Walter White, the main protagonist in the hugely popular Breaking Bad (AMC 2008-13) cable TV series, starts as a struggling high school chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with lung cancer. As such, Walter turns to the fast money lane of methamphetamine formulation to secure a financial future for his family before he dies, leading to a lifestyle conversion from protagonist to antagonist, an evolving metamorphosis from sympathetic to callous, brutal, and hardnosed.
The TV series is emblematic of neoliberalism’s unfolding over these past few decades during which the innocence of the 1950s Leave it to Beaver socio-economic era transformed into… well, the heartbreaking loss of innocence of Breaking Bad, involving lust for money as life’s destiny, as Walter White buries barrels full of hundred dollar bills in the desert, in and of itself a metaphor of money for the sake of money as an end game.
Today’s neoliberalism, which is rampant, dispassionate, no-holds-barred capitalism, has evolved much as Walter White evolved in Breaking Bad. As such, it was the 1950s when an unknown economist named Milton Friedman (1912-2006) innocently coined the term “neoliberalism.” Ever since, and similar to Walter White’s transformation, neoliberalism has increasingly taken on a rougher more dispassionate character in its quest to eliminate FDR and LBJ’s social consciousness of governing for, and on behalf of, “the people.”
But, it wasn’t until the arrival of Ronald Reagan that Friedman’s doctrines truly came to the fore, similar to the relationship of Breaking Bad’s Jesse Pinkman, who was Walter White’s dedicated student and his partner and inspirational force. In due course, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher sealed the deal for neoliberalism’s pathway to riches for fewer and fewer players by extricating democratic capitalism from the pursuit of, as the French say: Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité.
Now that Breaking Bad is finished, dedicated fans readily admit Walter’s beneficent character turned more, and more, maleficent as the series progressed. By the end, all feared Walter, including adoring fans as he morphed into a nefarious character that left a bruised and bloodied streak in its wake.
Similarly, neoliberalism, which is capitalism with the gloves off, destroys livelihoods left and right; e.g., America’s middle class is on the ropes, whilst uplifting the wealthy class to unheard of heights. But, how does the world react to this heisting, which benefits so few? There is no palpable reaction. It’s as if the world is frozen in a time warp from the 1890s Gilded Age (coined by Mark Twain) when nouveau riche families of the day, the Astors, the Vanderbilts, and the Rockefellers glowingly flaunted their status via conspicuous consumption.
However, in light of that era, the overriding issue is not the right to success nor is the issue the right to accumulate wealth. The burning issue underlying neoliberalism’s course is the devious manipulation of governing policies and regulations, plus disregard of compassion for society at large, which are at the core neoliberalism’s quest for profits at any cost; only profits count, leaving in its wake a long string of deadened and/or dispirited middle class Americans.
Similar to the script’s unfolding in Breaking Bad, neoliberalism grows ever more vicious and merciless. And, interestingly, the general awareness of this is everywhere to be seen and heard in the public domain, even though nobody does much of anything about it.
For example, why is “the one percent” such a profoundly accepted and widely recognized epithet today?
And, as for another example, the turning out of Eric Cantor, who was beholden to Wall Street, signifies what?
Similar to Walter White’s increasingly ugly demeanor as episode followed episode whilst fans grew anxious about what the ending might bring, neoliberalism has shown its true colors and exposed its warts: A society duped by its own leadership via international agreements like NAFTA, which undercut the working middle class in America and in Mexico and tax policies that favor the rich at lower rates (Romney’s 15%) than working-class families and the boundless contrivance of offshore monies hidden from full view and the relentless offshoring of good, solid American jobs shipped to starvation-wage foreign shores.
This is transnationalism at work, taking its cue from neoliberalism’s dicta of brutal competition and harsh efficiency to achieve maximum profit as well as the death knell to social welfare programs. Yes, the spirit of FDR and LBJ is on a slippery slope, and like Hank Schrader, Walter White’s DEA agent brother-in-law, who was durably honest and too honorable to save in the dystopian script, nothing good survives to the end of the series.
