In this brief essay, I examine how public policy as a commodity under a business model, in which the state operating in accordance with neoliberal policies has evolved toward a more authoritarian orientation in the early 21st century. Whether in developing countries with high levels of public and private sector corruption, or in the US, the manner by which public policy has legitimized social oppression with remarkable ease reflects the ubiquitous hegemonic culture. The media and mainstream institutions have convinced public opinion to accept oppression which public policy creates and perpetuates as the norm, categorically rejecting the assertion that the institutional structure determines society’s fate. The promise of public policy is to achieve social integration, but the result for an increasingly larger percentage of the population is institutional oppression. Whereas the theoretical goal of public policy is to integrate the public into the mainstream while harmonizing social relations, in practice it is a catalyst to social division and hierarchy in society.
“Public policy” refers to government carrying out a set of policies on domestic and foreign affairs on behalf of the public to promote and safeguard its interests and perpetuate its welfare as stipulated in the social contract. This is only theoretically true and no government would deny doing otherwise in carrying out policy. Governments and their apologists narrowly define both the term “public” and “policy” in accordance with specific class interests they promote.
When English philosopher and father of Western liberal political philosophy John Locke argued that government must serve “the people” he was in fact referring to people who are property owners (assets in all forms); the greater the capital (assets) the greater the voice they would have in the political arena because it was assumed capital makes people “responsible” in society. According to Locke, (Two Treatises on Government, 1689) public policy must be made by a strong legislative branch dominated by elected officials meeting property qualifications as do those voting for them. Public policy is the domain of capitalists because they have a stake in society thus there is a correlation between wealth and public policy because the justification for the creation of civil society is to protect property which includes life for those who own no assets.
From education and healthcare, from living standards and freedoms ranging from abortion rights to civil rights, public policy and its distortion and manipulation in its implementation stage, or its absence when needed to further public welfare impacts peoples’ lives more than they realize. Public policy reflects the class structure, traditions, a country’s history and external influences, all presented to the public as the embodiment of public welfare. The role of the state has been to guide the course of the market economy and act as an arbiter using regulatory policy, but also fiscal, monetary, trade and investment policies as levers at its disposal.
The contradiction between the promise of public policy articulated as “objective” and “democratic” intended to improve the lives of all people calls into question not only its legitimacy but the role of the state as a force which is acting on behalf of the capitalist class to maintain unequal income distribution. (Jurgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere) In the early 21st century, the very low level of confidence people have in their elected representatives and low level of voter participation in many countries, among them the US, is a reflection in the level of public confidence in policies that elected officials carve out for society and the realization that the state is a catalyst for perpetuating and advancing class interests.
While some people question the legitimacy of public policy precisely because it is class-based, many entertain illusions on a wide scale in accepting its legitimacy as “objective” despite the fact that it is the legal mechanism of institutional oppression. The social safety net (welfare policies from social security to unemployment benefits), which emerged during the Second Industrial Revolution in the late 19th century and accelerated in some countries during and after the Great Depression of the 1930s, is empirical proof that public policy at its core caters to capital and only when liberal bourgeois democracy is threatened with social upheaval are there concessions to placate and co-opt the working class.
Apologists of capitalism defend public policy that perpetuates and legitimizes oppression, arguing that social inequality is natural, or the fault of the individual or even a virtue with which society is blessed! The preponderance of empirical evidence regarding social inequality perpetuated by public policy cannot be glossed over by ideological justifications, political rhetoric or by directing the masses to seek salvation in the afterlife because this life is only temporary and sinful.
In the late 18th century, French thinker Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes (What is the Third Estate?) and the American Federalists (John Jay. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and the Federalist Papers) analyzed the conditions of what constitutes legitimacy in a modern constitutional society placing juridical perimeters on unfettered political authority, asserting basic rights for citizens. In post-Revolutionary France and US – the Atlantic democracies that inspired other social revolutions and national independence movements – the capitalist class was the intended beneficiary of constituent power, not the entire population as those who led the revolutions and their apologists claimed in an effort to forge a broad popular consensus.
