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Friday, April 29, 2016

Capitalism Makes Us Destroy Our Planet

Dissident Voice: a radical newsletter in the struggle for peace and social justice

The Devil Capitalism Makes Us Destroy Our Planet

Okay, here’s the proposition — you can have a good job, decent pay, lots of overtime, but only if you give me your grandchildren or maybe your great-grandchildren.
Would you make this deal with the devil?
This is pretty much the choice currently offered workers by the captains of the carbon extraction, transportation and burning industries.
In fact, in a more general sense, it seems to be the choice being forced upon many governments around the world by the devil, which has taken the form of our current economic system.
Capitalism is asking us to choose between jobs and the future livability of our planet. Capitalism tells us it makes sense to flood some of the best food growing land in B.C. and build a dam to provide electricity for Alberta’s tar sands; capitalism says build more pipelines across B.C. and allow hundreds more oil tankers every year to sail through pristine waters; capitalism doesn’t care that more carbon extraction will guarantee our planet is cooked.
Capitalism, especially the current neoliberal version, says profitability should be the sole criteria by which we decide what gets built, what services are provided and who works. If there’s a profit to be made, let’s invest in it. Don’t do it if there’s no profit to be made. The ‘invisible hand’ of the market will solve all our problems.
Profits bring jobs, the capitalist devil whispers in our ears. Jobs! So you can overcome or avoid the misery of unemployment. Jobs! So you won’t fall behind on your mortgage, your credit card payments or your student loan. Jobs! So you will be able to buy ever more stuff that you don’t really need but somehow those great commercials convince you otherwise.
“Think about the jobs!” the devil/capitalism repeats over and over again. When brave critics ask: “What about the consequences to our environment?” the devil/capitalism answers: “Don’t listen to those Leap-ing people. They’re radicals. They’re tree-hugging, moonbeam-chasing hippies. They’re Original People. They’re anti-development. They’re socialists. They’re from downtown Toronto. Think about the jobs!”
So what do we do? Listen to the devil and build more pipelines, tar sands plants, fracked oil wells, housing that requires ever more carbon-spewing automobiles and tell ourselves that we are not responsible for what happens to our grandchildren?
Or do we cast out the devil? Tell the beast we do not have to choose between jobs and the environment, that, in fact, there will be more jobs in a sustainable energy-based economy. Proclaim loudly that, if forced to choose between capitalism and the environment, we will choose the environment every glorious day on this wondrous planet.
The truth is the devil’s way leads to hell on earth. Building our economy solely on capitalist greed for profit has placed us all, lobster-like, into a pot of hot water that is only a few degrees away from cooking our great-grandchildren. Our most critical task right now is figuring out a way of getting out of the pot and turning down the heat.
The good news is the devil’s way is not the only way, despite the constant media bombardment proclaiming that to be so. Humankind has followed the devil/capitalism path for only a relatively short time. We have tens of thousands of years of history proving that we can organize our lives around values other than greed for profit. Even today, in the midst of the most capitalist-dominated period ever, most of our lives, outside of paid work, is based on love, caring, sharing, solidarity, respect and doing what’s best for our collective future. This is called family and community.
If we can just come to the understanding that an economic and political system can also be based on these ‘community values’ we would have a path to building a viable alternative to the mess we are in.
The devil promotes the idea that we have no alternative to the way things are, but if all the people who care about their grandchildren come together to talk about a better way, we can have jobs, lower the temperature and save our planet for future generations.
Gary Engler is journalist and novelist from Vancouver. Read other articles by Gary.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Thomas Frank on How Democrats Went From Being the ‘Party of the People’ to the Party of Rich Elites

In These Times

Thomas Frank on How Democrats Went From Being the ‘Party of the People’ to the Party of Rich Elites

