Today’s Metanarrative Hides an Assault on Truth and Reality

More than 30 years ago, academics started to discredit “truth” as one of the ‘grand narratives,’ or a metanarrative which clever people could no longer bring themselves to believe in. Instead of “the truth”, which was to be rejected as naïve and/or repressive, a new intellectual orthodoxy permitted only “truths” – always plural, frequently personalized, inevitably relativized. The typical postmodern trait of breaking down hierarchies could be seen as getting its most essential fuel from various social hierarchies around the world. Postmodernism is best understood as a questioning of the ideas and values associated with a form of modernism that believes in progress and innovation. For philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, the postmodern condition was defined as “incredulity towards metanarratives”; that is, a loss of faith in science and other emancipatory projects within modernity, such as Marxism. Post-truth politics is part of the critique of ideology that goes together with “shattering of belief” associated with postmodern thought and action.

Globalization can be said to be the great narrative of our age – at least, for as long as we keep on talking about it. Globalization, like any other cultural trend, is self-perpetuating primarily when it is an active force in the minds of the general population – which it is at the moment, whether we realize it or not. Like any good metanarrative, the globalization metanarrative begins to explain life. And when it explains life, it creates behavior, and when it creates behavior, it causes itself to become true. In the neoliberal version of globalization with competition as the defining characteristic of human relations, the market would discover a natural hierarchy of winners and losers – creating a more efficient system than ever could be devised through planning or by design. Anything that impedes this process, such as significant tax regulation, trade union activity, or state provision, is considered counter-productive.

By the time Hayek came to write The Constitution of Liberty, a network of lobbyists and thinkers he had founded was being lavishly funded by multimillionaires who saw the doctrine as a means of defending them against democracy. Hayek’s writing rejects such notions of political freedom, universal rights, human equality and distribution of wealth – democracy has no absolute value, in fact, liberty depends on preventing the majority from exercising choice over the direction that politics and society might take. In the updated version the progress of society depends on the liberty of these ‘economic elite’ to gain as much money as they want and spend it how they wish. All that is good and useful, therefore arises from inequality. There should be no connection between merit and reward, no distinction made between earned and unearned income, and no limits to the rents they can charge.

Postmodernism can also be a critical project, revealing the cultural constructions we designate as truth and opening up a variety of repressed other histories of modernity, such as those of women, homosexuals and the colonized. The modernist canon itself is revealed as patriarchal and racist, dominated by white heterosexual men. As a result, one of the most common themes addressed within postmodernism relates to cultural identity.  Under the terms of this outlook, all claims on truth are relative to the particular person making them; there is no position outside our own particulars from which to establish universal truth. This was one of the key tenets of postmodernism, a concept which first caught on in the 1980s after publication of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition: A Report On Knowledge in 1979. In this respect, for as long as we have been postmodern, we have been setting the scene for a “post-truth” era of today’s metanarrative.

Throughout the second half of the 1990s and into the new century, there was optimistic talk of a “new economy”, driven by the expansion of technology and the Internet. It was seemingly based on a whole generation of “symbolic analysts” – Robert Reich’s term for “the workers who make up the creative and knowledge economies” – happily living on thin air. It opened up many new opportunities for controlling information flow. So-called “spin doctors” took center stage; it was government by PR – and the Iraq War was a prime example. Facts, apparently, took a back seat. Meanwhile, in the hands of bureaucrats, what was left of the truth – “as evidence based” – was soon recognized by the wider population as a tool for use in social engineering, and largely discredited as a result. This opened the door to gaslighting – a form of psychological manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or in members of a targeted group, making them question their own memory, perception, and sanity.1

Gaslighting is typically a preferred tactic of narcissistic and aggressive personalities bent on doing whatever it takes to gain and maintain a position of advantage over others. Their point is to disorient and destabilize people. They want to harness people’s self-doubts, ruin their capacity for seeing the world ironically, destroy their capacity for making judgements, in order to drive them durably into submission. When (for instance) gaslighters say something, only later to say that they never said such a thing and that they would never have never dreamed of saying such a thing, their aim is gradually to turn citizens into mere playthings of power. When that happens, the victims of gaslighting no longer trust their own judgements. They buy into the tactics of the manipulator. Not knowing what to believe, they give up, shrug their shoulders and fall by default under the spell of the gaslighter.

The digital merging and melding of text, sound and image, the advent of cheap copying and the growing ease of networked information spreading across vast distances in real time are powerful drivers of post-truth decadence. The present-day political irruption of populism is fuelled by the institutional decay of electoral democracy, combined with growing public dissatisfaction with politicians, political parties and “politics. Reinforced by the failure of democratic institutions to respond effectively to anti-democratic challenges such as the growing influence of cross-border corporate power, worsening social inequality and the dark money poisoning of elections, the decadence is proving to be a lavish gift to leaders, parties and governments peddling the mantra of “the sovereign people”. Among the strangest and most puzzling features of the post-truth phenomenon is the way it attracts people into voluntary servitude because it raises their hopes and expectations of betterment.2

Lyotard’s postmodern condition represents a break with both the foundational philosophies of the Enlightenment and a crisis of its major secular ideologies – classical liberalism and traditional Marxism. Lyotard uses the notion of metanarrative to designate the way a set of practices and institutions are legitimated. After three decades of globalization the neoliberal version has become the dominate economic ideology or metanarrative, rationalizing a system of minimal government and taxation. This heralds the return of predatory capitalism that classical liberalism backstopped in the 19th century. The increasing economic inequality created by neoliberalism is responsible for the rise of populism and emergence of an increasingly polluted information environment. We face torrents of gaslighting: false or at least distorted tweets, video clips, and blog posts. We also observe the formation of many echo chambers, groups that reinforce those groups’ chosen visions, selecting what to accept as true, and amplifying each other’s biases.

Rising inequality has become the defining challenge of the century; it has profound implications for the health and resilience of democracies everywhere. Inequality – and the fears of social decline and exclusion it generates – feeds social polarization and the shrinking of a vital moderate center. Inequality is usually associated to an unequal distribution of resources and, therefore, it is related to the gap between the rich and the poor. It also relates to an unequal access to opportunities or benefits from economic activity. In the best-case scenario, this unequal distribution is associated to talent or effort; but, in most cases, it is the result of institutional structures that create social barriers based on: sex, age, ethnicity, social status, among other variables that define individuals’ initial conditions. Inequality can lead to social tensions, discrimination, poverty traps, erosion of social capital, regional imbalances, and an unfair access to justice. It also prevents people from obtaining fair benefits from economic activities.

It is time to reject the metanarrative of neoliberal globalization – postmodern thought and action is part of the process to address social inequality and social injustice. What the mainstream media have really supported is the neoliberal project that has reduced everything to markets, undermined regulation, stagnated wages, introduced risk, precarity and uncertainty, and brought about major economic crises. In all of this the mainstream media has been a significant enabler in the shift from the social democratic advances of the post-war period to the establishment of a corporate-financial oligarchy in which democracy in any real sense is meaningless. In this setting the media have not been the purveyors of truth. This assault on reality is the fraud used to support a specific formation of power. Neoliberalism is no longer a ‘truth’ and must be relegated to the trash heap of history along with classical liberalism and traditional Marxism.

1 Andrew Calcut. (18 Nov 2016) The surprising origins of ‘post-truth’ – and how it was spawned by the liberal left.

2 John Keane. (22 March 2018) Post-truth politics and why the antidote isn’t simply ‘fact-checking’ and truth

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Seeking Happiness Seems to be Part of System Justification

An economic system that rewards psychopathic personality traits has changed our ethics and our personalities – neoliberalism favors certain personality traits and penalizes others. Our society constantly proclaims that anyone can make it if they just try hard enough, all the while reinforcing privilege and putting increasing pressure on its overstretched and exhausted citizens. An increasing number of people in search of happiness fail – feeling humiliated, guilty and ashamed. We are forever told that we are freer to choose the course of our lives than ever before, but the freedom to choose outside the success narrative is limited. Furthermore, those who fail are deemed to be losers or scroungers, taking advantage of our social security system. A neoliberal meritocracy would have us believe that success depends on individual effort and talents, meaning responsibility lies entirely with the individual and authorities should give people as much freedom as possible to achieve this goal.1

Dr. Robert Holden writes, “‘Destination Addiction’ is a major block to success. People who suffer from Destination Addiction believe that success is a destination. They are addicted to the idea that the future is where success is, happiness is. It is a preoccupation with the idea that happiness is somewhere else. We suffer, literally, from the pursuit of happiness. We are always on the run, on the move, and on the go. Our goal is not to enjoy the day, it is to get through the day. We have always to get to somewhere else first before we can relax and before we can savor the moment. But we never get there. There is no point of arrival. We are permanently dissatisfied. The feeling of success is continually deferred. We live in hot pursuit of some extraordinary bliss we have no idea how to find”.

