Early on in the fight against COVID-19, one of the biggest problems humankind has faced in decades, there was broad support for global public solutions. A robust governmental response to the pandemic that transcended national boundaries, class, and other divisions seemed like the obvious choice. This changed, however, when Bill Gates and other powerful, self-serving actors pushed for, and ultimately succeeded in convincing, the World Health Organization and other global and national health authorities to accept public-private partnerships as the ideal model for vaccine rollouts. Gates, one of the richest men in the world, overwhelmed the voices of many public health officials who called for a public vaccine and instead almost single-handedly propped up a system, backed by the large drug companies, that allowed said companies to maintain patent rights over the vaccines and left governments to compete for access in the “open market” through public-private partnerships.

Schemes like the one that Gates promoted, where private enterprises take on the role of governmental entities and then fail at that task as they pursue market interests instead of the best interests of the public, are not new or limited to public health.

The results of this strategy have been an unmitigated disaster, particularly in the Global South, where the long history of Gates’ public-private approach to addressing a variety of humanitarian crises has had, at best, mixed results. Africa, where the lack of access to vaccines has led to less than 10% of Africans being fully vaccinated and the continent receiving only 6% of the world’s vaccine supply despite having 17% of the world’s population, has particularly struggled under this strategy. This global vaccine apartheid, however, does not only impact those in the Global South; it is directly linked to the development and transmission of new variants that impact all of us.

Schemes like the one that Gates promoted, where private enterprises take on the role of governmental entities and then fail at that task as they pursue market interests instead of the best interests of the public, are not new or limited to public health. In fact, these kinds of privatization schemes have come to dominate the American political landscape in the last 30 years. It has fundamentally shifted how our democracy works, and even how we define what is and is not a public good. Moreover, the neoliberal celebration of public-private partnerships as the cure-all for society’s ills has transformed the relationship between government policy and the public, shifting “the people” from the position of citizens who are engaged in the democratic process of improving the life and health of our shared society to the position of passive consumers of an ever-dwindling supply of services. 

Donald Cohen, co-author of the new book The Privatization of Everything: How the Plunder of Public Goods Transformed America and How We Can Fight Back points to the vaccine crisis as an example of how privatization has failed us all. “It’s clear to me that the health of all of us depends on the health of each of us, everyone needs to get it. When you put it in the market it is a complete disaster,” Cohen told TRNN.

The book points out how democracy and privatization inherently do not mix, because public citizens have minimal input into how private businesses operate.

Cohen and his co-author Allen Mikaelian wrote their book to highlight how the massive increase in privatization throughout all areas of government has changed not only how we receive services, but also how our democracy operates. “We are in an environment of tax cutting… we’re in a general era of austerity, especially at the state level,” said Cohen. “So what that leaves across the board is things that we all need that we don’t have the money to do, and the private sector swoops in and says, ‘We’ve got a solution for your problems: let’s privatize it’… We see it in virtually all sectors and we wanted to tie it all together [in the book]… to say there is something larger going on about democracy.”

The book points out how democracy and privatization inherently do not mix, because public citizens have minimal input into how private businesses operate. Cohen points to the privatization of the parking meters in Chicago as a prime example of citizens losing control over public choices. After a company owned by Morgan Stanley took over the collection of parking fees in the city, not only has the city lost revenue despite increased parking costs, the city has also been forced to pay compensation whenever public parking spaces are removed. This has caused complications for the city as it tries to build new roads and bike lanes, hold public events, and plan new infrastructure. “It’s a straitjacket on democratically elected people’s ability to do their jobs,” said Cohen.

The book walks through a plethora of privatization schemes throughout the United States, showing examples of their impact in almost every area that governments are supposed to serve. From the Flint water crisis to the lack of public broadband internet access, to the exploding number of incarcerated individuals, all have roots in—and have been made worse by—privatization. While the book could not address all of the privatization issues in America, Cohen hopes that readers will see ties to their own communities when reading it. “That was the intent of the book, to say we are giving you illustrations, but the illustrations are about something that you might see in other places,” he said. 

