How Neoliberalism Was Born, Part 2

I’m preparing a big and well-paid public talk about why democracy is in such a bad shape worldwide, and this is the kind of stuff I’m going to talk about. These posts are my way of practicing for the talk. I apologize if they are repetitive but I’m a slow and plodding thinker, and I need to repeat things many times to get them settled in my brain.

So as I said, neoliberals were waiting for a good moment to try out their theories, and that time came in the 1970s when the existing economic system stopped functioning very well. That pre-neoliberal economic system has many names. It’s been called Keynesian economy, Fordism, industrial capitalism, Bretton Woods economy, solid stage of capitalism, and many other things. It created an enormous increase in well-being for a hundred years and especially after WWII. And then suddenly it wasn’t working well anymore.

Some people here will remember the 1970s. The oil crisis, the inflation, the social upheaval. These were all symptoms of the underlying issue which was that the productivity of capital suddenly stalled. There’s a million reasons for it that all converged and created a widespread perception that things weren’t working and something new needed to be tried. And that’s when neoliberals came out and said, “hey, your way of doing things isn’t working any more. Let’s try ours.”

What’s really fascinating is how fast academia embraced neoliberalism and turned a set of economic principles into a far-reaching worldview. Benedict Anderson published his deconstruction of nationalism Imagined Communities in 1983. And hey, who cares about some arcane theory created by a crusty college professor, right? Nobody until your passport becomes meaningless, your constitution is wiped out, and raising your national flag becomes a crime.

And here’s the rub of the issue. Feminism, anti-racism, and the rest of the identity-based rights movements have a profound affinity with neoliberalism. The dislike for norms, traditions, boundaries and limitations is what they share. That’s why academia was so eager to normalize the mentality that feeds neoliberalism. Today, we are all finally noticing where it all leads. And hey, it’s only the beginning. Remember, it’s a movement that doesn’t recognize boundaries. It doesn’t stop after achieving a goal. It doesn’t know how to do that. It’s whole nature is that it never stops.

Unless we stop it.

How Neoliberalism Was Born, Part 1

Theory always precedes praxis by a few decades. Neoliberalism as a set of ideas wasn’t born in 1978. It was born in 1947, and as any birth, this one was preceded by a period of gestation. Throughout the 1950s, these ideas became the shiny new thing that students of economics everywhere wanted to learn. In the 1960s, the number of economists who had high-ranking government positions and who were curious to put these ideas in practice reached critical mass. All they needed was a pretext. When a system works, inertia sets in and nobody wants to start something completely new. The 1970s provided that pretext.

What were the ideas I’m talking about? Initially, they were nothing too controversial. The original neoliberals believed that too much of state meddling in the economy wasn’t a good thing. In itself, it’s not a bad idea. It’s when it gets to the point of national borders being erased and Justin Trudeau shredding the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that we notice and say, “wait, what?” But it’s simply a logical progression of the idea that the state is too powerful. Who guarantees your rights and freedoms? You can argue that they are yours by natural right but you still need an agency to make them real. In mature neoliberalism, the state doesn’t go away. It simply switches sides. It’s no longer in the business of protecting you from the vagaries of the economy. It’s now in the business of protecting the market from you. Your desire freely to dispose of your body is in conflict with Pfizer’s right to increase its profits. And the state brings its entire might to crush you and benefit Pfizer.

I’ll continue in the next post but before I do that I want to ask readers to abstain from saying that I’m simplifying. Of course, I’m simplifying. There are hundreds of volumes written about this. I have read and annotated several dozen of them. There’s nothing more annoying than a person who is asked a question and instead of answering gives you a bibliography. I’m an academic. My job is to disseminate knowledge and that’s what I’m doing here. Nobody has the time to read 56 scholarly tomes on neoliberalism except for the people who are paid to do it. I’m one of those people and I want to share the fruits of my learning with people who are busy doing other things.

Deconstruction Theory

In his speech yesterday, Putin expressed the anti-nationalist worldview perfectly. I first heard it in North American academia in the late 1990s. I was young and was completely incapable of seeing how this way of thinking could lead to bad things.

Here’s how it goes. Nations were artificially created. They are ‘imagined communities.’ Borders were arbitrarily drawn. There’s nothing (or very little) natural about them. So far, so good, especially since it’s all true.

It’s the next step that gets dicey. If the nation (the gender, the race, the family) is simply a construct, it can be dismantled. More than that, it should be dismantled because it wasn’t chosen by me. It’s an imposition, a violation of my free will. So let’s deconstruct it. First, theorically, and then practically. Today we are experiencing the practical stage of the theory developed in the 1980s and popularized in the 1990s.

The birth, the development, the popularization and the praxis of this theory neatly coincide with the introduction of neoliberalism. It’s not a coincidence. Deconstruction theory is the battering ram of neoliberalism.

The theory became so dominant that it entered our consciousness as a manifestation of common sense. Not every ideology is born of economic necessity. But this one was.

Our biggest problem is that we approach this deconstructionist neoliberal worldview as blind people who are palpating an elephant. We see little bits but often miss the whole. We forget how it was born, how it gestated, and how it was unleashed into the world.

I started this post with Putin but I hope you understand that it’s not about him. He’s rolling out a little bit of the elephant because it’s convenient. But we are all being smothered by this beast because we missed the moment when it was still a cute little elephant baby. I’m not saying it’s hopeless but I do believe that without seeing the entire extent of the problem we won’t be able to do anything about it.