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The Political Anti-Politics of Neoliberfalism

"Robin Hood's negation is described in Ayn Rand's `Atlas Schrugged': `Robin Hood was the man who gave to the poor what he robbed from the rich. I am the man who gives to the rich what he robs from the poor - or more exactly the man who gives back to the productive rich what he robs from the thieving poor.. Economic globalization occurs at the expense of social, ecological and political rights." Translated fromGerman
The Political Anti-Politics of Neoliberalism

By Helge Meves

[This article from May 1, 2003 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web.]

Neoliberalism has become a slogan that seems demonic to some critics. On the other hand, apologists write the word proudly on their banners. The foreign policy of the United States doesn't make everything simpler. Is this neoliberalism (The post-modern war has ended [1]), imperialism or something new? What does all this have to do with Germany?

The United Front of Chicago

Critics and defenders of neoliberalism are taken in by the PR-strategy of neoliberalism that keeps the considerable internal differences out of public discussion. The moral-political thrust of the globalization-critical movements levels neoliberal mountains and valleys beyond recognition. Momentous economic and philosophical differences between the neoliberal think-tanks are leaped over or transfigured. Vivianne Forrester's Terror of the Economy [4] can be read as a text that launched these movements seven years ago:

"We live in the age of liberalism that can enforce its thought system without formulating it as a doctrine. This system was internalized and effective before it could be recognized. An essentially authoritarian or totalitarian system was created that is still hidden in democracy. This system is moderate, dominant and discreet and intent on avoiding a sensation. We are in the violence of stillness."

Idea and Reality

The enforcement of neoliberalism led and leads to different results as a result of the political, cultural and economic differences between countries. An accounting of the practical consequences of the ideological intentions of the actors is imperative.

In Great Britain the differences between the ideology of the neoliberals and the practical results of their policy were painful to the protagonists at that time. The British state machinery didn't expend less economic resources than at the end of the neoliberal turn than in the sixties. The tax burden of most families even rose in this time.

The neoliberal ideology is successively superimposed and replaced by the current policy of the US. This policy is different from the neoliberal efforts of the WTO and IMF and seeks to establish an American empire [5] with classical imperial authority.

On the History of Neoliberalism

The term neoliberalism has become naturalized in the last decades in Europe as a characteristic for a new ideology. Neo-conservatism [6] and the Washington consensus are synonymous in the United States. In the French language area, pensee unique and Laissez-faire capitalism are personified by the Chicago boys.

The prefix "neo" marks a delimitation to traditional liberalism. Unlike traditional liberalism, neoliberalism understands its ideas of negative freedoms from the economy and extends them from there to all of society. The free market is the start and end and is regarded as the possibility for attaining the greatest possible happiness for the greatest number.

The central demands [7] of this ideology are free trade with products and services, free capital circulation and free investment policy. "Free" in the sense of negative freedoms means here free from all conditions and limitations, whether political regulations of nation states, confederations of states or pre-capitalist clans. Political regulations involve social, ecological and political ideas on the formation of a society.

The classical debate [8] in economics around free trade or protective duties is the historical starting-point. Here this ideology stands in the tradition of classical liberalism. While Adam Smith unjustly claimed by defenders and critics of neoliberal ideology regarded the political formation of society as necessary, he defended protective duties and Great Britain's complete trade prohibitions on the superior Dutch merchant fleet. To Adam Smith, complete restoration of free trade in Great Britain was as "absurd" at that time as the founding of a "utopia" according to the ideas of Thomas More. Neoliberalism departs from its tradition in this regard.

Beyond the conceptual differences, what is new in neoliberalism is that the person must be entrusted with preserving the freedom of market-determined social evolutions. Through her radical and original positions and novels, Ayn Rand (Capitalism and Freedom [9]) described what is left of the liberal civil- and human rights [10]:

"This is the constellation in one of the most decisive questions: political rights versus economic rights. The question is either-or. One right destroys the other. In reality, there are no `economic' rights or `common' rights. The term `individual' rights is redundant. There are no other rights than individual rights. No one else can possess these rights. Those who defend Laissez-faire capitalism are the sole defenders of human rights."

The Triumph of Neoliberalism

Neoliberalism broke through as the dominant ideology at the beginning of the 70s with the Nobel Prize for economics for the Chicago school, Friedrich August von Hayek 1974 and Milton Friedman 1976 and the first great neoliberal human experiments in Pinochet's Chile from 1975 and Thatcher's Great Britain from 1979. The ideas and successes of neoliberalism can be summarized.

John Gray, Margaret Thatcher's former chief-theoretician, says in his analysis that an "ideology of Laissez-faire" is "at best an anachronism". Joseph Stiglitz, Senior Vice-president of the World bank up to 2000 analyzed the consequences of this economic policy:

"... many decisions are ideologically or motivated by political parties.. Neither economic nor political reality is central... The interests in industrial states, certain particular interests in these countries, count more than those of the Third World."

