We Need to Construct a New Politics of Truth

How do we approach the era of fake news? The contemporary neoliberal “regime of truth,” to use a term from Michel Foucault, greatly influences the ways in which knowledge is being interpreted and implemented. Disinformation and new propaganda can take many forms – from the use of false visuals or misleading headlines, to social media techniques that create an impression that the “majority” understands an issue in a certain way. In the echo chamber of the modern information space, the spreading of disinformation is as easy as a ‘like,’ ‘tweet,’ or a ‘share.’ For Foucault, to challenge power is not a matter of seeking some absolute truth, but of detaching the power of truth from the forms of hegemony, social, economic and cultural, within which it operates at the present time. There is truly no universal truth at all, only systems of power creating a regime of truth.

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. A 1950 medical report described a casual association between the smoking of cigarettes and lung cancer. 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 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.

Today social media propagandists have out stripped the misinformation system used by the tobacco industry by applying techniques such as card stacking, wolf crying wolf, denying facts, narrative laundering, facts not backed up with proof. 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.

Card stacking includes seeking to manipulate audience perception of an issue by emphasizing one side and repressing the other – basically to slant a message. Card stacking can happen by creating media events that emphasize a certain view, using one-sided opinions or by making sure critics are not heard. By card stacking device a mediocre candidate, through the build-up is made to appear an intellectual titan.  President Trump stacks the cards against anyone with different perspectives. This propagandist rhetoric confuses the public’s ability to reason clearly and attempts to suppress the opposition. This kind of threatening leadership creates a chilling atmosphere for anyone who dares step out of line and disagree. It is about highlighting good information and leaving out the bad. This is an example of authoritarian mind control. The authoritarian, like a cult leader, controls minds by creating a psychological split within individuals and within the society at large.

Wolf cries wolf is the vilification of an individual or institution for something you also do.  The fundamental argument is that race and ethnic-based hoaxes are typically employed by extremist groups to project victim status that in turn furthers a certain political project. The main objectives for hate crimes is feeding persecution fantasies and advancing a political or social agenda. Trump’s claim (delivered by Twitter) that Obama ordered his phone tapped in the 2016 election is to deflect from the controversy over the Russians supporting Republicans during the same election. Wolf cries wolf also refers to authoritarian leaders and propagandists in Ukraine and Russia, who denounced the protestors in Kiev’s Independence Square as fascists. In the same manner, Trump claims US is under siege from ‘far-left fascism’ in the Fourth of July event: “Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values and indoctrinate our children.”

Denying facts or using a variant of “false facts,” occurs when real facts are denied or wrongly undermined. The facts of an event might be reported, but an attempt is made to discredit their veracity. Alternatively, the facts may be re-interpreted to achieve the same effect: to establish doubt among an audience over the validity of a story or narrative. Donald Trump has spent decades spreading and sowing dangerous misinformation about disease outbreaks – from falsely suggesting AIDS can be transmitted through kissing to warning Americans not to get vaccinated and falsely suggesting vaccines can cause autism. Trump continues to comprehensively misinform the public about the coronavirus, offering remarks riddled with false, misleading or scientifically questionable claims. As a result, the highly suspect claim that the death count is exaggerated can be smuggled into saner statements such as death tolls are uncertain or the numbers that you’re seeing in the media are misleadingly precise.

Russian-sponsored channels like RT or conspiracy sites, through narrative laundering, flood the public with intense negative messages associated with the initial story, amplifying or twisting facts in a way that challenges or dismisses the mainstream media’s description of events.  As the U.S. media sphere digests the story, the tale gains a life of its own, laundered from the initial obvious traces of interference. At that stage, the ghost media system gives it a further iteration of attention, reinforcing the story by quoting genuine national media sources about the initial story. The U.S. media echo chamber is an indispensable element of the information-laundering machinery, which unwittingly contributes to fulfilling its objectives. Putin practiced narrative laundering in blaming Ukraine for interfering in the 2016 US election, a narrative that Trump now ‘believes’. For the 2020 election, narrative laundering will be one of the main venues used by Russia to influence the US election.

The no proof method is about facts or statements that are not backed up with proof or sources. President Trump insists there’s “no way” an election with increased mail-in voting will be legitimate. The subject has garnered increased attention as Trump has repeatedly attacked states for seeking to increase mail-in voting amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Documented voter fraud cases in the U.S. are few – and nothing close to the level that would constitute a “rampant” fraud, officials say. Trump doubles down, saying of mail-in ballots, “Nobody has any idea whether they’re crooked or not.” Voting by mail is secure,” California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, said. “And unfortunately, not only is the accusation that it isn’t baseless, but frankly, hypocritical. You look at Trump himself. He is an absentee voter. He’s the first one to try to undermine people’s confidence in vote by mail and elections in general.”1

Trump won the nomination as the candidate who lied the most, won the presidency as someone known to lie; has an unshakable base despite ongoing lies. Underlying social issues made this possible. His base is concerned about their place in the world, not so much about economic hardship. Rather it is about dominant groups that felt threatened by change, and a candidate who took advantage of that trend. The narcissistic personality is more of a store front designed to hide that there isn’t any there, there. Donald Trump uses Twitter with a deluge of lies, fake news accusations and outrageous claims as his provocative tweets create a chaotic, alternative reality. He sabotages democracy by creating his own swamp where one cannot tell truth from fiction, where rational debate evaporates as he diverts, distracts, and deflects accountability. The purpose of such activities is to turn the country into warring tribes by creating unyielding one-sidedness and enemies.

Foucault’s theories primarily address the relationship between power and knowledge, and how they are used as a form of social control through societal institutions: Power is all the more cunning because its basic forms can change in response to our efforts to free ourselves from its grip. Foucault adds that the essential political problem for us, today, is trying to change our “political, economic, institutional regime of the production of truth” (where truth is modeled on the form of scientific discourse), in order to constitute a new ‘politics of truth’: “The real political task in a society such as ours is to criticize the workings of institutions that ‘appear’ to be both neutral and independent, to criticize and attack them in such a manner that the political violence that has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them.”

1 CEPA: Techniques. https://www.cepa.org/disinfo-techniques

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Big Data Accountability and the Challenge of Institutional Discrimination

Discrimination can include comments, actions or decisions that make people feel unwelcome or uncomfortable, based on their identity or ability. It can also include policies, rules, and ways of doing things that knowingly or unknowingly disadvantage some groups of people, while privileging others. The unfair treatment does not have to be on purpose – it can happen when a person or organization does not mean or intend to discriminate against someone else. It exists presently, and the future remains a concern. The data-driven systems of the future, privileging automation and artificial intelligence, may normalize decision-making processes that “intensify discrimination, and compromise our deepest national values” (Eubanks 2018). The policy determined in the coming years about the role of big data in our lives will speak volumes to how we ensure the rights of the most vulnerable among us, in particular, strive to respect the rights of minorities.

Institutional or systemic discrimination is captured in everyday thinking at a systems level: taking in the big picture of how society operates, rather than looking at one on one operations. This includes ideas of mistreatment of an individual or a group of individuals by society and its institutions as a whole through unequal bias or selection, intentional or unintentional, as opposed to individuals making a conscious choice to discriminate. The achievement gap in education is an example of institutionalized discrimination. The achievement gap refers to the observed disparity in education measures between the performance of groups of students, especially groups defined by gender, race/ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. This disparity includes standardized test scores, grade point average, dropout rates, and college enrollment and/or completion rates. “Defund the police” programs are efforts to trigger change and introduce police reform to address institutional racism.

Socioeconomic status, whether measured by income, education, or occupational status is among the most robust determinant of variations in health outcomes in virtually every society in the world (WHO 2008). Race still matters after socioeconomic status is considered. In particular, health is also affected by exposure to adversity throughout the life course. Early life adversity – poverty, abuse, traumatic stress – influences multiple indicators of physical and mental health later in life, including cardiovascular, metabolic and immune functions. There is a community cost to inequality. The non-equivalence of socioeconomic indicators across racial groups, for example, compared to Whites, Blacks and Hispanics receive less income at the same education levels, have markedly less wealth at equivalent income levels, and have less purchasing power due to higher costs of goods and services in residential environments where they are disproportionately located.

