Life is an unstable equilibrium between agency and determinism. Human agency is a collective of systemic thinkers and doers creating conditions where individuals can transform the status quo. Causal determinism is the idea that every event is necessitated by antecedent events and conditions together with the laws of nature.The essence of free will is that the person really could do more than one possible response to a given situation. To the determinist, causes, including unconscious causes, are operating to bring the person inevitably to what he or she will eventually do. From deterministic perspective, the environment controls everything. Determinists contend that freedom of choice and individual creativity is nothing but an illusion. Agency assumes intellectual creativity that enables individuals to conceive original ideas and then have the freedom to act on these inspirations – often in opposition to limitations that are imposed within a particular environment. Personal agency is the humanistic term for the exercise of free will.
For John Locke (1632-1704) humans entered into social contracts only to help adjudicate disputes between individuals or groups. The purpose of authority was to protect human equality and freedom; this is why social groups agreed to a ‘social contract’ that placed authority over them. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) maintains that the wealthy trick the poor into creating a government with the sole purpose of protecting their property and locking in moral inequality as a permanent feature of civil society. In this manner, the social contract is promoted as treating everyone equally, but in reality, it is in the interest of the few who have become stronger and richer. For Rousseau the income gap is a problem – the very rich and the very poor would value money more than liberty. Rousseau warned large income gaps created the opportunity for liberty to be sold.
Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), an English clergyman and scholar, argued that increases in population would eventually diminish the ability of the world to feed itself, based on his conclusion that populations expand in such a way as to overtake the development of sufficient land for crops. Malthus advocated welfare reform, and criticised the recent Poor Laws, which provided increased money depending upon the number of children in the family. He argued that this only encouraged the poor to give birth to more children, as they had no fear that the increased number of offspring made eating any more difficult. Malthus reasoned that the constant threat of poverty and starvation served to teach the virtues of hard work and virtuous behaviour. His work was incredibly popular and widely read by social Darwinists.
Newtonian determinism explained the equilibrium of the free market system described by Adam Smith. Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) developed and applied evolutionary theory to the study of society. Spencer applied Newtonian determinism to his analysis, making him one of the first people since the Enlightenment to exclude free will from his analysis. He believed that human society reflects the same evolutionary principles as biological organisms do in their development. Following a universal law, Spencer believed, social institutions such as economics can function without control. His claim social laws are as deterministic as those governing nature supported his concept survival of the fittest and allowed Spencer to believe that the rich and the powerful become so because they are better suited to the social and economic culture of the time.
The elections of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and Ronald Reagan in 1980 can be viewed as inaugurating the formal period of neoliberal dominance. Neoliberalism would counter the economic problems created by the 1970s oil crisis and runaway inflation. Economies would automatically self-adjust to full employment and it would be unnecessary to use fiscal policy to raise employment. The neoliberal market ensures that factors of production are paid what they are worth obviating the need for institutions of social protection and trade unions. In fact, institutions of social protection can cause unemployment by interfering with the market process. In reality, neoliberalism creates a labour market climate of employment insecurity which results in widening wage and income inequality. Compared to 1945 to 1980, this last 35 years has seen substantially slower economic growth and widening income inequality both within and between countries.
Nicos Poulantzas claims political power is founded on an unstable equilibrium of compromises. As neoliberalism unfolded, the compromises made by the economic elite to set the equilibrium benefited the working class possessing the higher degree of privilege (white middle class) by allowing them improved standards of living through access to education, social mobility, home ownership and consumer credit, on the understanding these compromises do not spill into the political sphere. This released the oligarchs from the constraints of democracy. This equilibrium was thrown off tilt as neoliberalism succeeded in reforming society by erasing any distinctions among the state, society and the market – subordinating society to the market. This unleashed unbridled greed which led to the reversal of the previous compromises that were serving as a buffer between the elite and the working poor, underemployed, unemployed and the generally disenfranchised.
