Tuesday 4 April 2017

The Ideology That Dares Not Speak Its Name.

The March Of Neoliberalism: In essence: a codification of the economic, social and political pre-conditions required for massive social inequality to become a permanent feature of contemporary capitalist society; neoliberalism generally prefers to avoid self-identification.
THERE IS SOMETHING PECULIAR about an ideology that dares not speak its name. Historically speaking, those who claimed to have discovered how the world works were never reticent about giving their discovery a name. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels did not publish The Manifesto in 1848, they published The Communist Manifesto. By the end of the Nineteenth Century there were very few educated persons who did not grasp the essence of the Marxists’ economic, social and political programme.
In the case of neoliberal ideology, however, we are presented with a very different picture. In essence: a codification of the economic, social and political pre-conditions required for massive social inequality to become a permanent feature of contemporary capitalist society; neoliberalism generally prefers to avoid self-identification.
Last week, for example, The National Business Review’s Rob Hosking responded to Sue Bradford’s accusation that the Greens had sold out to neoliberalism like this:
“As always, it isn’t clear what is meant by ‘neo-liberal’, apart from ‘bad things’.”
In the age of Google, Hosking’s professed ignorance as to the term’s meaning is curious. Even the humble Wikipedia could have offered him enough to be going on with:
“Neoliberalism (neo-liberalism) refers primarily to the 20th-century resurgence of 19th-century ideas associated with laissez-faire economic liberalism. These include extensive economic liberalisation policies such as privatisation, fiscal austerity, deregulation, free trade and reductions in government spending in order to increase the role of the private sector in the economy and society. These market-based ideas and the policies they inspired constitute a paradigm shift away from the post-war Keynesian consensus which lasted from 1945 to 1980.”
Admirably clear. And while there’s certainly scope for scholarly debate around detail and emphasis, Wikipedia’s definition is more than sufficient to dispel the feigned ignorance of neoliberalism’s most zealous defenders.
Why, then, do neoliberals like Hosking continue to insist that they have no firm grasp of the term’s usage – other than as an expression of left-wing abuse?
The answer is simple. To survive and prosper, neoliberalism and the policies it inspires cannot afford to be seen as ‘just another ideology’ – like communism or fascism. Rather, it must be accepted as a law of nature – as unyielding to human influence as the weather.
What absolutely must not become widely understood is that neoliberalism is, indeed, an all-too-human artefact: formulated by twentieth century economists and given popular currency by individuals and institutes funded by extremely wealthy and politically motivated capitalists.
In the face of multiple post-war democratic challenges, these capitalists were anxious to recover and consolidate their class’s dominant position. This had been in steady decline since the 1930s and, by the 1970s, was facing an emancipatory explosion of hitherto suppressed social groups: workers, ethnic minorities, women, youth, gays and lesbians.
Consider the fate of these groups since the neoliberal counter-revolution of the 1980s, and the neoliberals’ reluctance to speak their true name becomes clear.
The destruction of the trade union movement as a vital economic and political counterweight to the power of capital has permitted a massive transfer of wealth from the employees of capitalist enterprises to their shareholders and senior executives.
The elimination and/or privatisation of the public providers of Maori employment ripped entire communities apart – giving rise to social pathologies that, three decades later, are not only still prevalent in Maori society, but increasing. It is no accident that the Maori incarceration rate, at 56 percent, is higher now than it has ever been.
In spite of a massive rise in post-war female workforce participation, Kiwi women are still paid, on average, 12 percent less than men. Violent sexism still oppresses them.
After 33 years of neoliberalism, young New Zealanders find themselves burdened down with debt and, increasingly, shut out of the housing market.
From being among the most forthright critics of capitalism’s power to define the “normal” in the early-1980s, the twenty-first century LGBTI community finds itself re-defined and re-presented as proof of neoliberal capitalism’s tolerance. Many LGBTI individuals now inhabit happily social institutions which their predecessors rejected as oppressive.
It is, however, neoliberalism’s unique ability to empty the future of hope that goes to the heart of its apologists’ reticence.
The young All Souls Fellowship holder, Max Harris, has written a whole book on what he sees as young New Zealanders’ alienation from politics. But how could a generation raised under neoliberalism be anything else? All their lives they have been told that to be human is to compete. That the way they buy and sell things (commodities, other people, themselves) is much more important than the way they vote. That their position in the socio-economic hierarchy is entirely attributable to the wisdom or unwisdom of their personal choices.
“I am interested in whether love could be made a bigger feature of our politics”, writes Harris.
Not while neoliberalism endures, Max.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 4 April 2017.


Gerrit said...

Biggest problem is that the alternative to neoliberalism is not presented to any degree by its proponents. Where are the painters of pictures in the LabGreens that show the voter the new way forward?

Where is the painting that shows the voter what the promised land looks like.

The current situation is bad but who votes for an unknown future? "Trust as we know what we are doing" by LabGreen is not going to resound at all. Hence the continued polling figures and election vote for National. Who in their right mind votes for an unknown?

So Mr Shaws and Little, stand up, tell us what nirvana looks like, how we will get there and when we are like to arrive. The ball is in your court.

