What we need to know about neoliberalism. (Part 3 of 3)
There was a wise man in the East whose constant prayer was that he might see today with the eyes of tomorrow.
— Alfred Mercier
Elmer the turtle strayed away from his pond and lost his way. While searching for another pool to avoid dehydration, he wandered into a picnic area. Spying a large pot of water, he jumped in.
Had the water been hot, Elmer would just as quickly have jumped out. But the pot had only recently been put on the grill, so the water was pleasantly warm. He enjoyed his new “pond” and dozed off.
Unfortunately for Elmer, the temperature of the water rose so gradually that his self-preservation reflexes weren’t triggered in time to save him from being parboiled. So he croaked.
Donald the billionaire was so proud of his stellar business success that nothing seemed beyond the reach of his superior intellect. He even became confident that he could fly, and was peeved when nobody believed him. So he decided to demonstrate his new avian ability by jumping off the roof of one of his skyscrapers.
As he was falling past the 50th floor, wildly flapping his arms, he noticed some people who had gathered on a balcony to watch his flight.
“So far, so good!” he shouted at them triumphantly.
If Aesop were still alive, these two allegories (which I confess I’ve embroidered) might be a couple of his modern fables. I often think of them lately as I contemplate the ever-darkening future that looms ahead.
Elmer the turtle typifies the people (too many of us), for whom global warming remains a far-in-the-future danger — one that seemingly doesn’t necessitate protective measures any time soon. The rise of global temperature is so slow that it induces indifference rather than alarm.
One of the defects of evolution is that it gave humans short-term-wired brains. We tend to focus on problems (financial, social, work-related) that confront us immediately. It’s an instinct that served us well in the past as hunters and gatherers. But it imperils us now as so many of us remain idle while global warming rises incrementally to a crisis level.
Donald the billionaire typifies the rich and powerful elite who believe that a resource-devouring economic system can be kept running forever on a finite planet. In their hubris, they seem confident they will somehow evade the calamitous fate to which they are exposing billions of their fellow humans, but that’s a neoliberal fantasy.
The billionaires, bankers, CEOs, political leaders, and other neoliberal fanatics won’t hit the “pavement” in 15 or 20 seconds; but eventually — perhaps as soon as the 2030s or ‘40s if they continue ravaging the planet — they will find that their belief in perpetual growth and affluence is just as illusory as Donald’s belief that he could fly.
As we face the growing menace of an overheated planet, human beings can roughly be divided into “believers” and “deniers”.
The believers are those who heed the scientists’ urgent warning that global warming must be curbed.
The deniers are those who either dismiss global warming as a hoax, or believe its worst effects will be mitigated by modern technology — or by God.
The believers and deniers can be divided into sub-groups.
First, the believers:
The activists: Millions of people have been galvanized by already obvious warning signs — more frequent and damaging hurricanes, tornados, floods, droughts, wildfires, and melting glaciers. They have flocked to join Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and other environmental organizations. They stage protests against corporations that pillage and pollute, and against governments that permit – even facilitate — such corporate vandalism.
The high-tech reliers: They agree with the activists, but believe that the worst impacts of global warming can be mitigated by the application of innovative new technology. Some of these proposed solutions include the construction of protective domes over major cities; the dispersal or absorption of CO-2 emissions before they accumulate further; and the placement of huge mirrors in orbit that will provide all the solar energy needed to make fossil fuels obsolete. They seem oblivious, however, to the lack of time left to develop and implement such complex technological “solutions.”
The delayers: They believe that global warming is potentially world-shattering, but think it’s safe to wait another 30 or 40 years before serious efforts have to be made to cope with it. This delay, they feel, is required to give them the time they need to deal with their more pressing personal concerns.
The eat-drink-and-be-merriers: They believe in global warming, but also believe it’s too late to stop it. They are resigned to the eventual obliteration of their current way of life, so they have decided to relax and enjoy the time that remains.
The survivalists: They believe that the time has passed when activists had any chance of stopping the environmental devastation caused by corporations and their complicit governments. But, unlike the eat-drink-and-be-merriers, they are determined to survive the impending collapse. So they have prepared “annihilation shelters” stocked with the essential food and materials needed to “weather” Nature’s onslaught.
The hostages: They are the billions of people who have been co-opted to serve the planet-wreckers. In order to keep running a mad global economy rife with poverty, inequality, and a terminally sick environment, our corporate rulers and their political lackeys need compliant workers. Millions of them. And these workers depend on their environmentally destructive employers for the wages and salaries they need for their livelihood. Those in the private sector may not like helping their bosses perpetuate a massively ruinous economic system. And those in the public sector may not like helping their governments help the corporate marauders. But all these workers (and their unions) are hostages to a warped global economic system. Any inclination they may have to join the dissident activists is repressed.
Now the deniers:
The corporate CEOs, managers, bankers, stockholders, and investors: They are the major short-term beneficiaries of neoliberal capitalism, and thus resist any threat to their wealth and power. Many of them have actually convinced themselves that global warming is a myth or that, even if it isn’t, it will never increase to the apocalyptic extent the scientists predict. Whether they also believe they can maintain constant economic growth on a resource-limited planet is moot, because they have no choice, anyway. To accept a no-growth or even restricted-growth economy would be tantamount to abandoning their neoliberal ideology, and even scrapping capitalism itself. Unthinkable.
The converts: They have been brainwashed by the right-wing media and think-tanks. They swallow the corporate claim that global warming is not caused by human activity, but is a natural climatic condition that waxes and wanes, but never rises to dangerous heights. Converts to this specious propaganda feel they can safely scoff at the scientists and their believers, and keep living as usual.
