The Bad Ending of a Good Idea

image for neoliberalismSometimes ideas born out of an apparently sensible necessity evolve into something diabolically inevitable. On the other hand, the history of the formation of ideas is, or could be, what frees the mind from a blind search for explanations. For the alternative is to (dis)-content ourselves with effects without knowing their causes, other than attributing the faults of the system, for example, to the greed and covetousness of man. Which is as much as saying that a great cause of the night is lack of the sun (1) – or the equivalent of when medicine, unable to explain an illness or disease, says it is ‘genetic.’

We call the current prevailing, dominating and domineering ideology ‘neo-liberal’ or ‘neo-liberalism’, where ‘neo’ stands for, or implies, that it is something new. If there were no limits to the length of words, a more appropriate label could be ‘I-told-you-so-liberalism.’ In as much as liberalism is an ideology whose eventual outcome was imprinted in the nature, the hows and the whys of its beginning.

A beginning that we can place in the second half of the 17th century in England, when a new merchant class began to acquire power and claimed political and social recognition. Though the term ‘liberalism,’ in a political sense, first appeared in England only in 1815.

In Europe, a merchant class or classes had already a history of over 300 years – notably, for example, in Italy, with her city-states and independent republics. Venice, Genoa, Pisa were actually proper “Sea Republics” and had extensive commercial relationships and branches all across the Mediterranean, the Black Sea and throughout Europe. Florence had a large trade volume, especially of wool, with England.

In general, the Italian merchant class had acquired recognition by osmosis. Or we could say, even more simply, “money talks.” And tempering the potential noble-versus-merchant clash of classes, was the strong influence of the Church. The Church, says Machiavelli, prevented the accumulation of power that, in the rest of Europe, produced the modern states. In fact Italy became a nation only in 1861.

This politically fragmented Italy was divided into many domains large and small, in continuous competition among each other. Therefore architects, sculptors, painters, poets, writers and musicians were employed as instruments to satisfy the desire for auto-celebration by their various masters, and as expressions of the masters’ power. They wanted all records of their civility to be beautiful. There is, in one sentence, the essence of the Renaissance and its art.

The French did something similar in the succeeding centuries – displaying the social disposition, and lively graces that, in every age, have disguised their vices, and sometimes concealed their intrinsic merit. Which also explains – according to one mischievous historian – a palpable sense of inferiority by the Americans towards the French.

Quintessential example of the Italian emerging commercial class was the 14th century merchant Francesco Datini, of whom we have the original records of his intense and often amusing correspondence. Correspondence with his wife who lived in their house in Prato, while Francesco was attending to his business in Florence, only 15 miles away – but outside the range of Medieval daily commuting.

Grown wealthy with his business, Francesco made sure that, at his death, most of his wealth would be distributed to the poor, along with precise instructions on how many Masses and prayers should be said on his behalf, to ensure the forgiveness of his sins and his soul’s smooth passage to a decent after-life.

England and Italy had other significant differences. England developed or consolidated a national spirit by the end of the War of the Roses, the 100-year war. Besides, England’s feudal class structure had stronger and more ancient roots. Italy had equally a feudal structure, but the national sense – for simplicity – was weaker or non existent. Trade, financing and manufacture were the hallmarks of the city-states. The Medicis, rulers of Florence, were a family of bankers.

The Jews, those who had moved to Italy after their expulsion from Spain in 1482, were confined to their compounds (‘ghetto’ is the name given by Venice to the Jewish quarter). But they were alternatively allowed or removed from cities, according to the political whims or needs of the respective ruling families or oligarchies. The Medicis are a good example. At times, they allowed the Jews in Florence as moneylenders, depending on circumstances that are outside the scope of this article.

In England the Protestant Reformation had already shaken the foundations of the social system. And the new emerging and increasingly wealthy merchants aspired to political power.

The official reason for the English Revolution, whose first act ended with the execution of King Charles I in 1649, was religious. Namely the fear that Charles, having married a Catholic Princess, Henrietta of France, would return England to Catholicism.

Less remembered is that England had expelled the Jews 400 years before, under King Edward I, and they wanted to return. I will forego details here, but Dutch Jewish bankers financed Oliver Cromwell, who produced the head of King Charles in return, along with the readmission of Jews into England.

Had Shakespeare waited another hundred years before being born, his merchant would have lived in London, not Venice.

After Cromwell there followed an English restoration, uncannily similar to the restoration in France after Waterloo in 1815. Napoleon had also emancipated the Jews.