Likewise, social programs run out of funds when trillions of dollars are transported offshore (an upshot of neoliberalism), up to $32 trillion, excluding tangibles like RE and yachts and islands, and on and on it goes1 because who’s left to pay the bills at home? As it happens, going into debt to pay for social programs is always an option, but that fallback routine has already gone over the top. Similar to Walter White burying millions of dollars in 32-gallon barrels in the desert, neoliberalism has a predilection for wealth creation via contorted taxation codes and inverted governmental policies and stockpiling via hidden assets.
And, everybody knows it.
Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) talks about it all the time on the floor of the U.S. Senate: The three-story stucco office building in the Bahamas with 5,000 postal addresses for hedge funds, corporations, and wealthy individuals. Post office box business addresses in the Bahamas are “in your face” contempt of the policies, laws, and ethics of civilized society, as well as disgustingly avaricious and decidedly gluttonous.
Additionally, Senator Sanders, America’s only declared socialist in Congress, talks about crony capitalists who work in darkness, in the shadows, creating phony 501(c)3 not-for-profit entities to secretly funnel money to defeat social causes, to privatize schools, to privatize libraries, to privatize the Post Office, to privatize defense, to privatize NASA, to privatize social security, to privatize medical care, to privatize (rather, own) elections, to privatize the whole world!
Yes, the consummate Friedmanesque goal is privatization of everything; turn everything into a commodity because “the market knows best.” Implicit within this market-driven worldwide neoliberalism (nihilism) is the implied message that people are commodities to be used and discarded as necessary, and isn’t that what’s been happening? It’s feudalism all over again.
It is a new world order in the spirit of Milton Freidman’s motto “the government is best which governs the least,” nonetheless, and this is a very big nonetheless, hypocritically, a full throttle political tilt in support of neoliberalism set the stage for Reverse Robin Hood economics via manipulation of governmental policy and regulations, proving how perfectly hypocrisy rhymes with plutocracy.
In that regard, Breaking Bad reflects neoliberalism’s deep, dirty underbelly in the character of Gus Fring, the drug kingpin, who by all outward appearances is one of the most upstanding citizens of Albuquerque, the setting for Breaking Bad. But, within the darkened shadows Gus’s true colors reveal a vicious drug kingpin who poisons society for money. It’s all about the winners no matter who loses. Nothing else counts but winners, the subplot of neoliberalism, but the playing field is rigged as people are commoditized and utilized as a means to an end, whereby Gus adroitly exerts total control over Walter and Jesse to produce the purest of methamphetamine; thus, his two human commodities produce a raunchy, but highly marketable, commodity, as the world turns.
Singularly, the value system of neoliberalism is reflected in the art of contemporary society as writers, producers, actors, and directors subconsciously regurgitate the mores and perverted policies of society in a hit TV series. In that regard, Breaking Bad is all about the loss of innocence and disregard for decency and respect for society at large in the pursuit of a buck.
And, that buck stops offshore.
Be that as it may, ultimately the public’s distaste for sanctimonious crud finds a proper course of action in its undying search for a glint of fairness, and maybe comeuppance, as the mallet of public judgment quashes the infestation of hypocrisy lodged behind the veiled curtain of brutal, shifty politics supportive of neoliberalism. Cantor is out, Walter is dead, and an unflinching neoliberalism wobbles and quivers, maybe for the first time.
Postscript: “Neoliberalism is the defining political economic paradigm of our time – it refers to the policies and processes whereby a relative handful of private interests are permitted to control as much as possible of social life in order to maximize their personal profit. Associated initially with Reagan and Thatcher, neoliberalism has for the past two decades been the dominant global political economic trend adopted by political parties of the center, much of the traditional left, and the right. These parties and the policies they enact represent the immediate interests of extremely wealthy investors and less than one thousand large corporations.” Robert W. McChesney, Noam Chomsky and the Struggle Against Neoliberalism, Monthly Review, April 1, 1999.
The very design of neoliberal principles is a direct attack on democracy.
— Noam Chomsky, the “father of modern linguistics”
- James Henry, atty. and former chief economist of McKinsey & Company [↩]