Gregory A. Daneke

Obscenity, which is ever blasphemy against the divine beauty in life, is the monster for which the corruption of society forever brings forth food, which it devours in secret _____ Percy Shelly

In one of those wonderful New Yorker cartoons, a woman, who is half horse, is on a psychiatrist’s couch, and he tells her “you have to stop blaming you parents”. Unfortunately, the economists, who gave us armies of monstrosities to rule our world, deserve all the blame we can muster. Mythology tells us that the centaurs were fierce warriors, but I doubt we would want them to run our banks or businesses. Yet, by embracing neoliberal (actually neofeudal) ideology we have willingly given free rein to the production of more monstrous hybrids. Apparently, the processes of hybridization often render strains of narcissism and sociopathy rather than valor and nobility. Noblesse oblige is pretty much gone from the world of “shareholder primacy”, and even “horse sense” is in short supply among our new feudal lords. So much wealth is so easily misappropriated these days that “cheap hoods” like are mistaken for captains of enterprise. And, when prowess is misunderstood, actual captains of enterprise are mistaken for worthy societal leaders.

Our prevailing notions of how the economy works involve fundamental misunderstandings of which human traits promote broad-based prosperity. It troubles neoliberal economists little that their system only works for the very few, as they have conjured-up myths like “trickle-down” to cover their elite asses and assets. They begin with an exceedingly narrow, hedonistic and radically self-interested individual who, nonetheless, processes mythical omnipotent rationality in their characterization of “homo-economicus” (economic person) as well as certain artificial intelligence applications (machina-economicus). Essentially, they have stamped out their perfect little cookie person and tossed all the remaining dough (i.e. all the inconvenient facts that give meaning to the human condition). They pretend to ignore power and politics, yet pander to them at every turn. Moreover, for the last five decades, they have maintained an elaborate ideological smoke screen over their contradictory edifice.

The brilliant sociologist Jane Jacobs (1906–2006) provides a unique window upon this mythological muddle. In 1992 she published a little book, with a big title Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics. It not only a powerful heuristic of how our economy has gravely distorted our social reality; it provides insight into the current divisions which plague our political processes. She uses a Socratic approach to trace the problems emerging from the intermixing of two distinct sets of traits or “syndromes”. Her “Commercial Syndrome”, conveys the set of social values which made trade and economic development possible. Meanwhile, her “Guardian Syndrome” seems better suited to our feudal past. Jacobs refocuses Ayn Rand’s “makers and takers” dichotomy, as it is the guardians that “shun trading” and merely take by force or sovereign decree, under the pretext that they are acting in the public interest.

The Commercial Syndrome

Shun force

Be competitive

Respect strangers

Honor innovation

Honor voluntary compliance

Promote initiative

Be honest and open

Be thrifty

Be forgiving

Be inclusive

Promote optimism

Seek reciprocity

Demand fairness

The Guardian Syndrome

Shun Trading

Exert power

Be tribal

Honor loyalty and obedience

Honor tradition

Promote hierarchy

Be secretive and deceptive

Be ostentatious

Be vengeful

Be exclusive

Foster fatalism

Seek exploitation

Demand privilege

For Jacobs, both syndromes are vital to the survival of society at different times and under difference circumstances. In times of war, society wants those guardians “on that wall”; however, most members would prefer that they not engineer threats and pursue prolonged military misadventures to create vast wealth for their industrial cronies, all the while bankrupting the nation. Warnings from the likes of President Eisenhower regarding the “undue influence” of the “military-industrial-complex” (a phrase he coined) went unheeded; not to mention the “oil-banking-defense axis”. Now with the rise of Surveillance Capitalism, we further fail to appreciate how algorithms contain and control us. Our lives are being red-lined before we have a chance to live them.

Jacobs contends that real danger for a society are the “monstrous hybrids” (centaurs, if you will) which arise when the syndromes are misapplied. When guardian traits are increasing enter the commercial sphere we get “Mafia like” cartels and monopolies. Moreover, when we mix business with government, we get oligarchic corruption, and ultimately civil unrest. It is bad enough that a private (or pirate) equity and unregulated “shadow banking” firm like BlackRock might behave like Blackwater; it is far worse when it morphs into a clandestine forth branch of an already kleptocratic government.

We also see centaurs wreaking havoc in our personal and political decisions of late. How else could one explain how our obligations to one another became so befuddled? The pandemic has dramatically amplified these distortions. A real common threat should have invoked social cohesion. If not wearing masks is a voluntary choice, then there would be no helmet laws, and clothing would be optional as well. When neoliberal economics fully captured the halls of power back in the early1980s, folks like Prime Minister Thatcher stated that “there is no such thing as society”. However, what they were actually reinforcing was the mother of all monstrous hybrids, “socialism for rich and free enterprise for the poor”. A decent society would seek to marginalize its’ monsters, instead we follow an economic ideology that not only feeds, but deifies them.

Scholars and pundits are suggesting that following our medically induced economic comma and protracted depression, a new political economy will arise, like a phoenix, from the ashes of the current one. I am not so sure, unless we are willing pull it up root and branch. More likely scenarios include that the monsters among us will seek impose a more totalitarian or full-frontal form of fascism. All the ingredients for more mega-monstrous hybrids are already on display. Nevertheless, I remain cautiously optimistic that we can still divert from this path, as we have in the past. The more our emboldened monsters come out of the shadows, the greater the opportunity to denounce and disarm them. Thanks for your reading, there will be more to follow soon.