In the mythology of classical liberalism centuries of deference and hierarchy were leveled by the advent of private investment, “free trade,” and the fabled career open to talent. If the medieval bondsman was compelled by tradition to doff his cap and drop to his knees in the muck when any minor aristocrat rode past, scattering chickens and trampling children, the New Man of capitalism was an Agent, limited only by ambition and craft.

This epic of liberation via market is the drug of choice for neoliberalism’s most ardent exponents, who huff its potent fumes with the absorption of veteran glue-sniffers. No challenge confronting humanity, it is asserted, can resist the exfoliating magic of deregulation or privatization scouring away the dead flesh of the social body, which emerges stung into glowing health. It is even claimed, though rarely if ever documented, that the last three decades of the neoliberal attack on the commons have led to unprecedented levels of “wealth creation,” lifting billions out of poverty. Absent from such praises– the hallelujahs of those faithful reborn not in the blood of the lamb but the bull market’s irresistible musk– is the acknowledgment that no matter how rich the richest become a permanent underclass– the lower billion, what Victorian pundits, surveying the ghettoes of their own cities, deemed “the residuum,” the bottom layer of humanity beyond redemption or reclamation– continues to subsist at the fringes as redundant, “casual” labor, a 21st century serfdom.

Writing of the United States in 1889, Knut Hamsun remarked on the arrival of an “aristocracy of fortunes, of accumulated capital,” which far from underwriting that 19th century fetish, Progress, bent history back upon itself: “This American aristocracy, which the entire nation cultivates with out-and-out religious fervor,” he wrote, “ has the medieval power of the ‘true’ aristocracy without possessing any of its nobility; crudely and brutally, it is a certain horsepower of economic invincibility.”

So many companies today tout their own horsepower not as the producers of goods but the providers of “solutions.” We should take them at their word, for it is a kind of solution provided by marketing consultancies and accounting firms, one very much like that brewed within the American melting pot, a vessel, Utah Phillips reminded us, in which all the scum floats to the top and everyone on the bottom gets burned.

The solutions come in the form of technological, spatial and social fixes. Given that capitalism’s key characteristic is the boom-bust cycle– periods of speculative bubble inflation followed by the audible pop of tumble-down fortunes– the neoliberal true believer offers genetically modified wheat to keep the global residuum from outright starvation and companies producing, brokering and transporting those mutated staples in the black. Once markets are saturated or local resources depleted, capital goes hunting for riper pasture, a process, William Appleman Williams observed half a century ago, fueling the rise of American Empire– an “imperial anti-colonialism” predicated on the “third option” of the free trade Open Door. The neo-eugenicist approach to poverty crows about the irresponsible human surplus produced by excessive birth rates, pathologizing the poor as culpable for their own immiseration. The fault– according to this view, one perfectly consonant with neoliberal orthodoxy– lies not in our stars but always in our– which is to say their–selves.

In a different register though perhaps equally pernicious is the extent to which we are expected to absorb the common sense of hedge-fund class economics. Humanism, schoolchildren were once instructed, appeared as an Enlightenment era conviction that “Man” is the measure of all things. In our own post-Enlightenment, post-humanist period the conceptual center of our thinking has been replaced with the structuring lie of the neoliberal myth: the market as deux ex machina. This perception has been so unrelentingly elicited and thus become so pervasive that advertisements now insist it is untrue, as in Mastercard’s  “Priceless” campaign– a sure sign that the marketization of humanity, the abstraction of individuals as aggregated actuarial statistics and closely calculated risks, is near-complete.

In the neoliberal camp credit and the debt it presupposes, privatization at the expense of the commons, and deregulation in the service of corporate oligarchy are all forms of social control which cannot fully succeed until their objects– consumers rather than citizens, those whose value depends not on human qualities but pecuniary worth– have accepted the perverse logic of society as a market. It goes without saying that in the rest of the world, the home of the homeless, the effects of this domination are deadly.

2 thoughts on “Priceless

  1. irregardless

    Happy New Year! I hope your holidays were pleasant.

    “a 21st century serfdom”; I like this description of how the lower classes really live and how the idea of social mobility is by and large, a myth. The environment in which one lives will have a tremendous impact upon what social status one will attain. Sure, there are the exceptions but that is an extreme minority. The equality of opportunity is not real.
    I had been thinking more about capitalism over the break and came to a realization of how dangerous the economic structure really is, particularly if you aren’t a big fan of it. People who wouldn’t subscribe to this neoliberal tide were seen as unpatriotic, which is absurd because isn’t democracy supposed to be an open forum to an exchange of differing ideas?
    Also, in AMS you spoke about how Americans really misuse the word “liberal”, and checked out a nice site that helps explain the difference between the political and economic spectrum by letting you mess around with some graphs. This helped me distinguish what facism sort of means.

    I checked out your new course and it looks like it’s going to be a lot of fun, I think your students will really appreciate your robust knowledge of American Culture.

    Hope all is well, talk to you later.

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