Posts Tagged ‘David Cameron’

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Mark Tansey, “Discarding the Frame” (1993″

Obviously, recent events—such as Brexit, Donald Trump’s presidency, and the rise of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn—have surprised many experts and shaken up the existing common sense. Some have therefore begun to make the case that an era has come to an end.

The problem, of course, is while the old may be dying, it’s not all clear the new can be born. And, as Antonio Gramsci warned during the previous world-shaking crisis, “in this interregnum morbid phenomena of the most varied kind come to pass.”

For Pankaj Mishra, it is the era of neoliberalism that has come to an end.

In this new reality, the rhetoric of the conservative right echoes that of the socialistic left as it tries to acknowledge the politically explosive problem of inequality. The leaders of Britain and the United States, two countries that practically invented global capitalism, flirt with rejecting the free-trade zones (the European Union, Nafta) they helped build.

Mishra is correct in tracing British neoliberalism—at least, I hasten to add, its most recent phase—through both the Conservative and Labour Parties, from Margaret Thatcher to Tony Blair and David Cameron.* All of them, albeit in different ways, celebrated and defended individual initiative, self-regulating markets, cheap credit, privatized social services, and greater international trade—bolstered by military adventurism abroad. Similarly, in the United States, Reaganism extended through both Bush administrations as well as the presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barak Obama—and would have been continued by Hillary Clinton—with analogous promises of prosperity based on unleashing competitive market forces, together with military interventions in other countries.

Without a doubt, the combination of capitalist instability—the worst crisis of capitalism since the first Great Depression—and obscene levels of inequality—parallel to the years leading up to the crash of 1929—not to mention the interminable military conflicts that have deflected funding at home and created waves of refugees from war-torn zones, has called into question the legacy and presumptions of Thatcherism and Reaganism.

Where I think Mishra goes wrong is in arguing that “A new economic consensus is quickly replacing the neoliberal one to which Blair and Clinton, as well as Thatcher and Reagan, subscribed.” Yes, in both the United Kingdom and the United States—in the campaign rhetoric of Theresa May and Trump, and in the actual policy proposals of Corbyn and Sanders—neoliberalism has been challenged. But precisely because the existing framing of the questions has not changed, a new economic consensus—an alternative common sense—cannot be born.

To put it differently, the neoliberal frame has been discarded but the ongoing debate remains framed by the terms that gave rise to neoliberalism in the first place. What I mean by that is, while recent criticisms of neoliberalism have emphasized the myriad problems created by individualism and free markets, the current discussion forgets about or overlooks the even-deeper problems based on and associated with capitalism itself. So, once again, we’re caught in the pendulum swing between a more private, market-oriented form of capitalism and a more public, government-regulated form of capitalism. The former has failed—that era does seem to be crumbling—and so now we begin to turn (as we did during the last system-wide economic crisis) to the latter.**

However, the issue that keeps getting swept under the political rug is, how do we deal with the surplus? If the surplus is left largely in private hands, and the vast majority who produce it have no say in how it’s appropriated and distributed, it should come as no surprise that we continue to see a whole host of “morbid phenomena”—from toxic urban water and a burning tower block to a new wave of corporate concentration  and still-escalating inequality.

Questioning some dimensions of neoliberalism does not, in and of itself, constitute a new economic consensus. I’m willing to admit it is a start. But, as long as remain within the present framing of the issues, as long as we cannot show how unreasonable the existing reason is, we cannot say the existing era has actually come to an end and a new era is upon us.

For that we need a new common sense, one that identifies capitalism itself as the problem and imagines and enacts a different relationship to the surplus.

 

*I add that caveat because, as I argued a year ago,

Neoliberal ideas about self-governing individuals and a self-organizing economic system have been articulated since the beginning of capitalism. . .capitalism has been governed by many different (incomplete and contested) projects over the past three centuries or so. Sometimes, it has been more private and oriented around free markets (as it has been with neoliberalism); at other times, more public or state oriented and focused on regulated markets (as it was under the Depression-era New Deals and during the immediate postwar period).

**And even then it’s only a beginning—since, we need to remember, both Sanders and Corbyn did lose in their respective electoral contests. And, at least in the United States, the terms of neoliberalism are still being invoked—for example, by Ron Johnson, Republican senator from Wisconsin—in the current healthcare debate

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It’s clear the British referendum on the European Union was a gross miscalculation on the part of David Cameron, who decided to move ahead with the vote in an attempt to placate the nationalist, anti-immigrant forces inside and outside the Conservative Party. And he lost—by much more than any of us expected.

A couple of issues should then concern us.

First, the fact that the 52-48 result in favor of Leave was so unexpected, not to mention mainstream economists’ overwhelming support for Remain, is a reminder to those of us on this side of the pond that supposedly expert opinion is increasingly unreliable and out of touch. So, even though Trump’s numbers currently favor his defeat, and mainstream economists on this side of the pond have been so dismissive of the kinds of issues raised by Bernie Sanders, we should continue to expect the unexpected and do everything we can both to oppose Trump’s election in November and to continue Sanders’s political revolution.

Second, the British vote is just the latest (but not yet final) nail in the coffin of neoliberal Europe. Europe without a real and vibrant Social Chapter was (in Thomas Friedman’s language) only a “golden straightjacket” to protect European and non-European corporate interests. That transcontinental free-market utopia—after the combination of bank bailouts, austerity, and high unemployment, the costs imposed on Greece (and Spain and Portugal), the unwillingness to treat ordinary people’s concerns about open borders and to humanely integrate war-ravaged refugees, and so much more—now lies in tatters.

The real issue, within Great Britain and the rest of Europe, is whether the Left will be able to reassemble the pieces to create a new “social-democratic internationalism”—a politics that attends to both national concerns (like healthcare, wages, and immigration) and internationalist ones (having to do with such things as debt relief, human rights, and global warming). In Britain, that means forming a demos, under the aegis of the Labor Party, consisting of groups of voters who ended up on opposite sides of the Leave-Remain vote—to defend workers’ rights within Britain while maintaining an internationalist concern with the plight of workers in other countries. It’s the kind of politics outlined by both Richard Tuck (who argued for Leave) and James Stafford (who supported Remain).

That’s important because, notwithstanding the title of my post, we’re far from being after Brexit. The process of Britain’s exit from the European Union is just starting. And while the Tories are engaged in their own internecine battle (which, as Boris Johnson steps forward, may even exceed the spectacle that led to Trump becoming the presumptive Republican nominee), with even more fallout for economic and political elites across the rest of the continent, the British and European left-wing parties and movements have an opportunity to imagine and create the kind of social-democratic internationalism the various countries’ working-classes have long wanted and ultimately deserve.

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