Neoliberalism is an ideology whose roots cover up the respective civil- and human rights in the liberal social utopia of negative freedoms by an economistic picture of society and humanity. Neoliberalism is a political anti-politics. The question "protective duty or free trade" is no longer raised as a political question. Since the end of the Second World War, neoliberalism is propagated as the model for the whole world with enormous expense and skill. Susan George [11] describes its deficits:

"You neoliberals understand that material infrastructures are necessary to enforce your convictions. You understand that these structures define intellectual super-structures as Gramsci described with the hegemonial project of capitalism. Gaining the minds of people is crucial. Then you win their hearts, their hands and their fate... For too long, the left has trusted in its intellectual superiority and in the conviction that no efforts at justifying its positions were necessary. The left naively didn't worry about the growing intellectual power of the rightwing that soon became hegemonial."

All this bears fruit... Robin Hood's negation is described in Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged":

"Robin Hood was the man who gave to the poor what he robbed from the rich. I am the man who gives to the rich what he robs from the poor - or, more exactly, the man who gives back to the productive rich what he robs from the thieving poor."

The imperial policy of the US raised its import duties for European steel and Canadian timber as a betrayal of the neoliberal consensus. This imperial policy lumps everything together with the so-called globalization critics.

Beyond the pure economic debates, this ideology has long reached everyday life and become pop culture. The economic conflict in George Lucas' "Star Wars" is the conflict around free trade between the galaxies. Free trade or the power of the empire is the question. The trade federation in "Episode 1", secretly controlled by Sith-Lord Darth Sidious, is a free trade opponent. This federation uses all parliamentary means so the "dark threat" becomes reality. The Naboo are its first victims. Their queen Amidala deals an alarming democracy bashing in the senate of the Galactic republic and defends the collapsing old republic populistically with free trade. Neoliberalism is the dogma.

The Zapatistas again

Since the middle of the nineties, the globalization-critical movements of the Zapatistas in Chiapas/Mexico took up the term against the successful worldview-cultural offensive and successively redefined it. Their criticism focuses on the negative freedoms and understands the promises of this freedom idea from the disappearance of past positive freedoms benefiting the negative. They sue for all freedoms that neoliberalism only promised.

According to the ideology of neoliberalism, economic globalization occurs at the expense of social, ecological and political rights. The new coalitions extend from globalization prophets and globalization critics to globalization opponents. They want to return to the social-democratic welfare state, to work with a new social contract or to globalization. In their diagnosis of the empire, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri [12] delivered the following demands to left-socialist movements:

"A new quality of social movements appears, not a new cycle of international struggles. In other words, all these struggles show basic new characteristics despite their radical diversity. Firstly although firmly anchored in local conditions, all these struggles burst on the global plane and attack the constitution of the empire. Secondly, all these battles destroy the traditional distinction between economic and political struggles since they are simultaneously economic, political and cultural. They are bio-political struggles; their form is engagement. They are empowering struggles creating new public spaces and new forms of community.

Made in Germany

This critique of neoliberalism assumes that neoliberalism is an ideology that gains acceptance in different ways and extents depending on the circumstances of states. Though established in the political discussion, the term is certainly vague according to scientific criteria. Its political claim by defenders and its redefinition by critics can make it a powerful keyword of social criticism. The use of the term involves a thematization, valuation and criticism.

The term also corresponds to essential moments of reality as the anthropology of the original Hartz concept reflects the anthropology of neoliberalism. The I-Co. is offered as the only possibility where a person can regain his freedom by trusting the market-determined social evolution and satisfying functions making him economically market-friendly. Development minister Heidemarie Wieczarek-Zeul declared before the last Bundestag election (when Attac was demeaned grotesquely and the PDS, the Party of Democratic Socialists, was still in the Bundestag):

"Neoliberalism as a school of faith has long run-down. The new Monterrey consensus is that certain state obligations must be fulfilled so the market can function. The old Washington consensus - let the market rule - is passť. Adjustment is necessary."

Nevertheless the last government declaration [14] of March 14, 2003 and the announced changes in the labor market - and health policies confirm this anthropology and the increasing influence of neoliberal concepts:

"We need skills and benefits. In this way, we increase the chances of those who want to work. That is the reason for combining employment assistance and income support at the level of income support.. More must be demanded from people...

We will only have success when two goals are reached: high quality of health care and cost-conscious conduct of physicians, health insurances, clinics, pharmacies, pharmaceutical firms and the insured. We demand something from society today and people are granted new chances, chances for developing their abilities and making great achievements."

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pretty good 30.Jul.2003 16:41


it puts a different spin on things
but I agree about the state obligations to the public and the individual
we need both not one or the other