In my regular column in Haaretz, my new article “The History of Exploitation – and Why It Must End”
The exploitation of neoliberalism must end. We know the harms of egoism; we know how to mend it, but it requires our resolve.
When the UK voted in favor of breaking off from the European Union, the world was in shock. When Donald J. Trump stunned the media with his victory, people’s jaws dropped, but they began to realize that times are changing. When Italy’s premier, Matteo Renzi, was defeated last week in his country’s referendum and announced his resignation, the EU suffered another blow, as Renzi is a staunch supporter of Italy remaining in the crumbling union. In the coming year, France, the Netherlands, Germany, and several other European countries will all hold general elections. In many of them, France and the Netherlands in particular, the voices in favor of departing from the EU are growing by the day. As Marcus Walker and Anton Troianovski of The Wall Street Journal put it: “For Europe’s unity, 2017 will be a year of reckoning.”
Harvard Professor of Government, Yascha Mounk, is right to declare, “How stable are democracies? Warning signs are flashing red.” Fascism and Nazism are on the rise throughout the Western world, and unless we take swift and resolute action, the world will plunge into another war, and in all likelihood, with full use of nuclear weapons.
Neoliberalism Is a Painful Symptom, But It is Not the Illness
When you see how the dominant countries in the EU exploit and impoverish the smaller and weaker economies of their fellow members, or the clout that Wall Street has in Washington, it is easy to blame neoliberalism for our ills. It is also justified, to an extent. There is a good reason why members of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Research Dept., Jonathan D. Ostry, Prakash Loungani, and Davide Furceri wrote about the harms of neoliberalism: “The increase in inequality engendered by financial openness might itself undercut growth, the very thing that the neoliberal agenda is intent on boosting.” Farther down, they add, “policies should be designed to mitigate some of the impacts [of neoliberalism]—for instance, through increased spending on education and training.”
However, saying that neoliberalism is “the ideology at the root of all our problems,” as did columnist George Monbiot, is misleading because neoliberalism is a symptom, not the illness in and of itself. To cure ourselves from fascism, neoliberalism, Nazism, and all the other “isms” threatening to take down civilization, we must reach their common root—the pathogen that causes us to exploit and possibly destroy each other—and cure it.
The Oddity of Human Nature
Without humans, life on planet Earth would run far more smoothly. Even in areas that humans have polluted with nuclear radiation, animals thrive simply due to the absence of people. In the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, “nature flourishes when humans are removed from the equation, even after the world’s worst nuclear accident,” says Jim Smith, an environmental scientist and author of a new study of life near Chernobyl.
The harmony of nature is disturbed when humans are around because we are driven by a single wish—to receive as much pleasure as we can and for the least effort. Moreover, over the generations, this aspiration has evolved in us to such an extent that we are ruining our planet, and ruining each other.
In prehistoric times, our desire for pleasure was very natural and primitive. We were satisfied when we had food, shelter, and could raise our offspring. Even then, some wanted more than others, such as a bigger cave or more (human) females, but it was a natural desire that animals have as well, and did not disrupt nature’s balance.
The problem is that unlike animals, in us the desire to receive consistently intensifies and develops. Our sages said (Midrash Rabah, Kohelet), “One does not leave the world with half one’s wish in one’s hand.” In other words, the more we have, the more we want.
As their desires grew, people began to congregate in villages and towns. Soon, social classes appeared and people began to enslave one another. Submitting to slavery was a good way for people to secure their daily bread, but in return they gave away their freedom and risked subjugation to cruelty and exploitation. At that point in our history, when we began to subjugate our fellow human beings, our natural wish for a good and secure life became egoism—the desire not only to enjoy what we have, but also to take pleasure in superiority over others and the ability to harm them.
Our egos drove us to improve technology and production, not just for our own sake, but in order to overpower others. As we became less social and more exploitative, the slave masters began to realize that it was less profitable to keep slaves than to tax them. This marked the beginning of feudalism.
