1 Neoliberalism A social philosophy A political project A programme - a set of government policies An ideology
2 Neoliberalism stresses the value of individual competition and private enterprise as the main engines of economic and social creativity, and believes that market mechanisms are the best means to allocate resources in most situations, so it pursues a policy agenda informed by these assumptions: privatising public assets, including public services Cutting taxes, especially progressive redistributive taxes Restricting trade union activities and discouraging trade-union membership Deregulating labour markets: removing protections from workers while making easier for employers to hire and fire at will. Deregulating financial markets: reducing government oversight and legal restrictions on all forms of financial speculation Reducing public spending encouraging competitive and entrepreneurial attitudes amongst the public deliberately encouraging commercial attitudes and behaviours in the public sector
3 This basic neoliberal economic programme can be linked to a range of different social policies. In the UK and the US, the New Right led by Reagan and Thatcher combined neoliberal economics with conservative social policies which promised to restore traditional family values, build up the military state, crack down hard on crime, limit the development of multiculturalism, and shore up traditional sources of social authority. In the 1990s and 2000s in the same countries, the Blair and Clinton governments combined a neoliberal economic agenda with socially liberal policies such as promoting equality for gay people and supporting women s participation in the labour market. Today neoliberalism is without serious question the governing ideology of contemporary capitalism, tending to promote a culture characterised by individualism, competition, consumerism, and tolerance for very high levels of inequality. It s worth reflecting on the multiple ways in which these values are promoted and normalised through the media, popular culture, the education system, etc.
4 What s the difference between liberalism and neoliberalism? Foucault makes a persuasive argument that the key difference is neoliberalism s stronger emphasis on the value of competition, and its belief that it may be necessary and legitimate to use the state to achieve its objectives by compelling people to behave in particular ways. Whereas classical liberalism (eg Adam Smith) had promoted commercial values and behaviour as encouraging a civilised attitude, and believed that enlightened self-interest would lead to benefits for all, this tradition had not tended to see ruthless competition as necessarily good in itself. Adam Smith seems to have imagine a world in which we would all find our specialised economic niche, rather than one in which we would be constantly competing with each other. More fundamentally, classical liberalism tends to assume that if the state leaves people alone, then they will spontaneously develop the entrepreneurial habits which it values. By contrast, neoliberalism uses the state to force people to behave like competitive entrepreneurs, whether they want to or not.
5 The term neoliberalism was first used in 1938 by Arthur Rüstow, at the Colloque Walter Lippmann a conference in Paris organised by liberal thinkers horrified by what they saw as the victory of various forms of collectivism (socialism, communism fascism, social democracy). The most lastingly influential attendee of that conference was the Austrian economist and political philosopher, Friedrich Hayek After World War II, Hayek would set up an international society dedicated to the spread of neoliberal ideas: The Mont Pelerin Society. In 1944 Hayek had published the work that would become the greatest political influence on Margaret Thatcher, his anti-collectivist diatribe The Road to Serfdom. He taught at the London School of Economics in the 1940s and moved to the University of Chicago in 1950, from where his ideas would spread gradually through the network of right-wing intellectuals, journalists and politicians, think-tanks, journals and lobbying groups fostered by the Mont Perelin society and its allies.
6 Although they found early favour with some politicians, such as Enoch Powell, neoliberal ideas were considered the preserve of the lunatic rightwing fringe in the 1950s and 1960s. Even if they were sympathetic to them, mainstream politicians of the Right thought that it would be impossible to implement them without provoking social revolution. Even most rightwingers were uncomfortable with Hayek s cold-hearted individualism, and had accepted that the state had a duty to maintain a certain level of social cohesion. On the Left, figure such as Hayek were regarded as of no real consequence - deluded, probably evil, but longing for a Victorian model of capitalism that would never return. But with the breakdown of the post-war consensus at the end of the 1960s, neoliberal ideas became increasingly appealing to certain sections of the capitalist class and their political representatives
7 In the early 1970s, one of the most advanced socialist governments in the world was arguably the government of Chile, who had been elected democratically in 1970 President Salvador Allende was the first avowed Marxist to be elected head of a Latin American government in free elections
8 The Chilean government experimented with the use of early computer network technologies to assist in national economic planning and decision-making, developing the ground-breaking CyberSyn network for this purpose.
