Posts Tagged ‘environmental crisis’

A superb piece from George Monbiot, covering a lot of ground about a system that some people are not even aware exists. It is important that people start to wake up to the this. We are sleep walking our way towards disaster, be it climate change, economic and social collapse or catastrophic war.


Neoliberalism – the ideology at the root of all our problems

Financial meltdown, environmental disaster and even the rise of Donald Trump – neoliberalism has played its part in them all. Why has the left failed to come up with an alternative?

Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher at the White House.

 

Imagine if the people of the Soviet Union had never heard of communism.

The ideology that dominates our lives has, for most of us, has no name.
Mention it in conversation and you’ll be rewarded with a shrug.
Even if your listeners have heard the term before, they will struggle to define it.

Neoliberalism: do you know what it is?
Its anonymity is both a symptom and cause of its power. It has played a major role in a remarkable variety of crises:
the financial meltdown of 2007‑8,
the offshoring of wealth and power, of which the Panama Papers offer us merely a glimpse,
the slow collapse of public health and education,
resurgent child poverty,
the epidemic of loneliness,
the collapse of ecosystems,
the rise of Donald Trump.

But we respond to these crises as if they emerge in isolation, apparently unaware that they have all been either catalysed or exacerbated by the same coherent philosophy; a philosophy that has – or had – a name.

What greater power can there be than to operate namelessly?

So pervasive has neoliberalism become that we seldom even recognise it as an ideology. We appear to accept the proposition that this utopian, millenarian faith describes a neutral force; a kind of biological law, like Darwin’s theory of evolution. But the philosophy arose as a conscious attempt to reshape human life and shift the locus of power.

Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. It maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning.

Attempts to limit competition are treated as inimical to liberty. Tax and regulation should be minimised, public services should be privatised. The organisation of labour and collective bargaining by trade unions are portrayed as market distortions that impede the formation of a natural hierarchy of winners and losers.
Inequality is recast as virtuous: a reward for utility and a generator of wealth, which trickles down to enrich everyone.
Efforts to create a more equal society are both counterproductive and morally corrosive. The market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve.

We internalise and reproduce its creeds. The rich persuade themselves that they acquired their wealth through merit, ignoring the advantages – such as education, inheritance and class – that may have helped to secure it.

The poor begin to blame themselves for their failures, even when they can do little to change their circumstances.

  • Never mind structural unemployment: if you don’t have a job it’s because you are unenterprising.
  • Never mind the impossible costs of housing: if your credit card is maxed out, you’re feckless and improvident.
  • Never mind that your children no longer have a school playing field: if they get fat, it’s your fault.

In a world governed by competition, those who fall behind become defined and self-defined as losers. Among the results, as Paul Verhaeghe documents in his book What About Me? are epidemics of self-harm, eating disorders, depression, loneliness, performance anxiety and social phobia.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that Britain, in which neoliberal ideology has been most rigorously applied, is the loneliness capital of Europe. We are all neoliberals now.

The term neoliberalism was coined at a meeting in Paris in 1938.

Among the delegates were two men who came to define the ideology, Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. Both exiles from Austria, they saw social democracy, exemplified by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and the gradual development of Britain’s welfare state, as manifestations of a collectivism that occupied the same spectrum as nazism and communism.

In The Road to Serfdom, published in 1944, Hayek argued that government planning, by crushing individualism, would lead inexorably to totalitarian control.
Like Mises’s book Bureaucracy, The Road to Serfdom was widely read. It came to the attention of some very wealthy people, who saw in the philosophy an opportunity to free themselves from regulation and tax. When, in 1947, Hayek founded the first organisation that would spread the doctrine of neoliberalism – the Mont Pelerin Society – it was supported financially by millionaires and their foundations.

With their help, he began to create what Daniel Stedman Jones describes in Masters of the Universe as “a kind of neoliberal international”: a transatlantic network of academics, businessmen, journalists and activists.

The movement’s rich backers funded a series of thinktanks which would refine and promote the ideology. Among them were the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Centre for Policy Studies and the Adam Smith Institute. They also financed academic positions and departments, particularly at the universities of Chicago and Virginia.

