Breaking the Circulation of Elites and The Myth of Our Democracy

Originally published in on 23rd January 2018.

Brexit and Trump represent the rotation of an elite guard. In 2018, we must move toward breaking this elite guard and building a people’s guard of meaningful, participatory democracy.

The under acknowledged reality of the EU Referendum is that the Remain and Leave campaigns were commandeered by and fought largely between two factions of a competing hegemonic elite. That is, those aligned with a more internationalist business-oriented elite (e.g. Cameron, Blair, Clegg et al.) and those aligned with a more nationalist business-oriented elite (e.g. Farage. Johnson, Gove et al.). Broadly speaking, while one faction sought to exploit sentiments of liberalism and pluralism to win votes, the other sought to exploit nationalism and division.

The Circulation of Elites

Perhaps the best theoretical understanding of what’s happened, and this applies to Trump in the US as well, comes from the work of the late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century Italian sociologist Vilfredo Pareto. Pareto established the theory of the ‘circulation of elites’, in which he proposed that a minority will always dominate over the majority, and that history is just the story of one elite replacing another.

For Pareto there were two types of elite rulers: ‘foxes’ and ‘lions’. As historian Hugo Drochon writes, foxes are Machiavellian and dominate mainly by ‘deceit, cunning, manipulation and co-optation. Their rule is characterised by decentralisation, plurality and scepticism, and they are uneasy with the use of force’. Lions, on the other hand, are conservative and emphasise ‘unity, homogeneity, established ways, the established faith, and rule through small, centralised and hierarchical bureaucracies, and they are far more at ease with the use of force than the devious foxes’. In our modern context, we may regard the foxes as the Camerons, Blairs and Cleggs of our world, and the lions as the Trumps and Farages. While one elite never truly eliminates the other, history is the perpetual ‘slow swing of the pendulum from one type of elite to the other, from foxes to lions and back again’, as Drochon writes.

The Myth of our Democracy

The contemporary relevance of Pareto’s theory is clear. The past two years have seen the lions replace the foxes as the dominant ruling elite. However, amongst all of the elite squabbling there has been one very crucial voice missing: the voice of the people. Now of course we’ve seen plenty of public opinion polls, interviews with the public and questions and comments from average Joes on debate shows. However, the problem is that none of these channels of communication are exemplary of meaningful political participation. Moreover, polls, interviews and debate shows are structurally biased, often following the format of elites responding to the latest stats, questions or comments from the public. They do not facilitate actual meaningful public engagement, discussion and ultimately participation in decision-making. Thus, while the public was invited to tick a box and vote for one of two options, serious debate and decision-making regarding the EU Referendum and now Brexit was, and remains, the preserve of an elite few.

This lack of democratic participation is not just an issue surrounding the EU Referendum and Brexit, however. It is a systemic, structural issue plaguing our society. Indeed, contrary to popular assumptions, we do not live in a democracy, not in any meaningful sense of the word. In fact, our electoral system, that is, our system of representative democracy, was never designed to be truly democratic; it was in fact designed to limit democracy. The result is that significant policy rarely corresponds to popular will, and the level of popular participation in policy-making is extremely limited. Generally, the public is excluded from big decisions and policy is overwhelmingly dictated from above by a centralised few in Westminster, some elected, many unelected, who are themselves overwhelmed and co-opted by private interests. Moreover, as government research has itself revealed, a large portion of our public servants form a close-knit community of highly privileged elites, many of them millionaires who harbour personal ties and a revolving door relationship to the private sector. While elections are held, governments fall and a degree of free speech exists, the collective will of the population is mostly ignored. ‘Post-democracy’ is the term coined by the British sociologist and political scientist Professor Colin Crouch to describe this state of affairs.

A People’s Participatory Democracy

This is the reality of our so-called democracy, and this is exactly why we are in desperate need of real democracy: the meaningful participation of the citizenry in the construction of policy at all levels, including national, regional and local. And yes, this includes the democratisation of the workplace – worker ownership, the election of managers, votes on pay, etc. No serious individual believes that if people had the means to participate they would construct a society that facilitates and exacerbates gross inequality, low wages, precarious employment, mass debt, child, adult and pensioner poverty, homelessness, environmental breakdown and perpetual warfare. When you give people the ability to participate in policy-making, to affect change in ways that better their own lives and the lives of their children, then they will generally grasp at it.

For most of our history the vast majority lacked the franchise, and as a result were neglected by elites and had to accept their conditions. With the acquisition of the franchise, however, they were able to demand better conditions and so increase their living standards. As these achievements have stagnated and in many ways regressed over the past thirty-five years, the time has now come – in fact it is long overdue – for the public to demand even greater franchise. In the words of the founding members of Momentum, the UK’s foremost democratic movement right now:

We need to build grassroots power now: the ability for ordinary people to influence and change the world in their interests, through their own institutions. This means developing processes of collective organising that are directed and controlled by those directly affected by decisions. We must maximise people’s participation, agency and empowerment in systems affecting their lives.

Beyond Brexit and Trump, if we are to have any chance of pulling ourselves out of the myriad of messes we now find ourselves in, then breaking the circulation of elites and advancing real participatory democracy must be the imperative. That our democracy is undemocratic is perhaps one of our biggest unkept secrets that we never talk about, and it is high time we elevate the discussion of it into the mainstream.



