“Neoliberalism relies upon the relentless shredding of the social fabric, that mutual interdependence and reliance that people have on each other as members of that entity that Margaret Thatcher called non-existent: society.”
Before I consider the question here of neoliberalism’s future, let me first clarify what I mean by neoliberalism. As Gary Teeple has succinctly put it, neoliberalism is the political expression of globalization. It is, in other words, the ideology and politics of furthering market forces’ dominance domestically and internationally and in all public and private matters. When I say “public”, in all fairness I should clarify that the public realm doesn’t actually exist for neoliberals – they scoff at such a thing and proudly claim that everyone is only out for himself or herself.
This, then, is the philosophical basis for neoliberalism: Adam Smith’s invisible hand. Everyone acting selfishly will produce the best possible world. Both major U.S. political parties are believers in neoliberalism and the differences they have between them regarding economic policy is over how and to what extent market forces should openly drive matters, with the Democrats making mostly rhetorical passes to the need to protect middle class people. (Evidently, the working class does not exist in the U.S., judging by the Democratic Party’s rhetoric.)
Neoliberals’ answer to all ills and concerns is privatization. When calamities ensue, whether financial, medical, political, environmental, or otherwise (e.g., Katrina, the BP Oil catastrophe, the scandal at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the corruption of Bernie Madoff and Tom DeLay…), their instantaneous response is that this disaster only proves the need for more privatization, less regulation, and more market forces. In other words, we need more of the very things that in actuality brought on the crisis or at least exacerbated the crisis in the first place. We can see this, for example, in the measures taken to resolve the 2008 financial crisis, the crisis that Treasury Secretary – and former Goldman Sachs head – Hank Paulsen secretly told some U.S. congressmen and women would cause martial law to be declared if they didn’t alter their first vote of saying no to the massive bailout, a vote these representatives registered because of the massive outcry of opposition from their constituents to the bailout. Because the banks and financial institutions who were responsible for this crisis were “too big to fail”, they must be shored up with massive, historic loans and giveaways which these giants of finance have turned around to make themselves even bigger with and therefore even more necessary to be saved when their profligate ways bring on the next financial crisis.
Market forces are animated by and driven by the pursuit of profit. And since profit comes about through driving down wages and reducing or eliminating benefits for those outside the very top ranks, and through greater job and income insecurity and volatility, and by increasing indebtedness for those who are not one of the neoliberal elect, then the logic of neoliberalism rests upon the logic of dispossession. In the U.S. the credit card debt load is famously large, $828 billion as of July 2010. What is less well-known is that student loan debt is now even higher: over $850 billion in student loan debt is being saddled upon the backs of working class and middle-class students who have dwindling prospects of getting a decent job or even a job at all after graduation. Take away decent jobs, send those jobs abroad and downsize the workforce here at home, but promise them if they stay in school and get a college degree or graduate degree they will surely make back their loans. Meanwhile, take full advantage of their troubles.
The logic of profit dictates exactly this. Neoliberalism relies upon the relentless shredding of the social fabric, that mutual interdependence and reliance that people have on each other as members of that entity that Margaret Thatcher called non-existent: society. Is it true, in fact, as the Iron Lady liked to say: TINA (There is No Alternative)?
Which brings us to the question of neoliberalism’s future. How long can neoliberalism prevail in face of the damage it does by its very logic and operation? These are not incidental or accidental problems – they are the fundamental rationale of the system itself. Judging by the U.S., where neoliberalism reigns supreme, unchallenged and indeed endorsed by the two major political parties, it looks as secure as ever, with the GOP and the Tea Parties and its Pied Piper, angry Glenn Beck, its cutting edge. The Democrats, for their part, under the man of “hope and change”, Obama, are notable for how much further they have carried forward the ignoble and egregious departures from the rule of law that marked the Bush regime, institutionalizing these lawless actions of indefinite detention, openly ordering citizens’ assassinations, calling openly for Julian Assange’s death, and asserting their right to spy on everyone all of the time – all these and more are part and parcel of the political dimension of their unholy holy war of terrorism.
