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What we need to know about neoliberalism (before it's too late)

May 11, 2016

7-minute read

This is Part 1 of a three-part series that examines the ideology of neoliberalism and the enormous harm its implementation imposes on people and the planet.

"All great truths begin as blasphemies." —George Bernard Shaw

Having recently become a nonagenarian, I spend a lot of time these days remembering the past, as most people in their 90s tend to do. But, more and more, I also think about the future I won’t be around to see, and with mounting concern about the kind of world my grandchildren will be living in.

If current economic, social, political, and environmental trends continue, the portents are ominous, to say the least.

My anxiety has been deepened by the rapidly worsening decline in living conditions for many – poverty, inequality, unemployment, sickness, pollution, and the erosion of social and political rights, to name a few.

There has been a tendency to perceive these and other ill-effects as separate problems, when in fact they are all connected. They can all be traced to a single source – the ideology of neoliberalism, which has come to decree the policies and preferences of both the large corporations and the governments they manipulate.

I’m writing this essay after just reading How Did We Get Into This Mess?, the latest book by George Monbiot. It’s a collection of his columns in the English newspaper The Guardian, and it provides the best answer to the preponderate titular question that I have so far come across.

Monbiot starts off by asking his readers if they even know what neoliberalism is, and estimates that 95% of them will admit they don’t. This is not surprising, since its far-right proponents have succeeded in squelching the term “neoliberalism” and even denying it applies to them. Monbiot shows that it does, and gives a brief account of its coinage and history. He also provides the following definition:

Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling. . . Attempts to limit competition are treated as attacks on liberty. Tax and regulation should be minimized, public services should be privatized. Unions and collective bargaining are market distortions that impede the natural hierarchy of winners and losers. Inequality is recast as virtuous – a reward for the generators of wealth that trickles down to enrich everyone. Efforts to create a more equal society are both counterproductive and morally corrosive. The market (left free and unregulated) ensures that everyone gets what they deserve.
The corporate and political promoters of neoliberalism claim that it protects and enhances freedom, especially the freedom to consume the products of a free market. But, as Monbiot bitingly points out, “Freedom from unions and collective bargaining means the freedom to suppress wages. Freedom from regulation is the freedom to poison rivers, endanger workers, and charge iniquitous rates of interest. Freedom from taxes means freedom from the distribution of wealth that lifts people out of poverty.”

Monbiot is far from the only critic of unconstrained capitalism to expose and deplore its many ill-effects on the vast majority of people, and on the planet itself. Chris Hedges, former foreign correspondent for the New York Times, for example, is even more censorious. “A handful of corporate oligarchs around the world,” he writes, “now have everything – wealth, power and privilege – while the rest of us struggle as part of a vast underclass, increasingly impoverished and ruthlessly repressed. There is one set of laws and regulations for us, another set for a corporate power elite that functions as a global Mafia.”

In my less lucid style, I have also been critiquing excessive corporate power for a long time. Indeed, if I can say so without immodesty, I was probably among the first journalists to decry the growing power of corporations, albeit in journals with small circulations and limited readership.

Twenty years ago, I had a collection of essays published with the title Under Corporate Rule: The Big Business Takeover of Canada. The essays were written in the early 1990s for the now defunct progressive magazine Canadian Forum. They reflected my deep concern, even then, about inequality, pollution, free trade, social program cuts, the erosion of democracy, attacks on unions, and other dire consequences of corporate rule.

The headings of these essays speak for themselves: Free Trade’s Shackles, Public Sector Bashing, The Cost of Cutbacks, The Great Deficit Hoax, Scapegoating the Poor, What Business Wants, Business Gets. Etc, etc. What is scary about re-reading them is that most could be republished today with hardly any need for updating.

I kept hammering away at the scourge of ever-expanding corporate dominance during the late 1990s and through the first 14 years of this century. My ongoing efforts – mostly futile – to enlighten and galvanize Canadians could be summed up in the title of my next published collection of essays, a whopping 80 of them: The Right is Wrong, and the Left is Right.

In one of these essays, which I titled The Big Business Bang Theory, published in 2006, I actually pre-empted Monbiot’s answer to the question “How Did We Get Into This Mess?” He identified the root cause of all our major problems as neoliberalism. Here’s what I wrote 10 years ago:

Is there one big connection between all the social, economic, environmental and political problems we are concerned about? If we were to take a cause-and-effect approach, could we identify one overriding cause of all the troubles that beset us? If we could, it would certainly simplify, solidify, and intensify our reform efforts. Instead of dissipating our resources trying to tackle each of the many problems separately, we could come together in a concerted campaign to tackle their common cause. That, in turn, would give us a much better chance of averting global collapse.

