reading notes from Inventing the Future, Nick Srnicek and and Alex Williams.
Where did the future go? For much of the twentieth century, the future held sway over our dreams. On the horizons of the political left a vast assortment of emancipatory visions gathered, often springing from the conjunction of popular political power and the liberating potential of technology. From predictions of new worlds of leisure, to Soviet-era cosmic communism, to afro-futurist celebrations of the synthetic and diasporic nature of black culture, to post-gender dreams of radical feminism, the popular imagination of the left envisaged societies vastly superior to anything we dream of today
Many of the classic demands of the left – for less work, for an end to scarcity, for economic democracy, for the production of socially useful goods, and for the liberation of humanity – are materially more achievable than at any other point in history.
eoliberalism has held sway for decades, and social democracy exists largely as an object of nostalgia. As crises gather force and speed, politics withers and retreats. In this paralysis of the political imaginary, the future has been cancelled
Under the sway of folk-political thinking, the most recent cycle of struggles – from anti-globalisation to anti-war to Occupy Wall Street – has involved the fetishisation of local spaces, immediate actions, transient gestures, and particularisms of all kinds
Failure permeates this cycle of struggles, and as a result, many of the tactics on the contemporary left have taken on a ritualistic nature, laden with a heavy dose of fatalism. The dominant tactics – protesting, marching, occupying, and various other forms of direct action – have become part of a well-established narrative, with the people and the police each playing their assigned roles.
These unintended outcomes become even more pervasive as the targets of action grow larger and more abstract. If politics without passion leads to cold-hearted, bureaucratic technocracy, then passion bereft of analysis risks becoming a libidinally driven surrogate for effective action. Politics comes to be about feelings of personal empowerment, masking an absence of strategic gains.
a set of strategic assumptions that threatens to debilitate the left, rendering it unable to scale up, create lasting change or expand beyond particular interests.
What is folk politics
a collective and historically constructed political common sense that has become out of joint with the actual mechanisms of power
Yet the fact that certain ways of organising and acting were once useful does not guarantee their continued relevance.
Against the abstraction and inhumanity of capitalism, folk politics aims to bring politics down to the 'human scale' by emphasising temporal, spatial and conceptual immediacy. At its heart, folk politics is the guiding intuition that immediacy is always better and often more authentic, with the corollary being a deep suspicion of abstraction and mediation. In terms of temporal immediacy, contemporary folk politics typically remains reactive (responding to actions initiated by corporations and governments, rather than initiating actions);13 ignores long-term strategic goals in favour of tactics (mobilising around single-issue politics or emphasising process);14 prefers practices that are often inherently fleeting (such as occupations and temporary autonomous zones);15 chooses the familiarities of the past over the unknowns of the future (for instance, the repeated dreams of a return to 'good' Keynesian capitalism);16 and expresses itself as a predilection for the voluntarist and spontaneous over the institutional (as in the romanticisation of rioting and insurrection).17
the problem with folk politics is not that it starts from the local; all politics begins from the local. The problem is rather that folk-political thinking is content to remain at (and even privileges) that level – of the transient, the small-scale, the unmediated and the particular. It takes these to be sufficient rather than simply necessary moments
Folk politics is a necessary component of any successful political project, but it can only be a starting point
The idea that one organisation, tactic or strategy applies equally well to any sort of struggle is one of the most pervasive and damaging beliefs among today's left. Strategic reflection – on means and ends, enemies and allies – is necessary before approaching any political project. Given the nature of global capitalism, any postcapitalist project will require an ambitious, abstract, mediated, complex and global approach – one that folk-political approaches are incapable of providing.
