GMO Labeling: Why We Cannot Let the Market Decide

You’ve probably heard about the legislative battles raging over the labeling of genetically modified foods. Over twenty states are considering such legislation. Proponents of labeling believe that consumers have a right to transparency and to know just what is in their food. Opponents of labeling insist that GMOs pose absolutely no health risk and that there is no need to label them.


Immage courtesy of Wikipedia

Despite some excellent recent news, success for the pro-labeling camp been mixed. As of April 2014, Vermont has become the first state in the US to successfully pass a mandatory GMO labeling law. However, propositions submitted to voters have failed in states such as Washington and California. According to the website, biotech and food corporations have spent over $45 million in California alone on anti-labeling campaigns.

My point here, however, is not to debate whether or not there exists a scientific consensus on GMO safety. Rather, I want to contest the ideological terrain on which the titans of the biotech and food industries rest their case. In particular, I want to question the underlying free-market narrative embedded within the anti-labeling discourse.

Take this for example. In an editorial critical of federal legislation mandating GMO labels titled “Let the Market Decide,” the LA Times took a very pro-market stance on the issue. It stated that it is up to the market, and not legislators, to decide which products appeal most to consumers. For the LA Times, the organic option (by definition GMO-free) is already available to us. If consumers do not want to purchase food containing GMOs they can buy organic, and “If there is a growing demand for such foods, the market will find a way to offer them.”

What the editorial is telling us is that we don’t need legislation regulating the food industry because the market is capable of responding to consumer preferences by itself. According to this view the market is simply self-regulating and requires no regulation imposed on it from without.

The idea that free markets are self-regulating is the cornerstone of the economic school of thought known as neoclassical economics. Economists such as Milton Friedman convinced the free world during the 1980s that markets free of governmental interference are capable of policing themselves. Government interventions such as subsidies, tariffs or taxes distort this otherwise self-regulating system.

Moreover, those in favor of some types of market regulation have often been portrayed by free market supporters as anti-business. Taxes and environmental standards, for example, are leading grievances in the neoclassical book and cited as primary causes for layoffs or for higher prices passed on to consumers.

In the works of Milton Friedman, the dynamism of energetic entrepreneurs and the rationality of informed consumers are contrasted with the lackluster central planning of socialist bureaucrats whom presume to know what is best for the economy and society. Friedman argued that it is up to consumers voting with their dollars, and not government, to decide which companies and products ultimately succeed or fail. He stated that individuals must have the “freedom to choose,” and that government interventions in the market actually limit our choices as consumers, thereby restricting our freedom as citizens.

Case in point, the mandatory labeling of GM foods is seen as an unnecessary regulatory burden on the free market because, after all, the options available to consumers are already there in the form of organic products.

Let’s take a closer look, however, at the underlying system which is supposedly generating this great wealth of choices and options for us.

Consider this.

  • In the food processing industry, the four largest companies control 82 percent of the beef packing industry, 85 percent of soybean processing, 63 percent of pork packing, and 53 percent of broiler chicken processing.
  • Six of the largest biotech and chemical companies, including Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta, control 60 percent of the seed market, 100 percent of the GM seed market, and 76 percent of agrochemical sales.
  • And in retail the picture is similar: in the late 90s the four largest retailers controlled 22% of the grocery market. Ten years later, Wal-Mart, Kroger, Costco and Supervalu controlled more than half of all grocery sales.

In truth, our alleged “free” market is anything but. It is not a self-regulating sphere which curbs its excesses through healthy competition and consumer sovereignty. Rather, it is one characterized by monopolization and the awesome concentration of wealth and power.

Friedman’s famous statement “freedom to choose” rests on the existence of options available to the individual. Yet given the concentration of the food system in the hands of very few, those options are increasingly restricted. Real options arise out of healthy competition, not out of a monopolized marketplace. Moreover, less competition produces fewer options, and in neoclassical theory fewer options signify a net loss of freedom.  

“Letting the market decide” is therefore an empty statement, because those choices have already been made for us behind the closed doors of a handful of corporate headquarters.

 So if we ask ourselves who are the actual central planners deciding what is best for the economy, the answer is not big-government regulators but the few transnational corporations that have monopolized the alleged free market. And what is truly anti-business is not government regulation per se, but the ability of the powerful few to use their political clout to gain unfair advantage in the form of subsidies, tax breaks and deregulation.

Finally, what happened to the good old capitalist mantra of “customer is king?” Adam Smith himself, the alleged grandfather of neoclassical economics, stated that “Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production and the welfare of the producer ought to be attended to, only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer.” [1]

Let’s take a cue from Adam Smith and attend to the welfare of the consumer by labeling GM foods, we have a right as consumers and citizens to know what is in our food.

[1] Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, 1937 Modern Library edition, p. 625  

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The First Thanksgiving and Our Agroecological Founding

By Giulio Caperchi

This post was originally published on the Small Planet Institute website on November 26 2013

Buckled hats, golden leaves, roasted turkeys and steaming ears of corn. Hardy Pilgrims and noble Wampanoag tribesmen sharing hard-earned food in a mutual gesture of thanks for the bounty bestowed upon the table. No myth has a hold on the American collective imagination as the myth of the First Thanksgiving. It predates all political and military founding stories and conjures images of an innocent, pastoral past.

