Home > Banking and Finance, Corporation, Economic Theory, Globalisation > Reading Neoliberalism and the Global Financial Crisis Politically

Reading Neoliberalism and the Global Financial Crisis Politically

Although it has become more common to hear criticism of neoclassical economics, and neoliberal ideology more broadly, the anti corporate social movements need to guard themselves against the coming reaffirmation, perhaps even reconstruction, of these ideas. This will require first dispensing with a few illusions.

It would be false to suppose that the great recession, precipitated by a global financial crisis, has now rendered neoliberal ideology and its underlying justification in free market economics illegitimate. It never had any intellectual legitimacy to start off with. The Savings and Loans collapses of the 1980s, the global debt crisis, the Asian financial crisis, the collapse of Long Term Capital Management and so on demonstrated that neoliberalism had no real intellectual justification. Despite this the reigning free market orthodoxies continued to carry the day both in academia, the media and government.

This is not even to go into what should be seen as the first chapter of the unipolar era; the disaster that neoliberalism occasioned in Eastern Europe, especially Russia.

There are important institutional reasons why this was so. The past 30 odd years has seen a quite conscious one sided class war being waged by the rich, the purpose, not the affect, of which was to skew wealth and power towards the few at the top. In 2006 the top 1% of the US population had 22.6% of national wealth, the same level as in 1929. To get that level back to the level on the eve of the Great Depression took some work. During the neoliberal era there has been a marked shift in the wages-profit share towards corporate profits. This was enabled by stagnating real wages for non-supervisory workers, partly obtained through what Alan Greenspan called “increasing worker insecurity.” This was developed through the threat of job transfer following the globalisation of production.

It should be stressed that this shift towards profits occurred in the context of increasing labour productivity in the United States. Though workers were working harder and smarter nonetheless wages, for the most part, stagnated. The proceeds of greater productivity went to big business and, thereby, the rich. Living standards and wealth were increasingly maintained by way of high household debt levels and rising real estate prices. During the boom in asset prices this gave Americans a feeling of prosperity, but as the Nazi’s infamously exclaimed during the Weimar Republic that was very much a type of “sham prosperity.” Prosperity built on the back of stagnating wages and highly leveraged exposure to asset prices in a speculative bubble is illusory.

It has been pointed out that in the United States during the neoliberal era policy really was not wholly dominated by free market ideology at all. A better description would be “socialism for the rich and free markets for the poor.” The US has always relied on a dynamic state sector, like all advanced industrial economies, to socialise cost and risk. For example much of the development of high technology industry has come by way of the Pentagon. Military Keynesianism has also typically been the preferred method of demand management in the United States. This is because with this type of economic pump priming various assorted nasties, such as spending on the needy and the somewhat greater equitable distribution of national income, occasioned by orthodox Keynesianism are avoided.

Even in the financial sector where doctrines such as rational expectations and the efficient markets hypothesis were dominant free market dogma does not fully account for policy. To be sure such free market dogma was used to justify deregulation, which enabled financial corporations to act with greater degrees of freedom in the pursuit of profit, nonetheless risk has always been socialised. The bail out of Wall Street in the wake of the current crisis has brought this to relief. However as stated risk has been socialised throughout the neoliberal era as the Saving and Loans and LTCM bailouts demonstrate. The affect of neoliberalism is to socialise risk without financial institutions at the same time being required to be mindful of the wider social affects of their activities. The latter, of course, follows on from deregulation.

A good description of the mechanics of neoliberalism can be found in the writings of Adam Smith. In his “The Wealth of Nations”, the supposed sacred text for neoliberals, Smith speaks of what he calls the vile maxim; “ All for ourselves, and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.” That is what neoliberalism is; it is the vile maxim as currently adopted by the masters of mankind. Given the shift against wages in the wages-profit share it is also worth taking on board another quote from the supposed master of neoliberal thought; “The liberal reward of labour, therefore, as it is the affect of increasing wealth, so it is the cause of increasing population. To complain of it, is to lament over the necessary effect and cause of the greatest public prosperity.” When you put the two quotes together, when it comes to neoliberalism, all is revealed.

Socialising the risk of financial institutions by exposing the rest of society to risk externalities, whilst privatising profits, is an example of the vile maxim par excellence.

