Why neoliberal capitalism and the common good are incompatible
If the response to coronavirus has accomplished anything, it is reminding us of the basic principle of our society. I say "principle," which is singular, because there is really only one. It is not "all men and women created by you know, the thing," which has as much to do with our way of life as the Code of Hammurabi, but money. The rest — who controls the White House and Congress, elections and associated partisan theatrics — is all epiphenomenal.
This may sound trite. It could certainly be interpreted that way. But it is true. We do not in fact live in a society in which persons exchange goods and services as they inevitably must, but in an economy, one in which (out of habit or perhaps boredom) we perform certain rituals once associated with man's destiny as political animal. We do not live under the authority of a sovereign state, oriented toward the common good. The government of the United States, if we can grant discrete existence to such a far-flung assemblage of competing abstractions, resembles nothing so much as the old British colonial enterprises: an ad-hoc armed body chartered for the facilitation of commerce.
Hence our inability even in the face of a disease which authorities say might infect half the planet to stop thinking about the stock market. It is why the president has announced that we will invest $8 billion in public health and $50 billion in loans to businesses. (It is also why his opponents are cheering as the indexes fall.) One would like to imagine that this is possible only because none of these people really believes that the danger is as great as the medical experts claim. But I somehow doubt this. It seems to me more likely that we are worrying about what, after a third of us contract the plague, it will cost to purchase a share in the company that transmits old television programs to our computer screens because this is more essential to our basic social organization than our rights to live and to enjoy bodily integrity, food, clothing, housing, the provision of medical care, leisure, and so on. We have replaced all of these things, which might once have appeared under the heading of the common good, with money.
Not money, mind you, in the ordinary workaday sense in which most people think of it, but money as a free-floating abstraction — numbers going up on a screen or rather a multitude of screens, huge sweeping increases and decreases in a void, utterly or at best only loosely connected with such questions as whether there are resources sufficient to house and feed and employ the world's billions. This is not to suggest that vast fluctuations in the prices of stock have no practical consequences. They have, and they are all too familiar to anyone who remembers 2008. In human affairs as in plumbing, those things of which we would rid ourselves run downward. But only one of these is unavoidable. There is no serious earthly reason why, in a country in which so much wealth has been accumulated for so long, the well-being of any person ought meaningfully to have been affected by such changes. And yet we insist that they must be, that "recessions" must mean the immiseration of hundreds of millions.
Why is this? I would like to suggest it is because in the present order of things it could not be otherwise. The way we live now could be described using any number of well-worn phrases — neoliberal, democratic-capitalist, post-Fordist, globalist — but I think it is best to refer to ours simply as an arithmetical civilization. (Its emblem is the spreadsheet, in the same sense that the column or the Gothic arch have been emblems of previous civilizations.) Our arithmetic tells us that because the price of an infinitesimal portion of this or that technology concern decreases by a fraction — it is not lower than it was five years ago, but it has gone down — workers must be deprived of their wages and the circumstances of millions of households straitened. It is not simply that those who have authority over us are unimaginative and cannot interpret the figures otherwise. They cannot be interpreted otherwise. The only way to change the response would be to discard the figures.
There are a number of other conclusions that could be drawn here. One is that, so far from being the unguessed answer to the unposed riddle of the end of our arithmetical civilization, the virus is the proof of its hideous but internally consistent logic. The perfect form of an arithmetical society is one in which millions of persons sit indoors doing whatever is required of them in order to ensure that certain figures check out. This is why for so many of us (this columnist included) the recent serial inducements to "social isolation" by public health authorities have not much altered our day-to-day lives. Packages appear on our doorsteps; perhaps, if we happen to be standing near the window, we catch a glimpse of the black van and the harried courier. Where will he go after he leaves behind our box? Is he concerned about his numbers going up or down? What about his health? We do not, and cannot, know. But we do assure ourselves that it is for his safety that we remain in our homes and do our part (one hopes and prays) in making the numbers on the screen go up again.
Imagine a world in which the Dow hit zero. To what extent would our productive capability have meaningfully decreased? One is tempted to say that we would still be able to feed and clothe and shelter and tend to the illnesses of our fellow ex-bean counters. But this would be false, if only because of that too-insistent "still." We would be able to do so, certainly, but it would no longer be incidental, a mere by-product of the arithmetical imperative which it would replace.
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