“Neoliberal democracy. Instead of citizens, it produces consumers. Instead of communities, it produces shopping malls. The net result is an atomized society of disengaged individuals who feel demoralized and socially powerless.
In sum, neoliberalism is the immediate and foremost enemy of genuine participatory democracy, not just in the United States but across the planet, and will be for the foreseeable future.”
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I finally found time and space to write about this quotation by Professor Noam Chomsky. I was supposed to have done this sooner but three things happened and they’ve prevented me from complying with the scheduled pipeline of posts:
- I was waiting (in vain) for any type of reaction from any type of person about this quotation. I wanted to know whether they could relate to it, whether reading it made them stop to think about their lifestyle, or whether they thought I was simply going nuts… As you might’ve guessed, I did not get any response. Not one “Like”, not one “Huh”, niente. So I did what I usually do when in a situation of no-data: I started people watching (and sometimes, unintentionally eavesdropping). More specifically, I started to closely observe people when they exit different stores (bakery, grocery, shopping mall, cafés, restaurants, bookshops, cinema, theater, concert hall, gym, cooking lessons, etc…). Luckily, I live in a quartier with varied shops and services so it was easier. What’s more, Paris has been generous with the “non-rainy” weather so it was a perfect time for me to walk my son and do my semi-research.
- Chomsky is not easy to read. Chomsky is not easy to read. Chomsky is NOT easy to read.
- The life of an 11-month old baby happened every single day.
Below is a rough description of what I found out; rough because information was gathered only through observation, and rough as well due to the short time I dedicated doing such people-watching activity. I do not claim to write universal truths. Rather, I claim to document some conclusions I gathered from the dispersed and even random observations that sometimes presented a pattern.
Thank you for your understanding, dear reader.
I have decided to slice Chomsky’s quotation in different parts and present my corresponding reflections about them. You may proceed to “Conclusions” should the whole text be too tedious for you. I do hope to have tickled your brain.
Neoliberalism (noun): a policy model of social studies and economics that transfers control of economic factors from the public sector to the private sector. It suggests that governments must limit subsidies, make reforms to tax law in order to expand the tax base, reduce deficit spending, limit protectionism and open markets up to trade. It also seeks to abolish fixed exchange rates, back deregulation, permit private property, and privatize businesses run by the state (Investopedia).
Democracy (noun): Form of government where a constitution guarantees basic personal and political rights, fair and free elections and independent courts of law.
In other words, in this environment it would seem that the chosen leaders of states limit their economic participation to being of service to the market which eventually results to the benefit of the capital (as opposed to their sworn oath to serve the people).
Consider how fast governments react when faced with a financial crisis, as opposed to situations when they have to manage a humanitarian disaster… For instance, how long did it take “Brussels” to rescue national banks during the debt crisis, and how long did it take the same institution to disburse aid in countries which received and hosted refugees?
Image courtesy of: http://themarketsoul.com
Thus, these first two words- neoliberal democracy- seem to be referring to democracy designed to serve the market, and ultimately the capital. It is where citizens choose (or denounce) their leaders, who in turn pledge to serve them (or are ousted from their post) but whose allegiance is highly questionable due to the interests they fiercely protect once they hold office.
“Instead of citizens, it produces consumers. Instead of communities, it produces shopping malls”
The heart of Chomsky’s quotation is based on the wide-spreading habit of consumerism: there comes a point where consumers lose their humanity trying to keep up with certain standards of living promoted by reality shows, celebrities and glossy magazines, to name a few influencers. Communities are slowly being dispersed as individuals (even when they are in the company of friends or family) scout shopping malls, online stores or traditional shops to acquire and accumulate… only to realize that what they bought only a week ago is of “no use”, “fashionable”, “à la mode“, “cool” anymore, making them want to acquire and accumulate some more. Likewise, think about how in most cases the items people buy not only go quickly out of fashion, but they also require OTHER products for their maintenance and protection. The same goes for the wide range of services offered for such ends.
