Opinionista Mark Heywood 2 April 2014

Restless Europe: Neoliberalism and its discontents – a reflection in honour of Tony Benn

Neo-liberalism started when Margaret Thatcher arrived on the scene to bludgeon welfarism, trade unions and the post-war consensus on “society”. It can now claim to its name the 2008 financial crisis, the millions of people rendered homeless during the sub-prime crisis, unprecedented levels of unemployment and the growing climate crisis. Its work, unfortunately, is far from finished.

I have spent thirty-odd years sitting on hard chairs in fusty halls, often on a Saturday morning or a weekday evening, alongside like-minded others – lamenting injustice, capitalism, inequality, a stream of wars, supporting some of the great strikes of the twentieth century and analysing a never-ending stream of rapacious governments. A month or so ago I found myself in another hall on another Saturday morning, this time in Frankfurt, Germany, in a building that has evolved with the aging of politics. In the 1930s it was the ostentatious headquarters of the Nazi-supporting steel industry IG Farben; then after ‘the war’ it became part of the largest US army base on the European mainland. Today it is the new-ish campus of an old-ish German University.

A fitting place to think about the state of the world!

The subject of conference was ‘Beyond Aid? – From Charity to Solidarity’. The organisers were Medico International, a German human rights organisation that in 1997 won the Nobel Peace prize for its international campaign to ban landmines.

The 600-plus audience were predominantly German. But there were a surprising number of young people who seem attentive again to what is going wrong with the world. Amongst them were a significant sprinkling of activists from various frontlines, purveyors of horror stories no longer common to the European mainland.

I have a pedigree of meetings longer than my proverbial arm. But there was something striking about this one. There was more concern, alarm and consensus about the parlous state of the world than I have encountered in a while. There was real empathy with the experience of the billions on the hard end – combined with introspection about what is the best way to bring about social justice.

The meeting’s opening panel included one Saskia Sassen, an intellectual from Columbia University, whose soon-to-be published new book is titled, Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy. Sassen asked us to think, “What is the equivalent of the steam engine of our epoch?” – question meant literally, rather than metaphorically.

Her answer was that it is “finance capital”.

With graphs, graphics and statistics, she provided empirical evidence that illustrated how ‘finance’ is driving global economic development. But she also took pains to show how simultaneously it is planting time-bombs ticking away in global economy, ecology and the atmosphere. Her argument: it’s out of control, armed and increasingly dangerous.

Drawing data from reports of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that, according to her, deliberately “don’t have shapes”, she was able to flesh out a picture whose shapes, when revealed, showed how much richer the ultra rich have got in the last decade (80% of growth in income has gone to the top 1% of earners). Meanwhile, the poor and middle classes have been made vulnerable to losing homes, vulnerable to hunger, vulnerable to climate change.

Something I had never heard of before, called the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), is pointing decidedly downwards.

In the late 1980s I grew up amongst semi-religious Marxists who sometimes seemed concerned less with the content of crises, than with being able to fit each one into a Leninist template that had predicted such disasters. Each new upheaval was proclaimed a harbinger of the imminent collapse of capitalism – something we were always told was inevitable in 5, 10 or 15 years. But then capitalism changed its skin and went into a period of boom (albeit a very superficial one) that led the Fukuyamas of this world to proclaim its ultimate triumph and thus the end of history.

This socially diverse group of restless young Europeans were a far cry from a sect of diehard socialists. Yet every single person called out “capitalism” and its bastard son “neo-liberalism” as the problem.

For a time this made me uncomfortable. I have always disliked the way leftists cite neo-liberalism as the source of all evil and treat it like a lazy valise into which are stuffed all the world’s maladies. It’s a word that often blocks a clear analysis of what’s going on and hardly a tangible evil issue to mobilise the masses against.

But after contemplating Sassen’s evidence and listening to other economists, philosophers and even theologians who took the stage, I came to accept that neo-liberalism is much more than just a clamorous denunciation with no clang. It is a scientific description of a modern political process that is almost as old as me.

It refers to governments that wittingly or unwittingly are giving freedom to amorphous markets and the invisible and completely unaccountable – but ultra rich people – who hide behind them, to manipulate economies and appropriate resources to their own advantage. In Sassen’s words, it contributes to both governments and the ultra rich “exiting from responsibilities of membership in a society via-self removal, extreme concentration of wealth and with no inclination to redistribute it.’

Neo-liberalism started its political life at the roughly the same time I started mine. It started when Margaret Thatcher arrived on the scene to bludgeon welfarism, trade unions and the post-war consensus on “society”. It has come a long way since then and can now claim to its name the 2008 financial crisis, the millions of people rendered homeless during the sub-prime crisis, unprecedented levels of unemployment and the growing climate crisis. Its work, unfortunately, is far from finished.

However, as the discussions went on one thing struck me in particular: with the availability of so much incontestable evidence and analysis, nobody who applies their mind to the great political questions of our time can claim not to know what is going wrong with our world, or what its dire consequences are and will be.

In 2014 we know what is driving climate change. We know what is causing ecological destruction. We know the levels of unemployment, homelessness and hunger.

We know.

We know.

We know.

Those that cry hunky dory are part of the tiny, tiny minority having a fabulous time on planet earth at everyone else’s expense. They have a vested interest in denialism.

But what we don’t have consensus on is what to do about it.

As the conference unfolded, debate raged on. “The role of law” … “the role of human rights”… “the power of people” … “the powerlessness of people” – and all this to the symphonic backdrop of a rapidly unfolding revolution (or was it counter-revolution?) on the streets of Kiev.

The argument that most struck me came from a Brazilian doctor and health activist who believes social justice activists are looking at the world upside down. The problem, he said, is not the world’s poverty but its riches. His meaning? Poverty is caused by the misallocation of riches; there are enough riches and resources to allocate equitably in the world. For example, in 2012 global tax evasion was estimated to be three trillion dollars – 18% of global tax collections on 2010.

These are important issues, especially for people concerned about equality, dignity, health, basic education – all fundamental rights in South Africa’s constitutional order.

As I left Frankfurt to take a train to Berlin, I found that the consensus in the hall was mirrored by the titles of books on prominent display at train station bookstores, titles that talk to economy: The Lords of Finance, 23 Things you Wanted to Know about Capitalism, The Price of Inequality.

I could only conclude that all these voices point to an ill-shapen but growing awareness that uncontrolled corporations, manipulating markets to self-advantage of a tiny fraction of the world’s population are at the heart of the deepening civilisational crisis we face. One thing is clear: Capitalism may not be fucked – on this point socialists are still wrong because there’s a lot of life in the old dog yet – but it is fucking up the world.

It’s time we found more common purpose to do something about it before it’s too late. DM


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