folk politics is necessary but insufficient for a postcapitalist political project
Globalisation, international politics, and climate change: each of these systems shapes our world, but their effects are so extensive and complicated that it is difficult to place our own experience within them
despite everything that has been written about capitalism, we still struggle to understand its dynamics and its mechanisms. Most importantly, we lack a 'cognitive map' of our socioeconomic system: a mental picture of how individual and collective human action can be situated within the unimaginable vastness of the global economy
This separation between everyday experience and the system we live within results in increased alienation: we feel adrift in a world we do not understand. The cultural theorist Fredric Jameson notes that the proliferation of conspiracy theories is partly a response to this situation.26 Conspiracy theories act by narrowing the agency behind our world to a single figure of power (the Bilderberg Group, the Freemasons or some other convenient scapegoat). Despite the extraordinary complexity of some of these theories, they nevertheless provide a reassuringly simple answer to 'who is behind it all', and what our own role is in the situation
Such thinking rejects the complexity of the contemporary world, and thereby rejects the possibility of a truly postcapitalist world. It attempts to give a human face to power; whereas what is truly terrifying is the generally asubjective nature of the system
the abjuring of complexity dovetails with the neoliberal case for markets. One of the primary arguments made against planning has been that the economy is simply too complex to be guided.29 The only alternative is therefore to leave the distribution of resources to the market and reject any attempt to guide it rationally
as Rosa Luxemburg pointed out long ago, the fetishisation of 'immediate results' leads to an empty pragmatism that struggles to maintain the present balance of power, rather than seeking to change structural conditions
If complexity presently outstrips humanity's capacities to think and control, there are two options: one is to reduce complexity down to a human scale; the other is to expand humanity's capacities.
there was both an outdating of old left paradigms and an outmanoeuvring of the new ones.
Considerable experimentation was therefore conducted to produce new organisational forms that could work against this social repression. This included the use of consensus decision-making and horizontal debating structures that would later come to worldwide fame with the Occupy Wall Street movement
Here we can see the emergence of folk politics' basic strategic orientation and the modes of action that characterise it: from the occupation, sit-in, or squatted commune through to carnivalesque street protests and 'happenings'. Each of these tactics emerged in this period as a way to disrupt the functioning of everyday power, suspend the 'normal' forms of social regulation and promote egalitarian spaces for discussion. Beyond trying to change society, these interventions aimed at transforming the participants themselves and embodying the new forms of sociality to come.
For the right, the challenge was to restore capital accumulation and profitability. This challenge was eventually answered by the emergence of neoliberal thought on the global stage; but even before that, right-wing forces in the UK and the United States were experimenting with new ways to outmanoeuvre both the old and new left. One particularly important approach was a political-economic strategy to link the crisis of capitalism to union power. The subsequent defeat of organised labour throughout the core capitalist nations has perhaps been neoliberalism's most important achievement, significantly changing the balance of power between labour and capital
These movements emerged in two phases. The first, appearing from the mid 1990s through to the early 2000s, consisted of groups such as the Zapatistas, anti-capitalists, alter-globalisers, and participants in the World Social Forum and global anti-war protests. A second phase began immediately after the 2007–09 financial crisis and featured various groups united by their similar organisational forms and ideological positions, including the Occupy movement, Spain's 15M and various national-level student movements. Both phases of the newest social movements sought to counter neoliberalism and its national and corporate avatars, with the first phase targeting global trade and governance organizations, and the latter focusing more on financialisation, inequality and debt
This book is predicated on a simple belief – that a modern left can neither continue with the current system nor return to an idealised past, but must instead face up to the task of building a new future.
Rather than advocating an appeal to or takeover of the vertical power of the state, horizontalism argues for freely associating individuals to come together, create their own autonomous communities and govern their own lives. In broad terms, we can summarise these ideas in terms of four major commitments: 1.A rejection of all forms of domination 2.An adherence to direct democracy and/or consensus decision-making6 3.A commitment to prefigurative politics 4.An emphasis on direct action
With the government both unable and unwilling to help its population, people were forced to find new ways to provide for themselves. In the wake of these challenges, many of the Argentinean people took it upon themselves to self-organise and create new political and economic structures
Goldman Sachs doesn't care if you raise chickens. Jodi Dean
Responding to the twentieth-century failures of state-led political change, horizontalist movements instead advocate changing the world by changing social relations from below.3 They draw upon a long tradition of theory and practice in anarchism, council communism, libertarian communism and autonomism, in order to – in the words of one proponent – 'change the world without taking power'.