Apparently, this neoliberal-flavored democracy makes sure that private consumption is highly encouraged; as it is proving to be a very effective tool to energize (or recharge!) markets and satisfy capital (ists). (Financialization is of course THE tool, but that subject belongs to a separate post.)
Notice how progress is usually equated to abundance- simplified by mechanisms such as credit cards and periodical payments that encourage fast-paced and immediate consumerism practically anywhere in the globe. An important part of the immense middle-classes subscribe to this behaviour.
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Try to honestly look at the society you live in and evaluate whether individuals are convinced of this mentality. It’s easy to see how, when elevated at a national level, this psychology could lead to the conclusion that accumulation of material objects is the most important indicator of advancement in the society: the more goods and services one can get hold of, more successful is the person!
Therefore, as it is only natural for people to aim for progress and betterment of their lives (and of their households), they will catch up on this trend and enter the vicious cycle of acquisition, accumulation, isolation, desperation… But this is getting ahead of the topic.
“The net result is an atomized society of disengaged individuals who feel demoralized and socially powerless”
When giving in the urge to consume (read: to buy), people usually feel an immediate burst of happiness. Suddenly, the touch of the latest mobile phone, the feel of a new shirt or the shiny glare of a jewelry excites the heart. It gives the similar euphoric sensation of having reached a mountain top, or having passed an exam- SUCCESS. Yet, unlike the more lasting satisfaction of overcoming a tough challenge, the contentment one receives from buying lasts only a very little while. After the feeling is gone, people are once again defeated by the longing to buy some more (after all, there are not many people who would climb the same mountain peak twice in one month or who would request to do the same test just for the thrill of it).
This cycle would go on and without noticing, the buyers become trapped in their own bubble of possessions and accumulation that they find it hard to see outside of it. And so it goes: branching out but never seeming to stop, forming layers of veil around the consumers’ eyes, blinding them further. This inevitably results in isolation and eventually, in desperation.
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An exception could be made for those who consume culture (meaning: those who buy AND make use of books, magazines, board games). The same could be observed for people who acquire services related to entertainment, health and well-being: they seem to at least be more in contact with society (social media included). Without exactly entering in their psyche to draw conclusions on how they feel, people who consume culture at least do not seem too disengaged from society. Rationally speaking: they would be aware of current political, social and economic happenings around, about and beyond. They are able to form opinions, share them and perhaps learn (if they are open-minded enough) from others who have opposing ideas and experiences. This is a participatory activity. This is engagement. This is empowering.
With regards to demoralization, it’s not easy to directly blame it to an individual’s lack of social engagement. For it cannot be denied that there exists a risk of demoralization both in being socially detached as well as being too attached to a cause.
As for powerlessness: further reading on Chomsky is necessary to know what he means with being “powerful” or “powerless”. Because: who among the normal, everyday Joes, Janes, Josés, Abduls, Rajahs, Pierres, Célines, Paolos, Ciaras, Zhangs, Tangs, manongs and manangs truly feel powerful in relation to their societal ranking?
“In sum, neoliberalism is the immediate and foremost enemy of genuine participatory democracy…”
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It should not be a surprise for the professor/activist to conclude that neoliberalism merely gives an illusion of freedom. Indeed it facilitates access to goods, services and even to opportunities! but in reality, it traps citizens into a cycle of constant buying and accumulating.
To quote a part of another post from this blog:
Georg Simmel used fashion as a fantastic example to explain my point: “The elite initiates a fashion and, when the mass imitates it in an effort to obliterate the external distinctions of class, abandons it for a newer mode- a process that quickens with the increase of wealth.”
Notice how the middle-class have lately become quite busy purchasing the now-accessible goods and services (most of the times with the now more-accessible credit) which make them feel like they’ve reached a higher echelon in society- cars, properties, branded clothing, lavish celebrations, vacations overseas, and so on… All the while consuming, they don’t seem to notice how the economic gap is actually widening, not slowly diminishing. Something inside me says that this phenomenon has been successful in somehow placating conflicts that could possibly stem from the common people.