As the foundation for the legitimacy in an open society, informed consent and policy formation project the image of an all-inclusive integrative process as a goal of the social contract. In practice, however, manipulated consent and policy formation are presented to the public as collective goals for the welfare of society (a form of corporatism that the state and capital promote) when the goal is to serve narrow interests rather than society as a whole. This is not to suggest that there are no differences between overtly corporatist regimes such as Portugal under Antonio Salazar (1932-1968) or Spain under Francisco Franco (1939-1975), both dictators for life, and the neo-corporatist elected regimes of Japan and South Korea, or the US that has elements of neo-corporatism. However, the chasm between the theory promising integration and reality of social division exposes the naked truth behind the mask of consent theory and public policy as nothing more than tools of social conformity.
Given the political trend toward authoritarianism operating under oligarchic rule behind the façade of democratic regimes, there is a rise of rightwing populism across the Western World reflecting tensions of intense competition for capital accumulation between and within the core capitalist countries. This is more evident in the early 21st century than it has been since the interwar era during the rise of Fascism when capitalism was also experiencing a crisis after the First World War and when the Great Powers were scrambling to rebuild their economies.
Headed toward the legitimacy of authoritarianism under the thin veil of an open society where the catalyst for conformity has long been external enemies, Western liberal democracies mired in contradictions of the political economy that exacerbates divisions are operating in practice as authoritarian regimes buttressing the market economy through fiscal policy, corporate subsidies, government loan guarantees, and bailouts. The election of Donald Trump in 2016 afforded greater legitimacy to the corporate welfare state under authoritarianism as an extension of traditional conservatism both in the US and around the world.
Even by the standards of bourgeois institutions such as the UK-based “Intelligence nit” of the Economist magazine, conducting quantitative and analytical studies of democracies around the world, there has been a reduction of “full democracies” from 20 to 19 in 2016, representing a mere 4.5% of the world’s population. Interestingly, the US is among the flawed democracies” group ranking just below Japan and slightly above Costa Rica and Botswana. When social justice is either a peripheral issue or not even on the radar screen of a country’s public policy, it is difficult for the apologists to distract the public by pointing to foreign and domestic enemies of democracy that the system itself undercuts.
Public Policy in Core (Patron) and Periphery (Client) States
Articulated by a liberal ideology, the dynamics of public policy include the economic system, social structure and cultural influences ranging from religious to secular in the milieu of each country’s history and traditions. The Western World’s liberal ideological foundations rest in the liberal political philosophy of John Locke. Influences from a variety of 18th century thinkers, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, and Adam Smith to David Ricardo and John Stuart Mill in the 19th century among many others including from Socialists have also played a role in shaping public policy. The contradictions or lack of coherence in public policy as it evolved owing to changes in society is largely the result of lack of political consensus on achieving the common goal of strengthening the social order under capitalism under inherent pressures for capital accumulation on a world scale with class struggle at the core of the system as the lower classes strive for upward mobility amid downward pressures from capitalism.
From the English Revolution of 1689 to the American (1776) and French (1789) Revolutions, political developments marked the triumph of the capitalist class as dominant in the political arena seeking to foster public policy to preserve and strengthen its social status that it identified with the ‘national interest’ as the elites define it. As Western institutions evolved to reflect the dominance of the capitalist class, the political elites sought to harmonize social relations by conducting public policy that theoretically afforded the “opportunity” for upward social mobility to the expanding middle class which industrialization created; this even as slavery was a widespread institution and serfdom persisted in Russia until 1861. Differentiating itself from the aristocratic caste system (minimal mobility) that existed under the old regime of monarchical rule, the bourgeoisie in control of the state offered social mobility and “equality of opportunity” which itself became deceptively identified with social equality despite the highly stratified class-based society.