In France the monarchical restoration led eventually to a republic after yet another bloody insurrection in 1848. Those interested may view the video I produced on France after Napoleon (

In England the restoration equally led to another revolution (in 1688) called ‘Glorious’ because it was relatively bloodless. But England did not become a republic. A new king, William of Orange arrived from Holland (perhaps a coincidence), along with 14,000 troops. And through a unique convention William and his wife Mary were declared joint monarchs of England, while the Parliament adopted the famous Bill of Rights.

The Bill of Rights can be considered as the official instrument with which the British commercial class acquired the liberal power it had been seeking. And also the beginning of the twists, turns and/or aberrations whose consequences we witness today.

Incidentally – perhaps a random correlation – the right to political power acquired by the merchant class coincided with the enclosures of public and common land – that is, land taken out of collective ownership and management, and handed over to individuals.

Today we call it ‘privatization.’ Currently 40,000 land millionaires own half of British land. Yet today the name of various parks in English towns, are still called ‘Commons,’ a historical and lexical reminiscence of pre-Cromwell times.

Returning to the subject, the term “liberalism,” when introduced in the language in 1815, described a process that had already occurred. In fact from the 1700 to today, there is probably no classic author who could not be considered ‘liberal’. For ‘liberal’ is/was essentially another name for ‘modernity’. And though many ‘liberal’ authors had drastically different ideas, they shared in common the rejection of the social models of the ‘ancien regime,’ especially the distinction at birth between ‘nobles’ and all others.

In turn, this assimilation of meanings (liberalism = modernity) masks or suggests the idea that everything which occurred during the last 300 years was the only possible development path for the ‘liberal’ idea. Ignoring or overlooking that something essential in the original concept of ‘liberalism,’ the philosophical son of the Bill of Rights, had been gradually eroding.

Hobbes, Locke, Hume and Adam Smith are the most famous authors associated with classical liberalism. With their revolutionary ideas they moved liberalism in a direction that would have immense influence on the following historic developments, including today, namely the concept of ‘negative’ liberty.

We do not routinely associate ‘liberty’ with ‘negativity.’ But ‘negative liberty’ represents a reversal of the idea of liberty as developed by the Greeks, the fathers of Western Civilization. Who saw liberty embodied in the citizens’ direct participation in the political affairs of the city they lived in. In fact, the term ‘civilization’ derives from ‘civitas’ referring to the shared rights and expectations of the citizens of a city-state, the Greek ‘polis.’

In other words, according to the ancient view, a citizen is free (liber) because he belongs to the class of the ‘free.’ He has the right to speak, to participate and to give his contribution to the ‘city’ he is the citizen of. The terms ‘republican’ or ‘positive liberty’ also refer to this interpretation of liberty.

The concept of ‘negative’ liberty is, congruently, the opposite of the original classical concept. In this new meaning, man is defined as free (liber) simply and only if there is nothing that interferes with what he wants to do.

That is, the ‘realm’ of liberty refers exclusively to the individual, without concern about anything and anybody else. This is Hobbes’ conception of freedom, devoid of any philosophical, ethical, spiritual meaning or implications. I am free if my body can move without opposition. Where the ‘body’ can be anyone’s, man or even animal.

The new ‘negative’ liberty is also associated with other notions, for example property. Society is envisioned as an immense stock exchange or market-square for the exchange of property, goods and services.

Adam Smith described this social structure as an ‘asocial society’. Which was perhaps what Ms. Thatcher meant when she famously said that “There is no such thing as society” – maybe unaware of the historical developments leading to her uttered monstrosity.

In other words, men exist only to exchange things so as to obtain personal benefits. And the only reason for social interactions is individual profit. Language, for example, which belongs to all but to no one in particular, is a resource that does not fit into the model of ‘negative’ liberty.

In summary, negative liberty, property, and society as an organ of exchange for personal profit are the cardinal characteristics of classical liberalism. Later, in the second half of the 1800, the new classical liberalistic philosophy became an unchallengeable scientific theory and a principle of operation. Modern capitalistic economy is the expression, the embodiment and the application of the theory, while liberalism and capitalism are two faces of the same coin

That such theory and mode of thought would bring about a gradual debasement of the actual reasons for living was not even considered. Yet negative liberty progressively affects individuals and society through the erosion of emotions and the gradual dismantling of rules and sentiments that centuries of usage had imprinted into the Western collective consciousness.

