An economic tract which is seldom cited by today's neo-liberal philosophers was written by a contemporary of the 18th political philosopher Adam Smith. Jonathan Swift’s essay, "A Modest Proposal," was published almost 50 years before The Wealth of Nations appeared, and it spoke eloquently to the same injustices to which Adam Smith addressed himself in 1776.
Swift’s satire was written in the period of mercantile capitalism, during the original privatization drive, known in British history as the Enclosures. He witnessed hundreds-of-thousands of his fellow countrymen uprooted from their traditional homes, and reduced to roaming the countryside --stealing, starving, drinking and when possible selling sexual favors to stay alive. The practice of "scientific farming" in England, between 1710 and 1810, had major social and ideological consequences. New crops and new methods of farming effectively eliminated the common land that had afforded the poor peasants modest freedoms and traditional rights to help determine how the community’s subsistence economy was to be managed.
It was the beginning of the Industrial Revolution; with one wave of the magic wand, things were no longer what they appeared to be --all was transformed into commodities, everything had a quantitative exchange value and a price.
And why should England’s new capitalist class neglect an opportunity which was literally staring them in the face? The children of the poor, wrote Jonathan Swift --of the homeless, the prostitutes, the thieves-- could best be put to use as servings on the dining tables of the nouveaux riches:
I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore
very proper for landlords, who, as they have already
devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best
title to the children.
The American media this week has been abuzz with the pending appointment of John Ashcroft to the office of U.S. Attorney General. The successful confirmation of Ashcroft was reported by the Financial Times on February 2, at the bottom of page five, in a short article that proclaimed another "victory for President George W. Bush." In its typical "business-as-usual" tone, FT observed that: "As expected, all 50 Republicans voted for Mr Ashcroft" and "a substantial bloc of Democrats voted against Mr Ashcroft." (The exact vote, reported by IHT, was 58 to 42.) The Senate Democratic leader, Tom Daschle, was quoted by FT as warning
President Bush that he must be more moderate in the future: "We’ll co-operate when they’re from the centre. But we’re going to be very concerned when they come from the far right and we’ll use whatever means necessary." This militant posturing for the cause of moderation in itself deserves an explanation.
From the start, the nomination of Ashcroft was met with international opposition because of his long political record as State Attorney General, then Governor, and finally as U.S. Senator of Missouri. While serving in these elected State offices he established a national reputation, according to critics, as a confirmed racist against African Americans, a bigot against pro-choice positions on the abortion-rights issue, and partisan of the fundamentalist Christian homophobic attack on gay rights, to mention only a few of his ideological leanings. FT reported that such "unvarnished conservative views" as held by Mr Ashcroft would meet with continued resistance from progressive groups if Bush attempts to promote this ideology with other executive nominations, such as future federal court appointments and up-coming vacancies on the Supreme Court.
In fact, the appointment of Ashcroft to a top executive post in the U.S. government raises a host of basic questions, starting with: Who chose Bush to be president, in the first place? Who chose Daschle to represent the progressive forces that opposed Ashcroft’s appointment? How representative are the views of Bush, Ashcroft, and Daschle among the American people? And, what does the militant posturing of Daschle for the cause of moderation really mean in any ideological or practical sense?
President Bush was elected, as we know, by less than 25% of all the eligible
voters, nearly half of whom did not bother to vote. Apart from the
unprecedented margin of difference between the electoral-college votes and the
popular votes for the two candidates (Gore won the popular election by more
than half-a-million votes and lost the Electoral College election by 25
votes), and the "gross irregularities" in the Florida balloting (including
the disqualification of thousands of black -ostensibly anti-Republican-- votes), this election was much like
other elections in modern America: VOTER APATHY determined the outcome (or
tacit consent, as John Locke called it). It may not come as a surprise that
in the American political economy, where one percent of the population owns
50 percent of the wealth, elected officials must continually address the
interests of the wealthy in order to get re-elected, which is in fact their
raison d’être, unless they intend to abandon their political vocations
entirely for more lucrative corporate jobs (an increasingly popular career
choice for many politicians today). [For more information on the composition
of the U.S. government and the activities of its elected and non-elected
officials, readers are invited to visit atelier no.16, which deals with
Washington, D.C. lobbies. Also, the web link, The role of the federal
government, found at the bottom of our home page, is a useful source of
information for an analysis of the influence of corporations on U.S.
Concerning the question of ideology in America and, specifically, Ashcroft’s "unvarnished conservative views", it has been argued that racial prejudice plays a structural role in servicing the needs of American capitalism. Starting with the sustained policy of genocide against American Indians, followed by African-American slavery, and proceeding to the history of nativism within the labor movement and the continued social and economic subordination of women, the political economy of the U.S. has been shaped by received ideas. Or is the opposite true? Does the structural inequality of the political economy give birth to these ideologies?