9 It was all too much for the Americans. In 1973 the CIA backed and largely instigated a military coup against the democratically-elected Allende government, installing General Pinochet as the head of a regime that would become infamous for its dictatorial human-rights violations.
10 They installed a team of economists from the University of Chicago to run Chile s economic policy. The Chicago Boys were led by Hayek s chief student, Milton Friedman. Pinochet s regime, which lasted until 1990, is now widely recognised as the first neoliberal government. It did succeed in promoting economic growth, but at the expense of social equality, political liberty and any semblance of democracy.
11 David Harvey in A Brief History of Neoliberalism cites the 1975 budget crisis in New York (when the City government almost went bankrupt, leading to enormous cuts in public spending), and the adoption of liberalising economic reforms in China after 1978, as two key instances. In both cases, albeit in very different scales, very similar policies have led to huge growths in social inequality. The International Monetary Fund had adopted neoliberal policies as dogma by the mid 1970s, and imposed these on every government it assisted, both in the first and third worlds, including imposing huge cuts on public spending on the UK s Labour government in 1976/ The case of China obliges us to think carefully about the concept of neoliberalism. Although the Chinese government has remained nominally Communist and Marxist to this day, its pursuit of an aggressive growth strategy has led it to adopt policies of privatisation, of reducing taxes, of slashing public spending, etc. etc. To all intents and purposes these have been identical to the policies pursued by ideological neoliberals in the West and in Latin America. But there is little evidence that Chinese policy-makers have even often been aware of the work of figures such as Hayek and Friedman. For Harvey, neoliberalism is not best understood simply as a collection of ideas and policy prescriptions, but as a project to restore to the capitalist class the power that it lost in the middle decades of the twentieth century, when it was forced to accept major social reforms and when the Communist world was really anti-capitalist.
12 Arguably, neoliberalism can be seen as having been implemented in the US and the UK in two main phases The New Right combined neoliberalism with socially conservative rhetoric, in a way which often seems quite contradictory in retrospect (for example, advocating traditional family values, but pursuing labour market politics which were obviously going to disrupt established patterns of family life. This lasted until the election of Bill Clinton in 1994 and Tony Blair and The so-called Third Way of Clinton and Blair combined neoliberal policies with socially liberal ones, while offering some attempts to mitigate the worst effects of poverty. In fact arguably this has remained the typical agenda of governments of whatever party since the 1990s. Arguably the third way was in fact more rigorously and consistently neoliberal than the new right. For example, New Labour were genuinely committed to reducing child poverty. But reducing child poverty is a perfectly acceptable policy goal for neoliberals, because they believe that everyone should get a fair chance to compete with everyone else in the labour market. Neoliberals tend to advocate equality of opportunity and social mobility. What they oppose is the idea that governments should do anything to make social outcomes more equal.
13 The situation since 2008 and the great recession has made two facts about neoliberalism increasingly clear Neoliberalism remains hegemonic. It defines the common-sense parameters of both widelycirculated cultural assumptions, and of elite world-views. Governments and established political parties seem incapable of making any real critique of it. Harvey is right to see it as essentially a class project. Governments such as ours came close to bankrupting themselves in order to shore up the power and wealth of they very financial institutions who had caused the crash! Neoliberalism is supposed to be against government intervention in the economy but exactly the same governments and agencies who have taken a consistently neoliberal position for decades colluded in forcing government to give huge amounts of assistance to the banks. Isn t this all contradictory? Philosophically yes - it is totally contradictory. But not if you think about it in terms of class interests. Both neoliberalism as a general programme, and the willingness of governments to abandon its most basic principles, have in common one thing: they help the rich get richer and stay richer at everyone else s expense.
14 Propagating a sympathetic common sense is not the only way for hegemonic groups to secure consent however. Often such groups have to make real concessions to the demands of the subaltern. On the other hand, when the subaltern are thoroughly disorganised and disunited, or when social conditions leave them with very little power to threaten their rulers / leaders with sanctions, then they can often be simply ignored Normally, it is necessary to win over some key sections of the subaltern groups in order to secure hegemony, while the rest can be ignored. Consent for neoliberalism in countries like the UK has essentially been secured by a combination of these mechanisms. In particular: majority populations have been offered the opportunity to participate in certain forms of consumption on a massive scale key groups - managers, some media professionals, politicians - have been persuaded really to accept that neoliberalism represents the only way to do things. young people, especially women, have benefitted from a radical liberalisation of social values those social groups who have the least chance of benefitting from the massive rise in consumption, the least chance of becoming managers, and the who see the least immediate benefit from social liberalisation have been largely ignored (hence the rise in BNP support).