In the US racism puts you at higher risk for COVID-19. It does so through two mechanisms: People of color are more infected because they are more exposed and less protected. Then, once infected, they are more likely to die because they carry a greater burden of chronic diseases from living in disinvested communities with poor food options and poisoned air, and because they have less access to health care – testing is located in more affluent neighborhoods. Institutional discrimination and socioeconomic status disadvantages lead to over-representation of minorities in toxic residential and occupational environments that leads to elevated exposure to major hardships, conflicts, and disruptions such as crime/violence, material deprivation, loss of loved ones, recurrent financial strain, relational conflicts, unemployment and underemployment. Also, residential segregation by race is an example of institutional racism, has created racial differences in education and employment opportunities which, in turn, produces racial differences in socioeconomic status.1

Neoliberalism advances the view that economic and political freedom are inextricably linked. Milton Friedman preached that through the elimination of centralized power whether in government or private hands, each can serve as a counter balance to the other. Friedman feels that competitive capitalism is especially important to minority groups since impersonal market forces protect people from discrimination in their economic activities for reasons unrelated to their productivity. On the other hand, economist Paul Krugman has argued that “laissez-faire absolutism” promoted by neoliberals “contributed to an intellectual climate in which faith in markets and distain for government often trumps the evidence.” Other scholars have argued, in practice, this “market fundamentalism” has led to a neglect of social goods not captured by economic indicators, an erosion of democracy, an unhealthy promotion of unbridled individualism and social Darwinism and economic inefficiency. This has been associated with a widening inequality gap between the rich and middle class.

In articles published in the 1930s, Erich Fromm considered the criminal justice system as an important legitimating institution within the capitalist social order. The state uses the criminal justice system to enhance itself, Fromm claims, by treating the criminal as a scapegoat instead of confronting society’s deep social problems. In dwelling on crime and punishment, the state manipulates society into becoming less attentive to the social and economic inadequacies and oppressions in daily life. That is, a punitive criminal justice system was employed to divert the anger of the masses from the oppressive social conditions that required government remedies. In brief, the criminal rather than state policy became the social scapegoat for social ills, economic inequality, and government corruption and callousness. Did this “criminal system” at least deter crime? Fromm observes that evidence consistently demonstrated that imprisonment, harsh conditions, and even capital punishment had no salutary effect on the crime rate and thus did not protect the public.

Fromm notes the criminal justice system has a decided class bias. Whereas the propertied class has opportunities to sublimate their aggressive propensities into a socially acceptable channel, the disadvantaged lacked these channels and were consistently more likely to commit crimes. Therefore, the reform of social inequities through the redistribution of wealth constitutes a more effective plan for combatting crime than a harsh system of incarceration and punishment that offered little protection to the public. The psychanalyst Fromm observes wars, revolt, and other signs of social discontent are not rooted in infantile fixations, but in external economic structures, concrete social conditions, and shared ideologies and emotions. Social cures or at least reforms could be implemented by changing these collective structures through political actions. The writings of men like Fromm have taught us that pure and absolute freedom is an illusion – freedom is given rather than achieved.2

With nearly 2.3 million prisoners behind bars, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Rachel Barkow notes that people have a sense that, while you lock them up; we never throw away the key. Ninety-five percent of the time, the person comes back out, and you are just kicking the can down the road. Incarceration is buying you some time, but the underlying issues the person might have, or the underlying cause of the crime in the first place, you’re just putting off. While you’re incarcerating people, not only are you not making them better, you’re often putting them in environments where they are likely to become worse. With respect to recent reform: The First Step Act established “earned time credits” that allows inmates time off their sentencing if they participate in programming while incarcerated. The people who need it most are high risk, while the only people eligible are low risk.

An Obama-era White House report entitled Big Data: Seizing Opportunities, Preserving Values states: “big data analytics have the potential to eclipse longstanding civil rights protections in how personal information is used in housing, credit, employment, health, education, and the marketplace”. To this list, we can add immigration, public safety, policing and the justice system as additional contexts where algorithmic processing of big data impacts civil rights and liberties. Automated, data-driven decision making requires personal data collection, management, analysis, retention, disclosure and use. At each point in the process, we are all susceptible to inaccuracies, illegalities and injustices. We may all be unfairly labelled as “targets or waste”, and suffer consequences at the bank, our job, the border, in court, at the supermarket and anywhere that data-driven decision making determines eligibility. While this threatens us all, the research is clear: vulnerable communities are disproportionately susceptible to big data discrimination.

The quickly changing procedures for determining and implementing labels from myriad data points and aggregations must be scrutinized, as policy struggles to keep up with industry practice (Obar and Wildman 2015). People of color; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer communities; Indigenous communities; the disabled; the elderly; immigrants; low-income communities; children; and many other traditionally marginalized groups are threatened by data discrimination at rates differing from the privileged. The maintenance of biased policing techniques to generate new data, raise considerable concerns for civil rights in general, and automated criminal justice efforts in particular. Addressing such challenges involves a combination of strategies for eliminating biases in historical and new data sets, being critical of data sets from entities not governed by law and developing policy that promotes lawful decision-making practices (i.e., data use), and mandating accountability for entities creating and using data sets for decision making.3

1 David Williams, Naomi Priest, Norman Anderson. (April 2016)  Understanding Associations between Race, Socioeconomic Status and Health: Patterns and Prospects    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles

2 Lawrence J. Friedman. The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet Page 35-36.

3 Jonathan Obar and Brenda McPhail. Preventing Big Data Discrimination in Canada: Addressing Design, Consent and Sovereignty Challenges. (12 Apr 2018) https://www.cigionline.org/articles/preventing-big-data-discrimination-canada-addressing-design-consent-and-sovereignty

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How Individualism Supports the Underlying Structures of the Power Elite

It seems like there are two conditions that must be met for something to be a lie: there must be a falsehood and that falsehood must be presented with the intent to deceive. Hyperbole, exaggeration and sarcasm may, strictly speaking, can be falsehoods, but the intent is clearly not to deceive. The pandemic exposes the truth: Right-wing “individualism” is being rapidly exposed as not but silly, but meaningless and even dangerous in the age of coronavirus. The Tea Party protests – which began during Obama’s tenure – were fueled by this faith that “society” is merely an illusion and that conservatives are a bunch of rugged individuals who don’t really need anyone else to survive. Certainly, in this far-right mythology, there’s no need to respect the concept of a “social contract,” or any obligations, such as paying one’s fair share of taxes, that flows from it.

Racism has long been the not-so-secret fuel for this cult of individualism. The rise of Barry Goldwater, with his hostility toward federal anti-discrimination legislation and social safety-net programs, was a direct result of white people’s anger at the civil rights movement’s insistence that black people be included in the social contract as full equals. The Tea Party was full of people whose newfound loathing of taxation was directly proportional to their anger that a black man had become the face of the federal government. The “every man for himself” philosophy is why Republicans resisted building up the public health infrastructure that could have responded to the COVID crisis with the kind of mass testing and tracing needed to stop the spread. Alexis de Tocqueville identified America’s apparently extreme partisanship on behalf of the individual as a democratic excess, and claimed it is the theoretical error that threatens the future of humanity.

Under neoliberalism, lies become an accepted feature of political leadership. The goal is purely to instrumentalize democratic legitimacy, in order to gain the power to make the necessary decisions that ordinary people can never understand or be persuaded of. The Reaganist rhetoric that has sought to connect economic and political freedom for the past three decades is all the more cause for anger. For if capitalism and democracy were never meant to reinforce one another and democracy is instead perceived as a nuisance to overcome, then neoliberalism’s most vocal proponents were either liars (as they parroted a liberating narrative while simultaneously seeking to curb democratic influence), or stupid (as they really believed what they were saying even as neoliberalism reoriented society in the exact opposite direction).

Citibank, along with Countrywide Financial, was making junk mortgages. These were mortgages called NINJA. They were called liars’ loans, to people with no income, no jobs and no assets. You had this movie, The Big Short, as if some genius on Wall Street discovered that the mortgages were all going to go down – all of Wall Street knew that it was fraud. So, the Federal Reserve has given Wall Street $4.5 trillion. That $4.5 trillion could have been used to write down the debt. And then we wouldn’t have a problem. Then everybody would have a lower cost of living. The $4.5 trillion could have been spent into the economy – they didn’t spend any of it. It’s a fraud. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner slow-walked a direct presidential order to prepare the breakup of Citigroup, instead undertaking other measures to nurse the insolvent bank back to health. Paulson and Geithner then write books to try and rewrite the history of the debacle.

Podesta staffed Obama’s top posts with Clintonite neoliberals, ensuring their ideology predominated in the administration. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, chosen precisely for the Wall Street-friendly credentials that would reassure the finance sector, was almost monomaniacally focused on protecting the interests of banks. Office of Management and Budget director Peter Orszag was a deficit hawk who wanted to put fiscal policy on a fast track toward a balanced budget. Larry Summers, chair of the National Economic Council, believed too much debt was the country’s economic problem, opposed infrastructure investment, and habitually dialed back proposals based on what he believed could pass Congress. It was they and others like them who systematically scaled down Obama’s ambitions, narrowing the range of possibilities available to the president, and ensuring the road to recovery would be longer, slower, and ultimately incomplete – not so much Republican obstructionism.1

Under neoliberalism the cult of individualism reigns supreme, forced upon us through culture, media and politics, it fatally limits our capacity to escape the current crisis of democratic politics. If we can take care of ourselves, why can’t they? It is in this way that the very wealthy – and unfortunately, many others – justify their behavior morally and politically. They are not going to say they are greedy, selfish, avaricious, unfeeling or racist. Rather are they going to say they are acting on principle, especially the principle of the inherent freedom of individuals to freely pursue their own projects as they wish so long as they respect the similar freedom of all other individuals to do the same. These people are thus only insisting on the right to be left alone, and to dispose of their resources as they see fit. They reject the most basic of social contracts.

