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A Portrait of a Cruel Imaginary and a Sketch of an Alternative



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Some days it is difficult to believe that what one reads in this early stage of the 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign is really occurring. Republican Party candidate Donald Trump, for example, recently garnered a great deal of media attention by questioning whether U.S. Senator John McCain (R., Arizona) is a war hero and has been a legislative advocate for his fellow veterans. As is so often the case with such incidents in our nation’s recent politics, there was nothing to Trump’s allegations, which were predicated, as he noted, on the view that he “likes his heroes” never to have been captured by the enemy. Nonetheless, the candidate, who has never served in the military, offended many people and gained a great deal of press coverage by resorting to the outrageous. Indeed, one might explain his behavior as cynical grandstanding. But I am not convinced that is all there is to this matter, nor does such explain why so many GOP voters would accept his baseless claims, even as many of the same group embraced his earlier fatuous assertions concerning the character and aims of Latin American immigrants to the United States. No, this rhetoric is not merely sensational for publicity sake, nor simply the words of a narcissist who plainly loves to hear himself speak. Trump appears to be playing both to the deep seated economic anxiety of a significant segment of voters and to their willingness to assign negative characteristics to those he targets as a consequence of their state of fearfulness. In polls, at least, these individuals cheer this rhetoric because they now believe that vulnerable people—a young McCain captured when his plane was shot down over Vietnam and would-be immigrants alike— are alone responsible for their desperate conditions, which result from individual failings.

Trump’s relative success in polls with likely Republican voters in early primary states has demonstrated that to be vulnerable today is potentially to be subjected to a political rhetoric of derision rooted in a view of society as comprised of wholly autonomous individuals without interest or ties to anyone or anything other than themselves. Those who “succeed,” especially materially, are considered by adherents of this perspective as “superior” to those who do not. They are therefore and thereby entitled to heap disdain on those manifestly “not their equals.” Anyone who has not realized prosperity or demonstrated willingness to measure worthiness based on claims to rugged individual “success” can be dismissed as “less than.” Thus it is in this Alice in Wonderland world that war heroes can be declared weaklings and would-be immigrants can be labeled contemptible. Likewise, virtually all people receiving public assistance of virtually any sort may be dubbed “takers” and so on. This rhetoric is directly linked to the GOP and our nation’s strong embrace of neoliberal tenets and its accompanying vision of society as market-ruled, with only a small role for democratic choice. In this view, government is conceived not as playing a potentially unifying role amidst the press of dogged competition or as protecting freedom and equality, but as preventing individual pursuit of self-interest and material aggrandizement.

If this orientation is evidenced in Trump’s current salience, it is also true in much other policy that his Party has embraced in recent years, including relentless opposition to efforts to raise the minimum wage for Americans (paradoxically, overall wages have been stalled for many of the GOP’s supporters in real terms for decades) and equally vociferous attacks on governance, on collective bargaining and on social programs, including Medicaid, food and unemployment assistance, health insurance support and many others. State legislative members of this same party have sought in recent months to ensure that poor families using food stamps may not use them to purchase organic foods or diapers or steak or seafood. These steps have been justified not on the basis of evidence of widespread abuse or even that such goods are nutritionally inadequate, but on the basis of an a priori belief that to be poor (read “weak”) and receiving aid is to be untrustworthy. That is, from this perspective, poor and vulnerable people may be expected to bilk taxpayers and should be treated with suspicion regardless of whether there is any empirical proof to support such a stance. The neoliberal imaginary, with its ideological worship of the market, disdain for democratic politics and celebration of individualism, leads its adherents relentlessly to such judgments.

Lest one believe this orientation is somehow unique to the United States and not to the ideology that underpins it, one need look no further than Great Britain, whose Conservative government recently announced it would propose legislation to redefine the category of support for those deemed by physicians as “medically incapable of work” (people with Parkinson’s disease or multiple sclerosis, for example) and provide only such aid for those individuals as would be offered to those unemployed and seeking jobs (despite medical diagnoses that such individuals cannot work). In short, the Conservative Party’s leaders in the United Kingdom appear willing to embrace individualism so fully, and so abhor the idea of a public safety net that they are ready to redefine chronic illness and disability on the false certainty that failure to do so will rob aid recipients of their motivation to participate in the market (which, again, medical specialists have declared such individuals unable to do).

This imaginary leads its adherents to flights of heartlessness not otherwise seen in recent times. This frame appears not to impose any limits in principle on individualism and its accompanying antipathy to social claims arising in community. This seems to be so because such needs are not market driven and cannot be justified on a utilitarian calculus alone. Community and its instrument (governance and democratic politics) must therefore be attacked in favor of the assumed superiority of the market. Based on the current GOP presidential candidates in the U.S. and the announced policy direction of the Conservative government in Britain, we may reasonably expect a doubling down on such an orientation in coming years from each party. In policy terms, one may anticipate that advocates will justify additional increases in income and social inequality, already vast and growing, as necessary to provide needed capital to “job creators” who will also continue to receive the benefit of huge public tax expenditures on the same rationale. We may also expect continuing attacks on social safety net programs, including nutrition assistance and unemployment aid, on the argument that these reward tricksters and indolence and prevent those they assist from making their own choices.

There is an alternative to this bleakly brutish anti-social imaginary and Pope Francis highlighted its key elements in his recent encyclical, Laudato Si. In that document the Catholic leader observed,

As the United States bishops have said, greater attention must be given to ‘the needs of the poor, the weak and the vulnerable, in a debate often dominated by more powerful interests.’ We need to strengthen the conviction that we are one single human family. There are no frontiers or barriers, political or social, behind which we can hide, still less is there room for the globaliza­tion of indifference.[1]

In this short space the Pope suggested three vital points that the neoliberal imaginary clouds or fails to acknowledge:

  •  Human beings do not exist autonomously in relationship to a market, but as members of families and complex societies with ties not only to their own relatives and neighbors and fellow citizens, but also increasingly to all other human beings on the planet.
  • Poverty, disability, illness, hunger and inequality will never be alleviated by declaring people experiencing such conditions “weak” or personally lacking, perhaps especially when unscrupulous leaders can win votes and political power by scapegoating and “othering” these groups in the name of a supposed omnipotent and omniscient market.
  • No amount of worship of capitalism and its associated powerful economic interests will allow that system, whatever its virtues, to substitute for democratic politics or ensure the freedom of those in the society in which it is allowed to function. A free and democratic society requires that its citizens oversee the workings of the marketplace through their chosen governments and not the other way round.

As a society, we appear increasingly to have entered an untethered politics of fear and cruelty targeting perceived personal weakness and vulnerability. Continued acceptance of a social imaginary predicated on individualism and the market can only lead to governance dysfunction, growing inequality and social injustice. All of these conditions are likely to continue to corrode the possibility of genuine individual freedom as a cardinal social attribute in the long run, and it is on such a reality that democratic self-governance ultimately rests.


[1] Pope Francis, Laudato Si, pp.38-39, Accessed July 27, 2015.

Publication Date

August 2, 2015