The period between Christmas and New Year is traditionally the moment to look back and reflect on the remarkable events of the past year. This time, one of the fun facts of 2017 was provided by The Guardian. According to the British newspaper, the world’s 500 richest people have increased their wealth by 1Trillion US$ over the past twelve months. In case you were wondering how many zeros are in this figure, here you go: 1.000.000.000.000.
The incredible (and pretty incomprehensible) increase in the fortunes of the super-rich comes as billions of poor and middle class people across the world have seen their fortunes decline. The gap between the very rich and the rest of us, The Guardian reports, has widened in 2017 to the biggest in a century so that advisers to the super-rich are warning them of a “strike back” from the squeezed majority.
And isn’t it indeed quite surprising that the out-of-control inequality the world is seeing again since the 1990s hasn’t already lead to such a “strike back”? Why are we accepting these levels of income inequality that are not only socially brutal but also economically totally dysfunctional? Why do we allow our governments to turn back the social clock to pre-modern times?
Still mulling over this question I opened the Dutch newspaper NRC. And wasn’t I surprised to find, on the very same day The Guardian dropped its 1Trillion US$ bombshell, an article on the economic situation in The Netherlands entitled “We are absolutely fine but don’t believe it yet”. According to the “top-economist” interviewed for the article, the country is doing better than ever. The only thing keeping the Dutch population from ecstatically dancing in the streets, the article argues, is that people don’t quite trust the amazing “economy recovery” yet. The reason for such collective holding back, our economist muses, is that the Dutch are sufferin g from post-crisis shock syndrome which makes them unable to realise how fantastically they are doing.
What the economist somehow forgot to mention is the fact that decades of neoliberal policy making have disconnected economy and society to the effect that a booming economy no longer means social progress or anything close to being “absolutely fine” for the majority of the population. As any self-respecting economic historian will tell you, the positive relation between economic growth and social prosperity was one of the great achievements of the post-war welfare state. Neoliberal politics has successfully destroyed this relation over the course of last few decades. The idea that “we” as society are “absolutely fine” because the economy is recovering is thus a remnant from a historical period that simply doesn’t exist anymore. Applying it to our current situation is academically frivolous and journalistically shady. At the end of the day, this is the true meaning of neoliberalism: the only welfare that matters is the welfare of business (during the financial crisis we could literally observe the state turning into a welfare state for the banks).
The problem is that people and their economic troubles don’t disappear because the dominant political ideology doesn’t recognise them. And this is where good old propaganda comes in, or, as British filmmaker Adam Curtis calls it, “perception management.” Our NRC-economist gives us a great lesson in one of today’s most perfidious forms of perception management: psychologisation. What this means is the strategy to turn the real economic and social problems we are experiencing collectively on a daily basis into psycho-pathological symptoms for which only the individual itself is responsible. In the case of the NRC-article this entails the declaration that the economic distress of a growing part of the population is simply unreal: “We are absolutely fine but don’t believe it yet”. The factual troubles of the lower and middle classes are “scientifically” transformed into imaginary problems caused by the brain’s insufficiency to properly process the high-paced economic recovery. Luckily for us, there are economists who can tell us how we ought to feel (i.e., absolutely fine) which implies that those who don’t should probably go and see their GP or psychiatrist to get some Xanax or Prozac or find out whatever went wrong during their childhood.
So take your pills and feel fabulous already. Happy 2018!