by Francis Lee for the Saker Blog
FROM CLASSICAL LIBERALISM TO NEO-LIBERALISM
The contemporary neo-liberal coalition consisting politically of a centre-left, centre, and centre-right – what we might call the neo-liberal blob – has always co-existed in an uneasy relationship with collectivist and communal political movements and philosophies; moreover both traditional (or classical) liberalism and neo-liberalism are acutely aware of the actual and potential power of nationalism, sovereignty and – horrible dictu – socialism. Liberalism therefore has been obliged to engage in an unending struggle against these possible threats to its hegemonic practices and ambitions, and also in its belief in its own unchallenged and God-given right and duty to rule. But firstly, it should be understood that nationalism and national sentiments can be either reactionary or revolutionary. Hitler and Mussolini were reactionaries in one sense of the term but the Vietnamese National Liberation Front (NLF) and the Algerian anti-colonial struggle against French occupation, Le Front Liberation Nationale (FLN) were national liberation, anti-colonial political movements, which could hardly be described as being reactionary.
But in the contemporary world, neo-liberalism or liberal elitism has supplanted classical liberalism and transmuted into a specific and virulent type of reactionary theory and crusade. This being said it behoves us to ask why liberalism, whether traditional or elitist, is weak when weighed against the challenge of nationalism? Well because,
‘’ … nationalism is more in sync with human nature than liberalism, which mistakenly treats individuals as utility maximisers who only worry about their own welfare rather than as intensely social beings. Nationalism, which is predicated on the correct belief that individuals invariably have a strong sense of loyalty toward their own group, is better at addressing several critically important human needs. This is why nationalism is a ubiquitous force in the modern world and liberalism is not.’’ (1)
Outside of the elites and the professional classes, however, liberalism has never had a mass following or popular base. This applies to the United States in particular where only 61% of registered voters actually voted in the most recent Presidential election. Moreover, the US political parties made sure that smaller party representation was excluded by their rigged system of voting. This was the same in the UK. A first past the post two party cartel with each party being elected by a minority of the population, and the additional role of corporate funding which results in the same situation in the US. The mass of the population, however, tend to be disinclined to peruse the self-centred trash novels of someone like, Ayn Rand, or stand transfixed in awe of Steve Bezos qua rugged individualist. Nonetheless the PTB have been able to construct and control the political, economic and ideological ruling paradigm to great effect. Instrumental in this project has been the coalition of the mass-media, the political and economic structures in addition to the system of education. However, when the ruling elite cannot win by argument – which invariably they cannot – they resort to lies, calumny, mind-control bribery and straight mafia gangsterism, including high-level assassinations.
Liberals (of the woke variety) the sort that read the Guardian, Economist, New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post tend to be cosmopolitan, rootless, and obsessed with individual rights which they hold to be universal. Class struggle, however, is something alien to them as are all and any ideas of collectivism and national sovereignty. But it should be borne in mind that when push comes to shove, liberals will be positioned on the other side – viz., the oligarchy – in the class struggle. In sociological terms liberals are a floating group with weak social moorings unable and/or unwilling to commit themselves to anything which smacks of social collectivism (socialism) and social obligations. This could easily be extended to include significant elements of the ruling class proper. Unfortunately for liberals human nature seems more compatible with nationalism than liberalism – liberalism being a doctrine which treats human being as homo economicus, utility maximisers who are self-centred and preoccupied with their own welfare often to the exclusion of others and the wider community around them. This reaches a toxic form in the works of somebody like the aforementioned Ayn Rand. The Russian-American Ms Rand is an over-rated self-publicist much in the style of Salvador Dali, but minus the talent. See below (2)
Nationalism and sovereignty, however, is predicated on the view that individuals are members not only of nations, but various other groups and share rights and duties and indeed would be prepared to forfeit their lives to their national sovereign state in time of war. Liberalism is as weak as straw against this force. A fact that George Orwell correctly noted.