Holden then goes on to list some of the symptoms of destination addiction: “Whatever you are doing, you are always thinking about what comes next. You cannot afford to stop because you always have to be somewhere else. You are always in a hurry even when you don’t need to be. You don’t like your job but it has good prospects for the future. You never commit fully to anything in case something better comes along. You hope the next big success will finally make you happy. You always think you should be further ahead of where you are now.” Rather than being caught up in the progress, we should try to live for the moment. Happiness is not a destination, it is a choice we make. To find happiness with the life you have and to achieve the goals important to you, you must confront the limitations of the system.2

More than half of US workers are unhappy with their jobs. The frustration you experience by not living the life you imagined is created by the resentment that the outcome of an event is less than you imagined it would be. Expectations are an illusion – they add useless pressure to everyone. Life is not perfect – removing expectations will let you appreciate your life as it is. Most will identify we can’t change something if we don’t recognize there is something to change. In order to learn to accept reality we must become aware of the source of negativity. Some propose that rhetoric around self-care is nothing more than a neoliberal trap. Studies reveal that adherence to neoliberal values of self-enhancement – power and achievement – predicts the motivation to gain social approval; this motivation, in turn, favors the adoption of context specific competitive performance-approach goals, which predicts the condoning of cheating.

Democracy funded and fueled by corporate power disenfranchises the individual, provoking some to search for empowerment through identity politics. Within neoliberalism a person’s identity becomes so undermined by the system that he/she must adopt a social identity in order to create a sense of personal identity and connection with others. Neoliberalism has turned us into competitive individuals. In such a system everyone has to make those choices that turn his life into a professional success or personal happiness; moreover, these choices depend solely on his or her personal efforts. This creates a binary system of winners and losers. As humans are social animals this is a formula for unhappiness. The construction and perpetuation of stereotypes such as abusers of the welfare state, social scroungers, social hammock, is creating strong prejudices in people’s thinking. These ideas are purposely marginalizing the unemployed, the homeless, asylum-seekers, etc. and diverting suspicion from the real culprits.

The word “globalization” rings in most people’s ears as a signal of our advancement, the recognition of our limitless ability to create and have – beyond measure – anything we want. In the culture of today, where the digital age beckons us into the virtual world of tomorrow and an overstimulated frenzy to keep up, it has become me against me. Neoliberalist policies limit government regulation and allow business owners and investors to run their businesses in a manner that maximizes profit for themselves and their stakeholders, with no regard to their workers.  Neoliberalism increases income inequality by rewarding those who are already wealthy, while providing fewer nets for poorer populations to fall back on. A person born into wealth may find it easier to receive a college education, access a wealthier network, and consequently land a higher paying job. In contrast, individuals from low income communities cannot access those same opportunities nor advance their socioeconomic status.

As a result of the perceived connection between self-esteem and societal/educational ‘problems’, low self-esteem has been viewed as characteristic of ‘at risk’ individuals, particularly adolescents. Furthermore, those identified as low in self-esteem are often encouraged to participate in special programs aimed at improving their self-esteem (usually to enhance achievement or employability). Because marginalized groups are disproportionately represented in statistics relating to truancy, delinquency, suicide, abuse and under achievement, and are therefore assumed to be ‘at risk’, low self-esteem tends to be automatically associated with marginalized ethnic/cultural groups, the unemployed, and those from lower socioeconomic groups.  It would also appear that if the individual fails to achieve the desirable level of self-esteem at the end of the program, rather than perceiving the ‘problem’ as societal, or questioning the program itself, it is typically the already marginalized individual who is blamed.

Is it possible, then, that self-esteem is being used to maintain marginalization, by creating group differences which uphold inequalities? So, while it is possible for certain individuals to perceive themselves as ‘successful’ or ‘intelligent’, it may not be possible for others. The system can pathologize whole groups of individuals by applying the label ‘low self-esteem’ to certain (groups) of individuals, assuming homogeneity among members of the group. Consequently, the inequalities of power which the system claims to be addressing are in fact being maintained.3 “For youth disadvantaged by our social and economic system, believing it is fair can have long-term negative ramifications across a range of outcomes,” observes Erin Godfrey, assistant professor of applied psychology at NYU Steinhardt and the study’s lead author. Godfrey’s study finds traditionally marginalized youth who grew up believing in the American ideal that hard work and perseverance naturally leads to success show a decline in self-esteem during their middle school years.

“If you’re in an advantaged position in society, believing the system is fair and that everyone could just get ahead if they tried hard enough doesn’t create any conflict for you … [you] can feel good about how [you] manage it,” said Godfrey. But for those marginalized by the system – economically, racially, ethnically – believing the system is fair puts them in conflict with themselves and can have negative consequences.4 Although we use social comparison in part to develop our self-concept – that is, to form accurate conclusions about our attitudes, abilities, and opinions – social comparison has perhaps an even bigger impact on our self-esteem. When we are able to compare ourselves favorably with others, we feel good about ourselves, but when the outcome of comparison suggests that others are better or better off than we are, then our self-esteem is likely to suffer. Upward comparison may lower our self-esteem by reminding us that we are not as well off as others.

The current economic system is bringing out the worst in us. Society is becoming more divided because wealthy and powerful figures are promoting the notion of meritocracy while failing to address inequality. For those who believe in the fairytale of unrestricted choice, self-government and self-management are the pre-eminent political messages, especially if they appear to promise happiness. In effect, the transition from organized capitalism to neoliberal hegemony is part of system justification and meritocracy – the great delusion that ingrains inequality. We need to open wide conversations on institutional discrimination and other systems of oppression. This includes those involuntarily socially marginalized, who remain outside ‘the major area of capitalist productive and reproductive activity.’ However, marginalized people are not responsible for ending their own oppression. It more important for the apologists for neoliberal prejudiced views to step out of their echo chambers and see the marginalized as humans than it is for the oppressed to humanize oppressors.

1 Paul Verhaeghe (29 September 2014) Neoliberalism has brought out the worst in us

2 Mark D. Griffiths (20 July 2016) The Search For Happiness.

3 Sonja J. Ellis (1998) Is Self-Esteem Political?

4 Melinda D. Anderson (27 July 2017) Why the Myth of Meritocracy Hurts Kids of Color

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Maintaining the Illusion of Prosperity is Critical to the Economy

The illusion that the standard of living has not dropped during a period of wage stagnation is because of non-mortgage forms of debt. The financial crisis of 2008 was in part the result of a consumer that had exhausted their ability to use more debt to maintain their lifestyle. But we need to ask ourselves: is the current boom built on sound foundations? In other words, do we have sharp increases in productivity or real wage growth? In the US, household spending now accounts for almost 70% of economic growth, about 10% more than it did in 1971. (Household spending in the U.S. is also approximately 10-15% higher than most other developed nations.) The low unemployment rate as a measure of prosperity is an illusion – the quality of jobs is deteriorating. The illusion of wealth has become a way of life for Americans. Individuals are not as rich as they like to tell themselves they are.

For many groups of Americans, the prosperity of the 1920s was a cruel illusion, because on the surface, there appeared to be economic prosperity. Modern advertising pushed consumers to buy more products that they could not afford. Even during the most prosperous years of the Roaring Twenties, most families lived below what contemporaries defined as the poverty line. In 1929, economists considered $2,500 the income necessary to support a family. In that year, more than 60 percent of the nation’s families earned less than $2,000 a year – the income necessary for basic necessities – and over 40 percent earned less than $1,500 annually. Even before the onset of the Depression, business investment had begun to decline. Residential construction boomed between 1924 and 1927, but in 1929 housing starts fell to less than half the 1924 level. A major reason for the depressed housing market was the 1924 immigration law that had restricted foreign immigration.

In 1910, a farmer’s income was 40 percent of a city worker’s. By 1930, it had sagged to just 30 percent. The decline in farm income reverberated throughout the economy. Rural consumers stopped buying farm implements, tractors, automobiles, furniture, and appliances. Millions of farmers defaulted on their debts, placing tremendous pressure on the banking system. Between 1920 and 1929, more than 5,000 of the country’s 30,000 banks failed. A poor distribution of income compounded the country’s economic problems. During the 1920s, there was a pronounced shift in wealth and income toward the very rich. Between 1919 and 1929, the share of income received by the wealthiest one percent of Americans rose from 12 percent to 19 percent, while the share received by the richest five percent jumped from 24 percent to 34 percent. Over the same period, the poorest 93 percent of the non-farm population actually saw its disposable income fall.

During the instability in Europe, America had managed to establish itself as the new power in international exports, far exceeding France and Britain. An immense feeling of ‘nationalism’ in the United States led to embargos on immigration and imports. Republican tariff policies damaged the economy by depressing foreign trade. Anxious to protect American industries from foreign competitors, Congress passed the Fordney-McCumber Tariff of 1922 and the Hawley-Smoot Tariff of 1930, raising tariff rates to unprecedented levels. American tariffs stifled international trade, making it difficult for European nations to pay off their debts. In addition, the reluctance of the USA to import goods resulted in many countries being unable to repay the loans that they had accrued during the First World War. In reality, the US had broken the international economic moral of trade being a two-way street. As foreign economies foundered, those countries imposed trade barriers of their own, choking off U.S. exports. By 1933, international trade had plunged 30 percent.1

In the short run, the economy and voters benefit from deficit spending. It drives economic growth. The federal government pays for defense equipment, health care, and building construction. It contracts with private firms who then hire new employees. They spend their government-subsidized wages on gasoline, groceries, and new clothes. That boosts the economy. The same effect occurs with the employees the federal government hires directly. As part of the components of GDP, government spending takes a huge chunk, most of which is allocated to military expenditure. “Booming economic growth has not been sufficient to lower the budget deficit – in fact, the deficit and Treasury borrowing are headed sharply higher, and virtually no one in Washington seems to care,” Greg Valliere, chief global strategist at Horizon Investments notes recently.2

Every president borrows from the Social Security Trust Fund. The Fund took in more revenue than it needed through payroll taxes leveraged on baby boomers. Ideally, this money should have been invested to be available when the boomers retire. Instead, the Fund was “loaned” to the government to finance increased spending. This interest-free loan helped keep Treasury Bond interest rates low, allowing more debt financing. Over the next 20 years, the Social Security Trust Fund won’t have enough to cover the retirement benefits promised to baby boomers. That could mean higher taxes once the high U.S. debt rules out further loans from other countries. Congress is more likely to curtail benefits than raise taxes. That would primarily affect retirees younger than 70. It might also hit those who are high income and not as dependent on Social Security payments to fund their retirement.

