Alternatives to Neoliberalism? A Challenge within

A couple of days ago I had the opportunity to attend an interesting seminar “ Ideology after Crash” organized by the POLIS at the University of Leeds. It started off with a critical introduction to the crisis by Wiegratz followed by several other speakers. These are my own thoughts on some of the matters discussed.

The crisis of neoliberalism does not date back to as recent as 2008 – to the year when Lehman Brothers announced its bankruptcy. Neoliberalism has been in crisis since its inception. Perhaps not felt by the global North but surely by the South over the decades of its existence. The failure of neoliberal policies to realise growth became clear in Latin American region in the 1980s, the Asian region in the 1990s and in the African regions to date. The 80s was considered the ‘lost decade’ for Latin American countries along with many parts of Africa. But in the new millennium it hit home, the global North. Advocates of Neoliberal thesis including the two Bretton Wood Institutions, the IMF and the World Bank were left baffled. For the first time nobody had a ‘mantra’ to remedy the problem…they still don’t. There was no economy to show as an example and say ‘this is how you should do it, because thanks to the years of endeavouring to establish one global capitalist empire everyone is caught up in this economic hodgepodge. So it appears this is ‘the crisis’. Then comes the question, is there an alternative?

At the seminar Hugo Radice made an attempt to answer the question ‘Why neoliberalism still rules despite the global crisis?’ His argument like many others’ was that so far the left has been unable to conceive an alternative other than to reproduce the state led economy rhetoric which again as we have observed before, eventually gets subdued to the will and the word of the market actors. Therefore there is lacuna in the debate for alternatives.

This is aggravated by the transformation of the individual. Radice argues that the individual mind-set within the current neoliberal system has been transformed by the ideology that state’s role in the economy is that of a facilitator’s where as the market opens the avenue for the potential to achieve success. But here one should also ask whether we consider neoliberalism as an independent phenomenon or as something that we created so that we could be ruled by it. If it’s the latter, then it’s not the system that adjusts the individual’s mind-set but it’s the mind-set of the individual that adjusts the system prolonging its existence. This can be exemplified by looking at the amount of resistance and the current on-going debate over the proposed Obama health care policy. The resistance observed is coming from none other than the individuals (collectively represented) not the state or the market.

Thus what is required right now is not a power shift between the state and the market but a revolution in individual and group subjectivities, which hold these two as the perennial truth about the world order. I’m not talking about one of these ‘revolutions’ that you see as a result of the spread of Internet social media, or a series of goal driven protest campaigns to achieve one or two changes within the existing system. I call these ‘domesticated’ revolutions within the existing system that prolong its existence through distraction. What we need is a change at the core. The core is none other than the individual.  The alternative thus is to challenge ourselves rather than the outside world because neoliberalism is built into us as individuals and exists in us not anywhere else.

In a recent paper Nunn (2013) discusses about the rise of the Neoliberal individual. According to his argument the neoliberal state propagates the idea that the individual citizen is a consumer. This idea of equating individual citizens as consumers tends to help conceal real class differences in the society through increased accessibility to commodities that also become class or status symbols. Haug (2005) argues that the imaginary power of these commodities detaches its consumer from reality. He argues appearance of the use value of a commodity makes the consumer believe that the ‘appearance is the being’ where as all along it’s a deception. But Polanyi (1957) argues that the individual’s interest in material goods is essentially associated with his or her ‘social standing, social claims and social assets’. Thus an individual’s interest in material goods seeks exactly the deception that Haug (2005) assumes that he or she embraces unwittingly. In a class-based society it’s more of a distraction rather than a deception where the individual is trying to distract oneself from the reality. In the process his or her revolutionary instinct is subdued to what’s on offer within the existing system.

Neoliberalism feeds on individualism and it influences day-to-day lifestyle. It infers that the individual exist for achieving his or her interests. But these interests are perceived, not actual. The perceived interests are created for us by the culture we live in and neoliberalism in that sense infiltrates that culture the individual lives in. The perseverance about ‘me’ as the ‘be all’ and the ‘end all’ of things has reduced politics of the world to a combination of perceived individual interests. But all of this does not happen absence of the individual’s knowledge of it. In fact it is the individual who creates space for it in the first place.

Haug. W.F (2005) New Elements of a Theory of Commodity Aesthetics [online] http://www.wolfgangfritzhaug.inkrit.de/documents/NewElementsCommodityAesthetics.pdf [Accessed : November 28th 2013]

Nunn. A (2013) The Contested and Contingent Outcomes of Thatcherism in the UK. Manchester: Transpennine Working Group

Polanyi.K (1957) The Great Transformation: the political and economic origins of our time. Boston: Beacon Press

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