In this talk I argue that political life in much of the world today is being eroded by what sociologist Zygmunt Bauman describes as a narrow “consumerist” understanding of freedom. On the consumerist model, anything that constrains our freedom to choose within the capitalist marketplace is seen as an obstacle to our very self-realization. Chief among the constraints that we face in trying to exercise this freedom are the obligations that we feel toward other individuals as members of a community. Such obligations or duties are guided by a concern with justice and necessarily limit what ends I may freely choose for myself. In a consumerist society they are, therefore, viewed as obstacles to be overcome.
Over the last four decades—a period that I join other critics in referring to as the neoliberal era—the consumerist conception of freedom has gained an ever-deeper hold over Europe, North America and much of the rest of the globe. Every advance for this idea of freedom has meant a simultaneous breakdown of the sphere of communal obligation. This has resulted in a well-documented weakening of collective bonds, widely reported feelings of isolation and anxiety, and a growing sense of political disenfranchisement. This state of social malaise, I argue, in turn goes a long way toward explaining the polarization we have seen in many countries, as more and more people are drawn toward extreme political movements in a misguided search for belonging and empowerment.
In my talk I will briefly discuss the ideas of some of the most important intellectual architects of the neoliberal period and the consumerist conception of freedom that has guided it. I will also look at how these ideas of have penetrated and shaped our economic relations, our educational institutions, our media environment, and, importantly, our understanding of government. These reflections on the role of government will be of particular significance, since, as I argue, it is also with government that any attempt to counter the dominance of the consumerist ideal of freedom must begin.
One of the key ways in which government can exercise this counterforce, I contend, is through the creation of robust universal social programs, like free healthcare, senior care, childcare, and postsecondary education. Such programs de-commodify the services they take over, removing them from the private marketplace and reinventing them as public goods. In doing so, they can also challenge the contemporary consumerist ideology of freedom, first, by reducing the role that the capitalist marketplace has in our lives, but also by creating programs and goods that serve as concrete embodiments of the obligations that we owe our community.