Neoliberalism Nutshelled

The City of London
The City of London

A shameless, propagandising character assassination on everyone’s favourite wrenchingly unjust set of socioeconomic arrangements.

There’s nothing remotely original left to say about capitalism – or, for that matter, the ecological catastrophe it’s causing in its current neoliberal, hyper-consumerist form. 

Our whole way of life, in the Westernised world at least, is geared around constantly increasing the production and consumption of goods and services that we don’t need. Prevailing economic logic holds that to be ‘healthy’, an economy has to grow about 3% each year. That can’t be achieved by just satisfying real human needs – so instead, society has to create new, artificial needs.

By fairly ruthlessly playing on perennial human hang-ups about status, respect and self-worth, we’ve created a culture of obsessive materialism. We try and buy our way to happiness, to success, to ever-elusive satisfaction. Funnily enough, we always fail – the latest shiny gadget loses its lustre after a while. The latest hat, handbag or bit of furniture only holds our interest for so long before we go looking for something else. And it’s this dreary emotional cycle that the system depends on.

Unsurprisingly, that system is horrifically wasteful. Making ever-increasing amounts of consumer goods logically requires ever-increasing amounts of fuel to be used in their construction and transportation.

And in its relentless hunt for efficiency, the free market has transferred manufacture to the most polluting parts of the world where labour is cheaper – China now burns half the world’s coal building products to export, mostly to the West.

But China doesn’t only make the products any more – just in time for globalisation to have spread our consumer-mania across the East, it and India are growing in power, prominence and wealth. Current estimates suggest Indian and Chinese consumer spending will have tripled by 2020. Now the two most populous nations on earth – together accounting for 2.5 billion people – are striving for Western standards of living. If they succeed, civilisation is sunk, ecologically at least.  

Still, it’s undeniably our consumer-crazed part of the world that’s led humanity down such an eco-cidal cul-de-sac. We’re also the best-placed to start collectively dragging the species back from the brink.

But we don’t, because we’re constrained in what we do, even in how we think, by a blinkered, twisted set of values – values shared almost universally by political, cultural and economic elites across the Westernised world, and beamed so inescapably at the populations they govern that they come to fundamentally shape how we perceive the world around us.

Sticking It To The Man

For a vastly, almost unshakably powerful part of society, green socioeconomic revamp is viewed like every other attempt to change the world. Change, radical or even relatively timid, threatens their immense wealth, their unrivalled political influence, and the decades of intellectual effort they’ve invested to secure both of the above.

For forty years, zealous free-marketeers have lobbied tirelessly. They’ve had three main aims: firstly, to bring down the post-war welfare consensus that restrained the freedoms of the wealthy in its compromise with labour. 

Secondly, to replace that consensus with one that’s skewed in favour of individual economic freedoms, and the unquestionable dominance of private wealth and property.

And thirdly, to hammer those ideas into the popular consciousness – to the extent where they become a new, unchallengeable common sense. 

It’s been a Herculean feat of political ear-bending. In boardrooms and banks, economics faculties and political parties, neoliberals have tirelessly chivvied, propagandised and seduced. To a frightening degree, they’ve shaped government policy across the Westernised world. Theirs is the dystopian vision that, tragically, has become the planet’s socio-economic default setting.

Neoliberalism shares the same basic idea as the all the capitalisms that came before it. It’s very simple: a minority take what human beings find freely available in the world they happen to be born into – natural resources, land, other species and the like – and make others buy them back, claiming that the resulting inequalities somehow reflect differences in intelligence or worth rather than coming from pure cosmic luck of the draw.

Founded on the twisted idea that anything found in nature can truly ‘belong’ to any one individual, that sorry notion has worked its way through history, dispossessing, exploiting and impoverishing hundreds of millions while enriching tiny minorities. 