The religious fundamentalists: They could also be listed among the believers, because they don’t deny that cataclysmic climate change is real. But they do deny the need for — or even the justification for — preventive measures. They see global warming as part of God’s preparation for Armageddon and the Bible’s promise of the Second Coming. They denounce efforts to interfere with God’s plan for the “end times” as futile, and even sacrilegious.
This sub-group scattering of people’s views about global warming deters efforts to tackle the worst threat that has ever menaced humankind. But, even if all the environmental activists in the world were to unite in mobilizing a concerted save-the-planet campaign, they would still have three towering barriers to surmount.
The entrenchment of free-market capitalism
The virtually unfettered form of capitalism that now girdles the globe is committed to a voracious economic system that, left unchecked, will destroy civilization as we know it.
Do the business barons who pursue this economic frenzy know what they are doing? Some of them surely do. They’re not all stupid. But the appalling fact is that they are now riding a runaway economic express that they can’t stop, even if they wanted to. Why not? Because their legal charters and corporate mandates compel them to make the maximization of profits and shareholder dividends their one and only short-term objective. That fixation trumps everything else, regardless of how catastrophic the long-term consequences.
Any CEO who deliberately incurred shrinking profits by becoming more ethical or environmentally sensitive would soon be turfed out by irate directors or major stockholders. If he wasn’t, his company would soon be taken over by a more ruthless competitor. In fact, regardless of why profits fall, and for any reason, the corporation’s top executive seldom avoids punishment of some kind.
The same enshrinement of the primacy of profit is proclaimed in the laws that cover business operations. This was made clear in the 2004 People vs. Wise case when the ruling of Canada’s Supreme Court was based on the wording of the Canada Business Corporations Act. The relevant clause states that directors and officers “owe their fiduciary obligations to the corporation, and the corporation’s interests are not to be confused with the interests of the creditors or any other stakeholder.”
And there you have it. Any CEO or board of directors daring enough to deviate from the pursuit of profits for any reason — for the benefit of workers, consumers, society as a whole, or even the planet — risks being fired, sued, or having his company exposed to a hostile takeover.
The subjugation of governments
There was a time when governments controlled corporations, when a business firm’s operations were tightly controlled and limited. When governments first started granting charters to set up companies in the early 19th century, such charters confined the new firms to operating in a specific industry and under strict conditions and regulations. They were not allowed to own newspapers, magazines, or later radio networks. They were barred from getting involved in politics or education. Any violations of these limitations could, and did, result in their charters being revoked.
How times have changed since then! The escalating power of the corporations during the past 150 years, along with the rise of neoliberalism and free trade, freed them from virtually all restraints. So dominant have they become — financially, politically and globally — that their relation to governments has been reversed. Instead of governments controlling them, they now control governments.
No government today dares to adopt laws or policies that seriously threaten corporate profit-making.
If you think I’m exaggerating, ask yourself when was the last time any corporation had its charter lifted for getting involved in commercial publishing, or education, or politics — or using its billions to fund the election campaigns of politicians they know will be their legislative puppets. It doesn’t happen any more. The corporations have become invulnerable to almost all governments, if not by suborning them, then by intimidating them. There may be a few governments (e.g., those in the Scandinavian countries) that are not afraid of corporate retaliation, but most won’t risk incurring their wrath.
Free trade and its globalization of neoliberal capitalism have given the transnational corporations a far greater ability to ignore or defy government intervention. In their world-wide economy, they can stage a capital strike. Apart from the resource industries, they can shift investment, production, and jobs abroad to more business-servile countries with much lower wage rates and taxes.
Corporations still need to have charters, and, theoretically, governments that issue them could re-impose the limits and obligations contained in the early charters. In fact, this would be about the only effective way of ending corporate rule and saving the environment.
But no government today dares to adopt laws or policies that seriously threaten corporate profit-making. As with stopping global warming, it will take all the world’s major countries acting together to subdue the rampaging corporate Goliath. And there’s no sign such a concerted political crusade is going to be mounted any time soon.
Climatologists and other scientists began sounding the alarm about runaway economic growth and global warming more than half a century ago. Had the world’s political leaders listened to them then, and promptly implemented the necessary preventive measures, the subsequent environmental crisis could have been averted. But governments chose to ignore all the scientific studies of the past 50 years that warned of global warming and the urgent need to curb it. Instead of preventive action, governments have staged a succession of “climate summits” at which grandiose pledges to halt global warming have been made, but never implemented on the scale required.
This prolonged political dereliction has left activists with scant time to beef up their campaign to save the planet — and life on the planet — from a devastating collapse. This shortage of time is by far the most obstructive barrier that confronts them. Divided as they are, and as ineffectual as their activism has been so far, is it conceivable at this late stage that such a reinvigorated campaign could succeed?
These doubts, I think, inevitably arise from an objective appraisal of the current global mess in which we find ourselves.
I was hoping, when I started this three-part series, that I could end it on an upbeat note — one that would not inadvertently reflect despair. As I wind it down, however, I’m still struggling to maintain some shred of optimism that isn’t simply based on wishful thinking. There’s a fine line between optimism and Pollyannaism, between self-assurance and self-delusion, and it’s not easy sometimes to know what side of the line you’re on.
So this is not the final part of my rambling dissertation. I’m going to spend some time exploring the literary cul-de-sac into which I’ve trapped myself, looking for a satisfactory way out. Whether I find one or not, I’ll soon have a final and much shorter report to append to my trilogy.
Ed Finn was editor at the CCPA Monitor for 20 years. Formerly, he was editor of the Western Star in Corner Brook, a reporter at The Montreal Gazette, and for 14 years wrote a column on labour relations for The Toronto Star. He also served for three decades as a communications officer for several labour organizations, including the Canadian Labour Congress and the Canadian Union of Public Employees.