The social contract refers to the belief that the state exists only to serve the will of the people who are the source of all political power. Neoliberalism is an ideology founded as the only source of truth. The neoliberal ideological project or hegemony is geared to making itself invisible. It functions by achieving the consent of the masses to abide social norms and rules of law by framing the worldview of the economic elite, and the social and economic structures that go with it as just, legitimate, and designed for the benefit of all, even though they may only benefit the wealthy. Ideological hegemony theorizes the way in which relationships of domination and exploitation are embedded in the dominant ideas of society – a key claim is that the market provides a natural mechanism for rational economic allocation. Lives are now governed by an ideology that limits opportunities, however, equality is a necessary condition for the preservation of liberty.
For John Locke (1632-1704), the role of the ‘social contract’ that placed authority over people was to protect human equality and freedom; this is why social groups agreed to a ‘social contract’ that places authority over them. Jean-Jacques Rousseau criticized some features of the Enlightenment. In 1755 he published Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, describing an endemic moral inequality that was related to power and wealth. As men come together, Rousseau claimed, there is a drive to compare ourselves to others – driving men to seek to dominate over their fellow beings as a way of augmenting their happiness. This leads to the formation of government with the sole purpose of protecting their property and locking in moral inequality as a permanent feature of civil society. This contract is promoted as treating everyone equally, but in reality, it is in the interest of the few who have become stronger and richer through development in their private property.
In 1762, Rousseau published the Social Contract in which he defined the ideal social contract, describing how man could be free and live together in a community. By ‘equality’ Rousseau did not mean that everyone should be exactly the same, but differences in wealth should not imbalance the state. Equality it seemed to him, is a necessary condition for the preservation of liberty, while property and material inequality are the root of human misery and evil. Massive material inequality can put liberty up for sale. The poor would be willing to sell their freedom, and the rich would be capable of buying it. Both the very rich and the very poor would value money more than liberty. Thus, Rousseau asserts, that some level of material equality is necessary to ensure that liberty comes before profit. He defended private property; if everything we did was for the state, we would no longer be free.1
While all men and women suffer from disillusionment, few know that their state of disillusionment is the result of the breakdown of an illusion they themselves had manufactured. Disillusion is never possible without fantasy – and the destructive strength of the disillusionment can never exceed the strength and energy that was used to create the fantasy in the first place. The adverse effect is that man places values on his illusions, and over values what is not true, or no longer exists. In order to clear these errors of thinking, man must release the emotion that keeps him tied to this false reality. The removal of illusion or fantasy involves understanding that expectations are not failed, but false. With this recognition comes an opportunity for change. Trump’s base believes that expectations that the neoliberal system would deliver has not failed, rather were false. So, they turn to Trump to seek changes in government to turn things around.
The White House’s Office of Management and Budget are in the process of scrapping hundreds of existing or planned regulations as part of its larger push to ease federal restrictions on the private sector, upending federal policies on labor, the environment and public health. In several instances, the administration is dropping rules aimed at tightening worker safety standards or omitting species the government had pledged to protect under the Endangered Species Act. In other cases, it is proposing new regulations that provide employers with more leeway in how they run their businesses or report their activities to federal officials. “These rollbacks of critical public protections will leave American workers, consumers and children vulnerable on a daily basis,” claim regulatory policy advocates, “to risks such as air and water pollution, unsafe products and tainted food, dangerous workplaces and a newly deregulated Wall Street that once again could threaten economic collapse.” 2
The GOP tax plan isn’t a handout to the wealthy claim neoliberals, it’s actually an investment in the richest Americans so they will trickle their savings down to the middle class. Conservative think tanks claim that corporate tax cuts lead to higher wages for workers, even though the last several decades of evidence indicate the opposite. Most economists point out that shareholders, not workers, stand to benefit the most from corporate tax reform. Recent history suggests that the wealthy are the primary beneficiaries of soaring corporate earnings and a booming market. The top 20 percent of Americans hoard the American dream, they don’t pass it on. Eighty percent of stock value is held by the richest 10 percent of Americans. When the S&P 500 goes up, the middle- and lower-class don’t see the benefits. However, if you are going to sell snake oil – a tonic promised to cure a wide variety of ailments – you must claim it has magical powers.
Neoliberalism casts inequality as virtuous – as everyone gets what he or she deserves. It is up to us to make ourselves better, we are told, and the system simply supplies us with the appropriate tools to use – tasks to undertake and ladders to climb so that we may realize our potential. Precarious workers in this era of insecurity go from job to job, depending on the availability and demand. With no job security and few benefits, the precarious worker now views his development and subsequent success or failure as his own responsibility. Meanwhile, the workings of the system and the pressure to take on such precarious jobs are invisible. Neoliberalism sees the new normal as empowering individuals, and the shifting economy as a valid reason for underemployment. Things are changing – many now believe it is not enough to define poverty as not having enough material resources to merely survive, but rather having enough resources to participate in society in a meaningful way.
Fear is what you feel when you face something that is unknown or a perceived threat to you. But fear goes beyond that. Fear is also related to the need to understand, in that if you don’t understand why something is going on, it is instinctive to fear it. Today we are vulnerable to the politics of fear. The politics of fear is when leaders use fear as a driving or motivating factor for the people, to get them to vote a particular way, allow excesses in spending, or accept policies they might otherwise abhor. It’s banking on the fact that presenting people with an alleged threat to their well-being will elicit a powerful emotional response that can override reason and prevent a critical assessment of these policies. President Trump’s fear mongering is done to boost presidential power to enhance efforts to eliminate regulations and trash government agencies.
During the past two decades, there has been a strong anti-intellectual movement amongst conservatives in the US, connected with nominating candidates ‘just like them’, which can mean someone as out of touch with the whole wide world as they are. Tom Nichols observes that today, across American society, intellectual authority is resented, resisted and disregarded, with every opinion ostensibly holding equal weight. This levelling of viewpoints has been accelerated by digital technologies and platforms, which have further lowered the barriers to participation, opening the floodgates to those without the requisite educational backgrounds and professional credentials.3 President Trump continually undermines various branches of government including Justice Department, as well as, the fourth estate – the media. The main goal of the Trump Administration is to alienate American voters in order to undermine the idea of deploying state power for progressive purposes.
We live in a world of illusion and see the world not as it is but as we want it to be. The neoliberal worldview has been embedded in contemporary culture to such an extent and now is so pervasive that any countervailing evidence serves only to further convince people of its ultimate truth. The illusion is nothing can change without the market – there is no alternative to neoliberal capitalism. Democracy is embraced because the working class, in particular, understands democratic activism to be the most effective tool they have to attack extreme inequality and maintain a check on the power of elites. If citizens only play a passive role, then the real politics are shaped in private by interaction between elected officials and economic elites – elites who are not interested in the welfare of the classes beneath them. These actions for change include electing candidates identifying policies to begin the process to end big money’s grip on politics, an issue that lies at the core of the debate on freedom and equality.
1 Horsman, Greg. (2013) Evolutionary Economics and Equality: An Age of Enlightenment, p. 189-192.
2 Eilperin, Juliet and Damian Paletta (20 July 2017) Trump administration cancels hundreds of Obama-era regulations. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/trump-administration-cancels-hundreds-of-obama-era-regulations
3 Baer, Nicholas. (30 August 2017) American Idiot: Rethinking Anti-Intellectualism in the Age of Trump http://www.resilience.org/stories/2017-08-30/american-idiot-rethinking-anti-intellectualism-in-the-age-of-trump/