Sunday, 23 September 2012

What is neoliberalism?

Neoliberalism (often also written as neo-liberalism) is a very important, yet often misunderstood concept. To give a short, oversimplified definition: Neoliberalism is a small-state economic ideology based on promoting "rational self-interest" through policies such as privatisation, deregulation, globalisation and tax cuts.

People often boggle at the use of the word "neoliberal" as if the utterer were some kind of crazed tinfoil hat wearing conspiracy theorist raving about insane lizard-man conspiracies, rather than someone attempting to concisely define the global economic orthodoxy of the last three decades or so.

One of the main problems we encounter when discussing neoliberalism is the haziness of the definition. Neoliberalism is certainly a form of free-market neoclassical economic theory, but it quite difficult to pin down further than that, especially since neoliberal governments and economists carefully avoid referring to themselves as neoliberals and the mainstream media seem to avoid using the word at all costs (think about the last time you saw a BBC or CNN news reporter use the word "neoliberal" to describe the IMF or a particularly right-wing government policy).


The economic model that the word "neoliberalism" was coined to describe was developed by Chicago school economists in the 1960s and 1970s based upon Austrian neoclassical economic theories, but heavily influenced by Ayn Rand's barmy pseudo-philosophy of Übermenschen and greed-worship.

The first experiment in applied neoliberal theory began on September 11th 1973 in Chile, when a US backed military coup resulted in the death of social-democratic leader Salvador Allende and his replacement with the brutal military dictator General Pinochet (Margaret Thatcher's friend and idol). Thousands of people were murdered by the Pinochet regime for political reasons and tens of thousands more were tortured as Pinochet and the "Chicago boys" set about implementing neoliberal economic reforms and brutally reppressing anyone that stood in their way. The US financially doped the Chilean economy in order to create the impression that these rabid-right wing reforms were successful. After the "success" of the Chilean neoliberal experiment, the instillation and economic support of right-wing military dictatorships to impose neoliberal economic reforms became unofficial US foreign policy.

The first of the democratically elected neoliberals were Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the US. They both set about introducing ideologically driven neoliberal reforms, such as the complete withdrawal of capital controls by Tory Chancellor Geoffrey Howe and the deregulation of the US financial markets that led to vast corruption scandals like Enron and the global financial sector insolvency crisis of 2007-08.

By 1989 the ideology of neoliberalism was enshrined as the economic orthodoxy of the world as undemocratic Washington based institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the US Treasury Department signed up to a ten point economic plan which was riddled with neoliberal ideology such as trade liberalisation, privatisation, financial sector deregulation and tax cuts for the wealthy. This agreement between anti-democratic organisations is misleadingly referred to as "The Washington Consensus".

These days, the IMF is one of the most high profile pushers of neoliberal economic policies. Their strategy involves applying strict "structural adjustment" conditions on their loans. These conditions are invariably neoliberal reforms such as privatisation of utilities, services and government owned industries, tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, the abandonment of capital controls, the removal of democratic controls over central banks and monetary policy and the deregulation of financial industries. 


Neoliberal economic policies have created economic disaster after economic disaster, virtually wherever they have been tried out. Some of the most high profile examples include:
South Africa: When the racist Apartheid system was finally overthrown in 1994, the new ANC government embraced neoliberal economic theory and set about privatising virtually everything, cutting taxes for the wealthy, destroying capital controls and deregulating their financial sector. After 18 years of neoliberal government, more black South Africans are living in extreme poverty, more people are unemployed and South Africa is an even more unequal society than it was under the racist Apartheid regime. Between 1994 and 2006 the number of South Africans living on less than $1 a day doubled from 2 million to 4 million, by 2002, eight years after the end of Apartheid 2002 the unemployment rate for black South Africans had risen to 48%.*
Russia: After the fall of communism, neoliberal economists flooded into Russia to create their free-market utopia, however all they managed to do was massively increase levels of absolute poverty, reduce productivity and create a few dozen absurdly wealthy oligarchs who siphoned their $trillions out of Russia to "invest" in vanity projects such as Chelsea FC. Within less than a decade of being one of the world's two great super-powers, the neoliberal revolution resulted in Russia defaulting on their debts in 1998.

Argentina: Praised as the poster-boys of neoliberalism by the IMF in the 1990s for the speed and scale of their neoliberal reforms, the Argentine economy collapsed into chaos between 1999-2002, only recovering after Argentina defaulted on their debts and prioritised repayment of their IMF loans, which allowed them to tear up the IMF book of neoliberal dogma and begin implementing an investment based growth strategy which boosted the Argentine economy out of their prolonged recession. The late Argentine President Néstor Kirchner famously stated that the IMF had "transformed itself from being a lender for development to a creditor demanding privileges".

