In a neoliberal’s garden with you


Something Gaius wrote on Monday grabbed me:

In the FDR-liberal world, the function of government is to provide services to citizens and protection from predators in the private sector. In the neo-liberal world, the function of government is to manage government services so the private sector is given the most profit opportunities possible.

Going back over some notes from the weekend, I recognized the echo of George Monbiot’s critique of neoliberalism in the Guardian. His How Did We Get into This Mess? was released yesterday. Neoliberalism, like many political enthusiasms, morphed from philosophy to religion with its practitioners hardly noticing. Not so for working people paying for neoliberal hubris. They noticed:

Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. It maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning.

Attempts to limit competition are treated as inimical to liberty. Tax and regulation should be minimised, public services should be privatised. The organisation of labour and collective bargaining by trade unions are portrayed as market distortions that impede the formation of a natural hierarchy of winners and losers. Inequality is recast as virtuous: a reward for utility and a generator of wealth, which trickles down to enrich everyone. Efforts to create a more equal society are both counterproductive and morally corrosive. The market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve.

Mix one part Calvinism with one part trickle-down economics, add a dash of prosperity gospel, and there you are. We’ve gone from government providing services to citizens as its raison d’être to government services interfering with God’s judgment on the least of them. We can’t have government picking the pockets of winners and squandering the Market’s blessings on nature’s failures. And when neoliberal policies fail?

The greater the failure, the more extreme the ideology becomes. Governments use neoliberal crises as both excuse and opportunity to cut taxes, privatise remaining public services, rip holes in the social safety net, deregulate corporations and re-regulate citizens. The self-hating state now sinks its teeth into every organ of the public sector.

Perhaps the most dangerous impact of neoliberalism is not the economic crises it has caused, but the political crisis. As the domain of the state is reduced, our ability to change the course of our lives through voting also contracts. Instead, neoliberal theory asserts, people can exercise choice through spending. But some have more to spend than others: in the great consumer or shareholder democracy, votes are not equally distributed. The result is a disempowerment of the poor and middle. As parties of the right and former left adopt similar neoliberal policies, disempowerment turns to disenfranchisement. Large numbers of people have been shed from politics.

As Naomi Klein revealed, the invisible hands behind this invisible doctrine prefer to remain invisible. The financial crisis and Occupy Wall Street threw a spotlight on them, but an alternative from the left is still wanting. Monbiot is not recommending a return to the New Deal. That would be a mistake, he writes:

Every invocation of Lord Keynes is an admission of failure. To propose Keynesian solutions to the crises of the 21st century is to ignore three obvious problems. It is hard to mobilise people around old ideas; the flaws exposed in the 70s have not gone away; and, most importantly, they have nothing to say about our gravest predicament: the environmental crisis. Keynesianism works by stimulating consumer demand to promote economic growth. Consumer demand and economic growth are the motors of environmental destruction.

In truth, the first is probably the strongest argument. Millennials do not seem interested in reclaiming past liberal glories; they want to chart a new path forward and a different vision. Working people by and large won’t be taking time from two to three jobs to ponder the 1970s. The environmental challenges ahead are products of the past. What the future demands is a new model. Not “innovation” (see Tuesday’s post) but a more equitable organizing principle than consumption. Lacking that, we will just get more of the same mess repackaged. So far, that’s all that’s on the shelves.

(Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.)

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