Libertarians have attempted to define the proper extent of individual liberty in terms of the notion of property in one’s person, or self-ownership, which entails that each individual is entitled to exclusive control of his choices, his actions, and his body. Libertarians can then extend their moral argument with an economic one: most of them will also claim that in the long run, the overwhelming majority of people will be better off if individual (and corporate, usually) freedom is protected in all areas at all times for all persons not imprisoned, letting the free market reign for the maximally fair distribution of all goods.  Those who don’t prosper will have only themselves to blame; that is what the concept of individual responsibility is all about. In this manner, individual (and corporate) freedom and self-interest will bring about the greatest utility for the society, if one accepts a foundational individualism as grounding ethics.

Modern capitalism societies are built on a dichotomy: in the political space decisions are (to be) made on an equal basis with everybody having the same say and with the structure of power being flat; in the economic space the power is held by the owners of capital, the decisions are dictatorial, and the structure of power is hierarchical. By introducing economic rules into politics, neoliberals have done an enormous harm to the “publicness” of decision-making and to democracy. By extension, Donald Trump is just applying to an area called “politics” the principles that he has learned and used for many years in business. While neoliberal policies created so many people living from pay cheque to pay cheque, now the power elite argue that reopening businesses is a necessary prerequisite to reviving the economy and improving the well-being of the poor and racialized who have been disproportionately harmed by both the lockdowns and the virus itself.

Individualism limits the public space for social movement activism. The challenge is not the amount of democracy rather it has to do with public policies that determine how the resources of the nation are to be distributed among the population. As the pandemic has demonstrated, however, it is not the existential dangers, but rather everyday economic activities, that reveal the collective, connected character of modern life beneath the individualist façade of rights and contracts. The costs and benefits of individualism vary with economic conditions. In good times, individualism encourages effort and innovation. But in bad times, it can be very costly, because it disincentivizes collective actions that are particularly important when facing challenges. Joanna Redden notes that “mainstream news coverage narrows and limits the way poverty is talked about in a way that reinforces the dominance of neoliberalism and market-based approaches to the issue” – see the 2008 crash.

Donald Trump personifies the indifference toward social externalities and the fake news of neoliberalism – power elites control a narrative in which their greed is kept out of public view for as long as possible. A primary component of individualism is individual responsibility – being accountable for one’s personal choices. It leads to placing the focus of responsibility for one’s health status within the motivations and behaviors of the individual rather than health status being a result of how a society organizes its distribution of a variety of resources, which supports Trump’s response to COVID-19. Neoliberal libertarians claim the only alternative to the system would be worse – socialism where people lose their individual rights – identical to Trump’s criticism of Joe Biden. While cell phones have enabled citizens to document how the cult of individualism supports the use of police brutality to control minorities, concerned citizens now see how individualism reinforces their understanding that something is seriously wrong with the underlying structure of the current social and political system.2

1 Branko Marcetic  (May, 2019) How Obama Failed             https://www.jacobinmag.com/2019/05/obama-white-house-financial-crisis-hundt

2 Tim Coles (22 Dec 2018) How Fake News Perpetuates Neoliberalism.             https://renegadeinc.com/fake-news-perpetuates-neoliberalism/

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Libertarian and postmodernist ideas can be used to legitimate political and social inaction

Postmodernism made it respectable to be cynical about truth and facts and helped create an environment in which there is less pushback against populist ideas – like a body with a depressed immune system. The obsession of the libertarian with individual liberty crowds out the value of truth. In the end, their thinking becomes deliberate and contrarian for the sake of it. They end up believing what they want to believe – they don’t want to accept the truths of ecology, of climate science, etc. so they deny them – since the truth is an imposition on the individual and puts him at odds with willingness to accept other truths. Once the intellectual mainstream thoroughly accepted there are many accepted valid truths and realities; once the idea of gates and gatekeepers was discredited, not just on campuses, but throughout culture, the American right could have their claims taken seriously. Postmodern intellectuals turned out be ‘useful idiots’ for the economic elite.

“Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all”, claims Adam Smith. In this Smith is stressing that the main task of government was the defense of the rich against the poor. However, democracy ceased to be the exercise of political power and was identified instead with the resignation from it and the associated transfer of this power, through the elections, to a political elite, even for the Founding Fathers. They not only saw representation as a means of distancing the people from politics but proposed it because it favored the economically powerful. For the Founding Fathers like Hamilton not only was there no incompatibility between democracy and the domination of the economically powerful but, in fact, this was considered to be the rule.1

The more or less simultaneous institutionalization of the system of the market economy and representative ‘democracy’, during the Industrial Revolution in the West, introduced the fundamental element of modernity: the formal separation of society from the economy and the state which has been ever since the basis of modernity. Not only direct producers were not able anymore to control the product of their work but, also, citizens were offered a new form of political organization called ‘democracy’, where political power is exercised indirectly through elected representatives. In other words, the market economy and representative democracy had in fact institutionalized the unequal distribution of political and economic power among citizens. Furthermore, it could be shown that the gradual extension of the right to citizenship to the vast majority of the population – a process that was completed only in the 20th century – did not offset the effective loss of the meaning of citizenship, in terms of the exercise of power.

The neoliberal version of libertarian policies was based on the belief of economic ‘democracy’ through the market and individualism, in the sense of the citizen’s liberation from `dependence’ on the welfare state. Ironically, the main demand of the New Left for self-determination and autonomy was embraced by the neoliberals and was reformulated by them in a distorted form as a demand for self-determination through the market! In this manner postmodernity contributes to the neoliberal ideas that seek to eradicate the discussion of power asymmetries. Embracing postmodernism, much like embracing neoliberal ideology, depends heavily on the group to do your thinking for you. By happenchance, there occurred a coalition between neoliberalism, an economic policy that serves the interest of a tiny minority, and an ideology – postmodernism – that appears to include everybody. Louis Althusser has remarked, ideology consists of trading in your real problems for the imaginary problems you would prefer to have.

One of Jean Francois Lyotard’s primary concerns was how metanarratives are often used toward “the goal of legitimizing social and political institutions and practices, laws, ethics, ways of thinking.” What are metanarratives? They are the types of grand stories that purport to tell us How Things Are. Marxism is a meta-narrative. Christianity is a meta-narrative. Libertarian neoliberalism is a meta-narrative. The rise of neoliberalism during the late 1970s in the West, however, fundamentally questioned the role of higher education institutions in the process of public good formation. Roughly at the same time that neoliberalism began to question the purposes of higher education institutions, theories which became labeled postmodern also emerged and challenged the notion that knowledge produced by higher education was liberating. The flattening of expertise and authority, the attack on professionalism and the rise of the cult of the amateur that these changes herald are also consistent with postmodernity.

Postmodern arguments also interpret the gross disparity of wealth and the abundance of famine and suffering in the world as the fault of modern thought, posing the question thusly: if modern thought and science indeed solves these problems, then why do they still exist?  Postmodernists believe the relationship between language and reality is unreliable because language is a subjectively constructed phenomenon that does not transcend time; a person can communicate utterances that are only true within the context in which they are spoken. Counterintuitively, in a postmodern context, words are never intended to be literal. Language and rhetoric are used elliptically, metaphorically and deliberately falsely, textured with layers of circumstantial meaning, designed to help the speaker evade answering a question or taking a permanent position. The theory of victory for a postmodernist is to either change the nature of the established power structure altogether, or to increase and maintain discord.2

Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) asked: why did the revolution succeed in Russia, and not in Italy or anywhere else in Western Europe, where classical Marxism had predicted it would be more likely to occur due to the more advanced development of capitalism? He argued that the reason for this failure was an incorrect understanding of the workings of power in modern capitalism: while Marxist revolutionary practice had assumed that political power was concentrated in the state apparatus, Gramsci suggested that power also rested in the institutions of ‘civil society’ or the structures and organization of everyday life. The revolution would therefore have to aim not only at conquering state power, but much more importantly, to create an alternative civil society, which would have to be able to attract the majority of people by convincing them of the validity of the project, which was in turn premised on its ability to perform.

By 2020 many thinkers agree that prevailing neoliberal policy framework has failed society, resulting in monumental and growing income gap. The discipline’s focus on markets and incentives, methodological individualism, and mathematical formulism all seem to stand in the way of meaningful, larger-scale economic and social reform. In short, neoliberalism appears to be just another name for economics controlled by an existing economic elite. It appears that many of the dominant policy ideas of the last few decades are supported neither by sound economics nor by good evidence. This leads one to conclude that it is necessary to spend more time on the analysis of market failure and how to fix them rather than defer to the magic of competitive markets. The answer must address the growing concentration of wealth, the costs of climate change, the concentration of important markets, the stagnation of income for the working class, and the changing patterns in social mobility.