The first rate hike this year occurred at the Federal Open Market Committee’s (FOMC) March meeting, when it raised the federal funds rate for the first time in 2018. Then in June, FOMC unanimously voted to increase the federal funds rate by 25 basis points to 1.75% to 2%. The criteria used by the FED in the past: inflation rose when unemployment was below 4%. So they think they need to raise unemployment above 4% in order to prevent inflation taking off, even though there is no sign of inflation. If people are not working as much as they want to, because the jobs are not available, then there is slack in the labor market. This too would place downwards pressure on wages, preventing inflation taking off. In today’s fluid job markets rife with casual, part-time and temporary jobs, exists the illusion of unemployment – a measure of labor market tightness that is hopelessly inadequate.

When it comes to stocks and the economy, the illusion of knowledge can be disastrous. Many complicated situations tempt investors to believe they know the answers. But the reality is that the moving parts are too intricate. And the outcomes are anything but certain. If enough corporations re-shore production and supply chains, the U.S. labor market might tighten enough for wages to rise. But this rather assumes that raising barriers to trade has no other economic impact. If President Trump implements all his announced trade barriers, the growth rate of the American economy will fall, even without retaliation from trade partners. And if other countries raise trade barriers in response, re-shored manufacturers will find their export markets drying up. In September the FOMC increases the fed funds rate 25 basis points to a range 2 percent to 2.25 percent. This uncertainty creates increased turmoil in the stock market – the stock market just had its biggest December loss since the Great Depression.

Nietzsche believed, one should be conscious of the illusory nature of what is considered truth, thus opening up the possibility of the creation of new values. It is necessary to create the social environment or milieu to support good governance to control cognitive dissonance and the consequent balancing of perception that leads to misperception. Accountability is the key requirement of good governance. Accountability is about obligation to answer for one’s actions. In addition to being responsible for one’s actions, one may be required to explain them to others. Processes and institutions must produce results that meet needs while making best use of resources. Equity and inclusiveness requires all men and women have opportunities to improve or maintain their well-being. The well-being of the community depends on ensuring that all its members feel that they have a stake in it and do not feel excluded from the mainstream of society.

Maintaining the illusion of prosperity, though, is critical to the economy as it is, because its foundation is built on consumption, fraud, credit and debt. The banking system itself has been engineered from the top down to create unlimited wealth for a few at the top, leaving the workers, those individuals who pay 28% on their credit card, at the bottom. However, true prosperity is connected to wellness. True prosperity is a vibrant environment and an abundance of health, happiness, love, and relationships. However, as more people come to perceive material goods as the form of self-identification in this culture, we slip farther and farther away from the experience of true prosperity. Everyone must have the freedom and opportunity to reach real happiness. Until we restore the primacy of politics (management of the state) over commerce, and address the disparity between the rich and the rest of society, true prosperity remains out of the reach of most individuals.

1 Why It Happened. 2016

2 Jeff Cox. (2 Aug 2018) The Trump administration is headed for a gigantic debt headache

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Discourse and Democracy: the Exercise of Social Power Exploitation

Democracy is eroding across the globe – at least being transformed in such a way that we have to rethink what it means and how it works. How would one measure democratic backsliding in a country? Many believe the best measures of the state of democracy are driven for the most part by the health of public discourse rather than by any kind of systematic evaluation of the institutions themselves. This criteria raises worrisome indicators in countries like Poland, Hungary, Russia, Turkey, and now the US, with the shredding of norms – feeding concern that democracies are dying. In this post-fact era, more and more authoritarian states around the world are holding elections, pretending they are fair when they are not, and using a lot of the techniques that are associated with democracies. To ensure the health of democracy it is necessary to refocus on the quality of deliberation in a society and the reasonableness of the discourse.1

Nobody, looking back at the first 18 years of this century, can suggest that the political, economic and financial elites who brought you the euro crisis, the war in Iraq, the Great Recession of 2008, growing inequality and middle-class income stagnation have not made some very serious mistakes, of very enduring consequences, with very startling impunity. A lot of that anger and distrust toward large institutions remains to this day. A common complaint against twenty-first century democracy is that it has lost control of corporate power. Big companies hoard wealth and influence. They fuel inequality. They despoil the planet. They don’t pay their taxes. For many corporations these kinds of complaints come with the territory – banks and oil companies have heard them all before. Ordinary folk reckon the system is rigged, that elites are not in it for the people but, rather, the money.

Populism is a phenomenon which can emerge in all forms of a democratic system. Conservative populists target those with a monopoly on representation (journalists, scholars, established political parties) rather than those with a monopoly on production. Social media gives populist actors the freedom to articulate their ideology and spread their messages. Politics of fear is used to get people to vote a particular way, allow excesses in spending, or accept policies they might otherwise abhor. In post-truth politics social media assists political actors who mobilize voters through a crude blend of outlandish conspiracy theories and suggestive half-truths, barely concealed hate-speech, as well as outright lies. These “populist” voters now live in a media bubble, getting their news from sources that play to their identity-politics desires, which means that even if you offer them a better deal, they won’t hear about it, or believe it if told.

During the 1940s, the tobacco companies promoted the health benefits of cigarettes – preventing colds and relaxing individuals. Lung cancer was rare in the early 1900s but by the mid-20th century it had become an epidemic. In 1952 a Readers’ Digest article decried the negative health consequences of cigarette smoking. The following year was the first year in two decades that the sale of cigarettes dropped. The tobacco industry responded by setting up the Council for Tobacco Research. This was the beginning of a survival strategy. This meant denying the health consequences of smoking; deceiving customers about the true nature of cigarettes through marketing and PR, as well as damaging the credibility of industry opponents. The tobacco companies joined many associations who typically oppose taxation and promoted themselves as supporters of freedom of expression, but blocked making available any information linking smoking to death or any negative outcomes.

In 1996 a whistle blower exposed the wrongdoings of Big Tobacco publicly – how the tobacco company he worked for misled consumers about the highly addictive nature of nicotine, how it ignored research some of the additives used to improve flavor caused cancer, how it encoded and hid documents that could be used against the company in lawsuits brought by sick or dying smokers. Today there is a parallel with addiction to social media, and Facebook in particular. Behind the veneer of the motto “bringing people together” and “building community” exists a machine built from day one to be addictive thanks to millions of cleverly arranged filter bubbles. Facebook was never designed to provide in depth knowledge to its users rather it encourages everyone (news publishers for instance) to produce and distribute the shallowest possible content, loaded with cheap emotion, to stimulate sharing. It locks people into feed-back loops or bubbles that become harmful to democracy.2

Today banks and oil companies are no longer the world’s most powerful corporations. That mantle has passed to the technology giants: Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple. The digital revolution has been simultaneously good and bad for democracy, and Facebook is no exception. The good is in the breadth and the openness of the network. The bad is in the secrecy and opacity of the way the network is run. This includes the blurred line between opinion and fact. Changes in media content and the media business model have contributed to the jumbling of fact, fiction, and opinion. Examples include journalistic content that fails to distinguish between opinion and fact, news programs that rely on commentary rather than factual reporting without clearly labeling them, and social media platforms that allow anyone to become a source of information. In the end it is only the regulatory power of the state that can make Facebook safe for democracy.

Cognitive dissonance is the brain’s inability to handle two conflicting realities, so it creates an alternate one, which often defies actual reality. Cognitive biases reflect mental patterns that can lead people to form beliefs or make decisions that do not reflect an objective and thorough assessment of the facts. For instance, people tend to seek out information that confirms preexisting beliefs and reject information that challenges those beliefs. Segregation across the American electorate along economic, political, and social lines contributes to the development of insular and isolated communities, each with its own narrative, worldview, and, increasingly, even “facts.” The growth in the volume of subjective content relative to factual information increases the likelihood that audiences will encounter speculation or downright falsehoods. That makes it more difficult to identify key pieces of factual information. What is the importance or significance that individual citizens understand the debacle of policy or even a good grasp of all the facts?

Ideas on the web tend to be about problem solving, while opinions on the web are mostly theatre, in which emotions drive decision-making. The advent of the information age seems to have created individuals who feel they know more than ever before – when their reliance on the internet means they may know ever less about the world around them. Today in the post-fact era people are more likely to accept an argument based on their emotions and beliefs, rather than one based on facts. The problem in the US is how to objectively measure the impact of the media environment that is so partisan and fragmented – such that – Americans can no longer agree on a baseline set of facts. With Republicans and Democrats more polarized than ever, each group believes what they want to believe, supported because they don’t trust the people providing the facts, or can find some way to explain them away.

