Sunday 23 September 2018

Has Neoliberalism Colonised Our Minds?

Welcome To Our World: The parallels between colonialism and the arrival of neoliberal ideology are striking. There was the same extraordinary confidence that the new order was, essentially, irresistible. That, putting it in the simplest terms, there was “no alternative”. With their old leaders and old institutions gone, the populations of the advanced western economies soon found themselves in the same powerless position as the victims of colonisation.

DR CHRIS HARRIS has been inspiring me for more than 20 years. He is one of those rare individuals who sees clearly the lines of force connecting individuals, classes, events and institutions in the present historical moment. His latest insight: that neoliberalism has replicated in the advanced economies of the West the same master/servant, foreign/indigenous power dynamic which once characterised colonial societies; is particularly exciting.

Colonisation presents a distinctive and consistent historical narrative. Foreigners in pursuit of specific economic objectives arrive in other people’s territory. The newcomers’ cultural confidence, supplemented by their superior firepower, quickly overawe the indigenous elites, who are easily persuaded to grant them privileged access to the resources they seek. In return, the local rulers are promised a share of the newcomers’ profits. Thus compromised, the ruling elites’ legitimacy is undermined and the newcomers move swiftly to fill the resulting power vacuum. The colonised population, if it is unlucky, then succumbs to the newcomers’ microbes and declines into demographic and economic irrelevance. Or, if they remain demographically significant, are forcefully reduced to economic and political impotence. Sullen enemies of the new order, they wait for their colonial overlords’ to make a mistake.

The parallels with the arrival of neoliberal ideology are striking. There was the same extraordinary confidence that the new economic doctrine was, essentially, irresistible. That, putting it in the simplest terms, there was “no alternative”. The intellectual and economic corruption of the existing elites similarly mirrors the colonial experience – as does their political collapse and replacement by the most ruthless exponents of the new, now dominant, ideology. With their old leaders and old institutions gone, the populations of the advanced western economies found themselves in the same powerless position as the victims of colonisation. Uncertain as to whether resistance or accommodation offered them the best hope of individual and familial security, they became involuntary participants in the complete transformation of their societies.

The question raised by Harris is whether what is happening in the advanced societies of the West: Brexit, Trump, the gathering momentum of populist leaders and parties in the formerly liberal nations of Germany, Denmark, Italy and Sweden; is in any way comparable to the anti-colonialist revolts that shaped so much of the twentieth century? Certainly, the near collapse of the globalised capitalist economy in 2008, and the mortal wound it inflicted on the credibility of neoliberalism, is analogous to the blows inflicted upon the power and prestige of the British and French Empires by the Japanese during World War II. The white imperialists, it seemed, could be beaten. Much of their power was bluff. Meaning: the moment colonial peoples found the courage to call their masters’ bluff, the days of empire were numbered.

Nowhere, argues Harris, can this analogy be drawn more sharply than in the United States. In the eyes of more and more Americans the “Establishment” has become the source of all their woes. People’s trust in the system is evaporating, and with it is disappearing what little legitimacy it still enjoys. Drawing on the writings of the radical writer, Umair Haque, Harris characterises the United States as  “a profoundly unstable imperial patchwork-quilt with a large population that does not enjoy full citizenship or personhood”. In his view, the United States is undergoing “an internal decolonisation revolution against a hated and distant elite that has made the locals into a helot underclass in the land of their birth.”

New Zealand is by no means exempt from the effects of this unravelling neoliberal hegemony. In this country, also, there is a large colonised population presided over by a distant and hated elite. We, too, have constructed an underclass whose full citizenship and personhood is routinely denied in overcrowded prisons; at the counter of the local WINZ office; and by “unconsciously biased” teachers, medics and cops.

That the sharpening of social tensions in New Zealand is happening at a much slower rate than in the United States or Europe is due, almost entirely, to the relative ease with which New Zealand passed through the Global Financial Crisis. Even so, by 2017 the National-led government’s increasingly obvious inability to treat all of New Zealand’s citizens as full persons left it with insufficient support to continue in office. Its replacement, the Labour-NZF-Green Government stands pledged to restore full citizenship and personhood to those Maori New Zealanders still suffering from the effects of the country’s original colonisation; as well as to the internally colonised victims of neoliberalism’s thirty-year rule.

The biggest problem faced by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her coalition partners is how to transition New Zealand from the cruelties of neoliberalism to a new economic and social order guided by the “politics of kindness”. It’s a problem accentuated by the absence of the “revolutionary carnivals” that have so often accompanied the throwing-off of colonial rule. Like the Brexit vote in the UK and the election of Trump in the USA, what happened last September and October in New Zealand represented the downtrodden voters’ confused reaction to the manifest failings of neoliberalism – not their confident endorsement of a coherent alternative.