The Autocracy of Tony Blair: why the former PM has No Right to lecture us on Brexit and democracy

Originally published in the Morning Star on 12th December 2017.

War criminal extraordinaire Tony Blair has once again been waxing lyrical over Brexit. When asked by a journalist recently if his mission is to reverse Brexit, he replied with uncharacteristic honesty and clarity: ‘Yes, exactly so’. In a slight change of tone from earlier statements where he emphasised that ‘the will of the people should prevail’, this time around he emphasised that ‘the will of the people is not something immutable’, and that ‘people can change their mind’.

Of course, there would be nothing wrong with this statement if it weren’t for the simple fact that Tony Blair is not, and has never been, a supporter of ‘the will of the people’. To the contrary, he and his centrist disciples have always preferred operating as Blair himself described in an article for the New York Times earlier this year, like self-entitled ‘managers of the status quo’.

Indeed, ever the champion of the ‘will of the people’, he even revealed in 2014 his belief that a ‘government taking effective decisions’ is more important than democracy itself. This no doubt explains his unwavering support for, and dodgy dealings with, numerous dictators around the globe, and why he and corporate media dictator Rupert Murdoch always had good time for each other. Blair is, after all, godfather to Murdoch’s daughter.

Blair the Autocratic

Here we should recall how, as British Prime Minister, Blair had zero care for the will of millions of people – specifically Britons and Iraqis, but also the international community – who opposed the Iraq War, which we now know he sold to the public on false pretences.

Likewise, he cared little for the will of his own cabinet. As his former minister for international development Clare Short has said, ‘No decisions were made in the cabinet. It didn’t operate in the way that constitutional theory says that it should […] He [Blair] didn’t want any clashing or discussion of ideas’. See also Short’s testimony to the Iraq Inquiry Panel in 2010, where she explains this in greater detail.

Former Mayor of London and long-standing Labour politician Ken Livingston has also spoken of how Blair’s party was one in which ‘dissent really wasn’t tolerated’, and the writer and professor Will Self has said how Blair used ‘the kind of tactics that one associates with emperors or rulers […] who are not democratic’.

It is in fact well documented by politicians, journalists and analysts that under Blair the traditional machinery of party democracy was side-lined; key decision-making was centralised and representative democracy was effectively replaced by what has been described as government by a ‘technocratic, managerial elite’ who formed policy based largely on information drawn from focus groups and polling.

As one professor of politics has written, the key role of MPs during the Blair era became ‘simply to secure formal consent from their constituents for the government’s legislative programme by winning elections, by appearing publicly and in the media to be as generically inoffensive as possible to a broad cross section of the public, and above all by appearing unthreatening to key media outlets’. For a good account of all this, see episode 4 of Adam Curtis’ 2002 documentary The Century of the Self.

Media Obsession and Opinion Management

Blair’s autocratic approach to government is also well documented throughout scholarship for its unprecedented use of information managementPR and spin. Andrew Marr called Blair’s New Labour the ‘most media-obsessed government’ of modern times, and there is by now a vast body of literature on the relationship between Blair, New Labour and the media, with many commentators and academics likening the extent of the information control and opinion management to a Gramscian project of unsettling proportions. The effects of all this were to vastly reshape British politics and politicians, and indeed the media’s relationship to them, for decades.

Accordingly, David Cameron would later describe himself as the ‘heir to Blair’, while he and George Osborne would openly refer to Blair as ‘The Master’, asking in times of difficulty: ‘what would the Master have done?’. And as former Conservative MP Ken Clarke revealed in his memoirs last year, Cameron was a ‘PR-obsessed control freak’. ‘Media handling and public relations are now regarded as the key elements of governing’, he wrote, while ‘a small army of […] PR experts […] have far too big a role in policymaking […] Next week’s headlines are given more priority than serious policy development and the long-term consequences’.

Reducing Democracy

While Blair has many legacies, it is perhaps one of his most pernicious to have reduced Britain’s already-limited form of representative democracy to what is effectively a centralised, ‘top down’ government of managerial elites who perpetually seek to maintain power by controlling information and public opinion. Certainly, Blair is no champion of the will of the people unless, of course, their will happens to align with his.

As the renowned American theologian Reinhold Niebhur wrote, ‘Rationality belongs to the cool observer, but because of the stupidity of the average man, he follows not reason, but faith, and the naive faith requires necessary illusion and emotionally potent oversimplifications which are provided by the myth-maker to keep [the] ordinary person on course’.

This is Blair’s political philosophy in a nutshell. He sees himself as the rational myth-maker, keeping the ordinary people in check, and his penchant for fostering ‘necessary illusions’ and ‘emotionally potent oversimplifications’ is precisely why he’s acquired the nicknames ‘Tony Blur’, ‘Phoney Tony’, ‘Tony Bliar’ and ‘Teflon Tony’ (because dirt never sticks to him).

It’s also why he’s managed to convince the world for so long that he’s left-wing. With remarkable self-delusion he’s even managed to convince himself. But he’s not left-wing. He is in many respects ultra-right-wing, not least because of his disdain for the will of the people.

