A Neoliberal Spring?

by Robert Hunziker

Neoliberalism may be the most domineering socio-politico-economic influence in the history of humankind, far and away.

Moreover, when left unregulated, neoliberalism goes bonkers by concentrating wealth into fewer and fewer and fewer and fewer hands. The evidence is everywhere, same as the late 18th century when too much wealth concentrated in too few hands finally became too much, depicted by the rich golden splendor of Versailles (Fr).

Back then, in the 18th century, peasants starved on the streets of Paris, and as a result, conspicuous consumption became the formulary for the French Revolution, one after another, aristocrats lost their heads, stuck onto pikes, paraded thru streets.

Nowadays, neoliberalism’s concentration of wealth surpasses the tasteless conspicuous consumption of late 18th century France and also of the late 19th century Gilded Age in America, an era that graced the pages of Henry James’ novel The Ivory Tower, where conspicuous consumption lifts off the pages, word-by-word, as James details life amongst the peerless wealthy class.

Those eras of excessive consumption and mighty concentration of wealth ended, as do all eras, the first by the bloody hands of its own citizens, the second by the constructive hand of progressivism, the Progressive Era from 1890s to 1920s, a period in American history that brought in its wake dramatic social and political changes, which rescued the Gilded Age from likely rebellion.

Is Neoliberalism the new Gilded Age?

The epithet, “the one percent” says it all.

According to David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford University Press, 2005):  Neoliberalism values market exchange as “an ethic in itself, capable of acting as a guide to all human action, and substituting for all previously held ethical beliefs.” Harvey further states, “Neoliberalism has meant, in short, the financialization of everything.”

From shore to shore, all across the planet, neoliberalism reigns supreme. Milton Friedman, who coined “neoliberalism” in a thesis in 1951, would be proud, knowing his theory of “the best government is the least government” is on solid footing. His “market determinism” is alive and well, kicking butt from Chile to the USA to Russia to China.

However, neoliberalism’s penchant for chopping to pieces basic necessities, i.e., austerity, a la Italy, Greece, Portugal, and Spain, where protests “on the streets” against neoliberal austerity are not covered by the U.S. news media, in the end, may be neoliberalism’s undoing.

Only four weeks ago: “Riot police clashed with protesters, students and unionists in Milan and Padua, in the north of the country, while in Rome a group of demonstrators scaled the Colosseum to protest against the labour reforms proposed by the government of Matteo Renzi, the 39-year-old prime minister,” Nick Squires, Rome, Italy Protests Erupt Across the Country, The Telegraph, Nov. 14, 2014. Neoliberalism always clashes with labor.

Similar to the Arab Spring, neoliberalism is challenged at the barricades from Chile to Indonesia to Italy to Greece to Portugal to Spain to France. And, it goes on and on. But, Americans are largely unaware. It’s not newsworthy enough.

By all appearances, the entire world is on edge, tense, confrontational to a degree not experienced in generations, maybe since the Gilded Age.  Accordingly, it is reasonable to query why tensions are as taut as a stretched rubber band about to snap.

Lessons from Arab Spring

It is instructive to look back where tensions have already snapped in order to discover what’s ahead. In that regard, the Arab Spring (2010-12) offers some insight. The Arab Spring left an indelible impact all across the Middle East and Northern Africa. Still, below the surface, it simmers to this day.

Indeed, Arab Spring references the deadly outbreak of rioting in the streets against the prevailing establishment. The countries so affected with street riots, deaths, or blowback of surrounding nations includes Tunisia, Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Israel & Palestinian Territories, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, UAE, and Yemen.

The Arab Spring touched each of these eighteen countries in varying degrees, street riots and deaths, mass arrests, toppled regimes, monetary concessions, and political concessions, and none were quiet, subdued, at peace, absent heightened concerns.

A general alert has become the watchword for the Middle East/North African corridor as desperate people behave desperately. For now, conditions are quieter but evermore on edge.

If there is a common denominator to the Arab Spring, it is a deep antipathy towards the ruling regimes, same as 18th century France, resembling much of the world today. In America, the same antipathy registers via low voter turnout, subdued for now.

Still, observing what worked to bring calm to the streets reveals the bases of concern.

  • In Algeria the government checked public rage through a combination of food subsidies and pay raises.
  • In Kuwait citizens were given 1,000 Kuwaiti dinars and free food staples for one year. 
  • In Oman the Sultan ordered his government to spend more money to create 30,000 more jobs and more scholarships for students.
  • The Saudi king doled out $130 billion in financial benefits to the citizenry.

Kinda sounds like the issues surrounding neoliberalism, as well as 18th century France, people left out of society as wealth surges upwards whilst middle class jobs, in today’s market, flow horizontally offshore to the lowest bidders with the lowest regulations.

Everywhere tension rises, it’s always because of too much at the top at the expense of too many crowded together at the bottom. The world is top heavy.

Arab Spring is a prime example of how people behave when left out of the system, whether politically or economically, but when combined, it’s deadly as seething simmers until one tiny, little match head ignites a fierce storm, a la a Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Boiuazizi, standing in front of the municipal offices of Sidi Bouzid, hollering: “How do you expect me to make a living,” dousing himself in gasoline and striking a match.

Ergo, Arab Spring was born.

One match, one little match, one tiny/little match overturned a president’s 23-year term and set off street riots all across the southern Mediterranean and throughout the Middle East. Curiously, Mohamed Boiuazizi’s image now appears on a Tunisian postage stamp.

However, postage stamp image or not, monarchies and dictatorships leave no room at the top for upward mobility. As for neoliberalism, its dictate of “survival of the fittest economics” is really “bottom-feeder economics” whereby the rich accumulate more and more and more at the expense of lower and lower and lower wages, less benefits, and crushed self-esteem. What could be worse?

