I have used the word ‘neoliberalism’ quite often on this blog. It is not an east concept to nail, because the norms that it brings to our thinking have become so dominant that we accept them in the way we might the pull of gravity or the wetness of water. Stick with me though, because as we grapple with how on earth Trump could possibly have become president, then it is worth stepping back and taking a bit of a look at the underpinnings of neoliberalism in the light of the enthronement of all that Trump stands for at the head of the most powerful nation on earth.
There were two articles in the Guardian this week that brought this back to me. The first was by Naomi Klein, in which she suggested that Trump arose as a howl of protest against the inevitable disenfranchisement of the white working man caused by the political class being caught up in a neoliberal agenda;
That worldview – fully embodied by Hillary Clinton and her machine – is no match for Trump-style extremism. The decision to run one against the other is what sealed our fate. If we learn nothing else, can we please learn from that mistake?
Here is what we need to understand: a hell of a lot of people are in pain. Under neoliberal policies of deregulation, privatisation, austerity and corporate trade, their living standards have declined precipitously. They have lost jobs. They have lost pensions. They have lost much of the safety net that used to make these losses less frightening. They see a future for their kids even worse than their precarious present.
At the same time, they have witnessed the rise of the Davos class, a hyper-connected network of banking and tech billionaires, elected leaders who are awfully cosy with those interests, and Hollywood celebrities who make the whole thing seem unbearably glamorous. Success is a party to which they were not invited, and they know in their hearts that this rising wealth and power is somehow directly connected to their growing debts and powerlessness.
For the people who saw security and status as their birthright – and that means white men most of all – these losses are unbearable.
Is Klein right? It is pretty obvious that in a time of austerity, extremism grows in a toxic mix of anger and power mongering. In the UK, we know these forces well- but the unbearable loss that Klein describes somehow did NOT result in anger towards the Davos class, but instead is easily refocused on convenient victims; benefits claimants, immigrants, Johnny Foreigner and his accursed European Union. The narrative has been reformed. By accident or by design? You decide.
The second article was by George Monbiot, who begins by defining the beginnings of neoliberal philosophy. I will quote liberally from this article as I think it is really important. He describes Margaret Thatcher’s embracement of a book by Frederick Hayek as defining the values of her Conservative government in the 80’s and 90’s;
The book was The Constitution of Liberty by Frederick Hayek. Its publication, in 1960, marked the transition from an honest, if extreme, philosophy to an outright racket. The philosophy was called neoliberalism. It saw competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. The market would discover a natural hierarchy of winners and losers, creating a more efficient system than could ever be devised through planning or by design. Anything that impeded this process, such as significant tax, regulation, trade union activity or state provision, was counter-productive. Unrestricted entrepreneurs would create the wealth that would trickle down to everyone.
This, at any rate, is how it was originally conceived. But by the time Hayek came to write The Constitution of Liberty, the network of lobbyists and thinkers he had founded was being lavishly funded by multimillionaires who saw the doctrine as a means of defending themselves against democracy. Not every aspect of the neoliberal programme advanced their interests. Hayek, it seems, set out to close the gap.
He begins the book by advancing the narrowest possible conception of liberty: an absence of coercion. He rejects such notions as political freedom, universal rights, human equality and the distribution of wealth, all of which, by restricting the behaviour of the wealthy and powerful, intrude on the absolute freedom from coercion he demands.
Democracy, by contrast, “is not an ultimate or absolute value”. In fact, liberty depends on preventing the majority from exercising choice over the direction that politics and society might take.
It all sounds instinctively familiar right? This philosophy defined not only Thatcher’s government, but also Blair’s- in fact it became the globalised status quo.
Monbiot goes on to describe another logical development of this adoption of neoliberalism by the ruling elite. Back in 1960, Hayek framed concentrated wealth as not only necessary but also a social benefit;
He justifies this position by creating a heroic narrative of extreme wealth. He conflates the economic elite, spending their money in new ways, with philosophical and scientific pioneers. Just as the political philosopher should be free to think the unthinkable, so the very rich should be free to do the undoable, without constraint by public interest or public opinion.
The ultra rich are “scouts”, “experimenting with new styles of living”, who blaze the trails that the rest of society will follow. The progress of society depends on the liberty of these “independents” to gain as much money as they want and spend it how they wish. All that is good and useful, therefore, arises from inequality. There should be no connection between merit and reward, no distinction made between earned and unearned income, and no limit to the rents they can charge.
Inherited wealth is more socially useful than earned wealth: “the idle rich”, who don’t have to work for their money, can devote themselves to influencing “fields of thought and opinion, of tastes and beliefs.” Even when they seem to be spending money on nothing but “aimless display”, they are in fact acting as society’s vanguard.
Viewed through this set of lens, the world as we know it is revealed in great clarity. It did not stop there however, as once an idea has ascendancy, it gives traction to a wider agenda- the rolling back of the old evils;
Hayek softened his opposition to monopolies and hardened his opposition to trade unions. He lambasted progressive taxation and attempts by the state to raise the general welfare of citizens. He insisted that there is “an overwhelming case against a free health service for all” and dismissed the conservation of natural resources.It should come as no surprise to those who follow such matters that he was awarded the Nobel prize for economics.
By the time Mrs Thatcher slammed his book on the table, a lively network of thinktanks, lobbyists and academics promoting Hayek’s doctrines had been established on both sides of the Atlantic, abundantly financed by some of the world’s richest people and businesses, including DuPont, General Electric, the Coors brewing company, Charles Koch, Richard Mellon Scaife, Lawrence Fertig, the William Volker Fund and the Earhart Foundation. Using psychology and linguistics to brilliant effect, the thinkers these people sponsored found the words and arguments required to turn Hayek’s anthem to the elite into a plausible political programme.
So, for those of us who have always puzzled over the Conservative (particularly the American version) opposition to universal health care, look no further than Hayek and his ascendant twisted logic.
But back to this concept of heroic wealth. Monbiot makes the point brilliantly;
The paradoxical result is that the backlash against neoliberalism’s crushing of political choice has elevated just the kind of man that Hayek worshipped. Trump, who has no coherent politics, is not a classic neoliberal. But he is the perfect representation of Hayek’s “independent”; the beneficiary of inherited wealth, unconstrained by common morality, whose gross predilections strike a new path that others may follow. The neoliberal thinktankers are now swarming round this hollow man, this empty vessel waiting to be filled by those who know what they want. The likely result is the demolition of our remaining decencies, beginning with the agreement to limit global warming.
The question for those of us who do not concur is what our response to this should be? If not neoliberalism, what philosophy should we follow? What stories do we tell that are more beautiful? Here is Monbiot again;
A few of us have been working on this, and can discern what may be the beginning of a story. It’s too early to say much yet, but at its core is the recognition that – as modern psychology and neuroscience make abundantly clear – human beings, by comparison with any other animals, are both remarkably social and remarkably unselfish. The atomisation and self-interested behaviour neoliberalism promotes run counter to much of what comprises human nature.
Hayek told us who we are, and he was wrong. Our first step is to reclaim our humanity.
I simply could not agree more. It sounds a lot like this to me;
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.