Keith Dixon has argued that ideologies today are manufactured by professional ideologues employed by Think Tanks in America and Britain, and that the origins of these received ideas can be traced to their individual authors. He offers the example of Madsen Pirie and Eamonn Butler who left Scotland to work with Edward Feulner, an Senator from the State of Illinois who became co-founder of the neo-liberal Think Tank, known as the Heritage Foundation, in 1973. [See an excerpt from Dixon’s recent book, Les évangélistes du marché (Paris, 1998), in our atelier no.11, article no.6.] After their apprenticeship in America, Misters Pirie and Butler returned to Scotland in 1977 to found their own Think Tank, the Adam Smith Institute. The two men published a privatization manual with the ASI outlining neo-liberal strategies for social change. The book entitled, Dismantling the State : The Theory and Practice of Privatization was first published 1989. Since then, these two ideologues have been kept busy working as consultants in Eastern European countries. [For a list of prominent Think Tanks, most of which generate conservative neo-liberal ideas, please visit our web link, American Institutions, then click on Government and Politics.]
In another essay, Terry Eagleton develops a different analysis on the influence of ideologies in society. In chapter 2 of his book, Ideology, an Introduction (London, 1991), Eagleton offers an historical analysis of Thatcherism to explain the "strategies" that kept her in office. He concludes that "the importance of ideology has been over-emphasized" in recent years, that the manipulation of actual material conditions is proven to be much more effective than the manipulation of "symbols and signs" in controlling consciousness and the political order.[An excerpt from chapter 2 of Eagleton’s book can be found in our atelier no.11, article no.7.]
Finally, Susan George joins the discussion by Keith Dixon and Terry Eagleton over the battle of ideas and ideological hegemony. In her philosophical essay on How to Win the War of Ideas : Lessons from the Gramscian Right, she contributes a philosophical perspective on the question of ideology and society. "In Greek the hegemon is the leader," she begins
and from there it's just a linguistic hop, skip, and jump
to the notion of rule, authority, and dominance expressed
by the word "hegemony." Traditionally, the term was reserved
for states. In the 1920s and 1930s, the great Italian Marxist
thinker Antonio Gramsci took the concept further, using it to
explain how one class could establish its leadership over
others through ideological dominance. Whereas orthodox
Marxism explained nearly everything by economic forces,
Gramsci added the crucial cultural dimension. He showed how,
once ideological authority -- or "cultural hegemony" -- is established,
the use of violence to impose change can become superfluous.
After differentiating the theory of Marx from that of Gramsci, Susan George goes on to apply the latter’s theory to contemporary society.
Today, few would deny that we live under the virtually
undisputed rule of the market-dominated, ultracompetitive,
globalized society with its cortege of manifold iniquities
and everyday violence. Have we got the hegemony we
deserve? I think we have, and by "we" I mean the progressive
movement, or what's left of it. Obviously I don't deny the
impact of economic forces or of political events like the end
of the cold war in shaping our lives and our societies, but
here I intend to concentrate on the war of ideas that has been
tragically neglected by the "side of the angels." Many public
and private institutions that genuinely believe they are working
for a more equitable world have contributed to the triumph of
neoliberalism or have passively allowed this triumph to occur.
As the title of her essay indicates, George intends to give readers some strategic advice on how to overcome the influences of a nefarious ideology that, while ubiquitous, serves the interests of very few people in the short-run, and apparently no one in the long-run:
If this judgment sounds harsh, positive conclusions may still
be drawn from it. The Rule of the Right is the result of a
concerted, long-term ideological effort on the part of identifiable
actors. If we recognize that a market-dominated, iniquitous world
is neither natural nor inevitable, then it should be possible to build
a counter-project for a different kind of world.
She concludes her essay with a chilling account, not of what could happen, but rather what actually exists:
What if we lived in a society in which the system of justice
rested on the postulate that only two-thirds of its members
were fully human; the remaining third not deserving of the
same rights, except when arbitrarily granted? Such a society
would spontaneously and instantly -- at least in the West --
be called unjust.
The exclusion of a third or more of their members is, however,
precisely the situation that obtains in societies regulated almost
exclusively by the "laws of the market." There is a dangerous
semantic slippage from "law" to "laws of the market"; from
the body of democratically established rules for the proper
functioning of society to the blind operation of economic forces.
Neoliberals want "market law" to become the sovereign judge
of the rights of persons and of societies as a whole.
Hegel claimed that the only thing history teaches us is that
nobody ever learns anything from history. Recent history, if
we are attentive, might still teach us that a society can go from
law based on the equality of persons to the laws of the market;
from relative social justice to deep and chronic inequalities within
a few short years. The neoliberals' onslaught continues and their
intellectual hegemony is almost complete. Those who refuse to
act on the knowledge that ideas have consequences end up suffering
The recent election fo George W. Bush has brought in its wake an army of neo-liberal ideologues, not the least of which is Vice-President Cheney and his wife. Lynne Cheney served as a "cultural warrior" for the Republican Party for more than a decade, and her husband Richard Cheney, former Secretary of Defense under George Bush from 1989 to 1993, directed two of the largest military campaigns in recent history - Operation Just Cause in Panama and Operation Desert Storm in the Middle East. He was responsible for shaping the future of the U.S. military in an age of profound and rapid change as the Cold War ended. For his leadership in the Gulf War, Secretary Cheney was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George Bush on July 3, 1991.