Foucault concentrates more on the ethic of truth as an individual position, while Gramsci is more concerned with the problem of a politics of truth, of the struggle for the means of knowledge and the ability to impose a certain “objective reality” within a hegemonic struggle. Cultural hegemony locks up a society even more tightly because of the way ideas are transmitted by language. The words we use to speak and write have been constructed by social interactions through history and shaped by the dominant ideology of the times. Thus, they are loaded with cultural meanings that condition us to think in particular ways, and to not be able to think very well in other ways. For Foucault, to challenge power is not a matter of seeking some absolute truth, but of detaching the power of truth from the forms of hegemony, social, economic and cultural, within which it operates at the present time.

Since, postmodernists are relentlessly constructing and reconstructing their identities and realities, the postmodern self remains an unfinished project, with identity becoming a role and a performance in the making, temporarily selecting the one which becomes best for public consumption and recognition. What is our way forward? When faced with lies posing as truths, we should just call them what they are, rather than claiming there is no such thing as objective truth. All we can be certain of, is that insisting there is no truth; that claims of objectivity are always driven by interests of power, and that science is more objective than Scientology is simply not going to be. We need to get the gatekeepers back at the gates. If the media professionals restore public trust, they can still play the role of mirror for society, shedding light where there is darkness, pursuing vital stories that those in power try to hide from the public.

1 Takis Fotopoulos.  The Myth of Postmodernity https://www.inclusivedemocracy.org/dn/vol7/takis_postmodernism.htm

2 Larry Kay. “A New Postmodern Condition”: Why Disinformation Has Become So Effective https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/new-postmodern-condition-why-disinformation-has-become-so-effective

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Objective Reality: the Pervasive Atmosphere of Hostility of Neoliberal Narcissism

Powerful elites always have a justification for their obsessions. In the past emperors, kings, and aristocrats claimed they were God’s chosen. The plutocrats of the modern world have dispensed with God, but they have a philosophy that justifies in their minds the evil they do and the misery they cause: it’s called libertarianism, and Ayn Rand is their prophet. Objectivism is the name she gives to this philosophy. One thing about this pseudo-philosophy is that it is accurately named in that she objectifies people who are not entrepreneurs. She means us to understand the term in the sense that she is looking at the world objectively with no wishy-washy, goodie-two-shoes wishes and hopes obscuring her vision. She thinks human nature is purely selfish, and that any interference in the selfish quest for money, power and success is wrong. She divides humanity into creators and slaves – her objective reality.

Neoliberal libertarianism has promoted a self-centeredness that pushes Adam Smith-style individualism to an extreme, turning selfishness into a virtue, as Ayn Rand has done. It is a closed ontology since it does not admit the other, the stranger, into the circle of those towards whom we have a duty of responsibility and care. It thus completes capitalism as a zero-sum game of “winners and losers”. Neoliberal political economy gradually became the new orthodoxy, increasing its impact through right-wing thinktanks and government advisors and spreading its influence in academia and economic thought. Its initial success associated with growth and prosperity in the 1990s and turn of the century consolidated its hold over the economy until the crash of 2008. From working conditions to welfare policies, from immigration to the internet – this zero-sum game of winners and losers benefits only the far right.

As Erich Fromm argued, in order for any society to survive it must mold the character of its members in such a way as to make them comply unthinkingly with the dominant world-view. Broader social, economic, political and historical factors that are expressed in our current dominant neoliberal ideology essentially shape not only our understandings of ourselves, but also our understanding of what constitutes health and illness, right and wrong, success and failure. Further, as Fromm warned, if those character traits engendered by the extant socioeconomic system are unhealthy and destructive ones, that system will inevitably produce unhealthy persons and an unhealthy society. Neoliberalism has shaped and encouraged narcissism – creating a cultural shift towards narcissism in the last 40 years – as not merely something to aspire to, but to exalt. But what is it actually doing is destroying us.

Looking once more to Erich Fromm, in his book, The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil, he eloquently describes how evil is the outcome of a series of choices made that progressively cause one’s heart to harden. Two of the causes for this hardening of the heart are particularly relevant to understanding how neoliberalism has proven destructive to compassion and thus to justice as well. The first is what Fromm calls a love of death. What he means by this is adopting a set of values and beliefs opposed to reverence for life and respect for anything that promotes growth and thriving. This attitude leads such individuals not merely to inflict pain on others, but to seek to have complete control over them and to render them into helpless objects. The goal is to transform persons into things, like possessions. This transformation then facilitates and even justifies humiliating and enslaving them.1

Narcissism reduces everyone to an object to be maneuvered for the narcissist’s pleasure. Rand’s objectivism supports narcissism by demonizing altruism. Neoliberal political economy reanimates attitudes and values that legitimate the consolidation of power over others, evidenced for example in the creation of an indebted population who must play by the dominant rules of the game in order to survive. It promotes new servitudes, operating on a planetary scale. What is rejected are ideas of common interest and a common humanity that support the principle of collective responsibility for fellow humans, and that radical liberal philosophers like John Stuart Mill defended. They were the values, along with the principles of fundamental human rights, that informed major reforms, and inspired socialism. The establishment of the welfare or providential state, and programs of redistribution, such as the New Deal, draw from these same principles and values.

This pervasive atmosphere of hostility is the real triumph of neoliberal political economy. Not the economy – rather privatization, monetization, deregulation, generalized competition, and structural adjustments are immanent tendencies in globalized capitalism. Over the last four decades, neoliberal restructuring of the economy created a symbiosis of debt and discipline. New legal regimes and strategic use of monetary policy displaced Keynesian welfare, facilitated financialization of the economy, broke the power of organized labor, and expanded debt to sustain aggregate demand. Republicans, in amplifying the individualist ethos, have amplified these dark, divisive, destructive and unsustainable forces in the body politic. Moreover, the narcissist is typically at a state of constant antagonistic warfare with others in order to assert dominance. Collective narcissists are a group of people who desperately need their group to be admired, and validated by others.

Since the election of President Trump, the Republican Party has become even more brazen in engaging in callous and ruthless acts that lay bare their utter disregard for human dignity and complete moral bankruptcy. Republicans have captured the ideal of American individualism, and taken it to narcissistic extreme. Depriving people of health care, undermining policies and laws to protect the excluded and vulnerable, stripping wealth and resources from those who already struggle under the burden of poverty. They have done more than lost their conscience. They are bereft of compassion and indifferent to justice. However, we must recognize that the insidious undermining of compassion and justice by neoliberalism contaminates all of us to varying degrees. If we confine our condemnation to the egregious actions of the Republicans, and fail to reflect on our own unthinking compliance with the dictates of neoliberalism, can we really hope to reclaim compassion and justice?

Although all concepts are metaphors invented by humans (created to facilitate ease of communication), Nietzsche observes, humans forget this fact after inventing them, and come to believe they are ‘true’ and correspond to reality. In the 1980s the word meritocracy was being used approvingly by a range of new-right think tanks to describe their version of a world of extreme income difference and high social mobility. 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. 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 freedom. Along with the idea of the perfectible individual, the freedom we perceive ourselves as having in the West is the greatest untruth of this day and age.

The rhetoric of neoliberalism is one thing; its reality is something else. The nineteenth century theory of neoliberalism (neoclassical economics) romanticized free markets; its twenty-first century practice (globalization) reveals a world-economy rigged in favor of the ruling classes and multinational corporations, at the terrible expense of the masses, the postmodern wretched of the earth. The normalization of hostile environments signals a worrying and global shift in values of tolerance, empathy, compassion, hospitality and responsibility for the vulnerable. The current symptoms and underlying trends of neoliberalism are hardly unprecedented. In fact, they remind us of the reign of imperialist oligopolies in the world-economy around the turn of the previous century, during the long wave of capitalist expansion from 1893 to 1914 that culminated in structural crisis and ultimately World War I. That crisis is instructive today because it proves that capitalism without planning is unsustainable.

The elaborate conceptual frameworks that guide economic policy-making have their own dynamics, distinct from objective reality. Objective reality can undercut certain ideas as it did in the 1970s, when poorly understood crises undermined the post-war consensus on Keynesianism – but never clearly dictates new ideas. Thus, the turn to neoliberalism and monetarism in 1980s resulted from the simple availability of these ideas incubating in right-wing think tanks more than from their objectively functional solutions to real problems. Inequality has not arisen by accident or due to the chaos of capitalism or ‘globalization’. Ontologically, critical realism holds that reality exists independent of our knowledge of it – critical realism insists that the meaning of such a reality is a social construction. The economic-political philosophy behind the social construction of neoliberal ideals is the determinant factor in preserving the status quo, even after numerous economic crises.

