporations will play politics fairly.
2) End NALCOR’s monopoly on power generation in NL. The solution isn’t a state-mandated breakup, but allowing small, independent power generation, like individuals with solar panels or a small community that operates a private wind farm, to contribute to the electricity grid. Chris explicitly frames this principle as diversifying the market.
So network politics already accepts the importance of markets to empower people, a central argument of economic freedom. But unlike Hayek’s libertarianism, we understand that an oligarch or mega-corp sized market participant can cause equally serious economic distortions and impoverishment as state intervention.
3) Reform income tax on a more progressive continuum that distinguishes categories of the comfortable, the well-off, the wealthy, the rich, the super-rich, the mega-rich, and the people who can buy and sell whole worlds. These are the wealth demographics that matter now, and making your top income bracket start at $200,000 is ridiculous, as if such a person’s economic power were equivalent to a billionaire’s.
Also, Chris’ tax proposal features more emphasis on capital gains, which is how the rich actually earn most of their income.
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