Economics Opinion

Putting an end to neoliberalism

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(Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons)

A new book not only explores the history of neoliberalism but also offers suggestions on how to put an end to the destructive ideology, writes Rosemary Sorensen.

WHADDYA RECKON? People are inherently greedy, selfish and cruel so there’s no hope things will change, or:

‘While we all possess some degree of selfishness and greed... Most people are primarily motivated by... altruism, empathy, family, community and the pursuit of a better world — not only for themselves but also for others.’

If you plumped for the first definition, don’t bother reading George Monbiot and Peter Hutchison’s The Invisible Doctrine: the Secret History of Neoliberalism. This is because you likely believe that the politics we have right now are jolly good and need defending against commie Marxist Leftie loonies who want to destroy progress (even if that progress looks rather like catastrophe for all but a tiny per cent of the world’s human population, let alone every other living thing).

If you still hold hope for humanity, however, then you’ll find The Invisible Doctrine terrifyingly lucid about the state we’re in. And, frankly, it's deeply depressing as it provides a cogent summary of the current world order created by oligarchical power, how it was seeded and flourished, and why it is now threatening the planet.

Hang on in there — the final chapters suggest there’s light at the end of the tunnel. If they are right, it’s mostly fear and lack of imagination preventing human beings from doing what is needed to make a better world.

Are Monbiot and Hutchison right that the term “neoliberalism” is neither understood nor acknowledged? I suspect so.

I’d like to quote at length, paragraph after paragraph of this short book, but will try to nutshell some of it.

For example, the book features this definition of neoliberalism:

‘An ideology whose central belief is that competition is the defining feature of humankind... It casts us as consumers rather than citizens... It promises us that by buying and selling we can discover a natural, meritocratic hierarchy of winners and losers.’

Neoliberalism relies on capitalism. And both “systems” have failed spectacularly. There was a period following the Second World War and through until the late 1970s when capitalism did redistribute wealth in some parts of the world and human rights also flourished in those places: the downside is that it was at the expense of colonised countries.

Now, with capitalism deepening into neoliberalism, inequality is galloping towards extremes everywhere. The very rich are obscenely rich and the poor are blamed for their poverty.

There will be details within the simplified history of neoliberalism presented in this book that can be discussed, hopefully by those whose talents and expertise qualify them to do so. They have done a brilliant job of extracting key names, texts and ideas to create a very readable narrative.

From what Monbiot and Hutchison call ‘deeply unpopular musings of a handful of eccentric economists’ (Friedrich Hayek and his disciple Milton Friedman, in particular), neoliberalism’s “genius”, according to the authors, was to transform viciously unapologetic attacks on social equality and human rights into a plausible ideology that convinced people oligarchs are not just good but necessary.

The idea that groups of like-minded ideologues dance to the tunes of increasingly rich despots should, you’d think, make us very angry. To the inevitable sneering of the complicit academics and journalists, along with those employed in think tanks and consultancies, there’s a clear response: it’s not a conspiracy theory to point out how this power structure undermines democracy — it’s simply naming those who conspire to increase their power and wealth and showing how they do it. (Check out Australia’s chapter of the Mont Pelerin Society for starters.)

One of the silliest ideas embedded in the neoliberal ideology is that you, too, can aspire to huge wealth and a life of luxury, and those who argue for the freedom of the super-rich to do whatever they want in the name of profit often accuse those who are appalled by ever-increasing inequality of being envious.

At the same time, this capitalist-turned-neoliberal ideology would have us believe that communities need oligarchs to keep the wheels of industry turning. That, my friends, is demonstrably not true, but it’s part of the fairy-tale narrative that has taken the world to the brink of social and environmental collapse.

Monbiot and Hutchison reckon there’s a different narrative, a “restoration story” available to replace this nonsense. And they even find small examples of such a story in action.

The idea is “deliberative democracy”, in which the power of small groups legislates for common wealth (the “commons”) to enhance all lives.

Is this practically possible? Well, the first thing that has to happen, according to Monbiot and Hutchison, is that donations to election campaigns must be stopped, which, let’s face it, most of those in the political class will fight tooth and nail to prevent. Why exactly they want to hide who funds them is the kind of question we should be asking constantly, but with so much of the media also embedded within a financially corrupted system, those enquiries are muted.

I admire the optimism at the end of The Invisible Doctrine and hope they’re right that collaboration is the human quality that will trump greed. I’ve even seen suggestions on social media that we are on the cusp of a positive shift in the world order and it’s important those messages of hope come through the rubble of destruction.

Monbiot and Hutchison have coined the term ‘the politics of belonging’ as a title for their restoration story. Acknowledging that fascism and all the various divisive ideological groupings that dominate global politics rely on “bonding networks”, this kind of politics would rely on “bridging networks”.

Here’s the key: small groups are passionately committed and also learn collaboration skills. Connecting those groups through a structure of bottom-up not top-down deliberation, builds system strength. We’ve seen how advocacy groups can take their concerns to parliament and, having done the work of articulating problems or needs, present strong arguments for what needs to be done by governments to improve equality. If those advocacy groups had power (like, say, a Voice to Parliament… sigh), outcomes would be more likely.

Whaddya reckon? Are people capable of working together? Or do we need dictators?

Tell you what, the dictators aren’t doing a great job of it right now, so maybe we should give the other option a try.

Rosemary Sorensen was a newspaper, books and arts journalist based in Melbourne, then Brisbane, before moving to regional Victoria, where she founded the Bendigo Writers Festival, which she directed for 13 years.

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