Accounting for ethics: the ‘ill’ logic of neoliberalism 

Unlike economic, social and political challenges which are widely discussed, the ethical and moral issues to which they relate undeservedly receive less attention.

In the ‘real’ world of trade-offs and compromise, ethics are often regarded — when they are regarded at all — as a separate domain of secondary concern, remote from how things are actually done (variations of ‘might is right’) and thus even as expendable. Among ‘competing priorities’, moral concerns are readily sacrificed, even if the reasons for this are cause for regret. 

But separating ethical considerations from daily concerns and contexts is not only artificial. It is untenable. It also feeds the politically motivated misperception that the ways in which we are treated and the impacts of deliberately chosen policies are of less importance than the ‘objective’ measures by which policies are claimed to be assessed.

Attention to ethics, in the tangible sense of their practical application, is never unwarranted. Rather it is unwelcome to particular stakeholders unwilling to sustain scrutiny of their practice and the benefits they accrue.

Concern for ethics can be unwelcome because it raises questions about the premises of socioeconomic organisation on which ostensibly democratic western societies are based (and which disproportionately advance sectional interests).

The advent of the coronavirus draws attention to moral challenges, ready or not.

The structural inequality of the pre-COVID period is not only glaringly revealed but amplified and compounded by responses to the pandemic. Yanis Varoufakis has drawn attention to a startling and seismic occurrence on both sides of the Atlantic on a single day last month following announcement of the worst slump in British economic history — i.e. the rise of the London stock exchange by 2% and increase of the Wall St S&P 500 Index to an all-time high. At a time when millions of people in the US have lost their employment, consequently their health insurance, as well as  risk eviction from their homes, and millions in Britain also face hunger and poverty — i.e. citizens of previously regarded `advanced’ western countries — corporate interests and financiers are reaping exorbitant financial rewards.

The manifest failure of so-called ‘developed’ capitalist economies to safeguard citizens’ health and sustenance needs at a time of public health crisis is not only an indictment of political and economic policy. It reveals moral abrogation of no less seismic proportions.

The catastrophic impacts of neoliberal governments and economies — both in western ‘democratic’ countries and around the world — on the lives and livelihoods of the citizenries they purport to represent constitute ethical breaches of first order magnitude. That some western countries are more successfully addressing the basic needs of their constituents at this time (even as the measures implemented do not apply to all) only underlines the deliberate nature of the selective omissions which determine who is getting what and who misses out altogether. Increasing reference to ‘failed states’ implicitly speaks to the violations which continue to escalate to deadly effect.

Yet the fiction of `free market’ processes as impersonal and objective, of policy makers as enacting the will of the people, and of bureaucrats as simple administrators, continues to reframe and deflect the `duty of care’ transgressions which are unrecognised as such only because we are consistently discouraged from seeing them in this light.

Concern for others is ‘first order’ business: ethics as essential criteria.

Key to redressing the grotesque anomalies generated by structural and systemic processes and practices is a revitalised conception of the role of ethics. This includes addressing the methods by which they are undermined. A revitalised conception of the role of ethics is essential to human interaction and constitutes essential criteria according to which the impacts of systemic practices, policies, and processes are assessed.

This involves a persistent and insistent challenge to the myth that moral claims are secondary or inapplicable to the world in which we live (a myth promoted by the associated myths of  ‘neutrality’ and ‘objectivity’ which deflect attention from the interests they serve and conceal). As observed by George Soros in his Central European University lectures: “Behind the invisible hand of markets there is the visible hand of politics, which establishes the rules and conditions in which the market mechanism operates.”

The importance of language and the observation of its misapplication is critical. The ‘free’ market has long ceased to function as described by Adam Smith. Freedom for who to do what to whom is the salient question — as Yanis reminds us — and is answered every day by the monopolistic market capture of companies like Amazon. Yet the sheer and multilayered reach of corporate control fuels the notion that the processes which uphold it are akin to ‘laws of nature’, and that market mechanisms are ‘impersonal’. The reality is that they have become weaponised in neo-liberal economies to a truly horrendous degree at the expense of the workers who are abused by them.

