4. The Last Gasps Of Neoliberalism
For over thirty years Neoliberalism has been the dominant cultural narrative of modern society. In theory, it’s a story that places a huge amount of confidence in the unrestrained market economy to decide what is good and right. In practice, it’s a narrative that has generated an extraordinary amount of wealth for a very small percentage of people, and done extensive damage to the underlying health of our societies and ecosystems in the process. As Noam Chomsky said of Neoliberalism, ‘Instead of citizens, it produces consumers. Instead of communities, it produces shopping malls. The net result is an atomised society of disengaged individuals who feel demoralised and socially powerless. In sum, neoliberalism is the immediate and foremost enemy of genuine participatory democracy, not just in the United States, but across the planet’.16
It’s a set of ideas that went mainstream after the elections of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the late 1970’s. Thatcher herself might have best summed up the whole Neoliberal story line with her famous proclamation that ‘there’s no such thing as society’17, implying that we’re simply a competing mass of self interested individuals, inherently devoid of a social conscience. The waves of deregulation and privatisation that followed in the wake of the Neoliberal agenda led to a huge shift in responsibility away from governments and towards that of the private sector. Gigantic multinational corporations became increasingly effective at utilising their extraordinary wealth and lobbying power to directly influence political decisions. Which meant that the maximisation of shareholder returns remained a much higher priority than the protection of our human rights, or the safeguarding of the integrity of our democratic processes. This led to increasingly grotesque disparities between the worlds rich and poor, to widespread exploitation of many in the Global South and enabled the war mongering military industrial complex to grow ever more entrenched and influential in the halls of power. It also ensured that the corporate sector was never held accountable for the trillions of dollars of damage they had done to the worlds ecological commons.
And yet just when Neoliberalism appeared to have well and truly established itself as the dominant narrative of the early 21st Century, the 2008 financial crisis saw it begin to come apart at the seams. After the collapse of a series of the worlds largest and most trusted financial institutions, rather than attempting to remedy the underlying issues, world leaders at the time chose to simply charge head on, bailing out the banks and transferring the costs and hardships of the crisis directly to the taxpayer. It was essentially the most expensive attempt at sweeping a problem under the rug that the world had ever seen. But the bailouts did just enough to keep the the Neoliberal agenda staggering along for a few years more, before the anger, fear and hardship felt by the working classes manifested itself in 2016, first with the Brexit vote, then with the election of Donald Trump and a wave of authoritarian leaders gaining office around the world.
The winds were starting to change, a new narrative was in the ascendant, Nationalist Populism was resurfacing once more and it wasn’t afraid to make a brash and garish entrance.