The March Of Neoliberalism: In essence: a codification of the economic, social and political pre-conditions required for massive social inequality to become a permanent feature of contemporary capitalist society; neoliberalism generally prefers to avoid self-identification.
THERE IS SOMETHING PECULIAR about an ideology that dares not speak its name. Historically speaking, those who claimed to have discovered how the world works were never reticent about giving their discovery a name. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels did not publish The Manifesto in 1848, they published The Communist Manifesto. By the end of the Nineteenth Century there were very few educated persons who did not grasp the essence of the Marxists’ economic, social and political programme.
In the case of neoliberal ideology, however, we are presented with a very different picture. In essence: a codification of the economic, social and political pre-conditions required for massive social inequality to become a permanent feature of contemporary capitalist society; neoliberalism generally prefers to avoid self-identification.
Last week, for example, The National Business Review’s Rob Hosking responded to Sue Bradford’s accusation that the Greens had sold out to neoliberalism like this:
“As always, it isn’t clear what is meant by ‘neo-liberal’, apart from ‘bad things’.”
In the age of Google, Hosking’s professed ignorance as to the term’s meaning is curious. Even the humble Wikipedia could have offered him enough to be going on with:
“Neoliberalism (neo-liberalism) refers primarily to the 20th-century resurgence of 19th-century ideas associated with laissez-faire economic liberalism. These include extensive economic liberalisation policies such as privatisation, fiscal austerity, deregulation, free trade and reductions in government spending in order to increase the role of the private sector in the economy and society. These market-based ideas and the policies they inspired constitute a paradigm shift away from the post-war Keynesian consensus which lasted from 1945 to 1980.”
Admirably clear. And while there’s certainly scope for scholarly debate around detail and emphasis, Wikipedia’s definition is more than sufficient to dispel the feigned ignorance of neoliberalism’s most zealous defenders.
Why, then, do neoliberals like Hosking continue to insist that they have no firm grasp of the term’s usage – other than as an expression of left-wing abuse?
The answer is simple. To survive and prosper, neoliberalism and the policies it inspires cannot afford to be seen as ‘just another ideology’ – like communism or fascism. Rather, it must be accepted as a law of nature – as unyielding to human influence as the weather.
What absolutely must not become widely understood is that neoliberalism is, indeed, an all-too-human artefact: formulated by twentieth century economists and given popular currency by individuals and institutes funded by extremely wealthy and politically motivated capitalists.
In the face of multiple post-war democratic challenges, these capitalists were anxious to recover and consolidate their class’s dominant position. This had been in steady decline since the 1930s and, by the 1970s, was facing an emancipatory explosion of hitherto suppressed social groups: workers, ethnic minorities, women, youth, gays and lesbians.
Consider the fate of these groups since the neoliberal counter-revolution of the 1980s, and the neoliberals’ reluctance to speak their true name becomes clear.
The destruction of the trade union movement as a vital economic and political counterweight to the power of capital has permitted a massive transfer of wealth from the employees of capitalist enterprises to their shareholders and senior executives.
The elimination and/or privatisation of the public providers of Maori employment ripped entire communities apart – giving rise to social pathologies that, three decades later, are not only still prevalent in Maori society, but increasing. It is no accident that the Maori incarceration rate, at 56 percent, is higher now than it has ever been.
In spite of a massive rise in post-war female workforce participation, Kiwi women are still paid, on average, 12 percent less than men. Violent sexism still oppresses them.
After 33 years of neoliberalism, young New Zealanders find themselves burdened down with debt and, increasingly, shut out of the housing market.
From being among the most forthright critics of capitalism’s power to define the “normal” in the early-1980s, the twenty-first century LGBTI community finds itself re-defined and re-presented as proof of neoliberal capitalism’s tolerance. Many LGBTI individuals now inhabit happily social institutions which their predecessors rejected as oppressive.
It is, however, neoliberalism’s unique ability to empty the future of hope that goes to the heart of its apologists’ reticence.
The young All Souls Fellowship holder, Max Harris, has written a whole book on what he sees as young New Zealanders’ alienation from politics. But how could a generation raised under neoliberalism be anything else? All their lives they have been told that to be human is to compete. That the way they buy and sell things (commodities, other people, themselves) is much more important than the way they vote. That their position in the socio-economic hierarchy is entirely attributable to the wisdom or unwisdom of their personal choices.
“I am interested in whether love could be made a bigger feature of our politics”, writes Harris.
Not while neoliberalism endures, Max.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 4 April 2017.