William Lockhart Made The First Thanksgiving 1621, oil on canvas by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863–1930). Courtesy of WikiCommons

William Lockhart Made The First Thanksgiving 1621, oil on canvas by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863–1930). Courtesy of WikiCommons

Without a doubt, Thanksgiving is the quintessential all-American holiday. As such, the tale of how the First Thanksgiving happened plays an important role in defining Americanness. Much has been said about what factually happened on the third Thursday of October 1621, with historians arguing over who attended and who brought what to the dinner table. But it is equally important to engage with the actual myth we have created, as founding myths are central to the way a community of people thinks of itself. [i]

In our case, reading between the lines of the first legendary Thanksgiving menu might yield a surprising new interpretation of what it means to be American.

On the First Thanksgiving at Plymouth Plantation, we are told, Governor William Bradford and the Pilgrims were joined by ninety members of the Wampanoag Confederacy led by their sachem Massasoit in an outdoor feast celebrating the autumn harvest. Following the infamous First Winter, which felled many brave Pilgrims, an English-speaking native named Squanto taught the distraught Colony how to plant corn in the Wampanoag fashion. His simple lesson saved them from starvation.

The three-day-long feast was thus meant to thank God and the Wampanoag people for a bountiful harvest and has today come to symbolize an instance of intercultural harmony and dialogue. So what exactly was Squanto supposed to have taught the Pilgrims?

While there is much debate, a common version of the myth tells us that Squanto taught the Englishmen a Native American agricultural practice called the Three Sisters, a polycultural technique involving the planting of squash, beans and corn in close proximity. The three different plants bring mutual benefits to each other allowing them to grow faster and healthier than if on their own, while simultaneously providing excellent sources of protein, carbohydrates and other essential micronutrients.

Researchers tell us today that the Native American tribes of southern New England made their living through horticulture, hunting and fishing. As hunting was traditionally a male endeavor, women were the expert agronomists. They used bio-indicators (the changing color of certain leaves, for example) and the position of the stars to know when to plant or harvest. They fertilized the soil with ash and probably with fish remains and knew when to leave the land fallow. They selected specific varieties of corn and bean seeds best suited for their particular microclimates. Their agricultural practices took advantage of the natural synergies found spontaneously in nature, as in the example of the Three Sisters: beans fixing nitrogen in the soil while climbing the stalks of corn, and the squash’s large foliage starving nasty weeds of sunlight.[ii]

The type of horticulture they practiced was knowledge intensive. Today, these same techniques have been extensively researched and are part of a growing discipline called agroecology. Simply put, agroecology consists of the application of ecological science to the growing of crops and the management of farms. Agroeocological farms are usually small and very diversified, forgoing chemical fertilizers, thereby minimizing the need for fossil fuels. Just like those of the Wampanoag’s, agroecological systems are polycultural and many experiments have proven that their diversity makes them more resilient to climate change than monocultures. Other tests have shown that on average small farms produce more food per acre than large industrial ones. In fact, a University of Michigan study calculated that, contrary to what many critics say, if we were to switch to this type of sustainable agriculture it could produce enough food to satisfy the needs of every human being and projected population growth.[iii]

Thus, if we are to believe the First Thanksgiving myth, the Pilgrims would not have survived another unforgiving New England winter without the Wampanoag’s lesson in agroecology.

Ironically, today some insist that industrial agriculture is quintessentially American. They assert that chemical-intensive and GMO-powered giant farms are the only actors capable of feeding the world. But what if these views are the real myths?

The sustainable alternative to industrial agriculture is here; it is grounded in scientific research and has proven to work. Moreover, agroecology may be traced back to the original cultures of the Americas. So this Thanksgiving let us celebrate what we know is not a myth: that ancient wisdom that made this great holiday possible in the first place.

[i] For an idea of how the myth of the First Thanksgiving has been reinterpreted throughout American history see James Baker, Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2009)

[ii] For an in-depth study of New England Native American agricultural practices see Carolyn Merchant, Ecological Revolutions: Nature, Gender and Science in New England, (Chapel Hill: University of
North Carolina Press, 1989)

[iii] For references and additional info on Agroecological theory and practice please check out the Small Planet Agroecology Fact Sheet

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Regimes of Full-Spectrum Surveillance and Whistleblowers

How should we understand the phenomenon of leaking? Can we call it a new form of legitimate resistance against all-powerful regimes of authority?

By: Giulio Caperchi

Wikileaks Logo

Wikileaks Logo

Since the NSA scandal blowout, I’ve been on the fence regarding the support of whistleblowers such as Manning, Assange and Snowden. On one hand, I praise them for finally putting the spotlight on the abuses that our institutions of authority perpetrate on a daily basis. I admire them sacrificing comfortable lives for prison sentences or lives in exile. On the other hand I’ve always wondered: who are these whistleblowers ? What set of assumptions motivate their decisions? More importantly, how do their actions influence society? (And was the leaking of diplomatic cables really necessary?)

