Though wildly tendentious, this piece by Monbiot is an excellent spray against neoliberalism, a subject with which your correspondent has a vexed relation. I used to describe myself as a neoliberal, but now I’m afraid due to a mixture of distaste at its excesses and the extent to which it has degraded the political imagination of the West I’m not a happy neoliberal camper.
Anyway the part that interests me is the last section of Monbiot’s piece which is introduced – a little further up in the piece – by this quote from Friedman. Speaking of the stagflation of the 1970s Friedman said this:
When the time came that you had to change … there was an alternative ready there to be picked up.
There is something admirable about the neoliberal project, at least in its early stages. It was a distinctive, innovative philosophy promoted by a coherent network of thinkers and activists with a clear plan of action. It was patient and persistent. The Road to Serfdom became the path to power.
Then he says this:
Neoliberalism’s triumph also reflects the failure of the left. When laissez-faire economics led to catastrophe in 1929, Keynes devised a comprehensive economic theory to replace it. When Keynesian demand management hit the buffers in the 70s, there was an alternative ready. But when neoliberalism fell apart in 2008 there was … nothing. This is why the zombie walks. The left and centre have produced no new general framework of economic thought for 80 years.
Every invocation of Lord Keynes is an admission of failure. To propose Keynesian solutions to the crises of the 21st century is to ignore three obvious problems. It is hard to mobilise people around old ideas; the flaws exposed in the 70s have not gone away; and, most importantly, they have nothing to say about our gravest predicament: the environmental crisis. Keynesianism works by stimulating consumer demand to promote economic growth. Consumer demand and economic growth are the motors of environmental destruction.
What the history of both Keynesianism and neoliberalism show is that it’s not enough to oppose a broken system. A coherent alternative has to be proposed. For Labour, the Democrats and the wider left, the central task should be to develop an economic Apollo programme, a conscious attempt to design a new system, tailored to the demands of the 21st century.
Well yes and no. Invoking Keynes and the broad Keynesian tradition (not so much New Keynesian as we’re finding out) might be close to the best we can do to understand the macro-behaviour of the complex adaptive system that is a mixed economy. We don’t have to come up with a new theory every generation. The stuff about the environment is a pretty cheap shot too. Neoliberalism (in its serious form) has plenty to say about climate change – price emissions! I’d back it against any ‘left wing’ solution to climate change.
But the fact that those on the left of centre haven’t developed the political economy of the mixed economy – when the digital artefacts that burgeon around us are all either actual or potential public goods, when there are new global public goods and bads – think ebola. That they’ve shown so little interest in connecting the people to politics – via mechanisms like citizen’s juries.
Then again one of the best explanations for why the left hasn’t done so is a neoliberal one. The left are all in positions of power. Perhaps not in positions of a lot of power, but then power is power – to be hung onto at all costs. In unions, in the media in public sector management, in academia, in political parties and their staff. Whose interest would it serve to involve the people and stop patronising and anathematising those outside the mile high walls of the inner city classes – the Ricky Muirs, Jaquie Lambies and Pauline Hansons of the world? Certainly not that of the left of centre careerists.