Just about everything with the word “public” in front of it is under attack. Public education, public health, public housing, public transport, public corporations, public sphere, public libraries and so on.
We say just about everything for some things, crucially but also instructively, are to be left out from our list. Public bailout of banks, public bailout of investors, and public subsidy for high technology industry are all excluded.
If something with the word “public “in front of it is designed to serve “the public,” understood as the broad mass of the population, then it’s under attack. If it is meant as public subsidy for, and bailout of, the rich then it flourishes.
This suggests that it is the public itself that is under attack, both literally and conceptually.
The increases in inequality in the advanced industrial economies during the neoliberal era show us that the public have been under attack for the rich have gotten richer in the past 30 years by extracting resources from, and by lowering their obligations to, the wider population. This was achieved by wage restraint, lower corporate and high end taxes, lower social welfare spending, and the attack on public goods provision.
The dominant narrative on inequality is that the economic dynamism unleashed by neoliberal deregulation has, regrettably perhaps, fostered inequality alongside economic growth. Despite the recent emphasis on the issue this narrative has not changed. Focus is directed at the failure of the trickle down effect to distribute the proceeds of economic growth down to the masses.
Yet this ignores the crucial point that trend rates of economic growth during the neoliberal era are almost half of what they were during the post war Keynesian era. It is not uneven distribution of economic growth that has led to the rise in inequality.
Rather, it is the assault on the public that has led to a redistribution of resources and wealth away from the public toward the upper class in a period characterised by lower economic growth.
This assault on the public also entailed an attack on the very idea of “the public.” This offensive was facilitated by the rise to dominance of neoclassical economic theory with its view that society, to the extent that there is “such a thing” as society, is a self-organised system composed of rational utility maximising individuals. A rational society is a society that frames public policy with reference to such ideas, we are led to believe. A society of rational individuals that “forgets all but self” is a rational one, and niceties such as social justice are chimerical and irrational.
There are many things that we may say about this, but it is useful to focus on three aspects. Namely, how did democratic societies attack their own population? What does this tell us about the role of the state in neoliberal practice? How much intellectual worth does the neoliberal system of ideas have that assaults the very concept of “the public?”
Public discourse by now is dominated by the dismal science. We can see this by observing how economists, especially financial market economists, have enjoyed a privileged role in public debate. Yet the story of the past 30 years is as much a political story as it is an economic story. The shift to free markets in the neoliberal era had to be facilitated through political action; without Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher there is “no such thing” as neoliberalism bar words on paper.
Neoliberal ideas could be used to attack the public only because democracy itself came under attack. Aristotle, who possessed one of history’s keenest pair of eyes, observed that a democratic society could only function in a society characterised by economic equality.
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