It’s hard to believe these days, but in many nations, conservative political parties were once actually the defenders of the nation’s interests, of the greater good, of the public, and of the state. They weren’t always the corporate shills, protectors of billionaires, privatizing libertarians, lobbyist puppets, Talibangelist lapdogs*, and racists they all seem to be today. No, once upon a time they actually cared about their country and its people, not just themselves and the firms that own them.
Look at the Republicans in the USA. It the Republican party under Lincoln that fought racists and went to war for equality in the 1860s. It was the Republicans under Eisenhower who created NASA, expanded Social Security, passed the Civil Rights Act, and enforced integration. It was the Republicans under that arch-villain/Republican Richard Nixon who brought the Environmental Protection Agency into existence. And early Republicans added important amendments to the US Constitution.
But then came President Ronald Reagan (1981-89), whose twisted vision of the USA and its government was radically different from anything before (at least within the mainstream of US politics). This wasn’t a new vision: he had voiced it as early as 1964 in his speech “A Time For Choosing” when he said,
“…the full power of centralized government” this was the very thing the Founding Fathers sought to minimize. They knew that governments don’t control things. A government can’t control the economy without controlling people. And they know when a government sets out to do that, it must use force and coercion to achieve its purpose. They also knew, those Founding Fathers, that outside of its legitimate functions, government does nothing as well or as economically as the private sector of the economy.
Reagan despised government, despised public service and public assets. He was determined to hand America over to private corporations, to the capitalist elite, and reduce government to the role of rubber stamping or denuding laws to met corporate needs. He would vilify government again and again in his career and laud private enterprise as better, more efficient.
Reagan believed in an economic fantasy spawned by an arch-conservative economist named Art Laffer called “trickle-down economics” (sometimes disguised in the innocuous-sounding “supply-side economics” – see Jonathan Chait’s book, The Big Con).
Reagan assured the voters that tax cuts to the rich and to corporations would be used to fuel the economy and create jobs rather than what they actually did: line the pockets of the CEOs and shareholders, while making the rich richer. Nor did it matter to Reagan that many of these corporations moved their HQs overseas to avoid paying American taxes or having to obey American labour laws, and then moved their jobs overseas to take advantage of cheap foreign labour, all for the sake of profit.
In 40 years since Laffer’s wild ideas became public policy, in those states they have created deficits, massive economic inequality, and financial disasters. As Morris Pearl wrote in The Guardian:
Each and every time state or federal governments have tested Laffer’s trickle-down theory, deficits balloon, rich folks hoard their wealth at the top, and average Americans suffer.
Not that neoliberals care if anyone “average” suffers from their policies. They only care about how these policies benefit the rich. In 2019, Donald Trump risibly awarded Laffer the “medal of freedom” — further debasing the medal’s credibility in his tiny hands — as he and the GOP continue the long-debunked fantasy of “trickle-down economics” by cutting taxes to the rich and corporations again and again, at rising cost to the masses of American people. The economic inequality in the USA is at an all-time high as a direct result of neoliberal policies.
Reagan spoke of “corporate government” and made it seem like the big bully of faceless bureaucracy was oppressing the heroic, little fighter of free enterprise. That was, of course, the exact opposite of what was happening: corporations and their lobbyists were buying politicians and bullying those whom they couldn’t purchase outright. But Reagan made it seem like the corporations were standing up for people, not their government. It was a brilliant lie, an argumentum ad captandum vulgus — an argument framed to beguile the gullible masses. And it did.
Quickly the GOP fell in step behind Reagan, smelling money in the water. The party slavishly served corporate, lobbyist, and elitist interests instead of American interests. It has only become worse since then, and so utterly corrupt and immoral that they beggar description in polite company. They have deservedly been nicknamed the Repugnicans, a word coined this term to reflect their new reality. Today their utter lack of moral fibre, ethics, or patriotism can only be framed in invective terms.
The collapse of Repugnican morality created a vacuum that quickly filled with the inevitable detritus: racism, misogyny, pseudo-Christian Talibangelism, corruption, nepotism, cronyism, and authoritarianism. Donald Trump is the embodiment of all of these evils, which is why the party is so oleaginously subservient in its cult-like obedience to him.