Horizontalism's focus on domination in all its forms is perhaps its signal contribution
is a significant advance that many of today's radical left have adopted these ideas and centred their practice upon the complete removal of all forms of oppression – a commitment that we believe any serious leftist politics must adopt. Yet the means by which horizontalist movements attempt to overcome domination and oppression often end up being bound by the limits of folk politics. In seeking the direct and unmediated cancellation of social relations of domination, these movements either tend to ignore the more subtle forms of domination that persist, or else fail to construct persistent political structures able to maintain the new social relations in the long term.
The commitment to avoiding all forms of domination is closely tied to a critique of representation – both conceptual and political. In practice, this has led to a rejection of the more hierarchical structures that characterise representative politics
At its best, prefigurative politics attempts to embody utopian impulses in bringing the future into concrete existence today.16 Yet at its worst, an insistence on prefiguration becomes a dogmatic assertion that the means must match the ends, accompanied by ignorance of the structural forces set against it.17
Direct democracy, consensus and inclusivity all form part of horizontalism's commitments to prefigurative politics, which aims to create in the here-and-now the world they would like to see
Rather than wait for a purported revolution, prefigurative politics attempts to instantiate a new world immediately – again relying on an implicit sense that immediacy is inherently superior to more mediated approaches
The reality of complex, globalised capitalism is that small interventions consisting of relatively non-scalable actions are highly unlikely to ever be able to reorganise our socioeconomic system.
The participatory economics (Parecon) project, for instance, envisions direct democracy at every level of society; but this vision for a postcapitalist world translates into endlessly ramifying staff meetings over every detail of life – hardly the inspiring stuff of utopian visions
The conclusion to be drawn from this is that the problem of democracy today is not that people want a say over every single aspect of their lives. The real issue of democratic deficit is that the most significant decisions of society are out of the hands of the average person
Under Occupy, many general assemblies devolved into similar situations in which even the most mundane of issues had to be painstakingly addressed by a collective
The more general point is that direct democracy requires a significant amount of participation and effort – in other words, it entails increasing amounts of work. During brief moments of revolutionary enthusiasm, this extra work can become inconsequential; yet after the return to normality it is simply added to the ordinary pressures of everyday life
The very mechanisms and ideals of direct democracy (face-to-face discussion) make it difficult for it to exist beyond small communities, and make it virtually impossible to respond to problems of national, regional and global democracy.
The spatial constraints of direct democracy also overlook the regressive aspects of small communities. These 'intimate' communities are often home to the most virulent forms of xenophobia, homophobia, racism, pernicious gossip, and all other varieties of backward thinking
When actions were taken by Occupy, they often came from a sub-group acting on their own, rather than from the general assembly making a consensus decision.45 Actions, in other words, did not come from horizontalism. Second, evidence shows that hierarchical organisations are crucial in defending movements against the state. In Occupy, the maintenance of the occupied space against police repression was the result, not of horizontalism, but of vertical institutions that mobilised their members to support the occupation.46 Similarly, in Egypt, football supporters and religious organisations were central to the defence of Tahrir Square against the violence of the state and reactionaries
The moment a prefigurative space becomes a threat is the moment when repression weighs down on it, and when its fetishisation of horizontalism becomes a serious liability. Prefigurative politics, at its worst, therefore ignores the forces aligned against the creation and expansion of a new world. The simple positing and practising of a new world is insufficient to overcome these forces, as the repression faced by Occupy demonstrated
Direct action can be effective in mitigating the worst excesses of capitalism, but it can never address the difficult problem of attacking a globally dispersed abstraction, often focusing instead on intuitive targets