What helped me get a grip on the debate was a comparison between two opinion pieces by two writers on the opposite ends of the political spectrum: conservative NYTimes columnist David Brooks and Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek. Brooks’ piece The Solitary Leaker bluntly states that Snowden has betrayed the trust of social and political institutions which support the common good and keep together a political community. Conversely, in Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange: our new heroes, Zizek argues that whistleblowers have become necessary figures in our new digital era and that every authoritarian regime should have one.

Mulling over these two contrasting opinions brought me to the conclusion that yes, whistleblowers are necessary, but also that leaking -understood as a form of resistance against unaccountable regimes of authority- is a fundamentally undemocratic form of resistance. Let me illustrate my point by briefly going back to Brooks and Zizek.

Brooks’ critique of Snowden’s moral character is based on pretty flimsy, and frankly ridiculous, evidence. Allegedly, Snowden hasn’t visited his mother in a while and he isn’t a very amicable neighbor. Harrowing evidence folks. (If you haven’t already, please take a look at Snowden’s video interview on the Guardian too see what Snowden is really like.)

For Brooks, Snowden has betrayed the cause of “open government” (as if the CIA and NSA are transparent public institutions); he has betrayed the Constitution because he “short-circuited the democratic structures of accountability, putting his own preferences above everything else” (as if the CIA and NSA would indeed be held accountable); and that by revealing the secrets he was entrusted with, he has betrayed “honesty and integrity, the foundation of all cooperative activity” (as if working for a defense contractor is a “cooperative” endeavor). His acts of betrayal, concludes Brooks, ultimately create a climate of distrust which damages the already frail bonds holding together our political society.

But Brooks isn’t an idiot, and he highlights a provocative dimension of the act of leaking. Brooks positions Snowden firmly within a growing libertarian narrative emerging across the American political spectrum. He paints Snowden as a “solitary leaker,” a victim of an atomized society which ultimately pits the naturally free individual against the leviathan nation-state in an epic David and Goliath-like scenario. More importantly, Brooks points out that Snowden acted unilaterally: his act of resistance was unmediated by political institutions and based thoroughly on his personal moral prerogative.

Zizek, on the other hand, states that the world is in dire need of more leakers. Leakers are crucial because not only do they shed light on the abuses that characterise this digital era, but because they remind us that the digital age may be informed by Immanuel Kant’s idea of the public use of reason: “the transnational universality of the exercise of one’s reason.” They keep alive the (somewhat utopian) idea of the internet understood as a free and radically transparent frontier where all kinds of debate may flourish.

Zizek suggests that not only the US, but also China, Russia and other authoritarian regimes need more leakers. The world therefore requires an organization which can protect leakers and help them spread word of the abuses they have denounced. He believes that “whistleblowers are our heroes because they prove that if those in power can do it, we can also do it.” (I make a very similar point in a previous post The Reverse Panopticon)

Between the two commentators, I side with Zizek. Albeit partially, and here’s why. If we consider the act of digital leaking as a new form of resistance against various regimes of surveillance and control (be them articulated through governmental or private institutions, -or both), we must first ask: how democratic is this form of resistance? Can I partake in its decision making? Can I decide (democratically) what and when gets leaked? I understand these are somewhat banal questions, after all the whole point of leaking is to catch institutions of authority by surprise and to then leverage public opinion. But they serve the rhetorical purpose of shedding light on the fact that what and when gets leaked is totally up to the moral prerogative of the individual whistleblower . Like Brooks states, the leaker acts unilaterally.

And here is where I agree with Brooks, the figure of the “solitary leaker” lends itself to a dangerous libertarian and manichaean narrative in which public authority (except that protecting private property) is bad, and where individual decision making (insofar as it is rational) is good. It is no surprise that Rand and Ron Paul support the leakers. It fits neatly within a political vocabulary predicated on the denial of collective decision making.

Leaking is therefore a form of resistance starkly different from that, say, of the Occupy Wall Street protesters, in which the democratic element in consensus-seeking assemblies dominated all aspects of decision making (perhaps to a debilitating point).

In conclusion, let me shed my naive democratic yearnings and talk a bit of realpolitik. Perhaps leaking is the best form of resistance to Empire we’ve got today. Assange, Manning and Snowden have indeed scared the living lights out of some of the most powerful institutions on earth. And maybe Zizek is right: at least now this awesome architecture of full-spectrum surveillance knows that if it can infiltrate every crevice of our private lives, we can do the same to it.

But let us remember that tidbits of leaked information, although painful, merely embarrass such powerful institutions. As Brooks points out, they will learn from their mistakes and tighten their grip. Let us not be naive and think that because abuses were revealed they will submit their actions to public scrutiny and accountability. After all only half of the American population disapproves of government surveillance programs.  In all probability they will act with ever more secrecy, and farther away from law.