“So racism is used again to separate people from government and to turn people away from the idea of government and the institution of government. So the government doesn’t fund things, things get worse, and the privatizers walk in and say, ‘We’re the reformers, we’ve got the solution.’”

The push for this widespread and relentless privatization of government services found some of its earliest proponents in the white supremacist backlash to the Brown v. Board of Education decision, which led directly to the “school choice” movement. Milton Friedman and other neoliberal economists seized on the racist reaction to Brown and the prospect of integrated public schools to start heavily promoting “school choice” as an alternative; such campaigns against public education have been an essential part of the broader movement to privatize government services. In furthering this goal, they helped provide race-neutral language to white supremacists who wanted to keep schools segregated. “[The school choice movement] created white flight academies, it closed down other schools… but more importantly the idea ‘you should be able to decide who your kids are in school with’ enables bias, explicit racism, implicit racism, implicit bias—it enables that,” said Cohen. 

Prominent conservative activists and string-pullers such as the Koch brothers jumped on the school privatization bandwagon to launch a decades-long campaign to promote a privatization-heavy libertarian agenda that “coincidentally” happened to make them billions of dollars in government contracts. “For the Koch brothers [their privatization championing] is convenient. They’re true believers… but it’s convenient libertarianism because, by the way, they make billions of dollars,” said Cohen. “Because it’s not just Koch. When you look at corporate America and most corporations, they are not that different… they fund conservative politicians, they are out there pushing for market solutions and a tiny government, they are free market ideologues, but it is convenient and profitable for them.”

This privatization movement reached the masses with the election of Ronald Reagan, once again heavily propped up by racist tropes. “Welfare queens were the go-to under Reagan, and what’s that about, really?” asked Cohen. “That was about [saying that] government serves somebody else, not you, and the someone else it serves is undeserving. So racism is used again to separate people from government and to turn people away from the idea of government and the institution of government. So the government doesn’t fund things, things get worse, and the privatizers walk in and say, ‘We’re the reformers, we’ve got the solution.’”

While Reagan is often credited as the most important figure in the paradigmatic shift to private companies controlling what used to be the terrain of government, Cohen argues that Bill Clinton was pivotal in its implementation. “Reagan fundamentally failed. He came in as the anti-government president, and super charged the folks… but he couldn’t make it happen,” said Cohen. “Clinton comes in and he’s a new entity, he was a [moderate], he was a New Dem… so he says ‘The era of big government is over’… and he opened the floodgates.”

“The idea [in these reforms under Clinton] that the citizens are customers is kind of baked in, and I feel that it’s part of the problem because it’s like, yes we need to be served well, yes we need to be treated with respect, but we are not just customers and consumers—we are citizens. That idea that we are all market actors is really problematic.”

Clinton did what many Republicans wish they could have done, overseeing the widespread privatization of public goods both through welfare reform, which opened the first major part of the social safety net to privatization, and through his creation and promotion of the National Partnership for Reinventing Government led by the Gore Commission, which called for a fundamental change in the way government operated. “The idea [in these reforms under Clinton] that the citizens are customers is kind of baked in, and I feel that it’s part of the problem because it’s like, yes we need to be served well, yes we need to be treated with respect, but we are not just customers and consumers—we are citizens. That idea that we are all market actors is really problematic.”

Cohen, who is also the executive director of In the Public Interest, a nonprofit organization that studies public goods and services, hopes that the book inspires people to ask questions about efforts to privatize their government services. “Elected officials and appointed officials too often don’t really ask the hard questions before the contract happens. It’s not all nefarious, some of it is just they are overworked and overwhelmed, and the private sector walks in with answers that say cheaper, faster, better, and we will take one problem off your plate,” said Cohen. “You are not going to learn the intricacies of infrastructure finance [for example], so that’s why you have to ask questions. You don’t have to become the expert, you have to ask questions. The most important thing is to ask these hard questions and demand that our elected officials and the staff and agencies do the same thing.”

Molly Shah

Molly Shah is a freelance writer and social media consultant based in Berlin. Prior to moving to Germany Molly was an activist, teacher and lawyer in Louisville, Kentucky. Follow her on Twitter: @MollyOShah