Democrats have gone from the party of the New Deal to a party that is defending mass inequality.
The Democratic Party was once the party of the New Deal and the ally of organized labor. But by the time of Bill Clinton's presidency, it had become the enemy of New Deal programs like welfare and Social Security and the champion of free trade deals. What explains this apparent reversal? Thomas Frank—best known for his analysis of the Republican Party base in What's the Matter with Kansas?attempts to answer this question in his latest book, Listen Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? 
According to Frank, popular explanations which blame corporate lobby groups and the growing power of money in politics are insufficient. Frank instead points to a decision by Democratic Party elites in the 1970s to marginalize labor unions and transform from the party of the working class to the party of the professional class. In so doing, the Democratic Party radically changed the way it understood social problems and how to solve them, trading in the principle of solidarity for the principle of competitive individualism and meritocracy. The end result is that the party which created the New Deal and helped create the middle class has now become “the party of mass inequality.” In These Times spoke with Frank recently about the book via telephone.
The book is about how the Democratic Party turned its back on working people and now pursues policies that actually increase inequality. What are the policies or ideological commitments in the Democratic Party that make you think this?

The first piece of evidence is what’s happened since the financial crisis. This is the great story of our time. Inequality has actually gotten worse since then, which is a remarkable thing. This is under a Democratic president who we were assured (or warned) was the most liberal or radical president we would ever see.  Yet inequality has gotten worse, and the gains since the financial crisis, since the recovery began, have gone entirely to the top 10 percent of the income distribution.
This is not only because of those evil Republicans, but because Obama played it the way he wanted to. Even when he had a majority in both houses of Congress and could choose whoever he wanted to be in his administration, he consistently made policies that favored the top 10 percent over everybody else. He helped out Wall Street in an enormous way when they were entirely at his mercy.
He could have done anything he wanted with them, in the way that Franklin Roosevelt did in the ‘30s. But he chose not to.
Why is that? This is supposed to be the Democratic Party, the party that’s interested in working people, average Americans. Why would they react to a financial crisis in this way? Once you start digging into this story, it goes very deep. You find that there was a transition in the Democratic Party in the ‘70s, 80’s and ‘90s where they convinced themselves that they needed to abandon working people in order to serve a different constituency: a constituency essentially of white-collar professionals.
That’s the most important group in their coalition. That’s who they won over in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. That’s who they serve, and that’s where they draw from. The leaders of the Democratic Party are always from this particular stratum of society.
A lot of progressives that I talk to are pretty familiar with the idea that the Democratic Party is no longer protecting the interests of workers, but it’s pretty common for us to blame it on mainly the power of money in politics. But you start the book in chapter one by arguing there’s actually something much deeper going on. Can you say something about that?
Money in politics is a big part of the story, but social class goes deeper than that. The Democrats have basically made their commitment [to white-collar professionals] already before money and politics became such a big deal. It worked out well for them because of money in politics. So when they chose essentially the top 10 percent of the income distribution as their most important constituents, that is the story of money.
It wasn’t apparent at the time in the ‘70s and ‘80s when they made that choice. But over the years, it has become clear that that was a smart choice in terms of their ability to raise money. Organized labor, of course, is no slouch in terms of money. They have a lot of clout in dollar terms. However, they contribute and contribute to the Democrats and they almost never get their way—they don’t get, say, the Employee Free Choice Act, or Bill Clinton passes NAFTA. They do have a lot of money, but their money doesn’t count.
All of this happened because of the civil war within the Democratic Party. They fought with each other all the time in the ‘70s and the ‘80s. One side hadn’t completely captured the party until Bill Clinton came along in the ‘90s. That was a moment of victory for them.
Bill Clinton’s presidency is what progressives usually cite as the time when things went bad. But there’s a trend that goes back to the ’70s, right?
Historians always cite the ’68 election as the turning point. The party was torn apart by the controversy over the Vietnam war, protesters were in the streets in Chicago and the Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey went on to lose. Democrats thought this was terrible, and it was. So they set up a commission to reorganize the party, the McGovern Commission.
The McGovern Commission basically set up our modern system of primaries. Before the commission, we didn’t have these long primary contests in state after state after state. Primaries are a good thing, as were most things the McGovern Commission did.
But they also removed organized labor from its structural position of power in the Democratic Party. There was a lot of resentment towards labor during the Vietnam War. A lot of unions took President Johnson’s side on Vietnam. There was also this sense—which I think was correct at the time—that labor was a dinosaur, that it was out of touch and undemocratic and very white.