More significantly, Richard Cheney went on to earn, after his temporary retirement from the executive branch of government, millions of dollars as a CEO in defense contracting for Halliburton Corporation's Brown and Root, an enterprise which, according to researcher Michael C. Ruppert, is "one of the major components of "The Bush-Cheney drug empire."
The success of Bush Vice Presidential running mate
Richard Cheney at leading Halliburton, Inc. to a five year
$3.8 billion "pig-out" on federal contracts and taxpayer-insured
loans is only a partial indicator of what may happen if the
Bush ticket wins in two weeks. A closer look at available
research, including an August 2, 2000 report by the Center
for Public Integrity (CPI) at
www.public-i.org, suggests that
drug money has played a role in the successes achieved by
Halliburton under Cheney's tenure as CEO from 1995 to 2000.
This is especially true for Halliburton's most famous subsidiary,
heavy construction and oil giant, Brown and Root. A deeper look
into history reveals that Brown and Root's past as well as the past
of Dick Cheney himself, connect to the international drug trade
on more than one occasion and in more than one way.
[For an unauthorized history of Richard Cheney’s business connections, readers are invited to visit our atelier no.15, article no.3.]
Meanwhile, Lynne Cheney, who beginning in 1986 served as President Reagan’s chairwoman at the National Endowment for the Humanities, had assumed her own role as militant right-wing cultural warrior for the Republican Party, writing "Op-Ed hit pieces" and appearing as a regular on TV political talk shows to attack the "enemies" of neo-liberalism, such as the National History Standards Board, which was introducing social history in American history school books. Eventually, Cheney was successful in her campaign, and the Board was dismantled in 1994. After the election of Bill Clinton in 1992, Lynne Cheney resigned her post and promptly called for the abolition of the NEH, the agency she once headed. She moved to the American Enterprise Institute in 1993, and subsequently became a director of the defense contractor Lockheed Martin, joining her husband who had already cashed in on the business contacts he had made during his tenure as Secretary of Defense from 1988 to 1992. [The outstanding documentary film The Panama Deception, directed by Barbara Trent, gives graphic and plausible explanation for why Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney was rewarded so handsomely by defense contractors after his retirement from the Pentagon in 1992.]
In 1995 Lynne Cheney wrote her book, Telling the Truth, in which the new vice-presidential wife attacks, among others, the French philosopher Michel Foucault. Cheney’s book is an ideological polemic and attempts to argue that Foucault's ideas threaten nothing less than the survival of Western civilization. "If we are to be successful as a culture," Cheney writes,
we cannot follow Foucault and turn away from
reason and reality. We must follow the great
thinkers of the Enlightenment and find the will
to live in truth.... The answer may very well
determine whether we survive.
The book was not a great success, and by 1999, she had all but ceased writing. In 1995 she got seven opinion articles into print. She left the TV political discussion program, Crossfire Sunday, in 1998. In the last two years, she published only two articles, one in the Wall Street Journal arguing that schools should tell kids what they need to know instead of allowing them to discover it for themselves, and the other in the Dallas Morning News defending phonics as a teaching method.
For more on the return of Lynne Cheney, readers are invited to read the essay by Jon Wiener [atelier no.11, article no.4].
With the recent political resurrection of John Ashcroft, the Cheney team, Collin Powell (proud defender of the Mai Lai Massacre in Vietnam) and many other Republican has-beens, we may see a repetition of the cultural wars of the 1980s in American society. Certainly the Grand Strategy of the right-wing leadership in American politics has not abandoned its program to dismantle the U.S. Department of Education and completely privatize schooling in America, by introducing a user-fees system which has already been tested in many municipal public libraries across the country. We may anticipate that Lynne Cheney’s voice will be heard in the next months on this and other issues dear to neo-liberal ideologues.
If Jonathan Swift and Adam Smith were alive today, reading about the embargo against Iraq, the Intifada in Israel, the "humanitarian" bombings in Kosovo, not to mention the international marketing of human body parts, they might conclude that the evils of mercantile capitalism were minor in magnitude compared to those of monopoly capitalism, about which they knew nothing. A century of war, as Gabriel Kolko pointed out in his book by the same title, has introduced unknown horrors to the world, mainly through means of greater efficiency. The understanding that capitalism has not yet run its course, leaves many of us with the chilling realization that, as Ronald Reagan was fond of repeating, "You ain’t seen noth’en yet...!"