Liberal Totalitarianism


May 6, 2018

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Liberal Totalitarianism

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It used to be an axiom of liberalism that freedom meant inalienable self-ownership. But liberal individualism seems to have been defeated by a totalitarianism that grew out of its own success at legitimizing the encroachment of branding and commodification into our personal space.

 

LISBON – It used to be an axiom of liberalism that freedom meant inalienable self-ownership. You were your own property. You could lease yourself to an employer for a limited period, and for a mutually agreed price, but your property rights over yourself could not be bought or sold. Over the past two centuries, this liberal individualist perspective legitimized capitalism as a “natural” system populated by free agents.

A capacity to fence off a part of one’s life, and to remain sovereign and self-driven within those boundaries, was paramount to the liberal conception of the free agent and his or her relationship with the public sphere. To exercise freedom, individuals needed a safe haven within which to develop as genuine persons before relating – and transacting – with others. Once constituted, our personhood was to be enhanced by commerce and industry – networks of collaboration across our personal havens, constructed and revised to satisfy our material and spiritual needs.1

But the dividing line between personhood and the external world upon which liberal individualism based its concepts of autonomy, self-ownership, and, ultimately, freedom could not be maintained. The first breach appeared as industrial products became passé and were replaced by brands that captured the public’s attention, admiration, and desire. Before long, branding took a radical new turn, imparting “personality” to objects.

Once brands acquired personalities (boosting consumer loyalty immensely and profits accordingly), individuals felt compelled to re-imagine themselves as brands. And today, with colleagues, employers, clients, detractors, and “friends” constantly surveying our online life, we are under incessant pressure to evolve into a bundle of activities, images, and dispositions that amounts to an attractive, sellable brand. The personal space essential to the autonomous development of an authentic self – the condition that makes inalienable self-ownership possible – is now almost gone. The habitat of liberalism is disappearing.3

That habitat’s clear demarcation of private and public spheres also divided leisure from work. One need not be a radical critic of capitalism to see that the right to a time when one is not for sale is all but gone, too.

Consider young people striking out in the world today. For the most part, those without a trust fund or generous unearned income end up in one of two categories. The many are condemned to labor under zero-hour contracts and wages so low that they must work all available hours to make ends meet, rendering offensive any talk of personal time, space, or freedom.

The rest are told that, to avoid falling into this soul-destroying “precariat,” they must invest in their own brand every waking hour of every day. As if in a Panopticon, they cannot hide from the attention of those who might give them a break (or know others who might). Before posting any tweet, watching any movie, sharing any photograph or chat message, they must remain mindful of the networks they please or alienate.

When lucky enough to be granted a job interview, and land the job, the interviewer alludes immediately to their expendability. “We want you to be true to yourself, to follow your passions, even if this means we must let you go!” they are told. So they redouble their efforts to discover “passions” that future employers may appreciate, and to locate that mythical “true” self that people in positions of power tell them is somewhere inside them.

Their quest knows no bounds and respects no limits. John Maynard Keynes once famously used the example of a beauty contest to explain the impossibility of ever knowing the “true” value of shares. Stock-market participants are uninterested in judging who the prettiest contestant is. Instead, their choice is based on a prediction of who average opinion believes is the prettiest, and what average opinion thinks average opinion is – thus ending up like cats chasing after their own tails.

Keynes’s beauty contest sheds light on the tragedy of many young people today. They try to work out what average opinion among opinion-makers believes is the most attractive of their own potential “true” selves, and simultaneously struggle to manufacture this “true” self online and offline, at work and at home – indeed, everywhere and always. Entire industries of counselors and coaches, and varied ecosystems of substances and self-help, have emerged to guide them on this quest.

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Was Plato a Liberal Totalitarian?

The irony is that liberal individualism seems to have been defeated by a totalitarianism that is neither fascist nor communist, but which grew out of its own success at legitimizing the encroachment of branding and commodification into our personal space. To defeat it, and thus rescue the liberal idea of freedom as self-ownership, may require a comprehensive reconfiguration of property rights over the increasingly digitized instruments of production, distribution, collaboration, and communication.

Would it not be a splendid paradox if, 200 years after the birth of Karl Marx, we decided that, in order to save liberalism, we must return to the idea that freedom demands the end of unfettered commodification and the socialization of property rights over capital goods?

Yanis Varoufakis, a former Finance Minister of Greece, is Professor of Economics at the University of Athens.