There were a lot of reasonable objections to organized labor at the time. The problem is, when you get rid of labor in your party, you also get rid of issues that matter to working people. That’s the basic mistake that Democrats made in the ’70s. Of course, labor still is a big part of the Democratic coalition—it gives them their money, it helps out at election time in a huge way. But unions no longer have the presence in party councils that they used to. That disappeared.
One of the most shocking quotes in the book is from Alfred Kahn, an advisor to Jimmy Carter, who said, “I’d love the Teamsters to be worse off. I’d love the automobile workers to be worse off.” He then basically says that unionized workers are exploiting other workers.
Isn’t that amazing? He’s describing a situation in the 1970s. There was all this controversy in the 1970s about labor versus management—this was the last decade where those fights were front and center in our national politics. And he’s coming down squarely on the side of management in those fights.
And remember, Kahn was a very important figure in the Carter administration. The way that he describes unions is incorrect—he’s actually describing professionals. Professionals are a protected class that you can’t do anything about—they’re protected by the laws of every state that dictate who can practice in these fields. It’s funny that he projects that onto organized labor and holds them responsible for the sins of another group.
This is a Democrat in an administration that is actually not very liberal. This is the administration that carried out the first of the big deregulations. This is the administration that had the great big capital gains tax cuts, that carried out the austerity plan that saw the Federal Reserve jack its interest rates sky high. They clubbed the economy to the ground in order to stop “wage inflation,” in which workers, if they have enough power, can keep demanding higher wages. It was incredible.
What’s the content of the ideology of the professional class and how does it hurt working people? What are their guiding principles?
The first commandment of the professional class is the idea of meritocracy, which allows people to think that those on top are there because they deserve to be. With the professional class, it’s always associated with education. They deserve to be there because they worked really hard and went to a good college and to a good graduate school. They’re high achievers. Democrats are really given to credentialism in a way that Republicans aren’t.
If you look at the last few Democratic presidents, Bill Clinton and Obama, and Hillary Clinton as well, their lives are a tale of educational achievement. This is what opened up the doors of the world to them. It’s a party of who people who have gotten where they are by dint of educational accomplishment.
This produces a set of related ideas. When the Democrats, the party of the professionals, look at the economic problems of working-class people, they always see an educational problem, because they look at working class people and say, “Those people didn’t do what I did”: go and get advanced degrees, go to the right college, get the high SAT scores and study STEM or whatever.
There’s another interesting part of this ideology: this endless search for consensus. Washington is a city of professionals with advanced degrees, and Democrats look around them there and say, “We’re all intelligent people. We all went to good schools. We know what the problems are and we know what the answers are, and politics just get in the way.”
This is a very typical way of thinking for the professional class: reaching for consensus, because politics is this ugly thing that you don’t really need. You see this in Obama’s endless efforts to negotiate a grand bargain with Republicans because everybody in Washington knows the answers to the problems—we just have to get together, sit down and make an agreement. The same with Obamacare: He spent so many months trying to get Republicans to sign on, even just one or two, so that he could say it was bipartisan. It was an act of consensus. And the Republicans really played him, because they knew that’s what he’d do.
To go back to your point about education: At one point you quote Arne Duncan, who was Obama’s secretary of education, saying that the only way to end poverty is through education. Why can’t that work?
The big overarching problem of our time is inequality. If you look at historical charts of productivity and wage growth, these two things went hand in hand for decades after World War II, which we think of as a prosperous, middle-class time when even people with a high school degree, blue-collar workers, could lead a middle class life. And then everything went wrong in the 1970s. Productivity continued to go up and wage growth stopped. Wage growth has basically been flat ever since then. But productivity goes up by leaps and bounds all the time. We have all of these wonderful technological advances. Workers are more productive than ever but they haven’t benefited from it. That’s the core problem of inequality.
Now, if the problem was that workers weren’t educated enough, weren’t smart enough, productivity would not be going up. But that productivity line is still going up. So we can see that education is not the issue.
It’s important that people get an education, of course. I spent 25 years of my life getting an education. It’s basic to me. It’s a fundamental human right that people should have the right to pursue whatever they want to the maximum extent of their individual potential. But the idea that this is what is holding them back is simply incorrect as a matter of fact. What’s holding them back is that they don’t have the power to demand higher wages.
If we talk about the problem as one of education rather than power, then the blame goes back to these workers. They just didn’t go out and work hard and do their homework and get a gold star from their teacher. If you take the education explanation for inequality, ultimately you’re blaming the victims themselves.