‘’One cannot see the modern world as it is unless one recognises the overwhelming strength of patriotism and national loyalty. In certain circumstances it can break down, at certain levels of civilization it does not exist, but as a positive force there is nothing to set beside it. Christianity and socialism are as weak as straw in comparison with it. Hitler and Mussolini rose to power in their own countries very largely because they could grasp this fact and their opponents could not.’’ (3)
John Mearsheimer also writes in this connection:
‘’It is because liberalism fails to provide individuals with a sense of community that it cannot provide the glue to hold a society together. It does not make them feel a large and vibrant group that is special and worthy of esteem. This is important to people psychologically as well as for keeping a society intact. This problem derives partly from liberalism’s particularist strand – one that rivets on atomistic individuals who have rights but few duties and obligations – and partly from its universalist strand: its emphasis on inalienable rights, which apply to all people, not just the members of a particular group. In fact, liberalism does not simply fail to provide the bonds that keep society intact; it also has the potential to eat away at those bonds which ultimately damage that society’s foundation.’’ (4)
BELIEFS AND REALITIES
In Plato’s Republic the Hitler and Mussolini regimes would have been compared to the Spartan model, termed Timarchy: a warlike and warrior creed ‘who preferred war to peace. It will admire the tricks and stratagems which are needed in war, which will be its constant preoccupation.’ this differed from oligarchy which is what traditional liberalism has morphed into in our own time. The description of an oligarchy in Plato’s estimation seems quite simple: ‘A society where it is wealth that counts … and where political power is in the hands of the rich and the poor have no share in it.’ (5) Times don’t seem to have changed much!
Such is the nature of elitism. Liberal or more precisely, neo-liberal elitism, is a distant cousin of its fascist version, but there is the familiar and shared social and political division: society is characterised as consisting of a ruling elite caste and a mass of irrational and unstable populace who need control and guidance. But taking liberalism at face value we can examine its claims, theory and practise to see precisely how it lives up to its own portrayal.
Liberalism is the tendency of an individual to privilege liberal political policies such as a free press, freedom to vote, free trade, equal liberties and so on. Liberalism considers the individual to be the first unit and main constituent of a group. It also considers the group to be the sum of its members (individuals). Consequently, society arises as a result of a voluntary or involuntary agreement between individuals. The main factor that drives the individual to engage in a community is their desire to be preserved and protected throughout a system – that system being the society. Moreover, the society is systemised spontaneously and without deliberated planning. This systemised community or society, which is a sum of individuals, permits a person to benefit according to his own needs. This in turn subsequently benefits the whole society. Furthermore, a balanced society is similar in its function to the function of the market economy. The thought of classical liberal figures such as John Locke, Adam Smith, Immanuel Kant, Giuseppe Mazzini, and John Stuart Mill share these basic liberal principles.
Such are the theoretical claims of Liberalism. The practice, however, is somewhat different. A free press? Hardly, free-trade? Try mercantilism and state capitalism. Freedom to vote. Yes, but this must be qualified. Votes must be cast for the ‘correct’ party. See the Brexit experience! Equality of opportunity!? Yeah right!
I think I will stop at this point since all of these claims, lack substance, are purely theoretical and/or fatuous. It seems patently obvious that classical liberalism or neo-liberalism does not in any sense live up to its overblown claims. Its salient features and political trajectory has been determined by a ruthless imperial realpolitik abroad and a reassertion of naked exploitative power over its ‘citizens’ at home. The definition of oligarchy seems more appropriate at the present stage of historical development. I remember once we spoke of ‘Actually existing socialism’ as opposed to purely theoretical socialism. This term was initially coined by the East German dissident Rudolf Bahro in his book (7) containing his critique of the political system in the German Democratic Republic – Stasi and all.
I think it would now be realistic to think of the western empire as being ‘Actually existing liberalism’ instead of the genuine article – viz., the liberalism of John Stuart Mill, particularly in essays such as ‘On Liberty’ one of the great political tracts, which should be compulsory reading for everyone. ‘Actually existing liberalism’ is overtly authoritarian and de facto oligarchic given to displaying gangsterist features. We may take the United States as the prototype of this development. Recent studies have confirmed what most American people already know and what is common knowledge even outside of the USA, namely,
“The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”(6)
Having been to the US and seen cities like Baltimore, Detroit, Hoboken NJ, Richmond and Savannah this much was self-evident and doesn’t require any further explanation. The neo-liberal virus is complemented by globalization (i.e., neo-liberalism writ large), or the Washington Consensus, call it what you will.