Yet, as technology continued to advance, it became clear that people needed training in order to be efficient at producing wealth for the feudal lords. To accommodate the need for workers’ proficiency, the rulers built schools, which were essentially factories for creating factory workers. The educated workers produced so much wealth for their masters that feudalism was completely abandoned and, with the help of the Industrial Revolution, capitalism emerged.
For awhile, it really seemed like the ideal socio-economic structure. Most people worked, became better-off over time, and even though the elite still ruled and grew richer and more powerful than everyone else, the growing middle class enjoyed freedom and could afford pleasures that even the mightiest kings could not enjoy a mere century earlier.
And yet, that oddity of human nature—our egoism— kept growing. The more capitalists gained wealth, the more they turned it into power and political clout. Today, a politician cannot get elected without the help of the super wealthy.
To secure their power, the financial elite has instated a policy of laissez-faire, which does away with regulation and allows them to do whatever they want, whenever they want it. They even found a positive-sounding name for it: neoliberalism.
However, there is nothing liberal about neoliberalism, much less humane. As Manuela Cadelli, President of the Magistrates’ Union of Belgium, wrote in a piece she published in the online magazine, Defend Democracy Press: “Neoliberalism is a species of fascism. The state is now at the disposal of the economy and of finance, which treat it as a subordinate and lord over it to an extent that puts the common good in jeopardy.”
As the recent political developments have shown, Mrs. Cadelli is absolutely right. If we do not act fast, the overblown egoism of the elite will drive them toward nationalism and fascism, and finally their incessant craving for domination will drive the world to war.
Ending Exploitation Peacefully
We already said that we cannot arrest the evolution of the ego. Also, we can already see what will unfold if we continue to let it grow unchecked. Therefore, to cure the ills that litter the surface of society the way plastic litters our beaches, we need to learn how to funnel our egos in positive directions. Until now, we have only been dealing with the symptoms of the evolution of our egos. Now we must work with our egos themselves, and redirect their evolution from the current anti-social mode to one that is beneficial to society, yet supports the fulfillment of our desires. Any other way will only result in suppression of the ego, which will later burst with horrific results.
I mentioned earlier that the IMF researchers recommended “increased spending on education and training.” The problem is that when we think of education, we think of learning new trades and accumulating information. These may be useful and required, but they do not mitigate the ego’s desire for control or redirect it toward pro-social ends. Therefore, they do not solve the problem at its root. The solution to our social problems will come when we achieve two goals: 1) educate ourselves about the need for, and benefits of, pro-social behavior, 2) train ourselves toward developing communities that foster positive relations among their members.
Since nature did not endow us with an ego that is naturally balanced, we must “produce” this balance by ourselves. By doing so, we will learn how nature operates and will be able to operate as harmoniously and peacefully as nature. In a recent column titled, “New Economics Is Dead; Long Live New Economics,” as well as in several books, in particular, Bail Yourself Out and Self-Interest vs. Altruism in the Global Era, I detailed how we can achieve this balance. Here I would like to point out some of the benefits that we will reap once we achieve it.
Using the training described in the column I just mentioned, instead of suppressing our egos, we will find new and meaningful ways of expressing ourselves, from which the whole of society will benefit. Our desire to realize our potential will continue to develop, but it will no longer threaten society or induce fierce competition over limited spots at the top.
In the new society, exploitation will be obsolete because it will not serve our interests. Our self-interest and the interest of society will converge because society will support us as much as we will support society.
In such a society, where mutual responsibility is the name of the game, our various needs will be met in full because they will not come at the expense of others. The entire mode and spirit of our actions will be toward connection rather than isolation, so we will naturally engage in activities that contribute to society, as well as to ourselves.
We are at a point in time where the history of exploitation must end, and it must end here. Now we know the harms of human egoism, yet we also have a way to mend it. All we need is firm resolve and prompt action.