Unfortunately, that is the Democratic view. That’s why Democrats have essentially become the party of mass inequality. They don’t really have a problem with it.
So really, the solution would have to be solidarity and organized power.
That was an essential point that I try to make in Listen Liberal: that there is no solidarity in a meritocracy. A meritocracy really is every man for himself.
Don’t get me wrong. People at the top of the meritocracy, professionals, obviously have enormous respect for one another. That is the nature of professional meritocracy. They have enormous respect for the people at the top, but they feel very little solidarity for people beneath them who don’t rise in the meritocracy.
Look at the white-collar workplace. If some professional gets fired, the other professionals don’t rally around and go on strike or protest or something like that. They just don’t do that. They feel no solidarity because everything goes back to you and whether or not you’ve made the grade. If somebody gets fired, they must’ve deserved it somehow.
I have my own personal experience. Look at academia over the last 20 years. They’re cranking out these Ph.D.s in the humanities who can’t get jobs on tenure track and instead have to work as adjuncts for very low pay, no benefits. One of the fascinating parts about this is that, with a few exceptions, the people who do have tenure-track jobs and are at the top of their fields, do very little about what’s happened to their colleagues who work as adjuncts. Essentially this is the Uberizing of higher education. The professionals who are in a position of authority have done almost nothing about it. There are academics here and there who feel bad about what’s happened to adjuncts and do say things about it, but by and large, overall, there is no solidarity in that meritocracy. They just don’t care.
Do you think there’s a connection between the fact that the Democratic Party has turned against workers and the rise of Donald Trump?
Yes. Because if you look at the polling, Trump is winning the votes of a lot of people who used to be Democrats. These white, working-class people are his main base of support. As a group, these people were once Democrats all over the country. These are Franklin Roosevelt’s people. These are the people that the Democrats essentially decided to turn their backs on back in the 1970s. They call them the legatees of the New Deal. They were done with these guys, and now look what’s happened—they’ve gone with Donald Trump. That’s frightening and horrifying.
But Trump talks about their issues in a way that they find compelling, especially the trade issue. When he talks about trade, they believe him. Ironically, he’s saying the same things that Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are saying about trade, but for whatever reason people find him more believable on this subject than they do Hillary Clinton.
Do you think that the rise of the Bernie campaign could herald a new era in the history of the Democratic Party?
I hope so. Both Trump and Bernie are turning their respective parties upside down. What Bernie is doing is very impressive. I interviewed him a few years ago and have always admired him. I think he’s a great man. To think that he could beat a Clinton in a Democratic primary anywhere in this country, let alone many primaries, was unthinkable a short time ago. And he’s done it without any Wall Street or big-business backing. That is extraordinary. It shows the kind of desperation that’s out there.
He has shown the way, and whether he gets the nomination or not (he probably won’t), there’ll be another Bernie four years from now. And there’ll also be another Trump. The Republican Party is being turned on its head much more violently than the Democrats. Hillary will probably get the nomination. I live in Washington, D.C., and I spend time around Hillary-style Democrats. They really think that they’ve got this thing in the bag. And I don’t just mean her versus Bernie. I mean the Democratic Party winning the presidency for the rest of our lives. From here to eternity. They can choose whoever they want. They could nominate anybody and they would win. They think they’re in charge.
One of your villains from the ’70s is Frederick Dutton, who wrote a book about how the Democratic Party needed to realign itself. You have a quote from him saying, “Every major realignment in U.S. political history has been accompanied by the coming of a large new group into the electorate.” You’re very critical of how he uses that idea in the ‘70s. But if you look at the newer voters attached to the Bernie campaign, it looks like the Democratic Party is experiencing something like that now.
Yes, in both cases you’re talking about a generational shift. That’s what he meant in 1971. He was talking about the counterculture and the “Now Generation” and the idea that they would come into the electorate and demand a different kind of politics—specifically his kind of politics.
Everybody always sees this new group that’s coming in as supporting what they want. That’s what he thought. I have a certain amount of contempt for that. Many years ago I wrote a book about the counterculture and how it was used for this purpose—specifically by the advertising industry. But Bernie’s doing the same thing. He’s using it for his own purposes.
Millenials’ take on the world is fascinating. Just a few years ago, people thought of them as very different. But now they’re coming out of college with enormous student debt, and they’re discovering that the job market is casualized and Uberized. The work that they do is completely casual. The idea of having a middle-class lifestyle in that situation is completely off the table for them.
Every time I think about these people, it burns me up. It makes me so angry what we’ve done to them as a society. It really gives the lie to Democratic Party platitudes about the world an education will open up for you. That path just doesn’t work anymore. Millenials can see that in their own lives very plainly.
So I’m very excited that they’re pro-Bernie. They really are the future.

