This chapter explores the challenges presented to public organizations by neoliberal thinking and the acceptance of the neoliberal capitalist agenda. Demonstrably, severe economic, political, and social dislocations are the result. Nevertheless, neoliberal influence remains and intensifies. We argue that this counterintuitive result is not grounded in either instrumental or theoretical merit but in the creation and dissemination of certain identifiable memes. The chapter proceeds with a critical examination of current neoliberal memes, an appraisal of their impact on government, society and economics, and the derivation of alternative memes from a Smithian perspective on political economy. Based on this critique and the derived memes, the chapter offers suggestions for a pragmatic cultural and administrative praxis that promise not only to moderate the influence of neoliberal memes and to mitigate tendencies for the propagation of new disadvantageous memeplexes, but also to avert the problems associated with the traditional distrust of government agencies and their top-down, disengaged, technical, and expert-driven solutions.
Abel, C. and Kunz, K. (2018), "Unsettling the Memes of Neoliberal Capitalism through Administrative Pragmatism", From Austerity to Abundance? (Critical Perspectives on International Public Sector Management, Vol. 6), Emerald Publishing Limited, pp. 35-58. https://doi.org/10.1108/S2045-794420180000006002Download as .RIS
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The first duty of anyone who wants to understand the signs of the times is a critical examination of current shibboleths and catchwords. It is quite easy to hypnotize oneself into imbecility by repeating [them] in solemn tones […].
– Warwick Chipman (1911, p. 195)
What does the current posture and likely evolution of the political economy entail for the theory and practice of public administration? Traditional institutional arrangements that have been characteristic of regulated capitalist economies are under intense strain due to new market pressures and the ascendance of neoliberal philosophy. These forces have led to a growing trend of deregulation, load-shedding, and public–private partnerships in federal, state, and local government. The reasons for these trends are both instrumental and ideological. Instrumental purposes include cost reduction, risk transfer, the need to develop sources of revenue, the demand for higher levels of service, and the need for greater expertise, efficiency, and flexibility. Ideologically, neoliberal capitalism is an economic creed that favors unencumbered free markets over the moderating influences of public institutions.
In this chapter, we explore the challenges presented to public organizations and institutions by neoliberal thinking. As they understand liberalism, the role of the state is limited to creating and preserving the legal and political framework necessary to the proper functioning of markets and the creation of markets where they do not exist (e.g., education and social security). Thus, “state interventions in markets (once created) must be kept to a bare minimum because, according to the theory, the state cannot possibly possess enough information to second-guess market signals (prices) and because powerful interest groups will inevitably distort and bias state interventions, particularly in democracies, for their own benefit” (Harvey, 2005, p. 2).
Casting themselves as champions of the values and beliefs of classical liberalism, neoliberal capitalists claim their faith in such luminaries as Adam Smith (Meeropol, 2004). Problematically, neoliberal capitalists accentuate the skepticism of classical economic thinkers like Smith, while neglecting the affirmational elements of their thinking. Specifically, they refute the capacity of human reason to design political economies that are both functional and ethical while rejecting the importance of nonmarket values in sustaining both markets and just social orders. As a result, many argue that neoliberals have transformed society from one with markets to a market society (Sandel, 2012). Such scholars argue that neoliberal capitalism has entrenched the notion that market concepts, principles, and values serve us well in economic and social and political quarters.
Accordingly, acceptance of the neoliberal capitalist agenda has resulted in the decline of public organizations and civil institutions, the ascendency of consumer society, and the celebration of self-interest and profit-taking over both social needs and the public good. More concretely, it has contributed significantly to the financial crisis of 2008, increased inequality and stagnant worker wages, deteriorated social networks, increased political polarization, and polluted ecological environments (Mutua, 2014, p. 52; Twinge, 2014). Surprisingly, despite all of these social, financial, and environmental failures of neoliberal policy, the philosophy endures.
Toward developing a positive role for government in this milieu, we must first take note of the fact that despite all of the problems generated by the ascendancy of neoliberal theory, its influence has been sustained and escalated in the recent decade of austerity policies. This prompts us to ask whether it perseveres in competition with other ideas because of its intrinsic merit or for other reasons. We argue that neoliberal capitalism’s continuation is not grounded in either instrumental or theoretical merit. Rather, its persistence is due in some significant part to the successful creation and dissemination of certain identifiable memes: compact cultural symbols or truisms that transmit values and complex meanings from person to person.
The theoretical analysis of memes is a nascent strategy for understanding public policy and political behavior (see, e.g., Blackmore, 1999; Dawkins, 1981). Our analysis suggests that neoliberal capitalist memes distort popular understanding of good markets and account for a significant number of market practices that are antithetical to human need, dignity, equality, and liberty, and which are hostile to the positive role that government must play in securing the common good. Therefore, these memes must be unsettled, unpacked, and resisted through new memes, with support from pragmatic administrative praxis.
In the sections that follow, we critique neoliberal capitalist theory through memetic analysis. First, we identify the most relevant memes and examine how they measure up to the classical liberal tradition they purport to embrace – particularly in comparison with Adam Smith’s observations and recommendations for a market economy. In the process, we suggest some cultural and concrete reasons for the persistent acceptance of these memes and identify alternative memes from emergent trends, which are better suited to classical liberalism. Finally, we suggest a new praxis for public agencies, grounded in pragmatist philosophy, which moderates the influence of neoliberal memes, works toward the propagation of new memeplexes, and promises to provide a positive role for government in society. These recommendations may help public administrators become more responsive and productive while maintaining a commitment to the equality, dignity, and needs of the people they serve.
For our purposes, memes are “information packets with attitude, a recipe, or instruction manual for doing something cultural” (Dennett, 2006, p. 35). Metaphorically, they are an assorted assemblage of algorithms or programs that encode collective action and act as viruses of the mind (Dawkins, 1993). Memes replicate and travel via both informal and formal communications, thereby operating as a means of social programming. This phenomenon allows a meme to successfully and repeatedly make itself known in society without extra effort or promotion from the original creator.
