By: Woodrow Lucas
The thing the ecologically illiterate don't realize about an ecosystem is that it's a system. A system! A system maintains a certain fluid stability that can be destroyed by a misstep in just one niche. A system has order, a flowing from point to point. If something dams the flow, order collapses. The untrained miss the collapse until too late. That's why the highest function of ecology is the understanding of consequences.
Paul Herbert - Dune
Paul Herbert in his novel Dune describes a world, Arrakis, wherein a religious movement changes every dimension of the planet from politics to ecology to economics to culture ultimately resulting in a world that bears no resemblance to its prior self (Herbert & Anderson, 2003). Similarly, Hackworth describes a force of collective consciousness, an economic process, an ideology, and this paper asserts a civil religion, termed neoliberalism, which is literally redefining the earth as we know it (Hackworth, 2007). Hackworth defines neoliberalism as “an ideological rejection of egalitarian liberalism in general and the Keynesian welfare state in particular, combined with a selective return to the ideas of classical liberalism wherein the greatest good would be encouraged by using government only as a protector of free exchange (Hackworth, 2007)”. Yet in reality, as Hackworth asserts, neoliberalism is more than just an ideology, but it is an economic process as well (Hackworth, 2007). This paper goes one iteration further than Hackworth and asserts that neoliberalism is also a civil religion. Consequences of neoliberalism include but are not limited to a widening gap between rich and poor, the displacement of inner city and world indigenous populations, the transfer of manifest governance from the state to the multinational corporation, and the systematic ruin of the earth’s ecosystem.
This paper asserts that neoliberalism is a phenomenon that manifests itself in three major expressions, namely, neoliberalism as economic process, neoliberalism as ideology, and neoliberalism as civil religion. This paper further asserts that these three expressions of neoliberalism operate in synergistic tandem wherein each expression mutually reinforces the others. Hackworth describes five major strategies to counter neoliberalism, “Keynesian defense”, “anti-globalization”, “living wage activism”, “anti-gentrification efforts”, and “collectivist economic technologies” (Hackworth, 2007). However, as Hackworth observes these resistance efforts are often fragmented and disempowered by internecine conceptions. This paper argues that the reason for this fragmentation is a failure by most scholars and activists, to include Hackworth, to recognize the civil religious dimensions of Neoliberalism which often mask some of its most pernicious undercurrents and the consequential failure to create a civil religious counter which could possibly unify current initiatives of resistance.
Neoliberalism as ideology
Neoliberalism is philosophically rooted in classical liberalism which is based on three major tenets, individual autonomy, Adam Smith’s reverence for the free market, and a non-interventionist state (Hackworth, 2007). Neoliberalism is also an antipodal reaction to egalitarian liberalism. Egalitarism liberalism both evolves from and reflects a counter to classical liberalism in that it highly reverences individual autonomy and rights, yet makes the claim that the market is incapable of creating and preserving those rights and so it is the responsibility of government to regulate markets, pursue an economically redistributive agenda, and maintain a safety net or welfare state for the most impoverished of citizens (Hackworth, 2007)
The economic analogue to egalitarian liberalism is Keynesian Economics. Keynesianism economics operates mostly on the principle that “markets are far from perfectly self-regulating, rather they can self destruct without targeted intervention by various levels of government (Hackworth, 2007)”. In keynesian constructs, government also plays a redistributive role (Hackworth, 2007). In the Keynesian system governments maintain “effective demand” by providing some forms of income distribution government that are able to assist growth through the collective ability to consume more commodities(Hackworth, 2007). Keynesians believe that such government expenditures are not a weight for the economy because of the “multiplier effect.” “The multiplier effect suggests that if the conditions for circulation are protected and the populace saves some portion of its income, government expenditures can generate economic value greater than the original investment (Hackworth, 2007).”