Conservative think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), home of Paul Wolfowitz and John Bolton, have many projects that support the neoliberal economic project. AEI supported a 1980 study on the emerging ‘social cost’ arguments against smoking in support of the tobacco industry, and more recently supports various studies that cast doubt on global warming. These tactics include introducing manufactured uncertainty by raising doubts about even the most indisputable scientific evidence, by setting up so called independent front organizations to publicly promote its desired message. As in the 1990’s, when Big Tobacco felt its home market dwindling, the companies decided to stimulate smoking in the Third World – Facebook’s tactics are reminiscence of that. Today, it subsidizes connectivity in the developing world, offering attractive deals to telecoms in Asia and Africa, in exchange for making Facebook the main gateway to the internet.

After the election of Donald Trump, Facebook’s initial attitude was to bluntly deny any involvement in the torrent of misinformation that contributed to the Trump victory. Now it is certain that Facebook, for the sake of short-term profit, turned a blind eye to what was unfolding. Like the approach to Big Tobacco it is necessary to have as many agencies as possible participate with respect to cross-cutting issues. For example, effective tobacco control required the use of fiscal policies to reduce tobacco consumption, allied with labor and environmental laws to reduce exposure to smoke, and regulation of marketing practice. With respect to the addiction promoted by companies like Facebook it will not be enough to just raise public awareness, rather the response will require a series of regulations and taxes to address the power exploitation of devices. These are important necessary steps to restore the health of democracy.

1 Sean IIling. (2 July 2018) Why the death of democracy may be overhyped

2 Frederic Filloux. Facebook has a Big Tobacco Problem.

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Globalization and Individualism: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Isaac Newton (1642-1727) discovered the natural laws of motion, which provided the final piece to the puzzle, establishing the Copernican theory of the Earth revolving around the sun, introducing the spirit of individualism and the idea the study of human progress was at the center of all things – the individual was placed at the center of the universe. Individualism was established as a Western value during the Enlightenment. Over the past two hundred years individualism and capitalism rose together. By the last quarter of the 20th century, individualism, happiness, and capitalism were part of the core values of Western culture. Individualism reinforces the person who thinks that he/she should not have to contribute to the community’s common good but should be left free to pursue his/her own personal ends. Today the power elite manipulates the collective illusion that the free markets of globalization maximize individual freedom and prosperity.

The logic of globalization is seductive because it is based on a simple premise – free the market of its restrictions and its self-organizing dynamics will bring employment, wealth, and prosperity. Thus, globalization supports diversity, freedom of choice and enhancement of material production. In return, the system is to provide everyone, equally, an opportunity to exercise a full range of choices. Globalization promotes free trade, which ultimately benefits everyone, as free access to goods to goods, services, capital, people, information, and technology; it provides countries with the best advantage to advance. Globalization was to bring increased prosperity in the community. This dogmatic belief purports that markets tend towards natural equilibrium, and the best interests in a given society are achieved by allowing its participants to pursue their own financial interests with little or no restraint on regulatory oversight. This faith in free market fundamentalism establishes a rigid framework for thinking.

The focus on individualism and self-centeredness in society led to the increase in narcissism while the sense of entitlement became pervasive. Another aspect of bad, extreme individualism is self-tolerance. Such individuals learn to tolerate their errors and personal flaws and come to accept themselves as okay. They feel justified in asserting themselves, defending their perceived rights, believe rules do not apply to them, lack respect for authority, and habitually lie to people. It is impossible to distinguish pathological narcissists from self-confident, self-promoting, highly individualistic individuals. The culture of extreme individualism ushered in the narcissism influencing decision-making and accountability today. With narcissism, such a person lacks empathy and does not recognize boundaries: personal, corporate or legal. The world viewed from an emotional rather than a rational perspective allows personal feelings to override the distinction between right and wrong. Today extreme individualism and amoral relativism create a climate where men elevate their personal interests above the common good.

Ronald Reagan declared, “… the government is not the solution, but the problem.” Milton Friedman’s neoliberal triumvirate of privatization, deregulation – free trade, and drastic cuts to government spending laid the groundwork for Reagan economic policies which, in turn, launched globalization which was supposed to undermine authoritarianism. What was not obvious at the time is that the neoliberal version of globalization would herald the return of predatory capitalism of the 19th century with the goal of subordinating the working-class while restoring the unfettered hegemony of capital. These economic changes brought an end to the post-war boom as the living standards in the West stopped going up.  Mobile capital created a climate for reduced tax on profits – multi-nationals could move their money elsewhere. Globalization’s deep, structural motors are, in fact, enabling authoritarians. Not only can capital now mask itself and disappear without any trace, but gigantic sums of money are now traveling the world in a concealed manner.

Economic elites blame individuals who bought risky subprime mortgages rather than the individuals in the financial services industry with self-tolerance and a sense of entitlement leveraging the market, who brought chaos on the world financial system. Since the Great Recession more and more need to work two jobs to make ends meet. The number of part-time jobs has increased significantly since 2007 while the number of full-time jobs dropped – corporations decided not to add full-time jobs that come with costly benefits. Now many workers find themselves stressed working 60-70 hours a week as the only way to survive. These long hours are mentally and physically exhausting and lead to stress at work and at home. Long-term stress can result in anxiety, high blood pressure, and a weakened immune system. It also contributes to depression, obesity and heart disease. People who experience excessive stress often deal with it in unhealthy ways such as overeating, eating unhealthy foods, smoking cigarettes or abusing drugs and alcohol.

In 2008 the capitalist class turned to state assistance to bail out of the crisis created by their own greed. Under a rescue plan hundreds of billions of dollars of banking risk were transferred to the federal government, adding to America’s huge burden of debt and increasing the reliance on foreign investors (to buy the debt). Even with neoliberalism discredited, the ruling elite do not have an issue with it. It remains a weapon in the arsenal to control the working class. They use the ideology of neoliberalism when it suits their needs to justify austerity to cut social safety nets. The social costs of globalization include the costs of production that are not born by the producer or included in the price of the product, underemployment, lost tax base, rising trade and current account deficits from offshoring of manufacturing and tradeable professional services.

The American ruling elite who embrace the dangerously simplistic ideology of deregulation has responsibility for the present mess. Neoliberalism is known for its hatred of democracy, the common good and the social contract. David Harvey notes, “…the raw money power wielded by a few undermines all semblance of democratic governance.” Policy is now fashioned by lobbyists representing big business such as the pharmaceutical and health insurance companies going so far in the case of drug companies to drive the opioid crisis to increase their profits. Neoliberalism not only undermines the basic elements of democracy by escalating the mutually reinforcing dynamics of economic inequality and political inequality – accentuating the downward spiral of social and economic mobility – it has created conditions that make fascist ideas and principles more attractive. The rise of the populist, a close cousin of fascists, occurs in parallel as the ideas, values and institutions crucial to democracy have withered under a savage neoliberalism.1

The shift from a market economy to a market-driven society has been accompanied by a savage attack on equality, the social contract and social provisions as wages have become gutted, pensions destroyed, health care put out of reach of many, job security undermined, and access to crucial public goods such as public and higher education considerably weakened for the lower and middle-classes. The reality is that prosperity is marred by the growing inequality in the distribution of wealth, income, and opportunity; a rapidly restructuring “new economy” that is destabilizing older patterns of work and community; ethnic tensions sparked by the steady arrival of “new,” racially “other” immigrants. Neoliberal globalization thrives on producing subjects that internalize its values, corroding their ability to imagine an alternative world. Under such conditions, not only is agency depoliticized, but the political is emptied of any real substance and unable to challenge neoliberalism’s belief in extreme inequality and social abandonment.

Today’s regulations support neoliberal policies. The rich, via lobbyists and Byzantine tax arrangements, actively work to stop redistribution – insulating both capital and the state from democratic control. The consequence is a hegemony that relentlessly hollows out the state and marketizes all forms of social existence under the claim the market provides a natural mechanism for rational economic allocation. The evolution of the neoliberal project should be understood, not as a meticulous manipulation of social reality, but a series of increasingly desperate attempts to hold the very fabric of reality together. Neoliberalism has become an anxious form of crisis management attempting to cover over the gaps in its ideological contradictions. The power elite control what you think through proxies who control information and communication, and through their lobbyists who influence what most of your politicians believe. Through this mechanism they perpetuate the fear of change – if taxes are raised on the rich unemployment will rise and existing jobs will disappear.

Inequality is not inevitable, it’s engineered. It is about the increasing control of the power elite and the decline in labor power (as part of the era of globalization) along with the attacks on the welfare state – consequently there is a rapid rise in social, income and health inequalities. The new policies to strengthen democracy need to address the growing economic gap and create opportunities for all. We need to ban making public policy decisions through the lens of individualism (which oversimplifies complex and multifaceted problems) and switch to filter social and economic policies through the lens of the social determinants of health before they are implemented to ensure they support actions that reduce inequities in the system.  The clamor against globalization is the public calling for better provision of public goods. It is necessary to switch from a value system based on ‘rule of the market’ and individualism to the values based on ‘community’ and ‘public good.’

1 Henry A. Giroux (20 Aug 2018) Neoliberal Fascism and the Echoes of History

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A Social Constructivist Approach to Change

With the increasing socioeconomic inequality, we recognize the need for change. An interpretative framework for analysis is social constructivist thought – knowledge is not passively accumulated, but rather, is the result of active learning by the individual. In attempting to make sense of the social world, social constructivists view knowledge as constructed as opposed to created. This is an adaptive process that functions to make an individual’s behavior more viable given a particular environment. A social construct is an idea or notion that appears to be natural and obvious to people who accept it but may or may not represent reality, so it remains largely an invention or artifice of a given society. Analysis through a social constructivist lens allows an overview of the political aspect of globalization discourse by emphasizing the potential for change rather than the inevitability of global processes.