Tobita Chow is chair of The People’s Lobby, an independent political organization based in Chicago, and co-author of "The Movement We Need," a pamphlet on analysis and strategy for the progressive movement. He has been involved in faith-based community organizing on the South Side of Chicago since 2009, and is a leader in the “Moral Mondays Illinois” campaign against state budget cuts. He is an MDiv student at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Bill and Hillary Clinton gutted welfare and criminalized the poor, all while funneling more money into the carceral [prison] state.


Reason in Revolt

How a Democrat Killed Welfare

Bill Clinton gutted welfare and criminalized the poor, all while funneling more money into the carceral  state.

Illustration by Luca Yety Battaglia
Illustration by Luca Yety Battaglia
Bill Clinton’s 1992 election was meant to be a turning point in American politics. Liberals breathed a sigh of relief, believing him to be a much-needed break from the Reagan-Bush era of “small government” and social welfare cuts.
But the optimism surrounding Clinton’s election — and favorable assessments of his time in office since — ignore the destruction his administration brought to poor and working people, especially African Americans, and mask not only the continuation but intensification of anti-poor policies. Rather than offering a reprieve from punitive austerity, Clinton took the Reagan-Bush agenda a step further. If his administration was a turning point, it turned us in the wrong direction.
In 1994, Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, the largest crime bill in history, which allocated $10 billion for prison construction, expanded the death penalty, and eliminated federal funding for inmate education. The act intensified police surveillance and racial profiling, and locked up millions for nonviolent offenses such as drug possession. It helped usher in the era of mass incarceration that devastated communities of color (for whichClinton himself has recently apologized).
Clinton’s simultaneous expansion of federal law enforcement and shrinking of the federal workforce to its lowest level in thirty years reallocated taxpayer dollars from employing people in social service jobs to putting more cops on the streets.
The starkest example of the many racist and anti-poor measures directed at African Americans and passed during his administration was the 1996 welfare reform bill, which transformed welfare from an exclusive and unequal cash assistance system that stigmatized its recipients into one that actually criminalized them.
The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act ended traditional welfare by turning a federal entitlement, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), into block grants, or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). TANF established tougher mandates on poor single mothers and gave states more flexibility in how they spent welfare dollars (opening the door for increased discrimination against minorities).
It prohibits anyone from receiving assistance for more than two consecutive years or for more than five years over the course of their life. The act also requires aid recipients to be employed, in most cases, at least thirty hours a week to get their welfare checks, amounting to an hourly wage well below the legal minimum.
Once recipients reach their program time limit, TANF forces them even further into the labor market with little consideration of how they could ensure their children are properly cared for or whether paid employment will earn them an adequate wage. Many more are not even able to find work. A 2012 report by the Urban Instituteconcluded that for recipients with barriers to employment, TANF did little to help them find jobs.
Sweeping in scope, TANF contains clauses to bolster marriage, mandate job training, and offer parenting classes. The “flexibility” that was a hallmark of the welfare reform bill enabled states to shift welfare funds away from direct cash assistance toward child care programs or subsidies for companies hiring welfare recipients, meaning that a greater portion of public welfare dollars went to the private sector.
States were pressured to reduce welfare rolls — now the singular quantitative measure of success for the program — and used multiple strategies to deter the needy from applying for aid. They implemented complicated and demeaning application procedures and relied on fingerprinting and drug testing to weed out the “criminal element” — even though there was little evidence of widespread criminal activity among recipients.
