The Politics of Meaning as a Challenge to Neocapitalism

By Sullivan, William M. | Tikkun, May 1996 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Meaning as a Challenge to Neocapitalism


Sullivan, William M., Tikkun


We may be at the beginning of a sea-change in American politics, a moment of serious challenge to the twenty-year-long ascendancy of the neocapitalist creed that the market should determine both the worth and the destiny of persons and communities. As E.J. Dionne and others are suggesting, this could be a turning point analogous to the great shift a century ago from the brutal laissez-faire of the Gilded Age to the reforming era of Progressivism. Certainly, strong currents of outrage are swelling against what many perceive as the amoral destructiveness of uncontrolled market forces gone global.

Controversy over the morality and meaning of economic life has begun to figure more prominently in politics. Such a change in the public agenda offers new possibilities for advocates of a more humane form of politics such as the politics of meaning. But to respond effectively to this possibility will require trying to grasp the uncertainties of the present situation as well as its opportunities.

For the first time in more than a century, capitalism as an economic system is no longer under threat from forces mobilized to destroy it. A new global regime of finance and industry is emerging, less tied to national states and far less regulated by non-market institutions than the economic order of the postwar decades. Unregulated international financial markets and multinational corporations literally have the labor and resources of the world at their disposal. Spurred by a revived confidence in laissez-faire, the worldwide growth record of this neocapitalist system has been quite impressive. But the human cost of this economic order is often devastating: It generates wealth through increasingly brutal competition, producing a growing polarization between winners and losers, within as well as among nations. The social and political consequences for the future are likely to be ominous. Perhaps that is why so much apparent success elicits so few cheers.

Recently, political tremors have begun to warn that all is not well with this neocapitalist global order. Consider some of the events of the past the winter. In France, public supported the demands of striking transportation workers, despite paralyzing disruptions of everyday life, apparently believing that they too would face job loss if the conservative government's plans for national economic efficiency were carried out. In Switzerland, the yearly Davos Economic Forum, normally an exponent of global enterprise, featured Russia's resurgent Communist leader, Gennade Zyuganov, who warned of a coming backlash against globalization. In Britain, Tony Blair's revitalized Labor Party was poised to take power under the slogan of "One Nation' economic policies, explicitly rejecting the social polarization which has attended the Thatcherite program of neocapitalism.

These currents have recently burst upon the political scene in the United States as well. Pat Buchanan's right-wing populist run for the White House has opened to question free trade and corporate dominance of the economy, both central tenets of neocapitalist belief. And to the obvious chagrin of much of the American political class, these rhetorical forays strike a lively cord among many voters. The bitter experiences of job loss and economic insecurity are producing anger among the middle class at being treated as mere means to the profits of others.

So far, however, responses to these developments have lacked coherence. Clearly caught unprepared by the Buchanan version of economic nationalism with a populist tilt, the G.O.P. establishment is aghast, the national press sputters in incredulity, and rival candidates have been casting about for something cogent to say in defense of the status quo. Yet even corporate leadership is becoming defensive, sensing perhaps a change of national mood. The president of Chrysler Motors recently lamented the "ongoing demonization of corporate America by some of our most prominent politicians and news organizations. …

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