We should always remember that when Margaret Thatcher was asked in 2002 at a banquet what she thought her greatest achievement was, she replied: ‘Tony Blair and New Labour. We forced our opponents to change their minds’. As Blair himself put it, ‘On a personal level she [Thatcher] was immensely kind and generous to me when I was prime minister […] I always thought my job was to build on some of the things she had done’.

Of course, chief among these things was New Labour’s extension of the neoliberal economic model, which has not only done immense harm to the social and economic fabric of British society, but has also led to the huge transfer of power from the public to the unaccountable private sphere.

Renowned British sociologist and political scientist Professor Colin Crouch has coined the term ‘Post-democracy’ to describe our current political situation. He writes that while elections are held, governments fall and a degree of free speech exists, the collective will of the population is mostly ignored by ‘small circles of a politico-economic elite’ who overwhelmingly control the levers of power.

This is the way that Blair likes it. It’s the system he’s helped to construct and, as a member of the super-rich, borderless global elite, it suits him just fine.


Democracy, Hypocrisy and the Liberal-Leninist Aristocracy

Most liberal elites love to present themselves as passionate advocates of democracy, but in truth, many harbour a distrust of the masses and a desire to concentrate serious decision-making power in the hands of a few. Reactions to Corbyn, Brexit and Trump have highlighted this.

Generally, across civilisations there exists a divide between those who have faith in the ability of ordinary folk to participate in the management of societal affairs and those who think societal affairs should be managed by an elite few. The point was summarised by Thomas Jefferson in 1824 when he observed that ‘men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties’: ‘democrats’ and ‘aristocrats’. Democrats, he said, ‘identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise depositary of the public interests’. Aristocrats, on the other hand, ‘fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes’.

While most contemporary elites – that is, broadly speaking, professionals across government, business, cultural management and the more articulate sectors in general – like to present themselves as democrats, the truth is that many are, in thought and practice, aristocrats. Take a politician like Theresa May, for example, who while espousing her belief in ‘putting power in the hands of the people’ earlier this year, was simultaneously trying to exclude from Brexit policy-making the very body through which the people are represented – Parliament. Or take Donald Trump, who while claiming at his inauguration to be giving power ‘back to […] the people’ was simultaneously filling his Cabinet with bankers and Wall Street tycoons. But such aristocratic behaviour is not merely confined to conservative elites like May and Trump. As the unique political events of recent times have highlighted, Jefferson’s aristocrats are pervasive among liberals, too.

In the UK last year, many were revealed among so-called ‘liberal metropolitan elites’ whose attitudes towards Brexit voters betrayed a sharp distrust of the masses. They protested that ‘ignoramuses’ and ‘know-nothing voters’ (as the supposedly liberal Professor Richard Dawkins referred to them) should not be entrusted with such important decisions. Brexit voters, as the Guardian and New Statesman journalist Laurie Penny wrote, were just ‘frightened, parochial lizard-brain’ people. A similar attitude was betrayed by liberal elites in the US, whose patronisation and mocking of Trump supporters in the build-up to the election likely disaffected more undecided voters than it did galvanise them (as was the case with the Remain campaign’s ‘patronising’ videos for the EU Referendum). A more direct form of aristocracy, however, came from the Democratic National Committee (DNC), who were exposed for conspiring with Hillary Clinton’s campaign team – in an utterly anti-democratic move – to rig her nomination and disadvantage Bernie Sanders’. Moreover, Clinton’s own anti-democratic tendencies were exposed when audio was released of her commenting on a 2006 Palestinian election that didn’t go her way: ‘We should have made sure that we did something to determine who was going to win’, she said.

Back in the UK, the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party revealed an abundance of aristocrats amongst the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). They, together with most of the political and media establishment, worked tirelessly to undermine and block his democratic election as leader simply because they thought they knew better than the majority of the membership who voted for him. As the Cambridge-educated former Labour MP Tristam Hunt said to students at his old university following Corbyn’s election: the party is ‘in the shit’ and it’s the responsibility of the ‘top 1% [to] take leadership going forward’. Ex-Blair advisor John McTernan asserted that if Corbyn wins he should be removed ‘swiftly and quickly’. When asked about the potential reaction of the grassroots voters to such an anti-democratic move, he retorted: ‘yeah but who cares about the grassroots? […] it doesn’t really matter what the grassroots say’. Then there was the deputy leader of the Labour Party Tom Watson who condemned the 2014 decision of Ed Miliband to push through the ‘one member, one vote’ system that enabled Corbyn’s election. The decision gave Labour members the full democratic power to elect their leaders, a decision Watson called a ‘terrible error of judgment’. Ironically, if the same system ruled the US elections, Clinton would now be president because she, like Corbyn, overwhelmingly won the popular vote. But unlike Watson, the PLP and most of the UK liberal media who scorned the popular voting system when it failed to produce the Labour leader they wanted, US liberals after Trump’s election were itching to adopt it. Of course, direct democracy is only favourable when the result swings your way.