Neoliberalism is mindset that many people and institutions accept as a starting point – growth is always a good thing, and it will help everyone over time, without ever challenging whether the foundational basis are actually true. Neoliberal economists promote these concepts as ‘common sense’ and a necessary responsibility, and by-and-large we have allowed these to enter our everyday language with little analysis of their underlying impact. This activity includes switch our values from the ‘public good’ and ‘community’ to a value system based on the rule of the market and individual responsibility for their success, while corporate expansion is good for all. The neoliberal worldview has been embedded in contemporary culture to such an extent and now is so pervasive that countervailing evidence serves only to convince people of its ultimate truth. On the other hand, social constructivists develop their own particular meanings that correspond to their experience.

Neoliberalism failed to predict the end of the Cold War. The neoliberal commitment to individualism and materialism meant they could not grasp what appeared to reside at the heart of this stunning development: the revolutionary impact of ideas to transform the organization of world politics. The so-called competitive advantage of neoliberalism did not appear to be in play. Social constructivism however, provides an explanation for change and transformation. Social constructionism means that our realities are shaped through our experiences and our interactions with others. Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. The political and social domination of the upper classes are presented as normal outcomes of the functioning free market. The contrast is the taken-for-granted of many globalization discourses while constructivism emphasizes the potential for change rather than the inevitability of global processes.

How does inequality becomes systematically structured in economic, social, and political life? As we live in a society that emphasizes the individual, that is, individual effort, individual morality, individual choice, individual responsibility, individual talent often makes it difficult to see the way in which life chances are socially structured. The dominant ideological presumption about social inequality is that everyone has an equal chance of success. However, systemic inequalities based on group membership, class, gender, ethnicity, and other variables that structure access to rewards and status determine who gets the opportunities to develop their abilities and their talents. Neoliberals believe individual effort, responsibility and talent determine how life chances are socially structured. Social inequality describes the unequal distribution of valued resources, rewards, and positions in society. The privileged position of the middle class has steadily been eroded by growing inequalities of wealth and income. The middle class is becoming more and more indistinguishable from the wage-earning working-class.

When class, gender, race puts people in a position in which they can claim a greater share of resources or services, then social differentiation becomes the basis of social inequality. Neoliberals preach that well-being is tied to economic freedom and the inclination to act in one’s own interest. Thus, every decision and choice can be conceived as a market decision, a finely-honed calculation of the benefits and costs of every action we take. All happiness and dissatisfaction are reduced to a lack of positive attitude. Since social class is no longer relevant everybody ends up with the social economic position they deserve. This produces a chronic sense of self-blame, anxiety and self-recrimination, with individuals having nobody to blame but themselves for not being famous, very rich or more attractive. This neoliberal social construction hides the truth that factors like wealth, income and power, contribute significantly to the success of any individual.

F. A. Hayek observed that social orders emerge from an aggregate of individuals or choices, then proposes laws are to protect the liberty of the individual in order to create a decentralized ‘bottom up’ actions on the part of individuals, knowing full well it created a system with built-in inequality. To assuage this deficit Milton Friedman developed the theory of trickle-down economics – claiming benefits for the wealthy like tax cuts on business, high income earners, capital gains and dividends helps poor people by the trickle-down effect in which economic growth flows from the top to the bottom, indirectly benefiting those who do not directly benefit from the policy changes. This claim to knowledge that investors, savers, and company owners are the real drivers of economic growth is supported by the reality of a social construct that is actually based on subjective criteria rather than objective realities.

When a particular definition of reality supports elites, it may be called an ideology. Ideology controls the masses – ideologies conceal essential aspects of social and political reality and prevent change. The concealing aspects of ideology are not accidental (i.e. not simply errors) but relate systematically to a set of social and cognitive interests of the elites. Today neoliberal ideology defines the social relationships of poor people and the attitude towards them that supports an economic system that creates inequality. The political and social domination of the upper classes are presented as normal outcomes of the functioning free market. Postmodernism is a 1980s movement characterized by broad skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; a general suspicion of reason; and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and maintaining political and economic power. Supporters believe knowledge and truth are products of social, historical and political discourses or interpretations, and therefore contextual or socially constructed.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) social construction of ‘sound’ economic policy includes how far debt and debt reduction should be a priority over boosting aggregate demand and supporting economic growth. For years IMF fiscal thinking has emphasized prudent fiscal policy leading to deficit bias and fiscal sustainability concerns, advising countries to build up fiscal buffers. Following the 2008 crash there has been a shift in fiscal policy thinking – fiscal policy was a more powerful counter-cyclical tool than hitherto had been appreciated. A 2016 IMF research article identified austerity can do more harm than good: “It turns out, however, that the cost could be large – much larger than the benefit. The reason is that, to get to a lower debt level, taxes that distort economic behaviour need to be raised temporarily or productive spending needs to be cut – or both. The costs of the tax increases or expenditure cuts required to bring down the debt may be much larger than the reduced crisis risk engendered by the lower debt.”1

Neoliberals have always known that their vision of the good society will triumph only if it becomes reconciled to the fact that the conditions for its existence must be socially constructed, and will not come about “naturally” in the absence of concerted political effort and organization. Neoliberals regard inequality of economic resources and political rights not as an unfortunate by-product of capitalism, but a necessary functional characteristic of their ideal market system. With its redefinition of the individual as data, classless, and without self-interest objectives rational or otherwise, it sought to overcome all opposition based on individual rights, class, property, and public good. It sought on the one hand to create change by breaking down the apparent democratic appeal to government, while on the other hand extoling the virtues of the free-market as the promethean struggle against the regulation of the inefficient state. Freedom has nothing to do with democracy or speech or individual rights: for the neoliberal it is about the freedom of the market and the elites who control those markets.

Under the cultural trope of ‘individual responsibility’ welfare for the poor is cut and restructured to make welfare recipients more responsible for their economic status. This takes the focus from the inherit inequality in the system and focuses on the distribution, specifically its disproportionate effect on the excluded – such as the unemployed, minorities and immigrants.2 A consequence of this neoliberal change is the reconfiguration of class relations in a society where the explosion of inequality and economic instability has profoundly dismantled the working-class. IMF researchers claim: “Increased inequality, in turn, hurts the level and sustainability of growth. Even if growth is the sole or main purpose of the neoliberal agenda, advocates of that agenda still need to pay attention to the distributional effects.” Today neoliberal ideology defines the social relationships of poor people and the attitude towards them that supports an economic system that creates inequality.

Societies that are economically unequal have higher levels of poverty. It is not about the amount of wealth, rather it is about its distribution. Thirty years of lower taxes and deregulation created a system with increasing inequality between the wealthy and the rest of society. The 2016 Brexit referendum and the Trump election highlight social crises as unhappy voters rejected the establishment, demanding change. Donald Trump tapped into a wide and growing optimism gap that opened between the white middle class and the poor. A 2016 IMF research report declared rising inequality was bad for growth and that governments should use controls to cope with destabilizing capital flows. Social constructivism asserts that individuals cannot be separated from their social context, and that social context is dynamic and constantly changing. For change, it is not necessary to define equality, rather just decrease economic inequality between the rich and the rest of society.

1 Larry Elliot. Austerity Policies do more harm than good, IMF study concludes (26 May 2016)

2 Ideas Have Consequences: The Explosion of Inequality (01 Oct 2017)

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On the Ethics of Poverty Reduction

Poverty doesn’t have one cause or one basic response. Poverty isn’t just about the lack of income or basic necessities – it involves social isolation, an erosion of the sense of dignity and spiritual vitality. Poverty doesn’t just involve life choices or circumstances, but also structures, systems, and institutions, which can be shaped by bias, racism and privilege. This makes the way harder for some than others. Inequality and racism do not exist separate from culture. Thus processes to address these critical issues and ways to confront them must not either. The increasing income gap in society is alarming because it erodes social cohesion – a basic sense of trust between people who do not know each other. A reasonable degree of social cohesion is needed so that a society (and the world) can function, and for people to have the chance to increase their opportunities in life. Inequality tests our ethics.

Ethics is concerned with what is good for individuals and society and is also described as moral philosophy. Ethical comes from the Greek ethos “moral character” and describes a person or behavior as right in the moral sense – truthful, fair, and honest. Ethical behavior means acting in ways consistent with what society and individuals typically think are good values, and involves demonstrating respect for key moral principles that include honesty, fairness, equality, dignity, diversity and individual rights. If ethical theories are to be useful in practice, they need to affect the way human beings behave. Ethics provides us with a moral map, a framework that we can use to find our way through difficult issues. Many people think that for many ethical issues there isn’t a single right answer – just a set of principles that can be applied to particular cases to give those involved some clear choices.

It is generally accepted what made civilization possible was the invention of agriculture, but more fundamentally than agriculture were ethics. For only through ethics is it possible for large groups of people to live together. Agriculture was clearly necessary to support a large sedentary population, but there would have been no significant grouping of co-operative people to invent agriculture if they did not have a unifying, objectively valid code to begin with. Fundamental ethical principles include concern for the well-being of others and an obligation to bring about good in all our actions. We have an obligation to respect the autonomy of others, which includes respecting the decisions made by other people concerning their lives. We have an obligation to prevent harm to others, or at least don’t increase the risk of harm to others. In public life we have an obligation to treat all people equally, and fairly, refusing to take unfair advantage of them. These principles are applied equally to all people, with no distinction between strong and weak, and are what we expect of one another without needing to articulate the expectation or formalize it in any way.

