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neo-liberalism as american martyrdom

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Meme-expansion alert:

There’s long been a line of argument against the USA adopting a “socialized” medical system that goes something like this. “Sure, Canada and the Europeans have their cheap and equal systems. But the only way they can have those systems is because they freeload on the back of us, the unequal Americans. For instance, because we don’t have a single-payer system that forces the prices of newly developed prescription drugs down, the pharmaceutical companies have real incentives to develop new drugs. The NHSes of the world then purchase those drugs at a cut rate while Americans pay the true cost of their development.”

In other words, according to this line of thinking, Americans are actually the self-less martyrs of the medical world, paying ridiculous sums for treatment so that Brits and Canadians and Scandinavians can ride free. Were we to develop a single-payer system, the pharmaceutical industry would simply stop trying so hard to develop life-changing and life-saving drugs.

I’ve just found evidence in Ross Douthat’s column today in the New York Times that this meme is expanding its borders, moving from medical services to the global economy as a whole. Here’s the relevant passage:

The European model of social democracy has its virtues, but it has always depended on the wealth created by American laissez-faire. As a recent economic paper entitled “Can’t We All Be More Like Scandinavians?” points out, it’s easier for smaller countries to afford a more “cuddly” form of capitalism if big countries like the United States are driving global economic growth. And the price of a permanently larger government — in growth lost, private-sector jobs left uncreated, breakthroughs forgone — is much higher for a country of our size and influence than it is for a Sweden or a France.

Beyond the truthfulness and accuracy of the claims – which I’m sure is a mixed and complex matter – I am taken with what a strange argument it is when it comes, as Douthat is implicitly doing here, to using it to try to influence policy decisions / voting choices. Basically, it suggests that Americans, living inside a rapacious economic and political system fuelled by greed and inequality, are in effect trapped in a perverse and permanent mode of self-sacrifice, forced to accept their unhappy system so that (or almost “so that”) others might live better lives.

It’s neo-liberalism rebranded as a form of martyrdom, a bounded match of “survival of the fittest” that serves the corpses of the victims as free barbecue to the bystanders at the end of the game. Or, from another angle, it is the most passive-aggressive version of “combined and uneven development” imaginable. Strange.

Written by adswithoutproducts

November 4, 2012 at 12:51 pm

9 Responses

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  1. It’s a novel point. Not one that is correct, as Scandinavian nations have some of the most innovative economies and public services in the world, which includes major scientific advances in medicine. Furthermore, if larger markets like the US and Britain chose to adopt more social democratic economic models, it would be easier for all countries concerned (it is difficult for a handful of small nations to ignore the global near-consensus).

    It is, as you say, a very strange state of affairs when neo-liberalism can’t defend itself on the basis of supposed advantages, but saying that some nations have to be martyred with it for the collective good (a value which it doesn’t believe in anyway).

    The Political Idealist

    November 4, 2012 at 4:14 pm

  2. […] Two great posts from ads without products, one on neoliberalism as American martyrdom and the other on antimonies of […]

  3. No, though the blogger’s emphasis is useful and well-stated, it’s not a novel point: The sacrificial character of American popular sovereignty is a strong emphasis in the works of Paul W Kahn, for example. As for the specific argument, the alternative to neo-liberalism or more broadly to continued American political-economic pre-eminence wouldn’t be a scenario in which America simply became more Scandinavian, while everything else continued on its current path, but one in which a relatively impoverished and weakened America, having traveled further into its twilight as world-historical power, increasingly observed “from offshore” while the rest of the world re-divided into new political-economic spheres of influence. How Scandinavian Scandinavia or the rest of social democratic, would-be post-sovereign Europe could afford to remain under such circumstances is one of several open questions. As for that “rapacious economic and political system fuelled by greed and inequality,” it has always been understood by its proponents to be more dynamic, more free, more productive, and so on, than social democracy, and this argument for negative freedom is claimed among other things to be an argument from lived and re-lived experience, one whose import has been defended to the death, or, if you prefer, sacrificially. To dismiss this other side of the discussion completely – or as merely ideological – is itself merely ideological.

