Thomas More’s life spanned a tumultuous era in European history during the Renaissance with many notable changes that included the emergence of the nation state. Europe and England were still founded on the economic models of feudalism, in which virtually all power resided with rich nobles while the peasants endured a backbreaking existence that supported the lavish lifestyles of their rulers but provided little more than a subsistence level of existence for themselves. Humanists often argued against feudalism, seeing it as a society dominated by the rich and exploitative of everyone else. In May 1515, More was sent to Bruges as part of a delegation to revise an Anglo-Flemish commercial treaty. It was during this trip he began to write Utopia. He coined the word ‘utopia’ from the Greek ou-topos meaning ‘nowhere’. But this was a pun – the almost similar Greek word eu-topas means ‘a good place’. The story of the fictional island society of Utopia was meant to contrast with the reality of European rule, divided by ideologies, greed and corruption.
During a visit to the Low Countries, the persona More was introduced by his friend Peter Giles to Raphael Hythloday, a world traveller who describes during a conversation the island of Utopia and its culture. In pursuit of his argument, Hythloday proceeds in a critical analysis of such things as the patterns of law, government, economics and mores among European nations, most particularly in England. He touched on the severity of the penal codes, gross inequities in the distribution of wealth and unequal participation in productive labour. For example, in Utopia workers are able to apprentice and learn more than one trade. They only work for six hours a day. No one is forced to work for unconscionable hours each day. However, nobody is allowed to lounge – the few that do are punished.
They do not suffer from lack of productivity, unlike the European population where there is a significant percent who do no productive work at all: rich gentlemen, all their retainers, and all the beggars. In addition, in Utopia they diligently maintain everything they build, thus have to spend far less energy undertaking rebuilding. With the general lack of Utopian vanity and understanding of utility and style, the goods Utopians use are also far less difficult to produce. The process through which their intellectuals are uncovered depends only on individual merit, a remarkable idea in an age dominated by privilege and birthright. Utopia is not ideal because its people are perfect, rather because its laws make it so that Utopian citizens must act perfectly despite their inherent failings as humans. Thus, utopian society is much more productive compared to any in Europe.
Hythloday believes Utopia to be the greatest social order in the world. As he says, ” I can have no other notion of all the other governments that I see or know, than that they are a conspiracy of the rich, who on pretence of managing the public only pursue their private ends, and devise all the ways and arts they can find out; first, that they may engage the poor to toil and labour for them at as low rates as possible, and oppress them as much as they please. And if they can but prevail to get these contrivances established by the show of public authority, which is considered as the representative of the whole people, then they are accounted laws.”1 Hythloday believes any other society than Utopia is merely a conspiracy of the rich whose objective is to increase their own wealth. Laws that they themselves established to protect their own interests support them.
Thomas More criticized the penal system in his book. In the 16th century there were few prisons. The only people incarcerated were for debt; such prisoner’s had to pay for board and lodging. The justice system was calculated to ensure tranquility. There was little need for prisons; the penalty for most crimes was guilty by death, while the innocent simply went free. Hythloday believes that it is unfair to create a society where the inequities are such that people have to steal in order to live, and then to hang people for merely trying to survive. He proposed as an alternative to death and execution to use imprisonment as a punishment. Thieves would work for the commonwealth, the vice is destroyed and people are permitted to live.
Faced with increasing populations situated outside the reaches of the disciplinary structure of the wage labor system, the neoliberal state reformed welfare into prison-fare to exert social control and to become a solution to structural economic inequality and political instability. From 1980 to 2010 the US penal population more than quadrupled during the same period when there was a massive drop in crime rate. The consequence of new mandatory minimum sentences for low level drug offences is the incarceration of a large population of non-violent, poor and mentally ill. The system affected black people disproportionately. In fact, black people were ten times more likely to be imprisoned for drug offences. Today the consensus is the system is broken; the only debate is how to fix it.
Today many need to work two jobs to make ends meet. This trend intensified in the aftermath of the Great Recession. 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.
Most of the wealth generated in finance is not even investment in the old sense of providing capital to productive or soon-to-be productive enterprises; it is just placing derivative bets on price fluctuations and nothing what ever to do with growing anyone’s business in the old text book sense. Greedy decision-makers on Wall Street with a sense of entitlement chose not to apply critical thinking but to intentionally take advantage of people, which led to the melt down of the economy in 2008. Many in the middle class saw their comfortable retirement, their home equity, and their dreams destroyed. Neoliberals emphasize that the role of government is to create a good business climate rather that look after the needs and well-being of the population at large. In a crisis conflict between the integrity of the financial institutions, on one hand, and the well-being of citizens on the other, the former was privileged. Deregulation has been, above all else, a means of reducing corporate business’s accountability to the public.
Neoliberal philosophy has a willful blindness to the connective activities of government and other social institutions. Neoliberalism is a class ideology – reduction of state interventions in economic and social activities and the deregulation of labour and financial markets. The pay back was to be the unprecedented creation of jobs and wealth. The application of these neoliberal policies has been responsible for a substantial growth of social inequalities within the countries where such policies have been applied. The major beneficiaries of these policies are the dominant class which have established a new aristocracy around the world who are primarily responsible for the promotion of neoliberalism. We need to recognize that factors like income inequality have far reaching implications and can undermine the economy everywhere in addition to the moral implications of one group’s comfort depending on the poverty of another.
The psychological defense mechanism used by the rich is splitting – a mechanism that diffuses the anxiety that arises from our inability to grasp the nuances and complexities of a given situation or state of affairs by simplifying the situation and thereby making it easier to think about; it also reinforces our sense of self as good and virtuous by effectively demonizing all those who do not share in our opinions and values. The combination of idealized markets and demonized government leads now during the current post-financial crisis austerity to a hollowing out of the government role in society and the economy. Neoliberals attack the connecting functions of society both through propaganda and through changes in government policies. The consequences of these attacks sets up a cycle of physical and social infrastructure crumbling under the false pretense that there is not enough financial resources to bring to bear on these vital social needs.
The dogma of deregulation and minimal government feeds the growth of globalization. Corporations are increasingly relying on outsourcing, acquisition and mergers, relocation of plant and equipment, and aggressive money management – all made possible by deregulation and computer communication technology. As the power of the nation state declines, sovereign power comes to be exercised by corporations – the welfare and security of individuals now depends on contracts with these organizations. These arrangements now mirror the political economy of the Middle Ages – ushering in virtual feudalism. The consequence of this exploitation is a middle class under attack with a growing economic gap between the wealthy and the rest of society.
In order to ensure the survival of the richest, it is democracy that has to be heavily regulated rather than capitalism. Poverty is socially constructed, not naturally created. Through virtual feudalism global corporations have engineered the economic decline of many individuals. Greed, weakened unions, and the effects of globalization drive inequality. Free markets are not really free – they come to be dominated by giants like Time Warner and Rupert Murdock. The greedy, the corrupt and the useless are as much in evidence today as they were 500 years ago. The present social order, a conspiracy of the rich, has lasted an extraordinarily long time. If a utopia is to be realized, one must refuse the transparent falsehood that the primacy of economics over politics is the best form of government.
1 Utopia: Top Ten Quotes. http://www.novelguide.com/utopia/top-ten-quotes