Far from being peripheral, recognising concern for others as fundamental to viable societies and economies is the ‘first order’ of business. It is also a core preliminary step to redressing the current ‘decoupling’ of financialised capitalism from the real economy. The pretensions of economic theory to ‘scientific’ status are exposed by economists like Yanis Varoufakis, Richard Wolff, James Galbraith, and Stephanie Kelton, whose starting points are as far from decontextualized, self-interested individualism as Amazon warehouses from compliance with the most basic requirements of OHS.

Concern for others — the capacity to care about others as well as oneself — is not a weakness but a hallmark of health. The absence of this capacity is rightly regarded as the marker of sociopathy.

The mantra of the pursuit of self-interest detached from social consequences has structured neo-liberal economics. So much is this the case that separation of ‘humankind’ into two words — as on the cover of Rutgers Bregman’s recent book — challenges narrow conceptions of the kind of people we are. It also reads as heretical to standard neoliberal ‘principles’.

It is as unrealistic to deny that concern for the well-being of others influences human behaviour as to contend that human beings are defined by self-interest. Both moral hazard and moral injury are not exceptional aberrations. They are generated by the economic and political processes of a neoliberal economy and polity.

We need to explode the misconception that moral concerns are solely the terrain of human rights advocates, and that ethical considerations are in any sense secondary to ‘other’ concerns.

‘Accounting’ relates to more than economics. Both healthy psychological functioning and a functioning democratic society depend on processes which uphold this recognition. While many define consciousness as ‘the quality that defines personhood’, neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux notes in Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are that ‘others demand more, in the form of a moral element’.

As cognition and the capacity to reason also enable the capacity to rationalise, we certainly need to demand more. This is including and especially of neoliberal adherents to whom the following observation by John Kenneth Galbraith would seem to apply: “The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.” The difference between the time at which this comment was made and the current period of impunity is that now even the pretence of a search for justification is abandoned.

In The Political Psyche British psychotherapist Andrew Samuels sees the desire to change social and political reality as innate; it is not a matter of consciously electing to be political when ‘we are ethically involved as part of the human condition’. But as George Soros noted a decade ago, “[t]here has been a remarkable transformation in what behavior is socially acceptable and even desirable due to the rise of market fundamentalism.”

It is now transparently clear that while the capitalist system is unparalleled in its capacity to produce asymmetrical wealth and sophisticated technologies, it also, as Yanis underlines, “creates new forms of depravity.” Yanis explains why “austerity for the many,” which is the hallmark of current economic policy, also leads to, and indeed requires, increased authoritarianism. As Anand Giridharadas elaborates in his bestselling book, elite philanthropy by beneficiaries of this dialectic further entrench the very inequality they purport to reduce.

John Kenneth Galbraith also said ‘in the long run we are all dead’. Due to design flaws of economic and political policy which are deliberate and thus could be otherwise, the era of pandemic reveals what has long been the case but which cannot now be denied — that the run is avoidably much less long for many. 

The depravity of neoliberal economics and the politics that upholds it must be named for what it is.

‘Moral accounting’ must be introduced and enshrined- not as an empty slogan or wish, but as an underpinning principle which is invoked and upheld, violations of which are called out, and for which appropriate sanctions are implemented. The calling out is important in and of itself; i.e. additional to, and independent of, the progress of court and institutional bodies in bringing perpetrators to account.

Concepts such as ‘sovereignty’ and ‘security’ also need reconceptualising, in that they routinely justify violations and fail to serve urgent contemporary priorities.

Those who uphold entrenched interests seem impervious to the most basic principles of decency regarding the impacts of current policies on their fellow citizens (and of course the many who are denied the status of citizen). This stance should be revealed for what it is. That is, forfeiture, in our name, of core aspects of our humanity in perpetuation of structural arrangements which deny and degrade that of others. This is a cost of a kind for which oligarchical interests have yet to account and for which they have yet to be held accountable.

We can recall that a watershed moment in ending the 1950s period of McCarthyism in the United States was the question asked of Senator Joseph McCarthy by chief counsel for the US Army Joseph Welch: “Have you no sense of decency sir?” This question, revived and repeated, retains its potency. It is not soft, naïve, or woolly. Rather it serves as a prelude to the transformational change which is now required. Such change is not utopian because DiEM25 has the platform and policies by which the current dystopia can begin to be dismantled.

Photo Source: Burst on Flickr

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