Again, Neoliberalism reflects a rejection of egalitarian liberalism in favor a blend between classical liberalism and neo-conservatism (Hackworth, 2007). Neoconservatism is “fundamentally rooted in an effort to resurrect a past set of social conditions (Hackworth, 2007). Though Hackworth is quick to draw distinctions between neoconservatism and neoliberalism in the international context, in the American context they are virtually indistinguishable. The economic analogue to neoliberalism is monetarism, first proposed by Friedman (Hackworth, 2007). Monetarism rejects the idea of Keynesian demand management, in favor of regulating the money supply as a way to augment markets (Hackworth, 2007). If economic liberalism was a response to market failure then neoliberalism is a response to the supposed failures of government which were most resonant in the inflation and unemployment crisis of the 1970’s (Hackworth, 2007). Neoliberalism attributes most social problems not to market failure but to a mismanagement of government (Hackworth, 2007). The rhetoric and policies of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, coupled with the fall of communism ostensibly inculcated neoliberalism into the collective consciousness of the international social, economic, and cultural fabric consequently ushering in an era wherein neoliberalism is the a priori standard against which all political ideologies and technologies are measured.
Neoliberalism as economic process
Hackworth is quick to point out that neoliberalism is as much a process as it is an ideology (Hackworth, 2007). Armed with technologies such as gentrification and devolution, neoliberalism is a process of economic, social, and political transformation. More specifically, a complex relationship between devolution toward state economic and social responsibility, increased federal government pressure on states to create more punitive infrastructure such as jails and law enforcement, and state and city debt financing conspires to entrench neoliberalism as the effective mechanism of urban renewal and sustenance in America (Hackworth, 2007).
Hackworth maintains that in reaction to decreased federal funding states float long term bonds and short term bonds to fund infrastructure development and social programs. This makes them beholden to private interests in regards to money owed. Similarly, bond rating agencies such as Moody’s Investors Service and Standard and Poor’s force city governments to act more like “businesses” than municipalities in order to ensure that bonds have a high rating and are thus more attractive to investors (Hackworth, 2007). As a result local municipalities increasingly adopt a more neoliberal agenda, resulting in a further top down push toward state and city “autonomy” (Hackworth, 2007). The unfortunate irony to any notion of city and state autonomy is that local municipalities end up trading dependence on the federal government which is at least democratically controlled to dependence on private investors who may or may not have any interest in national, local, or neighborhood well being. Other mechanisms through which neoliberalism becomes entrenched are included but not limited to, the shift toward private real estate hegemony as an agenda for urban renewal and gentrifying mixed income initiatives like Hope VI which promise better access and choice to the impoverished but often result in displacement (Hackworth, 2007).
Neoliberalism as civil religion
According to the General Social Survey conducted in 2006, over 91% of Americans stated that they had a religious preference and over 50% of Americans reported attending a religious service at least once a month (Michigan, 2006). This demonstrates that in America, which is often the economic and cultural standard for the world, religion is an extremely important dimension of all facets of social life. Conspicuously absent from Hackworth’s exposition on the widespread proliferation of neoliberalism and conspicuously absent from many scholarly accounts of neoliberalism’s antecedents and consequences is any discussion of the role that religion plays in inculcating neoliberalism as an ideology and economic process.
Bellah defines civil religion as the common elements of religious orientation that a great majority of Americans share which have played a crucial role in the development of American life and which create a public religious dimension as expressed by a set of beliefs, symbols, and rituals (Bellah, 2005). An example of civil religion in action is the swearing in the President of the United States and other military and elected officials in which God language is prevalent (Bellah, 2005). But the foundations of civil religion need not necessarily be focused upon a deity. Paul Tillich introduced the notion of “ultimate concern” wherein one’s theological or religious disposition is a function of what concerns a person most such that they are willing to accept an a priori set of beliefs based on faith (Tillich, 1957).
The premises of classical liberalism and its current progeny, neoliberalism are more than an ideology, but are actual a set of beliefs which it requires blind faith to appropriate. Number one, the idea that the free market is “all powerful”, requires a faith in something “unseen” and number two, the suspicion of government has religious roots all the way back to the Roman occupation of Israel and its forced “taxation” upon the Israelite people. Consequently, this paper argues that neoliberalism is buttressed by a working and middle class which is willing to forsake their own interests as the result of faith concerns raised by the marriage of neoliberalism to their religious sensibilities. The civil religious backdrop in America lends itself to the faith suppositions of neo-liberalism and causes neoliberalism to capture the religious imagination of American polity. While this civil religious dimension does not fully explain the spread of neo-liberalism worldwide, it certainly explains it in one of neoliberalism’s gestation nations, specifically, the United States. Similarly, the developing nations, often most victimized by neoliberalism have a penchant for the religious which in some cases and senses is even stronger than in America and those countries most apt to resist neoliberalsm such as certain nations in Scandanavia have highly secularized cultures. While these two phenomena do not fully explain the lingua franca of neo liberalism, they present at least enough evidence to warrant further examination. Grenholm is so specific in connecting neoliberalism to religion that he lists it as part of his taxonomy of Christian viewpoints on economics (Grenholm, 2004), and calls the category, “Christian Neoliberalism.”