The real solution to such abuses of power is to address the structural problems at the heart of our democratic societies, namely secrecy, inequality and discrimination. And the solution to these problems can only be more democracy: leaks and leakers alone won’t do the trick.

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America’s Most Enduring Common Ground

Since 1634 the Boston Common has been shared by all

By: Giulio Caperchi

This article was originally published on May 10th 2013 in On The Commons Magazine

1769 Boston Common Map By William Price, Courtesy of Wiki Commons

1769 Boston Common Map By William Price, Courtesy of Wiki Commons

With only thirty British pounds, in 1634 John Winthrop and his Puritan followers purchased fifty acres of Reverend Blackstone’s land in what is today the heart of Boston. Part of that land was set aside for sheep grazing, a space which came to be known as the Boston Common, now America’s oldest public park.

The Boston Common has become the center of civic and social life of Boston. Pirates and Quakers were hanged from its trees, duels were fought on its grass and the red-coated occupying army camped on its hill. It has hosted public events for almost four hundred years, welcoming historical figures such as George Washington, Martin Luther King and Pope John Paul II. Most recently it hosted a very touching and spontaneous vigil for the Boston Bombings, featuring a church choir and a single banner reading “Peace Here and Everywhere.”

Above all, it is a place of common experiences, a repository of shared memories and a space shaped by the interactions of people from all walks of life. It is a “common” in the sense that we all share it and play an active role in shaping its social topography. In fact, the Boston Common is a living artifact of the commons movement’s history. A look into its early days will reveal how the ancient tradition of commoning was imbued into its very founding and can show us how the enduring legacy of a commons still serves Boston’s communities today.

The Boston Common was established in 1634 as a space to be used primarily for militia training and cattle grazing. Setting aside some acres of land for the town’s inhabitants was a custom the Puritans had brought over from England, an ancient tradition which gave common folk access to land in times when most estates were owned by the Crown. A town’s common was thus central to the food security and livelihoods of the common people.

In his book ‘The Magna Carta Manifesto” Historian Peter Linebaugh traces this ancient custom back to the Magna Carta, the document that forced King Henry I to grant liberties to English feudal barons in 1225. This document, often acknowledged as the forefather of modern constitutions, was accompanied by another one, the Charter of the Forest which granted rights of commons to the public at large.

The Charter of the Forest established wooded areas as commons and granted common folk rights within them. Herbage was the right to pasture and estovers were rights to forage wood. Beekeeping and hunting rights were also granted. Linebaugh concludes that the Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest formally protected the livelihoods of the poor and ultimately “defined limits of privatization” [1].

1769 Boston Common Map By William Price, Courtesy of Wiki Commons

1769 Boston Common Map By William Price, Courtesy of Wiki Commons

In recognition of the important role played by such common spaces, in 1640 the town of Boston decided that the Common was to be preserved intact and should not be divided or parceled out: “henceforth there shall be no land granted wyther for houseplot or garden to any person out of the open ground and Common field.” And in 1666 the town finally decreed that “no common marish or pasture Ground shall hearafter by gifts or sayle, exchange or otherwise, be counted unto property without the consent of ye major part of ye inhabitants of ye town,” a law which stands to this day and which effectively prevents the privatization of the Boston Common [2].

The rights of commons and the heritage of the Charter of the Forest resurfaces in the Massachusetts Body of Liberties of 1641, which granted rights of fishing and fowling to Bostonians on common lands: “Every Inhabitant that is an howse holder shall have free fishing and fowling in any great ponds and Bayes, Coves and Rivers, so farre as the sea ebbes and flowes within the prescincts of the towne where they dwell.”

In England however, common land and common rights were already beginning to disappear by the mid-sixteenth century in a process of land privatization known as the “enclosures.” The enclosing and privatizing of common land amounted to the wholesale exclusion of the poor from the common resources which had sustained their livelihoods for generations [3].

King Charles II, and his successor James II, had similar plans for the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In 1684 Governor Edmund Andros was ordered by the Crown to revoke the Massachusetts Bay Colony Charter and to sell all common land. Needless to say, the Crown’s planned enclosure of the Boston Common did not sit well with the hardy Puritans. It became one of the leading grievances of the 1689 Boston Revolt, which eventually led to the arrest of Governor Andros and to the reinstatement of the colony’s original charter along with its traditional land titles and rights [4].

Boston historian Robert Allison says the Common is a space which symbolizes historical continuity. While we are not allowed to graze our cattle on its green grass any longer, Allison notes that “the park is still in its original use: it is still a space used for religious assembly, political rallies, social mingling, and is still a burial ground. And to this day it remains a space for militia training, where on the first Monday of June the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts, since 1638, still trains.”

Massachusetts State House and Common. By Giulio Caperchi

Massachusetts State House and Common. By Giulio Caperchi

The Boston Common’s history is steeped in the values, tradition and rich heritage of the commons movement. Its resilience throughout centuries bears testament to the pivotal role that public and common spaces play in the life and history of a community. Such spaces provide feelings of belonging, meaning and continuity, as well as physically recording how societies and cultures change throughout centuries.

