Neoliberalism is alive and kicking

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Nothing "new" or "liberal" about it (Screenshot via YouTube)

Despite some emerging acknowledgement of the miserable failure of neoliberalism, it will carry on as a dominant force in western ideology and policy formation, writes Rob Stewart.

NEOLIBERALISM IS an abomination of a term. For a start, there is nothing “new” or “liberal” about neoliberalism. It is a chimera or a chameleon, changing all the time, depending on the situation, morphing but not new. It is about much more than economics. It is an ideological belief system built around elitism and a perceived “natural order” of things, in which the 0.1% should own everything.

Systems of tyranny have risen and fallen for thousands of years, as Walter Scheidel points out in his book The Great Leveller. He shows how the old rising stars of power and elitism are always eventually overthrown by the masses, diseases, costs of war or starvation. Power never remains supreme and eternal, but each new possessing class thinks it’s going to be different — they’re going to hang on to theirs forever.

Modern day militarisation of police forces and invasive surveillance state, internet privacy and security laws might keep the oligarchs in place a little longer. Oppressive tactics were used to crush the Occupy movement after toleration of it as a “cute kind of gimmick” ran out.

40 years into the neoliberal project and it has certainly worked to benefit the 0.1% or the 0.0000001%, with Oxfam reporting in 2016 the eight wealthiest individuals on the planet had as much as the bottom 50% of humanity combined.,

Neoliberalism is a kind or perverted Darwinism. Its façade is one of “freedom” and “rugged individualism”, Adam Smith’s abused and misquoted “invisible hand”, “efficiency”, the “dead hand” of the state and so on. But neoliberalism, in practice, is a very different beast.

There is a wealth of literature and evidence, deep and wide, on many aspects of neoliberalism. How its fanciful, juvenile high principles and ideological constructs are often jettisoned in staggering hypercritical backflips and necessary “exceptions” to the rules when there’s a quid or two more to be trousered by the 1%, or some banks to be saved to pursue even more greed.

Champions of neoliberalism want it for everyone else, but not themselves — they cry out for cruel-to-be-kind welfare cuts, austerity, poverty wages, contracting out, deregulation and privatisation, and some unbelievably stupid economic policies like contractionary fiscal expansion. Didn’t anyone learn anything from the Great Depression? Was Keynes real or just a fictional character?

There is no need to complicate or confuse myth with fact in our post-Orwellian, alternative fact, new world order.

The plutocracy has been doing everything it can to ensure elected governments are as incompetent and dysfunctional as possible — that the democratic process results in kakistocracy with neoliberalism being the saviour.

Grovelling governments keep falling over themselves in eagerness to please their masters. What’s required is endless tax cuts and corporate welfare for the rich, either deliberately unfunded or partially funded by slashing social welfare and public program funding for everyone else.

What’s at stake is the personal legitimacy of political “leaders” in the eyes of the plutocrats who own them. They will never risk that. Bill Clinton didn’t risk it. Barack Obama didn’t risk it. Hillary Clinton would never have risked it. Howard, Rudd, Abbott, Turnbull, Morrison — never. And, in the event of a Shorten Labor Government in Australia, the plutocracy can rest easy.

Neoliberalism sets up default thinking biased in favour of benefiting the interests of a powerful few, not the many. For example, when considering whether to privatise a particular asset the default position is: if there’s any doubt, privatise it and if there isn’t any doubt, create some. This thinking has led to a litany of privatisation fiascos, right across the neoliberal world from Sydney to San Francisco.

John Menadue’s article 'Privatisation is a Clear Example of the Failure of Neoliberalism', on his website Pearls and Irritations, certainly provides some of the best examples of failed privatisations in Australia — failure in terms of stated objectives' , impacts on consu–mers and the public more generally. However, with neoliberalism, failure or success is in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps the resultant bulge in the wallets of the select few beneficiaries of privatisation is a better indicator of actual success. In Russia, they’re called oligarchs; in the West, they’re some of our entrepreneurs and CEOs.

Many academic economists and other assorted apologists for neoliberalism, often ensconced in rightwing think tanks sponsored by large corporations and billionaires, argue privatisations often fail, not because they aren’t inherently good and sensible but because of failure of implementation and/or because of inadequate regulatory regimes. This can be the case. But the argument is a generalised and simplistic one, which perfectly fits the neoliberal script. When neoliberalism fails, it’s the government’s fault, forever and always. Neoliberalism, as defined by neoliberals, is infallible. So, it can’t fail, it has to be due to something else the kakistocracy has, or hasn’t, done.

The most fundamentally important privatisation of all – at least the greatest sell-off and sell-out of all – was the bargain basement selling off of democracy to the corporate plutocracy during the late 1970s and 1980s. This was when neoliberalism was getting into full swing.

Anyone doubting whether effective democracy has been sold out to the corporate oligarchy, the plutocracy, should familiarise themselves with the works of authors such as Jane Mayer in Dark Money, David Harvey in A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Nancy MacLean in Democracy in Chains, or The One Percent Solution by Gordon Lafer.

Selling off of real democratic choice has enabled the sociopathy, absurdities, injustices, inefficiencies, inequality, inequities and hypocrisies of neoliberalism to proceed for 40 years, largely unencumbered.

For those wanting further, proofread Princeton University’s 2014 study on public policy decision making in America. The study, 'Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens' found there is almost an inverse relationship between what average people want and what they get when it comes to public policy, even if they are in a substantial majority position, whereas there is a strong positive relationship between what the rich and powerful want and what they get, even if their position is one of tiny minority.

In simple terms, studies like this show effective democracy is essentially dead in the West — certainly in the U.S.

The idea that neoliberalism’s days are over because of recent political upheavals on both the so-called Right and Left is ridiculous.

Neoliberalism should have been brought to heel during the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-2009. It wasn’t. And the oligarchy is waiting to gorge itself again at the public trough when the next crisis hits, which will be soon. No amount of public outrage or disgust will stop it. It doesn’t matter who is officially “running the show” when the plutocracy owns the lot of them.

Rob Stewart is a retired economist and former Senior Executive in the Australian Public Service, with experience primarily in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (AusAID) and The Treasury and The Department of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development.


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