As it evolved, neoliberalism became more strident. Hayek’s view that governments should regulate competition to prevent monopolies from forming gave way – among American apostles such as Milton Friedman – to the belief that monopoly power could be seen as a reward for efficiency.

Something else happened during this transition: the movement lost its name. In 1951, Friedman was happy to describe himself as a neoliberal. But soon after that, the term began to disappear. Stranger still, even as the ideology became crisper and the movement more coherent, the lost name was not replaced by any common alternative.

At first, despite its lavish funding, neoliberalism remained at the margins. The postwar consensus was almost universal: John Maynard Keynes’s economic prescriptions were widely applied, full employment and the relief of poverty were common goals in the US and much of western Europe, top rates of tax were high and governments sought social outcomes without embarrassment, developing new public services and safety nets.

But in the 1970s, when Keynesian policies began to fall apart and economic crises struck on both sides of the Atlantic, neoliberal ideas began to enter the mainstream. As Friedman remarked, “when the time came that you had to change … there was an alternative ready there to be picked up”.
With the help of sympathetic journalists and political advisers, elements of neoliberalism, especially its prescriptions for monetary policy, were adopted by Jimmy Carter’s administration in the US and Jim Callaghan’s government in Britain.

After Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan took power, the rest of the package soon followed:
massive tax cuts for the rich,
the crushing of trade unions,
deregulation,
privatisation,
outsourcing and
competition in public services.
Through the IMF, the World Bank, the Maastricht treaty and the World Trade Organisation, neoliberal policies were imposed – often without democratic consent – on much of the world.

Most remarkable was its adoption among parties that once belonged to the left: Labour and the Democrats, for example. As Stedman Jones notes, “it is hard to think of another utopia to have been as fully realised.”

It may seem strange that a doctrine promising choice and freedom should have been promoted with the slogan “there is no alternative”.
But, as Hayek remarked on a visit to Pinochet’s Chile – one of the first nations in which the programme was comprehensively applied –

“my personal preference leans toward a liberal dictatorship rather than toward a democratic government devoid of liberalism”.

The freedom that neoliberalism offers, which sounds so beguiling when expressed in general terms, turns out to mean freedom for the pike, not for the minnows.

Freedom from trade unions and collective bargaining means;
the freedom to suppress wages.
Freedom from regulation means the freedom to poison rivers,
endanger workers,
charge iniquitous rates of interest and
design exotic financial instruments.
Freedom from tax means freedom from the distribution of wealth that lifts people out of poverty.

As Naomi Klein documents in The Shock Doctrine, neoliberal theorists advocated the use of crises to impose unpopular policies while people were distracted: for example, in the aftermath of Pinochet’s coup, the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina, which Friedman described as; “an opportunity to radically reform the educational system” in New Orleans.

Where neoliberal policies cannot be imposed domestically, they are imposed internationally, through trade treaties incorporating “investor-state dispute settlement”: offshore tribunals in which corporations can press for the removal of social and environmental protections.

When parliaments have voted to restrict sales of cigarettes, protect water supplies from mining companies, freeze energy bills or prevent pharmaceutical firms from ripping off the state, corporations have sued, often successfully. Democracy is reduced to theatre.

Another paradox of neoliberalism is that universal competition relies upon universal quantification and comparison. The result is that workers, job-seekers and public services of every kind are subject to a pettifogging, stifling regime of assessment and monitoring, designed to identify the winners and punish the losers.
The doctrine that Von Mises proposed would free us from the bureaucratic nightmare of central planning has instead created one.

Neoliberalism was not conceived as a self-serving racket, but it rapidly became one. Economic growth has been markedly slower in the neoliberal era (since 1980 in Britain and the US) than it was in the preceding decades; but not for the very rich.
Inequality in the distribution of both income and wealth, after 60 years of decline, rose rapidly in this era, due to the smashing of trade unions, tax reductions, rising rents, privatisation and deregulation.

The privatisation or marketisation of public services such as energy, water, trains, health, education, roads and prisons has enabled corporations to set up tollbooths in front of essential assets and charge rent, either to citizens or to government, for their use. Rent is another term for unearned income.
When you pay an inflated price for a train ticket, only part of the fare compensates the operators for the money they spend on fuel, wages, rolling stock and other outlays.
The rest reflects the fact that they have you over a barrel.

