Neoliberalism or capitalism?

Posted: 20 April 2016 in Uncategorized
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George Monbiot makes a compelling case that the Left still needs to come up with a viable alternative to contemporary economic and social common sense.

Monbiot summarizes that common sense as neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism: do you know what it is?

Its anonymity is both a symptom and cause of its power. It has played a major role in a remarkable variety of crises: the financial meltdown of 2007‑8, the offshoring of wealth and power, of which the Panama Papers offer us merely a glimpse, the slow collapse of public health and education, resurgent child poverty, the epidemic of loneliness, the collapse of ecosystems, the rise of Donald Trump. But we respond to these crises as if they emerge in isolation, apparently unaware that they have all been either catalysed or exacerbated by the same coherent philosophy; a philosophy that has – or had – a name. What greater power can there be than to operate namelessly?

So pervasive has neoliberalism become that we seldom even recognise it as an ideology. We appear to accept the proposition that this utopian, millenarian faith describes a neutral force; a kind of biological law, like Darwin’s theory of evolution. But the philosophy arose as a conscious attempt to reshape human life and shift the locus of power.

And, Monbiot is right: to propose Keynesian solutions to the crises of the 21st century is “an admission of failure.”

The problem, of course, is that focusing on the evils of neoliberalism—hyper-individualism, privatization, market freedom, blaming the victim, and so on—does lead to more government programs, state regulation, and, in general, Keynesian solutions.

The problem, as Chris Dillow explains, is that “neoliberalism is NOT free market ideology.”

Instead, it’s that all these policies enrich the already rich. Attacks on unions raise profit margins and bosses’ pay. Privatization expands the number of activities in which profits can be made; managerialism and academization enrich spivs and gobshites; and benefitsanctions help ensure that bosses get a steady supply of cheap labour if only by creating a culture of fear. Ben [Southwood]’s claim that neoliberalism is happy with a big state fits this pattern; big government spending helps to mitigatecyclical risk.

All this makes me suspect that those leftists who try to intellectualize neoliberalism and who talk of a “neoliberal project” are giving it too much credit – sometimes verging dangerously towards conspiracy theories.  Maybe there’s less here than meets the eye. Perhaps neoliberalism is simply what we get when the boss class exercises power over the state.

The real issue, in other words, is capitalism. It’s what happens when the “boss class” runs the enterprises and gets the state to create the conditions so that the bosses continue to profit from running the enterprises. That was already the case before the rise of neoliberalism, when the common sense was more Keynesian, and it has continued under neoliberalism, after the pendulum swung in a more anti-Keynesian direction.

Moving the pendulum back toward more Keynesian solutions can’t solve the problem of the bosses, the state, and profit. A project of imagining and enacting alternatives to capitalism can.

  1. […] through the history of capitalism and a particular project to transform the world (on behalf of corporate bosses) that coalesced in the […]

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