1 Frank Gruba-McCallister. Neoliberal Narcissism: With the Death of Compassion Comes the Death of Justice (3 Dec 2017) https://medium.com/@FrankGrubaMc/neoliberal-narcissism-with-the-death-of-compassion-comes-the-death-of-justice-d50ee4225c17

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The Reawakening of the Ongoing Class Struggle for Economic Stability

Neoliberalism intensifies and extends itself by displacing competing socioeconomic forms that restrict it. This means that a through, nuanced, comprehension of capitalism is more important than ever for understanding neoliberal social life and psychology. Marx and Engel’s analysis of capitalism remains a touchstone for any discussion of neoliberalism and its transformation: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” For many today you can only get a decent income if you put a huge amount of hours in. Prior to COVID-19 around 80% of Americans were living paycheck to paycheck, meaning they have no significant savings. Now half of US homes have lost wages during the pandemic. The pandemic highlights the problems with the existing economic system. Our current economic system values corporate interests more than the needs of humanity and the planet. The economic system as a whole is rigged in favor of big business.

The French Revolution was certainly not the first class conflict, because class struggle also characterized the history of Antiquity and the Middle Ages. In July 1791, Leopold of Austria (brother of Marie Antionette) instigated the Padua Circular, an open letter to the leaders of Prussia, England, Spain, Russia, Sweden and other nations. This circular called for a European military coalition to invade France, halt the revolution and reinstall the monarchy. The consensus now is that the Girondins wanted to militarize the revolution, to provide it with direction and impetus, to distract from domestic economic problems and to consolidate their own power. Some Girondins also believed that a revolutionary war would become a “crusade for universal liberty”, and challenge absolutist monarchies elsewhere in Europe. Notwithstanding, the French Revolution was the first important conflict of the modern class struggle, which continues today.

In making his case, Jacques Pauwels sets the Great War in the context of what historians call the long 19th century, beginning with the French Revolution of 1789 which, with its watchwords of liberty, equality and fraternity, helped inspire reformers and revolutionaries alike. The 1848 February Revolution – one of a wave of revolutions in 1848 in Europe – established the principle of the “right to work” (droit au travail), and its newly established government created “National Workshops” (ateliers nationaux) for the unemployed. The Paris Commune occurred in the wake of France’s defeat in the Franco-German War and the collapse of Napoleon III’s Second Empire (1852–70). The program that the Commune adopted, despite its internal divisions, called for measures reminiscent of 1793 (end of support for religion, use of the Revolutionary calendar) and a limited number of social measures (10-hour workday, end of work at night for bakers).

Jacques Pauwels makes the case that World War I was not simply a war between states, but also a war between social classes. Pauwels claims it was wanted by European elite of aristocrats and capitalists who saw in war the means to reverse the growing democratization of society that threatened their position and power. The power elites feared the working class eating into profits by forming unions and demanding higher wages along with better work conditions. The elite believed that a war would crush revolutionary zeal, aspirations for democracy, and replace socialism with nationalism. They expected the demands of war would instill in the working class the discipline, sense of tradition and respect for authority they saw as so obviously lacking, as the pre-1914 wave of strikes and of socialist and feminist agitation demonstrated. In fact, union leaders travelled around the country to encourage the rank and file not to strike, but to volunteer for the army.1

In the ten years from 1935 to 1945 the working classes across the world were pushed harder in greater numbers to produce much more. As well as working more people harder for longer, business and government worked together to hold down their wages – so boosting industry’s operating profits. Holding down wages was not easy because putting so many more people to work ought to have pushed wages up. In fact, in cash terms, weekly wages did go up. But on closer inspection we find that hourly wages tended to go down. People were working for much longer hours, sometimes giving up their time for free, often losing out on overtime payments. What increases there were in wages did not keep pace with the increase in output. In 1941, Roosevelt helped war profiteers by banning strikes and taking away labor legislation protections in the armaments industry. In 1935 he had made a dispute procedure, the National Labor Relations Board, which barred wildcat strikes.2

The phrase the end of history was first used by French philosopher and mathematician Antoine Augustin Cournot in 1861 “to refer to the end of the historical dynamic with the perfection of civil society”. Francis Fukuyama brought the term back to the forefront with his essay The End of History? that was published months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The essay centers around the idea that now that its two most important competitors, fascism and communism, have been defeated, there should no longer be any serious competition for liberal democracy and the market economy. It’s not surprising that Fukuyama, who was also a member of the RAND Corporation (the Cold War think-tank that was part of governmental efforts in the US after World War II to prove the validity and superiority of liberal democracy), made the political statement in 1989 that the liberal democracy with its neoliberal economic system is the best and final one in our history.

To account for movements not able to be explained by his formula, Newton proposed the hand of God to guide the planets in various circumstances – providing long-term stability to the universe. Adam Smith’s claim about the ‘invisible hand’ in Wealth of Nations, first published in 1776, pertains to a scheme consisting of all the voluntary actions of people who engage in buying, hiring, producing, consuming, and selling, typically mediating these actions by exchanges involving money. Smith’s point is that, if certain conditions are met, these actions will collectively produce a result that a benevolent God would wish for us. Ludwig von Mises, in Human Action, uses the expression “the invisible hand of Providence”, referring to Marx’s period, to mean evolutionary meliorism. He did not mean this as a criticism, since he held that secular reasoning leads to similar conclusions. Milton Friedman, a Nobel Prize winner in economics, called Smith’s Invisible Hand “the possibility of cooperation without coercion.”

Neoliberalism was never really simply an economic doctrine. Neoliberalism was a political project carried out by the corporate elite as they felt intensely threatened both politically and economically towards the end of the 1960s into the 1970s to curb the power of labor. It is the fear of the nation state as a democratic force that underpins the neoliberal project. It was necessary to separate the economy from the nation state – cultural issues could still be managed at the national level. The goal of this “double government” was to separate politics from economics. Hayek argued for global institutions to protect what he called the ‘negative right’ for foreign investments to have freedom from expropriation, and the right to move capital freely across borders. Through the IMF, the World Bank, the Maastricht treaty and the World Trade Organization, neoliberal policies were imposed – often without democratic consent – on much of the world.3

Basically, money controls labor. If you can’t get the finances to start a business, you’re forced to work for someone else. Instead of financing small and medium sized businesses, who are the main job creators, to create goods and services for the future, banks in the U.S. mainly grant loans to people or businesses with collateral that’s already existing and can be foreclosed on; such as real estate, land that holds valuable minerals and oil, and profits from monopolies. Stock markets were supposed to supply capital to businesses in exchange for equity, however they’ve been turned into casinos in pursuit of short-term profit betting which way prices will go instead of assisting industry with producing more goods and services. The drastic inequality of the control of resources – as the big get bigger – creates the majority of the problems we have today. This breeds cut-throat competition which leads to crime, corruption, non-cooperative behavior, and many other negative side effects.

According to Adam Smith, everyone in the marketplace is operating out of their own self-interest. However, by each individual being so motivated by self-interest, they inevitably lose sight of how their role plays in the economic system as a whole. COVID-19 exposes the ugly underbelly of neoliberal fundamental economics. Small and medium sized businesses, who are the main job creators, to create goods and services for the future, are the least likely to secure bridging funds, will take the brunt of the economic downturn. While the global financial crash in the summer of 2008 sensitized workers to the issues, the class struggle is resurging around the world because of COVID-19. The goals of the French Revolution are still relevant. It is necessary to completely change the relationship between the power elite and the working class – small business owners, and redefine the nature of political power to bring about economic stability.

1 Dutta, Manas (2019) “Review of “The Great Class War 1914-1918″ by Jacques R. Pauwels,” Canadian Military History: Vol. 28 : Iss. 2, Article 9.

2 James Heartfield. (20 Jan 2010) World War As Class War https://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/world-war-class-war

3 Phil Mullan. (22 March 2019) The truth about neoliberalism. https://www.spiked-online.com/2019/03/22/the-truth-about-neoliberalism/

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Communities Must Strive to Restore the Concept of Freedom

Ongoing austerity and policies of uncertainty can be seen clearly in the ongoing and ruthless assault on the social state, unions, higher education, workers, students, poor minority youth, and any vestige of the social contract. While this position in fact dissimulates the increasing powerlessness of ordinary people, it also has roots in older philosophical arguments of the economist F.A. Hayek. Freedom doesn’t exist as the objective, it exists because there is another objective to obtain, and freedom is the means to obtain it. Julius Evola (1898-1974) claims freedom and equality are tools of manipulation, and after the movement leaders get what they want, they’ll toss you aside. Evola explains, “Practically speaking, it is only a revolutionary weapon: freedom and equality are the catchwords certain social strata or groups employed in order to undermine other classes and to gain preeminence; having achieved this task, they were quickly set aside.”

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.

