What we need to know about toxic neoliberalism. (Part 1 of 3)
All great truths begin as blasphemies.
— George Bernard Shaw
Having recently became a nonagenarian, I spend a lot of time these days remembering the past, as most people in their 90s tend to do. But, more and more, I also think about the future I won’t be around to see, and with mounting concern about the kind of world my grandchildren will be living in.
If current economic, social, political, and environmental trends continue, the portents are ominous, to say the least.
My anxiety has been deepened by the rapidly worsening decline in living conditions for many: poverty, inequality, unemployment, sickness, pollution, and the erosion of social and political rights, to name a few.
There has been a tendency to perceive these and other ill-effects as separate problems, when in fact they are all connected. They can all be traced to a single source — the ideology of neoliberalism, which has come to decree the policies and preferences of both the large corporations and the governments they manipulate.
I’m writing this essay after just reading How Did We Get Into This Mess?, the latest book by George Monbiot. It’s a collection of his columns in the English newspaper The Guardian, and it provides the best answer to the preponderate titular question that I have so far come across.
Monbiot starts off by asking his readers if they even know what neoliberalism is, and estimates that 95 percent of them will admit they don’t. This is not surprising, since its far-right proponents have succeeded in squelching the term “neoliberalism” and even denying it applies to them. Monbiot shows that it does, and gives a brief account of its coinage and history. He also provides the following definition:
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. . . Attempts to limit competition are treated as attacks on liberty. Tax and regulation should be minimized, public services should be privatized. Unions and collective bargaining are market distortions that impede the natural hierarchy of winners and losers. Inequality is recast as virtuous – a reward for the generators of wealth that trickles down to enrich everyone. Efforts to create a more equal society are both counterproductive and morally corrosive. The market (left free and unregulated) ensures that everyone gets what they deserve.
The corporate and political promoters of neoliberalism claim that it protects and enhances freedom, especially the freedom to consume the products of a free market. But, as Monbiot bitingly points out, “Freedom from unions and collective bargaining means the freedom to suppress wages. Freedom from regulation is the freedom to poison rivers, endanger workers, and charge iniquitous rates of interest. Freedom from taxes means freedom from the distribution of wealth that lifts people out of poverty.”
Monbiot is far from the only critic of unconstrained capitalism to expose and deplore its many ill-effects on the vast majority of people, and on the planet itself. Chris Hedges, former foreign correspondent for the New York Times, for example, is even more censorious. “A handful of corporate oligarchs around the world,” he writes, “now have everything – wealth, power and privilege – while the rest of us struggle as part of a vast underclass, increasingly impoverished and ruthlessly repressed. There is one set of laws and regulations for us, another set for a corporate power elite that functions as a global Mafia.”
In my less lucid style, I have also been critiquing excessive corporate power for a long time. Indeed, if I can say so without immodesty, I was probably among the first journalists to decry the growing power of corporations, albeit in journals with small circulations and limited readership.
Twenty years ago, I had a collection of essays published with the title Under Corporate Rule, and a subtitle The Big Business Takeover of Canada. The essays were written in the early 1990s for the now defunct progressive magazine Canadian Forum. They reflected my deep concern, even then, about inequality, pollution, free trade, social program cuts, the erosion of democracy, attacks on unions, and other dire consequences of corporate rule.
The headings of these essays speak for themselves: Free Trade’s Shackles, Public Sector Bashing, The Cost of Cutbacks, The Great Deficit Hoax, Scapegoating the Poor, What Business Wants, Business Gets. Etc, etc. What is scary about re-reading them is that most could be republished today with hardly any need for updating.
I kept hammering away at the scourge of ever-expanding corporate dominance during the late 1990s and through the first 14 years of this century. My ongoing efforts — mostly futile — to enlighten and galvanize Canadians could be summed up in the title of my next published collection of essays, a whopping 80 of them: The Right is Wrong, and the Left is Right.
In one of these essays, which I titled The Big Business Bang Theory, published in 2006, I actually pre-empted Monbiot’s answer to the question “How Did We Get Into This Mess?” He identified the root cause of all our major problems as neoliberalism. Here’s what I wrote 10 years ago:
Is there one big connection between all the social, economic, environmental and political problems we are concerned about? If we were to take a cause-and-effect approach, could we identify one overriding cause of all the troubles that beset us? If we could, it would certainly simplify, solidify, and intensify our reform efforts. Instead of dissipating our resources trying to tackle each of the many problems separately, we could come together in a concerted campaign to tackle their common cause. That, in turn, would give us a much better chance of averting global collapse.
At the risk of being branded a monomaniac or a crazy conspiracy theorist, let me give you this common cause: excessive and destructive corporate power. Call it neoliberalism, corporatism, globalization, right-wing fundamentalism, the corporate agenda, unfettered private enterprise, or any of the other descriptive tags applied to a world overwhelmingly dominated by Big Business. Whatever term you choose (neoliberalism perhaps being the most apt), you’ll find it to be the root cause of virtually every social, economic, political, and environmental problem we are now grappling with. And, by extension, it’s also the primary cause of the rapidly worsening global ecological crisis, the most frightening of all.
