The End of History, the Golden Straitjacket, and Inverted Totalitarianism
By chance I came across mention of a book by Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang entitled Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism, (Bloomsbury, 2008). Chang is a frequent contributor to The Guardian and I always look forward to reading his articles on economics there. Amazon had his book on sale, so I ordered a copy, which, having arrived surprisingly quickly, I dived right into.
It could have been subtitled “The Real History of Globalisation”, and though I’m always uncomfortable with the use of the word “myth” where falsification is meant (for it is only accurate of the degenerative or “deficient” phase of the mythical consciousness structure) the book is very good in describing how the real history of free trade , the “free market”, and globalisation have been falsified. Myth, whenever it becomes subordinate to the mental-rational consciousness, becomes propaganda, and is in that sense precisely what Plato meant by the use of “the Noble Lie” for social and political organisation of his Republic. So, although Plato disparaged the poets as confabulators, and myth as untruth, he nonetheless thought it useful and utile as propaganda.
That isn’t what myth is, of course. But just as magic is devalued by the mythic consciousness structure (Wicca becomes “wicked” and “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”) but is revalued as “miracle”, so too the mythical is devalued by the mental-rational structure as “falsification”, but is then revalued as propaganda and “the Noble Lie”. Myth isn’t concerned with the logical issues of “true or false”, but of eros and thanatos, or of life and death and meaning. The magical, by contrast, is more concerned with “the raw and the cooked” (but which really means “the wild and the tamed“, and with the powerful and the powerless).
In other words, “good and evil” and their relationship take very different forms for different consciousness structures. In fact, how good and evil are interpreted and understood in different civilisations is a very good indicator of the consciousness structure itself: or, as Shakespeare put it (and it’s the very first quote that Jean Gebser uses to introduce his Ever-Present Origin, “Our virtues lie in the interpretation of the time”. (Something also to keep in mind when reading Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals).
That isn’t what Chang’s book is about, though. I just mention that as an aside that we should be careful about how we take the word “myth” and mythos. Inasmuch as “myth” has become propaganda for a purely utilitarian, instrumentalising rationality, it is probably appropriate to interpret it as “falsification”, always remembering that this is not essentially what myth is.
Chang’s book scrutinises and exposes the multiple falsifications of the historical record advanced by the cheerleaders and propagandists for neo-liberalism, including the Unholy Troika of the IMF, World Bank, and World Trade Organisation (WTO), demonstrating that it is all just disguised self-interest and self-promotion consistent with the exposés of neo-liberalism in John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hitman or David Korten’s When Corporations Rule the World. Basically, the fact (usually denied by neo-liberals themselves) that neo-liberalism is only disguised neo-imperialism is the critique of most exposés of neo-liberal globalisation that I have read.
And that’s all well and good, but my interest lies in the “unintended consequence”, “perverse outcome” or “ironic reversal” (or “blowback”) effects of paying mere lip-service to “liberal” values while subverting them in practice; that is to say, duplicity, and the social and psychological costs of that duplicity in word and deed, all nonetheless rationalised in the name of “rational self-interest”. You probably recall the prime slogan that was used to promote neo-liberalism and the free market: “a rising tide lifts all boats”. Well, you don’t hear it much, if at all, since the 2007 market meltdown and the massive increase in global inequality. (In fact, Citicorp, in it’s notorious “Plutonomy Memos“, cynically changed it to “a rising tide lifts all yachts”).
What the “myth” of neo-liberalism and the global free market does is render obscure and opaque the self-contradictions of neo-liberalism, the fact that neo-liberalism (in fact all the neos, inclusive of neo-conservatism and neo-socialism) is a symptom of an age now in the process of devouring itself and negating its own foundations (exemplified, in one sense, in Chris Hedges’ The Death of the Liberal Class and in the phrase “illiberal liberalism”). My concern in all this is how liberalism and liberal democracy is coming to negate itself at “the end of history” and as the real meaning of “the end of history”, and is doing so without most people even being, seemingly, aware of it. Neo-liberalism is, in fact, a classic case of enantiodromia — reversal at the extremity, or hubris followed by Nemesis.