In a world dominated by the rhetoric of fiscal austerity we cannot lose sight of the common spaces which tie our society together. Deficit reduction and budget balancing may well be this decade’s dominant logic, but it is our duty as members of our communities to uphold the political vocabulary of commons care as well. The efforts of the city of Boston and of its citizens (for almost four hundred years) to protect and cherish the Boston Common are a paradigmatic example of commons care, and are a testament to the social, civic and collective benefits that a shared space brings to us all.


[1] Linenbaugh, P. 2008, The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons For All. (University of California Press: Berkeley)

[2] Friends of the Public Park, 2008, Images of America: The Boston Common. (Arcadia Publishing: Great Britain)

[3] Mattei, U. 2011. Beni Comuni: un manifesto. (Gius. Laterza & Figli: Bari, Italy)

[4] Allison, R. 2004. A Short History of Boston. (Commonwealth Publishing: MA)

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What can Machiavelli teach us about democracy?

The Role of Conflict in Democracy According to Machiavelli and Mouffe

By Giulio Caperchi

It’s hard to deny that the infamous Niccolò Machiavelli enjoys a pretty vicious rep in the back alleys of political philosophy. If my memory serves me right, I’m quite sure that John Locke once referred to him as the “bad boy of political theory.”

So what can the a-moral realist, the cruel pragmatist and the counselor of ruthless princes ever teach us emancipated moderns about democracy? While Machiavelli’s teachings in The Prince are without a doubt hardly “democratic”, there is another façade of this eccentric Florentine’s thought which is scarcely talked about. Contrary to his street cred, Machiavelli is one of the greatest theorists of civic republicanism, of popular liberty and of political self-determination. More importantly, Machiavelli shares a vision of politics strikingly similar to contemporary radical democrats such as Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau.

Machiavelli. By Santi di Tito. Courtesy of Wikipedia

Machiavelli. By Santi di Tito. Courtesy of Wikipedia

A look into Machiavelli’s understanding of the nature of political relations will reveal a surprisingly innovative approach to the way we can conceptualize democratic politics. Moreover, by highlighting the similarities with contemporary theorists such as Mouffe, we can begin to advance a fresh and radical critique of today’s neoliberal democratic order. Ultimately, what Machiavelli teaches us is that the essence of politics does not reside in universal value systems but in the constitutive role that political struggle engenders. We will see that for Machiavelli and Mouffe, claims to universality serve firstly to veil vested interests and secondly to displace alternative or competing value systems. The purpose of democratic politics is not to arrive at universal “truths” but rather to foster a system where competing hegemonies emerge through political struggle and conflict.

But first, I must spend a few lines re-habilitating Machiavelli’s reputation. Machiavelli’s “good side” comes out in his Discourses on Livy (ca. 1517) where instead of counseling a ruthless prince he lays out the military and political order that a self-governing and free republic should exhibit. Using the example of ancient Republican Rome, Machiavelli asserts that a free state is one governed by its own citizens through free and accessible institutions, thereby protecting its autonomy from the caprices of kings and despots. It is the collective commitment to civic values and the common good which make republics, such as Rome, so successful and glorious:

“It is … marvelous to consider the greatness Rome reached when she freed herself from her kings. The reason is easy to understand, for it is the common good and not private gain that makes cities great.” Discourses, Book II, Chapter II.

For the great Isaiah Berlin, Machiavelli is a pivotal thinker because he is the first theorist to explicitly reject a Christian moral universe in favor of a classical humanist one. This act of rejection is important as it signals that Machiavelli clearly distinguished between two rival value systems. For Machiavelli, the Christian value system based on humility, sanctity, holiness and compassion was simply incompatible with the classical humanist one based on strength, decisiveness, cunning, power-politics and the antiquae virtus. And surviving in the world that Machiavelli inhabited, that of warring renaissance Italy, required the ancient civic virtues -not the Christian ones which, according to him, made people sheep-like and fearful of embracing their own liberty. Berlin goes in so far as stating that Machiavelli’s act of rejection destroyed a central assumption at the heart of Western civilization: that there exists a single universal value system. Machiavelli therefore explodes the illusion embedded in Western rationalist and positivist thought “that there is to be found the final solution of the question of how men should live” through a quest for the ultimate “just” society.

Machiavelli’s rejection of the Christian value system stems from his understanding of politics and of the relations between political forces. Being the ultimate pragmatist, his politics are inherently conflictual and do not appeal to any value system or universal moral framework. Political forces are always in constant and irreducible tension, where the few (i grandi) seek to control and oppress the many (il populo), and the many wish to liberate themselves from the few. And this tension, for Machiavelli, is not problematic but is actually the source of political stability:

 “In every republic there are two different inclinations: that of the people and that of the upper class, and that all the laws which are made in favor of liberty are born of the conflict between the two.”  Discourses, Book I, Chapter IV.

Similarly, radical democratic theorist Chantal Mouffe does not accept the universal framework underpinning classical liberalism. For her, theorists such as John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas envision the democratic process as a mere procedure required to achieve some form of idealized consensus within societies. Allegiance to the universal rights, principles and values of classical liberalism along with an agreement on the validity of deliberative procedures are absolute prerequisites in order to play the neoliberal democratic game.

