It’s neoliberalism, stupid

Once again I have to go back to the subject of neoliberalism as the cause of much of the instability we see today. Past references on this website appear in 11 September 2001Justified Optimism, and Hate of the USA?

When the slogan ‘it’s the economy, stupid’ gained popularity during Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign the message was easy to understand. Basically, the economy is highly significant to all people. Few will disagree with that sentiment. The linkage between neoliberalism and widespread upheaval in all four corners of the world is proving more difficult to comprehend.

The difficulty stems from lack of full appreciation of what neoliberalism is all about. Economic liberalism is understood as belief in free markets, competition, and a reduced role for the state, and politicians in general, in regulating the economy. So far so good. Apart from possibly the few remaining communist diehards most people would buy into this line of thought. However, when neoliberalism appeared on the scene in the 1970s new, and highly sinister, ingredients were added to the brew. Reagan and Thatcher, guided by ideologues such as Milton Friedman, embraced an extreme philosophy that was bound to have far-reaching repercussions.

The previous debate was about how far one would go in allowing social and political considerations to influence economic issues. Neoliberalism went to the heart of that debate. It asserted that the market should determine how social issues should be settled. The economy is not just an important part of life; life is all about the economy. The economy must grow in time (longer opening hours for shops, etc.) and in space (radical social and religious transformation of all societies, etc.). Soon, people in east and west began to feel the impact. To start with, the developing countries felt the full blast through ‘structural adjustment’ imposed by the IMF and World Bank. The result was civil wars; caused by small and weak governments, famine; through reduced subsidies and devastated small scale farming, unemployment; due to competition from the industrialised countries, and widening gaps between rich and poor.

The ripples soon spread to people in the richer industrialised countries. Neoliberalism decreed that people should learn to live differently from what was the norm in the past. Welfare and trade union gains acquired after much effort were the first to come under fire. The message sounded benign, almost seductive. Individuals should take charge of their lives. In time this translated into lower pensions, compromised healthcare, expensive university education and so on. The picture is still emerging but it is already clear that the ‘social contract’ that determined the rules of the game between rulers and the ruled for several centuries has been reframed surreptitiously and without negotiation. Norman Tebbit, one of Thatcher’s more strident ministers, advised those looking for work to ‘get on their bike’. Reasonable advice on the face of it until the broader implications began to sink in. Settled married life is not easy to achieve under these circumstances; husband and wife might have to ride their bikes in different directions in the search for jobs. Marriage turned into temporary ‘partnerships’. Again, possibly not unreasonable until people (and the state) began to see the impact in maladjusted children. ASBOs (Anti-social behaviour orders) suddenly appeared on the scene. The downward spiral continues unabated.

However, it is in the traditional societies that the full impact of neoliberalism, and the ripples it has created, could be seen at its most glaring. Resistance to enforced social change demanded by the new economic model is only now beginning to come together into a semi-organised network of people campaigning under several banners, mostly religious in outward appearance. It is by no means certain that all the people who have declared war on the West’, ‘Christianity’, or ‘the neoconservatives’ know to a good degree of clarity what they are actually irritated about. Like their counterparts within the richer industrialised countries, they know they are under threat but they do not know what is the precise nature of the threat and who is behind it. The ‘revolving door’ between business and politics, as in the case of Dick Cheney to name but one of many examples, makes it virtually impossible to gain a clear picture of the ‘enemy’ (see Reclaiming Power and Political Legitimacy on this website).

There are several flash points, including Palestine, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan. There are also several issues of contention, including oil, the so-called clash of civilisations, and of course the noisy three religions; Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. It serves the purposes of those pushing the neoliberal agenda for the topic to be diluted by factionalism and multiplicity of causes and banners. It is equally important for those seeking world stability and peace to reveal the fundamental cause of strife.

Neoliberalism, in line with all the other political economic theories, might be good in parts, but it must not be allowed to assume the role of a new god that must be worshipped and obeyed without question. Theories ebb and flow and neoliberalism is no exception. It must be confronted as an extreme ideology, not unlike Stalinism or Fascism. before too much damage is done.