Here is the problem put into as small a nutshell as I can. Neoliberalism brings on disasters, sometimes by deliberate design (as Naomi Klein has pointed out), and sometimes without conscious intent, through the workings of the very system and the dynamics of its logic. These disasters are on the micro and macro-levels. On the micro-level individuals fall through the increasingly gaping holes in the social safety net. On the macro-level we have local, regional, and global calamities such as global warming. The logic of the war of terror is such that terrorist incidents, whether abortive or not, reinforce the war of terror itself. Thus, without needing anyone to consciously instigate a false flag attack, the institutional and ideological purposes of the war of terror are served by anti-state terrorist incidents.
How long will this continue? It is impossible to say with any precision. It is certainly possible that the neoliberals will cause disasters on a scale that could make the planet oppressive to live in – physically as well as psychologically. They have succeeded in creating a very large and extremely powerful right-wing echo chamber through their rightwing media empire. Those who are not happy with the reactionary politics of the Right and those of the Democrats are therefore outgunned, surrounded in some respects by the armies of fear, ignorance, and the cynically misled.
A real alternative to this is hard to imagine for those who have not been around long enough to see a real alternative to capitalism, and those who are old enough to remember this are mostly unconvinced at this point that an alternative to capitalism can be brought into being.
This much I can say with certainty based on a reading of history: the conditions that create the awful things that we now see around us and growing more menacing practically by the day – the assassination and attempted assassination of public officials in Tucson, Arizona this month, the abrogation of core civil liberties such as habeas corpus, the express departure from the rule of law, the pre-emptive arrests of demonstrators and charging people who are whistleblowers as terrorists and open calls for their murder, the continued detention of 173 people at Gitmo, etc. – are also the conditions that create the possibility for revolutionary changes in a positive direction.
The election of Obama, a black, first term U.S. Senator, occurred because millions despised Bush and Cheney and mistakenly believed that the solution was as simple as pulling a lever for Obama. The system had to reach out further than ever to pull people back in who were in danger of spinning out of the political control of the powers that be. Many of those who were so misled are now re-examining their mistakes. If enough of them wake up to what lessons this makes possible for them to see, that elections do not a solution offer, and if enough of them do what they need to do, then the whole political atmosphere could change dramatically.
It doesn’t take a whole lot of people to start this process of popular protest (which can and should occur in diverse and numerous forms) in earnest. It takes some very courageous people and larger numbers of people who are willing to do something in the right direction, to support and come to the defense of those who are standing up forthrightly, with their words, actions, and resources. We have that core, but that core of people needs to be joined by more, many more.
The question is which values will take the fore and which values will set the terms. This is a fight that has to occur on many different levels, including in the realm of theory and in political battles. Raising people’s sights and their fighting spirit must happen.
Our adversaries must lie shamelessly and use coercion and outright murderous violence to get their way. They are extremely vulnerable to exposure of their schemes. This is and will be a very hard and perilous struggle.
Even if we do nothing, the deluge will still engulf us, except then if we have done nothing, we can only drown. In the alternative, we can have a fighting chance to wrest a radically different future from this awful mess.
As Molly Ivins, bless her dearly departed soul, wrote on September 1, 2005:
This is a column for everyone in the path of Hurricane Katrina who ever said, “I’m sorry, I’m just not interested in politics,” or, “There’s nothing I can do about it,” or, “Eh, they’re all crooks anyway.”
Nothing to do with me, nothing to do with my life, nothing I can do about any of it. Look around you this morning. I suppose the National Rifle Association would argue, “Government policies don’t kill people, hurricanes kill people.” Actually, hurricanes plus government policies kill people.
Dennis Loo is the recipient of national awards for scholarship, journalism, and activism. He is Professor of Sociology at Cal Poly Pomona and the author of Globalization and the Demolition of Society and co-author/editor of Impeach the President: the Case Against Bush and Cheney. He serves on the National Steering Committee of the World Can't Wait and writes regularly for online sites including DennisLoo.com.