Ultimately, the organisational form of these movements could not overcome the problems of scalability and construct a form of persistent power capable of effectively resisting the inevitable reaction from the state. What may work quite well on one scale – perhaps up to a hundred people – becomes increasingly difficult to operate effectively when extended beyond that
The image of Occupy that emerges here is of a movement that was wedded to certain assumptions about the benefits of local spaces, small communities, direct democracy and temporary autonomy at the margins of society. In turn, these beliefs rendered the movement incapable of expanding spatially, establishing sustainable transformations and universalising itself
they nevertheless remained an archipelago of prefigurative islands, surrounded by an implacably hostile capitalist environment
beyond market individualism and negative solidarity
limitations faced by neighbourhood assemblies as an organisational form. Modelled on horizontalist principles, the neighbourhood assemblies arose in response to the immediate needs and possibilities opened up by the crisis. Like the general assembly of Occupy, they enabled people to have a newfound voice. But even when joined together in inter-neighbourhood assemblies, they never approached the point of replacing the state, or of being able to present themselves as a viable alternative
The functions of the state – welfare, healthcare, redistribution, education, and so on – were not about to be replaced by the horizontalist movement, even at its height of participation
Other organisational experiments in Argentina involved the spread of worker-controlled factories. In the wake of the economic crisis, some shuttered businesses were taken over and maintained by their employees. These factories helped to keep workers in jobs, and there is some evidence that they provided better pay for their workers. Unfortunately, despite the attention given to them, the total number of people involved was relatively small: in the most optimistic estimates, there were around 250 factories incorporating just under 10,000 workers.64 With a labour force of over 18 million, this means far less than 0.1 per cent of the economy was participating in worker-controlled factories
66 The post-crisis horizontalist movements in Argentina were built as an emergency response to the collapse of the existing order, not as a competitor to a relatively well-functioning order. Indeed, the more widespread problem with contemporary horizontalism is that it often sees emergency situations – in the wake of a hurricane, earthquake or economic meltdown – as representative of a better world
As an ideology, localism extends far beyond the left, inflecting the politics of pro-capitalists, anti-capitalists, radicals and mainstream culture alike, as a new kind of political common sense. Shared between all of these is a belief that the abstraction and sheer scale of the modern world is at the root of our present political, ecological and economic problems, and that the solution therefore lies in adopting a 'small is beautiful' approach to the world
The problem with localism is that, in attempting to reduce large-scale systemic problems to the more manageable sphere of the local community, it effectively denies the systemically interconnected nature of today's world. Problems such as global exploitation, planetary climate change, rising surplus populations, and the repeated crises of capitalism are abstract in appearance, complex in structure, and non-localised
'slow food' and 'locavorism' (eating locally)
Compared to the slow-food movement, locavorism positions itself more explicitly, and politically, against globalisation. In doing so, it appeals to a constellation of folk-political ideas relating to the primacy of the local as a horizon of political action, and of the virtues of the local over the global, the immediate over the mediated, the simple over the complex.
As a 2005 report by the UK's Department of Agriculture and Food found, while the environmental impacts of transporting food were indeed considerable, a single indicator based on total food miles was inadequate as a measure of sustainability
When it is simply assumed that 'small is beautiful', we can all too easily ignore the fact that the energy costs associated with producing food locally may well exceed the total costs of transporting it from a more suitable climate
The bigger question here relates to the priorities we place on the types of food we produce, how that production is controlled, who consumes that food and at what cost.
It is likely that the ideal method of global food production will be some complex mixture of local initiatives, industrial farming practices, and global systems of distribution. It is equally likely that an analysis capable of calculating the best means to grow and distribute food lies outside the grasp of any individual consumer, requiring significant technical knowledge, collective effort and global coordination. None of this is well served by a culture that simply values the local.