Public perceptions of poverty and of the priority attached to poverty reduction are influenced as much by technical and policy perspectives as by shared values which define the social arrangements and institutions. Reducing poverty requires that public policies enhance material redistribution and social recognition. Promoting ethical decision-making and resolving moral conflicts will require changes in repertoires about morality, rather than shifting modes of cognition. Defining poverty as a concept uniquely applicable to humans has thus far helped us understand poverty as a condition that causes its victims to live lives in which they cannot fully participate in the range of activities expressive of their nature as human beings and they may even fail to be able to maintain their physical health. They are excluded from full participation as human members of society. Inequality and racism do not exist separate from culture. It is not possible to address them as separate issues.

The present weakness is the life style approach to interventions, instead of across the community activities focusing on poverty and inequities in the system that affect choices. Poverty limits choices. Poor people have limited choices for their diet. They often lack shops in their area where they live, or have trouble reaching them. In particular, the poor have the lowest intake of fruits and vegetables. This leads to consumption of an over abundance of cheaper junk food (high fructose corn syrup drinks and processed foods), leading to more obesity and chronic disease than the general population. Falling back on the lifestyle rhetoric of the health promotion approach that relies on health education to encourage healthy behavior has worsened social inequalities in health as upper socioeconomic classes have secured the most benefits.

Richard Wilkinson observes, “we had always regarded classification by social class as simply a proxy for the real determinants of health that we saw that we imagined were material factors – like diet and what you’re working with and what you’re exposed to at work and maybe housing, air pollution, things like that. Now it looks more and more like social status itself is an important determinant of health. There is now a growing realization that most health issues are caused, or worsened, by poverty and inequality.” In countries like the UK and America, people in richer areas can live up to 14 years longer than people in poor areas. Research shows health is responsive to changes in income, and that the death rates of the poor are more responsive to changes in income than the death rates of the rich are.

Around the world poverty is responsible for more preventable deaths than anything else. In 1995 at the World Conference for Social Development 117 Heads of State and Government signed a declaration committing to processes that would integrate social, economic and environmental goals. A feature of these development commitments is that they involve improvements in total human well-being, far more than, though inclusive of, the growth of national income. The Canadian Medical Association reports, “… poverty is the main issue that must be addressed to improve the health of Canadians and eliminate health inequities”. Poverty is a significant determinant of health. It means more of the household’s income will go towards shelter, leaving less for nutritious food. It also means families have less choice when it comes to housing, and are more likely to live in overcrowded, unhealthy conditions. Research in Canada on housing shows spending $10 on housing and support for chronically homeless individuals resulted in $22 in savings.1

At the heart of ethics is a concern about something or someone other than ourselves and our own desires and self-interest. Many people want there to be a single right answer to ethical questions. They find moral ambiguity hard to live with because they genuinely want to do the ‘right’ thing, and even if they can’t work out what that right thing is, they like the idea that ‘somewhere’ there is one right answer. For others moral ambiguity is difficult because it forces them to take responsibility for their own choices and actions, rather than falling back on convenient rules and customs. One problem with ethics is the way it’s often used as a weapon. If a group believes that a particular activity is “wrong” it can then use morality as the justification for attacking those who practice that activity. Modern thinkers often teach that ethics leads people not to conclusions but to ‘decisions’.2

Ethics is not only about the morality of particular courses of action, but it’s also about the goodness of individuals and what it means to live a good life. The cognitive bandwidth model explains why low-income people make decisions that extend their poverty: When people have very little of something (money, food, time etc.), they focus on that scarce resource and don’t have the “bandwidth” to think about long-term concerns. Reducing poverty requires that public policies enhance material redistribution and social recognition. Promoting ethical decision-making and resolving moral conflicts will require changes in repertoires about morality, rather than shifting modes of cognition. Inequality and racism do not exist separate from culture. We are more likely to address discrimination by gradually changing cultural narratives that stigmatize particular groups than by simply sensitizing individuals to their own subconscious biases.3

Distributive justice involves the use of ethics concepts and criteria to determine the distribution of wealth among people, groups, organizations, and communities. There are different theories of distributive justice. One approach or principle says that every person should have the same level of material goods (including burdens) and services. The principle is most commonly justified on the grounds that people are morally equal and that equality in basic material goods and services is the best way to give effect to this moral ideal. Rather than have goods and services to be measured and distributed according to some pattern, for developed economies like Canada and the US it is only necessary to reduce the economic gap. Distributive principles should be designed and assessed according to how they affect well-being, either its maximization or distribution.

The 19th century was marked by the creation of wealth associated with industrialization, the 20th century by its redistribution associated with rise of union power, and the early 21st century by its concentration and polarization, the consequence of neoliberal economic policies. In the era of neoliberalism, human beings are made accountable for their predicaments or circumstances according to the workings of the market as opposed to finding faults in larger structural and institutional forces like racism and economic inequality. Work can be a path out of poverty, but only when it provides a living wage, something hard to find in a labour market where precarity is a new norm of employment. The widening socio-economic gap created by the neoliberal project creates a critical necessity of reviving an ethics of fairness and just distribution in the popular imagination and in governing practices.

1 Lane Anderson. (17 July 2014) Giving the homeless a home is often cheaper than leaving them on the streets

2 Ethics and People

3 Juanita Bawagan. (29 Nov 2017) Poverty, ethics and discrimination: How culture plays into cognitive research.


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How the Political Right Harnesses Victimhood

Privilege is the sin that must be checked so that the marginalized can continue their long march to freedom. In an empathetic society, victimhood and powerlessness becomes its own kind of power. A large part of understanding these processes lies in the power of victimhood. These identities are placeholders for suffering and signs of the justice of one’s cause. We need to distinguish between victimhood itself and the politics of victimhood – the process whereby suffering is fabricated or conferred, and then ‘weaponized’ for political purposes. That all makes it difficult territory for progressives, who believe real injustice happens every day and should be highlighted and resolved. Progressives must remain cognizant about the allure of victimhood politics. Today we have identity politics of aggressively competing victimhoods, in which groups of people, based on religious, national, ethnic, sexual, or whatever else identity they chose, demand to have their victimhood status recognized and something done about it.

The aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis is that so far, populism has taken primarily a right-wing form, not a left-wing one. The final ignominy is that, as victimhood becomes a political commodity, it will only be accrued by those with power already to advance their cause, probably at the cost of those that really do need help and advocacy. Genuine injustice is already being hidden underneath the jumble of confected grievance. When a population fails to acknowledge the humanity of another population, the certain result is victimhood: they took our jobs; they are changing our society; they don’t follow our customs. Under the dangerous allure of victim politics, this attitude, like a virus, snowballs into populism. Populism is the new victimhood. The gap between Trump’s rhetoric and his policies is not all that uncommon for populists. In Latin America, for example, many populist leaders who campaigned one way governed another.

Populists turn to identity politics, and in the process, become a new elite. But as Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde observes, populists, the self-appointed vox populi (voice of all the people), are intolerant and will attack those with a different view, claiming such as person represents “special interests,” and is therefore part of what they consider to be the elite. The result: The end-of-history assumption that liberal democracy was the final point of progress has been disrupted as religious and other identities stubbornly persist, and continue to drive events. Recently, Francis Fukuyama describes the historical background of the middle class, bringing us to the troublesome present in which the stability of the middle class is in question. He suggests that we need a new political and economic ideology that “could provide a realistic path toward a world with healthy middle-class societies and robust democracies.”1

Micro and macro identities are rooted in the political and the personal – in ideologies, gender, sexuality, ability and dis-ability, ethnicity and myriad others in combination. These identities are not invented, but they are continually emphasized. It seems it’s no longer enough simply to be a citizen – you now have to have an identity. Ian Buruma thought people liked to feel like society’s victims, even where they were personally doing rather well, because modern life hollows out our identities. The age of instant gratification of hyper-capitalism is reducing meaningful beliefs and identity to fast food restaurants, sterile movies and empty gestures. But people want and perhaps need the authentic, the real, and the genuine in life. And so in an external world in which everything seems so empty, we turn inward in a search for authenticity. The only thing that can deliver authenticity is our feelings. And what more powerful feeling is there than victimhood and struggle?2

Feelings have become something of a modern obsession. Many think that people’s feelings are fast becoming the only test of whether something should be allowed. Prioritizing feelings invariably means that if those precious feelings are hurt, upset, or offended, then these things should be banned or stopped. Since everyone can find a way to feel oppressed, either historically, vicariously or presently, how someone feels about something should not be the sole arbiter of how decisions are made. This sets up a loop – women feel oppressed by men; men’s rights activists feel oppressed by feminists; and on and on and on in a never ending and renewable cycle. Arguing over degrees of victimhood replaces moral reasoning, since victims aren’t always right. This can be used as justification for bad behaviour. Skillful populist demagogues have exploited this aspect of feelings to appeal to voters.