15 So we can see neoliberalism as a strategy adopted by certain sections of capital (essentially, the banks: finance capital ) as a way of taking advantage of the collapse of the Fordist consensus at the end of the 60s, in order to reestablish the hegemony which they lost in the early-mid 20th century. Obviously a big part of the context here is the general shift from a society based on mass manufacturing to one in which manufacturing mainly happens in other parts of the world, and other economic sectors become much more important.
16 The 1970s saw global capitalism undergo major restructuring, beginning to exhibit all of the main Features of post-fordism In manufacturing industry there is a general move towards more flexible, demand-sensitive production Just-in-time ordering and production improves sensitivity to changes in consumer denamd Move away from assembly-line production characterises manufacturing To allow for such flexibility, companies increasingly depend upn short-term relationships with specialists to provide services that used to be generated within the company (e.g. marketing, research & design, manufacture of specialist parts, etc.) i.e. Outsourcing Disaggregation of vertically-integrated firms Move towards flexible and short-term contract working
17 This had various social effects Women re-entered the labour market The traditional manufacturing jobs which had been the basis for the labour movement began to disappear Globalisation as we know it began Post-Fordism was to become the organisational model for a range of public institutions which would be encouraged to be flexible, commercial and customerfocussed in outlook.
18 In 1979, Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister of the UK Her government embarked on a long-term programme to weaken trade unions, privatise large sections of the economy, and prepare Britain for a post-industrial future. While reassuring conservative voters with appeals to traditional values, her promotion of classic individualist values of enterprise and self-reliance was to prove a far more enduring element of her programme Ronald Reagan was elected President in 1980 with a very similar agenda
19 These policies hit working communities very hard, provoking major unrest in British cities
20 As time went by, Thatcherite appeals to traditional values had less and less relevance to most of the public, and this came to make Thatcherism seem increasingly outdated But Thatcher, along with the broad trends in the world economy and a host of major technological changes, has successfully undermined most of the bases for any kind of resistance from workers to the implementation of post-fordist programmes So when Tony Blair s New Labour government was elected in 1997, while they rejected much of Thatcher s social conservatism, they embraced the principles of post-fordism even more enthusiastically than she had done.
21 Neoliberalism What all of these governments pursued was a consistently neoliberal agenda, characterised by Low Tax rates Reduced Public spending (compared to the post-war era) Massive privatisations of publicly-owned assets Measures to encourage the adoption of commercial methods and practices in public institutions which were not privatised Efforts to encourage an entrepreneurial, aspirational, acquisitive and consumerist set of attitudes and behaviours amongst the public at large Support for institutions which attempted to force this agenda onto developing countries This all tends to lead to a general weakening of social bonds and the spread of competitive individualist values, higher rates of long-term unemployment, and greater levels of social inequality..
22 One of the main sources of opposition to this spread of individualism and to neoliberalism generally has been the rise of forms of politicised religion
23 In particular, the collapse of Eastern European communism in 1989 left an ideological vacuum which only religion could fill for many groups of poor people who were systematically disadvantaged by neoliberalism, as well as leaving the US government free to puruse a global neoliberal agenda unchallenged.
24 Other sources of opposition have been The resurgence of socialism in Latin America The defenders of residual social democracy in the developed world The new anti-capitalist movement The green movement
25 From David Harvey s classically Marxist perspective, the main thing we have to understand about neoliberalism is that it is a project to re-assert and consolidated the class power of capitalists, although by no means all forms of resistance to neoliberalism have been class-based, and I have argued that neoliberalism is opposed to ALL forms of collective organisation, not only class forms. For Foucault, neoliberalism must also be understood in terms of its specific techniques of government, and in particular in its drive to encourage or to impose a competitive model of social relations wherever possible A very good example of this is the UK government s reforms of the National Health Service, which places a strong emphasis on the putative value of competition between health-care providers, even within a non-profit public healthcare system, and which have been carried out under Conservative, Labour and Coalition governments. These are not contradictory perspectives, and we can perhaps best see how they fit together by understanding neoliberalism as a hegemonic project, promoting a particular set of class interests through the deployment of particular techniques of government and the normalisation of certain common sense assumption
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