April 05, 2013

Neoliberalism: A political project, not an economic one?

David Graeber, author of "Debt: The First 5,000 Years," gives a strong yes to that rhetorical question in The Baffler.

Here's the centerpiece:
Neoliberalism has always been wracked by a central paradox. It declares that economic imperatives are to take priority over all others. Politics itself is just a matter of creating the conditions for growing the economy by allowing the magic of the marketplace to do its work. ...  But global economic performance over the last thirty years has been decidedly mediocre. ... By its own standards, then, the project was already a colossal failure even before the 2008 collapse. 

If, on the other hand, we stop taking world leaders at their word and instead think of neoliberalism as a political project, it suddenly looks spectacularly effective. The politicians, CEOs, trade bureaucrats, and so forth who regularly meet at summits like Davos or the G20 may have done a miserable job in creating a world capitalist economy that meets the needs of a majority of the world’s inhabitants (let alone produces hope, happiness, security, or meaning), but they have succeeded magnificently in convincing the world that capitalism—and not just capitalism, but exactly the financialized, semifeudal capitalism we happen to have right now—is the only viable economic system. If you think about it, this is a remarkable accomplishment.
Graeber goes on to explain that the 60s, then didn't fail, if they forced neoliberalism to be a political project first and foremost.

He then discusses how to address that, and to bring about the future of labor-social change.

To get to this point, as other labor-social liberals know, we have to re-envision work:
A renegotiated definition of productivity should make it easier to reimagine the very nature of what work is, since, among other things, it will mean that technological development will be redirected less toward creating ever more consumer products and ever more disciplined labor, and more toward eliminating those forms of labor entirely.
There's more where that came from, including critiquing the Protestant work ethic, etc.

And, speaking of debt, this quote is very insightful:
We seem to be facing two insoluble problems. On the one hand, we have witnessed an endless series of global debt crises, which have grown only more and more severe since the seventies, to the point where the overall burden of debt—sovereign, municipal, corporate, personal—is obviously unsustainable. On the other, we have an ecological crisis, a galloping process of climate change that is threatening to throw the entire planet into drought, floods, chaos, starvation, and war. The two might seem unrelated. But ultimately they are the same. What is debt, after all, but the promise of future productivity? Saying that global debt levels keep rising is simply another way of saying that, as a collectivity, human beings are promising each other to produce an even greater volume of goods and services in the future than they are creating now. But even current levels are clearly unsustainable. They are precisely what’s destroying the planet, at an ever-increasing pace.  
Totally agreed. Too bad neoliberals are instead worried about Social Security.

The whole piece is generally good. There's a couple of hiccups. I think Graeber is too naive about the Occupy movement, and wrong on it not making demands of some sort.

He's also naive about the rentier class that continued to impose neoliberalism from above. As shown here:
Even those running the system are reluctantly beginning to conclude that some kind of mass debt cancellation—some kind of jubilee—is inevitable. The real political struggle is going to be over the form that it takes.
Tosh. Most of the upper side of the EU still preaches "austerity." As I write, earlier today, Obama just "sold out" Social Security. A debt jubilee won't happen, to riff on Voltaire, until the last neoliberal politician is strangled with the entrails of the last neoliberal technocrat.

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