Rapid changes in industrial capitalism and Western colonial expansion as a means of securing global markets and raw materials to sustain economic growth and military power resulted in social changes with a rising lower middle class and working class demanding political integration into the institutional mainstream through public policy that reflected their interests. This was often manifested in social uprisings, as was the case with the revolutions of 1848 across continental Europe, and several revolts at the end of the 19th–to-early 20th century in Eurasia, Asia and Africa directed against imperialist powers and the comprador bourgeoisie (national capitalists whose fortunes are linked to foreign business interests), which determined public policy for the colonies, semi-colonies, and dependent countries.
At the core of world capitalism, northwest Europe eventually joined by the US and Japan, adopted paternalistic attitudes toward the colonies, semi-colonies and dependent territories, creating ideological justifications based on superiority of the colonizer vs. innate inferiority of the colonized. Given these ideologies, which included Social Darwinism among others, colonizers arrogantly assumed they were in the preeminent position to determine public policy for the inferior and backward invariably non-white people they had subjugated. This was as much the case of English or French colonies, as it was the case of the US relationship with the Philippines and Cuba after the Spanish-American War.
Despite the increasingly multi-polar structure of the core capitalist countries with the rise of China in the early 21st century, the legacy of 19th century imperialism is felt across the globe to this day under globalization. This much is evident in the integration policies of northwest European powers and the US using NATO to enforce and expand integration geographically as far as possible after the collapse of the Soviet Union, even if it entailed perpetuating the old Cold War while launching a global war on jihadist terror. Carrying the imprint of militarism, public policy reflected as much not just in the US and the core countries, but also in the periphery.
Economically and militarily integrated with the US, northwest Europe, and Japan, developing countries subordinate policies to the patron state’s wishes on which they depend in every domain from trade and labor relations to foreign and defense policies. As an integral part of the patron-client model relationship between the Great Powers and periphery (client) states, policy-making in the client state is largely an extension of the patron state intended to accommodate the latter in an unequal relationship in everything from terms of trade to defense issues. This is as much the case with the US and its Western Hemisphere client states as it is with Germany and most of the Balkans and Eastern Europe.
In comparison to the era of European colonial expansion from the 15 to the 19th century, public policy became more complex after WWII because international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) use stabilization loans to impose policy at all levels on periphery countries. Similarly, the World Bank uses development loans while the WTO imposes terms of trade rules on its members. Moreover, the G-20 members essentially make policy decisions that impact the entire world but intended to benefit large capitalist interests in core countries. Whether in foreign affairs, defense, infrastructural development, fiscal policy or health care policy the people exert public policy influence are corporate executives and their lobbyists, not ordinary working and middle class people who simply validate the choice they are presented with at the ballot box during elections.
Public policy is also compromised by the level of official and private sector corruption which varies from very high in some African and Latin American nations to relatively low in the Scandinavian region. In some cases, including Russia many of the former Soviet republics, Indonesia, Philippines and Sub-Saharan African countries the informal economy accounts for at least one-third of GDP and up to half, if we include the illegal activities of narcotics trafficking. Globally, it is estimated that about 15-25% of GDP is part of the subterranean economy, while at least 7% of US GDP or just under $1 trillion is attributed to the underground economy. Large scale corruption can only be carried out by large public and private sector actors; that is to say, by multinational banks and corporations and by states providing protection to such institutions.
The very nature of corruption beyond the necessities of the informal economy in many developing nations is a deviation from public policy. Nevertheless, the nexus of private-public sector corruption only strengthens elite interests in whose control capital rests. The hundreds of billions of dollars in fines that governments have imposed on banks and financial institutions from 2007 until 2017 and the revelations of money laundering operations not just in Panama and Cyprus, but even in the US and Germany with large financial institutions (Deutsche Bank as a prime example) involved implicate political and business elites. While it is difficult to explain and justify why such deviations from “rationalized capitalism” take place if public policy is effectively working for all people, the political and economic elites steadfastly defend the system on the basis of the “bad apples” theory and the fact that some such “bad apples” are caught proving the system works.