Until now, Donald Trump has played the grievance game with his mostly white, male base by fanning flames of resentment and fear aimed at nonwhites. He’s dreamed up an illegal immigration tidal wave, blamed crime on non-native-born Americans, claims jobs are being lost to foreigners, paints multiethnic cities as war zones and championed the causes of white evangelicals who feel victimized if forced to comply with anti-discrimination laws protecting gays. The notion that whites are systematically discriminated against is unsupported and unsupportable in a country where whites still enjoy advantages over nonwhites in education, wealth, life span and virtually every other metric. More recently he is emphasizing the “male” part of the white male victimhood. Trump and the self-pitying male segment of his base would have us believe their cultural, social, economic and political dominance is being unfairly taken away.

No one really consciously chooses to be a victim. It is more a way we fall into, and we fall into it because, it works. It becomes a strategy to deal with life – whether it is staying safe in one’s comfort zone, numbing oneself, finding company, getting attention, avoiding being responsible for something in one’s life, etc. The attention, sympathy and time that a person can get from victimhood is validation that they really are a good person and if circumstances were just different, they would obviously be thriving. It’s a way to “save face” in the midst of any kind of failure. Because this mindset has been a well-practiced pattern, it will take consistent follow up to help establish a new way of seeing the world and acting within it. The response includes not only the phenomenon of actually being a victim, but also living a life with a victim mindset (an attitude or disposition that predetermines a person’s view, response to and interpretations of situations).

By dividing people into groups, populists are able to easily manipulate people. If as a group you’ve been taught you’re a part of the ‘victim’ of an affront, it’s easy to rile you up. Progressives want a society which, generally speaking, recognizes there are victims in society (both individuals and groups); that things aren’t fair; that some groups – on the basis of historical circumstance, current economic status, deep rooted prejudice or whatever – have a life that’s harder and opportunities fewer than we would like. Progressives must focus on problems and then ask the right questions. Their values become a compass or guide to helping them achieve their goals and adopting character. President Trump’s tax plan has helped businesses and investors more than wage earners. This creates structural inequality. Wal-Mart is the nation’s largest employer at 1.4 million. Unfortunately, it has set new standards for reducing employee pay and benefits. Its competitors must follow suit to provide the same ‘Low Prices.’3

The neoliberal version of globalization has not brought more rapid economic growth, reduced poverty, or made economies more stable. Inequality is recast as virtuous. The market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve. This era of unfettered markets has come to an end with the rise of nationalism. Populists are tapping into the crisis of neoliberalism. Right-wing nationalism seems to be crafted to win electoral victories at the intersection of protectionist and xenophobic sentiments. Progressives must now focus on nationalism along with Trump’s version of crony capitalism. Economic nationalism is logical if you believe that stagnation will last a long time, creating a zero-sum or even a negative-sum game. But the projects of economic nationalism are destined to fail. The long-term solution actually includes basic guaranteed income, as well as, enforcing competition among the rent-seeking monopolies in order to force the price of their goods so low that people can survive scarce and precarious work.

If victimhood is the feeding ground of populists, then its antidote is agency, driven by empowering information, institutional access, intersectional voice and programmatic purpose. Health care is often considered one of the three pillars of social policy, along with education and social welfare/income security. Health care must be set up with national standards and as a public good paid for with tax dollars rather than a private good for sale. Rather than pressuring the poorest people in a society to find their own solutions to their lack of health care, education and social security, these must be part of the public good. We need particularly to turn young people into agents of their own destiny before they are embedded in victimhood. Start by enacting policies like universal health care and free college, and ousting the private-prison industry from the justice system, while taking power and diffusing it at the same time.

1 Paul Bickley (11 Aug 2016) How cynical populism has created a culture of victimhood politics.

2 Jamie Bartlett. The dangerous allure of victim politics.       

3 Kimberly Amadeo. (10 Oct 2018) Income Inequality in America. Causes of Income Inequality.

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The Unintended Consequences of Schism

For centuries conspiracy theorists have used religious terms and symbolism to transform fear into political activism. And from the earliest days of Christianity, when followers discerned divine significance in the smallest details of scripture and current events, conspiracy helped Christians interpret events in a way that propelled their religious interests forward, showing them that conspiracy could be harnessed as a potent religious – and political – force. Right-wing populists use religion to define a “good” people whose identity and traditions are alleged to be under siege from liberal elites and “dangerous” others. The populist use of religion is much more about “belonging” than “belief” and revolves around two main notions: restoration and battle. Donald Trump tapped into a deep schism in the Religious Right. Trump promises that he will battle ‘illegal’ immigrants who threaten prosperity and safety, and appoint conservative judges to – potentially turn back the clock to ensure variants of behaviors and ways of thinking that are acceptable to the Religious Right – define social truth.

In 1534 a religious schism in England established the Anglican Church. In July 1536, Henry VIII’s government issued the Ten Articles, which upheld traditional Catholic teachings on the sacraments of the altar, penance, and baptism. In 1537, the other four traditional sacraments of confirmation, holy matrimony, holy orders, and extreme unction were defended in an official primer called The Institutions of a Christian Man, also known as “The Bishops’ Book.” In the 1539 passage through Parliament of the Six Articles, these articles stated that the Church of England upheld the traditional doctrines of Transubstantiation, celibacy for priests, the inviolability of monastic vows, the legality of private masses, and the necessity for oral confessions to a priest. Parliament next passed a statute that appointed penalties for violations of the Six Articles. At the same time, obedience to the authority of the Roman Church was made treason, punishable by death.

The first events of the English Reformation occurred alongside Henry VIII’s sensational divorce proceedings. Henry himself was not a Protestant, and the great majority of the English people, though they may have been somewhat anti-clerical, were, at the time, piously devoted to the Catholic Church. Whatever Henry’s deeper convictions and understanding of the religious implications of his schism with the Papacy, the manner in which he both played upon the anti-clerical feelings of many in Parliament and destroyed the propertied influence of the secular clergy and the monasteries was crucial to the advancement of Protestant religious doctrines in later decades. While he was king, Henry fulfilled the role of Supreme Head on Earth of the Church of England with ruthless success, but his desires to uphold rigidly most of Catholic orthodoxy was not long championed by the majority of Parliament or by the effective will of future English monarchs.1

According to George W. Bush and U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair, the coalition aimed “to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, to end Saddam Hussein’s support for terrorism, and to free the Iraqi people.” The contemporary conflict between Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq is based not only on a schism that happened almost 14 centuries ago, but on the politics of the Saddam Hussein era. The Sunni Arabs, some 15-20% of the population, provided the bulk of the governing class under Saddam, while the Shiites, who comprise upward of 60% of the population, were denied political rights and their religious freedoms were curtailed. The contemporary politics of the divide also has a regional dimension: The main Shiite religious political parties that have dominated Iraq’s democratic elections have close ties to Iran, a fact that has irked not only Iraq’s Sunnis but also the U.S.-allied regimes of the Arab world, who fear the consequences throughout the region of expanded Iranian influence.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq has had unintended consequences. The new Iraqi constitution recognizes the Kurds’ de facto autonomy in northern Iraq, allowing them to keep the revenues from any new oil fields and to maintain their own armed forces. But the status of the oil rich northern city of Kirkuk remains a flash point, because it is claimed not only by Kurds and Arabs, but also by the Turkmen minority – less than 5 percent of the population, but which carries the backing of Turkey, which is vehemently opposed to an independent Kurdish entity. Following the May 2018 election, the initial distribution of seats of the nine main parties reflect the irreconcilable polarization of the Shiite population. This victory is a major step in Iran’s determination to consolidate the on-land corridor to the Mediterranean. There are no longer any “nationalist Iraqis” anywhere to be found; nor are there any “pro-American” politicians in position of power and influence.2

Yemen’s former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, took over North Yemen in 1978, and became president of the whole republic after its two halves were united in 1990. The only man to serve as president of a unified Yemen, he proved to be a wily political operator, manipulating the country’s tribal system and fending off sustained insurrections in the north and south. The Houthis, a Zadi Shiites sect in the north, emerged as a resistance to Saleh and his corruption in the 1990s led by a charismatic leader named Hussein al Houthi, from whom they are named. The Houthi fought six wars with Saleh and Saudis from 2003 – 2009. The Arab Spring protests of 2011 call for the end of Saleh’s 33-year rule, lead to a schism in the army and allow al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to seize swathes of territory in the east.

In 2012 Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi was elected President of Yemen. Since taking power, President Hadi has struggled to tackle widespread poverty and malnutrition. In January 2015, unhappy with a proposal to split the country into six federal regions, Houthi fighters seized the presidential compound in Sana’a. This prompted calls by Yemeni President Hadi for outside military support. Iran has funneled money and weapons to the Houthis. Mohammad bin Salman, as Saudi defense minister at the age of 29, pursued a war in Yemen against Shiite rebels that began a month after he took the helm and wears on today. Already the poorest country in the Middle East, Yemen has for months been subjected to a Saudi blockade, creating shortages of essential goods, including food. This has, not surprisingly, bred hostility – Riyadh is now losing the battle of hearts and minds, as it were. Meanwhile, Al Qaeda exploits schisms and shortages to thrive in Yemen.

Right-wing populist parties in several Western democracies have hijacked religion and used it to define a “good” people whose identity and traditions are alleged to be under siege from liberal elites and “dangerous” others. Seeing the court as the way to accomplish their objectives – and their last defense against the total secularization of American life – has kept religious conservatives closely attached to every Republican presidential nominee. Stressing the importance of the Supreme Court in the 2016 campaign made sense for evangelical leaders, given Trump’s ill-defined and less-than-conservative politics. “The most important issue of this election is the Supreme Court,” Franklin Graham repeatedly reminded audiences. Other evangelical supporters, including Jerry Falwell Jr., James Dobson and Tony Perkins, stressed that Trump would appoint judges sympathetic to conservative Christians’ views on abortion, gay marriage and religious liberty. The 1973 ruling that made abortion legal in all 50 states, is critically endangered and careening toward extinction.