Those who own and run the UK’s privatised or semi-privatised services make stupendous fortunes by investing little and charging much. In Russia and India, oligarchs acquired state assets through firesales. In Mexico, Carlos Slim was granted control of almost all landline and mobile phone services and soon became the world’s richest man.

Financialisation, as Andrew Sayer notes in Why We Can’t Afford the Rich, has had a similar impact. “Like rent,” he argues, “interest is … unearned income that accrues without any effort”.
As the poor become poorer and the rich become richer, the rich acquire increasing control over another crucial asset: money.
Interest payments, overwhelmingly, are a transfer of money from the poor to the rich.
As property prices and the withdrawal of state funding load people with debt (think of the switch from student grants to student loans), the banks and their executives clean up.

Sayer argues that the past four decades have been characterised by a transfer of wealth not only from the poor to the rich, but within the ranks of the wealthy: from those who make their money by producing new goods or services to those who make their money by controlling existing assets and harvesting rent, interest or capital gains.
Earned income has been supplanted by unearned income.

Neoliberal policies are everywhere beset by market failures. Not only are the banks too big to fail, but so are the corporations now charged with delivering public services. As Tony Judt pointed out in Ill Fares the Land, Hayek forgot that vital national services cannot be allowed to collapse, which means that competition cannot run its course.
Business takes the profits, the state keeps the risk.

The greater the failure, the more extreme the ideology becomes.
Governments use neoliberal crises as both excuse and opportunity to;
cut taxes,
privatise remaining public services,
rip holes in the social safety net,
deregulate corporations and
re-regulate citizens.

The self-hating state now sinks its teeth into every organ of the public sector. Perhaps the most dangerous impact of neoliberalism is not the economic crises it has caused, but the political crisis.
As the domain of the state is reduced, our ability to change the course of our lives through voting also contracts.
Instead, neoliberal theory asserts, “people can exercise choice through spending”.
But some have more to spend than others: in the great consumer or shareholder democracy, votes are not equally distributed. The result is a disempowerment of the poor and middle.
As parties of the right and former left adopt similar neoliberal policies, disempowerment turns to disenfranchisement.
Large numbers of people have been shed from politics.

Chris Hedges remarks that;

“fascist movements build their base not from the politically active but the politically inactive, the ‘losers’ who feel, often correctly, they have no voice or role to play in the political establishment”.

When political debate no longer speaks to us, people become responsive instead to slogans, symbols and sensation. To the admirers of Trump, for example, facts and arguments appear irrelevant.

Judt explained that when the thick mesh of interactions between people and the state has been reduced to nothing but authority and obedience, the only remaining force that binds us is state power.
The totalitarianism Hayek feared is more likely to emerge when governments, having lost the moral authority that arises from the delivery of public services, are reduced to “cajoling, threatening and ultimately coercing people to obey them”.

Like communism, neoliberalism is the God that failed.
But the zombie doctrine staggers on, and one of the reasons is its anonymity. Or rather, a cluster of anonymities.

The invisible doctrine of the invisible hand is promoted by invisible backers. Slowly, very slowly, we have begun to discover the names of a few of them. We find that the Institute of Economic Affairs, which has argued forcefully in the media against the further regulation of the tobacco industry, has been secretly funded by British American Tobacco since 1963. We discover that Charles and David Koch, two of the richest men in the world, founded the institute that set up the Tea Party movement.
We find that Charles Koch, in establishing one of his thinktanks, noted that
“in order to avoid undesirable criticism, how the organisation is controlled and directed should not be widely advertised”.

The words used by neoliberalism often conceal more than they elucidate. “The market” sounds like a natural system that might bear upon us equally, like gravity or atmospheric pressure. But it is fraught with power relations.
What “the market wants” tends to mean what corporations and their bosses want.

“Investment”, as Sayer notes, means two quite different things.

One is the funding of productive and socially useful activities,
the other is the purchase of existing assets to milk them for rent, interest, dividends and capital gains.

Using the same word for different activities “camouflages the sources of wealth”, leading us to confuse wealth extraction with wealth creation.