Reagan’s philosophy was cunningly called neoliberalism by its earliest supporters to deflect the focus from its less-than-savoury libertarian origin. The “liberal” part of the word refers to the “liberalization” of laws and trade or economic barriers — but it really meant gutting or emasculating anything that got in the way of corporate profits and wealth accumulation, including labour, safety, health, wage, and environmental restrictions or laws.
Neoliberalism should be called neo-libertarianism (or even crypto-fascism) because it’s a far-right ideology that favours private money and corporations over people’s safety, health, jobs, wages, savings, property, and the environment.
As the Canadian Dimension site notes,
As a ruling ideology, neoliberalism was a brilliant success. Starting in the 1970s, its Keynesian mainstream critics were pushed out of academia, state institutions and financial organizations such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank and shut out of the media. Compliant courtiers and intellectual poseurs such as Milton Friedman were groomed in places such as the University of Chicago and given prominent platforms and lavish corporate funding. They disseminated the official mantra of fringe, discredited economic theories popularized by Friedrich Hayek and the third-rate writer Ayn Rand. Once we knelt before the dictates of the marketplace and lifted government regulations, slashed taxes for the rich, permitted the flow of money across borders, destroyed unions and signed trade deals that sent jobs to sweatshops in China, the world would be a happier, freer and wealthier place. It was a con. But it worked.
At its heart, neoliberalism is the sort of libertarian ideology promoted by the Koch brothers and other elites: a return to feudal/warlord status where the rich control their individual fiefdoms and higher-tier governments are reduced to authoritarian agencies used by the warlords to keep the populace controlled and bottled up. Libertarians support predatory capitalism with little or no government interference in their ability to exploit the workers and consumers. There’s a fair bit of Stalinism in libertarian ideals in that it proposes a class-based despotism. As the piece in Canadian Dimension points out, for neoliberalism “…economic rationality was never the point. The point was the restoration of class power.”
The libertarian dream is a world where the rich and powerful rule over a mass of impoverished, indentured workers and peasants, and only those who can afford to buy services like healthcare, police, clean water, sewers, or schools (services provided by the warlords) will get them. And there is no way to climb the greased pole from serf up to oligarch in the libertarian society. You’re either rich or poor and you stay that way, like a Hindu caste. Laws, or at least laws that hamper predatory capitalists, are irrelevant: only power and control matter. Slavery was a core libertarian ideal.
Mad Max is the libertarian world vision: a return to absolute class power not seen since before the French Revolution; a society where the ruling class is the rich, period, and the rest mere serfs, with a yawning gap of inequality between them. Libertarians look nostalgically back to the semi-feudal state of China, pre-Mao, with its squabbling warlords. They look longingly at modern Russia, aspiring to implement in the USA the pro-oligarch authoritarian state under the dictator-for-life, Vladimir Putin.
Libertarianism was the fevered dream of the wacky, but influential harridan Ayn Rand, whose vague, uninformed, and unrealistic ideas about politics, government, the economy, and free (as in unrestricted by any law, tariff, regulation or other barrier) trade — expressed in a series of turgid, barely readable novels*** — became the ideological policies for the predatory elite.
Her books promoted unrelenting greed and manic selfishness, elevating the capitalist entrepreneur to the white knight of freedom battling the nasty dragon of blighted bureaucracy. Almost every billionaire on the planet subscribes to some form of her madness. Every offshore corporation is a fervent disciple. The basic core value is profit at the expense of the needs or wants of everyone else on the planet. Reagan turned her ideas from poorly-written fantasy to national policy.****
But the Reagan virus didn’t just infect the USA: it spread among opportunistic, grasping politicians in several nations who shared his vision of emasculating government and handing control over to private corporations to strip-mine the public interest (and to make their own money from it — ever notice how many ex-politicians get appointed to corporate boards with rich stipends after they leave politics? *cough* *cough* *Rona Ambrose*)
Margaret Thatcher was an early and avid Reaganite eager to sell her nation and party to international corporate interests. The result today is the utter stupidity of Brexit, brought on by greedy Conservative politicians looking to make quick money from their corporate overlords. Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil is a Reaganite determined to put the inhuman stamp of libertarianism on his struggling nation while further oppressing the most impoverished of his people.
