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 https://socialistproject.ca/2018/08/neoliberal-fascism-echoes-of-history/

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