Legitimizing Oppression through Public Policy
Because of the glaring contradiction in what the existing social order promises and what it delivers, public policy is the catalyst to legitimizing oppression and fostering authoritarianism under the guise of liberal democracy which provides equality of “opportunity” while exacerbating social inequality. This has been the case not just in the US but globally with varying levels of legitimized oppression, depending on the type of regime and specific government in power. The relatively homogenized nature of public policy in so far as it pertains to capital and labor reflects the integrative nature of the capitalist economy.
Whether in an advanced capitalist country or an underdeveloped one, in the highly integrated capitalist economy everything is commoditized, including human beings. Public policy falls in the domain of commodity intended to promote market sectors either through enacted legislative measures or by corrupt means beyond legal perimeters that nevertheless project the appearance of legality. The state determines legality while mainstream public and private institutions determine what constitutes legitimacy. Recognizing that policy transcends the social contract because of the manner it is carried out in practice, the result is legitimization of oppression because public policy determines societal norms that neither the elites and in many cases the oppressed question.
As Franz Fanon noted observing Algerians under French colonial rule, the oppressed internalize institutional oppression and blame themselves for any calamities they suffer, in many instances wishing to emulate their oppressors. Not just in colonial times when white colonizers tried to present institutionalized racism as a ‘science’, but even in the early 21st century working and middle class people under austerity measures, which are intended to strengthen large corporate interests and the banks, blame themselves for their minor infractions from the system’s mainstream while excusing the system that gave rise to distortions and disequilibrium in the economy. They readily accept capitalist paternalism and assume that even greater loyalty and conformity would yield fruits of the system. To this day, the political and business elites, the media and various academic experts present historic arguments justifying systemic exploitation resulting in social division and alienation as ‘natural’. http://www.frantzfanoninternational.org/Fanon-and-the-Epidemiology-of-Oppression
The hegemonic culture uses not just the media but all means at its disposal including the educational system and religious institutions to inculcate conformity to the status quo into the minds of people. Whether in the domain of public health, labor market or any other sector, if people suffer calamities it is the fault of the individual not the market system that the political and social elites present as “free” when in reality it is very much buttressed by the state and would collapse if the state withdrew its support mechanisms in everything from fiscal and monetary policy to trade and labor policy. This is the triumph of manipulated consent rather than informed consent on which the political class justifies policy formation it presents as objective as though it was handed down on sacred tablets by God.
Because institutionalized social oppression is legitimized and the dissident becomes the villain in the eyes of the law, public policy cannot possibly be at fault for victimizing the marginalized poor because it carries the institutional stamp of legitimacy. In their struggle for power, competing bourgeois politicians and political parties blame each other as does the media and business critics do the same, but rarely is there a critical assessment of the role of the capitalist system that the political and social elites hold in reverence.
The goal is to convince society that no matter the level of exploitation by the state-supported private sector, the political economy must remain above criticism; there must never be any discussion of system social change. Therein rests the seed of social oppression legitimized by public policy and the elites propagating for it. If there is a flaw in society, the elites and the media attribute it to free will and individual choice as guiding principles in peoples’ lives not because of a decadent institutional structure. Hence, it is hardly a surprise that the same liberal elites theoretically espousing liberal democracy promote authoritarianism to maintain the status quo while many among the middle class and even workers entertain the illusion that they are “free” and live in a “democracy”.
Public Policy under Trump’s Rightwing Populism
Long before Donald Trump took office under a cloud of controversy regarding allegations of Russian interference in the presidential election, there were numerous articles and books debating whether the US was authoritarian, and to what degree in comparison with similar regimes. American society was founded by wealthy slave-owning colonists who framed a constitution on which public policy is based to further bourgeois interests. Trump emerged from the existing framework of American business and political elites that he flamboyantly represents. Hardly an aberration as his opponents portray him because his flamboyant and often crude style in articulating policy, Trump reflects not only the American business elites but a segment of society as the electoral results indicated.