The Liberal Leninist Elite

But there’s another irony to the aristocracy of certain members of the PLP, and it’s to do with how they alleged last year that some of Corbyn’s supporters were ‘Trotskyites’, ‘entryists’ and ‘Bolsheviks’ attempting to infiltrate their party. The fact is that the centrist, Blairite faction of the PLP who’ve been attempting to subvert the democratic election of Corbyn, are themselves closer to the Bolshevik-Leninist position than they know. Indeed, the Bolshevik-Leninist ideology holds, quite simply, that a revolutionary ‘vanguard party’ of intellectuals – the clever and more capable people – ought to lead the masses to their utopian future because the masses are too ignorant and incapable of doing it for themselves. This is quite clearly an aristocratic and elitist doctrine opposed to democratic participation and self-determination, exemplified by Lenin’s dissolving of the factory committees and elimination of workers’ control following the Bolshevik revolution – an ‘unquestioning subordination to […] the single will of the leaders of labour’ is necessary to achieve the aims of the revolution, Lenin argued. Such ideology is far from liberal or left; it is in many respects ultra-right. Mainstream left thinkers of the day like Anton Pannekoek, Karl Korsh and Paul Mattick recognised this about the Bolsheviks. Bertrand Russell and Rosa Luxemburg both expressed worry about the Leninists centralising power, as did Trotsky before he joined them. Yet it’s an ideology incredibly similar to the kind held by the centrist, Blairite wing of the PLP and many liberal elites throughout the West. In fact, just as the Bolshevik-Leninists had consolidated power in the Soviet Union, prominent American intellectuals across the Atlantic were espousing very similar views about the role of the masses in society.

The Intelligent Minority

Take the acclaimed liberal intellectual Walter Lippmann who, in his influential works Public Opinion (1922) and The Phantom Public (1925), wrote that ‘the common interests very largely elude public opinion entirely, and can be managed only by a specialized class’. ‘Executive action is not for the public’, he said; they should remain just ‘interested spectators of action’ who are called upon occasionally to align themselves with ‘someone in a position to act executively’ – the ‘responsible men’.

Then there was Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud who is known widely as the Father of Public Relations due to his pioneering work in the field of thought-manipulation and mass-persuasion. In his influential book Propaganda (1928), he argued that because the ‘average intelligence’ of the public is so poor, it is imperative that they be ‘managed by the intelligent minority who know how to regiment and guide’ them.

Or take Professor Harold Lasswell, the highly influential political scientist and leading scholar in the field of communications and propaganda. He wrote in the International Encyclopedia of Social Sciences (1930-35) that we ‘must put aside democratic dogmatism about men being the best judges of their own interest since men are often very poor judges of their own interest’.

In the same decade, Reinhold Neibhur, leading American theologian, professor and public intellectual who was highly influential among Roosevelt-Kennedy liberals (he also happens to be Barack Obama’s ‘favourite philosopher’), wrote in his seminal work Moral Man and Immoral Society: Study in Ethics and Politics (1932) that ‘Rationality belongs to the cool observer, but because of the stupidity of the average man, he follows not reason, but faith, and the naive faith requires necessary illusion and emotionally potent oversimplificaions which are provided by the myth-maker [Lippmann’s ‘responsible men’] to keep [the] ordinary person on course’.

Certainly, it’s not hard to see the ideological thread running through these views, the Bolshevik-Leninists’ and many of today’s liberal elite. In essence, they all manifest a distrust of the masses and a desire to keep them from participating in serious decision-making – they are all aristocratic in the Jeffersonian sense. Of course, a crucial difference between the Bolshevik-Leninists and Western liberals is that while the former sought authoritarian repression (later morphing into Stalinism) to manage and keep the ignorant masses at bay, the latter sought to control them through techniques of manipulation and mass-persuasion – techniques now practiced and extended across PR, marketing, advertising, mass media and the entertainment industries more generally.

It’s no coincidence that today’s political elite, both liberal and conservative, harbour immensely close ties with and rely heavily on experts across these industries to manage and bolster their ‘brand-image’, to control and distribute information and to generally mould public opinion in their favour. Lippmann called this the ‘manufacture of consent’, while Bernays similarly called it the ‘engineering of consent’ – ‘The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society’, he wrote (if this sounds Gramscian, it’s because it is!).

Liberal Hypocrites 

What is perhaps most contemptible about all of this, however, is the deceitfulness with which many apparent ‘liberals’ operate; presenting themselves in public as passionate advocates of democracy, while in private seeking to concentrate power and manipulate popular opinion in their favour. ‘I agree the will of the people should prevail’, declared Tony Blair in response to Brexit, while simultaneously forming a cross-party coalition of elites (including Nick Clegg, Richard Branson, Bob Geldof, Lord Alan Milburn, Chuka Umunna) aimed at influencing the will of the people and reversing Brexit (incidentally, the agency managing the PR strategy and marketing for the project is Freud Communications, headed by PR mogul Matthew Freud – great-grandson of Sigmund and relative of Edward Bernays).

Similarly in the US, Hillary Clinton declared that Donald Trump was ‘threatening our democracy’, yet only a few months prior she herself had undermined the democratic nomination of Sanders, despite virtually every poll indicating that he had a better chance of beating Trump than she did.

And as the influential Labour Lord and ex-Blair cabinet minister Peter Mandelson admitted earlier this year, he was working ‘every single day […] to bring forward the end of [Corbyn’s] tenure in office’. In other words, he was working every single day to overturn the democratic decision of the majority of the Labour membership.


