Today, we have among the highest levels of inequality we have ever had. Drug addiction, environmental degradation, flows of climate and violence refugees, disdain for evidence, and exploitation of workers are all rampant. Critics tend to blame neo-liberalism—a theory of free markets and free choice. But, we have seen that there are precious few free markets today.
In trying to identify the real culprit, however, we face the problem that critics have spent so much time blaming neo-liberalism that we do not know what (who) the true culprit is. Much more research is needed. Further, the answer is likely to be complex, not one culprit, but many acting in concert in complex ways. Neo-liberalism will surely enter this mix, but as rhetoric and smokescreen, not much as reality.
To start my (tentative and partial) search for the real culprit, I want to take up a “special case” where an institution fell on hard times—starting in the 1970s— but where neo-liberalism clearly had nothing to do with the matter. This case is based on my personal knowledge, as well as on published research.
As a young person, I was raised in an enclosed Catholic. I had met only one Jewish person and seen only one Protestant up close before I attended college. In 1962—when I was fourteen-years-old—I left home (with my identical twin brother) to begin training for the priesthood at the minor seminary for the Archdiocese of San Francisco. I would stay there—in an isolated monastery-like building on top of a mountain in the middle of a forest—for five years. I slept on a straw mattress in a small and cold “cell” of my own. I had no access to newspapers, radio, television, outsiders, or books other than those not banned by the Church. I saw my parents once a month on visiting Sunday. The food was terrible and we arose every day at 6:05 a.m. and went to bed at 9:35 p.m. Often, at meals, we were not allowed to talk, but listened, as we ate, to a reader read aloud about bloodcurdling deaths from the Roman Book of Martyrology.
Doesn’t sound like it would be a popular place, does it? However, in my class, 114 young boys entered. 121 entered the next year. There was no shortage of applicants and many got turned away. I left the seminary in 1967 and attended the University of California at Santa Barbara where the 60s were in full swing. When I left the seminary, it was still full and entering classes were still robust.
Years later, in the mid-1970s, when I visited the seminary for the last time, entering classes had gone down to single numbers. By 1980, the first four years (“high school”) of the seminary were discontinued. In 1991, the seminary was closed altogether. Started in 1924, it was gone by 1991, already in steep decline by the mid-1970s.
Neo-liberalism did not attack the Catholic Church and leave it bereft of priests (and nuns). It was already in trouble by 1976, the year Bretton Woods ended.
The sexual-abuse scandals did not bring it down. They came later. It was a 2002 Boston Globe series on the criminal prosecutions of five Roman Catholic priests that brought the issue to national attention. By then, the seminary grounds were already empty. Something else had stalked those grounds.
In case my personal experiences may seem inadequate statistically, let mequote from a recent definitive report (Exodus: Why Americans are Leaving Religion and Why They are Unlikely to Come Back. Washington, DC: Public Relations Research Institute, 2016, pg. 4):
While non-white Protestants and non-Christian religious groups have remained fairly stable, white Protestants and Catholics have all experienced declines, with Catholics suffering the largest decline among major religious groups: a 10-percentage point loss overall. Nearly onethird (31%) of Americans report being raised in a Catholic household, but only about one in five (21%) Americans identify as Catholic currently.
It is worth noting, as well, that about the same time that people stopped going to Catholic seminaries, and priests began leaving the Church in droves, the divorce rate increased significantly (Cohn, Passel, Wang, & Livingston 2011: pg. 3). People left their marriages as well.
The Catholic Church declined in three stages. The same was true for many other institutions. “The Sixties” (roughly from 1963 until 1972) were a time when young people around the world questioned the validity of formal institutions, whether these be schools, churches, businesses, governments, or marriage (Finder 2016). They rejected the norms and values of these institutions and of the society of which they were the foundation. They decried sexism, racism, and middle-class values. In turn, they stressed individual freedom, discovery, and bottom-up forms of social organization. In some cases—more so outside the United States than inside it—people in the 60s also looked to socialist, Marxist, and anarchist forms of politics.
There is no doubt that the prosperity of the Wonder Years played a role in bringing on the Sixties. The end of the 1950s saw the start of a massive economic boom and an equally massive expansion of the middle class in the United State and across much of the developed world. Thanks to the prolific production of commodities and rising wages, many “working-class” people (in the sense that they had jobs typically associated with being working class) called themselves “middle-class” and were.
The Baby Boom (people born between 1946 and 1964) were coming of age in the Sixties. Many of them had experienced historically privileged upbringings and looked forward to an historically unprecedented future. They had the “luxury” of both living their present and planning for the future in terms that went beyond money and survival. That is, until the Wonder Years began to wind down in the mid-1970s, the massive middle class went into a long decline, and the richer got ever richer and poverty greatly expanded.
The Sixties undermined faith and trust in institutions and put that faith and trust in individuality, experimentation, self-fashioning, and emergent forms of social interaction and organization. The institutions under cultural attack in the Sixties did, however, try to respond and adapt.
Pope John XXIII held the Second Vatican Council (“Vatican II”) from 1962 until The Church was early to respond to the cultural changes the Wonder Years were bringing on, thanks mainly to John XXIII. Vatican II liberalized the Church to retain and attract people who had become disenchanted with its timeworn rituals (e.g., the Mass in Latin). Colleges and universities became to liberalize, as well. They made room for more student choice in courses and expanded the curriculum to cover non-Western and non-white issues.
Perhaps, most significantly, businesses began reforms that looked like the beginning of a new capitalism. The old industrial capitalism had been based on large, top-down corporations shaped like a pyramid with a few people at the top, many middle-managers, and even more workers at the bottom. Workers were hired to work efficiently; middle-managers were hired to think and supervise; and the leaders at the top were hired to plan and dictate policies.
By the Sixties and early 1970s, cultural changes and growing international competition began to lead to a reorganization of business. Many companies shed middle-mangers, gave workers more power to make decisions and think, and sought to be “lean”, flexible, and quick to respond now to on-going rapid national and global change. They also championed customer service and catering to the wishes, decisions, and desires of their customers, not just with standardization and commodities now, but with new experiences and products and services customized to different life-style niches.
Tom Peters was one of the best known of a new cadre of business writers that campaigned for the new approach. The title of his 1992 best-selling book, Liberation Management: Necessary Disorganization for the Nanosecond Nineties, says a good deal about how these changes were both a response to 60s cultural changes and to the chaos that the 1980s and 1990s brought on as the Wonder Years ended.
This short transition period—which Colin Lankshear, Glynda Hull, and I called “the New Capitalism” (it was sometimes also called “fast capitalism”) in our 1996 book The New Work Order—was dead by the early 2000s, killed by stockholder capitalism and rapacious practices based on short-term gain, debt, and often what amounts to “legal crime”. Workers and customers now took a decidedly second place.