Neoliberalism should not be confused with classical liberalism, after all for Smith the argument for liberty was based on the supposition that it would lead to equality. The “neo” in neoliberalism comes from the economic thought of the mid-to-late 19th century, which represents a bastardisation of Smith.

So what is neoliberalism really all about then? The past 30 years has seen relatively stagnant economic growth and a greater transfer of wealth and power to the few, even though workers were more productive. A large scale social, economic and political process such as this cannot simply happen. It is not possible that the broader population would consent to such robbery in the absence of some compelling set of justifications manufactured for this very purpose, especially in a democracy. Large scale social processes, including thievery on a grand scale, requires some type of ideological justification. This is the main purpose of neoliberal ideology. The ideology serves to justify the application of the vile maxim. That the ideology had no intellectual justification and was framed in a misplaced pseudo-scientific framework does not really matter. The ideology was highly functional for the corporate institutions that dominate society.

The libertarian Marxist thinker Harry Cleaver has argued that the way to read Marx is “politically.” Cleaver argues that “Das Kapital” was meant to serve as a “weapon” for the working class in order to facilitate the self-emancipation of the working classes. We should read neoliberalism “politically” also. Hayek et al have furnished a weapon for the rich to use against the poor and the working class. Neoliberalism, as such, is a form of Marxism for the rich.

So long as corporations continue to dominate society then the reigning ideology will be reaffirmed or reconstructed in one form or another. The current focus on neoliberalism by the the anti-corporate global justice movements is both appropriate and corrosive. It is appropriate because this is how the great social robbery of the past 30 years has been justified. It is corrosive because policy never really has been motivated by free market dogma and undue focus on neoliberalism tends to obscure the institutional framework that underlies the current crisis. This is especially the case for behavioural critiques of neoclassical economics.

In a real sense the great recession is really a political, rather than an economic, crisis. Corporations have acquired far too much power and because they are motivated by profit it is to be expected that they would like to maintain their privileged position in society. To the extent that neoliberal dogma is increasingly challenged in the mainstream it is because of the consequences that financialisation has had on the broader real economy; it has hurt the rich too, especially of the manufacturing sector.

What this means is that free markets for the poor and socialism for the rich will continue to dominant policy. This will be so irrespective of the fate of neoliberal ideology. So long as corporations are able to ensure that their preferences are attended to by the state and society this must be so. It might be that the next phase of the current crisis is a reconstruction of neoliberal ideology in one guise or another. The proper response to any such reconstruction is to bring to relief the underlying institutional causes of the crisis in order for us to achieve the social constraint of the corporation. Such constraint would be achieved in hope of the eventual supplanting of this particularly crass form of economic and social organisation all together.

One way in which this neoliberal counteroffensive will proceed is through concern over budget deficits. This is how the first neoliberal offensive kicked off. At the time of stagflation neoclassical economists argued that budget deficits would, and did, lead to all sorts of bad effects, especially a so-called “crowding out” of private investment and hence economic growth. Crowding out was justified by an application of rational expectations, the same underlying idea behind the efficient markets hypothesis. In fact, however, the largest economic expansion in US history followed on after the massive World War Two era deficit. Fiscal deficits lead to economic expansion and they pay for themselves as a result.

Society will come under further attack using budget deficits as a pretext. This will happen all over the western world and will be a classic play coming right out of the neoliberal play book. This play will be enacted by both conservative and social democratic and labour based governments.

Social democratic and labour parties everywhere have fallen into line with neoliberal dogma, for reasons first articulated by libertarian socialist and Marxist thinkers during the height of the revisionist controversy of yesteryear. The industrial labour movement everywhere must now reconsider what are the appropriate forms of political action for it to adopt, given that their preferred political parties have everywhere facilitated the 30 year long assault on the working class.

Social democracy has been a grand failure. Slowly trade unionists are recognising this. Now is the time for the industrial labour movement to show courage and rethink the political sphere. One way this can be achieved is by unions and social movements working together from the grass roots up to attack the immense power of the corporation. Neoliberalism represents a fundamental assault on democracy. A powerful affirmation and extension of democracy is the most useful antidote to corporate power. There is nothing the corporation fears more than an aroused citizenry fighting for its rights.

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