What is so evident in all of this is that, despite how they present themselves in public, many liberal elites are just as aristocratic as their conservative counterparts. They too harbour a distrust of the masses and a desire to concentrate serious decision-making power in the hands of a few. While this could remain relatively concealed during a period of political consensus, the collapse of that consensus, which Corbyn, Brexit and Trump represent, has revealed it with striking clarity. It would seem that, faced with their faltering ability to dominate the political sphere, many liberal elites have sought desperately and unflatteringly over the past two years to undermine and block the democratic participation of the masses who no longer want – nor have faith in – their leadership capabilities.

Indeed, if there is anything we can take from the political events of recent times, it’s that if liberal elites wish to play any serious role in the politics of tomorrow, then they really ought to start listening and reacting to the masses. In other words, they really ought to start becoming democrats.

Bring on the new radical form of participatory democracy!


Why Theresa May Won’t Face Corbyn in a Televised Debate

Televised debates are conventionally an opportunity for personality to shine over policy and for those involved to assassinate the character of their opponents in front of millions (à la Trump/Clinton). There are two problems here for May: one) she lacks personality (she’s clunky and often quite awkward), and two) assassinating Corbyn’s character simply won’t stick with a British audience – they’ll see through it. In addition, she has an appalling record of dodging questions and responding with empty, prearranged statements that end with petty quips about Corbyn’s personality or the divisions within his party. She can get away with this during PMQs because only about 350,000 viewers tune in to watch it each week (although shared clips on social media have, to some extent, helped expose this).

So the simple reason why May won’t – or at least thus far has refused to – partake in a televised debate with Corbyn is precisely because she fears that she’ll lose. Corbyn isn’t like conventional politicians. He doesn’t engage in character insults, he sticks to policy and actually has quite an appealing personality – he carries an air of sincerity that most mainstream politicians lack. These qualities are exactly why he thrashed his opponents in the debates for the Labour leadership contests. Moreover, as poll after poll shows, large majorities of the population actually align with his policies, which is obviously petrifying for his opponents, who simply want to distract from them at every turn.

So yes, it makes perfect sense that Theresa May wouldn’t want to subject herself to the potential loss she’d undergo from a televised debate with Corbyn. Her PR team will most certainly be doing everything they can to keep public pressure off of her. They will also have been doing everything they can over the past 24 hours to play down the scandalous and cowardly refusal. And if you want the subtlest but not insignificant example of media double standards, then just imagine what the scale of the reaction to Corbyn refusing a debate with May would have been. Needless to say, it would be a national scandal, splashed across every front page, with panel discussions galore on all major news programmes.


Book Review: ‘The BBC: The Myth of a Public Service’

The BBC: Myth of a Public Service by Tom Mills

Reviewed by Callum Alexander Scott for Peace News, April – May 2017 | Issue 2604 – 2605

Historically there has been a general consensus across British politics and among British political commentators that the BBC is, by and large, an independent, left-leaning institution that serves the public interest. But, as readers of PN will know, especially when it comes to issues of war and peace, this is a myth.

Since its inception, the BBC has overwhelmingly served the interests of the government and elite sectors in society, a fact backed up by virtually every significant scholarly study on the matter.

In this incisive new book, Tom Mills has compiled extensive historical data (from archival research, interviews, autobiographies and secondary sources) to reinforce this analysis.

Mills starts with the 1926 General Strike, when the BBC infamously sided with the government against workers. Thereafter, he explains, the BBC was indeed ‘afforded a large degree of operational autonomy, remaining formally independent’. However, this was only ‘on the tacit understanding that it would broadly serve the political purposes of the government’. As the founding director-general Lord Reith put it, the government ‘know that they can trust us not to be really impartial’.

Into the 1930s and the Second World War, Mills shows how the BBC willingly subordinated itself as an instrument of government propaganda, banning not just fascists and communists from its broadcasts, but also conscientious objectors. During this period the BBC became a ‘fully effective instrument of war’, as Reith’s successor Frederick Ogilvie stated. It was also during this period that senior BBC staff allowed MI5 to politically vet its employees (a practice that astonishingly continued until 1985). In the post-war years, Mills shows how the BBC not only distributed Cold War propaganda in ‘close cooperation’ with the government, but domestically it served to marginalise peace movements and critics of war, cancelling programmes due to government pressure and generally promoting a line favourable to established interests. The Suez Crisis, Falklands War and Gulf Wars are all explored as examples. On issues of economics, the BBC’s neoliberal shift during the 1980s is particularly interesting. Mills outlines how, following the arrival of deputy director-general John Birt in 1987, a ‘small coterie’ of radical Thatcherite reformers helped restructure the organisation, leading to a ‘remarkable growth in business and economics journalism’ and a decline in the representation of workers and their interests.

This ‘neoliberal, pro-business, right-wing’ turn, as Mills describes it, was accelerated into the 1990s and 2000s, and was plain to see in the aftermath of the 2007-08 financial crisis when elite, pro-business sources dominated reporting. Indeed, the historical record explored by Mills leads him to conclude that the BBC is ‘no more free from the powerful interests which now dominate British society than it was in the 1930s, the last time Britain was as unequal as it is today’. It’s a conclusion hard to disagree with after reading this book, especially given the way the BBC has reported on the anti-war, left-wing socialist who is currently leader of the opposition. The contemporary relevance of this book cannot be overstated. A must-read for anyone interested in British politics.