Neoliberalism takes that logic to extremes. The old capitalisms accepted, or at least tolerated, certain limits on what it was socially acceptable to buy and sell. Neoliberalism doesn’t. Its advocates constantly push at those limits. Every sphere of human experience is put at risk of commercialisation by free-market creep – water, energy, food, education, healthcare, policing, transport, and local government have either partly fallen to, or been swallowed whole by, market fundamentalism.

As long as private property has existed, people have always had to work. To be able to afford privately-controlled life necessities, people have to sell their labour – almost invariably to other private interests, placing them doubly at the mercy of unaccountable wealth.

But neoliberalism abandons the attempt to balance profitability with human welfare. Now, people are impelled to work harder, for longer, for less, with less legal protection, to maximise their profit-making potential. Essentially, neoliberalism aims at the commercialisation of everything, including individual human beings – something that, behind its hair-trigger evocations of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ and ‘choice’, makes life more precarious and gruelling for the majority.

Twisted Ideas

To justify ludicrous inequality – not just of wealth, but of liberty, political power and life chances – an almost laughably skewed state of affairs has to be presented as perfectly normal. Again, in this respect the marketeers have proved woefully successful.

Gradually, and certainly disastrously, neoliberal logic has come to shape how we all think. After decades of influencing how we see the world, hierarchy, wealth and property have come to affect how we perceive reality – what we see as desirable and undesirable, what is and isn’t normal, and what can and can’t be achieved.

The spectrum of ‘normal’, acceptable behaviour has come to include gross excess, murderous apathy, abhorrent personal greed and near-pathological lack of empathy

Somehow, staggeringly, they’ve convinced us that not just the best, but the only way of securing the welfare of society as a whole is by improving the lot of the wealthiest, while reducing what they have to contribute towards the upkeep of everyone else. 

Once-state run public utilities have been privatised and welfare safety nets have been shredded. Public-spirited vocations like teaching and nursing have been manhandled and disparaged from Whitehall, just as socially-useless financial speculation and private profiteering have been celebrated. From taxation to planning regulations, employee’s rights to executive pay, government policy consistently favours private wealth and corporate dominance at the expense of the vast majority.

Economic vandalism has been passed off as the only way viable way of doing things. With the political arrival of Mr Blair and the advent of New Labour, opposition to it has been all but eradicated from the political mainstream. Now, at least according to the Westminster culture that’s beamed daily into our living rooms, neutrality means low-tax pro-business elitist bureaucracy.

Business isn’t seen to have any political bias at all – it’s portrayed as beyond, above politics. ‘Economics’ now means little more than messianic fervour for free-market capitalism. And both are always presented as unquestionably in the ‘public interest’, their success vital for a healthy society. Governments just exist to tinker, facilitate competition and lead the collective heave towards ever-increasing economic growth.

But scariest of all is the extent to which we’ve convinced ourselves that the dubious messages floating down from upon high are right. Boiled down, neoliberalism is just about taking wealth and power from the majority and giving it to a tiny minority.

The men and women who make up that tiny minority have happily deluded themselves into thinking their excessive lifestyles are perfectly ‘normal’, that they’ve ‘earned’ them. And at the other end of the spectrum, people have similarly accepted the repulsively widespread official line – that it’s the ‘gifted’ who rise to the top, gaining pay-packets and lifestyles befitting their inherent superiority, while an intellectually stunted majority work the tills, stack the shelves and clean the toilets. In fact these divisions are completely arbitrary, only existing in our heads.

Neoliberalism’s gravest offence, then, is the way it squanders, abuses and ignores huge swathes of humanity. This happens locally, as the interests of both the demonised poor and floundering average-earners are constantly overridden by those of the very rich, and internationally, as the ‘developed’ West eats and buys and wastes itself and the wider world to ecological oblivion, while millions suffer preventably.

In a sensible world, you’d hope that a doctrine that trampled the welfare of the majority of the human race while ruining its ecosystem would be quickly blasted out of the political stratosphere. Instead it’s become globally dominant. But because of its environmental disastrousness and its inhumanity, neoliberalism remains worth angrily banging on about, in spite of the truly towering odds against anyone or anything that tries to take it on.