Reflecting not just ideology, but strategy intended to make unpopular policymaking easier, Trump and Republican politicians have cultivated informal ties with ultra rightwing groups and individuals as part of a strategy to forge political alliances for a wider popular base in order to secure power and further redistribute wealth from entitlement and social programs to the wealthiest Americans, while bolstering defense. Trump’s not so veiled references of Fascist and racist rhetoric is unbecoming of bourgeois politicians who claim to represent a pluralistic society, preferring to conceal public policy intended to strengthen capital behind traditional conservative or liberal rhetoric with public policy results amounting to roughly the same thing.
The results of public policy affecting living standards are hardly different between centrist and conservative politicians as much in the US as in the Western World. Given this reality, a rightwing populist politician like Trump has afforded greater legitimacy to authoritarianism by appealing to prejudices about ethnic and religious minorities and women. Frustrated with liberal elitism marginalizing the conservative white middle and working class, and willing to equate populist rhetoric with public policy favoring the masses when nothing could be farther from the truth, a frustrated and dispirited segment of the population embraced the authoritarian leader who projected strength, a trait some among the masses hope it would trickle down to improve their lives or at least make them feel that they are part of something more powerful than themselves.
This inevitable development arises from the crisis of liberalism where socioeconomic polarization precedes political polarization and the prospects for downward social mobility are more realistic than for upward mobility. The phenomenon of rightwing populism is just as true in Europe struggling with downward socioeconomic mobility and unemployment rate double that of the US. The more dangerous form of authoritarianism is not that of French neo-Fascist politician Marine Le Pen who is open about her platform, but of the creeping authoritarianism concealed behind neoliberal and austerity policies presented as ‘democratic’.
If public policy under “liberal”, in point of fact neo-liberal, governments have only widened the rich-poor gap and accounted for deteriorating conditions not just for workers but the middle class as well, then one solution within the capitalist system is to move toward authoritarianism and embrace cult of personality leaders promising the moon even if they never deliver it. The other option vehemently opposed by the political and economic elites is to embrace Keynesian policies that would have a negative short-term impact on capital accumulation but strengthen and rationalize capitalism under a pluralistic society already operating under an oligarchic system longer term. Leaning heavily toward neoliberalism and globalization and against populism, the corporate media makes sure to propagate in favor of populist authoritarian politicians, stigmatizing Keynesian politicians as Socialists or Communists. Regardless of steadily declining living standards, people ideologically conditioned to fear not just Socialism but anything Keynesian which Roosevelt made popular in the 1930s, turn to the right politically because the hegemonic culture has conditioned them to accept authoritarianism more readily than democracy.
Public policy manifests itself in declining living standards forcing a record 44 million Americans or about 28% of the active labor force, to have a side job while just 20 billionaires own more wealth than the bottom half of the population. A study in 2014 examining various empirical aspects of society and concluded the US was an oligarchy because public policy carried out was tilted heavily toward the rich. “A proposed policy change with low support among economically elite Americans (one-out-of-five in favour) is adopted only about 18% of the time,” they write, “while a proposed change with high support (four-out-of-five in favour) is adopted about 45% of the time. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organised interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the US political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favour policy change, they generally do not get it. http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-echochambers-27074746
In charge of a cabinet composed of billionaires and generals living in the glory of Pax Americana weaker because of China global role, Trump’s refusal to place all of his assets into a blind trust while using his position to enrich his family has raised a debate about the role of public policy as a marketable commodity for sale to the highest bidder. Not just Saudi Arabia, the major financing source for jihadist terrorism since the 1980s, buying billions in US defense equipment only to destabilize the Middle East and maintain authoritarian regimes in power, but other governments have no illusions that the US economic nationalism is a cry for reducing the chronic balance of payments deficit by having surplus countries spend more in the US. The Saudi purchase of US weapons, in effect purchase of US foreign policy in the Middle East, provides but one of many illustration of public policy as a commodity.