In this development of liberalism, if something has value it does so because it belongs to someone – it has no external universal significance, it is exclusively what is or could be of benefit to the individual.

By combining the subjectivism of value and the negativity of liberty, the result is a thesis or mode of thought critical for the following phases of evolving liberalism. Meaning that the economic theory needs not to co-exist or be subordinated to any ethical theory.

To compare, pre-liberal history, namely the Middle Ages, assumed that the economy is subordinate to a more general concept, perhaps a vision, encompassing both society and ethics. Whereas within the negative-liberty theory all that counts is how individuals relate to one another during and only at the moment of a purchase-sale episode of exchange. No external clause or consideration should interfere with the exchange. For admitting such a clause adds an unwanted element of objectivity to the subjectivity of value.

For example, a few years ago and not far from where I live, a well-off gentleman, having reached the decent advanced age of 80 decided to sell to a developer one of his properties, inside the city, populated by about 2,000 old fir trees. The city, by law, could not buy it, the neighborhood could not make an offer that matched the developers’ and down went the old growth trees. His decision to sell to a developer reflects both the negative-liberty of Hobbes and the associated subjectivity of values.

Nevertheless, if the concepts of negative liberty and subjectivity of value were totally and universally applied our world would have since long collapsed. It hasn’t because the residual ethical notions absorbed through the ages offer a kind of resistance – while simultaneously allowing negative-liberty based liberalism to continue its process of erosion.

A theory in which the economic domain were totally autonomous and independent of the political and ethical realm proposes a vision of society in which the entire system of human relations is conceived as an auto-regulating market – a spontaneous system that generates within itself temporary rules, which disappear after the individual transactions are completed.

It is a system, nevertheless, bound to collapse on itself. Let’s consider the classic example of the ‘free rider’ – someone who rides on the bus without paying for the ticket. He uses the contingency that others pay for the ticket to extract a personal advantage from their respect of the rules.

If all did the same, the transport system would not exist. But if only the free rider does not pay and all others do, then his success represents negative liberty at work.

Which is the result obtained and predicted from the theory of the “homo economicus.” The economic man will always try to exempt himself from following the common rules, to create favorable personal conditions.

Sociologists have studied extensively the ‘free rider’ principle. The model foreseen by this liberal theory – applied by subjects devoid of universal values, who exist only for themselves, and whose liberty is exclusively ‘negative” – this model leads, more or less quickly, to a collapse.

Yet, the liberal model became predominant not because of particularly brilliant theoretical virtues. Its political or philosophical origin is (as per above), the famous Bill or Rights, established in England on the occasion of the ‘Glorious’ revolution. The Bill includes, exalts and emphasizes what are called ‘natural individual rights’.

As controversial as it might seem, ‘natural individual rights’ are demonstrably un-demonstrable – to quote philosopher Andrea Zhok. For, according to this concept, an individual, even if he were born on a desert island and never met with anyone else in his life, he would still possess the same ‘natural individual rights.’

Which means that, in and of themselves, natural rights are a juridical fiction. Though at its inception, it was crucial in promoting the liberal theory, and in bypassing the legitimists’ reasons – those that allowed only the members or heirs of the nobility to attain positions of political power.

How was it possible to erase an established millenarian system based on traditional hereditary and exclusivist rights? The Bill of Right is/was also a remarkable example of ‘lateral thinking.’ The rights of man do not derive from the king but simply by the fact that man is born. You, the nobility, can retain your titles and traditions, but the others, the non-noble (note the original etymology of the term ‘ig-noble’), can have access to political power.

In this respect, the Bill od Rights is/was revolutionary because it reflected the changes in the society of 17th century England. Furthermore, the Bill of Rights prepared or provided the juridical foundation for the Industrial Revolution that would flourish in the next century.

In summary, liberalism was born as a revolutionary idea to challenge the preceding model of society, the ancient regime. Its beginning was the golden age of liberalism, when the ‘rule of law’ took over from the rule of the king.

But….. starting from the second half of the 1800, some of the principles of liberalism, which were built in its foundations, began to show fractures.

The effects of the fractures appeared in what we can call the two globalizations. The first globalization transformed itself into imperialism at the end of the 1800 and led to the First World War. The second globalization began at the end of the 1960s with the abandonment of the Bretton-Wood system of monetary management established at the end of WW2.

The first globalization was based or ‘managed’ by England, thanks to her empire and the control of the sea routes. The second globalization is different, but the internal dynamics of capital and the social and sociological reasons are very similar.