In Canada, too, the Conservatives followed the same ethically downhill path of Reganism, both provincially and federally. Federally, although the slide began with the greedy, neo-Reaganite Brian Mulroney, it was the arch-neoliberal, Stephen Harper who turned the party to the far right. In Ontario, it was the former premier, Mike Harris, who followed the Reaganite/neoliberal path with gusto; current premier Doug Ford continues his vile legacy as a true believer of that myopic view. *****
In Alberta, it was former premier Ralph Klein who took the province down the neo-libertarian path, but current premier Jason Kenney actively pushes his pro-profit/anti-people philosophy further even during the pandemic.
All of them turned their back on the once-proud history of Canadian Conservatives in serving this county. Now they serve the elites and the corporations, without even making a pretense of serving the people.
Yet it was Ontario’s provincial Conservatives under Adam Beck who created the publicly-owned utility Ontario Hydro to make sure that private interests didn’t take over the electricity market in the 1920s. It was the federal Conservatives under R. B. Bennett who created the CBC to ensure Canadian citizens has a public broadcaster and were not at the mercy of private media. It was the federal Conservatives under Robert Borden who created the publicly-owned CNR to make sure all Canadians had access to rail transportation and weren’t at the mercy of the private corporation, the CPR. In Ontario, it was the Conservatives under Bill Davis who expanded both public education and healthcare, bringing in the universal healthcare system that would become known as OHIP. And now look at the Conservatives: angry, corporate shills who allow racists into their party and cater to the lowest barrel-scrapings of the alt-right.
(All well documented in Linda McQuaig’s new book, The Sport and Prey of Capitalists: How the Rich Are Stealing Canada’s Public Wealth, Dundurn Press, 2019)**
Look at the battle for a liveable minimum wage in both nations. On both sides of the border, wealthy conservatives fought every attempt at an increase, clearly making the case that they cared more about corporate profits than about people. Their myopic, self-centred vision didn’t even consider that people who make more would spend more, thus raise profits for a wide range of companies. All they saw were the dollar signs of their own profits. Politicians are well-paid, much more so than the great majority of the taxpayers who pay their salaries (with benefits, pensions, and healthcare far beyond what the average worker will ever get), yet conservatives fight to deny those very taxpayers a liveable wage because it might impact the profits of the companies who own them (keep in mind the minimum wage in the US has been stalled at $7.25 an hour since 2009, although is is higher and even lower in some states).
Neoliberalism and Reaganism helped turn these once-proud defenders of their nation, of its people, of the greater good turn into toadies, racists, and sycophants for the corporate elite. Neoliberals like Canada’s Brian Mulroney pushed for an unrestrained market, the reduction or dismissal of environmental, financial, and social restrictions, tax reduction for the rich and their corporations. Laws to protect and serve the public were weakened or dismantled because they stood in the way of the corporate desire for profit and dominance.
Neoliberal governments on both sides of the border have defunded or privatized social programs, the arts, education, public services and utilities, public infrastructure, public broadcasters, postal services, libraries, science and research, health and safety inspections, parks and conservation authorities – everything that makes us a civilized nation has been under attack. And as we discovered in this pandemic, the results of these actions in at least the healthcare sector have been horrific. But that hasn’t affected the for-profit -not-people neoliberal ideologies one iota.
You can see it today in the outcry to open up businesses during the pandemic. Neoliberals care about the stock exchange, the DOW and NASDAQ, the TSE and the value of their shares; they care about the inconvenience of not being able to dine out, have their yachts cleaned, or their lawns mowed, but have absolutely no concern about the health or welfare of the workers they want to do their work for them. Especially when those workers are of a different skin tone. Racism is a cornerstone of the neoliberal structure.
As Wikipedia notes, neoliberalists “…condemn social-democratic reforms and unapologetically implement free-market policies.” As corporate lobbyists bought an increasing number of conservative politicians, neoliberalism became the strongest plank in the party’s platform.
