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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 1/29/20

The Disaster of Utopian Engineering

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This column is drawn from notes that Chris Hedges wrote in preparing for a debate held today by the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. Hedges, speaking from Princeton, N.J., argued for the motion: "Be it resolved, politics isn't working as usual. It's time for a revolution." Opposed was David Brooks, an op-ed columnist for The New York Times who spoke from Washington, D.C. A podcast of the contest will be available later.

Karl Popper in "The Open Society and Its Enemies" warned against utopian engineering, massive social transformations led by those who believe they found a revealed truth. These utopian engineers carry out the wholesale destruction of systems, institutions and social and cultural structures in a vain effort to achieve their vision. In the process, they dismantle the self-correcting mechanisms of incremental and piecemeal reform that are impediments to that vision. History is replete with disastrous utopians -- the Jacobins, the Marxists, the fascists and now, in our own age, the globalists, or neoliberal imperialists.

The ideology of neoliberalism, which makes no economic sense and requires a willful ignorance of social and economic history, is the latest iteration of utopian projects. It posits that human society achieves its apex when individual entrepreneurial actions are free from government constraints. Society and culture should be dictated by the primacy of property rights, open trade which sends manufacturing jobs to sweatshops in China and the global south and permits the flow of money across borders and unfettered global markets. Labor and product markets should be deregulated and freed from government oversight. Global financiers should be given control of the economies of nation-states. The role of the state should be reduced to ensuring the quality and integrity of money, along with internal and external security, and to privatizing control of land, water, public utilities, education and government services such as intelligence and often the military, prisons, health care and the management of natural resources. Neoliberalism turns capitalism into a religious idol.

This utopian vision of the market, of course, bears no relationship to its reality. Capitalists hate free markets. They seek to control markets through mergers and acquisitions, buying out the competition. They saturate the culture with advertising to manipulate public tastes and consumption. They engage in price fixing. They build unassailable monopolies. They carry out schemes, without checks or oversight, of wild speculation, predation, fraud and theft. They enrich themselves through stock buybacks, Ponzi schemes, structured asset destruction through inflation, asset stripping and the imposition of crippling debt peonage on the public. In the United States, they saturate the electoral process with money, buying the allegiance of elected officials from the two ruling parties to legislate tax boycotts, demolish regulations and further consolidate their wealth and power.

These corporate capitalists spend hundreds of millions of dollars to fund organizations such as Business Roundtable and the Chamber of Commerce and think tanks such as The Heritage Foundation to sell the ideology to the public. They lavish universities with donations, as long as the universities pay fealty to the ruling ideology. They use their influence and wealth, as well as their ownership of media platforms, to transform the press into their mouthpiece. And they silence heretics or make it hard for them to find employment. Soaring stock values, rather than production, become the new measure of the economy. Everything is financialized and commodified.

These utopians mutilate the social fabric through deindustrialization, turning once-great manufacturing centers into decayed wastelands, and the middle and working class, the bulwark of any democracy, into a frustrated and enraged precariat. They "offshore" work, carry out massive layoffs and depress wages. They destroy unions. Neoliberalism because it was always a class project and this was its goal redistributes wealth upward. "Robbed of the protective covering of cultural institutions," Karl Polanyi writes in his book "The Great Transformation," human beings "perish from the effects of social exposure" and die as "victims of acute social dislocation."

Neoliberalism, as a class project, is a brilliant success. Eight families now hold as much wealth as 50% of the world's population. The world's 500 richest people in 2019 added $12 trillion to their assets, while nearly half of all Americans had no savings and nearly 70% could not have come up with $1,000 in an emergency without going into debt. David Harvey calls this "accumulation by dispossession." This neoliberal assault, antagonistic to all forms of social solidarity that put restraints on amassing capital, has obliterated the self-corrective democratic mechanisms that once made incremental and piecemeal reform possible. It has turned human beings and the natural world into commodities to be exploited until exhaustion or collapse. The ruling elites' slavish devotion to corporate profit and the accumulation of wealth by the global oligarchy means they are unwilling or incapable of addressing perhaps the greatest existential crisis facing the human species the climate emergency.

All competing centers of power, including government, have now been seized by corporate power, and corrupted or destroyed. We have undergone what John Ralston Saul calls a coup d'e'tat in slow motion. It is over. They won.

At the same time, these utopians, attempting to project American power and global dominance, launched invasions and occupations throughout the Middle East that have descended into futile quagmires costing the United States between 5 trillion and 7 trillion dollars. This utopian project in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and, by proxy, in Yemen, has killed hundreds of thousands, displaced or made refugees of millions, wrecked cities and nations, created failed states that incubate radical jihadist groups and fatally weakened American power. Indeed, these wars, some now in their 18th year, are the greatest strategic blunder in American history. The utopians culturally, linguistically and historically ignorant of the countries they occupied believed in their naivete' that they could implant democracy in places like Baghdad and see it emanate out across the Middle East. They assured us we would be greeted as liberators; the oil revenues would pay for reconstruction and Iran would be cowed and defanged. This was no more achievable or grounded in reality than the utopian scheme to unfetter the market and unleash worldwide prosperity and liberty.

Once a cabal monarchial, communist, fascist or neoliberal seizes power, its dismantling of the mechanisms that make reform possible leaves those who seek an open society no option but to bring the system down. The corporate state, like the communist regimes I covered in Eastern Europe, is not reformable from within. The failures that plague us are bipartisan failures. On all of the major structural issues, including war and the economy, there is little or no divergence between the two ruling political parties of the U.S. The concentration of wealth and power in the hands of an oligarchic elite, as Aristotle warned, leaves only two options -- tyranny or revolution. And we are fast on the road to tyranny.

Neoliberal utopianism, because it suppresses the freedoms to organize, to regulate and to protect the common good and empowers the freedoms to exploit and consolidate wealth and power, is always fated, Polanyi writes, to end in authoritarianism or outright fascism. The good freedoms are lost. The bad ones take over.

Neoliberalism has given rise to the worst form of monopoly capitalism and greatest level of income inequality in American history. The banks and the agricultural, food, arms and communications industries have destroyed regulations that once impeded their monopolies, allowing them to fix prices, suppress wages, guarantee profits, abolish environmental controls and abuse their workers. They have obliterated free market competition.

Unfettered capitalism, as Karl Marx pointed out, destroys the so-called free market. It is hostile to the values and traditions of a capitalist democracy. Capitalism's final stage, Marx wrote, is marked by the pillage of the systems and structures that make capitalism possible. It is not capitalism at all. The arms industry, for example, with its official $612 billion defense authorization bill a figure that ignores numerous other military expenditures tucked away in other budgets, masking the fact that our real expenditure on national security expenses is over $1 trillion a year has gotten the government to commit to spending $348 billion over the next decade to modernize our nuclear weapons and build 12 new Ohio-class nuclear submarines, estimated at $8 billion each. We spend some $100 billion a year on intelligence read surveillance and 70% of that money goes to private contractors such as Booz Allen Hamilton, which gets 99% of its revenues from the U.S. government. We are the largest exporters of arms in the world.

The fossil fuel industry swallows up $5.3 trillion a year worldwide in hidden costs to keep burning fossil fuels, according to the International Monetary Fund. This money, the IMF notes, is in addition to the $492 billion in direct subsidies offered by governments around the world through write-offs, write-downs and land-use loopholes.

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Chris Hedges spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years.

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