At the risk of being branded a monomaniac or a crazy conspiracy theorist, let me give you this common cause: excessive and destructive corporate power. Call it neoliberalism, corporatism, globalization, right-wing fundamentalism, the corporate agenda, unfettered private enterprise, or any of the other descriptive tags applied to a world overwhelmingly dominated by Big Business. Whatever term you choose (neoliberalism perhaps being the most apt), you’ll find it to be the root cause of virtually every social, economic, political, and environmental problem we are now grappling with. And, by extension, it’s also the primary cause of the rapidly worsening global ecological crisis, the most frightening of all.

Several readers of this essay phoned or emailed me to pose this question: If all our most pressing problems are indeed perpetuated by unbridled corporate power, how can the barbaric economic system spawned by this power be overthrown and replaced by a truly fair and democratic system?

My reply was that two key prerequisites had to be met. First, there would have to be a widespread public awareness of the urgent need to curb corporate dominance – an awakening that would-be reformers could build upon. And, second, the movement to confront the powerful business elite would have to be soundly led and global in scale.

Since then, the first requirement has clearly been achieved. In addition to Monbiot, scores of well-known thinkers, writers, economists, and activists have vociferously denounced the many abuses of large business empires driven by their greed and unchecked power. The upsurge of Occupy Wall Street, Idle No More, and other public protest movements have all specifically targeted the big investment firms, banks, and other corporate giants.

Corporations and their CEOs are now commonly portrayed as villains in movies, TV shows, and books. The proliferation of insider-trading and other “white-collar” crimes make front-page news. Many thousands of people have had a personal bad experience with an insurance or investment firm. And most are now also aware that the worst pollution of the environment comes from the chemicals and effluents spewed out by the big industrial complexes.

The majority of the populace realizes that there is something seriously wrong with the prevailing political and economic systems. They may not trace their unemployment, low wages, or shoddy living conditions to the inequities of laissez-faire capitalism, but they know that sweeping changes of some kind need to be made. In the United States, this widespread malcontent has been tapped during the current primary contests by Bernie Sanders on the left and Donald Trump on the right. Both have been campaigning as champions of the downtrodden against the unpopular establishment of their respective Democratic and Republican parties. Both have been fierce critics of Wall Street, of free trade deals, and of companies that outsource jobs to Mexico, China, and other low-wage countries.

Unfortunately, this anti-establishment outburst is very unlikely to result in any serious decrease of corporate power in the U.S. Sanders has done a magnificent job of setting forth an agenda that, if implemented, would greatly help the poor and other victims of neoliberalism; but the Democratic Party’s delegate selection system will ensure that its nominee for the presidency will be Hillary Clinton, who is almost certain to beat Trump in the election in November. She’s not going to adopt Bernie’s progressive platform after she gets to the White House, if only because most of her campaign funding comes from the big corporations that control both parties in Congress.

Most of us had naively thought that the exposure of blatant corporate infamy would lead to a strong political crackdown in Canada and other countries around the world, if not in the U.S. We expected that governments would act promptly to clamp regulatory restraints on corporate wrongdoers, constrain free markets, re-impose much higher business taxes, and punish financial felons with prison terms and huge fines. Instead, governments have allowed corporations to continue their iniquitous misconduct, and even lavished them with further tax cuts and subsidies.

The decision not to penalize the Wall Street firms whose insatiable greed precipitated the 2008 financial meltdown, but instead bail them out with the tax money of their victims – that was a stark disclosure of the extent to which governments have yielded political decision-making to corporations.

So it’s clear now that simply exposing big business atrocities will have no deterrent effects, either by governments or the corporate scoundrels themselves. Even the opposition parties in our legislatures rarely, if ever, mention corporate malfeasance during election campaigns or Question Periods. And since the politicians we vote for are the only ones with the authority to stop the titans of capitalism from further impoverishing billions, worsening inequality, and eventually wrecking the planet, we find ourselves at an impasse.

I’ll discuss other aspects of corporate rule in Part 2 of this three-part series. Stay tuned.

Ed Finn was Senior Editor at the CCPA and editor of the CCPA Monitor from 1994-2014. Formerly, as a journalist, he worked at The Montreal Gazette and for 14 years wrote a column on labour relations for The Toronto Star. He also served for three decades as a communications officer for several labour organizations, including the Canadian Labour Congress and the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

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