The beginning of the end for neoliberalism
How can we reconcile shifting alliances and growing cultural divisions among parallel communities in the same geographic region on the one hand with the long-term trend of global convergence on the other? We see this at multiple levels. Is the USA reverting to trade protectionism after outsourcing much of its manufacturing base to China? Is the EU leadership distancing itself from the US? More intriguingly, why is Israel courting nationalist movements across Europe while appearing almost neutral in the rivalry between Russia and the USA?
In the old neoliberal world order as it emerged after the demise of the former Soviet Union, the US-centred military industrial complex reigned supreme in all four main spheres of domination:
- Strategic technology, especially computing and bioscience
- Culture, mainly via the entertainment and news industries
- Finance, facilitating the acquisition of strategic natural resources and exerting power of national governments
- Military might, ability to resolve disputes by force or to destabilise potential rivals should the other means of persuasion and coercion fail.
Without technological supremacy, no power can gain control of the media, banking or military. More important, in an increasingly interconnected world the battle of minds and money matters much more old-fashioned physical force. Once a country is locked into the global banking system, dependent on trade and abstract wealth generated abroad, military force is not just unnecessary, but often counterproductive.
The US military industrial complex has just suffered one of its worst setbacks since the American withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975. You wouldn’t know it if your main source of news is CNN or BBC, but the United States squandered billions on the deliberate destabilisation of Syria with the primary purpose of overthrowing the current government headed by Bashar Al Assad. If the narrative we have heard from the mainstream Western media were remotely correct, i.e. that Assad loyalists are responsible for most death and destruction, then how can they explain the scenes of jubilation as Syrian Defence Forces retake the last enclaves held by Islamic fundamentalist militias? How can they explain that nearly all religious and ethnic minorities in Syria feel safer under Assad than under Al Qaeda, Al Nusra or ISIS? How can they explain that most ISIS fighters were not even Syrian? Yet we really have to ask why the promoters of a purportedly democratic and tolerant multicultural world would back some of the most intolerant religious fundamentalists imaginable?
The NeoCon cabal may still infest the White House, but the new generation of media-savvy American political leaders from Tulsi Gabbard to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have grown tired of bankrolling the Global Police Force or at least being held responsible for proxy war shenanigans in far-flung regions. Donald Trump’s unexpected electoral triumph put paid not just to Hillary Clinton’s dreams of becoming US President, but to his country’s role as the guardian of the New World Order that emerged after the fall of the old Soviet Union.
The North American and European big business classes are fast reorienting their strategy around a new multipolar reality, commanded by a network of Deep State operators with no vested interests in the wellbeing or cultural excellence of any country. The next two decades are likely to see a growing divide between the native working classes who see their interests best protected by compact nation states they can hold to account and the technocratic elites with their armies of middle managers and professional persuaders who aim to guide the masses to their vision of a socially engineered progressive future. In the neoliberal era, which is fast receding, business leaders hoped that market forces alone could regulate consumer behaviour. The hidden hand of free market capitalism would not just produce more fuel-efficient cars and faster computers, but could segment the leisure and education sectors to cater for all variations of hedonism and sophistication. Just thirty years ago it seemed we would all eventually converge on a lifestyle inspired by the ephemeral North American dream of widespread middle class affluence. We can retain the illusion of democracy as long as governments appear to cater for the aspirations of its citizens by providing the core services advanced societies need and ensuring a relative equality of opportunities without interfering unduly in family and community life. As long as malcontents compromise a small and easily manageable minority whose misfortunes can be appeased with social welfare and low-key policing, the majority may retain the illusion of personal freedom. Fast forward to early 21st century Britain and the disconnect between the remnants of the old working classes and the affluent professional elites is all too apparent. On a median salary of just 30K it is practically impossible to get onto the housing ladder within easy commuting distance of the most lucrative cities. You’ll spend most of your income on accommodation, transport and utility bills. It’s hardly a surprise that more and more young adults live with their parents, which also explains the rise in young people claiming some special vulnerability status to gain access to subsidised accommodation. Some governments have tried all sorts of tricks to hide the scale of worklessness. The first is to encourage most school leavers to go to university rather than learn practical skills as apprentices. Rather than prepare young adults for today’s competitive job market, it devalues degrees for all but the most challenging subjects at the best colleges. The second trick is to expand the definition of learning disability to encompass anyone who struggles to some extent with a range of intellectually taxing tasks. The third is to promote part-time and zero-hours contracts that merely supplement welfare handouts and act as a kind of occupational therapy.
The Battle for Self-determination
Opposition to growing technocratic centralisation shares one common denominator: self-determination of communities and private citizens. However, to take back control of our lives, we need to retain some degree of functional independence and bargaining power to handle interactions with other key players. This works at multiple levels. Self-sufficient communities are better able to resist the temptation of succumbing to the economic influence of more powerful organisations as long they retain ownership of their land and maritime resources. As private citizens we have much more bargaining power if we’re not expendable, i.e. we do a job that very few others can do. If your sole purpose in life is to behave yourself and not to rock the boat, your life is at the mercy of your supervisors and carers whether or not you technically have a paid job because you offer nothing more than your good will, which may be an admirable trait if combined with other skills that other people need.
We face a choice between dependence on global corporations and acquiescence with myriad agencies of social control or greater autonomy at a personal, family or community level. Today’s rebels may be hard to place on the traditional left to right scale, but the one thing most of us share is a desire to redress the balance of power away from emerging technocratic elite to ordinary people, so we can decide how to run our lives as autonomous human beings with free will.
For all its faults, the neoliberal experiment kept alive some positive aspects of regulated capitalism enabling the middle classes to thrive and leading perhaps to the most sustained rate of economic growth and technological innovation since the industrial revolution. Yet it’s fast becoming a victim of its own success as growing swathes of the middle classes in the world’s wealthiest countries fail to compete as their jobs are outsourced or automated. A mixed economy cannot survive with most of its population reliant on welfare handouts. The populist left wants to tax the tech giants to bankroll their panacea of a universal basic income. Only a fool could believe they’d subsidise our online shopping and leisure pursuits without wishing to control our behaviour and suppress what’s left of our personal autonomy.