Peter Barnes wrote last week in a letter to the Citizen that, whatever the validity of my other observations, he is not a neoliberal or a Thatcherite…
Tony Benn records in his diary in 1999 the introduction of a bill in parliament by Tony Blair’s government to privatize the British postal system. Benn writes that the Conservative Party opposite the supposedly left of center Labour Party were beside themselves, roaring in wave after wave of laughter as the bill was being read out. The Conservatives couldn’t believe that the privatization of this valued and formerly inviolable public service, the destruction of a public institution that they had failed to achieve in 10 years in power under Margaret Thatcher, was going to be accomplished by their opponents. The Labour Party? Thatcherite? Neoliberal?
In their long exodus from power, the Labour Party adopted the economic policies of the right, neoliberal economic policies. Peter Mandelson, Blair’s Karl Rove if you like, even declared after a “weekend-long policy brainstorming session” with Blair and Bill Clinton that “we’re all Thatcherites now.”
The man whose work is the basis of Cap and Trade was called Ronald Coase. In 1990, the year before he received the Nobel Prize in economics for the very theory we are discussing, Coase told the man who was to become the leading exponent of the localist opposition to empire and climate change, Paul Fenn, that Milton Friedman had hijacked his idea, that Cap and Trade couldn’t work because the contracts would be unenforceable – polluters would find ways to cheat. Whatever their disagreements, Coase and Friedman are considered two of the thought leaders of neoliberalism and Thatcherism.
That bit about unenforceability is important. Neoliberals have an answer to Coase’s opinion that Cap and Trade would just be a realm for gaming – fraud – by polluters. They call for a strong government, and say so, to extend markets across the world and enforce the rules of these markets. Neoliberals are not for weaker government – that is just propaganda for the Bakersfield chapter of the Tea Party.
Cap and Trade was a Republican policy, but in the logic of “triangulation”, the hallmark of Bill Clinton’s “political genius”, some Democrats decided to make it their policy. Then the Republicans dropped it and moved further toward the right. And the Democrats treat their opponent’s idea as progressive.
If you are proposing the privatization of the atmosphere, to create a new market to fix the old market and call for a strong national government to enforce this new economy, what school of thought (tracking back to which politician) do you belong to?
One definition or aspect of ideology – the limits of the thinkable – runs, “They don’t know it, but they are doing it.”
So much of the poverty of our discourse is the assumption that the field of action for these issues is the national or international, that local democracy must be set aside or is irrelevant. But my message here is that there are no imperial solutions to the problems of empire. Even if the federal government did pursue the reregulation of industry, carbon taxes, or cap and dividend, and the largess of these policies do trickle down to the masses as intended, they will cause new terrifying problems.
How will we organize opposition to new crises, or our current wars, if we are all on the federal government’s payroll? The founders of this project, the Enlightenment, believed you could not both have an empire and a democracy. Jefferson said that independence from the government was a necessary condition for a citizen, as opposed to a subject. What will happen, indeed what has happened, to the idea of a citizen, when the empire has the masses on financial life support?
Cap in Hand?
These mass movements are as bankrupt as the ideas they beg the powerful to implement. They say 400,000 marched in New York. In 1995, 870,000 gathered in Washington for the Million Man March – the lives of the overwhelming majority of African Americans have been in continued steady decline since in spite of it. Marching will not melt the hearts of CEOs or Presidents. Remember all of the idea men and activists that went to DC in ‘08 – and had their meetings with senators and the President’s men – believing that they could get Obama’s ear and convince him to address this or that crisis? And they tell us we should now have a new movement, to influence a new President or even the leaders of other countries. Do they really expect a better outcome from Hillary Clinton, supposing it isn’t Jeb Bush?
Anyone who believes the federal government will hear their prayers, over the inducements of industry and the white noise of imperial power will again be predictably disappointed. Go to the level of politics where citizens still have the ability to impose their will: the municipality is the sleeping giant of American democracy and the best hope for action on the climate and economy.
I invite Mr. Barnes to publicly discuss our differing positions and how to take action on these crises.