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Maybe it was in the 1990s and the chaos of Somalia when the notion of “failed-states” made its way into the headlines. Somalia’s public institutions collapsed under the turmoil of corruption and warlords competing for turf and power. Any semblance of social justice withered under the horrors of civil conflict and exploitation. The criteria associated with failing or failed states and their societies are pertinent to extreme situations like Somalia. If we apply these same criteria to more stable governments and societies, these societies look positively healthy. Yet, this glosses over situations where we discover that certain citizens or groups are oppressed and marginalized. For example, LBGTQI persons in Russia or Weigers in China are oppressed by the state. There are also stable, democratic, and wealthy societies where groups of people are marginalized and treated with disdain. One can point to the Turks in Germany, Muslims in France, Palestinians in Israel, African Americans in the United States, and untouchables in India as illustrations. If we turn to the history of the United States we encounter not only ethnic cleansing of Native peoples and slavery, but also exploitation of Chinese immigrants in building railroads, expropriation of lands (e.g., Cuba, Central America, Philippines) and exploitation of their people, concentration camps during WWII, and the targeting of people of color vis-à-vis incarceration. This list is not exhaustive, but the point is this: states not deemed to be failing can fail various groups of residents. Indeed, if we examine any stable society, it is almost certain that we will find persons who are marginalized and oppressed, while other citizens flourish.
This raises a question about what criteria can be used to evaluate a state and society. Of course, states have their own criteria for assessing whether society is functioning well, such as Gross Domestic Production (GDP) or Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness (GNH), but these criteria often screen serious problems in the society. Philosopher Avishai Margalit (1996) offers a conceptual framework for evaluating societies and states. He argues that decent societies do not humiliate their members. More positively stated, a decent society and state promotes respect for its residents as human beings, as persons. Respect involves insuring parity of participation in the political-social realm, as well as just distribution of resources for people to care for themselves and for others, all of which contributes to social-political self-esteem and self-confidence. Promoting respect can also be accompanied by fighting the “conditions which constitute a justification for its dependent to consider themselves humiliated” (p.10). While the decent society or state does not humiliate residents, it must discourage individuals and groups that humiliate others, because these groups do not add value to the society, but rather subtract from it. In short, a decent society is one that supports, through its institutions, customs, and narratives, the mutual recognition and treatment of individuals as persons.
Margalit has much more to say about this, but I wonder if we were to survey various societies, whether we would we find a decent society. Perhaps it is not a question of whether a society is or is not decent, but rather a question of whether a society approximates this goal. To what degree is a society decent? If we consider the history of the United States, it becomes difficult to feel confident that we were ever close to being a decent society. While affirming the rights of all human beings, the Constitution ends up excluding women and African Americans from full participation for well over a century. Worse, African Americans would continue to face the terror and humiliations of slavery, which was upheld by various courts, including the Supreme Court. Even after the Emancipation Proclamation, which ended decades of slavery, we find the creation of Jim Crow laws, as well as extra-“judicial” implements of terror in the form of lynching and rape. We might also ask whether the United States’ approximated the goal of a decent society when it ethnically cleansed native peoples. How much decency was there when citizens agreed to civilize and Christianize other peoples and colonize their lands? Was it decent to exploit 30,000 Chinese laborers to build railroads and then deny them citizenship? There seems to be little decency in placing Japanese citizens in concentration camps during WWII. Does a decent society resist the desires for freedom and equality of African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement? How decent is a society that has over 7 million people caught up in the justice system, most of who are people of color.
Despite all of these and others examples, one might argue that the United States, in spite of its many failings, has upheld the notions of freedom, equality, and justice. By most measures, we are a decent enough society precisely because many citizens, some who were/are marginalized, have labored and fought to extend equality and democracy to disenfranchised individuals and groups. Others have worked tirelessly for social justice. These citizens are the leaven that makes possible some degree of approximation vis-à-vis the criteria for a decent society.
