It's always the neoliberals' fault.
By Alberto Mingardi
Who’s responsible for a “remarkable variety of crises”, basically all the imaginable ones besides Covid19? Don’t hold your breath: neoliberals, of course, are.
In these days of quarantine, I tend to read The Guardian regularly. It has a remarkable opinion section. It has its own ideology (well, who doesn’t?), but it typically hosts arguments rather than rants.
I don’t see many “arguments” in this article by George Monbiot, a regular columnist for the paper. But it is anyway a remarkable piece. On the one hand, it brings together all the charges often levied against neoliberalism. On the other, it seems to me to be the perfect enunciation of “new” left-of-center ideas in the times of AOC.
For Monbiot, neoliberalism is responsible for an array of different problems such as “the financial meltdown of 2007‑8, the offshoring of wealth and power, of which the Panama Papers offer us merely a glimpse, the slow collapse of public health and education, resurgent child poverty, the epidemic of loneliness, the collapse of ecosystems, the rise of Donald Trump”. Such different crises appear to the unconsidering as indeed different, thus requiring diverse responses. This is a mistake as “they have all been either catalyzed or exacerbated by the same coherent philosophy; a philosophy that has – or had – a name. What greater power can there be than to operate namelessly?”
In part, Monbiot rejuvenates the idea that neoliberalism is a silent conspiracy, that has seized the commanding heights of political power in the eighties, with Reagan and Thatcher at the helm. As such, he admires neoliberalism because “it was a distinctive, innovative philosophy promoted by a coherent network of thinkers and activists with a clear plan of action. It was patient and persistent. The Road to Serfdom became the path to power.” This is the closest thing to a Leninist praise of neoliberalism I have ever read. Of course, it fits with a narrative that sees the development of think tanks and groups, quite different in spirit and size (ranging from the American Enterprise Institute to the Adam Smith Institute), as the result of a conscious effort aiming at a power grab.
I always find it very surprising that intellectuals, people who after all care about ideas and are passionate about their own, do not understand that others may be passionate about other ideas. This is the main reason why some groups have mushroomed at different times in history. More than being the offspring of a single root, they mimic each other, to a certain extent they learned from each other, but they were all born and (some) survived out of the intellectual passions of their founders: writers, scholars, intellectuals.
Of course, Monbiot has read some literature on so-called “neoliberalism” – and happily turns it into a comic book. Consider this: “The Road to Serfdom was widely read. It came to the attention of some very wealthy people, who saw in the philosophy an opportunity to free themselves from regulation and tax. When, in 1947, Hayek founded the first organization that would spread the doctrine of neoliberalism – the Mont Pelerin Society – it was supported financially by millionaires and their foundations.” I wonder what the readers will infer from this. What were exactly “millionaires and their foundations” supporting? The answer is: conferences that, no matter how fancy a restaurant you pick for the closing dinner, are a rather inexpensive matter. Also, one wonders how many neoliberal “millionaires” and “foundations” there actually are. Monbiot acknowledges that “despite its lavish funding, neoliberalism remained at the margins.” The statement is true, the adjective “lavish” is quite funny. Most think tanks, especially outside of the US, are modest operations, financially speaking. Certainly, classical liberals in Hayek’s time were not showered with gold coins. Quite a few of them had a precarious status within academia, as most supposedly “neoliberal” scholars today still are. Interestingly enough, Monbiot does not mention the most egregious case of “neoliberal” success: the German economic miracle, with Ludwig Erhard at the helm. Is that perhaps because it cannot be explained with money being “lavishly” spent?
In part, Monbiot tries to conflate “neoliberalism” with a worldview that encompasses basically everything. Neoliberalism “redefines citizens as consumers” and provides for a vague constellation of cultural points of reference that glorify the rich and the market economy. It is interesting that by describing neoliberalism as basically the source of mass sociopathy. Monbiot avoids defining it in any meaningful sense – as a good critic of “neoliberalism”, one of the most scapegoated and less defined terms in the social sciences. Neoliberalism becomes “an invisible doctrine” and it is indeed invisible first and foremost for its enemies, as they associated with the term whatever they dislike in the status quo. This includes quite a few social evils, that are certainly troublesome and would
But classical liberalism (or neoliberalism) is emphatically a set of ideas concerning the realm of _politics_ and not the meaning of life. Were he to attend one of these lavishly funded (I am sorry, I cannot stop laughing) conferences, Monbiot perhaps would marvel at cannabis activists breaking bread with conservative, bow-tied professors who are inseparable from their pipes. “Neoliberalism”, whatever it is, is a political philosophy: its focus is the limit of governmental activity. He does not say much about the meaning of life, actually, it consciously abstains from it.
In the conclusion of his piece, which announces a book being published by Verso (I won’t miss that), Monbiot talks to his fellow lefties:
Every invocation of Lord Keynes is an admission of failure. To propose Keynesian solutions to the crises of the 21st century is to ignore three obvious problems. It is hard to mobilise people around old ideas; the flaws exposed in the 70s have not gone away; and, most importantly, they have nothing to say about our gravest predicament: the environmental crisis. Keynesianism works by stimulating consumer demand to promote economic growth. Consumer demand and economic growth are the motors of environmental destruction.
What the history of both Keynesianism and neoliberalism show is that it’s not enough to oppose a broken system. A coherent alternative has to be proposed. For Labour, the Democrats and the wider left, the central task should be to develop an economic Apollo programme, a conscious attempt to design a new system, tailored to the demands of the 21st century.
I know that this is meant to be a plea to bring the left into the fold of economist Mariana Mazzucato – but let me just point out how ironic is that this strange blend of neo-communists is evoking a grandiose project propelled by the US government at the peak of the cold war!