GEOPOLITICS AND NEO-LIBERALISM
Suffice it to say that neo-liberalism qua globalization is the key component in present-day global geo-politics, economics and culture. A transnational elite (TNE) led by the United States began to emerge in the immediate post-war period together with the Bretton Woods system. That system began to break up circa 1975 due to the sustained and ongoing decline of post-war capitalism and the Bretton Woods system. During this interregnum – the Reagan-Thatcher interlude – an altogether new form of rule, in terms of politics, geopolitics and geo-economics, began to be established which we now call neo-liberalism. This period lasted until the collapse of the Soviet system in 1991 and the fall of the Berlin wall in the same year. These events led to a complete destabilization of the Soviet/American geopolitical deadlock. The US unipolar moment had arrived complete with the neo-liberal baggage with which we are now familiar.
All of which was heady stuff for key elements in US ruling circles i.e., the neo-conservatives. American dominance was to be established and confirmed in the Wolfowitz Doctrine 1993 and the end-of-history thesis enunciated by the likes of the over-rated Francis Fukuyama. The US’s hegemonic ambitions were unleashed on a global scale: first target, Russia, which was on its knees, and would be kept on its knees with the US puppet – Yeltsin – at the helm. Second target, the global south and its aspirations and struggle for freedom. This was to be stopped, by all-means possible, including assassinations (Allende, Lamumba, Arbenz, Qaddafi, Hussein) and removals (Sukarno, Nyrere, Manley, Milosevic) to name a few. (8) Third target: the systems of social welfare which had been set up during WW2 and carried on into the civilian economies throughout Europe and to a limited degree in the United States itself (The New Deal) and East Asia.
The late Peter Gowan wrote back in 1999:
‘’The 1990s have been the decade of globalization. We see its effects everywhere: in economic, social and political life around the world. Yet the more all-pervasive are these effects, the more elusive is the animal itself. An enormous outpouring of academic literature has failed to provide an agreed view of its physiognomy of its location and some reputable academics of the Right and Left even question its very existence. Anglo-American journalists and politicians insist, that a mighty beast which savages all those who fail to respect its needs. They assure us that its gaze (‘blank and pitiless as the sun’) has turned on the Soviet bloc, the European social model, the East Asian developmental model, bringing them all to their knees. For these pundits, globalization is the bearer of a new planetary civilization, a single market-place, a risk society, a world beyond the security of states, an unstoppable, quasi-natural force of global transformation.’’ (9)
In addition to these institutions whose purpose was to promote the interests of the Transnational Elites there was the propaganda apparatus pouring out its daily, weekly, monthly unipolar and neo-liberal message. (10) This message could have come straight out of any number of economics textbooks which form the basis of the economics curricula at universities throughout the world.
The theory, briefly summarised, runs as follows: Barriers are bad. National barriers, Institutional barriers, economic barriers or indeed anything which obstructs the free flow of capital are bad, or in the neo-liberal vernacular, produce market distortions. Therefore it follows that trade unions are bad since they produce such economic distortions, the economy will be free to work without obstruction and will produce optimal output if such market distortions are not allowed. Similarly borders which establish sovereignty and the ability to control and guide the economy are bad. Borders represent another market distortion since they deny the free movement of labour, commodities, and capital. In Europe the Maastricht Treaty established in February 1991 was a prime example of these policies. This treaty was designed to abolish such institutional barriers as Keynesian practice of state intervention to secure full employment and a large welfare state that ring-fenced minimal social welfare criteria for the population as a whole. In addition, the liberalisation of capital account – i.e., movements of capital flows in and out of the country – was absolutely necessary since as things stood preventing these flows constituted a ‘barrier’ to both labour and capital market flexibility and therefore reduced competitiveness. This process was carried forward by the subsequent formation of the Economic and Monetary Union and Eurozone (1999-2002).This ‘single market’ signified neither the integration of peoples, nor the integration of States, but just the integration of ‘free’ markets. Additionally, these liberalised markets meant not just the unimpeded movement of commodities, capital and labour, but also ‘flexibility’ i.e., the elimination of barriers to the free formation of prices and wages, as well as curtailing of the states’ control of economic activity. It was the German theorist, Wolfgang Streeck, who opined that ‘once markets operated within states, but now states operate within markets.
Thus in the interests of ‘competitiveness’ the European social-model has degenerated into a kind of Americanized Europe where income and wealth inequality is increasingly skewed toward the American system.
