The Ideology of Privatization

When a majority of doctors back a national insurance plan, how do we keep getting health care that is more fragmented, private-insurer-driven, and risky? Zygmunt Bauman offers an insightful look at the ideology of privatization that cripples “collective responses” to problems like these:

The call to ‘work more and earn more’, a call addressed to individuals, and fit only for individual use, is chasing away and replacing past calls to ‘think of society’ and ‘care for society’ (for a community, a nation, a church, a cause). . . . This ideology proclaims the futility (indeed, counter-productivity) of solidarity: of joining forces and subordinating individual actions to a ‘common cause’. It derides the principle of communal responsibility for the wellbeing of its members. . . .

Individuals are called upon to invent and deploy individual solutions to socially produced discomforts, and they tend to respond in kind. Thus any turn of events that plays havoc with the expectations suggested by a person-focused ideology is perceived and ‘made sense of’, in the same ideology of privatisation, as a personal snub, a personally aimed (even if randomly targeted) humiliation; self-respect, as well as feelings of security and self-confidence, are its first casualties.

Has your “health insurance” left you with huge debts? The privatization ideology responds, “Should have read the contract, sucker.” Never mind if the person who signed the contract doesn’t have training as a lawyer, or didn’t have the funds to buy a better alternative.

What I particularly like about Bauman’s article is how he traces the mutual influences between the privatization ideology and pop culture. Consider this analysis of Big Brother:

In Big Brother, someone must be excluded each week: not because, by some curious coincidence, regularly, every week, one person shows themselves as being inadequate, but because it has been written into the rules of ‘reality’ as seen on TV. Exclusion is in the nature of things, an un-detachable aspect of being-in-the-world, a ‘law of nature’ – and so to rebel against it makes no sense. The only issue worthy of being thought about – and intensely – is staving off the prospect of myself being excluded in the next round of exclusions.

A few posts from now, I’ll examine how this cultural Social Darwinism affects social science. But for now I’ll just note one of Bauman’s fascinating insights on the culture of luxury at the “top” of the hierarchy the ideology of privatization celebrates:

One of the permanent contributors to [the] ‘How to spend it’

explains that what makes some exorbitantly costly perfumes ‘so beguiling’ is the fact that they ‘have been kept under wraps for loyal clients’. As well as an unusual fragrance, they offer an olfactory emblem of magnificence, and of belonging to the company of the magnificent. As Ann Rippin suggests, this and similar kinds of bliss offer the combination of belonging to an exclusive category and the badge of supreme taste and connoisseurship – the knowledge of being among the selected few. Delights of the palate, eye, ear, nose and fingers are multiplied by the knowledge that so few others savour them. Is it the sense of privilege that makes the high and mighty happy?

Rippin finds such ways of reaching the state of happiness to be at best only half successful: the momentary joys they bring dissolve, vanishing quickly into long-term anxiety. The fantasy world spun by the editors of ‘How to spend it’ is marked by fragility and impermanence: ‘the struggle for legitimacy through magnificence and excess implies instability and vulnerability’. The occupants of the fantasy world are aware that they can never have enough, or be good enough, to be safe.

‘Consumption leads not to surety and satiety but to escalating anxiety. Enough can never be enough’. As one of the ‘How to spend it’ contributors warns, in a world in which ‘everyone’ can afford a luxury car, those who really aim high ‘have no option but to go one better’.

Positional goods strike again.

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