Localism, in all its forms, represents an attempt to abjure the problems and politics of scale involved in large systems such as the global economy, politics and the environment
However, as of September 2013, total assets held by the six largest US banks had increased by 37 per cent since the financial crisis. Indeed, by every available measure the big US banks are larger today than at the beginning of the crisis, holding 67 per cent of all assets in the US banking system.83 And while legislative efforts across the world have made some attempts to impose restraints on the activities that led to the crisis (requiring increased capital asset ratios and regular 'stress tests' designed to avoid further bailouts), risky lending continues,84 and risky derivatives holdings remain at staggeringly high levels.85
70 per cent of the German banking sector consists of community or smaller-sized banks.86 German and Swiss community banks, their proponents argue, pool risks collectively and are mutually owned, with high degrees of autonomy to take advantage of local knowledge, and as a result generally remained profitable throughout the financial crisis.87
The lesson to draw from this is that there is nothing inherent in smaller institutions that will enable them to resist the worst excesses of contemporary finance – and that the idea of cleanly separating the local from the global is today impossible. Political capture, the need to seek profitable investments beyond those available in the local area, and simply the high returns of more risky investments, are all factors leading local banks to participate in the broader financial system
Across these groups, a series of judgments are widely accepted: small is beautiful, the local is ethical, simpler is better, permanence is oppressive, progress is over. These kinds of ideas are favoured over any counter-hegemonic project – a politics that might contend with capitalist power at the largest scales
Yet the very conditions which once made social democracy possible no longer exist. The capitalist 'golden age' was predicated on the production paradigm of the orderly factory environment, where (white, male) workers received security and a basic standard of living in return for a lifetime of stultifying boredom and social repression. Such a system depended on an international hierarchy of empires, colonies and an underdeveloped periphery; a national hierarchy of racism and sexism; and a rigid family hierarchy of female subjugation. Moreover, social democracy relied on a particular balance of forces between classes (and a willingness for compromise between them), and even this was only possible in the wake of the unprecedented destruction caused by the Great Depression and World War II, and in the face of external threats from communism and fascism
We do not resist a new world into being; we resist in the name of an old world. The contemporary emphasis on resistance therefore belies a defensive stance towards the encroachments of expansionary capitalism
The Spanish town of Marinaleda offers a useful example of this. Over the course of three decades, this small community (pop. 2,700) has built up a 'communist utopia' that has expropriated land, built its own housing and co-operatives, kept living costs low, and provided work for everyone. Yet the limits of such an approach for transforming capitalism are quickly revealed: housing materials are provided by the regional government, agricultural subsidies come from the European Union, jobs are sustained by the rejection of labour-saving devices, income still comes from selling goods on wider capitalist markets, and businesses remain subjected to capitalist competition and the global financial crisis
We cannot simply reject the local. But today's folk-political tendencies invoke a stronger sense of local politics: a retreat into the local in order to avoid the problems of a complex and abstract society; an assumption about the authenticity and naturalness of the local; and a neglect of scalable and sustainable practices that might go beyond the local. While all politics begins within the local, folk politics remains local.
Likewise, in a banal sense, all politics is local. We act upon things in our immediate vicinity in order to change larger political structures.
If our era is dominated by one hegemonic ideology, it is that of neoliberalism. It is widely assumed that the most effective away to produce and distribute goods and services is by allowing instrumentally rational individuals to exchange via the market. State regulations and national industries are, by contrast, seen as distortions and inefficiencies holding back the productive dynamics inherent to free markets
How did a small band of neoliberals manage to reshape the world so radically? Neoliberalism was never a given, never a necessary endpoint of capitalist accumulation. Rather, it was a political project from the beginning, and a massively successful one in the end
tensions and variations have led some to believe that the term 'neoliberalism' is meaningless and should be relegated to polemics. But the term has some validity, even if it is often used loosely. In popular perception, neoliberalism is usually identified with a glorification of free markets – a position that also entails a commitment to free trade, private property rights and the free movement of capital
Our view is that, contrary to its popular presentation, neoliberalism differs from classical liberalism in ascribing a significant role to the state.7 A major task of neoliberalism has therefore been to take control of the state and repurpose it.8 Whereas classical liberalism advocated respect for a naturalised sphere supposedly beyond state control (the natural laws of man and the market), neoliberals understand that markets are not 'natural'.9 Markets do not spontaneously emerge as the state backs away, but must instead be consciously constructed, sometimes from the ground up.10 For instance, there is no natural market for the commons (water, fresh air, land), or for healthcare, or for education.11 These and other markets must be built through an elaborate array of material, technical and legal constructs.