Over time, the bottom feeders wait patiently for the “striking of a match.” That’s all it takes!

Neoliberalism’s Monarchial/Dictatorial Impulses

Milton Friedman doubtless never realized what a nightmare he created by turning lose the full power of the free market w/o checks and balances, starting in Chile in the 1970s, which is much more powerful than monarchies and dictatorships because neoliberalism is invisible.  Yes, the invisible hand of the market rules society with a firm ruthlessness equal to the sternest monarchies.

In that regard, the “market” leaves as many people out in the cold as does a monarchy, because, by definition, when the invisible hand of the market discriminates between winners and losers, it selects but few.  It is the nature of capitalism, free from government rules and regulations, compounding wealth upon wealth, there is only so much to go around; otherwise, it has no value.

This is free market capitalism at work, and it is today’s world economy. Like natural selection in biology, neoliberalism eliminates upward mobility by clogging up the top whilst opening ever-wider spigots to the sewer below.

A Neoliberal Spring is Almost Guaranteed

Already, the U.S. Department of Defense is making preparations for a Neoliberal Spring by arming local police departments all across the country… with military hardware! What are the implications, other than preparation for domestic war?

The TV images in Ferguson, Missouri of the local police decked out in full military regalia could just as easily come from Afghanistan, not from an American Midwestern suburb of 21,000 people.

On a lighter note, as well as a depressing image of heightened absurdity, the police chief of Keene, NH (pop. 23,000) used the department’s ATV (armored tactical vehicle) to patrol the town’s annual “Pumpkin Festival.” Comically outlandish and embarrassingly juvenile!

Yes, America’s local police forces are preparing for an onslaught, for war, for a big war, for a big domestic war, and it’s fascinating, as well as disheartening and deplorable, how officers become trigger-happy when intoxicated by the military complex mindset, dictated by warfare: “shoot first, ask questions later.”

“Police departments from New Jersey to Arizona have loaded up in recent years with thousands of military assault rifles, hundreds of armored combat vehicles that saw duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more than 600 aircraft—and no one is quite sure how any of that equipment is used,” Ted Sherman, Report Finds Flood of Military Weapons into Police Arsenals Needs Better Oversight, True Jersey, Dec. 2, 2014.

How is the equipment used?

The State as Guarantor of Economic Freedom

Milton Freidman’s neoliberalism depends upon a strong state, a powerhouse, to “guarantee economic freedom,” like the experience in union-busting Chile, where ½ of the people live on less than $3/day whilst 1%-10% own everything in sight. It is a plantation economy with an offshoot of slavery that is legalized by paying a very low low low minimal wage, all made possible by the dictatorial hand of fascism’s focus on neoliberalism, the best government is the least government, deregulation, the free hand of the market and privatize, privatize, privatize, privatize, privatize, privatize everything!

Paradoxically, the state as “guarantor of economic freedom,” in fact, threatens the very fabric of society, as more and more people are left out in the cold, similar to America’s crashing middle class.

Not only that, the Bush/Cheney Energy Policy Act “guaranteed economic freedom” by exempting fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974. Thus, energy companies are permitted to force toxic chemicals deep underground without federal government monitoring… but profits increase because of “guaranteed economic freedom.”

The Clinton administration “guaranteed economic freedom” when it deregulated the financial industry, destroying checks and balances for “secure banking” by repealing the Glass-Steagall Act of 1934, resulting in the biggest financial fiasco in modern times, in 2008.

And, just to prove the adage: the more things change, the more they stay the same, the following is what Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) said on Rachel Maddow, MSNBC, Dec.12, 2014 about the federal government’s new $1.1 trillion government spending bill:

“This is a bad bill for a number of reasons… the outrage of repealing a section, by the way, whose title is: Prohibition Against Federal Government Bailouts… in other words, these guys [bankers] will be able to make incredibly risky investments, if they win they make a lot of money, if they lose the taxpayers in this country bail them out. That is totally crazy. But, that’s not the only objectionable aspect of this bill. This bill is a trillion dollar bill, sixty percent of the money is going to military spending. Our infrastructure is collapsing. Kids can’t afford to go to college. Childcare is a total disaster. We’re spending 60% of our money on the military that can’t even account or audit its budget. So, that’s another objection. And, the third objection, which has not gotten a lot of attention, but is very, very important. There is language in this bill, which repeals a 40-year-old federal law protecting worker’s pensions. And, if this bill goes thru, millions and millions of workers who have worked for 20 or 30 or 40 years on a job may find out that the pensions they expected are cut by 30, 40 or 50 percent.”

Hello Neoliberal Spring.

Accordingly, the state “guarantees economic freedom” by (1) repealing aspects of the Dodd-Frank Bill and allowing banks more freedom to invest in risky assets while losses are guaranteed by the general public, (2) deploying over 60% of the budget to the military to protect economic freedom’s ass-ets, and (3) removing pension guarantees for the working class, subjecting the working class to up to 50% cuts in pension benefits, maybe more.

This is neoliberalism at work in today’s world, guaranteeing economic freedom. It is the only guarantee that is consecrated. Predictably, Congress keeps coming back to it.

Formidably, the echo of Mohamed Boiuazizi’s voice, “how do you expect me to make a living,” reverberates around the world from Tunisia to Anytown America.

Wistfully, America’s Bill of Rights (1789) has shifted from emphasis on individual freedom to an emphasis, almost exclusively, on economic freedom. This is extraordinarily risky business.

Robert Hunziker View more

Robert Hunziker
Robert Hunziker (MA, economic history) is a freelance writer and environmental journalist whose articles have been translated into foreign languages and appeared in over 50 journals, magazines, and sites worldwide. He can be contacted at: rlhunziker@gmail.com

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