Despotism may be the only organizational alternative to the political structure that we observe ~ James Buchanan

Since around 1945 at least, an increasingly disturbing part of the human condition has been the irresistible fixation we have acquired for exploiting the links between money and power. The social costs, along with the inevitable debasement of moral standards accompanying this worrying development, could be incalculable.

Today, financial success is often pursued to the exclusion of almost every other aspect of life, including that which money cannot actually buy — like love, friendship, freedom, good health, appreciating great art, or playing a musical instrument, for example.

In spite of a majority of people in even the most developed countries lacking financial literacy of the most basic kind, economics reigns supreme. Financial matters dominate the headlines with numbers few understand. Profits, costs and revenues are deemed by big business to be the only meaningful measures. While orthodox economics underpin government policies that make little sense when viewed through a different lens, or when incidental factors are taken into account.

By and large we have learned to live with such economic cant. We were easily won over by marketing, promising us that, by quenching our insatiable desire for more and more possessions, money would make us happy. We trusted those leaders who reassured us economic growth would benefit everyone, that standards of living would rise, and that far fewer people would live in poverty. And to some extent these promises have been fulfilled — even if the link between wealth and happiness was proven to be wrong.

The intentions too, though not entirely selfless, seemed reasonable — validating Adam Smith’s contention that individuals are motivated by social instincts, including altruism and cooperation, quite apart from self-interest. End of story.

Well, not quite. There is an unlikely twist in this sad saga — a twist that started to emerge in the early part of the 20thcentury and is especially relevant to what we see happening in the world today. I refer to a bleak economic doctrine, the emergent groundswell from which could quite easily tip our society into a new dark age, where an aristocracy of the wealthy rules over us mere serfs, purely for their own benefit. But to appreciate the risk to our society, we must first understand the impulse underlying the rise of authoritarian neoliberalism, together with its consort, right-wing extremism, now encircling the globe.

In terms of economics and power, the grim, decidedly enraged, almost manic outbursts from today’s right-wing despots can be traced back to several sources — including Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, the two main advocates of neoliberalism. But a third man who I find more darkly disturbing is the American James Buchanan — a man whose credo favoured the unrelenting use of constitutional power to embed the rights of the wealthy.

If we examine Buchanan’s philosophy closely we find the spores of a most sinister intent. A monstrous ambition that is already being adopted, deliberately or intuitively, by most right-wing autocrats in power today, as well as those impatiently waiting in the wings.

Buchanan’s core idea — the structural and psychological destabilisation of the proletariat, to such an extent that they are unable to fight back, with assaults on working conditions, consumer protection, public services and civil rights — was enthusiastically implemented, though without much thought for the consequences — by both Ronald Reagan in the US, and Margaret Thatcher in the UK. Later this ethos became the psychological bedrock of Augusto Pinochet’s strategy for Chile, far more than Friedman’s highly publicised fiscal conservatism, or Hayek’s reliance on private investments to stimulate the economy.

This same belief system now gives tacit support to the revolution-by-stealth ensnaring many modern democracies — an ideological uprising that explains the mutations of right-wing radicalism currently exploding over the world of political and financial power.

It is vital that we grasp the true nature and impulse behind this surge of activity. For this is not just a novel, intensely vicious wave of partisan politics that will eventually run out of steam. There are far too many committed voices now — mostly from ordinary men and women who have suffered under neoliberal regimes, yet fail to see that what they now demand will result in an even worse scenario. This is something far more troubling — an bellicose grab for economic and political authority that could profoundly, and possibly permanently, shift the underlying power structures and relationships in society.

Nor is this just a case of neoliberalism eroding democratic principles, procedures and values. This “politicide” seeks to systematically reshape the world through the lens of the powerful, in favour of the wealthy, by obliterating the democratic model, together with its entire way of understanding and practising politics. It replaces neoliberal principles with a far more socially destructive paradigm. This is why I have constantly argued that what the world is witnessing right now, with the likes of Trump, Erdogan, Duterte, al-Bashir, and now Bolsonaro, is not simply part of the predictable cyclical swing between socialism and conservatism, but an altogether new and venal menace.

In the empires of the modern oligarch, craving attention, greedy for personal power and wealth, there is no value in a society threaded by compassion or fairness. Indeed, such a society is a drain on resources and an ongoing threat to their efforts to secure wealth for themselves. Understandably, if that society operates according to democratic principles, the obvious solution is to dismantle those tenets one by one, covertly if necessary, while protecting the wealthy, and the owners of property, through the drafting of a Constitution that prevents any group of citizens from infringing their rights.