Why not take the system “by the horns” and turn it to favor the majority? People can start consuming more culture, health and/or well-being to improve their personal growth and at the same time stimulate participation in the immediate and more global community.
As long as democracy is the scenery, the people still hold a slight (if not marginal; if not illusionary?) “power” over deciding the fate of the societies they thrive in. As long as freedom of choice, speech and expression are not yet punishable by law, people still have the chance to play this game and win something from it.
“…not just in the United States but across the planet, and will be for the foreseeable future”
For a long time now, the United States has always been considered as a model for success, crediting a democractic system that boosts opportunities. And if democracy has been painted as the ideal situation to flourish, then it is only normal for the rest of the world to look up to its greatest champion (?). It is only befitting if other societies applied what the Americans are doing to enjoy that kind of freedom (with opportunities, of course).
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Therefore, it should not be a shock if people are all around are being converted into hasty, impulse purchasers and that communities have been replaced by shopping malls, cafés, Apple stores, internet fora discussing about Pokemon Go tips, and so forth. Observe how ads try to convince buyers that patronizing such and such product is liberating (think of a perfume brand), or it makes one a responsible parent (think of a tire brand), encouraging socializing (think of dating websites), empowering (think of an energy drink), etc… It does seem that purchasing is a very important manner with which to enjoy the freedom a democratic system offers.
Only lately (and perhaps this is because of the ease with which information is accessed- thanks to technology!) Scandinavian countries are redefining what an “ideal situation” is, to include wealth redistribution when referring to progress. This results in a society with the habit of making decisions for the common good. For example, the citizens willingly pay higher taxes (which means less disposable money for consumption) in exchange for benefits that their family and others could enjoy. Of course, the Nordic Model is not without challenges and controversy. Still, it is worth mentioning and hopefully also of emulating.
Chomsky might have had a vision when he pronounced the last part of his statement. Evidence is just around the corner. Thankfully, nothing is permanent and information keeps flowing, just like power politics. So even if it will take time to materialize, this humble blogger is defying the professor’s prognosis by predicting that there will be societies to challenge the current world order and new generations will resist conforming to the numbing comforts of neoliberalism. The phenomenon will not be totally global, but resistance will prevail and it will traverse frontiers and eras.
Within a neoliberal democratic environment, citizens supposedly feel powerful as they “hold” the keys of their future. They vote for their leaders, express their discontent and can even denounce the same leaders they once trusted. However, the said leaders propel the citizens to slowly but surely succumb to the comforts offered by consumption, as they limit their economic participation to guaranteeing smooth markets and satisfied capital (ists). Eventually, the need to keep filling the void in people’s lives through purchasing plus the requirement to maintain, repair, protect and care for their acquired possessions begin to bait them in a vicious cylce that engages their time, and their interests until they lose such time and interest for others- for the society. In this case, their power to shape the future of their societies become limited to protecting their own interests without regards to how their neighbors are faring. They become isolated in their constant need to possess and to amass.
However, consumerism may take different forms; there exist other types of goods and services to buy and enjoy. By supporting products that enrich ones’ perspectives and encourage ones’ interest for diverse cultures, ideas and experiences, the citizens who were once trapped in their own “comfortable” world could gain exposure. They could have the chance to share, live and win something from this game designed to benefit only a few.
If this trend is to be supported by the new breed, if it continues and is spread throughout borders and generations, then genuine participatory democracy can be enjoyed by more and within a longer period of time.
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- “Market Democracy in a Neoliberal Order: Doctrines and Reality” by Noam Chomsky, available at: https://chomsky.info/199711__/
- “How I see Economic Inequality, Part 1”, by Karessa Ramos, available at: https://colorfulifesite.wordpress.com/2016/04/30/how-i-see-economic-inequality-1/
- Author’s notes