Such ideas of democracy, for Mouffe, are wrong because they ignore the inherent antagonisms present in any pluralist society. Political identities, moral frameworks, and universal truths vary wildly throughout societies and will inevitably express conflicting assumptions. Attempting to force social diversity and pluralism to conform to an alleged universal liberal value system, says Mouffe, excludes them a-priori and serves to displace them. Just like Machiavelli, her idea of politics is characterized by antagonism and conflict emerging from the inherent diversity of social identities. As such, the purpose of democracy should be to provide a political framework which transforms antagonist conflict between enemies into agonistic relations between political adversaries. Confrontation, as in Machiavelli, becomes the essence of democracy.

Machiavelli and Mouffe’s rejection of universal frameworks and their recognition of the role of conflict in politics provide the basis for a radical critique of our neoliberal democratic orders. We have seen how envisioning democracy as a quest to achieve a final universal consensus serves the purpose of excluding alternative democratic articulations. This means, for example, that ideas such as participatory democracy, economic democracy, or reducing the primacy accorded to free markets are excluded a-priori from the democratic game because they don’t conform to neoliberal assumptions.

What we are in need of, therefore, is a democratic framework in which diverse expressions of democratic politics can confront each other on equal footing. This entails that political forces such as those emerging from political Islam, from indigenous cosmology, from the assemblies of Occupy, from Pirate Parties or from the Latin American Bolivarian bloc, for example, must be accepted as legitimate and viable democratic possibilities, and not be demonized, repressed and intellectually ridiculed by the West.

Neoliberalism is one among many different democratic articulations. It is high time we give space and opportunities to other equally legitimate ones so that they may contest and confront the stranglehold that the neoliberal hegemony exerts over democratic theory.

Further Reading

  • Mouffe, C. 2000. The Democratic Paradox, Verso: London
  • Mouffe, C. 2005. On the Political, Routledge: New York
  • Skinner, Q. 1996. Machiavelli: a very short introduction. Oxford University Press: New York
  • Berlin, I. 1993 “The Originality of Machiavelli” in ed. Hardy, H. Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas, Pimlico: London
  • Machiavelli, N. 1979 “Discourses” in ed. Bondanella & Musa, The Portable Machiavelli. Penguin: London
  • Machiavelli, N. 1979 “The Prince” in ed. Bondanella & Musa, The Portable Machiavelli. Penguin: London
  • Human Agency and the Political in Machiavelli and Hobbes (on
  • Towards a New Defintion of Liberty (on


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Civic Republicans and Arms Rights

In the history of civic republicanism, the right to bear arms was a means to an end. The end being the erection of free political institutions, the establishment of democracy, and above all, the creation of a public sphere independent of the arbitrary will of a monarch in which citizens could deliberate as equals.

J.A.S. Oertel- Pulling Down the Statue of King George III- ca 1859. Credits: Wikipedia

J.A.S. Oertel- Pulling Down the Statue of King George III- ca 1859. Credits: Wikipedia

In this brief essay I seek to shed light on the conceptual history of the right to bear arms. By conceptual history I mean a deep look into the history of the idea of arms rights: how it emerged, why it emerged, and what conceptual justifications were used to establish it. This exercise seeks to problematize the claim that arms rights are an inalienable right which cannot be legally regulated or curtailed (as some gun enthusiasts interpret the Second Amendment) and will reveal that contemporary arguments in their favor have been divorced from their historical development.

The intellectual historians J.G.A. Pocock and Quentin Skinner assert that the right to bear arms is one of the founding tenets of the political theory of civic republicanism. Civic (or classical) republicanism is the political theory most closely associated with the republics of Ancient Rome and Renaissance Florence, based on a rudimentary separation of powers, civic virtue, citizen militias and the political participation of an engaged and free citizenry (Skinner 1978, p78). Civic republican ideals eventually went on to inform Oliver Cromwell’s English Commonwealth, as well as the political theory of the American Revolution and much of the politics of the Founding Fathers (Skinner 1998).

Florence Coat of Arms. Credits: Connormah, WIkipedia

Florence Coat of Arms. Credits: Connormah, WIkipedia

Citizen participation and civic virtue are the cornerstones of civic republican theory (Pocock 1975, p56). The republics of antiquity were self-governing political orders which required the participation of their citizens in all public endeavors lest the republic fall prey to powerful families, private interests or rival kingdoms and empires (Skinner 1978, p77). Cultivating the civic virtues meant participating actively in the political process as well as taking part in the military endeavors of the republic. Politics was to be entrusted to free citizens and articulated through free institutions, and never to nobles and the aristocracy. Military operations too, said the great Niccolò Machiavelli, were to be entrusted to citizen militias because mercenary armies and their condottieri frequently turned against their own employers and never fought with true valor (Viroli 1990).