A century ago, the nouveau riche were disparaged by those who had inherited their money. Entrepreneurs sought social acceptance by passing themselves off as rentiers. Today, the relationship has been reversed: the rentiers and inheritors style themselves entrepreneurs. They claim to have earned their unearned income.

These anonymities and confusions mesh with the namelessness and placelessness of modern capitalism:

The anonymity of neoliberalism is fiercely guarded.
Those who are influenced by Hayek, Mises and Friedman tend to reject the term, maintaining – with some justice – that it is used today only pejoratively. But they offer us no substitute.
Some describe themselves as classical liberals or libertarians, but these descriptions are both misleading and curiously self-effacing, as they suggest that there is nothing novel about The Road to Serfdom, Bureaucracy or Friedman’s classic work, Capitalism and Freedom.

For all that, there is something admirable about the neoliberal project, at least in its early stages. It was a distinctive, innovative philosophy promoted by a coherent network of thinkers and activists with a clear plan of action. It was patient and persistent. The Road to Serfdom became the path to power.

 

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At The Sanctuary for Independent Media in Troy, N.Y., May 2015, Truthdig columnist Chris Hedges spoke for over an hour about how his new book, “Wages of Rebellion,” differs from his previous works, including, the public loss of faith in the political process and the revolutionary potential bubbling beneath the surface of American life.

SACRIFICE ZONES

ENVIRONMENTAL CRISIS

ECONOMIC CRISIS

UNFETTERED UNREGULATED CAPITALISM

What it takes to Rebel

GLOBAL CAPITALISM

We are passive in front of our electronic hallucinations

Movements of Mass Civil Disobedience

Cornell West

Noam Chomsky

Susan Sontag

Mechanisms of coercion and violence

Paramilitarised police

It struck me that all the aspects of “inverted totalitarianism” (which Hedges highlights and defines early on) can in fact be seen today in the European Union, where the financial industry has in fact made the sovereign governments of member nations subservient to their whim and have even begun to implement what is essentially “inverted socialism” by means of austerity to weaken governments and social programs and then strengthening these same financial industries with bail-outs. (SOCIALISM/ANARCHISM for the Richest, Austerity for Everyone Else!).

The EU is to inverted totalitarianism is to what the USSR is to true totalitarianism, except in the EU we are seeing true socialism applied but to corporations and a kind of “let them eat cake” feudalism to the population.

It’s like the corporate world had been waging a war with the population, which it in fact had been doing, due to the population starting the war by adopting democratic values.

The population then lost the war and is now being punished with a kind of “Treaty of Versailles” where they must pay reparations to the corporate state, just as the Wiemar Republic did after World War 1.

Power To The People

When we heard about John McDonnell’s People’s Parliament initiative, we knew we wanted to be involved. And anyone can get involved. The idea is to open up the Houses of Parliament to the people. As John sometimes says on introducing a session: everyone’s invited, except the fascists…

Illustration of John McDonnell holding anti-fascist placard

The People’s Parliament – by John McDonnell MP

We have experienced the most serious economic crisis of the capitalist system since the great crash of 1929 and yet mainstream politics has sunk to a philistine level of political debate, best characterised by the recent spoof B film party political broadcast made by the Labour Party and the succession of UKIP candidates spouting racist, homophobic bile.

How could we have let our politics become so degraded?

Three centuries ago the Enlightenment led us to believe that the exercise of reason would lead to a linear progression of how we understand the world and the society we live in. Many were convinced that this intellectual evolution would inform the political decisions taken on how best to organise our society.

Still within this tradition, Marx then introduced us to the dialectical process of history and thought.

  • Thesis and antithesis would lead to a progressive synthesis.

In our recent period, far from securing progress we seem to have gone back into the darkness. Popular political discussion, as witnessed in our mainstream media outlets, is a pretty bleak, barren wasteland. Newspapers print the sensationalist lies determined by their oligarch owners. The liberal Guardian very rarely strays beyond its acceptable establishment comfort zone.

What masquerades as political debate on radio and television on programmes such as Any Questions and Question Time is largely a parade of posturing political hacks with barely a cigarette paper between the politics of the supposed political opponents who appear on the shows.

This intellectual vacuum has led to a situation best depicted by Stan Jameson in which for most it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.
Politics doesn’t have to be like this and we can’t let this continue. We have a responsibility to promote a real political discussion and debate about the lives we lead, the society we live in and the alternatives there are.

