Tuesday, August 22, 2017

An Invaluable Primer on Neoliberalism


It arrived by stealth, largely unnoticed. It boils down to the idea that markets are superior to governments and that the political caste should defer to markets wherever possible. It is a theory that has now consumed the world even as we have, perhaps too late, discovered that it's a scam.

The Guardian's latest "Long Piece" essay features Stephen Metcalf's exploration of how neoliberalism swallowed the world.

A few excerpts follow to pique your interest.

Last summer, researchers at the International Monetary Fund settled a long and bitter debate over “neoliberalism”: they admitted it exists. Three senior economists at the IMF, an organisation not known for its incaution, published a paper questioning the benefits of neoliberalism. In so doing, they helped put to rest the idea that the word is nothing more than a political slur, or a term without any analytic power. The paper gently called out a “neoliberal agenda” for pushing deregulation on economies around the world, for forcing open national markets to trade and capital, and for demanding that governments shrink themselves via austerity or privatisation. The authors cited statistical evidence for the spread of neoliberal policies since 1980, and their correlation with anaemic growth, boom-and-bust cycles and inequality.
...

Peer through the lens of neoliberalism and you see more clearly how the political thinkers most admired by Thatcher and Reagan helped shape the ideal of society as a kind of universal market (and not, for example, a polis, a civil sphere or a kind of family) and of human beings as profit-and-loss calculators (and not bearers of grace, or of inalienable rights and duties). Of course the goal was to weaken the welfare state and any commitment to full employment, and – always – to cut taxes and deregulate. But “neoliberalism” indicates something more than a standard rightwing wish list. It was a way of reordering social reality, and of rethinking our status as individuals.
...

In short, “neoliberalism” is not simply a name for pro-market policies, or for the compromises with finance capitalism made by failing social democratic parties. It is a name for a premise that, quietly, has come to regulate all we practise and believe: that competition is the only legitimate organising principle for human activity.
...

It isn’t only that the free market produces a tiny cadre of winners and an enormous army of losers – and the losers, looking for revenge, have turned to Brexit and Trump. There was, from the beginning, an inevitable relationship between the utopian ideal of the free market and the dystopian present in which we find ourselves; between the market as unique discloser of value and guardian of liberty, and our current descent into post-truth and illiberalism.
...

Friedrich Hayek, did not think he was staking out a position on the political spectrum, or making excuses for the fatuous rich, or tinkering along the edges of microeconomics. ...He thought he was solving the problem of modernity: the problem of objective knowledge. For Hayek, the market didn’t just facilitate trade in goods and services; it revealed truth. How did his ambition collapse into its opposite – the mind-bending possibility that, thanks to our thoughtless veneration of the free market, truth might be driven from public life altogether?
...

Hayek’s was a total worldview: a way of structuring all reality on the model of economic competition. He begins by assuming that nearly all (if not all) human activity is a form of economic calculation, and so can be assimilated to the master concepts of wealth, value, exchange, cost – and especially price. Prices are a means of allocating scarce resources efficiently, according to need and utility, as governed by supply and demand. For the price system to function efficiently, markets must be free and competitive. Ever since Smith imagined the economy as an autonomous sphere, the possibility existed that the market might not just be one piece of society, but society as a whole.
...

What any person acquainted with history sees as the necessary bulwarks against tyranny and exploitation – a thriving middle class and civil sphere; free institutions; universal suffrage; freedom of conscience, congregation, religion and press; a basic recognition that the individual is a bearer of dignity – held no special place in Hayek’s thought. Hayek built into neoliberalism the assumption that the market provides all necessary protection against the one real political danger: totalitarianism. To prevent this, the state need only keep the market free.

This last is what makes neoliberalism “neo”. It is a crucial modification of the older belief in a free market and a minimal state, known as “classical liberalism”. In classical liberalism, merchants simply asked the state to “leave us alone” – to laissez-nous faire. Neoliberalism recognised that the state must be active in the organisation of a market economy. The conditions allowing for a free market must be won politically, and the state must be re-engineered to support the free market on an ongoing basis.