In the process of commoditizing public policy, the personal fortunes of those in the administration become more favorable as a result of trade and investment policies no different than in many other countries, especially developing ones. Corporate welfare that transfers income from the lower classes to corporations comes with a price tag in the form of political contributions, but also rewards in the form of influence for securing contracts for well-connected companies. Given such a description, one would assume that this is how public is carried out in Russia and Kazakhstan or in Egypt and Indonesia, anywhere in the developing world but in America.
The US has similar characteristics with authoritarian Third World regimes where crony capitalism thrives and public policy is but an instrument to further those within the inner political and socioeconomic circle. It is true that the constitutional and political foundations of public policy in a pluralistic society differ considerably from the manner public policy is conducted in an authoritarian society. Nevertheless, the lines have become increasingly blurred in so far as the results are concerned affecting peoples’ lives, and even billionaires and corporate executives admit as much. With 80% of the US population burdened with debt, and a steady downward socioeconomic mobility since the early 1980s, combined with curtailed civil rights and diminished commitment to social justice, the US has been assuming greater characteristics of a developing nation and it is the reason that the Economist Group ranks it a ‘flawed democracy’.
Interestingly, American political, business and social elites want the public to believe that public policy as a marketable commodity characterizes only Third World nations in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, or corrupt regimes in Russia and former Soviet republics. The deeply ingrained ideology of “American Exceptionalism” accounts for the pervasive superiority complex in American society – the US is different, unique and exceptional carrying out a mandate of greatness for a higher purpose from Divine Providence. Objective metrics on the economy, social programs, education, health, poverty rates, treatment of minorities, political system, among 60 other indicators that the Economist Group analyzed run contrary to widely-held illusions of identity and point to a society that has some common characteristics with Third World countries.
Hardly unusual for politicians to use their office for private gain, at least once out of office, some have become multimillionaires like Bill Clinton providing insider influence through the respectability of the Clinton Foundation that doubles as a charitable organization and actually does some good work for those outside the mainstream of society. With Trump’s election, not just stylistics like a video where the president is wrestling a man with a superimposed effigy of the CNN news logo, but the use of the office as a tool for private gain and using public policy as a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder are hardly different tools from what any Third World dictator would employ. With very divisive rhetoric and policies that strike at the heart of pluralism, Trump seems to have brought authoritarianism out into the open, dropping all pretenses and showing the real character of American society that would embarrass previous presidents. Public policy for sale is only one of the Third World characteristics of America concealed behind the thin veil of ‘liberal democratic’ and pro-business rhetoric that the media and social elites employ as a daily mantra.
Public Policy as a Commodity
In 193 A.D., the Roman Empire’s Praetorian Guard offered the throne to the highest bidder, Didius Julianus, a very wealthy patrician. Julianus bought the throne and ruled for about nine weeks before a civil war erupted and ended Julianus’ reign. The offer of the throne to the highest bidder coincided with structural economic problems and marked the beginning of the long decline of the Western (Latin-speaking) part of the Empire that ultimately collapsed in the fifth century after successive Barbarian invasions. If one focuses on personalities and procedural aspects of what took place in Rome in 193, it is easy to overlook the larger issue of very serious structural problems. Similarly, if we focus on the cult of personality (Trump) and daily minutia of individual scandals and process, it is easy to see the larger issue that these are symptoms of American decline.
Whereas Julianus paid the Praetorian Guard for the privilege of governing the Roman Empire, modern elections are more sophisticated in concealing the commodity aspect of political leadership. Financing sources for modern political campaigns and the inordinate influence of corporate lobbies are not nearly as crude as the Praetorian Guard openly offering the highest public office for a price to the highest bidder. Whether in ancient Rome or modern America and other nations for that matter, public policy under the pretense of public consent and legitimacy is not carried out with the social contract in mind as stipulated in the Constitution. Rather it reflects the very narrow elite interests that make political contributions to retain their privileged status in society. When billionaires invest millions either directly, through political action committees, lobbying firms, or other organizations, they are investing for a return on their capital.