The net result was that all recipients and applicants were assumed to be potential criminals. Surveillance of low-income women punished black women in disproportionate numbers, resulting in more black children in foster care and black women in prison. Today, welfare and law enforcement work together to closely monitor the parenting of poor mothers.
These punitive policies were not new, but rather an extension of a long, racialized attack on welfare. AFDC was not controversial when it was instituted in the 1930s. Many people subscribed to traditional ideas about gender roles, believing that poor single mothers without a male breadwinner should be supported by the state in order to enable them to stay home and care for their children.
The overwhelming majority of recipients at the time, however, were white women. Women of color were considered less deserving of assistance. State and local social administrators of AFDC, especially in the South, systematically excluded African Americans and Mexican Americans from welfare receipt through “suitable home clauses” and “employable mother laws,” which denied assistance to mothers who didn’t keep “proper” homes or who it was believed could get a job and become self-supporting.
As black migration to the North intensified, more women of color applied for assistance, resulting in opposition to the welfare program. Journalists wrote about welfare fraud and the “problem” of black migration, and there were growing calls to get people off the rolls. In 1967, the Johnson administration instituted a Work Incentive Program (WIN), the first-ever mandatory federal employment rule for AFDC, requiring states to direct a portion of their welfare population to employment programs.
This landmark legislation shifted the role of welfare away from support for single mothers toward one of requiring those mothers to take paid employment outside the home. Although symbolically important because it signaled a new direction in federal policy, WIN was never adequately funded nor effectively enforced. The welfare rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s opposed the mandatory work rules and fought for higher monthly benefits, tempering some of these regressive policies. But only temporarily.
The punitive approach to addressing poverty was a result of the way race and poverty had become intertwined in the national debate. In the 1960s, urban social disorder, black demands for economic equality, and federal anti-poverty initiatives drew the nation’s attention to the persistent problem of black poverty. But the dominant liberal approach explained poverty as a product of black culture, reinforcing the notion that certain poor people were responsible for their own poverty.
Most notoriously articulated by Daniel Patrick Moynihan in “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” the culture of poverty argument suggested that a dysfunctional family structure — in particular single-parent families — was a primary reason for persistent African-American inequality.
The solution became one of attempting to instill proper values of work and marriage in black men and women. Poor black women were demonized as “welfare queens,” a trope popularized by Reagan in the 1970s and 1980s, which implied that black women chose welfare over work and milked the system for all it was worth. This rhetoric was used to justify sweeping cuts in welfare spending.
Likewise, Clinton’s welfare reform bill was rooted in a culture of poverty argument, evidenced by his racially coded language of dependency and people taking advantage of the system. Stereotypes about women were the foundation of the 1996 welfare reform debate.
Clinton alluded to the fear of black street crime, drug use, crack babies, the breakdown of the family, and the drain on public dollars. His primary goal in dismantling AFDC, as he put it, was to end the “cycle of dependence” and “achieve a national welfare reform bill that will make work and responsibility the law of the land.”
Clinton did not offer a departure from either earlier liberal policies that blamed the poor for their poverty or neoliberal economics. Instead, he turned what had been a few piecemeal reforms into a systematic overhaul of federal policy that led to the criminalization of the welfare poor. He redirected state resources away from financial support for the needy and toward surveillance and criminalization.
In an era of market worship, those who couldn’t demonstrate self-reliance or independence were identified not only as unworthy of assistance, but as a potential threat to the core institutions of American society.
Clinton’s dismantling of welfare, couched in a language of personal responsibility and public policy correction, was the culmination of a trend among both Democrats and Republicans to deter and discourage poor women of color from applying for assistance. In this regard, there was little new about the “New Democrat.”

