Last week, I watched Michael Moore’s new film, Fahrenheit 11/9. It was good — even inspiring. But what most stood out to me was the story of a teacher’s strike in West Virginia. Really, just one part of it. The teachers were forced to buy and wear the Fitbit Go365 just to get insurance. And if they didn’t get sufficient exercise, they were charged $500 at the end of the year.
It’s the Corporations Not the Government
I’ve long been parroting Neil Postman’s idea that our society has turned into Aldous Huxley’s nightmare of a people controlled through pleasure rather than George Orwell’s nightmare of control through terror and pain. But the truth is that neither get at the way control exists in the modern world. We effectively have no government in that it is controlled for the purpose of making our largest corporations profitable. Thus, it is the corporations that control us.
Seen in this light, both Huxley and Orwell were prescient. Corporations use both carrots and sticks on us. And forcing teachers to wear the Fitbit device is a great example of this. Most Americans would be apoplectic if the government directly demanded that people wear a fitness device. But in this case, it is “voluntary”! Teachers don’t have to get health insurance. And if they exercise enough, they won’t face the $500 fine! This, in America, is what we call choice.
Neoliberalism: Tyrany of the Corporations
This is also what the federal government does to states. For example, states didn’t have to participate in the test-obsessed and charter-schools-pushing Race to the Top. But if they wanted extra money for their already under-funded schools, they had to. (Of course, many of them didn’t get much money anyway.)
And this is ultimately what is wrong with neoliberal policy. Private business doesn’t get involved with government in order to make the country better. I’m not sure why people don’t see this. After all, we are constantly reminded that corporations have but one purpose: to make money. Yet as a group, we buy this pseudo-science of the “magic of the market.” Charter schools will save us because of unknown market magic. And never do a statistical analysis! Instead, compare the best charter schools to the worst public schools!
Similarly, we have test-based education because the non-profit foundations of the Gates and Walton families have decided that it is the key to better education. I won’t say they are doing it just to avoid higher taxes, because the truth is that I don’t think it even occurs to them that higher taxes might be necessary. When you have that much money, you just know higher taxes are counterproductive.
There Is No Choice
But the Fitbit story still stands out. You probably remember how the televisions in Nineteen Eighty-Four were two-way. During morning exercise, Winston was chastised for not performing well enough. The power elite don’t need such low-tech systems of control. They can just use technology to see how many steps you take per day.
But don’t, for a minute, think this isn’t coerced. Our society has developed a mythology that obscures coercion. It goes along with the idea that if a woman doesn’t stab a man forcing himself on her, she wasn’t raped. Someone who’s been out of work for a year has the “choice” to not take that job that forces them to accept arbitration. And the teachers at Stonewall Jackson (!) Public School had the “choice” to go without health insurance or work somewhere else.
All of these things are coercive. And no amount of myth-making changes that. But in order for it to matter, people need to recognize that all these “choices” aren’t. They aren’t even real alternatives.
 A choice provides you with the ability to pick from all possibilities. An alternative allows you to pick from a set number. People usually don’t make this distinction, but it is profound. In a capitalist system, one rarely gets a choice unless they are rich.