What happens, though, when the very ideals of freedom, equality, justice, and democracy are suborned by a neoliberal culture/capitalism? Does the U.S. society move further away from being a decent society when political values become distorted by the beliefs and imperatives of neoliberalism? Or we might ask more directly, does neoliberal culture/capitalism and its various disciplinary institutions contribute to humiliation and if so how? To answer this, it is necessary to identify some of the reigning beliefs of neoliberalism. The core philosophical tenet of neoliberalism is that “market exchange [is the] guide to all human action” (Dean, 2009, p.51), which is a fulfillment of economist Gary Becker’s (1976) vision of society. He advocates for a kind of economic, calculative approach to all aspects of life. Becker’s totalizing economic approach is the foundation of a market society wherein a neoliberal society no longer has a market but is the market. The invisible hand is ubiquitous or as Wendy Brown (2015) notes, neoliberalism economizes political life and noneconomic spheres and activities (p.17).
This core tenet of neoliberal culture/capitalism accompanies “the imperatives of competition and profits maximization, a compulsion to reinvest surpluses, and a systematic and relentless need to improve labour-productivity and develop the forces of production” (Woods, 2017, pp.36-37). We could add another compulsion, which Max Weber identified, acquisitiveness, which is never satisfied and endlessly in search of more. These imperatives and compulsions are inextricably joined to a preoccupation with a “rational” calculation of one’s self-interests and how to advance these interests. In the neoliberal culture, where competition relies on instrumental rationality’s assessment of others as either obstacles to or supporters of one’s self-interests, zero-sum thinking and relating rule.
These core beliefs and imperatives of neoliberalism have altered the meanings of freedom, equality, and justice, whereby each can be understood to contribute to humiliation for many people. For instance, the result of the economization of political life is that the liberal concept of political freedom vis-à-vis self sovereignty morphs into economic freedom. In other words it is believed that “human freedom is best achieved through the operation of markets” (Brown, 2015, p.51). Markets make possible freedom, it is believed, which suggests that the state should insure that the market is not interfered with. The notion that the state, which in a democratic society guards and preserves political freedoms, is reframed into the state guarding and enforcing market rules and so-called economic freedoms. This means, then, that the state becomes a powerful disciplinary regime extending the power and reach of the market in producing entrepreneurial-consumer subjects who are subject to the market. The notion of political freedom remains, but is a pale shadow of its former self.
How is the distortion of the notion of freedom by neoliberal beliefs related to political humiliation? The state, in serving the market, functions as a disciplinary regime, especially in relation to people who are working-class and poor. Sociologist Wacquant (2009) indicates that the state punishes the poor for their failure to be entrepreneurial-consumer subjects. The poor receive bare amounts of resources from the state, as a way of punishing them for not serving the state/market. From this perspective, humiliation involves communicating to people who are poor that they are economic failures (on the dole), and failed political subjects—hence disposable. Other sociologists dispute this idea of punishment and instead argue that the state disciplines the poor by devising ways to force poor people to live by market rules (Soss, Fording, & Schram, 2011). By receiving austere levels of resources, it is believed poor people will be motivated to work hard and improve their lot. Whether one sees this as discipline or punishment, each involves dependency on the state that is more concerned about the vitality of the market than it is about its poorer residents. The state, in other words, distorts political freedom by equating it with economic freedom and in the process disciplines or punishes poor persons who are constructed as failures. We might call “these people” economic-political losers who have demonstrated misuse of the “freedoms” the state provides. “They” are shamed in myriad ways in the media, which may function to incentivize some segments of the population to work harder. Shame, in this instance, becomes a tool of the market to produce and maintain entrepreneurial-consumer subjects who exercise their “freedoms” by obeying the imperatives of the market society. In short, the state is directly involved in humiliating poorer persons instead of working to facilitate parity of political participation and a just distribution of resources.