Memes propagate in a meme pool, the totality of cultural ideas and practices in a given population, leaping from person to person and replicating profusely because they play into shared emotions and experience (Dawkins, 1981, p. 143). They are a means of sharing values, priorities, ideologies, and norms within society by coding-in ideas so that they are accepted subconsciously through practice and habit. Memeplexes are groups of memes that replicate together (Blackmore, 1999, p. 19). These are shaped and shared among individuals in groups, communities, institutions, and organizations alike. Overall, shared memeplexes shape, to a significant extent, the values and meanings to which group members adhere and respond. To affect behavior significantly, memes must be easily understood, absorbable verbally and behaviorally through connections to existing cognitive structures, easily retained, and capable of being captured in “a physical shape that can be perceived by others” (Heylighen, 1999, p. 2).
The Invisible Hand Meme
A reputedly unquestionable principle of economics derived from the writings of Adam Smith, the invisible hand is taken by neoliberal capitalists to
Interpreted in this way, the Invisible Hand meme combines the magical and beneficial workings of markets, the moral foundation of capitalism, and the mantra of laissez-faire government in a compact package.
assert that so long as there is sufficient competition and no government intervention beyond the protection of life, liberty and property, the pursuit of individual self-interest will result in an improvement in the aggregate wellbeing of society as a whole. This is true even if […] economic inequality increases. (Meeropol, 2004, p. 2)
Culturally, the Invisible Hand metaphor resonates with the Christian belief in God’s providential control over history and natural law. This control is exerted subtly over the free will of individuals. Its purpose is to bring about divine ends by means that are too complex and esoteric to be understood, appreciated, or accomplished by any exercise of the human mind. In this way, God’s plan is accomplished despite human agency, without human knowledge, and regardless of human intent. Neoliberal capitalism replaces the position of God in this divide order with the Market.
Accordingly, less regulation is the order of the day, even when more constraint would ensure both sounder markets and a more just distribution of wealth. The ability of corporations to set prices and control distribution is enhanced, and markets are left to set wages without adequate safeguards for workers, leaving intact the freedom to pollute, neglect worker safety, charge unnecessarily high rates of interest, and design exotic financial instruments that threaten to bankrupt both investors and banks (Roberts, 2013). Laissez-faire is lauded, for example, both in the face of the global financial crisis and when countries experience sustained economic growth, while wage gaps widen and household income inequality increase (OCED, 2011). Absent regulation, market transparency often declines, despite the fact that the bulk of the evidence indicates price transparency leads to lower and more uniform prices (CRS, 2007) and “plays a fundamental role in the fairness and efficiency of the secondary markets” (SEC, 1994 Ch. IV).
To the contrary, Adam Smith provided the fundamentals of a theory about how markets might contribute to the pursuit of certain freedoms and how, from those freedoms, the increasing wealth of nations might ensue. He astutely identified the kinds of social, political, and economic challenges these freedoms entail, how and why such freedoms might be achieved, and why their achievement fails in particular situations. For example, markets might free us from want, hunger, and dependence (Smith, Bk. I, Ch. 8, para. 35; Bk. 3, passim), but the realization of this prospect can be hindered both by corrupt dealings among politicians and merchants (Smith, 1776; Bk. 4, Ch. 8, para. 4; Bk. I, Ch. 11, para. 264), and by collusion among merchants and tradesmen (Smith, 1776; Bk. I, Ch. 10, para. 82). Consequently, Smith did not agree that laissez-faire was a sound policy and identified at least twenty-five areas where it should not apply in a commercial society (Viner, 1928, p. 53).
Thus, Smith was well aware of the limitations of free markets, and research since then has further clarified why they often do not lead to what is best. For example, whenever there are “externalities” – where the actions of an individual have impacts on others for which they do not pay or for which they are not compensated – markets do not work well. As an example, unregulated markets produce too much pollution, an environmental externality. Similarly, unregulated markets often mistreat workers. Thus,
In Smith, […] legislation in favor of the worker is “always just and equitable,” land should be distributed widely and evenly, inheritance laws liberalized, taxation can be high if it is equitable, and the science of the legislator is necessary to put the system in motion and keep it aligned. (Boucoyannis, 2013, p. 1056)
Despite the many failures of laissez-faire, both empirically and theoretically, and despite the fact that mainstream economists deny a literal belief in the invisible hand, the metaphor not only continues to be a default principle of economic discourse but is also energetically asserted by politicians and is widely accepted by the general public (Madrick, 2015). Although “Adam Smith’s invisible hand […] is invisible, at least in part, because it is not there” (Stiglitz, 2002), the meme persists.
Given this analysis, a Smithian revision of the Invisible Hand meme would be more along the lines of, co-creative evolution. This meme highlights the reality that markets progress according to an interactionist paradigm, whereby market successes and failures follow from a plethora of interacting bottom-up political, social, and economic decisions arising from particular relationships (Kendrick et al., 2002). These decisions and relationships are untethered to any overall plan and are as likely to regress as to progress in any particular direction. Therefore, decisions must be made thoughtfully, with consideration of all foreseeable implications to the common good. As Smith noted, such efforts make visible both the hand of the market and the hand of regulation, reconnecting the manner in which moral sentiments (Smith, 1790, passim) guide ownership and exchange (Smith, 1976, passim).
This idea is evident in the rising importance of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) efforts, which consider the potential implications of business decisions on workers, the environment, the economy, and society writ large (Rangan, Chase, & Karim, 2012). CSR administrators often engage the public and members of the organization’s value chain to inform decision-making.
The Greed is Good Meme
Conventional neoliberal wisdom claims that “there is only one responsibility of business, namely to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits” (Friedman, 1970, p. 42). This meme is predicated on the presumption that stark delineations among the spheres of responsibility and influence of government, civil society, and the business sector are possible. Accordingly, any social or environmental initiative that does not create profit for a company is considered a waste of corporate resources. Corporations, then, have no responsibility to be a good corporate citizen, to hire from the community, to provide employees with a living wage, to restrict pollution, to pay their fair share of taxes, or to support the community through philanthropy and volunteerism. As a result, many critical theorists have noted the failure of most corporations to behave in socially responsible ways (Heilbroner, 1972).