Since the time of the French Revolution, freedom has been regarded as the greatest value of culture. Today in modern society, we are trying to restore the value of individual freedom, which we formally perceive as one of the rights of man and citizen. The concept of “freedom of the individual” is increasingly used in the media, in the speeches of political leaders, as well, is declared by the US Constitution. However, the meaning invested in this concept by different people is different, often the most opposite ways of solving the problem of freedom of the human person are offered. But the category of freedom itself is not subjected to sufficiently serious analysis. Freedom is a state of mind; it is a philosophical concept reflecting an inalienable human right to realize one’s human will. Outside of freedom, a person can not realize the wealth of his inner world and his capabilities.

In the 19th century two philosophers, Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, stood out with their reaction against the ‘impersonal’ rationalism of the Enlightenment, and stressed the importance of the individual. Kierkegaard (1813-1855), the ‘father of existentialism,’ believed that one must choose one’s own way without the aid of universal objective standards. Against the traditional view that moral choice involves an objective judgment of right and wrong, existentialists have argued that no objective, rational basis can be found for moral decisions. It was necessary to create one’s own values in a world in which traditional values no longer governed. For Kierkegaard, the real problem of life was to discover one’s true talent, secret gift, authentic vocation. So, freedom acts as a universal value. People are striving for freedom, for only in it and through it can the creative human potential be realized.

Friedrich Hayek described the connection between economic control and totalitarianism: “The economic freedom which is the prerequisite of any other freedom cannot be the freedom from economic care which the socialist promise us and which can be obtained only by relieving the individual at the same time the necessity and the power of choice, it must be the freedom of our economic activity which, with the right choice, inevitably carries the risk and responsibility of that right.” Central to Hayek’s argument on social institutions and their evolution is that only freedom allows all the minds of all the people in the world to participate in interactions from which each of us gains from what all the others can contribute to the global community of humankind, and within which each attempts to better fulfill his own personal ends and purposes. Today the economic elite claim, there is a threat to other freedoms with any reduction to economic freedom (i.e. regulations).

Georg Hegel (1770-1831) who saw a world governed by individual self-interest believed that we are controlled by external forces, and are nothing but pawns in the game. For Hegel, historical advance did not proceed through a series of smooth transitions. Once the potentialities of a particular society had been realized in the creation of a certain mode of life, its historical role was over; its members became aware of its inadequacies, and the laws and institutions they had previously accepted unquestioningly were now experienced as fetters, inhibiting further development and no longer reflecting their deepest aspirations. The middle class has been stripped of jobs, income and security. Thus, since the Great Recession the majority realizes that the middle class is under attack from the existing economic system, and opportunities once available to the previous generation, have disappeared.

A Freedom in the World report from Freedom House has documented social and economic changes related to globalization have contributed to a crisis of confidence in the political systems of long-standing democracies. The democratic erosion seen among Free countries is concentrated in consolidated democracies – those that were rated Free from 1985 through 2005, the 20-year period before the 13-year decline. For example, Hungary’s status declined from Free to Partly Free due to sustained attacks on the country’s democratic institutions by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party, which has used its parliamentary supermajority to impose restrictions on or assert control over the opposition, the media, religious groups, academia, NGOs, the courts, asylum seekers, and the private sector since 2010. Nicaragua’s status declined from Partly Free to Not Free due to authorities’ brutal repression of an antigovernment protest movement, which has included the arrest and imprisonment of opposition figures and intimidation and attacks against religious leaders.

While democracy in America remains robust by global standards, it has weakened significantly over the past few years, and the current president’s ongoing attacks on the rule of law, fact-based journalism, and other principles and norms of democracy threaten further decline. Having observed similar patterns in other nations where democracy was ultimately overtaken by authoritarianism, Freedom House warns that the resilience of US democratic institutions in the face of such an assault cannot be taken for granted. The United States score is now below other major democracies such as France, Germany, and the United Kingdom – it is still firmly in the Free category.1 In a long passage in the Philosophy of Right Hegel attributes the excesses of the French Revolution to Rousseau’s ideas on will, consent and freedom, and to ‘the reduction of the union of individuals in the state to a contract and therefore to something based on their arbitrary will’.

Foucault points out ways in which we are less free than we thought, but it’s not power in general that makes us less free; rather, it’s a specific form that power takes. Discipline is a dominating form of power, one that creates asymmetrical relationships of power in which there is control over the minds and bodies of individuals. It’s this kind of power that Foucault is worried about precisely because it limits our freedom by influencing the choices we make and what we even take to be the field of reasonable possibilities. Neoliberalism, with its combination of market anarchy and workplace despotism, is projected as the ideal world where discipline and conformity in the office or factory are counterbalanced by a potpourri of gratifying and pleasurable consumer choices. It further destabilizes social order by promising and then ‘dashing’ hopes of individual freedom. It is necessary to challenge this ideology.

As American society has moved from social welfare projects to deregulation of economic activity, the institutions that were once meant to limit human suffering and misfortune and protect the public from the excesses of the market have been either weakened or abolished. The lack of freedom to make choices creates a group working below their capabilities precisely because they have no other option, thus they become susceptible to rhetoric from populist politicians with simplistic solutions. The outcome of this individual economic freedom is great inequality for most, which hollows out realistic notions of democracy. The intent of neoliberalism was to push the balance of power between capital, the state, and labor to a new equilibrium that was necessary for sustained economic growth. This new equilibrium is to the detriment of worker rights, and we now realize efforts should be made towards achieving a more equitable balance between the interests of labor rights and economic competitiveness – to restore freedom. An essential attribute of the good life is that people enjoy not just a range of personal freedoms, but an access to knowledge and a voice in public affairs.

1 Democracy in Retreat.  https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/freedom-world-2019

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The Connection Between Ethics, Morality and Inequality

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.

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. Inequality prevents people from obtaining fair benefits from economic activities. Work can be a path out of poverty, but only when it provides a living wage, something hard to find in a labor market where precarity is a new norm of employment. When we reduce inequality, we will reduce social tension and discrimination. Preventing inequality can help promote social capital and stimulate the economy.

For the past 10,000 years or so, human society has been divided into antagonistic classes, and that has meant that morality has developed not as a general theory of human emancipation, but as a set of rules by which each class attempts to further its own interests. The most influential moral theories since the eighteenth century have tended to see morality as a necessary way of holding human impulses in check. A central component of Kant’s theory, for instance, is that morality has to control human desires in order to prevent social conflict. Underlying these views is the assumption that human beings are competitive individuals who seek their own self-interest and who will engage in a war of all against all if left to their own devices. Morality is supposed to moderate the war so that society can hold together. Today the neoliberal project subjects the world’s population to the judgement and morality of capital.

For Friedrich Hayek (1899-1992), freedom is not the absolute liberty to do as one pleases, rather it is the recognition of the necessity of law and morality in order to ensure that human interaction is cooperative and orderly. 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.

Socrates claimed that all he could ever know was the knowledge of his ignorance. Aristotle explained, “All men by nature desire knowledge.” Stoics believed that our knowledge comes from the acceptance of our perceptions as representative of external facts.  Skeptics such as Sextus argued that people who believed they could know reality were subject to constant frustration and unhappiness in life. If they would genuinely suspend judgment, recognizing that their beliefs about reality were not necessarily valid, they would achieve peace of mind. Never affirming nor denying the possibility of knowledge, they should remain in a state of open-minded composure, waiting to see what might emerge. Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) noted “Knowledge like other good things is difficult, but not impossible; the dogmist forgets the difficulty, the skeptic denies the possibility. Both are mistaken, and their errors when widespread, produce social disaster.”

Fifty years ago, Harvard philosopher, John Rawls tried to work out how people would construct their society if the choice had to be made behind what he called a “veil of ignorance” about whether they will be rich, poor or somewhere in-between. Faced with the risk of being the worst off, Rawls posited, humans would not demand total equality, but would need to be assured of the trappings of a modern welfare state. The assurance of basic necessities and the opportunity to do better would form the foundation for social and political justice and provide the ability for people to assert themselves. Rawls’s monumental 1971 book, A Theory of Justice, is now regarded as the clearest moral and intellectual justification for modern center-left mixed economies. His theory of justice as fairness describes a society of free citizens holding equal basic rights and cooperating within an egalitarian economic system.1

To tackle discrimination arising from racial or ethnic origin, religion, or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation and sex, the EU relies on racial and employment legislation. With respect to Canada and the US, the action to reduce horizontal inequality within populations (for example, as a result of gender and ethnic discrimination) is rightly supported, however the proposals stop short of tackling vertical economic disparity across the whole population. This is a major oversight given the far-reaching costs of economic inequality. The Rio+20 (June 2012) “Future We Want Outcome Document” identifies: “…the need to achieve sustainable development by promoting sustained, inclusive and equitable economic growth, creating greater opportunities for all, reducing inequalities, raising basic standards of living, fostering equitable social development and inclusion, and promoting integrated and sustainable management of natural resources and ecosystems that supports, inter alia, economic, social and human development while facilitating ecosystem conservation, regeneration and restoration …”

The coronavirus amplifies ageism, older people discrimination. Healthcare rationing strategies that deny scarce medical resources to those with preexisting risk factors (i.e. diabetes, heart disease and lung disease) will disproportionately harm people of color who suffer these health conditions at greater rates because of the effects of structural racism. This can give cover for dehumanization and racial discrimination under the conditions of scarcity. Discrimination means that people in communities of color can’t follow many recommended individual actions for the pandemic including staying at home, working from home, stocking up on groceries, drive-through testing and social distancing. Low income essential workers have essentially become the human buffer against the coronavirus for people with higher income. The coronavirus pandemic is primed to accelerate socioeconomic and life-or-death medical care disparities.

