Imagining a different, better, future is absolutely key to reaching it.
I was born in England in 1984 and have lived here my whole life. I have known nothing but life under the current neoliberal political economy.
Is that neoliberal political economy stopping me from imagining a better future? Is it stopping you?
WTF is neoliberal political economy?
Let’s start with explaining exactly what I’m talking about shall we!
No patronising intended, if you understand the terms then good for you! However, I fear some of us on the left use certain words without stopping to consider if they are understood by everyone. Here’s my attempt to break things down.
How do you feel about the following words?
- The state
- Human nature
Compare your thoughts to how a fan of neoliberalism would likely feel:
- The more deregulation the better. The economy should not be held back by government interference and red tape.
- Privatisation, privatisation, privatisation. The market is the best, most efficient way to meet our needs. Running services privately rather than publicly saves money.
- Individuals and families have a responsibility to look after themselves. A safety net should exist, but only for the most vulnerable.
- The state exists to protect property rights and promote competition, not to interfere in individual’s lives.
- Inequality is absolutely fine, people can be as rich as they like, so long as those at the bottom don’t suffer too much.
- People are rational, self-serving economic actors. They are mini calculators on legs. Like Adam Smith wrote in ‘The Wealth of Nations’, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest.”
Bear with me while I risk sounding geeky, but I’m all for encouraging the use of the term ‘neoliberal political economy’ instead of ‘neoliberalism’.
Political economy is the study of how a country is governed, taking into account economic and political factors.
Language matters. Using the term neoliberalism makes this mode of living sound too natural, too inevitable. Abandoning the ism and using a term that actively applies analysis reminds me that that the current way the government runs our country is just one way of many alternatives.
Not everyone agrees that there are other ways to run a country. Margaret Thatcher told us in the 1980’s there is no alternative (TINA) to market dominance, to free-trade, to capitalist globalisation. Her successors told us there is no alternative to bailing out the banks, to austerity.
But let’s just think about that for one moment. Have we tried all the possible ways of organising our country? If TINA then why is there such inequality between different countries that embrace neoliberal policies? Why hasn’t every country in the world fully embraced a neoliberal agenda? Could it be that perhaps, THERE IS ALWAYS AN ALTERNATIVE?
It’s all in our heads
It’s true that for the past 40 years neoliberal policies have infected our political system.
Those ideas had to come from somewhere. They came from the same place progressive, alternative ideas come from – our beautiful brains.
We must learn from the fathers of neoliberal theory.
Decades of work was put in by the Mont Pelerin Society to give life to their neoliberal worldview. It’s imperative we recognise their ideas were anything but mainstream. They put in the long hard graft. They created think tanks and wrote academic papers – they kept their ideas alive in a climate where they were wildly unpopular. Let’s learn from them the importance of being consistent and committed in first imagining, and then articulating our alternatives.
(Quick shout out to Owen Jones and Naomi Klein who have both reminded me of these facts in the past week).
It’s our turn
We need to support and work with:
- Trade Unions – full of members ready to share their lived experience, and;
- Think Tanks – full of academics ready to share their theories, analysis, and empirical evidence.
Every one of us can get involved in imagining our better future. You don’t need to invent bright ideas ready to go right now. They will come from discussion, debate, trial and error. They will come from your lived experience being taken seriously.
Step one – Say no to TINA! Think about how our country is run. Get utopian, if you could change anything – what would it be?
Step two – Join a trade union. Get involved with their work, realise you are part of a collective force.
Step four – Talk to your friends and family about your thoughts. Ripples matter.
The steps above might sound small. You may already be involved in some or all of them – thank you, keep at it! This groundwork is absolutely necessary.
Back to learning from one of those neoliberal fathers, Milton Friedman.
“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 politically inevitable.”
His words apply to our alternatives. Capitalism ensures a crisis is inevitable. We can all play a part to play in ensuring it is our progressive ideas that are lying around.
Here’s something to get you started: