What is neoliberalism?

As recently as a couple years ago, using the word "neoliberalism" here on Boing Boing would inevitably provoke an outraged comment from someone who wanted to know why we were "liberal-bashing." Though the term was a little more widely used in Europe than in the USA, it still pretty obscure there. That obscurity is the ideology's strength.

Neoliberalism is the ideology of Hayek, Friedman, Reagan, Thatcher, Pinochet, Mulroney and the other business-lionizing, union-bashing, greed-is-good politicians who effectively took over the world in the early 1980s, when Thatcher famously declared "There is no alternative."

Though the early adherents of neoliberalism used the term proudly to describe themselves, as neoliberalism gained ascendancy, the actual name of the ideology vanished. The world had no word for neoliberalism for the same reason fish wouldn't have a word for water. It was (as George Monbiot writes), as though the citizens of the USSR hadn't had a word for "communism."

Monbiot goes on to explain how this obscurity has allowed the ideology to become invisible and pervasive, synonymous with "human nature," and how this has put the planet at risk even as it has immiserated millions upon millions. How it became embodied in the Kochs, and gave rise to Trumpism and the other cryptofascist movements around the world, from Golden Dawn to Ukip, and how the Panama Papers are a kind of perfect encapsulation of the kind of capitalism we talk about when we talk about neoliberal capitalism.

The essay commemorates Monbiot's new book, How Did We Get Into This Mess?: Politics, Equality, Nature

I go along with Monbiot right up to the part where he starts talking about consumer demand being the source of environmental destruction, which shades dangerously into austerity ecology territory: the idea that the left needs to be the movement of material austerity, abandoning technology and the ways that it provides material abundance with fewer energy, material and labor inputs. Where once the left said that the pollution and exploitation of industry were artifacts of capitalism, to be done away with through worker ownership and the ending of profit-above-responsibility "shareholder value" ideas; now the green left says that industry and capitalism are to be done away with together, in favor of a "steady state" that controls our population and our technology at some arbitrary level (some say the 1970s, others the 16th century).

I was always skeptical of this, but Leigh Phillips's Austerity Ecology & the Collapse-Porn Addicts: A Defence Of Growth, Progress, Industry And Stuff congealed my suspicions into something much more coherent and radical. Materialism is good. Stuff is good. Intensive high-tech farming is how we save forests, by using genomics, high tech pesticides and other techniques to produce more food on fewer acres, leaving behind green spaces for the rest of the world (contrasted with low-tech-pesticide-intensive, land-intensive "organic" farming, which can't feed the world at the current population, nor projected populations, and is wishful thinking wrapped up in unscientific nonsense).

Any time someone starts talking about the planet's "carrying capacity" I want to see their numbers. Why do we assume that behaviorally modern hominids, 50,000 years into their run on Earth (a planet whose species have a median duration of 10 million years) will cease our amazing track-record of massively reducing labor, energy and material inputs to our necessities and luxuries? Why assume that pollution-demanding political ideologies like neoliberalism (whose managers have the fiduciary duty to pollute right up to the point where the profits outweigh the penalties) are to be permanently coupled with technology? If Walmart and Amazon, which run as command economies internally, can manage to efficiently produce, allocate and fulfill goods, why not assume that rather than needing to worry about robots taking away our "jobs," that they'll instead free us to have these global-scale technologies (Amazon and Walmart are more software than hardware, after all) without the exploitative labor relationships and the pollution?

Stalinism was a polluting, corrupt nightmare. Let's never do that again. But there are more options for a technological, materiallly abundant industrial civilization than Stalinism and Thatcherism.

The invisible doctrine of the invisible hand is promoted by invisible backers. Slowly, very slowly, we have begun to discover the names of a few of them. We find that the Institute of Economic Affairs, which has argued forcefully in the media against the further regulation of the tobacco industry, has been secretly funded by British American Tobacco since 1963. We discover that Charles and David Koch, two of the richest men in the world, founded the institute that set up the Tea Party movement. We find that Charles Koch, in establishing one of his thinktanks, noted that "in order to avoid undesirable criticism, how the organisation is controlled and directed should not be widely advertised".

The nouveau riche were once disparaged by those who had inherited their money. Today, the relationship has been reversed
The words used by neoliberalism often conceal more than they elucidate. "The market" sounds like a natural system that might bear upon us equally, like gravity or atmospheric pressure. But it is fraught with power relations. What "the market wants" tends to mean what corporations and their bosses want. "Investment", as Sayer notes, means two quite different things. One is the funding of productive and socially useful activities, the other is the purchase of existing assets to milk them for rent, interest, dividends and capital gains. Using the same word for different activities "camouflages the sources of wealth", leading us to confuse wealth extraction with wealth creation.

How Did We Get Into This Mess?: Politics, Equality, Nature [George Monbiot/Verso]

Neoliberalism – the ideology at the root of all our problems
[George Monbiot/The Guardian]