In terms of geopolitics the same structural assimilation is taking Europe into a subaltern position vis-à-vis, the US global hegemon. The EU, through membership of NATO has been and continues to be used as a military occupation zone and potential battlefield in a possible conflict with Russia. And leading the pack of EU-Quislings and Vassals have been the UK (of course) the Baltics (combined population lower than London and shrinking all the time) Romania with its hospitality demonstrated by providing a base for US nuclear missiles. Likewise, Poland, probably the most craven, crackpot, and destructive political force in Europe. More catholic than the Pope, that is in a political not actual sense.
THE WHEEL OF HISTORY TURNS
It would appear that the American strategic project of a global empire – always a long shot – is entering very choppy waters. The end of the unipolar moment has become a fait accompli. The global south is becoming restive, China’s rising power and the re-emergence of Russia is tipping the balance in favour of an anti-hegemonic bloc. The sanctions war against America’s defined enemies has now spread to a sanctions war against its putative allies, Turkey over the purchase of S-400s, and Germany over Nordstream-2. These are more than simply straws in the wind. Regime change policy, colour revolutions and wars of choice are becoming more difficult to execute, let alone win. The imperial elan of the 1990s is now turning into a de facto hysteria in the 2020s. History is such a bitch!
But the fundamental problem with the Anglo-American ideological system – neoliberalism – is that most people around the world are not enamoured of its reputed ‘benefits’ – benefits which are said to include borderless states (a contradiction in terms) free movement of capital, labour and commodities, a global monoculture based upon consumption and the ‘American way of life’ and a destruction of indigenous cultures, identity politics and Randist post-modernism. All of which only appeal to small sectors of the global population. The masses simply don’t want it. Globalized capitalism is hitting a brick wall.
ALIENATION AND ANOMIE: MARX AND DURKHEIM
ALIENATION: In the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 Marx (1818-83) outlined his theory of Alienation and outcome intrinsic to the workings of capitalism. Briefly stated this involved whereby a subject (worker) suffers from a dependence on an apparently external agency (capital) that was originally his own product. Making an analogy with religion and capitalism Marx stated: ‘Man created God in his own image, and then treated himself as being dependent on his own creation.’
Similarly, Labour’s product – capital – confronts its maker as something alien (and hostile) as a power independent of the producers. What Marx seems to have in mind is the inverted relationship between labour and capital.
‘’‘All these consequences are contained in the definition that the worker is related to the product of his labour as to an alien object. For on this premise it is clear that the more the worker spends himself, the more powerful the alien objective world becomes which he creates against himself, the poorer he himself – his inner world – becomes, the less belongs to him as his own.’’ (11)
Capital is only objectified labour and the workers in effect continue to reproduce the conditions of their own subservience. Furthermore, following the treatment of alienation of the worker in his product Marx develops the theme of the alienation of labour itself:
‘’If then the product of labour is alienation production itself must be active alienation, the alienation of activity, the activity of alienation, labour is external to the worker, that is to say it does not belong to his essential being … in his work therefore, he does not affirm himself, he denies himself, does not feel content but feels unhappy, does not develop freely, his mental and physical energy, but mortifies his body and ruins his mind.’’ (12) His labour is not free labour but forced labour. Sounds familiar. I am reminded of critical theory of ‘Bullshit Jobs’ by the anarchist, the late David Graeber who enquires: ‘Is your job one that makes the world a better place? If not, it is probably bullshit, part of a system that is keeping us under control.’ Graeber’s research found that more ‘ than not had either bullshit jobs or part-time bullshit jobs, delivering pizzas, or no jobs at all. Such are the labour conditions under late capitalism. We are not quite the downtrodden proles of Friedrich Engels ‘’Condition of the Working Class in England’’ first published in 1844, but we seem to be getting there.
Little wonder therefore that neo-liberal capitalism doesn’t seem to have any appeal to the masses who increasingly turn to short-term palliatives – drugs, alcohol, pornography, junk-food, junk-culture – to ease their conditions of life.
ANOMIE: Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) hailed from the same part of the world as Marx, the Moselle Valley which borders Germany, Luxemburg and France. He is also, like Marx, a product of the Jewish intellectual rabbinical tradition. Durkheim’s works include, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, The Division of Labour in Society, Suicide: A Study, The Rules of Sociological Method.