Under neoliberalism, the state therefore takes on a significant role in creating 'natural' markets. The state also has an important role in sustaining these markets – neoliberalism demands that the state defend property rights, enforce contracts, impose anti-trust laws, repress social dissent and maintain price stability at all costs. This latter demand, in particular, has greatly expanded in the wake of the 2008 crisis into the full-spectrum management of monetary issues through central banks
The unprecedented interventions by central banks into financial markets are symptomatic not of the neoliberal state's collapse, but of its central function: to create and sustain markets at all costs
The origins of neoliberalism are disparate, both geographically and intellectually
A chance meeting with a Swiss businessman in 1945 gave Hayek the financial means to put his ideas into action.17 Thus was born the Mont Pelerin Society (MPS): a closed intellectual network that provided the basic ideological infrastructure for neoliberalism to ferment.18 It is no exaggeration to say that almost all of the important figures in the postwar creation of neoliberalism were in attendance at its first meeting in 1947, including the Austrian economists, the UK liberals, the Chicago School, the German ordoliberals and a French contingent.19
It explicitly understood that this intellectual framework would then be actively filtered down through think tanks, universities and policy documents, in order to institutionalise and eventually monopolise the ideological terrain
Rather than a legal legitimacy, the state was seen to derive its legitimacy from a well-functioning economy.32 It was this idea that would provide the grounding for neoliberalism's first policy experiments.
Neoliberals had long emphasised the importance of using a variety of venues to influence elites and construct a new common sense. In the postwar era, this approach spanned academia, the media and the policy world. But one of the primary innovations for neoliberal consolidation of the ideological sphere was the use of think tanks
In line with this vision of ideological takeover, the IEA produced short pamphlets intended to be as accessible as possible to a mainstream audience.37 Moreover, these texts were written in a somewhat utopian fashion, without regard for whether a policy was capable of being implemented at that moment.38 The goal, as always, was the long-term redefinition of the possible. Over the course of decades, these various interventions developed a wide-ranging neoliberal worldview. More than just single-issue responses to the fashionable problems of the day, what the IEA and its associates had constructed was a systematic and coherent economic perspective
One of the founders of the UK's first neoliberal think tank – the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) – Fisher explicitly argued that the most difficult part of changing ideas lay not in their production, but in their diffusion. As a result of this belief, Fisher would be heavily involved in establishing conservative think tanks not only in the UK, but also in Canada (the Fraser Institute) and the United States (the MIPR). The IEA itself was focused on 'those whom Hayek had called the “second-hand dealers” in ideas, the journalists, academics, writers, broadcasters, and teachers who dictate the long-term intellectual thinking of the nation'
The think tank, as an organisational form, was so integral to neoliberalism's ideological success that the very process of creating think tanks was itself institutionalised. The Atlas Economic Research Foundation, founded in 1981 by Fisher, declared as its explicit aim 'to institutionalise this process of helping start up new think tanks'. Atlas today boasts of having helped create or connect over 400 neoliberal think tanks in more than eighty countries. The sheer scale of the neoliberal ideological infrastructure is made fully transparent here
By the 1970s, therefore, a full-spectrum infrastructure had developed to promulgate neoliberal ideas. Think tanks and utopian proclamations organised long-term thinking; public-facing speeches, pamphlets and media efforts framed the general outlines of the neoliberal common sense; and politicians and policy proposals made tactical interventions into the political terrain.46 Yet, despite their increasingly hegemonic potential, a mere decade prior to the arrival in office of Thatcher and Reagan, Keynesianism still reflected the most widely accepted approach to organising states and markets. The ideas of this group of neoliberal intellectuals were still often seen as senseless throwbacks to the failed policies of the pre–Great Depression era. But this would all change by the 1980s – a decade that would leave Keynesianism in disarray and enshrine neoliberalism as the preeminent model for economic modernisation.
In the 1970s, however, both problems arose simultaneously – rising inflation and rising unemployment, or 'stagflation'.