Few seemed to realise or even understand the antipathy to democracy that informed the views of neo-liberal theorists and promoters themselves — Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, Thomas Friedman, Margaret Thatcher, Francis Fukuyama, Samuel Huntington, and so on. Publicly, they paid the expected and obligatory lip-service to democracy while working simultaneously to subvert it by insulating a political, financial, and corporate elite from democratic scrutiny, responsibility, and accountability. Milton Friedman praised monopolies of power as “efficient” and claimed that corporations have no social responsibility (and Margaret Thatcher, echoing this, famously claimed “there is no such thing as society” anyway). Thatcher’s favourite economist, Friedrich Hayek, welcomed Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile (as did Thatcher herself). Thomas Friedman, seemingly undermining his own thesis, promoted neo-liberalism as “the Golden Straitjacket” in The Lexus and the Olive Tree, somehow ignoring one of the central tenets of liberalism itself — the freedom of self-determination. Chang quotes him as such: “Unfortunately”, writes Friedman, “this Golden Straitjacket is pretty much ‘one size fits all’… It is not always pretty or gentle or comfortable. But it’s here and it’s the only model on the rack this historical season.” (quoted in Chang, p. 21)
It seems pretty clear that, beginning with Milton Friedman’s praise of monopoly, followed by Thatcher’s TINA principle (“There is No Alternative”), supplemented by Fukuyama’s “end of history”, seconded by Thomas Friedman’s “Golden Straitjacket” as “the only model on the rack” that this trend and dynamic climaxes in Smollin’s “Inverted Totalitarianism” as he described it in Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Spectre of Inverted Totalitarianism. “Inverted Totalitarianism” is simply another way of describing what Bertram Gross already recognised in the trend in the early 1980s in his book Friendly Fascism. Even before Gross, US constitutional expert Arthur Selwyn Miller had already written about Democratic Dictatorship and The Modern Corporate State.
A self-defeating and ruinous triumph is what is called a “Cadmean Victory“, which is a prime example of enantiodromia and coincidentia oppositorum itself. Nietzsche had already anticipated it in his time as part of his “two centuries of nihilism” in which the triumph of democratic institutions would be, simultaneously, their self-negation and ruin. But Smollin’s phrase “inverted totalitarianism” pretty much attests to this sense of a “reversal” to which most people, it seems, remain willfully blind, or are blinded by a false dualistic logic.
Or is it? We assume, perhaps very wrongly, the the “average Joe and Jane” or the “common man and woman” are public-spirited and subscribe to democratic values. In polite company Joe and Jane may swear up and down that they do, while secretly longing for a strong man who can simplify life and who “can make the trains run on time” (as was said of Mussolini and Hitler) and are only to ready to turn over the keys to the kingdom. We saw that in the reactionary and authoritarian tendencies of Canada’s former neo-conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and also now in Donald Trump in the United States; in Viktor Orban in Hungary, and in the present reactionary government of Poland’s Law and Justice Party, and with Erdogan in Turkey. Far from being deviations from the neo-liberal screed, they are consummations of its logic of “the Golden Straitjacket” and its implicit preference for “monopolies” of power as economically “efficient” such as exemplified by the “market” friendly Pinochet regime.
Few, it seems, have asked themselves whether the proverbial “man in the street” isn’t actually now weary of democracy and that the neo-liberal cheerleaders are simply echoing that sentiment — that everyone is insincere and are all playing the game of lip-service and pretense. After all, the Bolsheviks and the Maoists all claimed to be “democratic” just as much as the fascists claimed to be “true democracy” (Goebbels’ view) simply because they were movements of “the masses” or das Volk, or “the Silent Majority”. Extreme collectivism and extremes of individualism (or competitive egoism and acquisitive individualism) both end in exactly the same place — the devaluation and debasement of the meaning of “democracy” that is the covert meaning of Fukuyama’s “end of history” and of Friedman’s “Golden Straitjacket”, leading to an “inverted totalitarianism” as being the only “rational” and efficient form of society — otherwise called “corporatocracy” or “the techno-corporate state”.
So, no, the Golden Straitjacket and the end of history are not very “gentle” or “pretty” or “comfortable” (we can agree with Friedman on that score), but, hey!… everybody at least knows who butters their bread and makes the trains run on time. No doubt, “inverted totalitarianism” will be cast as “progress”, simply because it looks like the only model on the rack, and in any case, will keep us supplied in all kinds of gizmos, gadgets, widgets, and goodies that will regularly relieve us of malaise and ennui, and make life seem at least tolerably entertaining.