This was arguably an unintended consequence of corporate chartering. Corporations are a “social invention of the state” (Robbins, 1999, p. 98), and it is unlikely that states would invent something that would do them harm. In fact, “the earliest corporations were chartered with public goals and public interest objectives as well as private economic objectives in mind” (CEBC, 2010, p. 4). As private commercial interests, businesses could be counted on to look after their own welfare, so the purpose of granting corporate charters was to encourage the use of private financial resources for the public good. Originally, then,
In sum, the social responsibility of the corporation was to produce something in the public interest. The profit therefrom was considered a compensation for doing a public service. Releasing corporations from this responsibility is contrary to classical liberalism.
corporations existed as a public service. People would get together to build a bridge and they would be incorporated for that purpose by the state […] Well into the 1870s, states were removing corporate charters […] because they weren’t serving a public function. (Chomsky & Basamian, 1996, p. 34)
Smith warned against powerful vested interests unrestrained by adequate regulation and competition:
Smith (1904) also noted that arrangements and alliances grounded in greed concentrated wealth and were largely responsible for a society’s failure to flourish (Bk. 1, Ch. 8). Accordingly, given the right circumstances, corporations will act upon these understandings to the betterment of the whole (Smith, 1896, p. 256). It is these moral sentiments that Smith sought to encourage by way of devising a proper institutional framework (Smith, 1790, passim). These observations are echoed by Pigou (1932, X.IX), Hicks (1939), Samuelson (1967), and Rawls (1971), among others.
[…] the clamour and sophistry of merchants and manufacturers easily persuade […] that the private interest of a part, and of a subordinate part of the society is the general interest of the whole. (Smith, 1776; Bk I, Ch. X, Pt II, p. 80)
Given this analysis, a Smithian revision of the Greed is Good meme would be Avarice is Ruinous. Flourishing requires mutual benefit pursued by way of ongoing markets. Market actors must understand that they need the cooperation of others to realize benefits and understand that to secure that cooperation they must be other-regarding. Most recently, the development of the United Nations’ Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights illustrates this emphasis on shared state and corporate responsibilities to respect human rights in capitalistic ventures worldwide (United Nations, 2011).
The Creative Destruction Meme
Heralded as “the essential fact about capitalism,” Creative Destruction, also known as innovate or die, is the “incessant product and process innovation mechanism by which new production units replace outdated ones” (Schumpeter, 1942, p. 82). References permeate major aspects of macroeconomic thought and behavior. As the meme goes, markets can only create and grow wealth when entrepreneurship or technological innovation deconstructs long-standing arrangements and frees resources to be deployed elsewhere. In the process, it is inevitable that some individuals, companies, and whole industries are harmed, not just in the short term, but perhaps forever. Attempts to soften the blow by trying to preserve jobs or protect industries lead necessarily to stagnation and potentially to economic decline.
Culturally, this meme gains force through its connections to existing cognitive structures. It echoes, for example, our perceptions of nature as growth and decay, and our idea of history as progress. Accordingly, capitalist regimes must accept boom-and-bust cycles, which include upswings, recessions, regional unemployment, and other factors that affect organizations’ abilities to prosper and dictate their survival in the economy. Societies must forego legal and political attempts to allocate power, benefits, and burdens in any way that stymies innovation or enforces the long-term stability and security of the business.
The intrinsic merit of Creative Destruction is questionable. It does not explain, for example, businesses that have persevered and grown over the long term despite technological innovation, changing tastes, and competitive entrepreneurship. Historically, “big payoffs go […] to business and firms that focus on incremental change, quality, and average degrees of efficiency” (Zook & Allen, 2012, pp. 16–18), combined with “a disciplined expansion into adjacent markets […] a method of applying core assets and greatest strengths to new contexts, thereby generating further growth, proves to be the most successful strategy” (p. 1). Nor does this meme explain the practicality of neoliberal capitalism in which “monopoly rewards caution and discourages experiment […] and income is gradually captured by the interests of the producers at the expense of the interests of the consumers” as evidenced in instances as varied as Microsoft and the US Postal Service (Ridly, 2010, p. 111).
Finally, it is questionable whether Creative Destruction serves us well in all quarters. Public schools, universities, churches, and public agencies, all of which should be subject to creative destruction under neoliberal ideology, aren’t businesses or industries in the same way as are manufacturers of cars or agricultural products. Teachers have obligations to students, clergy have obligations to their congregations, and public agencies have obligations to citizens that lie outside the pursuit of earnings and the demands of efficiency. These include responsibilities that differ fundamentally from the obligations that business executives have to partners, investors, and even employees and customers. Creative Destruction, then, appears to be more of a linguistic artifact that blinds us to continuity, makes very poor predictions in many cases, and produces undesirable side effects not engendered by repeatable models.
In fact, the betterment of the whole is always Smith’s preeminent ethical concern (Smith, 1790; Book III, Ch. III). While “Smith’s Wealth of Nations is grounded on the assumption that people inevitably act out of self-interest, to imply that the book’s major contribution grows out of that assumption is to misread it severely” (Fleischacker, 2004). That is, the key to Smith’s capitalism is his perception that people understand their interests and that given the opportunity, the information, and the proper circumstances they will act upon them to the betterment of both themselves and the whole (Smith, 1896, p. 256).
Given this analysis, a Smithian revision of the Creative Destruction meme would be Don’t Trash, Transform. This meme emphasizes how technological innovation and changing tastes may stimulate constructive institutional change through engaging stakeholders along the entire value chain – vendors, employees, and customers. Scholars have suggested that efforts to address sustainability by enterprises have remained largely transitional in nature (anthropocentric, linear, and static) and that enterprises should undertake transformational measures (ecocentric, dynamic, and nonlinear) to more fully achieve sustainability (Borland, Ambrosini, Lindgreen, & Vanhamme, 2016). We agree that continued efforts are needed to propel enterprises toward ecocentric assumptions, from which dynamic and nonlinear transformational strategies emerge. The traditional tactics to reduce, reuse, repair, recycle, and regulate merely try to reduce the impact of waste, not eliminate it. Therefore, these strategies are merely transitional toward sustainability. The transformational tactics of rethink, reinvent, redesign, redirect, and recover actually resolve rather than merely mitigate the negative impacts of wasteful production.
