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.