Verso, 2016; 272pp; £16.99

Inequality: When the Masters Propel us Further into Class Conflict

This article was published at on 20 January 2017. See here.

Aristotle once explained that if wealth ever became too skewed into the hands of too few people, then the majority might well exercise their ‘numerical superiority’ to redistribute that wealth.

This week, Oxfam released its annual briefing paper on the state of inequality in the world. The conclusions are as per usual: inequality continues to skyrocket (eight men now own the same amount of wealth as the poorest half of the world) while the incomes of the world’s poorest remain either stagnant or have decreased. The reasons (again, as per usual) include a blend of crony capitalism, tax dodging and corporate/financial lobbying of governments for favourable treatment. And, of course, the entire process is driven by the innate necessity of capitalist organisations and their managers to maximise profits, no matter what the negative effects on populations and planet.

It brings to mind the eighteenth century dictum of Adam Smith, the man regarded as the father of modern economics. He wrote: ‘All for ourselves and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind’ (The Wealth of Nations, 1776, Books I – III). Exploring the unequal economic relationship between Britain and its colonies, he observed how the ‘merchants and manufacturers’ (not the ‘natives’ and ‘savages’ being exploited) were the ‘principle architects’ of the system and thus ensured their interests were ‘most peculiarly attended to’, however ‘grievous’ the effects on others (Books IV – V).

While many aspects of life have obviously improved since Smith was writing, it warrants stressing that despite a brief period of rising economic equality in the post-war period (known affectionately as the ‘Golden Age of Capitalism’), we’ve now reverted back to levels of inequality resembling the pre-WWI era (I’ve written about this reversion here). As the Oxfam report stresses: ‘we are living in the age of the super-rich, a second ‘gilded age’ in which a glittering surface masks social problems and corruption’. So what can we expect in the future? Quite worryingly, the answer is probably a lot more social and political disorder.

Brexit and Trump – more of same

It’s worth remembering that this  ‘glittering surface’ masking the reality that Oxfam refers to is exactly what led to Brexit and Trump last year. To be more specific, the populations of two of the most advanced nations were sick of mainstream political and public figures, themselves economically secure and thus largely removed from the struggles of everyday folk, who were incessantly sprinkling glitter over the obvious injustices being committed and telling people over and again that everything was going to be okay, when it wasn’t. Why, Oxfam asks, should populations trust those who’ve delivered them ‘wage stagnation, insecure jobs and a widening gap between the haves and the have-nots?’. In this context, Trump and Brexit are perfectly understandable reactions to a flawed and elitist system.

But aside from the frightening reality of opportunistic, ego-driven individuals like Trump and Farage now being at the forefront of mainstream politics, an equally frightening consideration is what the popular reaction of the genuinely sincere and downtrodden Brexit and Trump voters will be once they realise they were duped by what was merely a different shade of glitter. Certainly, Trump’s appointment of Adam Smith’s modern-day ‘merchants and manufacturers’ – that is, bankers and billionaires – to his administration betrays the obvious fact that, as Bloomberg news put it, ‘Wall Street wins again’. Inequality will most certainly continue to rise under Trump and glitter will continue to be sprinkled, only this time it’ll fall from Trump Tower instead of the White House.

Then there’s Theresa May, the captain of the Farage-built Brexit ship. This self-styled merchant of UK business has set sail (or should I say sale) to make the UK the most ‘passionate, consistent and convincing global advocate of free trade’. Her International Trade Secretary even cited Adam Smith in his speech to back up his post-Brexit economic plans (he of course omitted the ‘vile maxim’). The problem here is that there are virtually no examples in the historical record where so-called ‘free trade’ policies (which aren’t actually free and have little to do with trade) have contributed to significant economic development, stability and income growth – especially not in the poorer countries. As a briefing paper published by Global Justice in November 2016 put it: the ‘extreme version of free trade’ that Theresa May’s government is pursuing has ‘deeply worrying implications for the battle against poverty, inequality, climate change and war’.

To conclude, it’s worth recalling here the observations of Aristotle way back in the 4th-century BC. In his classic work Politics, he explained how in a meaningful democracy the sovereignty resides with the public, and if the wealth and resources in that democracy ever become too skewed into the hands of too few people, then the majority might well exercise their ‘numerical superiority’ to redistribute the wealth and property of the rich in a more egalitarian fashion. He regarded such expropriation as unjust and argued that in order to avoid it and preserve democracy it would be necessary to eliminate poverty by establishing what in modern terms we call a welfare system: taxes would be collected and distributed to sustain relative equality and help with the acquisition of property for those struggling to attain it. Such provisions, Aristotle concluded, would be the only way to ensure the ‘support of the populous’ for elected leaders.

Indeed, as we continue to see inequality rise over the coming years, we should be under no illusion that the already fragile support for our elected leaders will correspondingly dwindle. As this happens, it will become increasingly likely that populations will find themselves ever more compelled to demonstrate their ‘numerical superiority’ over their vile masters. As history shows, greater inequality is a surefire recipe for further and more intense class conflict.