The bulk of Durkheim’s work consisted of a total repudiation of liberalism. Turning liberalism on its head he argues that man did not create society, on the contrary society created man. Man was not the celebrated Robinson Crusoe figure of the liberal imagination but a creation of social forces (culture) which moulded him into their same image. Society (social facts) had a reality over and above the individual. He wrote,
‘’When I perform my duties as a brother, a husband, or a citizen and carry out the commitments I have entered into, I fulfil obligations which are defined in law and custom and which are external to myself and my actions. Even when they conform to my own sentiments and when I feel their reality in me, that reality does not cease to be objective, for it is not I who have proscribed these duties; I have received them through education. Moreover, how often does it happen that we are ignorant of the details of the obligations that we must assume, and that, to know them, we must consult the legal code and its authorised interpreters. Similarly the believer has discovered from birth, ready fashioned, the beliefs and practices of his religious life; if they existed before he did, then it follows that they exist outside him.’’ (13)
In the same vein The Division Of Labour in Society was a polemic directed against the liberalism of Adam Smith. The primacy and presupposition of society prior to and over the individual was not merely an ethical question but an existential one. Thus:
‘’The totality of beliefs and sentiments common to the average members of a society forms a determinate system with a life of its own. It can be termed the common or collective consciousness … By definition it is diffused over society as a whole but nonetheless contains specific characteristics that make it a distinctive reality … Individuals pass on but it abides … it does not change with every generation but, on the contrary, links successive generations to one another. Thus it is something totally different from the consciousness of individuals, although it is only realised in individuals.’’ (14)
The socially atomised, liberal society will unleash centrifugal forces which will weaken that society’s cohesion to the point of breakdown. Morbid self-destructive social phenomena will make their appearance. In his most famous work – Suicide – Durkheim referred to this tendency as anomie (normlessness) where anything goes and social order becomes increasingly undermined. In searching for a causal explanation Durkheim makes reference to the levels of social integration. The weaker the levels of social integration the higher the levels of self-destructive acts such as suicide. Interestingly enough he points out that catholic countries have lower suicide rates than more developed protestant countries. This in spite of the fact that protestant countries of northern Europe are generally richer than those in southern Europe.
My own view is that there is always going to be a tension between the individual and society; which is to say that the individual creates society just as society creates the individual. Which came first? Well that’s the chicken and egg dilemma. Given, however, the overwhelming preponderance of the liberal position Durkheim’s views contain more than a grain of truth and deserve a wider audience.
That’s it for now. We live in interesting times.
La Lotta Continua.
(1) John Mearsheimer – The Great Delusion – p.107)
(2) Rand’s novels promised to liberate the reader from everything that they had been taught was right and good. She invited her readers to rejoice in cruelty. Her heroes were – like her – superior beings certain of their superiority. They claimed their right to triumph by destroying those who were not as smart, creative, productive, ambitious, physically perfect, selfish, and ruthless as they were. The mood of her books is one of “optimistic cruelty.” They are selfish, vain and self-centred, and they have a happy ending—that is, the superior beings are happy in the end. The novels reverse morality. In them, there is no duty to God or one’s fellow-man, only to self. Sex is plentiful, free of consequence, and rough. Money and other good things come to those who take them. Rand’s plots legitimize the worst effects of capitalism, creating what has been called “a moral economy of inequality to infuse her softly pornographic romance fiction with the political Eros that would captivate a mass readership.
(3) George Orwell – The Lion and the Unicorn – Collected Essays. Vol.2 1940-43
(4) John Mearsheimer – The Great Delusion – op.cit, p.107.
(5) Plato – Imperfect Societies – The Republic.
(6) A study carried out by Political Scientists Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin Page of North-western, modestly titled, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.”
(7) Rudolf Bahro – The Alternative in Eastern Europe – 1977.
(8) See William Blum – Rogue State: A guide to the world’s only super-power. Passim.
(9) Peter Gowan – The Global Gamble – Washington’s Faustian Bid for World Dominance. P.3
(10) These included the IMF, World Bank, GATT (superseded by WTO) BIS, OECD, together with the emergence of trade blocs such as the EU, NAFTA, Mercosur as were smaller groups around the world. Moreover, the private sector propaganda apparatus was extremely significant in its effects on public opinion and attitudes during this period. Too many to list but here are some from the Anglo-American world, the BBC. The Guardian, The Financial Times, The Economist, the Times, the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, US Cable TV Stations, and so forth.
(11) K.Marx – Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts 1844. P.70
(12)K.Marx – Op.cit.
(13 E.Dukheim – The Rules of Sociological Method. P.50
(14) E.Durkheim – The Division of Labour in Society, p.39