Not that Europe, South Korea, Japan, South Africa or the rest of the world is much different than the US regarding the manner that public policy is carried out and its dynamics. However, in the US, an imperial power with a global military and economic presence, politicians, the media, businesses and most academics make a point of praising their institutions as “democratic” and present public policy as an expression of the public’s will when they know better than anyone that public policy is a marketable commodity intended to promote certain sectors and companies. This has been the case from the era of mercantile capitalism when Absolute monarchs issued monopoly rights for commodities and trade routes until the present when the state uses much more subtle policy mechanisms – government guaranteed loans, corporate subsidies and fiscal policy – to manipulate and manage the economy.
In certain cases, the goal of public policy as an appendage of the private sector is part of a larger strategy to achieve inter-sector balance and prevent one sector or an oligopolistic one from undermining the entire economy as was the case of the railroads in late 19th century US when the Progressive Era began. A regulatory regime as envisioned in the late 19th century under the Progressive presidents (T. Roosevelt, W. H. Taft, and W. Wilson, 1900-1920) was intended to harmonize capitalist interests and minimize disequilibrium resulting from predatory capitalism that would cause the sort of deep recession that took place in the 1890s. When the Great Depression of the 1930s hit and completely disabled the private sector’s ability from serving society’s needs, the New Deal state became even more interventionist to hasten the health of the economy through public stimulus until the private sector became sufficiently healthy as to permit the state’s retreat once Harry Truman took over in 1945.
Beginning with Truman in the early Cold War, public policy was linked to geopolitical goals. The US deliberately sustained trade deficits to strengthen capitalism in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Western Europe as part of military alliances. Reflected in domestic policies of conformity and conservatism, Cold War policies created a backlash among those elements that viewed society as authoritarian and racist rather than democratic. Social conflicts manifested themselves in identity movements, from civil rights to gender equality to religious rights, some of which public policy would address in piecemeal manner, sidelining social justice as an all-encompassing issue. Democrat and Republican politicians embraced identity politics as the basis for public policy, but only as long as those groups embraced the goals of capitalism and its institutions. Both political parties and the media present identity politics as evidence of pluralism and democracy when in fact they are another distraction from the class struggle and an obstacle to social justice.
Under capitalism, public policy reflects the value system based on materialism, hedonism, atomism, and a marked absence of communitarian values or empathy for humanity as a collective community. As it promotes self-indulgence and identity with material possessions, public policy finds expression in the ubiquitous commercial popular culture. All mainstream institutions including the mass media, TV, and cinema subordinate social justice to individual material success as the ideal for all to achieve. This entails alienation not only of the social groups on the periphery of the institutional mainstream that are structurally locked out, but even of those within it that can never satisfy the hedonistic vortex which separates them from the other and from the collective society.
The existential emptiness that Jean-Paul Sartre discusses in Being and Nothingness is but a bourgeois realization of existing completely alone without a sense of a collective purpose in the age of secularism; of acting as a means to establish an identity against the background of a materialistic society where institutions encourage and reward atomism a rather than social integration and public welfare. For a segment of society, this existential alienation leads to authoritarianism that only further encourages social exclusion and elitism, but fulfills the existential void as the individual identifies with something greater than himself that projects power.
