The Neoliberal Crisis
By Michael Rustin
Hall and Massey each emphasise the radical ambition of the neoliberal project in its British incarnation. They see this as it is embodied in the programmes of the current Coalition, in those of its Thatcherite predecessor, and in New Labour’s abject surrender to the values and pressures of neoliberalism in during its thirteen years of office. I, by contrast, will draw attention to the fragility of this neoliberal project in Britain, and to the unlikelihood that it can succeed in achieving the stable hegemony it aims for. It is certainly the case that the Coalition project is exceptionally bold, and that in their broad ambitions if not in their grasp of details the Cameron Conservatives were well prepared to make the most of their arrival in government. But the Coalition’s aims also carry with them, almost as the necessary concomitant of their radicalism, a high risk of failure. One can see the Tory-led Coalition government, as no doubt do some of its members, as determined to render irreversible the imposition of the power of capital and markets over all the democratic and collective forces, which have over many decades resisted their domination. But one can also view its programme as an ideologically driven attempt to resolve the deep crisis faced by the United Kingdom in the context of the global market system, which in reality has little hope of success.
The Thatcherites certainly had a clear understanding that their priority was to achieve a decisive defeat of what they saw as a collectivist threat to both markets and social hierarchy. This was, for the right at least, an explicit form of class warfare.
The Coalition’s dominant idea (much more important to it than its ‘Big Society’) is that the core problem of the British economy has been excessive public spending. Its particular critique is of the alleged excesses of the past ten years, but the implication of its analysis is that the problem is much longer-lasting. Ostensibly and immediately, the problem is to reduce the public deficit, as a defensive operation to protect Britain from the (extremely unlikely) threat of sovereign debt default. But its longer-term purpose is more fundamental: the explicit aim of Coalition economic strategy is radically to alter the balance between private and state expenditures in the British economy.
Over the last thirty years, bourgeois and aristocratic modes of domination have further intertwined with one another, while the countervailing values of equality, democracy and citizenship have been weakened, as their base in working-class solidarity and collective sentiment has eroded. Not only this, but the ‘working class’ has become redefined as mere losers - to be morally improved and fitted to compete in the Great Market Society, culturally disrespected and humiliated (the ‘chav’ discourse), and socially cleansed from ‘respectable’ neighbourhoods.
The past thirty years in Britain have seen a regressive development, in which assumptions of privilege and social closure that once seemed to be on the way out have subtly reasserted themselves. The cult of the super-rich, the co-option even of public sector managers into their ranks, the dispersal of the urban poor through housing and benefit policy, the culture of supposed ‘excellence’ and exclusivity in the university system, the immunity of the banks from retribution for their irresponsibility - all are indicators of this reassertion of the principle of hierarchy.
However, the British model of capitalism - democratic or otherwise - remains a failing one. The Coalition now offers an improbable remedy - an even fuller embrace of the market ideology that has brought the country to its present crisis.
Nothing less than a renaissance of progressive political thinking, in its broadest dimensions, is now required.