Neoliberalism: last legs or new wind?

By Lynn Koh
Nov 2, 2010

I have a little bit of time before I start my GOTV efforts on election day, and it seemed like an appropriate time to think about where we find ourselves today.

Two years ago, I wrote that the 2008 elections represented an opportunity for progressives to end the worst aspects of US militarism and neoliberalism.  I saw the elections as reflecting a significant split within US political and economic elites over the economic and foreign policies pursued for the last 30 years and intensified under Bush.  Hopefully,  you've been following developments in US miltiarism in these pages (if not, check out the most recent Month in Review columns).

Whatever happened to the death of neoliberalism?   During the heady days of the stimulus package, right-wing objections to government spending seemed equally intellectually bankrupt and ridiculous.  Former cheerleaders for neoliberalism such as Martin Wolf of the Financial Times had pronounced the 'death of another god' -- unfettered free market capitalism.  Neo-Keynesianism -- inflected much more heavily toward private enterprise than public employment -- was on the march. 

Small victories were scored on this front.  The health care bill, for all the legitimate criticism that it amounts to a federal subsidy of a bloated industry, is a regulation bill nonetheless.  Ditto with the anemic financial regulation bill.  And, a lawyer with a long history of involvement with labor unions got a recess appointment to the National Labor Relations Board. 

Even such weak-kneed regulatory measures proved too much for the uber-rich, and with an intensifying pushback it seems as though the momentum has shifted.  Why?  At the level of the elites, it turns out that the economic crisis is largely over.  At the same time that the official unemployment rate remains high, capitalists have made money hand over fist by squeezing their reduced workforce even harder  ("Industries Find Surging Profits in Deeper Cuts").  At the non-union workplace I am currently organizing, workers have seen their shift cut to six hours but are still expected to do 8 hours of work. 

Still, most observers would say that such a situation is unstable without recourse to another debt bubble to inflate spending -- such a 'solution', though, seems unlikely.  Doug Henwood's thesis is that the current social formation of political and economic elites is incapable of governing in its own long-term interests.  In this context, then, rising profits and fat wallets would blunt any motion towards reform and regulation among our modern-day captains of industry.  Perhaps.  I think there are competing trends within the economic elites, largely based on industry, although I admit that I haven't done much research on this question.

At the grassroots level, the only economic vision that seems to have gotten traction is the rehashed version of utopian neoliberalism now espoused by the various Tea Parties:  no taxes, no debt, no spending, no government (yes to funny costumes, however).  The woman I door-knocked with on Saturday told me the way to stimulate the economy was to give everybody money to spend (she advised the amount of $1 million); I'll take that program over the Tea Parties', but I think it says volumes about the relative lack of success community organizers (including myself) and political leaders have had in educating the general public about what policies and efforts are necessary to deal with the economic problems we face.  For some reason, the slogan of aid to states, rebuilding infrastructure, and lending to small businesses hasn't done the trick.

Will it be possible to coalesce various efforts around key demands that people believe will create both jobs and social justice?  Will we then be able to organize and mobilize around that vision so as to build a counter-pole to the renewed push for austerity and neoliberalism?  Stay tuned...

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Lynn Koh is a long-time activist in the anti-war movement, and is a labor organizer in the Bay Area.

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