Globalism, Neoliberalism, and Corporatism

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Published on: May 26, 1999

In my researches into libertarian arguments, I find large numbers of arguments adopted verbatim from this troika of closely related market-fundamentalisms: Globalism, Neoliberalism, and Corporatism.

"Laissez-Faire!" they all bellow, regarding government as an obstruction. And they bellow very loudly, with increasing control over the media, academia, and government.

Perhaps we're beginning a swing back to liberal ideas of economics in service of popular interests, because lately I've found a flood a books skeptical of the benefits of these isms.

The books range from academic to popular, but in general they make a number of key liberal points. They establish that markets are not natural nor self-regulating. They establish that we can control the shape of our society for our own purposes, not for the purposes of aristocratic minorities of the wealthy. They establish that governments are essential countervailing powers to markets for preventing abuse. And they establish that we must not allow corporations to control society while claiming immunity from social control behind slogans like laissez-faire.

I haven't read far enough into many of these to deliver pre-digested appraisals of the quality of their arguments. And naturally, their positions are hotly contested. For example, if you follow the links to the reviews at Amazon.com, you will notice the many negative comments by libertarians (whom you can spot by their amusing usage of "socialist," "statist," and general rejection of any criticism of the market.)

Let's start with one that is a summary of the work of a central figure in the overwhelming rejection of laissez-faire that took place earlier in this century (resulting in the modern welfare-state):

The Progressive Assault on Laissez Faire: Robert Hale and the First Law and Economics Movement by Barbara H. Fried. Be warned: this is an academic book, and slow going. But the arguments documented here are the underlying legal and philosophical rationale for the rejection of laissez-faire and adoption of the welfare state. It's amazing how their radical success has made them such a part of the woodwork that few seem aware of them any more.

Everything For Sale by Robert Kuttner. This is the one that combats laissez-faire with the pragmatic reasons why it doesn't always work. A must-read for understanding good reasons why government needs to interfere with markets.

The Cost of Rights: Why Liberty Depends on Taxes by Stephen Holmes and Cass R. Sunstein. An in-depth examination of how rights and liberty are actually produced by positive government action. This leads to the question "which rights and liberties do we wish to produce with scarce government resources?"

Profit Over People: Neoliberalism & Global Order by Noam Chomsky. If this is like the other political Chomsky books I've read, it is the stuff of indignation, raw motivation to activism, and fundamentally correct. Muck raking of a sort desperately needed for this subject.

Corporation Nation by Charles Derber. A pro-business, but anti-corporate-power populist appeal to limit control of society by corporations.

The Crisis of Global Capitalism : (Open Society Endangered) by George Soros. Soros is concerned that the increasing power of capitalism will undermine the liberal society that we treasure.

False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism by John Gray. A warning that unless global mechanisms are created to regulate global capitalism, instabilities might well result in loss of liberal society or severe global financial crises.

One World, Ready or Not : The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism by William Greider. Documents many of the abuses of rampant capitalism, taking the position that they can be ameliorated.

Corporate Predators by Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman. How corporations are consolidating their control over our institutions of government and culture, contrary to the interests of the populace at large. Their promotion for the book is here.

The Corporate Planet : Ecology and Politics in the Age of Globalization by Joshua Karlner. His web site, Corporate Watch, like the book, is aimed at activists who run up against corporate power. As such, it has no cohesive strategy for dealing with increasing corporate power.

There are many others out there too (such as the colorfully titled Corporations Are Gonna Get Your Mama). I'm not trying to be complete.

If there is one lesson we need to keep foremost in our minds, it is that property, rights, markets, contracts, corporations, and governments are all tools created by humans. The whole liberal movement, from the time of the classical liberals and onwards, has emphasized that these creations should be shaped and applied in service of the public, not as tools for concentrating wealth and power in an elite, nor as objects of veneration for their own sakes.

There's plenty of market hooey out there richly deserving of skepticism, not to mention complacency in the face of severe threats from the laissez-faire, market theology asserted by the three title "isms": Globalism, Neoliberalism, and Corporatism. The great threat from them is that because they are becoming supranational, we have fewer government checks on their power.

For example, the classical purpose of free markets (according to economists and philosophers since Adam Smith) is to promote low prices and improvement in production through competition. As globalization of markets proceeds ahead of globalization of government, the antitrust regulation necesary to maintain competition loses power. The recent $750,000,000 settlement with the global vitamin industry for price fixing illustrates the importance of keeping global markets in the service of the public, rather than allowing corporations to use them to gouge the public in service of their owners.

A particularly good book on this subject is The Bigness Complex by Walter Adams. Unfortunately, it's out of print. But you may be able to find it through Advanced Book Exchange, a web consortium of used book stores, or public libraries.

Please, recommend your own favorites too in the discussion.

In a world torn by every kind of fundamentalism - religious, ethnic, nationalist and tribal - we must grant first place to economic fundamentalism, with its religious conviction that the market, left to its own devices, is capable of resolving all our problems. This faith has its own ayatollahs. Its church is neo-liberalism; its creed is profit; its prayers are for monopolies.
Carlos Fuentes, World Press Review (Nov. '95) p. 47

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