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Note to Progressives: Challenge Market Fundamentalism

If progressive causes are to get anywhere in the next Congress, we need to challenge the ingrained belief that the market can solve our problems.
 
 
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Women have gained the potential for enormous power in D.C. with Nancy Pelosi's election as speaker of the House. The Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues will grow to become perhaps the largest in Congress, but the question remains: How will these newly empowered women use their power?

Among the issues on the wish list of newly elected women, according to Women's eNews, are women's health, educational equity, sex trafficking, women in prison and international domestic violence.

All are important but will go nowhere if women leaders don't challenge market fundamentalism, the exaggerated and quite irrational belief in the ability of markets to solve all problems, an economic fundamentalism that has dominated our national political debate for a generation. Without directly challenging market fundamentalism, they will ultimately fail to improve the lives of ordinary American women and their families.

Put it this way: What do catastrophic climate change, the widening gulf between the wealthy and the poor, America's obesity epidemic, and our society's lack of care for the young and the elderly have in common? Each has powerful special interests who insist that we need to let the market work its private magic and that government action would create more problems than it would solve.

These interest groups also block any effort to enlist the government by invoking the arguments of market fundamentalism: Privatize everything, rely on yourself and expect nothing from your government.

Market fundamentalism has become like the air we breathe; we hardly notice it. Every time George W. Bush argues for more tax cuts, he relies on the unquestioned assumption that we all embrace market fundamentalism. Like religious fundamentalism, it is based more on faith than on reason. Through constant repetition, however, the American public has been bullied into believing that private spending is rational and efficient, while public spending is always wasteful and unproductive. (Tell that to people in New Orleans.)

Progressives and liberals have assumed that Americans would eventually turn against these ideas, much as they become disillusioned with the Iraq war. But the truth is, neither the women in Congress nor progressives outside of D.C. challenge market fundamentalism directly. Two decades of the reign of market fundamentalism have impoverished both the language and aspirations of progressive Democrats.

Instead, they dance around market fundamentalism; they try to gain support for their cause without directly attacking the 800-pound gorilla that sits in Congress, in our deteriorating schools, and at the bottom of the gulf between those who hold stocks and those who wait for their next minimum-wage paycheck.

Ideas that are not challenged or questioned become even more deeply entrenched. We have private "security guards" who are doing the work of soldiers in Iraq, but who are not accountable to the military. When Hurricane Katrina tore through New Orleans, many of us imagined that the Bush administration's callous and incompetent failure to rescue the people of New Orleans and to provide the leadership to rebuild the city would lead to massive disillusionment with the administration's market-oriented rhetoric.

But has it? I'm not sure. Many people saw Bush's incompetence, but they also viewed it as one more example of the government's incapacity to solve problems.

This is a huge problem for liberals and progressives. Even if a decent Democrat wins the White House in 2008, his or her ability to offer compelling leadership and to propose new progressive solutions will be limited if market fundamentalist ideas remain unquestioned. Ditto for the women in Congress who think they will push women's issues on to the national agenda.

So, it's necessary -- no, urgent -- that we immediately challenge market fundamentalism every chance we get. Between now and the 2008 election, we need take every opportunity -- on blogs, among political progressives -- to explain to others why this exaggerated faith in markets is so dangerous and misplaced.

Fortunately, there is now a resource to help us make these arguments. The Longview Institute, a progressive think tank with which I am affiliated, has just launched a market fundamentalism resource page, designed to help people recognize and refute these arguments. Longview's Fred Block, a sociologist at the University of California at Davis, has long been articulating the dangers of market fundamentalism. The plan is to steadily add new arguments and new material, but what is already there provides plenty of fodder for a collective assault on the irrational ideas that support market fundamentalism.

Market fundamentalism is what prevents us from having universal health care, mass transit, affordable housing, trains that cross the nation, subsidized care for the young and elderly, and government efforts to reduce carbon emissions. The list, of course, is endless.

Aside from ending the war in Iraq, there is nothing more important we can do to improve our domestic future. Ending the reign of market fundamentalism is a precondition for every kind of progressive cause.

For a quarter of a century, conservatives have tried to convince us that we, rather than the government, should be responsible for what is know in other industrialized nation as the "common good." If we don't attack the effort to privatize every public service that belongs to this common good, we will ultimately fail to move this nation in any progressive direction.

Ruth Rosen is a historian and journalist who teaches public policy at UC Berkeley. She is a senior fellow at the Longview Institute.

 
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