The production of inflation through wage rigidities and trade union power was not the only possible framing of the problem, and neoliberalism was not the only possible solution. Alternative interpretations were available, alternative answers possible; in the moment, no one knew what the way out would be.47 The neoliberal narrative of the crisis, for instance, plays down the role of banking deregulation by UK Chancellor Anthony Barber in the early 1970s and the breakdown of the Bretton Woods system. These deregulations sparked a surge in the monetary base and a subsequent surge in price inflation, and then wage inflation.48 In other words, an alternative narrative was possible in which the problem was not strong unions, but rather deregulated finance
They had both a diagnosis of the problem and a solution. Government officials who were uncertain about what to do in the face of crisis found a plausible story in neoliberalism.49 It was thus the long-term construction of intellectual hegemony by the neoliberal thought collective that left them well positioned to leverage their ideas into power
As Milton Friedman famously put it, 'Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.'51
Moreover, with the breakdown of the USSR, Eastern Europe saw a wave of neoliberalising trends that were spurred on by Western economic advisors. It is estimated that these privatising policies in former Soviet nations led to a million deaths, proving that privatisation could be just as deadly as collectivisation, and that the expansion of neoliberalism was a far from bloodless affair
This was a normative regime that had forced itself into the everyday psychic and bodily reality of the world's population. By the mid 1990s, with the collapse of the USSR, neoliberalism's extension via IMF structural adjustment policies, its consolidation in the UK's New Labour and Clinton's US administration, and its ubiquity in the academic field of economics, neoliberalism had reached its hegemonic peak
Thatcher's doctrine of 'there is no alternative'
neoliberalism propagated its ideology through a division of labour – academics shaping education, think tanks influencing policy, and popularisers manipulating the media. The inculcation of neoliberalism involved a full-spectrum project of constructing a hegemonic worldview. A new common sense was built that came to co-opt and eventually dominate the terminology of 'modernity' and 'freedom' – terminology that fifty years ago would have had very different connotations. Today, it is nearly impossible to speak these words without immediately invoking the precepts of neoliberal capitalism.
Liberal ideas of individual freedom played an important role in the ideological struggle with the USSR, priming the population of the Western world to mobilise behind any ideology that purported to value individual freedoms. With its emphasis on individual freedoms, neoliberalism was able to co-opt elements of movements organised around 'libertarianism, identity politics, [and] multiculturalism'.55 Likewise, by emphasising freedom from the state, neoliberalism was able to appeal to anarcho-capitalists and the movements of desire that exploded in May 1968.56 Lastly, with the idea of freedom being limited to a freedom of the market, the ideology could co-opt consumerist desires.
In struggling for and successfully seizing the ideological terrain of modernity and freedom, neoliberalism has managed to wind its way inexorably into our very self-conceptions. In arrogating the meaning of terms such as modernisation and freedom, neoliberalism has proved itself to be the single most successful hegemonic project of the last fifty years.
neoliberalism creates subjects. Paradigmatically, we are constructed as competitive subjects – a role that encompasses and surpasses industrial capitalism's productive subject. The imperatives of neoliberalism drive these subjects to constant self-improvement in every aspect of their lives. Perpetual education, the omnipresent requirement to be employable, and the constant need for self-reinvention are all of a piece with this neoliberal subjectivity
Crucially, the construction of everyday neoliberalism has also been a primary source of political passivity. Even if you do not buy into the ideology, its effects nevertheless force you into increasingly precarious situations and increasingly entrepreneurial inclinations
At the same time, we should recognise that this production of subjectivity was not simply an external imposition. Hegemony, in all its forms, operates not as an illusion, but as something that builds on the very real desires of the population. Neoliberal hegemony has played upon ideas, yearnings and drives already existing within society, mobilising and promising to fulfil those that could be aligned with its basic agenda. The worship of individual freedom, the value ascribed to hard work, freedom from the rigid work week, individual expression through work, the belief in meritocracy, the bitterness felt at corrupt politicians, unions and bureaucracies – these beliefs and desires pre-exist neoliberalism and find expression in it.61
It has often been argued that neoliberalism succeeded (and continues to succeed in spite of its failures) because it is supported by a series of overlapping and powerful interests – the transnational elite, the financiers, the major stockholders of the largest corporations. While these interests have certainly assisted the potency of the neoliberal ideology, such an explanation nevertheless leaves certain questions unanswered. If elite support was sufficient for ideological success, and if neoliberalism was clearly beneficial to elites, there would not have been a forty-year delay between the initial formulation of the ideas and their implementation
An important element of neoliberalism's eventual ideological success is that there was both a crisis and a readily available solution. The crisis (stagflation) was one that no government knew how to deal with at the time, while the solution was the preconceived neoliberal ideas that had been fermenting for decades in its ideological ecology.