The failure of the National Government’s opponents to develop a coherent alternative to neoliberalism is beginning to define their political and economic management. The victims of the old order still stagger under the burden of an essentially unmodified status-quo. The situation now prevailing is, therefore, akin to a hard-pressed colonial power granting its subjects the mere phantom of self-rule. The neoliberal colonisers, in their pith helmets and baggy shorts are still in charge, and the longer they remain so, the more ridiculous their phantom government will be made to look.

Revolutions are not made by half-measures.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 21 September 2018.


Kat said...

Well it wasn't just the "downtrodden voters" that voted for this coalition govt. You are not going to get the revolution you are looking for Chris anytime soon. You know very well that it will be incremental change, and in time with Jacinda and Winston at the helm a more sunny side of capitalism that prevails. The only alternative is more of Nationals brighter future for the top 10% and their cronies.

Yeah nah.

Polly. said...

I applaud your comment.
Neoliberalism has ascended the economies of all countries in the world.
Russia and China included.
Venezuela may be an exception?. But look were they are, thousands if not millions of people trying to escape the Venezuela utopia.
I have no answer.
Who has?.
Despite the intentions of man made laws to ease suffering.
Despite goodwill from many to many more.
The law of the jungle is still prevalent and thriving.

Andrew Nichols said...

Revolutions are not made by half-measures.

No of course not. I think the most significant upheavel will come with the election of a Jeremy Corbyn led Labour Govt ij the UK assuming they can remove the grotesque Blairist wannabe Tories like Chukka Umunna from their ranks before the next election.

If he's successful in smashing the myths of the last 35 yrs in the UK it will send shockwaves through the Commonwealth in particular giving courage to like minded forces on the progressive left to ask "Why not?" in the likes of NZ/Aus/Canada and if theres a reluctance to get on with it by current leadership in those nations then Shorten/De Natale, Ardern/Shaw and whoever it is in Canada (Trudeau is Canadas Macron, a neoliberal phoney and Blairs love child) Look out for exhiliarating times, led principally by the Millennials. I'm 60 and I cant wait.

John Hurley said...

Couldn't it just be that a developed countries reach a peak (production possibility frontier) while biological forces and humanism drive up populations. Michael Reddel says "throughout the OECD(?) there is some evidence that population increase has occured at a cost to GDP/capita"? I realise the talking about population is boring and outside the Overton window.

peteswriteplace said...

Great story, thats all Chris.

greywarbler said...

Terrific overview so far Chris. I am only on the first paras and am saving the rest for pudding. Good stuff. I enjoy your prismatic views of this little country and its place in the world, and we need to swing around in the sun or rain, and reflect on ourselves.

David George said...

A revolution seems, thankfully, unlikely. A look at history puts your histrionics over the state of our lives into some perspective. We are living at a time of the greatest surge in global living standards in history, the most free and liberal societies (at least in the democracies) the longest life expectancy etc. ever.
Given that, the most sensible approach is conservatism - or great caution if the term rankles. Short of a catastrophe, who is crazy enough to sign up for revolution. A revolution that is almost certain to result in a worse situation than we have now (but with a different set of "oppressors" and victims) - if not something approaching actual hell.
No thanks Chris.

Nick J said...

So true Andrew, so many phoneys, in the words of Ford Fairlane, "So many ar****les, so few bullets".

I often get this lingual concept dissonance....the neo liberal "reforms", progressive politics actually being regressive, political correctness being incoherent and usually incorrect....seeing the wood for the trees is getting very bothersome.

Wayne Mapp said...

Chris, this is a consistent theme of yours, that Jacinda should usher in the revolution. But she was not elected on that basis, and neither does she govern on that basis.

Surely, after the experience of 1984, you would expect that governments will basically do what they promised, not something quite different. That is after all the reason we got MMP.

Much better for Jeremy Corbyn to do this . At least he will have campaigned on it. Then we will all get to see how well trying to set the clock back 35 years and introduce socialist nirvana actually works.

David Stone said...

Remember (as if you would forget) that labour introduced neoliberalism to NZ not national. And Hellen Clarke would not side with Jim Anderton to oppose it at the beginning, and to many peoples disappointment did nothing to reverse it during her significant period of administration. Cullen totally maintained the mode as her finance minister , and now he is senior advisor , and likely actually calling the shots that matter still.
None of this administration apart from Winston has said anything to suggest any move away from neoliberalism. As John Minto says on TDB a change (revolution ) will have to be looked for outside of parliament . There is nothing to suggest any change is envisaged from inside. They are tweedle dumb and tweedle dumber .

Guerilla Surgeon said...