Looking In On The Real Paul Ryan–The Retiring Speaker of House


April 19, 2016

Looking In On The Real Paul Ryan–The Retiring Speaker of  House

he mistake about Paul Ryan, the one that both friends and foes made over the years between his Obama-era ascent and his just-announced departure from the House speakership, was to imagine him as a potential protagonist for our politics, a lead actor in the drama of conservatism, a visionary or a villain poised to put his stamp upon the era.

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Paul Ryan, Party Man

 

This Ryan-of-the-imagination existed among conservatives who portrayed his budgetary blueprints as the G.O.P.’s answer to the New Deal, among centrist deficit hawks who looked to him to hash out their pined-for grand bargain, and among liberals for whom Ryan was the most sinister of far-right operators, part fanatic and part huckster — a Lyle Lanley with “Atlas Shrugged” in his back pocket, playing everyone for suckers while he marched the country into a libertarian dystopia.

It existed among the donors who wanted him to run for President, the pundits who encouraged Mitt Romney to choose him as a running mate, the big names who pressured him into the speakership. And it existed among anti-Trump conservatives, finally, who looked to Ryan to be the Republican of principle standing athwart Trumpism yelling stop.

But the real Ryan was never suited for these roles. He was miscast as a visionary when he was fundamentally a party man — a diligent and policy-oriented champion for whatever the institutional G.O.P. appeared to want, a pilot who ultimately let the party choose the vessel’s course. And because the institutional G.O.P. during his years was like a bayou airboat with a fire in its propeller and several alligators wrestling midship, an unhappy end for his career was all-but-foreordained.

This is not to say that he lacked principles. The frequent descriptions of Ryan as a Jack Kemp acolyte — a supply-side tax cutter and entitlement reformer and free trader who imagined a more immigrant-welcoming and minority-friendly G.O.P. — were accurate enough; there was no question that the more a policy reflected Ryan’s deepest preferences, the more Kempist it would be.

But even there, he came to those principles at a time when they were ascendant within the party — in the period between the supply-side ’80s and the late-1990s window when centrist liberals seemed open to entitlement reform. And then as Republicans moved away from them, tacking now more compassionate-conservative, now more libertarian, now more Trumpist, his resistance to the drift was always gentle, eclipsed by his willingness to turn.

Image result for Jack Kemp anJack Kemp

Thus the Ryan of the George W. Bush era cast votes for the pillars of compassionate conservatism, No Child Left Behind and Medicare Part D. Then the Ryan of the Tea Party era championed austerity, talking about “makers and takers” and tossing out the Ayn Rand references that persuaded many liberals that he was an ideological fanatic. But that Ryan gave way to Ryan the dutiful running mate, which gave way in turn to the more moderate Ryan of Obama’s second term, who negotiated a budget deal with Democrats and moved toward so-called “reform conservatism” in his policy proposals at a time when that seemed like that might be the party’s future.

Then came the 2016 election, in which Ryan temporarily resisted Trump and then surrendered lest he break the party (which a party man could never do), and after that the Trump administration, in which Ryan has obviously steered Trump toward standard Republican policies — but has just as obviously been steered as well. Most of Ryan’s past big-picture goals (entitlement reform, free trade, minority outreach) are compromised or gone, and while he attempted Obamacare repeal and achieved a butchered version of corporate tax reform, he’s accepted spending policies that make a mockery of any sort of libertarian or limited-government goal.

Image result for Jack Kemp anJack Kemp

If you look at all this and see an obsessive ideologue working tirelessly for Randian ends, I think you’re being daft. But it’s equally daft to see this as the story of a great visionary brought low by Trump. The truth is that Ryan probably could have thrived as a legislator in a variety of dispensations: As a Reaganite if he’d been born early enough; as a Kempian or compassionate conservative if the late-1990s boom had continued; as a bipartisan dealmaker in a world where his base supported compromises (the blueprints he drew up with Democrats like Ron Wyden were usually interesting); as some sort of reform-conservative-inflected figure under a President Rubio or Kasich.

But in a dispensation where the G.O.P. was leaderless, rudderless, yawing between libertarian and populist extremes, he was never the kind of figure who could impose a vision on the party — nor would he would break with the party when it seemed to go insane.

Instead, he only knew how to work within the system, which because the system had turned into a madhouse meant that his career could only end where it ended this past week: in a record of failure on policy and principle that he chose for himself, believing — as party men always do — that there wasn’t any choice.

Nicholas Kristof is off today.

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A version of this article appears in print on , on Page SR11 of the New York edition with the headline: Paul Ryan, Party Man. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe