We appear to be at a crucial juncture in our modern political history.
Since the 2008 financial crisis, the last five years have clearly shown us that we’re not at ‘the end of history’ as some neoliberals triumphantly predicted after the collapse of the Soviet Union. At the moment, capitalism just isn’t working. Wealth isn’t trickling down and the majority of us ain’t getting richer. Our virtually unregulated banks were bailed out by the state after they lost most of our money gambling on the stock market and our virtually unregulated financial system is currently being propped up by the government (and the taxpayer) who are printing and pumping more money into it via quantitative easing.
Moreover, as ideologically-driven austerity measures mercilessly rip apart our public services – services which our grandparents built together after their great sacrifice during the Second World War – the majority of us are now living in huge debt with little to no money to spend on ourselves or our families. Young people especially, my generation, will struggle to buy their own homes or find jobs which can offer them a decent standard of living. Poverty is growing with an estimated 4.1 million children now living below the poverty line. And let’s not pretend that we haven’t noticed the growing number of homeless people and rough sleepers on our walks to work.
Since the Conservatives came to power in 2010 we have seen (and experienced) the worst decline in living standards since official records began. However, the tide could be turning. ITV’s recent Leaders’ Debate, with the inclusion of the left-leaning Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru, demonstrated that alternatives are emerging to the so-called ‘logic of free markets’, austerity and neoliberal capitalism – something which has been relatively unheard of in mainstream political circles since the demise of Keynesianism and the rise of Thatcherism/Reaganism in the late 70s. (That’s when most of the trouble began by the way).
Today, to argue that our current system works is either extremely foolish, ignorant or simply a lie designed to protect the gross amounts of wealth and power the rich have amassed over the past three decades. It is now estimated that 80 people in the world own as much financial wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion. In this country, a cleaner in the city would have to work non-stop for 300 years in order to make the same amount his boss earns in 1 year. It’s not fair and we know it’s not fair. … Oh, and it doesn’t have to be this way either.
The truth of the matter is this: free markets, privatisation and neoliberalism – pillars of the modern political Right – haven’t done what they promised they would do: make us all wealthier. As people like Piketty have recently empirically proven, we are in fact getting poorer whilst the top 1 per cent of people are almost doubling their wealth. Indeed, some people have even argued that this was never the intention from the start. Shock. Gasp.
The renowned Marxist academic, David Harvey (don’t be frightened; it just means he thinks a little differently to the people who own our newspapers) claims that neoliberalism was a ‘class project’ designed to restore economic and political power back to the ruling elite after a period of socialist-inspired ‘social democracy’ (when we built the NHS and stuff) during the years after the Second World War. What followed, after the rise of Thatcher and Reagan, was a neoliberal onslaught of deregulation and privatisation that has only meant a very few of us have become significantly more wealthy.
Furthermore, the economic thinkers championed by neoliberals as the great intellects of our time (Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, etc.,) were all directly funded by big business – including some Nazi sympathisers. Now, I wonder why big business would want to fund an economic ideology that promotes deregulation, privatisation, cheap labour and a considerably smaller public sector (you know, those institutions like the NHS which aren’t run for profit)? I never hear any of these people singing the praises of men like Jonas Salk who invented the polio vaccine and refused to patent it – thus forfeiting any financial profit – because he believed that we should all be entitled to it and not just the people who could afford it. No, the neoliberals don’t think like that. They don’t care about the greater good of humanity, which is probably why most of them are in denial about climate change. All these people really care about is profit over people – and the consequences of letting them run our country for the last three decades is this current mess. Low wages. Poverty. A lack of affordable housing. High tuition fees. Huge swathes of inequality. An unstable economy. And let’s not forget about the environmental crisis which will only get worse in the next decades to come.
In the words of Adam Smith, a man often hijacked by the Right, ‘no society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable’. It doesn’t take a Marxist to point out that our society is currently very, very unequal – and this is a direct result of the kind of right-wing, neoliberal policies adopted by Western governments in the late 70s.
So what’s the solution? Well, it’s time to end the neoliberal experiment which has failed so utterly. Austerity – what some might call an extension of neoliberalism – isn’t about balancing the books or reducing the deficit; it’s about keeping things the way they are. It’s about keeping the rich wealthy and unburdened by a crisis they played a large role in. It’s time all of us considered moving back to the Left in this country – like in Greece and Spain. Remember: we can build a better, fairer and frankly more efficient society together and this starts with an outright rejection of neoliberalism, challenging the hegemony of the rich and their vested interests and revisiting alternative ways to run society. There are alternatives now, in spite of what the neoliberals would want you to believe.
By Patrick Ireland