The Government’s the Problem Meme
The idea that government regulation might allocate resources rationally, effectively, and fairly is considered misguided by neoliberal capitalist thought. Reality is too complex for us to sufficiently comprehend everything that must be considered to produce a rational plan for the economy as a whole. Accordingly, government agencies lack both the information and the expertise necessary to inform economic decision-making. Because markets order themselves spontaneously through the individual decisions of firms and households, they are self-regulating and government impedes that process.
Culturally, the idea that a self-regulating order arises out of chaos resonates with natural law. It engenders narratives about wealth creation, the temptations of government intervention, the captivity to inscrutable economic cycles, and an ultimate salvation by free markets unimpeded by human meddling. The market, we are assured, is a natural order; although its laws are beyond our ken and not always evident, they must be trusted and affirmed. Therefore, markets must enjoy the maximum amount of negative liberty – freedom from government – as possible (Berlin, 2013).
Consequently, it is not surprising that many conclude it is beyond the government’s ability to manage the many unintended consequences that accompany any attempt to improve market outcomes. This is a dangerous mistake. We have good reason to believe that this habit of thinking is likely born, as Smith observed, from our experience with poor legislators whose deliberations are directed, “by the clamorous importunity of partial interests, [rather than] by an extensive view of the general good” (Smith, 1776; Bk. IV, Ch. II, p. 44) and by those inhabiting the decision-making apparatus who believe a priori, for ideological reasons, that government is incapable of participating accurately, efficiently, and fairly in economic practice. Smith, however, was no libertarian. Regularly, he expressed a need for laws and policies that go well beyond the minimal policing of contracts, monitoring for fraud, and keeping of the peace. The rule of law must hold generally and secure equity (Smith, 1904, Bk. V, Ch. I, p. 64). More broadly, our laws and our agencies must “promote the happiness of those who live under them” as “their sole use and end” (Smith, 1790; Bk. IV, Ch. I, p. 11).
Well-functioning markets depend, for example, upon definitive property rights, sound contract law, and well-regulated social conduct proscribing whatever is threatening, harmful, or otherwise endangers property, health, and safety. These characteristics require an administrative and judicial system that enforces agreements, resolves disputes, and constrains crime. These public institutions set the basic framework of a system that enables markets to function.
Scratch the surface of any market and you will find that government is always there and necessarily so. You will also find that in addition to creating and enforcing the constraints necessary for the existence and continued functioning of sound markets, the government constrains for ethical and moral purposes. There are constraints upon what can be bought and sold; people, for example, and electoral votes. There are constraints as well upon who can participate in markets. Child labor laws currently prohibit the youngest among us from entering the labor market and most professions are licensed. Prices are regulated indirectly by minimum wage, environmental regulations, and immigration laws. Conditions are put upon trade by way of product liability laws and treaties with other countries. All in all, there are limits upon who can produce what, how commodities can be produced, and how goods and services can be sold. Thus, the capitalism we don does not arise spontaneously; it is a garment of our own stitching. As this garment is continuously tailored by the government, it need not fit some better than others.
Given this analysis, a Smithian revision of the Government’s the Problem meme would be, Law Liberates. This meme recognizes that markets cannot function without the rule of law and that reasonable restrictions on individual freedoms enhance the overall liberty in society (Hobhouse, 1922, pp. 58–103). It reminds us that positive liberty rests at the core of the social contract tradition (Berlin, 2013) and that market failures necessitate governmental action to set them aright.
The Private Property Meme
The term property implies ownership, and all instances of ownership entail certain rights that the owner enjoys over the property that others do not have. In the classical liberal context, the idea of private property begins with the notion of, “I own myself.” Stated simply, each person has full and rightful control over themselves, physically and mentally. Corollary to this is the idea that people are entitled to reject interference from others, absent explicit permission. Private property rights also prohibit the government from taking all that we appropriate and produce with our own means, including personal property and labor contributions.
Focusing in on these forms of property, due to the limited availability of natural resources, the fear of scarcity, and overconsumption led to enclosure and control of land (Hardin, 1968). Both private and state ownership generates what George (1929) called “the land problem” in which lords of the land are equally lords of the people who rely upon that land to reside or produce a living. In other words, capitalism appropriates the commons, owns the means of production, enabling corporations to taking undue profits from labor, in essence reducing wage labor to slavery.
The neoliberal extension of this system is that just like corporations, each of us has a right to maximum negative liberty, meaning the absence of forcible interference from others and especially from governmental requirements. Particular contempt is held for government’s use of eminent domain, regardless of the public purpose of the taking. Similar disdain is held for taxes that support welfare programs, public schools, health care, social security, and other social services. Instead, all public services should be funded through voluntary contributions, user fees, and lotteries, although very low taxes might be acceptable for national security, crime prevention, and a consistent, unified legal and monetary system to support the market.
But property rights also entail duties and responsibilities that society recognizes as useful in some way. They are assigned not simply to fend off the importunities of others and to set boundaries (Smith, 2012), but also to solve problems of social organization (Merrill, 2012) and to reflect social values such as democracy, freedom, or human flourishing (Purdy, 2005; Singer, 2009). Therefore, property rights are linked to the duty to contribute to the good of the whole, including through eminent domain and taxation.
Smith points out that “It is not for its own sake that men desire money, but for the sake of what they can purchase with it” (Smith, 1776; BK. 4. Ch. 1, para. 19). Put another way, money (taxes, profit, etc.) is a form of property and the accumulation of property creates wealth. Smith cautions, for example, that mutant forms of capitalism tend to evolve as “our merchants and master-manufacturers […] say nothing concerning the bad effects of high profits” (Smith, 1776; BK. I, Ch. 8, para. 13), including increased poverty and decreased opportunities for advancement by “servants, laborers, and workmen of different kinds, [who] make up the far greater part of every political society” (Smith, 1776; Bk. 1, Ch. 8, para. 35). As he argues, “No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable” (Smith, 1776; Bk. 1, Ch. 8, para. 35). Accordingly, capitalism rightfully includes both building and redistributing wealth from the pockets of the few to the hands of the many. Moreover, governments must be capable of checking the power of any sector of the population into which the wealth of nations concentrates because they “pose a continuing threat to justice, sociability and the progress of civilization” (Phillipson, 2010, p. 112).
Accordingly, Smith attacks unrelentingly not only laws and customs introduced to prevent the redistribution of great accumulations of wealth, but monopolies of trade, manufacture, and agriculture (Phillipson, 2010, pp. 113–115). He “rather favored forced transfers from the rich to the poor, and certainly did not think that property rights forbade such transfers” (Fleischacker, 2004; Smith, 1776; Bk. V, Ch. II, para. 71). A properly functioning capitalism, then, must include such government oversight as required for a proper attention to social justice, a sentiment inclining us to constant inquiry concerning the justness of the overall distribution of wealth that is accomplished by our property arrangements (Devine, 1977).
Given this analysis, a Smithian revision of the Private Property meme would be Common Property. This meme emphasizes the fact that property is a socially recognized right to use, that how it is used is more important than who uses it, and that the wealth of nations is not tied completely to its private use. Commoning is at once an ethic, an economic paradigm, and a set of social practices that include various acts of mutual support and the administration required to maintain them (Bollier, 2016). Management and regulation of natural resources and their distribution must ensure “the betterment of the whole not just the few” (Timney, 2001, p. 26). Moving land and its associated resources into community ownership as a collective resource prevents land ownership from siphoning off earnings and wealth from laborers without benefit. From a commoning perspective, the boundaries of private and shared property become permeable and flexible in order to support interconnected mutual needs while conserving common assets in perpetuity (Barnes, 2006). This notion of common ownership of land has been formulated as “usufruct” or the temporary right of one to use another’s property (Sementelli, 2007).
Commoning practices can be seen in the common ownership of mineral rights in the Alaska Permanent Fund (Barnes, 2006) and in nonprofit community land trusts (CLTs) that own underlying land, while use rights, buildings, and improvements are owned by the inhabitants (Greenstein & Sungu-Eryilmaz, 2007).
The American Dream Meme
The American Dream meme implies that through hard work and persistence everyone has the opportunity to prosper. Neoliberal capitalists assume that individuals find themselves poor as a result of an inclination to idleness, drink, gambling, or an otherwise flawed character. Thus, character flaws are the root of economic disadvantage. Furthermore, there is a conviction that when ordinary people turn to economic pursuits, they should embody the same work ethic as the Calvinist pilgrims who settled our nation. It is only natural, then, that the lazy and the profligate fail to prosper while the hardworking and upright flourish.
The American Dream meme inspires opposition to welfare safety nets as they are thought to encourage laziness, discourage hard work, and create perpetual dependence on government assistance. Furthermore, welfare undermines the social responsibility citizens should have for one another, weakening the moral obligation to help those in need. Helping the poor should be the domain of civic and religious groups.
The role of government in the classical liberal pursuit of the American Dream is to provide services that the marketplace cannot or will not provide and are beyond the capability of religious and civic groups to ensure, such as low-income housing and basic medical care. We are at least equally prone to consider the welfare of others as we act by way of our, “reason, principle, [and] conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within […] It is he who, whenever we are about to act so as to affect the happiness of others, calls to us, with a voice capable of astonishing the most presumptuous of our passions, that we are but one of the multitude, in no respect better than any other in it” (Smith, 1790; BK. I, Ch. III, para. 5).
Given this analysis, a Smithian revision of the American Dream meme would be We All Go Together. This meme highlights the fact that as people are necessarily and fundamentally embedded historically, culturally, and socially (Fay, 1987), individuals and societies prosper or fail together. Impact investing, or “investing with the explicit goal of creating financial returns alongside measurable social and environmental benefits” (Clark & Emerson, 2014, p. 1) is one example of this meme. The increasing demand by millennials for new investing options has forced Wall Street to acquiesce by creating socially responsible mutual funds and environmentally responsible investment instruments.
Along with these innovations, crowdsourced fundraising platforms, sometimes called “collective capitalism” (Mollick, 2014, p. 1), have emerged as a strategy that enables people to help people fulfill their dreams. Crowdfunding is more than another way of raising funds; in connecting creators and entrepreneurs directly with customers and funders, it transforms the opaque and oligarchical market for early-stage fundraising into a more democratic, open one. Crowdfunding acts as a platform, matching innovators with those who need innovation, and thus is reshaping which ideas come to market (Mollick, 2014, p. 1). Rather than relying on venture capitalists and marketers to try to project nascent demand for new innovations, creators can reach out directly to customers and communities to refine ideas and gauge interest.
The Consumer Society Meme
Smith thought it difficult to deny that the needs common to humanity were food, clothing, shelter, and whatsoever else was “sufficient to maintain the laborer and to enable him to bring up a family” (Smith, 1776; Bk. 1, Ch. 8, para. 15). While this category of human need is never denied in economics (Hayek, 1936), the poverty of a nation, to Smith’s (1762) thinking, “consists in the uncomeatibleness or difficulty with which the several necessarys of life are procured” (para. 33). Moreover, a nation’s wealth consists “in the cheapness of provisions and all other necessaries and conveniences of life” (Smith, 1762, para. 8). This last point has been too roundly ignored.
Human “conveniences” or wants are multiple, diverse, and ever-shifting. Smith exhibits an “unrivaled sensitivity to the historical context in which thought develops” (Phillipson, 2010, p. 195). People learn what is necessary, beyond food, clothing, and shelter. They learn what is “convenient” in the particular milieus of their time and place. What is necessary, then, is relative and context dependent. Much literature on economics is, in fact, redolent with this conviction:
For many Marxists, human needs are historically relative to capitalism; for various critics of cultural imperialism, needs are specific to, and can only be known by, members of groups defined by gender, race, and so on; for phenomenologists and some social researchers, needs are socially constructed; for postmodernist critics and “radical democrats,” needs are discursive and do not exist independently of the consciousness of human agents. (Gough, 1994, p. 27)
Following this depiction of the contemporary milieu, the Consumer Society meme suggests there’s always something more that people would want. But historically, it seems that many cultures have been content with a stable and fairly limited number of needs and conveniences. In the current neoliberal society, to what extent is want dependent upon the engineering of desire and the transformation of luxuries into necessities?
It does seem that our political and economic institutions employ psychological techniques to stimulate wants into a yearning; one that is intensified by a fear that what we have is insecure and so requires even more accumulation.
Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, and our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of […] It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind. (Bernays, 1928, p. 9)
Given this analysis, a Smithian revision of the Consumer Society meme would be Pragmatic Society. This meme emphasizes the fact that prior to the end of WWII, “The values associated with domestic spending upheld traditional American concerns with pragmatism and morality, rather than opulence and luxury” (May, 1999, p. 301). The recession that followed the 2008 stock market crash initiated the beginning of a shift away from our national perception of consumer spending as a virtue (Shiller, 2012). The Economic Stimulus Act of 2009 gave tax rebate checks to qualifying individuals and businesses with the anticipation that they would be spent immediately (Weisman & Herszenhorn, 2008). In fact, President Bush used a television news conference to announce the distribution of the checks and remind the public of the importance of consumption to the national economy and its recovery. But the majority of citizens used them to pay bills.
Those who had come of age since the recession took the crisis to heart and have begun to save and invest more than ever. A trend toward living frugally, simply, and small has been growing in recent decades. A host of activist groups employ video and social media methods to promote these values. For example, the Story of Stuff Project (n.d.) offers a series of videos that exemplify this concept in economic, environmental, and consumer-oriented messages designed to appeal to and inform all ages of the public, including the viral videos, “The Story of Stuff,” “The Story of Bottled Water,” and “The Story of Solutions,” as well as a Spanish-language animated series entitled, “Loops Scoops en Español.”
Unsettling the Memes
The broad acceptance of these and other neoliberal memes has many causes. King and Stivers (1998), for example, observe that Americans tend to tolerate rather than support the government enthusiastically and to believe that “not only does government exercise too much power and in the wrong ways, not only is it inefficient and wasteful, but it appears to care little about ordinary citizens, their lives, and their problems” (p. 11). As “government becomes a specialized enterprise increasingly devoted to the exercise of technical rules and procedures […] reason, especially instrumental reason, overwhelms care” (Hummel & Stivers, 1998, p. 29). This results in a top-down approach to governance that institutionalizes the authority and the control by technocrats of the decision-making process.
While to some extent these culturally conditioned attitudes, values, beliefs, and praxis have been present since the nation’s founding, they have been exacerbated over the last half-century. Vietnam, the Pentagon Papers and the civil disorder in the late 1960s, Watergate, stagflation, inflation, out-of-control deficits, Iran-Contra in the 1980s, the Clinton scandal of the 1990s, the crony capitalism of the 2000s, and a media characterized by the pursuit of scandal have all contributed to the acceptance of neoliberal memes (Chanley, Rudolph, & Rahn, 2001; Nye, Zelikow and King, 2010: Part II).
Reinforcement of these memes has further contributed to the associated disappearance of those features of social life that enable participants to act together more effectively to pursue shared objectives (networks, norms, and trust) (Putnam, 1996, 2000). For example, Fiorina (2001) describes the results as:
In sum, confidence in leaders and institutions both within and outside the political sphere has fallen significantly for both cultural and concrete reasons (Lipset & Schneider, 2011). Therefore, we must look to both cultural and administrative sources to unsettle, unpack, resist, and transform these memes.
(1) the near half-century decline in the public’s regard for government and politics; (2) the similarly long-term decline in voting turnout and other forms of political participation; and (3) the more general long-term decline in civic engagement and social capital that is currently the subject of much academic and popular discussion. (p. 1)
Pragmatic Cultural Praxis
Memes are performative statements appearing as objective descriptions of reality. Culturally, their primary functions include securing a sense of community and implying (creating) the existence of some transcendent Big Other that is pulling the strings behind the scenes – one which must be preserved at any price (Žižek, 1989). Indeed, the Invisible Hand purports to describe reality itself, while Greed is Good expresses a sense of commonality with all others of this persuasion, requiring preservation by way of laissez-faire economics if we are all to thrive. Each of the other memes simply falls in line as a supporting cast, reinforcing this worldview. Creative Destruction follows the logic of the corporate view that Greed is Good. Government’s the Problem goes hand-in-glove with Private Property, with all those striving for the American Dream in league with the corporate elite. Taken together, these memes fuel the fires of Consumer Society, setting us on the path toward the social, economic, and environmental crises we now face.
However, “Where there is power, there is resistance” (Foucault, 1990, p. 95), and just as memes exercise a power to confine activity by molding culture (language, preferences, thoughts, aspirations, and moral intuitions), resistance emerges from the disparity wrought by the impossibility of both a homogeneous neoliberal society and the eradication of poverty under its auspices. Confrontation and argument emerging from these disparities both exert power themselves and entail resistance. Only now are vast numbers of citizens beginning to realize the disempowering effects of neoliberal capitalism (e.g., We Are the 99%).
In this struggle, memes are “a contest between an entrenched vocabulary which has become a nuisance and a half-formed new vocabulary which vaguely promises great things” (Rorty, 1989, p. 9). Memes, as a form of discourse, “transmit and produce power; [they] reinforce it, but also undermine and expose it, render[ing] it fragile and mak[ing] it possible to thwart” (Foucault, 1982, pp. 100–101). New memes, then, that coopt, reframe, and redefine reality through the language of the extant memes may “outflank the objections [of others]” by redescribing, recasting or enlarging the scope of the others favorite memes (Rorty, 1989, p. 44).
Accordingly, we argue that one promising approach is to reject the neoliberal culture by employing irony and sarcasm in confronting its memes and their sage tonality with a ridicule that exposes the self-serving interests and self-justifying claims to power they embody. Such recasting re-descriptions might include, for example, “It’s only class warfare when we fight back,” “Consumerism is devouring our children,” “You don’t hate Mondays, you hate capitalism,” and “It’s not the earth the meek inherit, it’s the dirt.” This practice is pragmatic in two ways. First, it mitigates the power/resistance phenomena by refusing to engage in the entire neoliberal language-game with its predefined concepts, principles, values, and practices (Wittgenstein, 1953, passim). Second, it is problem-driven and reflexive. Such reframing constitutes a deliberative participation in identifying the problems of neoliberalism and the elucidation of alternative values, both calling for experimentation and encouraging problem-solving.
Pragmatic Administrative Praxis
What administrative practices might support this countercultural resistance and help to moderate the attitudes, values, and beliefs of neoliberal political economics that work against what Smith envisioned as a “progressive state,” a state more capable of attaining a “comfortable […] cheerful and hardy” people “in all the different orders of society” (Smith, 1776; BK I, Ch. VIII, para. 43)? What combination of reflective administrative theory and practice (praxis) will achieve that moderation and improve the performance of public agencies while providing a positive role for government in society that demonstrates a commitment to the equality, dignity, and needs of the citizens served?
The analysis thus far suggests that administrators might look profitably to a praxis that obviates what is most troublesome about both the extant memes themselves and their perpetuation. Smith sketches a general approach to this end that is fairly well developed in certain threads of administrative theory. Briefly, the necessary practice would follow upon the formulation, pursuit, and execution. That philosophy would ground an expanding program of pragmatist praxis that is not only problem-driven and reflexive but a deliberative participant in the elucidation of the values and ideas that promote and guide civic engagement. In addition to weakening the cultural and concrete underpinnings of the harmful neoliberal memes, a pragmatic praxis would stress fallibalism, context, collaboration, perspectivalism, experimentation, and practicality. This praxis promises not only to moderate the influence of neoliberal memes and mitigate tendencies for the propagation of new disadvantageous memeplexes, but averts as well the problems associated with the traditional distrust of government agencies and their top-down, disengaged, technical, and expert-driven solutions.
Smith provides a foundation for pragmatist administrative praxis by putting truth claims to the test of reason (Broadie, 1997). To his mind, idealism about sound economic policy should give way to pragmatism in light of economic realities. For this reason, his analytical technique is contextual, inductive, and experimental (Hausman, 1989, pp. 115–116). He begins by inducing general propositions from particular observations, which are then used to generate hypotheses that are tentatively held and tested in alternative contexts. Deciding what to do in specific contexts is, for Smith, determined properly by a collaborative “didactick stile” of discourse (Smith, 1762, p. 93). Collaboration is necessary and must proceed so as to discern how different choices affect both others and oneself as it is within one’s self-interest (both material and emotional) to meet the interests of others (Smith, 1790; BK. I, Ch. I, para. 4.8). Gradually, through this didactic approach and the consequent experimentation, we develop a workable praxis in the area of political economy that is of benefit to each and all (Smith, 1790; Part III, Chapter III). Pragmatist praxis thus obviates the reified notion of the Invisible Hand and undercuts the Greed is Good meme along with all the rest while exemplifying the principles of collaboration, contextualism, pragmatism, and perspectivalism.
Smith’s adumbrations are significant as they provide insights into a sound political economic administrative praxis that is problem-driven. It should be a-foundational (fallible, nonideological), contextual, collaborative, inductive, and experimental. Equally important, Smith understands that governments are important elements in any philosophy of society that prioritizes a happy and hardy people as the crucial and essential purpose. But much of this sketch needs to be fleshed out.
Current pragmatist thinking suggests that public agencies might function as linchpins in democracies by building consent for public policy concerning the government’s role in the economy through public engagement in both active problem identification and the experimentation that encourages problem-solving. Using Ansell (2011) as an exemplar, legislatures, bureaucracies can solve problems and aid in efficacious change through small-scale institutional experimentation that provides the scaffolding for the transformation of traditional American skepticism regarding bureaucracies (pp. 45–49). To realize this end, and to obviate the neoliberal memes, bureaucracies should dedicate themselves to implementing evolutionary, learning-oriented, problem-driven, reflexive, and deliberative practices. This renders them capable of overcoming the strains endemic to hierarchies, the tension between centralization and decentralization, the obstacles to engaging in more strategic problem-solving, and the friction between the collaborative and the aggregative model of democracy which emphasizes “the dangers inherent in widespread popular participation in politics” (Pateman, 1970, p. 1).
Toward such a praxis, pragmatists stress two principles. First, action at a community or lower level is preferable to action at a higher level, and second, good governance requires communities capable of and disposed toward democratic self-governance. They suggest further that public agencies have a role in empowering individuals and groups at the local level to resolve issues, including economic issues, which affect them without directing the resolution or requiring a particular outcome. Their role is to provide resources and expertise when needed, but not to guide the resolution. The second principle includes the implication that public agencies should provide resources, opportunities, and expertise toward encouraging civic engagement (Putnam, 1992, p. 172). That is, public agencies might act usefully as bridges between citizens and governments, assisting both people on the local level and those in civil service to identify, understand in more nuanced ways, and better practically address the concrete problems of the political economy in reflective and deliberative ways (Ansell, 2011).
Accommodating and assimilating context, culture, local experience, and the broader knowledge of skilled and experienced professionals, this participatory approach has the advantage not only of integrating popular sovereignty with on-the-ground governance, but of increasing trust between government agencies and the citizens they serve. Additionally, it mitigates the problems that often develop in walking the tightrope between the group and individual interests, centralization and decentralization, conflict and cooperation, and accountability and discretion that can stymie problem-solving.
If this is to work, public agencies must take ownership of policy problems and exercise a degree of autonomy in problem-solving (Ansell, 2011, pp. 139–140). Additionally, public institutions should separate complex problems into manageable pieces while not losing sight of the interconnectedness of policy problems (pp. 89, 94). Effective problem-solving should follow through recursive, iterative exchanges across policy domains. These exchanges also help individuals at different levels of the bureaucracy communicate. The result is multilevel problem-definition and problem-solving (pp. 115–116). In this way, bureaucracies can be decentralized and retain central direction by infusing their guiding principles and values into the institutional fabric (pp. 71–72). All of this might be facilitated in bureaucracies by fostering participatory practice.
The Implications of Pragmatist Praxis
Pragmatist praxis in both cultural and administrative domains produces a potentially vigorous response in mitigating the effects of memeplexes generally and neoliberal capitalist memes in particular. As the previous analysis indicates, memes and memeplexes are communication devices intended to induce an emotional commitment to particular beliefs or opinions; a commitment that will result in the adoption of certain behaviors or particular practices. Primarily, the objective is to further an agenda, often by presenting information selectively, or out of context, or by means of value-laden glittering generalities that stimulate emotional rather than rational responses. Pragmatist praxis mitigates the effects of such devices by putting their claims to the test of reason and stressing empirical realties through hypothesis testing that is contextual, inductive, collaborative, and experimental that result in tentative guidelines for behavior that are tested subsequently in alternative contexts to determine their continuing usefulness in problem-solving.
However, while memeplexes continue to hold sway, the Smithian alternatives suggested herein can be propagated to diminish the force of neoliberal memes. Their democratic characteristics forestall the use of agencies as instruments of policies formulated and pursued in a top-down fashion. Participatory practices will further address stakeholder concerns more precisely, precluding disinterested, technical implementation of one-size-fits-all policies. Additionally, public agencies can develop independent democratic mandates through consensus-building and reduce the skepticism concerning government efficaciousness, corruption, and concern for the common person.
The Smithian memes explicated previously offer quickly understood heuristics that confirm pragmatist administrative praxis psychosocially and culturally. Consider, for example, that the Invisible Hand meme and the Greed is Good meme are obviated by Co-Creative Evolution and Avarice is Ruinous. For the pragmatist practitioner, it is most significant, as Offer (2012) points out, the positive effects of “selfishness and the invisible hand remain unvalidated, they provide a bad model of reality” (p. 2). Not only that, but “Like other bad models, and because they are bad models, in a normative role they can serve to justify harm” (p. 2). Accordingly, the alternative memes prove more useful in identifying and solving real-world problems.
Next, consider the Creative Destruction meme that has brought us a host of environmental crises, in addition to the negative effects on labor and the economic and social corollaries. Under the Don’t Trash, Transform meme, pragmatist praxis stresses bureaucratic collaboration locally in how to handle best the deconstruction of long-standing economic arrangements, increases the community’s understanding about what’s going on, and informs the community and the individuals, organizations, and companies most affected concerning workable options in mitigation of the harm. Again, governmental resources and expertise that are provided to aid in reconstruction and harm mitigation can be seen as a public good.
With regard to the Government’s the Problem meme, Law Liberates reminds us that regulations protect us and enable us to pursue happiness within mutual limits. Under pragmatist praxis, there is no attempt to comprehend everything that must be considered at all levels to produce a rational problem-solving plan for the entire economy. When formulated through meaningful public participation, these types of regulations garner a sense of shared ownership and therefore a sense of duty and loyalty (Follett, 1918). By making it clear “that we can operate as government as well as with government that the citizen functions through government and the government functions through the citizen” (p. 236), governments become “a means of satisfying our actual wants” (p. 189). In doing so, governmental resources and expertise aid in problem-solving and function as a public good.
In response to the Private Property meme, pragmatist praxis mitigates its force through its focus on Common Property. While, generally speaking, each has some right to the absence of forcible interference from other individuals and government, clearly, there are contexts militating to the contrary (e.g., air and water pollution, deforestation). Specifically, no one has a right to use their property in such a way as may injure others, which is also addressed by Law Liberates. However, questions arise as to the limits of what property is properly privatized and protected from government intrusion. It is clear that some public goods aren’t merely “held in common” but are actively “produced in common” (Follett, 1918, pp. 33–34) and should be justly distributed. Again, in pragmatist praxis, there is no attempt to decide these issues for all locales at all levels. Solutions that work at the local level are sufficient and different solutions in various locales may be scaffolded to broader scopes.
The American Dream meme is also set right by pragmatist praxis and its understanding that We All Go Together. The opportunity for active and persistent civic engagement affords everyone the opportunity to set the policies for prosperity, safety, and wellbeing that may improve both their situation and that of their children. Such interactions also bolster the mutual responsibility citizens feel for one another.
Finally, pragmatist praxis replaces the Consumer Society meme with Pragmatic Society because in pragmatic societies, it is unnecessary to meet all of the multiple, diverse, and ever-shifting human wants. Consumerism is a social phenomenon by which individuals consume goods and services they want regardless of need or use-value. Under neoliberalism, entire societies organize around consumerism and the display of commodities through which individuals gain prestige, identity, and standing. In brief, the “good life means good consumption” (Firat, Kutucuoglu, Saltik, & Tuncel, 2013, p. 185). To the contrary, pragmatic societies are public problem oriented and consequentialist, instrumentalist, and collaborative in their problem-solving (Ryan & Rutherford, 2000). Accordingly, the utilitarian takes precedence over wants and use-value takes precedence over commodity fetishism.
Adam Smith advocated a political economy that is problem-driven, a combined government and market solution to the problem of securing a hearty, happy people. To that end, he delineated a nonideological, contextual, collaborative, inductive, and experimental approach to political economy. If the previous analysis is sound, the Smithian memes derived from his writings are more useful than neoliberal memes. The neoliberal memes portraying the capitalist dream as sustained by greed and a lack of government regulation, the ongoing, necessary destruction of markets and resources, the use of property to private ends alone, and wants-oriented consumption as the best path to the dream given the workings of the invisible hand, are clearly the markings self-serving interests and self-justifying claims to power by well-organized and well-funded interests. A pragmatist meme of creative collaboration among private actors and government, toward sustaining markets bolstered by mutual regard, a recognition of the social nature of property rights and the valuing of evolutionary transformation is, a delineated previously, significantly more promising. Praxis following these Smithian memes promises not only to moderate the influence of neoliberal memes and mitigate tendencies for the propagation of new disadvantageous memeplexes, but also to avert the problems associated with the traditional distrust of government agencies and their top-down, disengaged, technical, and expert-driven solutions.
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