" Then we will all get to see how well trying to set the clock back 35 years "

Funny, I certainly wouldn't want to go back 35 years socially. You know, the time when you could beat up gay people and nobody really gave a stuff, you could refer to Winston Peters as "not safe under a high ball", and women couldn't get a bank loan without permission from their husbands and stuff like that. But I wouldn't mind going back 35 years to the time when people were actually getting decent wages, you could bring up your family with only one person working, and you had a chance to watch your kids play sport. Oh what the hell, that's just crazy talk right?/s

John Stowell said...

Is there a reference to the work by the good doctor who has so inspired you?

Geoff Fischer said...

Liberalism makes the erroneous claims that "freedom of choice" is the creation of a political system, that it is a fundamental value, and that the choices people make are inconsequential compared to the importance of the "right to choose".
Every three years the state purveyors of this bizarre philosophy put their people out on the streets to tell us that we should vote in parliamentary elections, and that it does not matter for whom we vote. To the true blue liberal, choice is a good in itself, and whether one chooses a Pol Pot or a Mother Teresa is neither here nor there.
So let's be clear.
Freedom of choice is not the gift of democracy or any other political system. It is an innate characteristic of the human being.
It is not a fundamental good, but merely an attribute which may be used for good or ill.
Those who claim to have given society "freedom of choice", and then think that they can walk away from or ignore the consequences of choice are at best self-conceited and amoral, at worst duplicitous exploiters of their fellow human beings.
Anyone who challenges this pernicious doctrine, whether in the sphere of politics, the economy, or any other aspect of life in our current political circumstances is a revolutionary.
It is difficult to say for certain that Ms Ardern campaigned on this basis. Politicians are skilled at sending out ambiguous messages, including the suggestion that they will, in some way, shape or form, provide a moral alternative to the amorality of liberal democracy. But Ardern raised expectations of a more moral approach to government and Chris is right to call her to account on that.

Sam said...

Jacinda was sent thier to wage war on Climate Change and you all know it.

Unknown said...

Yes Chris, we all know what the problem is - the crap economic theories of Milton Friedman.

But what is the alternative to TINA ?

And well said David Stone, you took the words out of my mouth.

greywarbler said...

Socialist nirvana 35 years ago says Wayne Mapp. That is the sort of hyperbole that you get from a conservative who can easily bear to watch so many people under present economic policies live in poverty and uncertainty with barriers to their ever getting an enjoyable lifestyle.

It wasn't 'socialist nirvana' we had, it was a messy adjustment towards having a balanced economy, that required some practical and adult adjustments in thinking from business and workers. It wasn't best practice but people did manage to have decent lives, from top to bottom earners. That wasn't socialist, that was just a juvenile development stage that those at the top felt impatient about; they wanted more and fast. So Roger Douglas gave it to them and stabbed his constituency in the back. He and his peers eating fish and chips; they are almost too dear for an ordinary family to afford now.

aberfoyle said...

Listend to this informed banker yesterday on the radio,he saying the monies transacted on a daily basis within banking and other financial organizations is a staggering 30 billion per day.Today listened to why Kiwi workers have not seen or dare ask for a wage rise,with the employer class old burned chestnut not enough PRODUCTIVITY,yet the tax Governments rely on comes most from those who lest can afford to pay the hard done by workers.

Revolution within a capitalist or State Capitalist State,would be bloodless with a monthly 1% Financial Transaction Tax,that would allow social caring governance to ease the taxation burden on the producers of a countries wealth the overtaxed productive working people,the working class.

Sam said...

WTF is TINA and how would you enforce New Zealand laws both domestically and internationally with big empires, Britian and now the USA holding your hand?

If it was me I'd make submarines and fighter jets of our own. No half measures remember.

sumsuch said...

Excellent telling of our story. Good parallels. The compromising, compromised Labour Party. The bought-off elites.

But the question, was it always a short-termy thing, despite the brilliance of the best of us, aside from the dull conveniences and comforts of the rest of us by which a billion stomachs have bloomed?

The spirit of wild gambling central to H.s.s. meeting the concrete wall of finite resources.

sumsuch said...

Agree David Stone, it will have to come from outside Parliament. The strikes, blasting aside the ridiciwis 'budget responsibility rules'. If only there were leaders of the people who understood ecclesiastic call and response.

sumsuch said...

Meritocratic elites are more resistant than the old fat fucks. 84. Everyone of talent is paid off. In ideas and dosh. But, thankfully, not the grandees of NZ demo-cracy who have led us these 38 years. Revolution is the only thing that makes sense now. The non-violent sort, curious SIS sorts.

sumsuch said...

If I remember rightly, in my present state of good sense, 34 years.