If this ideology were to be followed through to its logical end-game, we can imagine an outcome which would be the opposite of a functioning democracy. But more than that. If a private governing elite of corporate and political power were to be absolved from any form of public accountability, it would increase the power and legitimacy of the wealthy in ways that no elected politician would ever dare challenge. The coup would be absolute.

For example, it could dismantle social security, healthcare and public education. It could control the media by sustaining it with irrelevant information, celebrity tittle-tattle, or other trivial distractions. It could stack the justice system, mute any voices of dissent, suffocate public education, criminalise environmental activism, ban public meetings, censor voting, and alter legislative processes to prevent changes to government legislation. It could also incite community unrest and propagate mistrust of public institutions, to the extent that voters would despair and disengage from the political process in their millions. Nothing could stop it. Sound democratic government, based on the rule of law, would be held captive to the whims of the new establishment.

This is not speculation of course. It is history. One has only to look back at Chile under Pinochet, and the pain his Junta was able to inflict on a country that had been a beacon of social progress, to comprehend the likely impact of this ideology on today’s global economy.By 1981 the great monetarist experiment was already in free fall. Domestic industrial production had collapsed, and imports greatly increased. A meltdown hit the banking sector, accompanied by soaring inflation, and triggering a massive surge in unemployment.

That same year the new Constitution consolidated power within the central government, while limiting the independence and rights of citizens. This provided the government with the legitimacy it needed to methodically suppress other political parties, dismantle public education, persecute dissidents, and introduce further rounds of financial insanity.

The deployment of fiscal conservatism required the budget to stay out of the red. But by avoiding deficits, and applying strict austerity measures, the ruling junta found a reason not to spend funds on urgently needed public facilities — such as infrastructure, welfare, and education. The Constitution stipulated unattainable majorities be the prerequisite for disputing, and then changing, any government policy. Naturally this meant that the community had no viable way to challenge the privatisation of pensions, health care and social security.

This is also a depiction of the present. Governments that deliberately evade the will of the people are being foisted on a credulous public. And not just in Chad or North Korea or Syria, mind you. In Britain, Saudi Arabia, the USA, Brazil, the Philippines and Thailand, radical right-wing forces are incrementally enhancing police powers, finding new ways to silence resistance, intensifying public surveillance, and distracting the community, all in the name of protecting freedom, fighting terrorism, and securing law and order within their borders.

In reality these devices are in place to monitor and contain any public anger that boils over into civil disobedience. Consequently, in modern police states, these devices have more to do with the loss of freedom; the lack of optimism in a viable future; the sense of being adrift in a rudderless society; ennui of impending disaster; fears related to urban crime, the refugee crisis, immigration, and anyone who looks out of place, or chooses to follow a different faith; the continuing absence of sane, collective, environmental action; financial inequities; and, of course, irritation with elected officials whose arrogance sets them apart from those they are supposed to serve, and frustration, too, by an inability to change the rules of the game so that the corrupt and the self-serving can be removed.

It seems to me our greatest threat is that the momentum created by these extreme right-wing coalitions is rapidly approaching a tipping point where retreat of any kind will be all but impossible. We have already consented to an extractionist model of capitalism, which divides us based on our financial assets. And we already accept that the chasm opening up between the ultra-wealthy and the poor is increasing exponentially. We also know that “trickle-down” economics is a sham and does not work.

If the oligarchs align their efforts to control society by protecting wealth and property at the expense of democratic decision making, they will expedite a world in which the slaves are once again beholden to a wealthy elite. The third man’s bitter cynicism concerning an empathic society will have prevailed. Why would this be the case?

Because the short-term interests of ultra-wealthy coalitions are invariably different to the long-term interests of society as a whole. Because the affluent class actually benefits from social dysfunctionality and consequently blocks any socially-desirable solutions that could shift the status quo. Because the plutocratic control of politics, corporate media, business and education, has already led to institutional failure on a massive scale without any sign that elites really comprehend the existential predicament we all face. Because economics, however wide of the mark, immoral, or simply wrong, is still the only driving force that has any influence or meaning in those circles. And because the financial resources that will be required to change any of this is locked up in the bank vaults of the ultra-wealthy.

Like those three brass monkeys, still seen in bric-a-brac stalls and pawn shops, the right-wing autocracy appears blind, deaf and dumb to the consequences of its faith. A faith that must either destroy us all, or regress to a world that is manifestly unjust.

Philosopher-Activist and Executive Director at Centre for the Future