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Critique Of Susan George's History Of Neoliberalism

Reading Susan George’s “A Short History Of Neoliberalism” is interesting. The document seems to be riddled with fallacious reasoning, bald errors of omission and ultimately outright lies. It certainly is as much of a hack-job as some pieces of Neoliberal propaganda (her description of decolonization as countries “finding freedom” is one of those classic broad leftist euphemisms which boil down to a total lie – Vietnamese villager might indeed have found a higher standard of living under North Vietnam or even less brutality but they clearly didn’t find “freedom” - bullshit).

The progressive agenda didn’t just pop out of the sky after WWII (Western Keynesian progression were the victors in the contest but far from the undisputed rulers of Western capital). Rather, it appeared after Western capitalists had had been bloodied in a number of ways. The great depression showed market inefficiency in a very brutal fashion and the Soviet Union constituted what appeared to be a serious threat to the entire capitalist edifice, a threat that seemed to require the construction of a “capitalism with a human face”.

So it made sense for much Western capital to adopt something of a progressive agenda. While, like any broad, historical movement, the post-WWII progressive or “social democratic” agenda had many contradictory aspects, it also animated much of the approach of capital. George outlines several

Now over the 30 years after 1945, the progressive consensus broke down to both the left and the right and the speculative financial sector grew to a larger and more powerful part of the economy (after having been reigned-in somewhat during the depression).

Thus from 1973 to 1980, capital sought new approaches to solving its problems. The Neoliberal agenda, which became essentially consensus during and after Reagan, was fairly natural for those times. Western Capital was in a much better relative condition than 1940 and far better 1930. The progressive agenda had not demonstrated an ability to end class struggle. Moreover, the struggles that were happening seemed somewhat dependant on progressive institutions like universities. Rightwing, free market, anticommunism had never gone away on any Western country since it represented a natural ideology of various sectors of capital – the vast, backwards parts of the US constitute a “residual supply” of rightwing ideology ready to jump to the fore. Thus it was natural for this agenda become dominant again.

Relatively rightwing politicians in the US had accepted various parts of progressive agenda, with Eisenhower presiding during the CIO’s organizing drive and so-forth. But this also meant that the US didn’t have any constituencies ready to defend progressivism wholeheartedly.

During the Reagan and post-Reagan periods, the left has much more thoroughly caved-in to Neoliberalism than the right caved-in to progressivism. Certainly, the way that Neoliberalism systematically created an ideology and spread it through every level of society was part of this process using an array of media outlets, think tanks, university professors and lobbyists was a factor. But we must look behind this and see how this is a result of the ideology having won the key battle already, the battle for capital’s essential consensus. The spread of Neoliberalism was duly noted but no counter-recipe for capitalism arose. Margaret Thatcher’s slogan “TINA”, “There Is No Alternative” is indeed ridiculous if it is saying that a capitalist most be managed on the basis of Neoliberalism on a day-to-day basis. Really Neoliberalism has been a progressively more fragile way of managing the present society. But “there is no alternative” is true in the sense that there is no alternative which has been accepted by the ultimate movers and shakers of capitalist society. The willingness of American union hacks to accept Reagan’s program ultimately didn’t come from propaganda but from these hacks knowing their interests lay ultimately with capital rather than with their own members – remember the US government in ways paved the way for the power of even the most “progressive” unions.

Now, one manipulative aspect of George’s reasoning involves treating progressive ideology, such as her quote of Karl Polanyi, as a natural, unbiased reaction to the world whereas right ideology is taken as a pure, artificial construct of a small cable (whose origin is unstated). One could say progressive ideology is altogether a bit more rational than freemarketism. Yet ultimately both these are ideologies constructed by elites to reconcile the workings of the world with their power.

Indeed, we could call George’s document a “non-history” since it leaves out more key fact than it includes. And we would say that George must produce such a non-histories since the real history of Neoliberalism is the history of “progressive forces”, as they once were called, rolling over the dictates of big capital in a despicable and cowardly way.