The Eurozone: The right-wing love to drivel on about how the EU is a "leftie" organisation, but the unelected technocrats that run the EU (the European commission and the European Central Bank) are fully signed up to the neoliberal economic orthodoxy, where economic interests are separated from democratic control. Take the economic crisis in Greece: The EC and the ECB lined up with the neoliberal pushing IMF to force hard line neoliberal reforms onto the Greek economy in return for vast multi-billion "bailouts" that flowed directly out of Greece to "bail out" their reckless creditors (mainly German and French banks). When the neoliberalisation reforms resulted in further economic contraction, rising unemployment and worsening economic conditions the ECB, EC, IMF troika simply removed the democratic Greek government and appointed their own stooge, an economic coup trick they also carried out in Italy. Spain and Ireland are other cracking examples of neoliberal failure in the Eurozone. These two nations were more fiscally responsible than Germany, France or the UK in terms of government borrowing before the neoliberal economic meltdown, however their deregulated financial sectors inflated absurd property bubbles, leaving the Irish and Spanish economies in ruins once the bubbles burst around 2007-08.
The United Kingdom: Here is a short article summarising how three decades of neoliberal policy have undone many of the gains made during the mixed-economy era.
The global orthodoxy

Despite this litany of economic failures, neoliberalism remains the global economic orthodoxy. Just like any good pseudo-scientific or religious orthodoxy the supporters of neoliberal theory always manage to come up with a load of post-hoc rationalisations for the failure of their theories and the solutions they present for the crises their own theories induced are always based upon the implementation of even more fundamentalist neoliberal policies.

One of the most transparent of these neoliberal justification narratives is the one that I describe as the Great Neoliberal Lie: The fallacious and utterly misleading argument that the global economic crisis (credit crunch) was caused by excessive state spending, rather than by the reckless gambling of the deregulated, neoliberalised financial sector.

Just as with other pseudo-scientific theories and fundamentalist ideologies, the excuse that "we just weren't fundamentalist enough last time" is always there. The neoliberal pushers of the establishment know that pure free-market economies are as much of an absurd fairytale as 100% pure communist economies, however they keep pushing for further privatisations, tax cuts for the rich, wage repression for the ordinary, and reckless financial sector deregulations precicely because they are the direct beneficiaries of these policies. Take the constantly widening wealth gap in the UK throughout three decades of neoliberal policy. The minority of beneficiaries from this ever widening wealth gap are the business classes, financial sector workers, the mainstream media elite and the political classes. It is no wonder at all that these people think neoliberalism is a successful ideology. Within their bubbles of wealth and privilege it has been. To everyone else it has been an absolute disaster.

Contrasts with libertarianism and minarchism

Returning to a point I raised earlier in the article; one of the main problems with the concept of "neoliberalism" is the nebulousness of the definition. It is like a form of libertarianism, however it completely neglects the fundamental libertarian idea of non-aggression. In fact, it is so closely related to that other (highly aggressive) US born political ideology of Neo-Conservatism that many people get the two concepts muddled up. A true libertarian would never approve of vast taxpayer funded military budgets, the waging of imperialist wars of aggression nor the wanton destruction of the environment in pursuit of profit. 

Another concept that is closely related to neoliberalism is the ideology of minarchism (small stateism), however the neoliberal brigade seem perfectly happy to ignore the small-state ideology when it suits their personal interests. Take the vast banker bailouts (the biggest state subsidies in human history) that were needed to save the neoliberalised global financial sector from the consequences of their own reckless gambling, the exponential growth of the parasitic corporate outsourcing sector (corporations that make virtually 100% of their turnover from the state) and the ludicrous housing subsidies (such as "Help to Buy and Housing Benefits) that have fueled the reinflation of yet another property Ponzi bubble.

The Godfather of neoliberalism was Milton Friedman. He supported the libertarian case that illegal drugs should be legalised, which is one of the very few things I agreed with him about. However this is politically inconvenient (because the illegal drug market is a vital source of financial sector liquidity) so unlike so many of his neoliberal ideas that have consistently failed, yet remain incredibly popular with the wealthy elite, Friedman's libertarian drug legalisation proposals have never even been tried out.

The fact that neoliberals are so often prepared to ignore the fundamental principles of libertarianism (the non-aggression principle, drug legalisation, individual freedoms, the right to peaceful protest ...) and abuse the fundamental principles of small state minarchism (vast taxpayer funded bailouts for their financial sector friends, £billions in taxpayer funded outsourcing contracts, alcohol price fixing schemes) demonstrate that neoliberalism is actually more like Ayn Rand's barmy (greed is the only virtue, all other "virtues" are aberrations) pseudo-philosophical ideology of objectivism  than a set of formal economic theories.


The result of neoliberal economic theories has been proven time and again. Time and again countries that embrace the neoliberal pseudo-economic ideology end up with "crony capitalism" and a massive upwards redistribution of wealth, where the poor and ordinary suffer "austerity", wage repression, revocation of labour rights and the right to protest, whilst a tiny cabal of corporate interests and establishment insiders enrich themselves via anti-competitive practices, outright criminality and corruption, and vast socialism-for-the-rich schemes.

Neoliberal fanatics in powerful positions have demonstrated time and again that they will willingly ditch their right-wing libertarian and minarchist "principles" if those principles happen to conflict with their own personal self-interest. Neoliberalism is less of a formal set of economic theories than an error strewn obfuscation narrative to promote the economic interests, and  justify the personal greed of the wealthy, self-serving establishment elite.

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* source: Naomi Klein "The Shock Doctrine" p215


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