The neoliberals promoted minimal government and regulations which led to the looting of the public coffers by tax cuts and the accumulation of ‘public’ debt. Wealth is concentrated through multiple processes: refusal to pay a living wage, elimination of corporate and wealth taxation and redistribution of the tax burden. The tax breaks also include use of off the grid banks and laundering public funds into corporate hands. This coincides with historic levels of corporate profit and wealth accumulation on one side and widespread appearance of stagnant wages, under employment and ‘austerity’ measures for everyone else. The increased economic gap and reduced mobility left many workers with the stark realization their children are on the way to being less well-off than they are.1
Back door subsidization occurs, such as student loans and foreign aid used to finance weapons industry. The Federal Reserve constant use of quantitative easing which increases the price of shares and property, while the interest rate that middle class tend to use for saving are affected disproportionately. The political consequences of this ‘social contract’ betrayal has been the success of the ‘leave’ vote in Brexit and angry voters turning to candidates outside the mainstream parties during the 2016 primary elections.
The neoliberal social contract proposed that unrestrained inequality in income and flexible wages would reduce unemployment, but in fact, throughout the rich world both inequality and under employment have soared. Today the middle class realizes that the entire structure of neoliberal thought is a fraud. The neoliberal elite demand a dressed-up sophisticated economic theory be applied regardless of the outcome which has nothing to do with economics but everything to do with power. In 2001 George W Bush responds to a recession by opportunistically cutting tax rates for the wealthy. The neoliberals try to control the debate explaining away the economic failure highlighted by the Great Recession. Full employment is replaced with ‘natural rate of employment’. Neoliberal counter argument to failure is to claim even though the markets may be failing having government remedy market failure would even be worse, owing to bureaucratic inefficiencies and lack of market-styled incentives.
During the 19th century, cracks appeared in the wall of the belief of determinism. The random possibilities followed by choice introduced by Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection soon destroyed the efforts to apply Newtonian determinism to social issues. It introduced the concept of freedom based on chance and choice. Boltzmann’s second law of thermodynamics could only work with the introduction of chance and treating the motion of atoms statistically. Then, in 1927, Werner Heisenberg formulated the uncertainty principle – occasionally referred to as the Principle of Indeterminacy. It was a revolution in which classical mechanics (that presupposes exact simultaneously values can be assigned to all physical quantities) was replaced with quantum mechanics that denies these possibilities (that the position and momentum of particles cannot be known). The Uncertainty Principle of Quantum Mechanics says one can only predict the path of electron around an atom; the exact locations of electrons can only be known within certain limits. This was a case of irreducible randomness disproving causality.
In the past, the main criticism of Darwin’s natural selection was the requirement of multiple generations before change occurred, which did not fit changes occurring over a life time. In the past two decades epigenetics, a new revolutionary process, has changed this thinking. It is now known that genetic change can occur much more quickly than previously thought, responding from messages coming from other genes, hormones, and from nutritional cues and learning. The realization that the epigenome is highly sensitive and responsive to environmental influences, including toxic exposures, dietary factors, and behavioral impacts, serves to focus future state priorities. How we develop mentally and physically have a tremendous impact upon our inherent capabilities and our set of life options. Epigenetics explains how environmental factors can switch genes on and off, based on choices we make.
The future is what we decide to make it. Personal agency refers to the choices we make in life, the path we go down, and then their consequences. A cultural process gave rise to the inequalities, Rousseau noted, it will take a change in cultural process to reverse the harmful inequalities. We must not give up our freedom and allow our lives to be governed by ideology that limits our freedom. The environment, heredity, chance, friends, luck, (things over which one has little control), plays a greater role in wellness than personal life style choices. Controlling epigenetic harms, or environmental harms, is about treating an individual’s potential as a freedom. It is necessary to challenge the status quo of neoliberalism with its causal determinism, and create conditions where individuals can incorporate epigenetic risk into a new social contract. The relevant consequence of this change is the freedom that optimizes the human experience allowing individuals more opportunities to reach their full potential.
1 Jenkins, Colin. (22 May 2014) Neoliberalism’s Balancing Act: Shifting the Societal Burden and Tempting Fate http://www.hamptoninstitution.org/neoliberalisms-balancin g-act.html#.V-MkryXrtd8