In all of this there are important lessons to be learned, which have led some to call for a Mont Pelerin of the left
On the broadest level, this history of neoliberalism serves to demonstrate that the greatest recent success of the right – installing a neoliberal hegemony on a global scale – was accomplished through non–folk-political means. This means, in the first place, that the neoliberals thought in long-term visions. This was a different temporality from both election cycles and the boom-and-bust of individual protests. Instead, what the left can learn from is how the MPS patiently set out explicit objectives and analysed the terrain of their historical conjunction, all in order to propose specific and effective means to alter that terrain
thought abstractly in terms of possibilities
actions and preparations
They took a full-spectrum approach to changing hegemonic conditions and built up an entire ideological infrastructure that was capable of insinuating itself into every political issue and every fibre of political common sense. It overthrew the hegemonic ideas of its time
They established networks between think tanks, politicians, journalists, the media and teachers – building a consistency between these disparate groups that did not require a unity of purpose or organisational form
The call for a Mont Pelerin of the left should therefore not be taken as an argument to simply copy its mode of operation. The argument is rather that the left can learn from the long-term vision, the methods of global expansion, the pragmatic flexibility and the counter-hegemonic strategy that united an ecology of organisations with a diversity of interests. The demand for a Mont Pelerin of the left is ultimately a call to build anew the hegemony of the left
In the present climate, around the world, almost everything that can be proposed as an alternative will appear to be either utopian or trivial. Thus our programmatic thinking is paralysed. Roberto Mangabeira Unger
Withdrawal, resistance, localism and autonomous spaces represent a defensive game against an uncompromising and incessantly encroaching capitalism. Moreover, particularisms can easily coexist with capitalist universalism. The innumerable cultural and political variants of capitalism do little to stifle the expansion of commodification, the creation of proletariats, and the imperative of accumulation. The much-lamented capacity of capitalism to incorporate resistance more often than not simply reveals that particularisms are, in themselves, incapable of competing against a universalism
we argue that the contemporary left should reclaim modernity, build a populist and hegemonic force, and mobilise towards a post-work future
a key element of any future-oriented left must be to contest the idea of 'modernity
What it means to be modern is not pre-established, but is instead a highly 'contested field'
To invoke modernity is ultimately to raise the question of the future. What should the future look like? What courses should we set? What does it mean to be contemporary? And whose future is it? Since the emergence of the term, modernity has been concerned with unravelling a circular or retrospective notion of time and introducing a rupture between the present and the past
Modernity is tantamount to 'the discovery of the future' and has therefore found itself intimately linked with notions such as 'progress, advance, development, emancipation, liberation, growth, accumulation, Enlightenment, embetterment, [and the] avant-garde'.15 Suggesting that history can progress through deliberate human action, it is the nature of this progress that competing definitions of modernity have struggled over
With the postmodern moment, the seemingly intrinsic links between the future, modernity and emancipation were prized apart. Philosophers like Simon Critchley can now confidently assert that 'we have to resist the idea and ideology of the future, which is always the ultimate trump card of capitalist ideas of progress'.18 Such folk-political sentiments blindly accept the neoliberal common sense, preferring to shy away from grand visions and replace them with a posturing resistance