Political Subversion: Business as Usual

So this week Al Jazeera’s investigative unit revealed, in an extraordinary exposé, how the Israel lobby have been actively trying to influence British politics. In the first episode of a four-part documentary (watch here) it’s revealed how Israel have been ‘influencing student, activist and parliamentary groups in the UK [and] offering financial and strategic assistance in order to gather support among young organisers and shape British politics’ in favour of Israeli interests. As footage from the same investigation revealed earlier this week, the Israeli diplomat Shai Masot (who oddly wasn’t even on the Foreign Office’s Diplomat List) hoped to ‘take down’ the British Deputy Foreign Minister, Sir Alan Duncan, and suggested that ‘a little scandal’ might be the way to do it.

This is, of course, ‘an outrageous interference in British politics’, as the Conservative journalist Peter Oborne said. Yet who in the British Government cares about this? Certainly not the Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow, who, after refusing to open an investigation into it, declared he didn’t think it would be ‘helpful to discuss [the matter] further’. And certainly not the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson (who Masot called an ‘idiot’); his Foreign Office said the ‘matter is closed’. Quite remarkable.

Of course, if it were Russia, not Israel, undertaking such interference in British politics then you can bet your bottom pound the reaction would have been huge. Indeed, when the US Government and intelligence agencies recently claimed (and continue to claim), without presenting ANY verifiable evidence, that Russia influenced the US election, the reaction from Obama was sanctions, diplomatic expulsions, and a threat of covert retaliation. There was also a media campaign of ‘fake and deceitful news’ to vilify Putin and all things Russian. Anti-Russian sentiment is now rife among the US and British political and media establishments, and the unwarranted fear-mongering – which will serve only to stir up jingoism and xenophobia towards Russians – looks set to continue. Israel, however, receive no such treatment.

But then even if Russia did play a part in influencing the US election, and even if Israel continue to try and influence British politics (as they will), any outrage from Britain and the US is hypocritical in the face of one fact: the US and Britain have been subverting and overthrowing democracies for decades. Consider the Iranian coup of 1953, undertaken by the US and Britain, and the overthrow of the elected government of British Guiana in the same year, undertaken by Britain alone. Oh, and then there is THIS LIST, compiled by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, of 45 countries whose democracies the US has interfered with since WWII.


Neoliberalism: A Sustained Economic Failure and Attack on Democracy and Human Rights

Neoliberalism is not only a massive economic failure, but it is – and will continue to be – an outright attack on democracy and human rights until it is stopped.

Since the late 1970s, neoliberalism has grown to become the dominant political and economic agenda of our time. Its supporters hold influential positions across governments, education, the media and corporate and financial institutions. Yet, remarkably, if you ask your parents, spouse or boss, the chances are they won’t know what it is, or they’ll at least have difficulty explaining it. Furthermore, if you ask most finance or economics students, or even the average banker, accountant or financier, they’ll often just reference Thatcher and Reagan and the necessity of economic “reform” and “modernisation” during the 1980s, or something to that effect. The difficulty in understanding and explaining it rests largely on the fact it has had such wide-ranging and complex effects on a plethora of social, political and economic issues. Fortunately, however, as the late professor of cultural theory and sociology Stuart Hall (2011, p. 706) observed, it does possess ‘enough common features to warrant giving it a provisional conceptual identity [his emphasis]’. Moreover, there exists a surprising abundance of empirical data revealing just how bad its effects have been on societies over the last three decades, yet this is barely reported in the mainstream. Below, I will attempt to (i) outline a number of neoliberalism’s common features, (ii) review some of its key social, economic and political effects in Britain and abroad, and (iii), by way of a brief case study, give an illustration of how neoliberalism in practice has affected Greece and its population in recent years.

Neoliberal Economics

Neoliberalism – also known as the ‘Washington Consensus’ or ‘free-market economics’ – comprises a particular set of economic theories that have their roots in the ideas of the eighteenth century economist Adam Smith. Smith believed that the self-interested enterprise of individuals would best be utilised within a competitive, free market system that is free from government intervention. While other economic systems, such as mixed economies, see government intervention in markets (e.g. the regulation of finance and the creation of import controls or monopolies) as useful and necessary to support a market economy, Smith deemed them harmful to competition and believed that only under the conditions of a free market (also known as laissez-faire) could societies become more equitable and prosperous. While certain aspects of neoliberalism differ from Smith’s original ideas (e.g. its advocacy for certain types of monopoly such as patents), it still shares much of the same enthusiasm for free markets and the prosperity they allegedly bring.

As an economic theory it emerged in the first half of the twentieth century, but was confined to the musings of just a small group advocates, led notebly by Austrian philosopher Friedrich von Hayek. Not until the 1980s, under the leadership of Margeret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in the United States, was neoliberalism actually adopted as economic policy and put into practice.

Indeed, when Thatcher was elected Prime Minister in 1979 there had developed what Professor David Harvey (2005, p. 12) calls a ‘crisis of capital accumulation’ in Britain; unemployment and inflation had soared leading to stagflation and as tax revenues plummeted and social costs surged, Britain fell into fiscal crisis. The post-war mixed economic system known as Keynesianism (after the British economist John Maynard Keynes), which was characterised by government-led planning, regulation of finance and public ownership of key sectors (including coal, steel and automobiles), seemed to be failing. In response, Thatcher and her government turned to the neoliberal economic theories of Hayek for a solution. What followed was what Harvey calls a ‘revolution in fiscal and social policies’ designed to reverse the social and economic systems that had been ‘consolidated in Britain after 1945’ (ibid, pp. 22-23). This entailed, among other things: the Privatisation of many publically-owned industries; cutbacks on government spending in areas such as transport, education, housing and welfare (otherwise known as Austerity Measures); a reduction of taxes for the rich in the hope it would encourage them to invest and thus create more wealth (euphemistically referred to as Tax Reform); an increase in interest rates in the hope of bringing down inflation; the introduction of laws to reduce labour union power and thus increase business power (also known as Anti-Unionism); and the Deregulation of the financial sector and the general flow of capital across borders (also known as Financial Liberalisation). In the US, where the economic situation was similar, President Reagan and his administration followed suit.

