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Mark Tansey, “Discarding the Frame” (1993″

Obviously, recent events—such as Brexit, Donald Trump’s presidency, and the rise of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn—have surprised many experts and shaken up the existing common sense. Some have therefore begun to make the case that an era has come to an end.

The problem, of course, is while the old may be dying, it’s not all clear the new can be born. And, as Antonio Gramsci warned during the previous world-shaking crisis, “in this interregnum morbid phenomena of the most varied kind come to pass.”

For Pankaj Mishra, it is the era of neoliberalism that has come to an end.

In this new reality, the rhetoric of the conservative right echoes that of the socialistic left as it tries to acknowledge the politically explosive problem of inequality. The leaders of Britain and the United States, two countries that practically invented global capitalism, flirt with rejecting the free-trade zones (the European Union, Nafta) they helped build.

Mishra is correct in tracing British neoliberalism—at least, I hasten to add, its most recent phase—through both the Conservative and Labour Parties, from Margaret Thatcher to Tony Blair and David Cameron.* All of them, albeit in different ways, celebrated and defended individual initiative, self-regulating markets, cheap credit, privatized social services, and greater international trade—bolstered by military adventurism abroad. Similarly, in the United States, Reaganism extended through both Bush administrations as well as the presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barak Obama—and would have been continued by Hillary Clinton—with analogous promises of prosperity based on unleashing competitive market forces, together with military interventions in other countries.

Without a doubt, the combination of capitalist instability—the worst crisis of capitalism since the first Great Depression—and obscene levels of inequality—parallel to the years leading up to the crash of 1929—not to mention the interminable military conflicts that have deflected funding at home and created waves of refugees from war-torn zones, has called into question the legacy and presumptions of Thatcherism and Reaganism.

Where I think Mishra goes wrong is in arguing that “A new economic consensus is quickly replacing the neoliberal one to which Blair and Clinton, as well as Thatcher and Reagan, subscribed.” Yes, in both the United Kingdom and the United States—in the campaign rhetoric of Theresa May and Trump, and in the actual policy proposals of Corbyn and Sanders—neoliberalism has been challenged. But precisely because the existing framing of the questions has not changed, a new economic consensus—an alternative common sense—cannot be born.

To put it differently, the neoliberal frame has been discarded but the ongoing debate remains framed by the terms that gave rise to neoliberalism in the first place. What I mean by that is, while recent criticisms of neoliberalism have emphasized the myriad problems created by individualism and free markets, the current discussion forgets about or overlooks the even-deeper problems based on and associated with capitalism itself. So, once again, we’re caught in the pendulum swing between a more private, market-oriented form of capitalism and a more public, government-regulated form of capitalism. The former has failed—that era does seem to be crumbling—and so now we begin to turn (as we did during the last system-wide economic crisis) to the latter.**

However, the issue that keeps getting swept under the political rug is, how do we deal with the surplus? If the surplus is left largely in private hands, and the vast majority who produce it have no say in how it’s appropriated and distributed, it should come as no surprise that we continue to see a whole host of “morbid phenomena”—from toxic urban water and a burning tower block to a new wave of corporate concentration  and still-escalating inequality.

Questioning some dimensions of neoliberalism does not, in and of itself, constitute a new economic consensus. I’m willing to admit it is a start. But, as long as remain within the present framing of the issues, as long as we cannot show how unreasonable the existing reason is, we cannot say the existing era has actually come to an end and a new era is upon us.

For that we need a new common sense, one that identifies capitalism itself as the problem and imagines and enacts a different relationship to the surplus.

 

*I add that caveat because, as I argued a year ago,

Neoliberal ideas about self-governing individuals and a self-organizing economic system have been articulated since the beginning of capitalism. . .capitalism has been governed by many different (incomplete and contested) projects over the past three centuries or so. Sometimes, it has been more private and oriented around free markets (as it has been with neoliberalism); at other times, more public or state oriented and focused on regulated markets (as it was under the Depression-era New Deals and during the immediate postwar period).

**And even then it’s only a beginning—since, we need to remember, both Sanders and Corbyn did lose in their respective electoral contests. And, at least in the United States, the terms of neoliberalism are still being invoked—for example, by Ron Johnson, Republican senator from Wisconsin—in the current healthcare debate

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The 2017 Social Progress Index is out and according to Michael Green [ht: ja], the CEO of SPI, the United States is “flatlining,”

primarily due to its falling scores on measures of tolerance and inclusion. . .

Green said that in order for under-performing countries like the US to improve their scores in 2018 and 2019, they’ll need to embrace long-term investments in protecting people’s rights.

“The US is not under-performing because of the Trump administration or the Obama administration,” he said. “It’s about the story of long-term under-investment in the justice system, in the education system, in healthcare. Those are the real challenges.”

Overall, the United States ranks 18th out of 128 nations.

The only area in which the United States outperforms other nations of similar wealth is higher education, with a large number of colleges and universities. But that doesn’t include cost and thus accessibility, which is reflected in a low score on inequality in the attainment of higher education.

And then there are all the other categories in which the United States comes up short in comparison to the rest of the world: nutrition and basic medical care (36th), water and sanitation (27th), homicides (70th), access to information and communications (27th), environmental quality (33rd), political rights (32nd), freedom over life choices (65th), and discrimination and violence against minorities (39th).

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That’s why the overall U.S. score is only 86.43, which puts it behind many other high-income nations: Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Switzerland, Canada, Netherlands, Sweden, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, United Kingdom, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Spain, and Japan.

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The authors of the report note that, while social progress generally improves as national income rises, there’s no one-to-one correspondence between them. Thus, the United States underperforms on the Social Progress Index compared to its per capita national income.

What is clear, from the sample of countries in the chart above, is the United States has a much more unequal distribution of income compared to countries that rank higher in the SPI.

That’s one of the real reasons why, independent of Trump and Obama, the United States is flatlining when it comes to social progress.

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Yes, indeed, as state and local governments struggle with budget deficits and the social infrastructure continues to crumble, rich Americans are sliding “into the driver’s seat of public life, with private funders tackling problems that government can’t or won’t.”

Look in any area — the arts, education, science, health, urban development — and you’ll find a growing array of wealthy donors giving record sums. Philanthropists have helped fund thousands of charter schools across the country, creating a parallel education system in many cities. The most ambitious urban parks in decades are being built with financing from billionaires. Some of the boldest research to attack diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s is funded by philanthropy. Private funders, led by the Gates Foundation, play a growing role in promoting global health and development.

But as “Bill,” one of the readers who commented on the New York Times article, understands, what we’re seeing “is an undemocratic system that disproportionately allocates the wealth produced by society as a whole to a few unelected people at the top, and expects them to redistribute it in some way. Some do, some don’t.”

The fact is, there’s a close correlation between the growth in the surplus captured by the top 1 percent (as seen by the red line in the chart above) and the real amount of charitable giving in the United States (the blue line in the chart).

The system is undemocratic, first, because the workers who produce the surplus have no say in how much is distributed to others, including the tiny group at the top. Second, it’s undemocratic because the top 1 percent, who have managed to capture a large share of the surplus, are the ones who decide whether or not to give to philanthropy—and on what projects.

They’re the ones who get to decide what kinds of schools American children will attend, whether or not there will be urban parks, what kind of research will be done on which diseases, and so on. They’re literally remaking social life in their own image.

Ultimately, efforts to level the playing field of civic life won’t get very far as long as economic inequality remains so high, putting outsize resources in the hands of a sliver of supercitizens.

Today, as in the first Gilded Age, economic inequality and undemocratic philanthropy go hand in hand.