If LabGreen don't do it, will Bradford, Minto, Harawira and thier like form a political party that paint the picture and takes the people forward?

Unknown said...

Not the breakfast reading I'd planned on but beautifully clear explanation of how Neoliberal hegemony works - Thanks.

Anthon said...

This should be required reading for everyone this year Chris.

It matters not whether they agree or disagree with you: you have framed the issue excellently.

I'll be spreading the link to this article far and wide!

glen garforth said...

having more love in our politics makes sense.
where there is law there is no love, where there is love there is no law.
we are so much more effective and achieve more when we co-operate and collaborate.

B'art Homme said...

The permanent and ever increasing gap between the haves and have nots AND the net negativity that neoliberalism has and is having on our environment via meat and dairy production esp are two big issues to add to your fine list and writing here Chris.

The will to compete is ever powerful a tendency these days - it demonstrably and very clearly proves value... little wonder parents send their offspring to private single sex schools to learn how to win.

The other very important issue is: where - here in god's own - this neoliberalism took hold and possibly blamed on the 1984 government, Douglas and the utter focus on the market versus the continuation and growth of democracy as an egalitarian kind of law and decision making.

Polly said...

What a insightful piece of commentary.
The argument against will be of course that many citizens do well and prosper under this political ideology. The well-doers should ask the question, do The rest of my family, my neighbors, my old friends, my community and country do as well?.
Why are our prison rates going up, why are houses now not fordable by most New Zealanders, the list could go on.

I also ask why do the LabGreens still insist on being the National Lite parties?.

Where are there "the real points of difference", have they not heard that Brexit is happening and that Trump ( I pause to say prayer) is now the Potus.

Chris your piece deserves wider coverage. Well done.

Guerilla Surgeon said...


Nick J said...

No name and the natural order of things. Yes that is the claim. It is also a denial of history, a permanent placement as attempted by Fukuyama, an end of all debate.

I have been listening to the excellent "Revolutions" podcast, in particular the French revolution over 50 episodes...www.revolutionspodcast.libsyn.com The thing that stands out about the denialism, and insistence upon social and political stasis is that nothing in our society, culture and economy is unrelated or static. France 1784 so many snouts in the trough, so many privileged members of the court at Versailles insisting that this was the natural order. A huge economic crisis brewing, again denied and subject to "creative book keeping". So many scandals.

History may not repeat but it does echo. We appear to be at the point of attempting to consume non existent cake.

Slugger said...

Neo Liberalism commodifies everything. People are too busy 'trading' and 'competing' to participate in society.

This is what the mega-rich want. People too busy to know what's going on.

Anonymous said...

The wikipedia definition of neoliberal is pretty solid, my issue is the way its over used by the likes of Bradford and Trotter to describe all right of center voters. There is a world of difference between Roger Douglas an aggressive liberalizer and say John Key a muldoonist incrementalist yet Trotter and Bradford scream them down as Neoliberals.

The result is that I regard Neoliberal as an overused insult by shrill and angry leftists to howl down or disparage anyone who is not in agreement with them.

I think we need a new term for the economically hyper liberal aggressors of the 1980's and the incrementalists of the current era. Neoliberal will do fine for the 1980's aggressors and modrate conservatives for the current lot.

I'm sure Mike Hoskings will agree with the logic and clarity of that position.
I guess suggesting this heresy makes me a neoliberal Mr Trotter.

Alan said...

All neatly summed up in the article in the Herald the other day about the inspirational young Gary Lin, who after being given $200,000 by his dad.. lucky Gary.. went on to turn it into $10,000,000 in eight years and whose public advice to young home wanters apparently was to “toughen (the fuck) up, join the army and stop complaining..”

Certainly it is good advice from a very successful young man in business, keen to rake as much as he can into his corner as quickly as possible. It is certainly sage advice for those whose Trump-like view of others is as exploitable ‘losers’, who by virtue of their failings and lack of understandings on the grasp-and-take front deserve their fates.

Is this anything other than a ‘philosophy’ of greed?

There is little understanding of the inter-connectedness of people in a ‘society’ sense. There is only the understanding of money, and how I can get more, and in this sense society is seen as a farm where people are the cattle to be looked after only, and only, to turn a healthy profit for the farmer.

This is the compassionless face of the new social order.

Alan Rhodes

Bushbaptist said...

Very accurate Chris!

King Badger said...

A stark example of neo liberalism is found in universities where academics come under massive pressure to 'dumb down' courses or to mark papers generously to ensure pass rates.

Universities these days are in the 'business' of 'selling' knowledge.

I have heard of examples where university 'managers' have indicated to certain academics that their jobs were under threat because of the 'unpopularity' of certain papers.

Who remembers when the Russian School was closed at Otago?

And just a few months ago the Humanities Department was subjected to a 'review' by university managers.

David Stone said...


There haven't been any NZ politicians since Jim Anderton who have offered any alternative to neoliberalism except Russell Norman. Most studiously avoid discussing economic theory or even thinking about it . There's no one there now advocating or contemplating making any changes to the neoliberal settlement.