As such, political and martial virtues were at the heart of civic republican theories of citizenship. This meant that the condition of being a free citizen required one to be able to fight for the only form of government which could guarantee his freedom: the republic. Pocock asserts that the possession of arms in republican Florence was “the ultima ratio whereby the citizen exposes his life in defense of the state and at the same time ensures that the decision to expose it cannot be taken without him; it is the possession of arms which makes a man a full citizen” (Pocock, p90).

Arms rights and martial virtues, particularly in republican Florence, were thus a means to an end. The ends being the individual’s sacrifice for the common good and the preservation of a free polis: autonomous and self-governing.

Commonwealth gold Unite, 1653. Credits: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc, WIkipedia

Commonwealth gold Unite, 1653. Credits: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc, WIkipedia

Similarly if we take a look at the political vocabulary employed during the Commonwealth of England (1649) and the American Revolution (1776) we find the same civic republican themes presented once again. Here, the civic virtues were called upon to emancipate individuals from the rule of absolute monarchy (Charles I in 1649 and George III in 1776). Theories of citizenship informing the Commonwealth justified rebellion and regicide by asserting the basic Aristotelian assumption that man is a free zoon politicon (a political animal) capable of self-government (Pocock 1985, p67). Similar justifications are used in the American Revolution, claiming that propertied men had a right to their own possessions and should be free from the arbitrary will of tyrants (Skinner 1998). Thus, the condition of personal freedom was possible solely through the institution of a popular government legitimized by the consent of the governed.

In 17th century England and in 18th century America, only the appeal to the sword and musket could ensure the erection and the maintenance of a free government for and by the people. Once again, Pocock suggests that in the political vocabulary of the times “the bearing of arms is the essential medium through which the individual asserts both his social power and his participation in politics as a responsible moral being” (Pocock 1975, p389).

The lesson we derive from the civic republican case for arms rights is that arms were an essential means through which to gain political agency and assert one’s status as free and equal citizen. Arms rights were therefore a historical exigency necessary to institute a public sphere, free and accessible political institutions and equality before the law.

Today, it appears to me that the right to bear arms is understood as a right unto itself, frequently equated with the inalienable rights to life, free speech and property. I think this is historically inaccurate. The founders of our democracies and the original architects of our republican orders did not equate the right to bear arms with some abstract notion of freedom, but rather saw arms and militias as a means through which to institute what they called a free body politick. Moreover, arms rights were part of a theory of citizenship imbued with civic virtue and uncompromisingly committed (unto death!) to the common good of the res publica.

In sum, the right to bear arms is historically part of a greater political struggle to institute a self-governing society informed by active citizenship. Today, contrarily, arms rights seem to signify some metaphysical libertarian notion of private freedom which is divorced from the collective struggle for a democratic society and hysterically suspicious of any notion of government.

Michael Hardt and Tony Negri point out how the ideals of republican theory become corrupt in modernity. They suggest that homo politicus -the civic republican- eventually succumbs to homo proprietarius –the possessive individualist whose egotistic self-interest powers the machinations of capital (Hardt and Negri 2011, p11). Contemporary justifications of arms rights are a perfect example of this type of corruption, successfully grounding the Second Amendment in the Hobbesian paradigm of the bellum omnium contra omnes (the war of all against all). Yet, historically speaking, arms rights were put in place to create and defend the public sphere, not to assert private and absolute sovereignty over one’s backyard.

For a similar take on arms rights, please consult the following articles:


  • Hardt, M. and Negri, A. 2011, Commonwealth, Belknapp Press of First Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA.
  • Pocock, J.G.A. 1975. The Machiavellian Moment, Princeton University Press: Princeton
  • Pocock, J.G.A. 1985. Virtue, Commerce, and History, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge
  • Skinner, Q. 1978. The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, Vol. 1. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge
  • Skinner, Q. 1998, Liberty Before Liberalism, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge
  • Viroli, M. 1990. “Machiavelli and the Republican Idea of Politics” in Bock, Skinner & Viroli ed. Machiavelli and Republicanism, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge


Filed under Arms Rights, Civic Republicanism, Democratic Theory, Libertarianism, Machiavelli, Nicolo Machiavelli, political philosophy, Second Amendment

The Trajectories of Neoliberalism

How will neoliberalism change in the light of the “Pacific Pivot” and US energy independence?

By Giulio Amerigo Caperchi

We are all well acquainted with the narratives embedded in the ideology of neoliberalism. Its emancipatory promise of a globalized world where the free exchange of goods, ideas and cultures would lead to peace, interdependence, prosperity, and the spread of democracy are well known. On the heels of the fall of the Soviet Union, so the story went, no alternative was left other than to embrace that dynamic American mix of capitalism and democracy. Borders would increasingly blur, nations and nationalisms would be rendered irrelevant as the new world order would be benevolently guided by international institutions such as the World Bank, the World Trade Organization and the United Nations. If only countries would deregulate, privatize and liberalize their economies democracy and prosperity would eventually follow. Human rights and free trade, we were told, go hand in hand.