    CK MacLeod

    November 4, 2012 at 5:57 pm

  4. Not familiar with Kahn. This description of his book Sacred Violence, however, seems very ominous to me if he’s doing what you’re saying:

    “The terrorist attacks of 9/11, closely followed by the expose of torture in U.S. detainment camps, dampened hopes for a more peaceful world in the twenty-first century and challenged the belief that humanity was on a course of progress toward rational deliberation, the rule of law, and human rights.In “Sacred Violence”, the distinguished political and legal theorist Paul W. Kahn investigates the reasons for the resort to violence characteristic of premodern states. In a startling argument, he contends that law will never offer an adequate account of political violence. Instead, we must turn to political theology, which reveals that torture and terror are, essentially, forms of sacrifice. Kahn forces us to acknowledge what we don’t want to see: that we remain deeply committed to a violent politics beyond law. Kahn’s provocative argument and conversational style will challenge and engage theorists and lay readers alike.”

    So like a Schmittian reading of torture (and terror) that makes us out as something like Judas in Kazantzakis’s Last Temptation of Christ? Oh dear….


    November 4, 2012 at 9:59 pm

    • Don’t know about the Kazantzakian Judas, but Kahn has written extensively on Schmitt – including a booklength response to Schmitt’s POLITICAL THEOLOGY that, in short, plugs American popular sovereignty into the place of Schmitt’s more generalized concept of sovereignty. As for whether the results are ominous or not, surely the more important question for us is whether they help to explain things that are otherwise very difficult to understand. Kahn frequently seeks to remind his reader that he is not advocating an actualized political theology of the sort he describes, but merely trying to demonstrate a) why it persists, and, b), relatedly, why contemporary left-liberal politics seems to make such little progress, if any, against it. He will acknowledge, that the world might be a much better place without it, but admits doubt whether such a state of affairs is likely or achievable at all.

      CK MacLeod

      November 4, 2012 at 10:46 pm

      • Honestly, I’d have to read his stuff. Though, with all of these very good books stacked up on what they call in England my kitchen “work surface,” I doubt I’ll have the time to get to someone who “plugs” much of anything into the schemas devised by a Nazi jurist. I mean, sure, read him symptomatically – as the Nazi scum that he was. (Really was… I mean, you know the bio right?) Bush admin sympathathzers who borrow from Schmitt are just embarked upon some sort of performative non-contradiction that should have been flagged up.

        Seriously – Nazi critiques of liberalism just make me feel more liberal than I actually am.


        November 4, 2012 at 11:12 pm

      • “He will acknowledge, that the world might be a much better place without it, but admits doubt whether such a state of affairs is likely or achievable at all.”

        Yes, well, those who write off the “excesses” of Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib or any of the extraordinary renditions to the inability of “such a state of affairs” to be avoided is just rewriting Schmitt’s stuff about the Night of the Long Knives. And in doing so, doesn’t really merit our attention.


        November 4, 2012 at 11:20 pm

  5. That is to say, somebody (the USA) has to go out and (self-sacrificially) commit the hell-destining sin in order to set the world on the right path to salvation.

    And BTW, fine, ideology all the way down. But as you see, I admitted there might be some factual basis to the claims I was discussing above. I.e. I’m sure that it’s true that the UK and Canada, for instance, sometimes pay below market costs for the drugs produced by American pharma. I just think it’s a strange form for the argument about these things to take.


    November 4, 2012 at 10:04 pm

  6. The US has a history of not only socialism but predatory anticompetitive behaviour. Please see my post “Australia in the American health debacle and its links for some details about the US attitude to public health in the US and around the world; and examples of US socialism. I didn’t list at that time, the huge US-government-owned mortgage companies, or the level of public support for the farm sector (basically, 5 huge agribusinesses).

    Anna Tambour

    November 20, 2012 at 2:17 am

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