The Mouse That Roared, or “Yes, Margaret. There IS a Society”.
I am very disappointed in the media coverage of the reasons why the Walloons rejected the Canada-EU Trade Deal (the Comprehensive European Trade Agreement or CETA). Even this morning the press is still chewing on the bone of “isolationism” when the Premier of Wallonia, Paul Magnette, has specifically stated that it is not about isolationism, nor even especially some protectionist sentiment about their cows and pigs.
Damn it! But neo-liberal ideology has become so hegemonic that no one, it seems, can think in any other way but in its terms, and can only conclude that any rejection of neo-liberal economics and globalisation must necessarily be synonymous with reactionary nationalism or “isolationism” therewith concluding that Mr. Magnette must be merely the Walloon version of Trump or Farage. This dualistic “either/or” logic is dangerous because it becomes self-fulfilling prophecy inasmuch as it persuades people that the only opposition to neo-liberal globalisation is necessarily a extreme right-wing, nationalistic one. The liberal press, far from being oppositional, is actually aiding and abetting the rise of reactionary nationalism by this dualistic logic.
So, once again we need a crash course in clarifying the origins and meaning of neo-liberalism.
Neo-liberal economics emerged in the 70s as a response to the breakdown of Keynesianism in the malaise of “stagflation”, indicating the logic of the Keynesian consensus (as for example the “New Deal” in the United States) had run its course into an intractable self-contradiction of what was deemed an improbability according to economic theory: economic stagnation with inflation. Governments threw up their hands and turned to the “private sector” in a bid for revival, and so began the process of “privatisation” and “deregulation” and auctioning off the commonwealth following the ideological programmes laid out as “neo-liberalism” in the works of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, (who was a particular favourite of an up and coming conservative politician named Margaret Thatcher).
Margaret Thatcher summarised her understanding of neo-liberalism and her antipathy to Keynesian economics in two memorable phrases that are like two sides of one coin: “There is no such thing as society” and “there is no alternative” (sometimes called the TINA principle). So, the “choice”, as such, was cast as one between a Keynesian welfare state economics or a utopian project of private enterprise (everyone an entrepreneur!), and since Keynesianism had broken down, the only choice left was the other one — individualism and free market fundamentalism.
It should be apparent to any thinking person that this double-principle at the roots of neo-liberalism — a) no such thing as society and b) no alternative, which culminated in Fukuyama’s “end of history” — contains its own inescapable, eventual crisis and self-contradiction. If there is no society (and no such thing then as a “public”) and no alternative to neo-liberalism, then republicanism or liberal democracy are both useless forms of political organisation, since they deal precisely with political and economic choice and alternatives. In Margaret Thatcher’s formula, therefore, there is contained an implicit nihilism. And it is a nihilism that culminates in the market meltdown of 2008 and in the subsequent trends towards an authoritarian “corporatocracy” or “techno-fascism”, as it has been called, or as a “managed democracy” or “Democracy Inc” as an “inverted totalitarianism” as described by Sheldon Wolin. This “managed democracy” is what Algis Mikunas refers to as “technocratic shamanism” in his essay on “Magic and Technological Culture”. In this nihilistic dynamic we see the prescience of Nietzsche in his conclusion that the “triumph of liberal institutions would simultaneously be their self-annihilation”. And the seed of that self-contradiction was planted by Thatcherism and Reaganism.
It is the doctrine of acquisitive individualism or possessive individualism — of “rational self-interest” — carried to an extremity of hubris and which terminates in the “culture of narcissism”, as Christopher Lasch once named it. It ends in Nemesis — the point of reversal — where the implicit self-contradiction in the dynamic of neo-liberalism asserts itself as an “inverted totalitarianism” — the ideology of “the one best way”, sometimes referred to as “Washington Consensus” (but which I hold is just groupthink).
This is what the Walloons have rejected and it just won’t do to confuse this with reactionary nationalism or isolationism which are aspects of narcissism. Mr. Magnette is simply rejecting and repudiating the foundational principles of neo-liberalism, that there is no such thing as society or that there is no alternative to its hegemony. The mouse that roared has simply refused to accept the ideological hegemony of neo-liberalism.
This is what is so startling about the myopia and tunnel vision of the liberal press (or the conservative press for that matter) which is identical with “deficient perspectivisation” in Jean Gebser’s terms — the defect in the mental-rational structure of consciousness. In present terms, it is this worldview or outlook that has achieved such complete hegemony over the mind that few seem able to think or reflect effectively outside its frame or perspective. This is what is so outrageous. It’s not because there is some overall “conspiracy” to deceive but because the regime of neo-liberalism has become practically instinct.
And to defeat it, we need to insist, and make plain and real, that society, history, and choice are not empty categories and abstractions, but are real and meaningful, and so lay the spectre and ghost of Margaret Thatcher to rest finally. We also need to retrieve an authentic globalism from the clutches of neo-liberal globalisation. We need to retrieve “civilisation” from its rationalistic-technocratic interpretation. This is what underlies Mr. Magnette’s refusal of CETA, and it is not isolationism or reactionary nationalism because Mr. Magnette has stated explicitly that it’s just “not the kind of globalisation we want”. There is nothing in that statemet that suggests “isolationism”.
This is the danger of the liberal mass media — that it cannot even conceive of opposition to neo-liberalism, it seems, in anything but dualistic terms — as reactionary nationalism and isolationism, and that there is only one valid form of trade and that is “free trade” — neo-liberal trade, market fundamentalism — and that any opposition to it must be, per force, reactionary. It is very dangerous to cast the controversies in that way because it drives any rising anger about the pernicious consequences of neo-liberal globalisation into the reactionary camp. It actually aids and abets its ascendancy.
If we are going to survive “chaotic transition”, we are going to have to repudiate Thatcher and Reagan. We are going to have to retrieve the meaning of society, history, and even liberalism itself from the nihilistic wreckage wrought by Thatcher and neo-liberalism. And if we don’t succeed, we are going to be in big, big trouble. In fact, we already are in big trouble.