That isn’t all: every aspect of democratic politics, from the choices of voters to the decisions of politicians, must be submitted to a purely economic analysis. The lawmaker is obliged to leave well enough alone – to not distort the natural actions of the marketplace – and so, ideally, the state provides a fixed, neutral, universal legal framework within which market forces operate spontaneously.
...

Markets may be human facsimiles of natural systems, and like the universe itself, they may be authorless and valueless. But the application of Hayek’s Big Idea to every aspect of our lives negates what is most distinctive about us. That is, it assigns what is most human about human beings – our minds and our volition – to algorithms and markets, leaving us to mimic, zombie-like, the shrunken idealisations of economic models. Supersizing Hayek’s idea and radically upgrading the price system into a kind of social omniscience means radically downgrading the importance of our individual capacity to reason – our ability to provide and evaluate justifications for our actions and beliefs.

As a result, the public sphere – the space where we offer up reasons, and contest the reasons of others – ceases to be a space for deliberation, and becomes a market in clicks, likes and retweets. The internet is personal preference magnified by algorithm; a pseudo-public space that echoes the voice already inside our head. Rather than a space of debate in which we make our way, as a society, toward consensus, now there is a mutual-affirmation apparatus banally referred to as a “marketplace of ideas”.
...

We fashion our selves and identities on the basis of our capacity for reflection. The use of one’s individual reflective powers is reason; the collective use of these reflective powers is public reason; the use of public reason to make law and policy is democracy. When we provide reasons for our actions and beliefs, we bring ourselves into being: individually and collectively, we decide who and what we are.

According to the logic of Hayek’s Big Idea, these expressions of human subjectivity are meaningless without ratification by the market – as Friedman said, they are nothing but relativism, each as good as any other. When the only objective truth is determined by the market, all other values have the status of mere opinions; everything else is relativist hot air. But Friedman’s “relativism” is a charge that can be thrown at any claim based on human reason. It is a nonsense insult, as all humanistic pursuits are “relative” in a way the sciences are not. They are relative to the (private) condition of having a mind, and the (public) need to reason and understand even when we can’t expect scientific proof. When our debates are no longer resolved by deliberation over reasons, then the whimsies of power will determine the outcome.
... 

 Thirty years on, and it can fairly be said that Hayek’s victory is unrivalled. We live in a paradise built by his Big Idea. The more closely the world can be made to resemble an ideal market governed only by perfect competition, the more law-like and “scientific” human behaviour, in the aggregate, becomes. Every day we ourselves – no one has to tell us to anymore! – strive to become more perfectly like scattered, discrete, anonymous buyers and sellers; and every day we treat the residual desire to be something more than a consumer as nostalgia, or elitism.

4 comments:

Pamela Mac Neil said...

Just a great post Mound!

Toby said...

Idealists, such as Hayek, tend to forget that people cheat; Ayn Rand certainly missed it. Neo=liberalism was sold with the caveat that businesses would always do the right thing because it is in their best interest to do so. Golly gee, the likes of Jim Flaerty, Alan Greenspan and spokesmen institutions like the IMF and World Bank seemed a bit flummoxed to discover what realists always knew, people in business do what they think they can get away with. While the money is rolling in there is no thought for the common weal. Junk bonds anyone?

Anonymous said...

Anyong....Conservatives believe that one attains a level of wealth from sheer hard work whiling believing Conservative Governments do not payout welfare. Alberta's NDP Government in Alberta is not liked at all and it seems no one in the Province voted for them. Huh? Business in this province has been offered all sorts of money from remodeling their infrastructure to rebuilding their store fronts to subsidizing oil drilling. Even the Conservative Mayor who received this money from the NDP in the way of grant money and other monies has been giving it out to Conservatives who do not believe in handouts While giving handouts to the local churches. In this town, people do not know what neo-liberalism is, or they turn a blind eye. Business does not do the right thing because it is in their best interest not to do so. And, above all, do not tax them or they find a way to hide their money. How did Trump make his money again? That needs to stop right today. Here we are about to put Jason Kenny back in power without a platform of any kind. Business gets away with diddling all the time. Hence "Junk Bonds", Poor People and Depression.

Anonymous said...

Anyong...It used to be "one person, one vote", now it is one dollar one vote".