Of course, the utopia came crashing down on 9-11, and then in Iraq and Afghanistan. It came crashing down in the financial meltdown of 2008. It came crashing down with the rise of nations such as China which demonstrated that authoritarianism can simply do capitalism better. Pundits now predict the end of the American hegemony and hail the advent of the “Asian Century”.  The future, as of today, seems pretty bleak for neoliberalism.

Two paradigm-shifting occurrences, however, might question the apparent neoliberal decline: the so called “Pacific Pivot” and the realistic possibility of US energy independence in the near future. In the light of these two issues, the global geopolitical panorama will of necessity undergo dramatic changes. Two key questions must be addressed here. Firstly, how will these changes impact the emancipatory narratives of neoliberalism? And secondly, how will they affect the military, financial and political institutions exercising neoliberalism’s global power?

The Pacific Pivot is the White House’s response to China’s growing military and economic clout. The Economist reports that China, although nowhere close to the US (yet), has upped its annual spending on defense from $30 billion in 2000 to $120 billion in 2010. In 2012 China will have spent $160 billion on modernizing its military. Analysts predict that China will outspend the US by more than half a trillion dollars by 2050 on defense related expenses.

Accordingly, as the wars in the Middle East wind down, the Obama administration has decided to revamp America’s reputation as a Pacific power. In its latest Strategic Guidance document, the White House states that “while the U.S. military will continue to contribute to security globally, we will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region”. Pacific deployments of marines are well under way, while joint military training operations have increased with the region’s pivotal allies, namely Japan, South Korea, Thailand and the Philippines. In the coming years, the DoD will be spending over $10.6 billion establishing a rotational force of 8000 marines stationed in Guam, Hawaii and Australia.

EIA US Energy Production and Consumption

EIA Energy Production and Consumption. Photo Credit:

On another front, energy analysts predict near energy independence in the US around the year 2050. According to the US Energy Information Administration, bolstered by technologies allowing the tapping of previously inaccessible shale gas and petroleum reserves, the US will dramatically reduce energy imports. In the adjacent graph, the EIA predicts a decrease in the gap between US energy consumption and production, resulting in a decline of energy imports of around 10% in 2040 compared to the year 2011. Within only three years the EIA estimates that the US will become a net exporter of liquid natural gas. It is no surprise that both presidential candidates of the 2012 Presidential election have made domestic energy production a priority of their respective electoral campaigns.

So what will these future changes entail for the emancipatory promises of neoliberalism? What of the world where free exchange of ideas and products would lead to international cooperation and render petty nationalisms and conflicts a distant memory of a barbaric past? Of course, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have overwhelmingly disproved neoliberalism’s promises of spreading democracy. But the Pacific Pivot does not even try to mask its ambitions with a concern for peace and democracy. There is no apology for the Pacific deployments: it is Machiavellian Realism 101 devoid of humanitarian underpinnings and defined by the pursuit of national interest. The Pacific Pivot is not justified by the ambitious projects of exporting human rights or engaging in nation-building as past US foreign policy so often has.

Energy independence could bolster this belligerent attitude, freeing the US from dependence on a turbulent Middle East and allowing it to increasingly concentrate its influence on Asia. Energy independence might actually fuel uniltaeralism and free the US from the need to calculate energy geopolitics within its foreign policy, potentially allowing it to forgo cooperation in international fora.

Moreover, this attitude is reflected in the key political, financial and military institutions which articulate neoliberal ideology. Let us take a brief look at these. Out of the financial crisis institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF have emerged stronger than ever, with countries at the heart of Europe ceding them national sovereignty. The “too big to fail” investment banks responsible for fraudulent lending and illegal practices (LIBOR and HSBC scandals –to mention the most recent) have been bailed out and are continuously sustained by tax payer money worldwide. Multinational corporations have posted record profits and are presently sitting on enormous piles of cash, with many of them refusing to raise wages and accept higher taxes. Military operations such as drone warfare and Special Forces incursions increasingly operate unaccountable and well out of the reach of international law. Neoliberalism’s most powerful players are probably stronger today than they were in the previous decade.

The ambivalent binomials inherent in neoliberalism, namely those of globalization and prosperity, of free trade and human rights, of military interventions and free societies have unraveled. The US neoliberal project has shed its emancipatory promises and embraced the pragmatic pursuit of military and financial interests. What it has left behind is an architecture of world government devoid of the spirit of Wilsonian idealism which had incipiently conceived it; bereft of a democratic ethic and fuelled by its unsustainable hydrocarbon bonanza.

So even if neoliberalism has crashed and burned, and, as stated by Slavoj Zizek, amply demonstrated that the marriage between capitalism and democracy has effectively ended, it is nonetheless emerging stronger, leaner and meaner than ever. The Pacific Pivot along with energy independence will be the chief contributors to the rebound of a new neoliberalism which will have definitely abandoned its humanitarian and democratic justifications. Perhaps, it will be incorrect to refer to it as neoliberalism at all, for there is nothing “new” nor anything “liberal” left in it any longer.


Filed under Human Rights, Nationalism, Neo-liberalism, neoliberalism