In other words, neoliberalism policies benefit the corporate and the elite, while burdening and even damaging the working and middle classes. Neoliberals are not merely ‘small government’ advocates: they don’t want ANY public services, public assets, or even governments at all They fight unions, benefits, minimum wages, paid vacations, paid sick leave, and other protective labour laws. They fight environmental protections, health and safety laws, while arguing for corporate protection from fines, taxes, and protests. They push for privatization of utilities, education, healthcare, police, municipal services – so that only those who can afford them are allowed to have them.
Ronald Reagan, neoliberalism, the dark spectre of libertarianism, and the influence of the Talibangelists have all been part of the downward evolution of conservatives from defenders of the people and the state into the defenders of elite and corporate interests. They have become the parties of profits before people, of entitlements, privatization of public assets, and tax cuts for the rich. They no longer show any interest in the working or middle classes, or in fact for anyone who can’t buy them.
The real threat to world stability and security these days isn’t a bunch of people waving “antifa” signs to protest the rising authoritarianism in their government: it’s the neoliberals who are the force behind that authoritarianism.
* Talibangelists, also called televangelists, are the right-wing, pro-theocracy, pseudo-religious (and generally racist and misogynist) group commonly referred to as the “Christian right’ but in fact that’s a misnomer. They have more in common with the Taliban than with any Christian faith. They pretend to be Christian to beguile gullible members of that faith (apparently a large portion of evangelicals fall into this category).
The Urban Dictionary also defines them as, “a right-wing Christian shill with an internet presence, frequently associated with so called “pro family” groups that rarely help real families at all, but will make up virtually anything to get people to donate money to promote narrow interpretations of scripture and repress progressive political agendas,” and “an individual that engages in bigoted attacks based on narrow interpretations of Biblical morality under the cover of ecclesiastical authority and who usually makes false claims of victimhood when challenged.”
While more visibly active in the USA, as this story shows, they have infected Canadian conservative politics as well. In the USA, the Talibangelists have conned millions of Christians to support their authoritarian agenda by exacerbating the polarization of and divisions in American politics. For example, a Pew Research poll from March, 2020 found, “By a nearly 2-to-1 margin, white evangelicals are more likely than other Americans to say the terms “morally upstanding” and “honest” describe Trump at least “fairly well”. Given his record of adultery, fraud, lying, cheating on exams, accusations of sexual assault and even rape, six corporate bankruptcies, lawsuits, and personal attacks against pretty much anyone who opposes him, stands up to him, or is simply in his way — for anyone to call him “morally upstanding” or “honest” shows either a remarkable ignorance and unwillingness to pay attention to facts, or having been gulled into the cult of personality the Talibangelists have created around Trump. Or perhaps both.
** To be fair, Liberals and Democrats have also been responsible for acting against the public good by privatizing public assets, as McQuaig also documents, just not as egregiously nor usually as part of their party ideology, mostly opportunistically as vote-garnering devices, or simply from bad judgment.
*** More recently, her book Atlas Shrugged was made a movie so long and boring that it had to be broken into three extremely dull, poorly-acted parts to allow viewers to wake up between them, otherwise they might nod off forever. As The Wrap reviewed them:
To find fault with the “Atlas Shrugged” franchise because of its politics is like complaining about “Birdemic” because it gets the ornithology wrong. Why dwell on the details when there are giant, embarrassing flaws staring you in the face?
Personally, I think this trilogy is a good metaphor for libertarianism: poorly thought out, wooden, unrealistic (trains? really?), and presented with all the gusto and excitement of a plate of soggy tofu. As Roger Ebert commented in his review, “It’s not enough that a movie agree with you, in however an incoherent and murky fashion. It would help if it were like, you know, entertaining?”
**** A far more likely, but bleak future under neoliberal policies is offered in Lionel Shriver’s 2016 book, The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047.
***** In Collingwood, a group of neoliberals on council forced through the privatization of two public assets — the electricity utility and the airport — without even pretending to be doing it for the public good. All the decisions and discussions took place behind closed doors, with no public consultation or input. The public has never received an answer why they were not consulted, nor what will happen to the money received from these sales, even years later. Subservient local media never raised concerns about the secrecy or un-democratic process.
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