The libertarian justification holds that inequalities result from uncoerced exchanges between individuals, they are justified because no one was forced to do anything against their will. Robert Nozick, champion of libertarian ideas, accepts the Rawlsian claim that inequalities emerge for morally arbitrary reasons: Many people who are not especially virtuous get ahead. Many who may be deserving languish in poverty. Nozick raises concern of the fact of moral arbitrariness in the distribution of wealth can actually justify a heavy interventionist state. Drawing on Locke and Kant, Nozick argues that we should possess a very significant number of rights to protect us from being used as “means to another’s end” – as efforts to ameliorate the inequalities that emerge for morally arbitrary reasons will inevitably and unjustifiably compromise liberty. Instead, he says, we want freedom in order to realize ourselves, even though the process may well result in inequalities.

In applying Rawls’s theory of justice to the social determinants of health, Norman Daniels and colleagues argue that justice requires flattening “socioeconomic inequalities in a robust way, assuring far more than a decent minimum.”2 The social determinants of health that Michael Marmot has spent decades studying – early childhood development, education, employment and working conditions, having enough money to live on, healthy places and communities – will all be impacted by the pandemic. In the short term there will be increases in inequalities in social conditions, which over time will lead to inequalities in health. Following the financial crisis of 2009, government argued the need to introduce austerity policies and cut health and other basic services. For the COVID-19 pandemic threat they threw that orthodoxy out the window and said: “Whatever it takes.”3 The outstanding question: why are they ignoring the profound problem of inequalities and the health inequities in society?

1 John Authers. (30 March 2020) How Coronavirus is shaking up the moral universe. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/international/world-news/how-coronavirus-is-shaking-up-the-moral-universe/articleshow/74888344.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium =text&utm_campaign=cppst

2 Jennifer Prah Ruger (16 April 2014) Ethics of the social determinants of health  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3988689/

3 Charlie Cooper. (29 April 2020) The next pandemic: Rising inequality.  https://www.politico.eu/article/the-next-pandemic-rising-inequality-coronavirus-covid19-economic-turmoil-lockdowns/

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We Need to Change Our Beliefs in Order to Change Our Actions

The Declaration of Independence says that government has one primary purpose; that of protecting beliefs of the people that includes the unalienable right to freedom. Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism argues that the purpose of life is the pursuit of happiness, and that the purpose of government is to aid that pursuit. Laissez-faire capitalism, she argues, is the only system that truly protects individual rights. In Atlas Shrugged, Rand extends this idea to divide humanity into two groups: creators, who should be given free rein to do anything, and consumers, who should be tolerated if possible and crushed if necessary. The core of Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism – which also constitutes the overarching theme of her novels – is that unfettered self-interest is good and altruism is destructive. These beliefs support the legitimacy of unbridled capitalism of neoliberalism – the product of economists like Frederick Hayek and Milton Friedman.

There are problems: Greenspan pre-2008 wrote a letter to the New York Times responding to a damning book review: “Atlas Shrugged is a celebration of life and happiness. Justice is unrelenting. Creative individuals and undeviating purpose and rationality achieve joy and fulfillment. Parasites who persistently avoid either purpose or reason perish as they should.” In October 2008, Greenspan belatedly hinted that he may have finally seen the dark side of Rand. In a speech to Congress, he said he had found a “flaw” in his “ideology” of how the free market worked. He had always hewed to the Randian belief that companies left to their own devices would work in their best long-term interests. But the real-estate bubble demonstrated that many companies had actually favored massive short-term profits over long-term sustainability. In the process, they laid the groundwork for the biggest recession in sixty years.1

In the aftermath of a potentially demoralizing 2008 electoral defeat, when the Republican Party seemed widely discredited, the emergence of the Tea Party provided conservative activists with a new identity funded by Republican business elites and reinforced by a network of conservative media sources. With the financial crash and the presidency of Barack Obama that followed, spooked by the fear that Obama was bent on expanding the state, the Tea Party and others returned to the old-time religion of rolling back government with lower taxes and federal budget deficit through decreased government spending – Ayn Rand-style capitalism to counter change. Yaron Brook observed, “So many people see the parallels with actually what’s going on, with the government taking over the banks, with the government kind of taking over the automobile industry, a president who fires the CEO of a major American corporation. These are the kind of things that come out of ‘Atlas Shrugged.’” The goals and beliefs of the Tea Party movement support a national economy operating without government oversight.

By 2010 the Tea Party became a very influential movement in American politics. How does this affect American politics? By clinging to the superficial commonality of hostility to welfare, tea partiers fail to see (or willfully ignore) something critical: Rand espoused an elitist, oligarchic philosophy that is both anti-American and deeply at odds with the Tea Party’s own “we the people” causes. Tea Party activists in their fervor against the elites, more closely echo the motto of the Russian Bolsheviks, “the cook, if taught will efficiently govern society.” So deep is the Tea Party mistrust of the elite, over-educated Americans that the mediocre academic pedigree of political figures like President Trump seems to be a point of pride. Certainly, the Tea party does praise Ayn Rand-style capitalism, but it also passionately defends universal principles of liberty promulgated in the Declaration of Independence – the voice of the people does matter – restore a government of the people by the people, is a fundamental departure from Rand.

The polarizing of American politics has its strongest roots in Rand’s classic, Atlas Shrugged, where a capitalist elite engage in a perpetual cultural warfare for the soul of America, fighting society’s “moochers, looters and parasites,” anyone and everyone demanding government money to solve their problems. The elite see a threat of America degrading into a welfare state and socialism. Ayn Rand was defined by her rage, not her advocacy of a fantasy version of capitalism. Her message of creative aspiration is laced with anger and cruelty, and endowed with idealized and moralized selfishness and greed. The individuals that Trump has surrounded himself with is a collection of power- and wealth-obsessed closet Objectivists. Trump’s culture of cruelty views violence as a sacred means for addressing social problems and organizing society.

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. On the societal level, cognitive dissonance is responsible for a large number of people not taking the COVID-19 risk seriously. On the individual level, it’s responsible for failure to connect with other human beings and create harmonious relationships. Cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias are simply a means of not being able to accept, or even listen to, the COVID-19 response. We will do anything we can to disprove, discredit, and deny the new information. However, the more we deny, the less we will be able to learn.

Today narcissism is metastasizing so rapidly Americans feel ever more helpless to solve their problems, making collapse a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yes, this toxic narcissistic virus has infected America’s soul, eating away at core values while blinding most to both the problem and the solution. You ask, why do Americans embrace their own demise like out-of-control addicts? The theory of cognitive dissonance helps explain why people will sometimes go to great lengths to account for thoughts, words, and behaviors that seem to clash – when one learns new information that challenges a deeply held belief. When we’re involved with a narcissist, cognitive dissonance is a psychological state that keeps us clinging to a narcissistic person like Trump even when we know he is completely incapable of ever satisfying us. In other words, we are torn between believing what we want to believe about someone and accepting what we know to be the truth (as horrible as that might be).

The government action that you support during the COVID-19 pandemic is a function of your perceived risk – and will depend on your personality, physical health, financial health, and biases. If are you scared of getting the virus (perhaps because you have a chronic condition, are older, or have a more anxious disposition) you are more likely to support the government forbidding travel and closing most businesses, and damaging other businesses to protect you. However, if you are not concerned (perhaps because you are young, healthy, more worried about losing your job) you are more likely to resent the willful damage to your own and others’ livelihood and be concerned about long term consequences of emergency decisions that are being made. In relation to biases, remember that many of the measures taken under special government authority to protect lives in the short-term will themselves have unquantifiable consequences on health and lives in both the short- and long-term – aggravated by the unraveling of the social safety net over the past 30 years.

