The idea was absolutely irresistible when it came to mind: The decadence of neo-liberalism. I thought the concept was clear and easily articulated: The nomination of such candidates as Rand Paul, Sharon Angle and Christine O’Donnell is proof that the neo-liberal consensus that has dominated American politics since the 1980s is breaking down and will eventually result in the left offering a viable alternative to neo-liberal ideology. Making the argument, however, was much more difficult than I originally thought as it based on a combination of my hope and an intuitive feeling about American politics.
So, instead, I will go back to what I know, sports stadiums, to work through the peculiarities of this decadent moment.
Classically, the term decadence refers to luxurious self-indulgence, and, to an extent rarely seen in public buildings, contemporary sports stadiums certainly encourage this sort of behavior. In the New Yankee Stadium, season tickets for front row seats in the on-field Legend’s Suite cost up to $120,000 each. Ticket holders receive cushioned seats with teak armrests, gourmet meals in a private club, private concierge and wait service, private parking, a private entrance, private restrooms, private elevators, and a private concourse. In Los Angeles, $150,000 purchases season tickets to sit courtside for Lakers games amongst stars like Jack Nicholson, assorted media moguls, and the odd Internet billionaire. A relative bargain at $3,700 per game, one ticket holder described the location as “slightly more prestigious than owning your own plane.”
While these tickets are certainly extraordinary, attending games in average seats is not much more affordable as Sport Marketing Report has found that a family of four would spend an average of almost $200 to attend a Major League Baseball game, almost $300 to attend a game from the National Hockey League or National Basketball Association, and more than $400 to attend a National Football League game. Within a generation, sporting attendance has gone from being accessible for most people to being the exclusive domain of the richest 10% of the country.
The design of stadiums and the price of tickets matter as they are indicative of a much deeper trend in American public life, which is for sale and only affordable to the wealthiest few. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case, American democracy is for sale and its corporate buyers can remain anonymous. As corporations can give unlimited sums for political advocacy, patriotic-sounding organizations, such as the American Future Fund or Americans for Job Security, use that money to attack any politician daring to argue that taxes on the wealthy should be higher or that corporations should be subject to more regulations (it’s not like lax oversight allowed banks to almost cause the collapse of the global economy in 2008, or poor safety led to hundreds of millions gallons of oil to spill into the Gulf of Mexico… sorry, bad examples). Meanwhile, led by Meg Whitman’s $150 million in California, a host of Republican heirs and former CEOs have sought to purchase governorships and seats in Congress by marching beneath the pseudo-populist banner of the Tea Party.
As American democracy becomes the best that money can buy for those with the ability to purchase it, this degradation of politics is the logical consequence of the neo-liberal policies promulgated by both political parties during the last 30 years. Republicans and Democrats alike have undermined people’s belief in government with politicians being positioned as tools of special interest rather than as public servants, public employees are vilified as inefficient and uncaring bureaucrats, needed infrastructure spending is derided as wasteful pork, and recipients of public support are called lazy and undeserving. As Republicans do not believe that government is competent to do anything, they appointed unqualified people to run essential government functions who, when disaster struck, made this belief a self-fulfilling prophecy and further undermined popular trust in the public sector (exhibit #1: Michael Brown at FEMA during Hurricane Katrina).
With government in disrepute, the free market and the private sector are the assumed sole source of efficient and effective solutions. Failing public education can only be saved by private and charter schools. Because soldiers shouldn’t be responsible for fixing their own meals or providing security at embassies around the world (as they have done since the American Revolution), the government hires private contractors to do the same jobs at five times the price. Rather than stimulating economic demand by direct government spending or through transfers to people who will use it, government is supposed to stimulate private sector activity through supply side policies with low tax rates for the wealthy and subsidies for business. Since the public sector can’t be trusted, public assets are sold at cut-rate prices to private companies and wealthy individuals.
The billions of dollars of public spending on sports stadiums and arenas over the past 20 years are certainly illustrative of this neo-liberal philosophy. Millionaires and billionaires who own sports teams certainly do not need public subsidies and assets to build their facilities, but governments compete for the right to do so. Although many of these facilities are nominally public, they are managed privately and exclude most people. But this orgy of government spending on stadiums is nearing its end as the demands of most teams have been sated (for now), and, in this Great Recession, people are beginning to realize the ineffectiveness of stadiums as a development strategy and the inequities perpetuated within its spaces.
Which brings me to the second meaning of decadence as the internal contradictions of neo-liberalism are now emerging and leading towards its collapse. The apparent strength of the Tea Party and its cadre of candidates would seem to contradict this assertion, but it actually shows both the depth of popular rage at the status quo and the paucity of solutions the political right has to offer. While this rage began in the early months of the Obama Administration, the impetus for the Tea Party was as a reaction to the Troubled Asset Relief Program and other perceived government bailouts of big banks and big business. As people lost their jobs and homes and felt the economic insecurity due to 30 years of neo-liberal policies, they watched as the wealthy and major corporations receive hundreds of billions of public dollars. Establishment Republicans fell victim to this anger as Tea Party candidates defeated them in party primaries and the Democrats will feel it as well in November’s elections.
However, as satisfying as “throwing the bums out” in November may be to the enraged electorate, Tea Party candidates are offering nothing new in terms of policy. Instead, they parrot the very policies that have caused their insecurity in a mantra of tax cuts, spending cuts, free trade, less regulation, and a strong military as if this program was brought down from Mt. Sinai by Ronald Reagan and written by the hand of George Washington and his 12 apostles in 1776. This non-critical political fundamentalism is embodied by the true leader of the Republican Party, Sarah Palin, and many Republican candidates. It is enforced by Fox News and the right-wing radio talk show hosts who cast as apostates and “refudiate” anyone who deviates from the party line and seeks effective governance through working with Obama and Democrats.
As right wing media outlets and corporate America fuel and bankroll the Tea Party movement, they paint “big government” as the oppressor and the enemy of freedom. But it is important to ask if, at what point (if any), do people begin to look behind the curtain and recognize the true source of their economic insecurity and discontent? Will the next two years be the time when people realize that big government is not the problem, but the corporations who exploit their labor and consumption? Will people see that government serves corporate power and will they demand that government start serving the people once again? If so, an energetic political left will find a willing audience for its message. If not, government will slide into complete irrelevance within the corporate state.
In this manner, the contemporary sports stadium is the perfect metaphor for our times. With all apologies to Lincoln, these are facilities of the people, built by the people, but for the corporations and the wealthy. In these spaces that were once fairly democratic, those with access to and benefiting from corporate power enjoy their decadent pleasures while everyone else watches from the outside or on television. But, for how much longer?