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Neoliberalism: the ideology at the root of all our problems

The Guardian

US edition


Neoliberalism: the ideology at the root of all our problems

Financial meltdown, environmental disaster and even the rise of Donald Trump - neoliberalism has played a 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, 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 BureaucracyThe 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 inMasters 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 Institutethe Heritage Foundationthe Cato Institutethe Institute of Economic Affairsthe Centre for Policy Studies and the Adam Smith Institute. They also financed academic positions and departments, particularly at the universities of Chicago and Virginia.
With their help, he began to create what Daniel Stedman Jones describes inMasters 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 Institutethe Heritage Foundationthe Cato Institutethe Institute of Economic Affairsthe Centre for Policy Studies and the Adam Smith Institute. They also financed academic positions and departments, particularly at the universities of Chicago and Virginia.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 BureaucracyThe 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.
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 remarkedon 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.
Naomi Klein
Naomi Klein documented that neoliberals advocated the use of crises to impose unpopular policies while people were distracted. Photograph: Anya Chibis for the Guardian
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.
Carlos Slim
 In Mexico, Carlos Slim was granted control of almost all phone services and soon became the world’s richest man. Photograph: Henry Romero/Reuters
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.
Donald Trump
 Slogans, symbols and sensation … Donald Trump. Photograph: Aaron Josefczyk/Reuters
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 entre preneurs. They claim to have earned their unearned income.
These anonymities and confusions mesh with the namelessness and placelessness of modern capitalism: the franchise model which ensures that workers do not know for whom they toil; the companies registered through a network of offshore secrecy regimes so complex that even the police cannot discover the beneficial owners; the tax arrangements that bamboozle governments; the financial products no one understands.
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 SerfdomBureaucracy 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.
Neoliberalism’s triumph also reflects the failure of the left. When laissez-faire economics led to catastrophe in 1929, Keynes devised a comprehensive economic theory to replace it. When Keynesian demand management hit the buffers in the 70s, there was an alternative ready. But when neoliberalism fell apart in 2008 there was ... nothing. This is why the zombie walks. The left and centre have produced no new general framework of economic thought for 80 years.
Every invocation of Lord Keynes is an admission of failure. To propose Keynesian solutions to the crises of the 21st century is to ignore three obvious problems. It is hard to mobilise people around old ideas; the flaws exposed in the 70s have not gone away; and, most importantly, they have nothing to say about our gravest predicament: the environmental crisis. Keynesianism works by stimulating consumer demand to promote economic growth. Consumer demand and economic growth are the motors of environmental destruction.
What the history of both Keynesianism and neoliberalism show is that it’s not enough to oppose a broken system. A coherent alternative has to be proposed. For Labour, the Democrats and the wider left, the central task should be to develop an economic Apollo programme, a conscious attempt to design a new system, tailored to the demands of the 21st century.
 George Monbiot’s How Did We Get into This Mess? is published this month by Verso.