Calling Time on Neo-Liberalism
Quite a few social observers are now calling time on neo-liberalism, particularly after the market meltdown of 2008. I’ve noted a few: Wolfgang Streeck’s How Will Capitalism End?, Yanis Varoufakis’s The Global Minotaur, Peter Pogany’s Rethinking the World, Jennifer Welsh’s The Return of History, as well as quite a few I’ve yet to catch up on in my reading. All suggest that the financial crisis of 2008 represents an unrecoverable system failure for neo-liberalism. However, the apparent demise of neo-liberalism (or Thatcherism, Reaganism and so on) isn’t necessarily true also of the Megamachine.
They say one shouldn’t kick one’s foe when he’s on the ground, but I can’t resist getting in a couple of swift ones against a foe, neo-liberalism, that has irritated and annoyed me most of my adult life. It’s cathartic. I might be accused of whipping a dead horse, here, but it’s also true that a whole lot of people are still under the spell of neo-liberalism — ready even to sacrifice themselves for it’s sake — which is why some people speak of “zombie logic”, “voodoo economics” and such. It’s only the ghost of neo-liberalism — or the ghost of Maggie Thatcher — that wanders like a lost soul over the face of the Earth.
So, let’s see how this malignancy developed in the first place so we can be rid of it — exorcise the ghost — once and for all.
We’ve already spoken, earlier, to one of the main self-contradictions of the neo-liberal economics promoted by economists like Friedrich Hayek or Milton Friedman — that monopolies of power should be allowed as the reward for economic and “free market” efficiency. It’s an incredible conclusion to be arrived at by alleged “liberal” (ie free market) economic thinkers, since it conceives of democratic life as basically a race — even a rat race — to see who can win total power. It’s not surprising, therefore, that Hayek, Friedman, and Thatcher were admirers of the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, which attempted to synthesise neo-liberal economics with political dictatorship and social repression. It seemed the long-sought utopia that happily reconciled ultra social conservatism with liberal economics. But it was an unstable synthesis. But it established a precedent for what later became “normalisation of the double-standard” and “illiberal liberalism”.
So, indeed, neo-liberalism was a fitting outcome of Nietzsche’s prophecy that the triumph of liberal institutions would be their self-negation. And, of course, Francis Fukuyama, with his “end of history” thesis, also fell under the spell of this miserable duplicitous creed. And it’s quite astonishing that this “winner take all” doctrine was accepted (and still is in many places) as “the common sense”.
This “illiberal liberalism” is what Thatcher is best remembered for with her controversial statements that “There is No Alternative” (the TINA Principle) and “there is no such thing as society”. There is no “society”, only “individuals and families”, as she put it — atoms and molecules. Few realised that this was insane. Many held it to be “common sense”. But this insanity spread.
What Thatcher was trying to do, of course, by recognising only the reality of “individuals and families” was undercut the validity of socialism and the British Labour Party. “Individuals and families” means, only liberal and conservative, Whig and Tory, points of view are valid. Everything else is false or illusory — the societal and the natural are excluded as real by simple fiat. Incredibly, this also became the common sense of Tony Blair and “New Labour”.
Thatcher and Thatcherism’s appeal very probably lay in the her attempt to return to a by-gone age of simple dualisms of Whig and Tory, Them and Us, Black and White politics, where there were only individual interests and family values, and to hell with Society and Nature. This was a perversion of the truth and reality, since anyone with a modicum of real “common sense” knows that the individual, the familiar, the societal, and the natural are real and distinct, and one can no more come to an adequate understanding of “society” by simply aggregating into a sum total its individuals and families.
A society is quite distinct from the individuals and families that live and move within it. For one thing, it survives the lifetimes of individual and family. For that reason, it is the historical aspect of the fourfold relation between individual, familial, societal, and natural, and the reason Thatcher felt confident in denying society validity as a political unit in its own right is what Lewis Mumford and Roderick Seidenberg call “post-historic man”, which is a very odd thing for a self-identified “conservative” to be, in fact.
No amount of protest could turn away this deviancy and degeneracy. If only individuals and families were real and alone worthy of political standing in terms of liberalism and conservatism, and if therefore the societal and the natural were unreal and therefore unworthy of political standing, then no one had any responsibilities towards the unreal — society or nature. It made the exploitation of society and nature perfectly legitimate.
This stupidity — that’s all one can think to name it — has entrenched itself as the “common sense”. It has a certain appeal because it appeals to entrenched dualistic thinking. It’s “freedom” resides in the fact that it actually eliminates all sense of responsibility and mutual obligation. By freeing “individuals and families” from all obligations for the maintenance of “society”, she made elite and technocratic management of society and social relations necessary.
Once society and nature were stripped of any and all validity, and therefore any and all right to political standing, denuding them became perfectly acceptable — austerity and privatisation represented only, in effect, the pillage of the commonwealth — public asset stripping. Protests from socialists or environmentalists were simply ignored — not even considered legitimate — because neither society nor nature had any validity and therefore no legitimate political standing.
There were, too, plenty of socialists and environmentalists who fell under the spell of this mad Thatcherite logic and were co-opted by it, because they did not have a clear understanding of what it was they were surrendering to Thatcherite logic, a simplistic political logic cast in terms of liberal and conservative or “left” and “right”.
This isn’t reality. We are not dualistic beings. We are fourfold. Individual, familial, societal, and natural is the expression of that fourfoldness. We cannot skip this logic without disastrous consequences. Yet we try to do this all the time. Reductionism and fundamentalism are malignancies. They produce caricatures of a human being. We are much more complex beings than can be completely politically represented, alone, in liberalism, conservatism, socialism, or environmentalism. We become caricatures of ourselves whenever we do attempt it. The whole human being, in terms of mind, body, soul, and spirit, is politically represented in these, and their validity lies in their mutual relation to one another. Who really thinks, truly, that any one or two of these — individual, familial, societal, and natural — is sufficient unto itself?
There are clear and logical reasons for this. There are clear and compelling reasons why we have to change our minds and break with the tendency to think in simple and simplistic dualisms, for our present thinking only serves to ignore and suppress dimensions of reality that will not much longer tolerate being ignored or suppressed. And the usual term for that is “apocalypse”. Too much madness today is owing to the fact that we do not correctly understand our own fourfold natures, or even why the individual, the familial, the societal, and the natural must be brought into proper relationship with each other.
But that’s what Rosenstock-Huessy’s quadrilateral logic and “cross of reality” attempts to do, and what Gebser’s “integral consciousness” attempts to do, and what Blake’s “fourfold vision” attempts to do. It’s all connected.