The globalized neo-liberal systems constantly need to outgrow themselves so as to infinitely expand. For the overall and overwhelming characteristic of the liberal, and now neo-liberal system is the total lack of limits.

Indeed, if there is a ‘spiritual’ idea that informs the utterly materialistic neo-liberal system is that no limits exist and that nothing must have a limit. And limitlessness is not only part of the ideological apparatus. Even the idea of progress, transgression and elimination of rules, are applications of a neo-liberal model, in which freedom is simply the opening of opportunities. Even though, simultaneously, neo-liberalism has no other goals than the immediate consummation of profitable transactions.

Liberalism is philosophically at odd with the preceding world-view not only in terms of who has rights to political power. The older world-view aimed at the realization of a good and balanced society, with the end goal of establishing some kind of kingdom of God on earth. A model implying that there is an objective universal ‘good’ to be aimed at.

In the liberal mode of thought, the concept of a ‘good society’ is alien. The subscriber and practitioner of neo-liberalism must constantly grow to acquire power, so that with more power he can still acquire more. Capital must engage into a productive cycle so as to increase itself at the end of the cycle. Why? So that in the next productive cycle, capital will grow once more.

Lack of limits is the essence of the neo-liberal system. In our world, inhabited by living organisms, a world that depends on the delicate equilibrium of its varied many components, the system is inevitably destructive.

Nor limitlessness is confined to capital. The Epsteins, Weinsteins, Clintons, Bushes, Trumps and Bidens of this world are the platitudinal but equivalent expression of neo-liberalism in the realm of personal and political life. Corruption or sexual aberrations are nothing new. What is new is the practitioners’ remarkable lack of concern about concealing their exploits. For even raping a minor is a negative-liberty transaction that ends when completed, with no further implications.

In Epstein’s mansion in New York there is (was?) a large painting featuring a laughing Clinton clad in the blue gown of Monica Lewinski. And for those who question Biden’s addition to the list… he had the Chief Justice of Ukraine fired for wanting to investigate the suspicious reasons for Biden’s son’s cushy job with a Ukrainian company, in Kiev. A job consisting of doing nothing, followed by long periods of rest.

The new neo-liberal power is flexible. It must liberalize everything from sex to drug use and, above all, it must demolish all authority from paternal to religious. Even professional merit is not exempted. We can ascribe to the liberalization of professional merit, the embarrassing, confusing, tragic, conflicting and self-contradicting arguments among professionals about the Coronavirus phenomenon. For any merit must make way for the only legitimate authority, the authority of the market, which is not concerned with race or language, nor limited by religion or ethics.

It is an authority with astounding powers of infiltration. Starting perhaps with the academics, who are the priests, the patriarchs, the pontiffs of the ideology, especially those displaying a trained conformity to the canons of effectual and conspicuous subservience – positioned to protect the interests of the negative-liberty caste. Even the current actual Catholic pontiff has adopted the metaphors of the prevailing neo liberal language.

But this should not surprise anyone. The goal of liberalism, sans-barrieres and sans-frontieres, is to remove all constraints, so as to abolish any difference between what is a marketable commodity and what isn’t.

To use a mechanical analogy, the neo-liberal turbo-capitalistic world is like a powerful engine whose growth of power is constant, but it lacks a steering wheel or a brake. It cannot, nor it has a theoretical reason to use a brake.

Still the brake is the crucial issue. The neo-liberal system could not and cannot declare that, for example, there will be no economic growth for the next, say, fifty years, so as to give the earth some time to recover.

For a respite in the capitalistic march to nowhere will never happen until the premises, the ideological foundations of the neo-liberal principle are overturned. For the axiom, the thesis, the pre-condition of the neo-liberal system is that the process of self-overtaking cannot be stopped.

To do so it would be necessary to admit and declare that there are shared values to which the economic process must be subordinated. A declaration that, even theoretically, is refused at large and it will remain so until the neo-liberal ideology will be made or forced, by events and circumstances, to explode at its base and core.

Yet such is the empire of Fortune that it is almost as difficult to foresee the events of upcoming neo-liberal developments, as it is to predict their future consequences. Who could have imagined, for example, the neo-liberal evolution from casino capitalism to the current therapeutic capitalism.

In our role of observers, each individually unable to affect the neo-liberal monster, we can only make a virtue of necessity and an art of patience. While not forgetting, to quote Kant, that happiness is not an ideal of reason, but of imagination.

Reference: (1) As You Like It

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