The five counters to neoliberalism
Hackworth cites five counter movements to neoliberalism in the United States, “Keynesian defense”, “anti-globalization”, “living wage activism”, “anti-gentrification efforts”, and “collectivist economic technologies”. Keynesian defense is a strategy to “save public housing, space, welfare, hospitals, child care”, and other artifacts of the Keynesian regime (Hackworth, 2007). Anti-globalization is an organizing campaign centered against “not globalization per-se, but rather the corporate-led, neoliberally inspired centralization of global resources in a small number of institutions and individuals (Hackworth, 2007). Living wage activism is an initiative focused on specific economic issues like the lack of a living wage for many Americans and are “organized in an Alinskyesque fashion of agitating to improve the economic (or social) plight of a particular group to a particular injustice (Hackworth, 2007).” Anti-gentrification efforts focus on opposing urban renewal efforts such as demolition of public housing and “publicly funded projects for private benefits” such as sport stadiums or coliseums (Hackworth, 2007). Collectivist economic technologies are mechanisms of collective ownership which “magnify” the power of traditionally disenfranchised groups in the market economy through the pooling of resources (Hackworth, 2007). Examples of collectivist economic technologies include but are not limited to credit unions, banks that lend to the poor locally, groups that print their own currency, workers purchasing companies from owners and jointly owning said companies, groups producing their own goods, housing cooperatives, and cooperative land trusts. The “underlying theme” of collectivist economic technologies is to keep as much capital as local as possible and to replace individualist property rights with collectivist ones (Hackworth, 2007). While all of these resistance efforts are potentially viable as Hackworth points out, they suffer from pronounced coordination problems and reflect in some cases conflicting underlying ideologies (Hackworth, 2007).
So where do we go from here? – Civil Religious Coherence in the resistance of Neoliberalism
This paper has described neoliberalism as a fundamental process, ideology, and civil religion which has in some senses already reshaped America and is reshaping the world. However, resistance efforts have been resilient and creative in attempting to thwart its spread and to reclaim progressive or at least egalitarian liberal precepts, mechanisms, and artifacts. This paper asserts that the fundamental problem affecting these resistance efforts has been a lack of cohesion which neoliberal ideologues have possessed. This paper further asserts that it may in fact be the formation of an egalitarian liberal “civil religion” of its own which could provide the necessary cohesion for resistance efforts. This civil religion would need to have the following attributes to be successful: 1) A tolerant religious outlook which embraced the inherent dignity and worth of the world’s religions to include atheism 2) A pragmatic disposition that is willing to agree to disagree on non-essentials so as to facilitate unity on essentials 3) A fervent faith orientation, as in an orientation where all members believe that a progressive alternative to neo-liberalism can be achieved 4) An evangelical bent, wherein individuals within this civil religion are constantly attempting to convert adherents of neoliberalism to a progressive world view 5) A collectivist mindset wherein individuals are willing to share goods, resources, and information toward collective benefit. While this notion of a counter-civil religion may seem quixotic, it bears ominous similarity to the organizing efforts of the Obama campaign which was successful. Bearing in mind that Obama may in fact reflect the rise of a “counter” civil religion to the neo-liberalists regime there may just be hope for a peaceful coup.
Bellah, R. N. (2005). Civil religion in America. Daedalus, 134(4), 40-55.
Grenholm, C. H. (2004). Justice, Ethics and Economics. Studies in Christian Ethics, 17(2), 47.
Hackworth, J. (2007). The neo-liberal City: Governance, ideology, and development in American urbanism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
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Tillich, P. (1957). Dynamics of Faith. New York: Torchbooks.