Charles E said...

Do things exist if they are not named?
Well to attack something you need to name it so that is one motivation for naming it I guess. I do not think there is something really solid called neo-liberalism (in the sense of Socialism or Capitalism) but I do accept there is an economic and political philosophy which kicked off around Thatcher's time and still persists which has been very successful and mostly for good. But, and this is a big but, not all good at all and definitely in need of improvement. We can do better and will I think. That change has been underway for a while. I believe compassionate conservatism is showing the way to go and well represented by Key and now English. Neo anything is always opposed by true conservatives.
Read the Salisbury Review the last 30 years and you will understand that conservatives have always opposed this thing you name.
I'm interested in what will replace it or more likely, what it is already changing into. No name yet so that is to come too.

Mel Head. said...

Mel Head.
I was born in !940 and I remember life before neoliberalism. I agree with the thrust of your column, particularly in regard to the transfer of power and wealth to the corporates and managers. My father, a union member, would turn in his grave at the current treatment of working class people.
I would like to help to change this but how do I do that, and who do I support?

David Stone said...

Charles E
I'm sure things can exist without us naming them. And have done for millennia before we could name anything.
As for "neoliberalism" I would like to offer a description if not a definition...... It is a re establishment of "laissez faire " or the uncontrolled capitalism that operated in western economies before the second world war. The alternative is the managed capitalism that was established after that disaster, when some wise and responsible thinkers from the main western powers sat down together and worked out a plan to create a structure in which capitalism could provide opportunities for everyone, incentive for everyone, but dominance for no one.
Neoliberalism is essentially the abandonment of the structure they created, allowing the natural tendency for man, just like the rest of the natural world, to establish winners and losers , and for some to become dominant in the world of commerse and finance, and so ridiculously wealthy, while the many are denied the necessities of a dignified existence amidst plenty.
An apparently little discussed but to my thinking vital difference to the time of the Bretten Woods agreement in the aftermath of the 30's depression and WW2, and the present, is the nature of money. Until then it had been pretty much tied in it's quantity throughout the world to gold. Temporarily abandoned from time to time in the extremities of war, but always brought back to a relationship. This limited the creation of money/debt , applying a discipline that governments and bankers regularly showed they could not always impose on themselves. After Bretten Woods gold was abandoned as a regulator but a responsible regime of central banks imposing a deposit reserve ratio on banks to control the volume of money (debt) that they could issue. This controlled the volume of money just as effectively as the gold standard while it lasted.
It would be easier to resurrect Keynes from his grave than to then make him believe that we have now allowed banks to decide how much debt the wanted to issue ,so that we now have an effectively an infinite money (debt) supply.
This has greatly exacerbated the unevenness of wealth distribution and created an unstable debt structure that will collapse.
This could be seen as unrelated to the neoliberal concept of a market dominated economy which may in the end cop more blame for the impending mess than it is really responsible for.
Replacing it now with government control of banking , and control of our nation's resources to again give everyone a chance to prosper will just require a return to a controlled money supply , and returning New Zealand back into the hands of New Zealanders. Largely just a return to how it was in the 50's 60's and 70's. But for a guide to the resistance that might be imposed on one little country trying to do that on it's own see Libya, Syria and Iraq.
Cheers D J S

Olwyn said...

I am late to this conversation, and am probably now talking to an empty room. However, it has haunted my thinking since you put it up. One consequence of neoliberalism's "unnamed" status is that people from both the right and left continue to think and speak of it as if it were a development within social democracy, and measurable by degree, rather than a jumping of the conceptual tracks, from a social to a liberal democracy. When people challenge it as if it were a development within social democracy, it is able to respond by granting them theoretical victories that turn out to be practical defeats. Take the subprime mortgages. Hurrah! We are all to be part of a property-owning democracy. Oh no! We have lost everything to the financial instruments derived from our mortgages.

Their linking of economic and personal freedom, and defending freedom as the most important good, has allowed them to dismiss those it doesn't need as have misused their freedom by making poor choices. "They hate our freedoms" they cry, when they find themselves under attack. But at the same time it seems to me a paranoid philosophy - less a confirmation that capitalism is the end of history than a fear that it might not be. The roomfuls of public servants they once derided have been replicated by roomfuls of corporate technocrats and image makers. They seem to fear that anyone who is in the position to challenge them is likely to do so, and prefer to see potential opponents homeless,jobless or imprisoned than trained, independent and capable of sticking up for themselves. Because of this, it is unable to function as an invisible background in any broad, inclusive sense. The question is not whether it will last - I do not a regime that cuts off the branch on which it is sitting can - but what will follow it.

greywarbler said...

Thanks Olwyn thoughtful as usual. And sometimes the end of the comments is where something interesting and newly thoughtful turns up. One of my favourite quotes on thinking more slowly and deeply:

"The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts." - Bertrand Russell

But I can't help but add:
The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.
George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman (1903) "Maxims for Revolutionists" Irish dramatist & socialist (1856 - 1950)
The Quotations Page

But humbly of course - from Winston Churchill:
"It is a good thing for the uneducated person to read books of quotations. "