Carl Jung observes, “His uncertainty forces the enthusiast to puff up his truths, of which he feels none too sure, and to win proselytes to his side in order that his followers may prove to himself the value and trustworthiness of his own convictions… Only when convincing someone else of this does he feel safe from knowing doubts.” Public policy analyst Robert Reich argues that “the theme that unites all of Trump’s [budget] initiatives so far is their unnecessary cruelty.” The culture of cruelty has become a primary register of the loss of democracy in the United States. Vast numbers of individuals are now considered disposable and are relegated to zones of social and moral abandonment. A culture of cruelty highlights both how systemic injustices are lived and experienced, and how iniquitous relations of power turn the “American dream” into a dystopian nightmare in which millions of individuals and families are struggling to merely survive. Limiting the public’s knowledge now becomes a precondition for cruelty.2

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. A little more than a year after America rebelled against political elites by electing a self-proclaimed champion of the people, Donald Trump, its government is more deeply in the pockets of lobbyists and billionaires than ever before. Interrogating a culture of cruelty offers critics a political and moral lens for thinking through the convergence of power, politics and everyday life. It also offers the promise of unveiling the way in which a nation demoralizes itself by adopting the position that it has no duty to provide safety nets for its citizens or care for their well-being, especially in a time of misfortune. There is more to introducing change than getting rid of Trump, there is a need change beliefs to eliminate this pervasive irrationality in which democracy is equated to unbridled capitalism.

1 Bruce Watson. (6/Feb/2010) Ayn Rand, Thomas Malthus, and the High Cost of Terrible Ideas https://www.aol.com/2010/02/06/ayn-rand-thomas-malthus-and-the-high-cost-of-terrible-ideas/

2 Henry A. Giroux. (22/March/2017) The Culture of Cruelty in Trump’s America https://truthout.org/articles/the-culture-of-cruelty-in-trump-s-america/

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An Analysis of Existential Threats and the COVID-19 Pandemic

This analysis critiques the early response of the economic troika – the EU, China and US – to a threat. The RAND Corporation’s Center for Global Risk and Security in the early 2000s ranked threats as existential, serious and nuisance. Terrorism was in the nuisance category – killing fewer Americans than lightning – and the only threat in the existential category was pandemics. The National Intelligence Council (NIC), warned in the 2004 version of Global Trends, looking out two decades to 2020, “… it is only a matter of time before a new pandemic appears …”1 Services are crucial to the EU economy – they account for around 70% of all economic activity in the EU and a similar proportion of its employment. In the US consumer spending comprises 70% of GDP. Historically, China was one of the world’s foremost economic powers for most of the two millennia from the 1st until the 19th century. COVID-19 threatens EU solidarity, to halt China economic expansion, and to plunge the US into unemployment at Depression levels.

The initial response of the troika to the coronavirus has been far from spectacular. China is the world’s largest manufacturing economy and exporter of goods, and the world’s fastest-growing consumer market and second-largest importer of goods – initially put secrecy and order ahead of confronting the virus. The EU, 22% of world economy, consists of an internal market of mixed economies based on free market and advanced social models. For instance, it includes an internal single market with free movement of goods, services, capital, and labor. Italy, whose leaders spent considerable time debating whether social isolation was a western value, while considering the restriction of movement of people as discrimination, became the epicenter of infection in Europe. The Trump administration’s response was slow and muddled. The US stock market has never before responded so dramatically to an outbreak of disease and the public-health policy response, together with the interconnectedness of the modern global economy.

Europe had been immolated, but the ashes left by war created the space to imagine a new world: Sartre and Camus gave voice to the mood of the day. Readers looked to Sartre and Camus to articulate what that new world might look like. It came in the form of existentialism. Sartre, Camus and their intellectual companions rejected religion, staged new and unnerving plays, challenged readers to live authentically, and wrote about the absurdity of the world – a world without purpose and without value. ‘[There are] only stones, flesh, stars, and those truths the hand can touch,’ Camus wrote. We must choose to live in this world and to project our own meaning and value onto it in order to make sense of it. This means that people are free and burdened by it, since with freedom there is a terrible, even debilitating, responsibility to live and act authentically.

Jean-Paul Sartre believed that human beings live in constant anguish, not solely because life is miserable, but because we are ‘condemned to be free’. While the circumstances of our birth and upbringing are beyond our control, he reasons that once we become self-aware (and we all do eventually), we have to make choices – choices that define our very ‘essence’.  Sartre’s theory of existentialism states that “existence precedes essence”, that is, only by existing and acting a certain way do we give meaning to our lives. According to Sartre, each choice we make defines us while at the same time revealing to us what we think a human being should be. Sartre decried the idea of living without pursuing freedom. The phenomenon of people accepting that things have to be a certain way, and subsequently refusing to acknowledge or pursue alternate options, was what he termed as “living in bad faith”.

Albert Camus argued that the only way out is to embrace the absurdity of the situation and to rise above it, even if it is only within the context of your own life. In other words, if you are going to be a person in this world, then you need to make a choice to make meaning in your own life, whatever form that takes. Camus also argued that the ability to have passion for what could otherwise be considered a meaningless life reflects an appreciation for life itself. If you can stop trying to live for the end, or the “goal,” and start living for the act of “being” itself, then your life becomes about living it fully, choosing integrity, and being passionate. According to Camus, the absurd is produced via conflict, a conflict between our expectation of a rational, just universe and the actual universe that it is quite indifferent to all of our expectations.2

COVID-19 poses an existential challenge to the European project – in the face of a pandemic that disproportionately affects some countries more than others threatens to undermine the quest for shared long-term prosperity and the future of European integration, unity, and economic cohesion. The virus has stirred memories of the financial crisis from a decade ago, that left deep social inequalities and animosities between EU states over the imposition of austerity policies – such animosities that lead to populist and nationalist gain in momentum and political strength. From a sluggish political response to the crisis to bitter internal rows about how to mitigate the economic effects of the coronavirus, member states have turned against one another, and in on themselves. This crisis presents Europe with a particular stark set of choices about its future direction.

China’s government sees human rights as an existential threat. Its reaction could pose an existential threat to the rights of people worldwide. At home, the Chinese Communist Party, worried that permitting political freedom would jeopardize its grasp on power, has constructed an Orwellian high-tech surveillance state and a sophisticated internet censorship system to monitor and suppress public criticism. The Chinese Communist Party has shown that economic growth can reinforce central power by giving it the means to enforce its rule – to spend what it takes to remain in power, from legions of security officials it employs to the censorship regime it retains and the pervasive surveillance state it constructs. Unprecedented level of surveillance was put in place in addressing the coronavirus outbreak – the political implications for China could be long-lasting. The question now is what will China do with its new forms of power and control once the threat is overcome?

When facing coronavirus, poverty is a preexisting condition hitting American poor the hardest, in part because these workers simply can’t afford to adhere to social distancing restrictions if it means going without a paycheck. Also, they are more likely to have jobs that can’t be done on a laptop, and require public contact. In addition, poor people are more likely to have preexisting health risks such as diabetes, asthma or obesity. Income inequality in the US has exacerbated the healthcare crisis, will contribute to the eventual economic and financial crises, and has resulted in a situation where society is now counting on many of the poorest people to continue to risk their health in order to ensure supply lines continue to function, all while being more likely to be hurt by the pandemic. Now only does this increase the risk of social unrest, it makes handling the pandemic more difficult. Income inequality is now an existential threat to national security.

An existential crisis occurs when one recognizes that even the decision to either refrain from action or withhold assent to a particular choice is, in itself, a choice. An existential threat, put simply, is a threat to society – a veritable threat to existence does not have to be present for someone to experience a sense of existential threat. Right-wing misinformation is a direct and immediate threat to the American public. In US there is a dramatic increase in hate crimes (up by 15%), polarized viewpoints, and a rise in violent extremist propaganda for recruitment purposes. Given the current state, vulnerable youth, young adults, and adults are at risk of moving toward polarized ideological positions that can put them on the pathway toward radicalization and violent extremism. With most polarized societies, as the truth fades away, many are losing faith in political institutions and turning to the absurd.

The ongoing threats: In a recovery from an epidemic like COVID-19, restarting activities in private consumption is much slower than restarting investment and manufacturing. This is the first time since 1992 that the official GDP of China has contracted – threatening long-term goals for growth. Capital Economics says the disease could result in a record-breaking 15 percent quarterly drop of eurozone gross domestic product in the second quarter. The coronavirus could tear the EU apart – the biggest rifts have opened over the economic rescue package, which pitches rich countries against poorer ones. COVID-19 has refocused the U.S. election campaign – Trump and his populist supporters are attached at the hip to the GDP which has taken a hit, along with the Trump administration’s credibility on how to handle a crisis. There is an excellent chance the next US federal election will result in the removal of Trump and along with his enablers in the Senate.

1 COVID-19: We had the warning but we lacked the leadership. (5 April 2020)  https://thehill.com/opinion/white-house/490404-covid-19-we-had-the-warning-but-we-lacked-the-leadership

2 Sam Dresser. How Camus and Sartre split up over the question of how to be free. https://aeon.co/ideas/how-camus-and-sartre-split-up-over-the-question-of-how-to-be-free

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