It is these sentiments that led me to launch the idea of the People’s Parliament.
Back in the 1980s I was elected as a GLC (Greater London Council) councillor and became Ken Livingstone’s deputy. Despite all the rhetoric about the Labour GLC being a golden age of radicalism, the reality is that initially the GLC controlling Labour group was fairly traditional social democratic.

Physically opening up County Hall as a building to a wide ranging array of groups and individuals, who were campaigning or promoting ideas to be implemented by the GLC, radicalised the Livingstone administration.

County Hall buzzed, with its meeting rooms packed with activists thrashing out their ideas on how to transform the lives of Londoners. Everything from fares policy to LGBT rights and securing the capital’s creative and manufacturing sectors was up for grabs.
This open democratic engagement created the radical GLC that is still remembered for its exciting creativity. It implemented policies that were seen as extreme at the time but have subsequently been accepted as mainstream common sense.

Just like County Hall, Parliament has a supply of halls and meeting rooms specifically designed for discussion and debate. The building is paid for and owned by the people and so I thought why not open up the building to the people and encourage anyone who has an idea to discuss, a policy to promote or an argument to be heard, to come along and use the building’s meeting rooms to democratic effect.

You never know, by inviting MPs and Lords to these discussions and debates might even infect some of the debates taking place in the main Commons Chamber.

From January, a group of us have organised a series of meetings in Parliament’s committee rooms, discussing a vast range of issues suggested by people who have heard about this initiative. The only bar so far is that fascists are not invited.

The mainstream media has largely ignored us but that is par for the course, and with social media we don’t really need them. The occasional plug in the Guardian doesn’t do any harm, but if we rely on this country’s press to stimulate a creative political debate we will wait forever.

Running with two sessions a week, the meetings have been packed. Having been around for quite a while I can usually recognise most of the faces in radical political meetings.

Not with the People’s Parliament.

The meetings are packing in people, especially young people, activists and campaigners who have a genuine interest in engaging with the issue being discussed and are looking for change.

The discussion of ideas and theory is important but is only really effective if it informs our political practice.

Hence the concept of praxis, the combination of theory and practice, underlines the People’s Parliament sessions.

So far the discussions have addressed questions of what sort of democracy we need, who is watching whom in our surveillance society, and what is really needed to tackle our environmental crisis.

Specialists and expert practitioners have wanted to explain what is happening in their fields of activity. Lawyers have come along to expose the undermining of access to justice, tax experts have joined us to reveal the continuing scale of tax avoidance and evasion, and housing groups have explained the grotesque failures of housing policy that have led to our worst housing crisis since the second world war.
People have brought along some of their ideas for solutions to problems. Citizens income to overcome poverty, how to reclaim the media by confronting its ownership by the rich and powerful, and constructing a sustainable economy by rejecting concepts of all-consuming growth.

Campaigners have come to seek support for their struggles. This has included campaigns against the latest wave of racism, the fight to end the Coalition’s privatisation plans to finally kill off the NHS, and the campaign to hold back legislation criminalising sex workers.

People have posed and tried to answer questions that have troubled us all. The radical publishing house Zero Books went to the heart of our search by addressing the question that underlies a large part of the People’s Parliament initiative:

how has capitalism got away with the financial crisis and why is politics scared of political ideas?

The next stage of the People’s Parliament discussions is looking at;

how we learn from the resistance to the capitalist crisis so far, to enable us to move beyond capitalism.

Each of our sessions have been introduced by experts and campaigners within their particular policy area but the discussion is dominated by the participants who turn up. Most of the debates have led to agreements on further action.

A thread running through the sequence of the People’s Parliament sessions has been that words are not enough.

The elite who still dine at the Ritz, shop at Fortnum and Masons and who populate the company boards in the City of London will remain content whilst our talk remains only talk.

They will only be fearful when our talk moves on to action and they know that our direct action only becomes effective when it is armed with an understanding of our society and its potential alternatives.

The People’s Parliament attempts to make its contribution to arming that resistance. Come along.

John McDonnell is the MP for Hayes and Harlington, and the last communist in Parliament.

Jul-Aug 2014 - Pages 18 & 19