Too preoccupied with the daily grind of survival to be concerned with bourgeois existential alienation, workers face a dilemma of whether an authoritarian regime demanding greater conformity is able to deliver a higher living standard than a liberal one guaranteeing lifestyle choices but not much else. Beyond the question of the bourgeois “maximization principle” leading to happiness as it promises or creates more problems and greater unhappiness in society, there is the issue of public policy as a vehicle for social mobility and social justice. (Hilke Brockmann and Jan Delhey, eds. Human Happiness and the Pursuit of Maximization: Is More Always Better? (2013)
In a public opinion poll with the ranking of countries with the most negative emotions about their lives, Iraq ranked at the top in 2013, followed by Iran, Egypt, Greece, and Syria, while African countries rank among the lowest in the world. In fact the top ten “least happy nations” have political regimes that are not tolerant of diversity as in the case of Middle East countries, or they face monetary austerity as in the case of Greece and Cyprus where rapid downward social mobility is only one result of externally-imposed public policy. OECD surveys dealing with the issue of “life satisfaction”, which is actually a better method of measuring responses than using the term “happy”, southern and eastern European countries under austerity policies (economic contraction) rank the lowest – all suffering from externally-imposed policies. Northwest Europe, where national sovereignty entails greater autonomy in policy-making, ranks highest.
While no one is surprised about the rankings of Africa, Middle East, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, one may be surprised that the US ranks at about the same level as Mexico in similar surveys. That the US demonstrates characteristic similar to Third World countries ought to alarm its elites and policymakers especially since all major mainstream institutions (IMF, World Bank, OECD) are predicting continued downward social mobility for the US as China claims greater global market share in the 21st century.
As long as the corporate media and politicians point to evidence of broader national progress in GDP statistics and the stock market in which a small percentage of the population is invested shows advances, the general population is willing to postpone a better life for the present in exchange for a better future because “trickle-down economics” may eventually drench the masses from above like manna from Heaven. Capitalism promises the “possibility of riches” for those who conform and embrace the system and people dream and aspire to something better for the future. Therefore, they suspend disbelief of their own realities as they identify with something larger than themselves although they are on the periphery of the mainstream. They identify with the millionaire and billionaire, aspiring to become him or at least hoping for salvation through him, just as those with religious faith believe in salvation in the afterlife.
Through the media, the political and socioeconomic elites keep people perpetually immersed in the illusion of a seemingly ‘objective’ public is reality that will trickle down. Meanwhile, governments offer increasingly militaristic and police-state solutions to enforce conformity at home and keep client states in line abroad. The state delivers the message that the status quo is best suited for society and that any change would be detrimental, even if the majority of the people view existing public policy resulting in further social disintegration from the mainstream and a departure from bourgeois democracy.
As geographic and sociopolitical polarization which reflects the growing socioeconomic chasm continues to widen and more people are left in the periphery of the mainstream, authoritarianism will become more entrenched in the institutional structure; even as some aspects of pluralism remain with regard to cultural and lifestyle diversity issues. The mass media, billionaire-funded think tanks, the political and social elites will intensify their efforts to present authoritarianism as ‘democracy’, and they demand that people must embrace it there is no better alternative, least of all systemic change to redefine the terms of the social contract.
The Trump era brought into the forefront aspects of American “Third Worldism”, not just in the highly divided political arena reflected in sharp divisions in society, but across society and by all econometric and socio-metric comparisons between the US and other advanced capitalist countries. Not just US domestic policy, but foreign policy is also up for sale as long as it furthers defense and other industries. If US public policy is increasingly mirroring what takes place in the Third World, then could authoritarianism be as far off as many want to believe?
The image of power embodied in authoritarian politics is mesmerizing to many people even if their own material lives remain stagnant and social justice takes a back seat. Machiavelli was right that people worship power, at least the projection of power even if it is non-existent. This is universal, at least the image it projects, even if that entails that in reality society regresses in every respect and the lives of the majority deteriorate under authoritarianism. Desperation among the masses only reinforces the irrational tendencies and drives people to embrace regimes pursuing public policy contrary to their interests. Grassroots efforts to raise consciousness by stripping away the many layers of deception surrounding public policy and the institutional mainstream takes a long time but there is no better starting point for humanity to achieve humane-centered progress and social justice.
Jon V. Kofas, Ph.D. – Retired university professor of history – author of ten academic books and two dozens scholarly articles. Specializing in International Political economy, Kofas has taught courses and written on US diplomatic history, and the roles of the World Bank and IMF in the world.