In the early 1980s the author was one of the first to herald the emerging dominance of neoliberalism in the west. Here he argues that this doctrine is now faltering. But what happens next?
After almost nine years, we are finally beginning to reap the political whirlwind of the financial crisis. But how did neoliberalism manage to survive virtually unscathed for so long? Although it failed the test of the real world, bequeathing the worst economic disaster for seven decades, politically and intellectually it remained the only show in town. Parties of the right, centre and left had all bought into its philosophy, New Labour a classic in point. They knew no other way of thinking or doing: it had become the common sense. It was, as Antonio Gramsci put it, hegemonic. But that hegemony cannot and will not survive the test of the real world.
The first inkling of the wider political consequences was evident in the turn in public opinion against the banks, bankers and business leaders. For decades, they could do no wrong: they were feted as the role models of our age, the default troubleshooters of choice in education, health and seemingly everything else. Now, though, their star was in steep descent, along with that of the political class. The effect of the financial crisis was to undermine faith and trust in the competence of the governing elites. It marked the beginnings of a wider political crisis.
But the causes of this political crisis, glaringly evident on both sides of the Atlantic, are much deeper than simply the financial crisis and the virtually stillborn recovery of the last decade. They go to the heart of the neoliberal project that dates from the late 70s and the political rise of Reagan and Thatcher, and embraced at its core the idea of a global free market in goods, services and capital. The depression-era system of bank regulation was dismantled, in the US in the 1990s and in Britain in 1986, thereby creating the conditions for the 2008 crisis. Equality was scorned, the idea of trickle-down economics lauded, government condemned as a fetter on the market and duly downsized, immigration encouraged, regulation cut to a minimum, taxes reduced and a blind eye turned to corporate evasion.The public is noticing a contrast and getting nostalgic. Let the good times roll again.
It should be noted that, by historical standards, the neoliberal era has not had a particularly good track record. The most dynamic period of postwar western growth was that between the end of the war and the early 70s, the era of welfare capitalism and Keynesianism, when the growth rate was double that of the neoliberal period from 1980 to the present.…
Large sections of the population in both the US and the UK are now in revolt against their lot, as graphically illustrated by the support for Trump and Sanders in the US and the Brexit vote in the UK. This popular revolt is often described, in a somewhat denigratory and dismissive fashion, as populism. Or, as Francis Fukuyama writes in a recent excellent essay in Foreign Affairs: “‘Populism’ is the label that political elites attach to policies supported by ordinary citizens that they don’t like.” Populism is a movement against the status quo. It represents the beginnings of something new, though it is generally much clearer about what it is against than what it is for. It can be progressive or reactionary, but more usually both.…The resurgence of class consciousness.
The wave of populism marks the return of class as a central agency in politics, both in the UK and the US. This is particularly remarkable in the US. For many decades, the idea of the “working class” was marginal to American political discourse. Most Americans described themselves as middle class, a reflection of the aspirational pulse at the heart of American society. According to a Gallup poll, in 2000 only 33% of Americans called themselves working class; by 2015 the figure was 48%, almost half the population.…The poverty of the Left.
One of the reasons why the left has failed to emerge as the leader of the new mood of working-class disillusionment is that most social democratic parties became, in varying degrees, disciples of neoliberalism and uber-globalisation. The most extreme forms of this phenomenon were New Labour and the Democrats, who in the late 90s and 00s became its advance guard, personified by Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, triangulation and the third way…Populism is not going away.
Trump may well lose the presidential election just as Sanders failed in his bid for the Democrat nomination. But this does not mean that the forces opposed to hyper-globalisation – unrestricted immigration, TPP and TTIP, the free movement of capital and much else – will have lost the argument and are set to decline. In little more than 12 months, Trump and Sanders have transformed the nature and terms of the argument. Far from being on the wane, the arguments of the critics of hyper-globalisation are steadily gaining ground. Roughly two-thirds of Americans agree that “we should not think so much in international terms but concentrate more on our own national problems”. And, above all else, what will continue to drive opposition to the hyper-globalisers is inequality.The Guardian (21 August 2016)
The death of neoliberalism and the crisis in western politics