Another feature of economic freedom and its relation to political humiliation is instrumental rationality and its objectification/commodification of others. To exercise political freedom in a market society requires making use of instrumental rationality in calculating labor, value, relationships, and other persons in terms of capital. Philosopher Michael Sandel (20000) provides numerous examples of how people objectify themselves and others in a market society. This not only distorts the democratic notion of freedom, it also fosters political-economic humiliation. To commodify a human being is to humiliate him/her, because human beings, at least in many religious and humanist traditions, are of incalculable value. Of course, this is obvious when we read about the economic exploitation of slaves and the humiliating terroristic practices that enforced their compliance. It is less obvious when a football quarterback is estimated to be worth 15 million dollars a year. Is this quarterback humiliated? Probably not, since his value is high, yet he is nevertheless commodified. In another sense, he is not humiliated because according to the market he is seen as exercising his economic-political freedoms by gaining the best price for himself. Of course, by getting injured he may discover his value has gone down. The vast majority of workers, however, do not have these kinds of financial perks. Instead, they are forced to participate in the market society so that they have access to the means of life. Yet, in participating, their labor is commodified. There is something humiliating about being seen as worth $10 an hour and further humiliating when poor wages and lack of benefits chain one in poverty. It is also humiliating that resources are denied because one does not have the economic means to access them—one is challenged to pursue his/her interests without the means and support to do so. And there is humiliation in knowing that one has less political freedom than the 1%. In other words, political equality is something that is merely an idea or fiction, because the reality is that deep economic inequality signifies that one segment of the population holds the levers of the state and the market.
Political humiliation, which results from the neoliberal distortion of freedom and equality, is also connected to market justice. Market justice obeys the rules and imperatives of the market, punishing and disciplining those who are deemed to fall short or who refuse to play. Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman portrays the kind of market justice that fosters humiliation. Willy Loman is a salesman who exaggerates his successes, which is a strategy to bolster his sense of inadequacy for not measuring up as a worker and a husband whose role is to provide for his wife and children. The years of managing his inadequacy wears him down and in one scene he pleads with his boss not to fire him. Market justice informs the boss that Willy is not contributing to company profits and therefore must be fired. This final humiliating blow leaves Willy contemplating suicide, which he hopes will result in an insurance payout to his wife. Firing Willy signifies, in part, the reign of market justice in that those who do not obey market imperatives become disposable. Willy’s subsequent suicide is an ultimate expression of disposability and humiliation.
A market society is an indecent society not only because it distorts notions of freedom, equality, and justice, but also because it subordinates human beings to the demands of the market, which is fundamentally humiliating. Instead of citizens creating and being served by the state, they are required to serve and sacrifice themselves or others to the market. More specifically, a neoliberal capitalist culture is fundamentally indecent when it privatizes healthcare, prisons, schools, etc., thus exploiting and humiliating the vulnerable. To be sure those who have economic and political privileges do not experience the pain of humiliation, because they have access to resources and the market deems them successful. Yet, the top 10%, who do not experience humiliation, obtain, advertently or inadvertently, the privileges that depend on the humiliation of the 90%, which reflects the reality of an indecent society organized by a neoliberal culture.
Becker, Gary. The Economic Approach to Human Behavior. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1976.
Brown, W. (2015). Undoing the demos. New York: Zone Books.
Dean, J. (2009). Democracy and other neoliberal fantasies. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Margalit, A. (1996). The decent society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Silva, J. (2013). Coming up short: Working class adulthood in the age of uncertainty. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Soss, J., Fording, R. & Schram, S. (2011). Disciplining the poor: Neoliberal paternalism and the persistent power of race. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Wacquant, L. (2009). Punishing the poor: The neoliberal government of social insecurity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. London: Routledge Press, 1992.
Woods, E. (2017). The origins of capitalism. London: Verso.
Ryan LaMothe is a professor of pastoral care and counseling. He has written six books and numerous articles in the areas of psychoanalysis, politics, and pastoral theology. His most recent book is Care of Polis, Care of Souls: Toward a Political Pastoral Theology.