It’s remarkable, considering how frequently our politicians and cable news commentariat remind us of the “free market” we live in, just how existentially unfree things seem down here where the rubber meets the road. We constantly see the Washington Consensus and the neoliberal order equated to “our free market system.” But as I always understood it, a free market was simply a system of free exchange. Why does this so-called “free market system” seem to require, for its survival, a regime of totalitarian lockdown resembling Verhoeven’s take on “Starship Troopers?”
Never mind stuff like the military-industrial complex, the prison-industrial complex, and the United States government’s perpetual wars to make the world safe for corporate domination. I’m more interested in the forms of authoritarianism we encounter on a daily basis, as a direct adjunct of maintaining what neoliberals consider a “free market” as such: Increasingly draconian restrictions on the most basic rights of free speech, an upward ratcheting of the surveillance state, and all sorts of other authoritarian intrusions we’d normally associate with the old communist regimes of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union — and all in the name of “our free market system.”
Take, for example, “intellectual property” — a state-granted monopoly central to the corporate neoliberal order, but which has precious little to do with anything remotely resembling an actual free market. Your Internet service provider isn’t a business performing a service for you — the paying customer — so much as an adjunct of the RIAA and MPAA and their lackeys in government. Your ISP spies on you on behalf of Big Content to ensure you’re not downloading any big torrents.
Ever get a threatening phone call from your ISP? You might as well be their employee, rather than the reverse. Ever get a DMCA takedown notice? Ever have a website taken down by your host in response to an unsubstantiated complaint? Welcome to “our free market system.”
Remember the Pinkertons, uniformed private thugs the bosses used to hire to bust union organizers’ heads? Now Monstanto hires them to snoop around private farms, testing farmers’ crops to see if they contain any genetic material from engineered seeds under patent. The Runyons, an Indiana farm family, were invaded in 2008 by Monsanto’s hired goons in response to an “anonymous tip” that their farm hosted Roundup-ready soybeans. Sounds almost like — ahem — the Drug War, doesn’t it?
Never mind that the Runyons never planted Monsanto’s seed. Never mind that their crops were contaminated — very much against their will — by GMO pollen blowing over from a neighbor’s farm. You might think it was the Runyons who had a cause of action for the contamination of their crops with frankenfood DNA. But not in our so-called “free market system.” In this thing the neoliberals call a “free market,” being contaminated by Monsanto DNA — even against your will — is prima facie evidence of “piracy.” You’re guilty until proven innocent.
Orwell once observed that after 1914, the states of the 20th century were resurrecting forms of torture and atrocity largely unseen since the Inquisition. Likewise, under “our free market system,” we’re seeing a resurgence of — believe it or not — debtors’ prison. In the “old days” — as recently as the 1990s — creditors would attempt to collect debts in-house, then write them off. Now collection agencies buy up debt for pennies on the dollar. After serving process at an address where you lived three moves ago, they get you declared in contempt in absentia and jailed. Or you might just find your bank account cleaned out by your bank in collusion with the creditors, without warning.
And then there are “food libel laws” and FDA restrictions on commercial speech. If you label your milk rBGH-free, you can expect to be muscled by Monsanto’s lawyers. The very act of informing your customers your milk lacks rBGH constitutes disparagement of the frankenmilk from those factory dairies, you see. If you advertise that you inspect your meat for Mad Cow Disease more frequently than the USDA requires, you’re disparaging your competitors by implying that simply meeting the regulatory standard — a standard based on SOUND SCIENCE! — is somehow inadequate. And someone’s feelings might get hurt.
Never mind all the rhetoric you hear about “our free market system” on CNBC or read on the WSJ editorial page. If it requires the kind of statist authoritarianism we used to associate with the Soviet Union, it’s not a free market.