One of the most insightful observers of the Christian Right, Sarah Posner recently observed that Trump may represent a subculture of American Christianity that’s declaring its independence from the larger tribe: “Deliberately or not, Mr. Trump may be the perfect candidate for an evangelical subculture that has increasingly become enamored with the prosperity, or health and wealth, gospel. In trying to build a singular religious faction that agreed on some core issues (like abortion), the Republican Party has courted that subculture, even though many evangelicals consider prosperity theology to be heretical.” What Trump has exploited, like many political leaders in 20th-century Europe, is that a lot of culturally threatened conservative white Christians are willing to throw away the cross in favor of their flag, their race, their tribe, and everything that’s familiar. The religious right made a Faustian bargain with one of America’s most boastful violators of the “values” that the movement claims to uphold.3

By organizing politically, the Christian right may be winning elections in the short term, but it’s also driving people out of the pews, which is likely to lead to long-term defeat. This schism creates an interesting cycle: The more the religious right engages in politics, the more people get fed up and abandon Christianity. Some see Trump playing the same role that opposition to same-sex marriage has in the past: Giving people who already have one foot out the church door an excuse to leave completely. And the more they do that, the easier it is for them to embrace socially liberal policies. An unintended consequence of schism, the Christian right is becoming ever more radical. It’s also getting smaller at the same time, in no small part because moderating forces within the evangelical churches are being driven out. How long will it take for the movement to shrink so much it finally loses its political clout?

1 Henry VIII: Schism and Reformation

2 Tony Caron. (24 Feb 2006) Understanding Iraq’s Ethnic and Religious Divisions,8599,1167476,00.html

3 Ed Kilgour. (11 May 2016) How Donald Trump Has Split the Christian Right

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How Populists Hijacked the Inequity Agenda

Inequities were accentuated by the financial debacle of 2008; neoliberalism is still in crisis. The right does not believe in neoliberal economics, however, they still use core tenets of it to run government and society. Populist economic policy claims to design policies for people who fear losing status in society, and those who believe they have been abandoned by the political establishment. The populist economic agenda focuses on single and salient political issues, over emphasizes negative aspects of international economic exchange and immigration, and/or blames foreigners or international institutions for economic difficulties. Much like other populist plutocrats who have come to power around the world, Donald Trump used anti-elite rhetoric to gain office, then performed an about-face to govern for the benefit of the very economic elites he derided as a candidate. He ran as a populist; but governs as a plutocrat. Conservative populists target those with a monopoly on representation (journalists, scholars, established political parties) rather than those with a monopoly on production.

Neoliberals promote the market as being perfect, as success or failure is a personal reward. Neoliberal core tenets include deficits are dangerous, jobs are only created in the private sector, and a dynamic market dictates part-time and casual work. The promotion of ‘flexible labour markets’ in the name of growth and competitiveness has not made many better off when it leads to the proliferation of insecure work. The economic policy has been handed over to those who benefit from it – they understand that in the world of the market there is a trade in lies as much as truth. Governments have absorbed neoliberal operational templates and the Orwellian language that naturally accompanies this. More and more people live with the poverty and job insecurity that flows directly from inequities exacerbated by neoliberal welfare and austerity policies. Rather than values, money is the only universal means of exchange.

It may seem strange that the slogan of the doctrine of failing neoliberal economics that promised change should have been, “there is no alternative.” Why have neoliberal economics and populist politics coexisted in several Middle European countries? Populists and neoliberals concentrate power at the apex of the state to boost their personal leadership and enact painful reforms. Finally, populists and neoliberals see the deep crisis facing their countries as an opportunity, for populists to prove their charisma and for neoliberals to discredit the state-interventionist development model. The populist economic agenda rejects compromise as well as checks and balances and favours simplistic solutions. Populist neoliberals declare that knowledge, goods and ideas should be free to migrate, but people do not need to move in large numbers. Rather movement should be based on the concept of human capital, applying right to immigrate for a fee, or an IQ screen.

Populism is a phenomenon which can emerge in all forms of a democratic system. Political theorist Cas Mudde, defines populists as sharing three key characteristics. They are anti-establishment, having faith in “plain talkers” and “ordinary people” as opposed to the “corrupt establishment” of business, government, academia, and media. They are authoritarian, favoring strong leaders over democratic institutions and traditions. They are nativist, putting their nation first. The most exposed to its influence are political systems which experience an institutional transition. Populism is a political discourse that imagines a struggle between a good and virtuous “people” and a nefarious establishment. In advanced democracies a more relevant, negative aspect of populism is that it undermines the civility of the relations among citizens. It erodes the respect for the dignity of political opponents and of minority groups and weakens the culture of reasoned debates. Serious flaws of neoliberalism created the inequities that helped the rise of populists.

Slogans offer a new way to connect with voters – another world is possible! Many people left behind since 2008 do not respond to political debate, these people become responsive to slogans, symbols, and sensations. Donald Trump, a political outsider, set himself up as the populist candidate and the voice of the unrepresented. To the admirers of Trump, for example, facts and arguments appear irrelevant. Trump’s victory marks the victory of divisive rhetoric, disregard for facts, promises of simple cures for all ills, nativism, demagoguery, and the power of seductive slogans, which are a common feature of the new populism. The most pressing environmental problem we face today is not climate change. It is pollution in the public sphere, where a smog of adversarial rhetoric, propaganda, and polarization stifles discussion and debate, creating resistance to change and thwarting our ability to solve our collective problems.

There are critical vulnerabilities in contemporary journalism practice that allow populist parties and their supporters to actively manipulate the press and subvert democratic processes. Journalists need to be aware and respond to a role played in their success, by giving them a disproportionate amount of coverage. Social media gives populist actors the freedom to articulate their ideology and spread their messages. Politics of fear is used to get people to vote a particular way, allow excesses in spending, or accept policies they might otherwise abhor. In post-truth politics social media assists political actors who mobilize voters through a crude blend of outlandish conspiracy theories and suggestive half-truths, barely concealed hate-speech, as well as outright lies. These “populist” voters now live in a media bubble, getting their news from sources that play to their identity-politics desires, which means that even if you offer them a better deal, they won’t hear about it, or believe it if told.

On the surface, neoliberalism and populism appear to be conflicting narratives. Both share several assumptions that pertain to the role of welfare, individuals and society. Both populism and neoliberalism interpret virtually everything in purely economic terms. Neoliberalism has reduced citizens to being consumers and accepted lobbying by companies as a standard modality to influence policy making. Populists get elected fighting such things as economic inequality, unemployment and dislocation of firms. Both neoliberalism and populism support individualism and the pursuit of self-interest. However, material welfare is still the greatest achievement in life for most people, but neither neoliberalism nor populism can help most. The failure of neoliberalism over the past 30 years has left many workers angry and frustrated. With lives being determined by impersonal forces leaves people feeling helpless, with increasing inequities, while at the same time they are obliged to compete, or at least see themselves as in competition with other people.

Populists claim to be the only legitimate representative of the people. Populists also increase citizens’ anger over a perceived lack of representation by the institutions. Marginalizing minority voters is part of right-wing populism – teach voters to view those who cast ballots for rival candidates not as fellow citizens of a shared democracy but as immoral and illegitimate “takers” who need to be defeated — enemies of civilization who need to be crushed. Neoliberalism relies on intellectual conformism and fashion, whereas populists condemn any criticism as a form of complicity with the establishment. The failing neoliberal project, harbinger of austerity budgets, is the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression – difficult times fall disproportionately hard on minorities and members of the working poor. This underemployment and increasing inequities occur in the US in parallel with austerity budgets – cuts to Medicaid, welfare and food stamp programs and funding for public education.

The populist economic agenda rejects compromise as well as checks and balances and favours simplistic solutions. The answer to this new hegemony is to abandon economicism – the primacy of the “market” and considering human beings in terms of what they have rather than what they are. The populist plutocrat is a leader who exploits the cultural and economic grievances of poorer, less-educated voters against traditional elites in order to achieve and retain power, but who, once in office, seem substantially or primarily interested in enriching him- or herself, along with a relatively small circle of family members, cronies, and allies. Countering this includes replacing money with moral, organizational, and cultural values. Moral values include respect for others and social justice. Individualism must give way to the struggle for social justice – justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society.1

Antonio Gramsci developed the concept of cultural hegemony – the dominant ideology of society reflects the beliefs and interests of the ruling class – around the way ideas are transmitted by language. Answering the populist challenge to democratic communication requires a paradigm shift that buries the meanness of a culture of austerity and aloofness of individualism. In order to confront a populist plutocracy, the system needs to be free from the corrupting influence of corporate money. Inequities – the unfair, avoidable differences arising from poor governance, corruption, or cultural exclusion – reduce the freedom and opportunities for an individual to reach their full potential in general, and wellness or good health, in particular. It is necessary to focus on the economy with its multifaceted connections to social issues, and build more equal societies. The new system must address the existing inequities to prevent this era of fear and hatred from evolving into a populist regime.

1 Marco Senatore – 29 March 2018. Beyond Neoliberalism and Populism: Values, individual autonomy and authentic communities

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