Several readers of this essay phoned or emailed me to pose this question: If all our most pressing problems are indeed perpetuated by unbridled corporate power, how can the barbaric economic system spawned by this power be overthrown and replaced by a truly fair and democratic system?
My reply was that two key prerequisites had to be met. First, there would have to be a widespread public awareness of the urgent need to curb corporate dominance — an awakening that would-be reformers could build upon. And, second, the movement to confront the powerful business elite would have to be soundly led and global in scale.
Since then, the first requirement has clearly been achieved. In addition to Monbiot, scores of well-known thinkers, writers, economists, and activists have vociferously denounced the many abuses of large business empires driven by their greed and unchecked power. The upsurge of Occupy Wall Street, Idle No More, and other public protest movements have all specifically targeted the big investment firms, banks, and other corporate giants.
Most people may not trace their unemployment, low wages, or shoddy living conditions to the inequities of laissez-faire capitalism, but they know that sweeping changes of some kind need to be made.
Corporations and their CEOs are now commonly portrayed as villains in movies, TV shows, and books. The proliferation of insider-trading and other “white-collar” crimes makes front-page news. Many thousands of people have had a personal bad experience with an insurance or investment firm. And most are now also aware that the worst pollution of the environment comes from the chemicals and effluents spewed out by the big industrial plants.
In short, there is a broad public awareness that there is something seriously wrong with the prevailing political and economic systems. Most people may not trace their unemployment, low wages, or shoddy living conditions to the inequities of laissez-faire capitalism, but they know that sweeping changes of some kind need to be made.
In the United States, this widespread malcontent was tapped during the prolonged primary contests by Bernie Sanders on the left and Donald Trump on the right. Both campaigned as champions of the downtrodden against the unpopular establishment of their respective Democratic and Republican parties. Both were fierce critics of Wall Street, of job-destructive free trade deals, and of companies that outsource jobs to Mexico, China, and other low-wage countries.
Unfortunately, the horrific outcome of the U.S. election will fail to effectuate this anti-establishment revolution. The Donald Trump who will occupy the White House will not be the Donald Trump who proclaimed himself the champion of downtrodden working people. He has already embraced the far-right Republican leaders he scorned before the election, and is staffing his cabinet with the most regressive neoliberal extremists he can find.
Whether or not Trump keeps his promise to renegotiate or scrap job-destructive free trade agreements remains to be seen; but he’s certain to stop short of antagonizing the big corporations and their major investors. Corporate power is going to be bolstered, not constrained, during the next four years, leaving Trump’s millions of gullible supporters wallowing in disillusionment.
We can only speculate what the election result would have been had popular Bernie Sanders been the Democratic Party’s candidate instead of the unpopular Hillary Clinton. Bernie would have been a genuinely progressive nominee on the left, battling an anti-establishment fraud on the right, and many astute political analysts now think he would have won if the Democratic Party’s undemocratic delegate selection system hadn’t been rigged against him.
Most of us had naively thought that the exposure of blatant corporate infamy to which I referred above would lead to a strong political crackdown on corporate power in Canada and other countries around the world, if not in the United States. We expected that governments would act promptly to clamp regulatory curbs on corporate wrongdoers, constrain free markets, re-impose much higher business taxes, and punish financial felons with prison terms and huge fines.
Instead, governments around the world have allowed corporations to continue their iniquitous misconduct, and even lavished them with further tax cuts and subsidies.
The decision not to penalize the Wall Street firms whose insatiable greed precipitated the 2008 financial meltdown, but instead bail them out with the tax money of their victims, was a stark disclosure of the extent to which governments have yielded political decision-making to the corporate overlords.
So it’s clear now that simply exposing big business iniquities will have no deterrent effects, either by governments or the corporate scoundrels themselves. Even the opposition parties in our legislatures rarely, if ever, mention corporate malfeasance during election campaigns or Question Periods. And since the politicians we vote for are the only ones with the authority to stop the titans of capitalism from further impoverishing billions, worsening inequality, and eventually wrecking the planet, we find ourselves at an impasse.
I’ll discuss other deleterious aspects of neoliberalism next week in Part 2 of this three-part series.
(A previous version of this article was published by the CCPA on May 11, 2016. It has been updated by the author and republished with his permission.)
Ed Finn was editor at the CCPA Monitor for 20 years. Formerly, he was editor of the Western Star in Corner Brook, a reporter at The Montreal Gazette, and for 14 years wrote a column on labour relations for The Toronto Star. He also served for three decades as a communications officer for several labour organizations, including the Canadian Labour Congress and the Canadian Union of Public Employees.