One point here is critical in understanding how neoliberalism spread internationally in the proceeding decades; that is the deregulation of the financial sector, coupled with the increasing of interest rates. To illustrate, throughout the 1970s, US investment banks had been lending large amounts of capital to developing countries, and when the financial industry was deregulated they began to encourage those countries to borrow more. When the US then increased its interest rates, the knock-on effect was that it drove up international interest rates, too. The overall result was that many of the developing countries were unable to afford their repayments and they defaulted. This became known as the Volcker Shock (after Paul Volcker, the chairman of the US central bank) and it triggered the Third World Debt Crisis. In an effort to save the US banks from losing the money they had loaned, and thus prevent the undermining of the entire financial system, the Reagan administration’s response, together with the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and World Bank,[1] was to roll back the debt of these poorer countries on the condition that they implement neoliberal economic reforms. Of course, these included: privatisation, deregulation (specifically the opening of internal markets to foreign companies and the lowering of tariff barriers to favour US companies), tax reform and austerity measures. These became known as ‘structural adjustment programmes’ (SAPs) and, as Harvey (ibid, p. 29) writes, the ‘IMF and World Bank’, driven in large part by the US, ‘thereafter became centres for the propagation and enforcement, through such SAPs, of “free market fundamentalism” and neoliberal orthodoxy’.[2] As with consecutive US governments under Reagan, Bush Sr., Clinton, Bush Jr and Obama, this neoliberal orthodoxy has dominated economic policy in Britain – albeit in varying forms – throughout the leaderships of Thatcher, Major, Blair, Cameron and now, it would seem, May.

Effects of Neoliberal Economics

Socio-Economic Failure

The consequences of the spread of neoliberal economics were, and have continued to be, as Professor Robert McChesney writes, ‘the same just about everywhere’ they have been adopted or imposed:

a massive increase in social and economic inequality, a marked increase in severe deprivation for the poorest nations and peoples of the world, a disastrous global environment, an unsustainable global economy and an unprecedented bonanza for the wealthy (cited in Chomsky, 1999, p. 8).

In Britain and the US alone, not only have social and economic inequalities risen persistently to levels now resembling pre-World War One times, but income growth rates have also slowed.[3] Globally, particularly in the developing world, the effects have been much worse. In a detailed study of its effects in developing countries, Professor Robert Pollin (2003, p. 131) observes that ‘there has been a sharp decline in growth in the neoliberal era relative to the developmental state period’ prior, and when measured per-capita ‘the downward growth trend is even more dramatic’, with rising inequality and little or no reduction of poverty.[4] Another study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) (see Weisbrot, et al., 2001) compared the effects of neoliberal policies between 1980 and 2000 with the previous twenty years (1960-1980) in both rich and poor countries. It found that economic growth and almost all significant social indicators (the growth of income per person, life expectancy, mortality among infants, children and adults, literacy, and education) very clearly declined in progress. Professor Joseph Stiglitz (2008), Nobel laureate and former senior vice president and chief economist of the World Bank, has himself acknowledged that neoliberalism has never been ‘supported […] by historical experience’, and that the neoliberalism imposed on developing countries through SAPs by the IMF and the World Bank during the 1980s and 1990s in fact contributed greatly to their underdevelopment; that is, the increase of wealth inequality, greater social conflict, destitution and instability (see also Stiglitz, 2002; 2006). Remarkably, even the IMF (2016) has now admitted that the neoliberal policies it has promoted and imposed on countries around the world for the past few decades have ‘not delivered as expected’ and that their benefits have been ‘overplayed’. In their study, the IMF’s top researchers concluded that neoliberal economics have ‘increased inequality’ and produced ‘little benefit in growth’.

Indeed, it is a fact of economic history that most of the rich and poor countries experienced far greater levels of economic growth prior to the adoption of neoliberal economics. Furthermore, as political economist Robert Wade (2006) writes, virtually all of the countries that did experience growth did so by maintaining ‘policy regimes that would mark them as serious failures by neoliberal criteria’; that is, they deviated radically from neoliberal policies.[5] As economist Ha-Joon Chang (2007, p. 31) summarises, the reality of post-war global economics is that:

During the period of controlled globalization underpinned by nationalistic policies [Keynsianism] between the 1950s and the 1970s, the world economy, especially in the developing world, was growing faster, was more stable and had more equitable income distribution than in the past two and a half decades of rapid and uncontrolled neo-liberal globalization.

He also highlights:

Economic instability has markedly increased during the period of neo-liberal dominance. The world, especially the developing world, has seen more frequent and larger-scale financial crises since the 1980s. In other words, neo-liberal globalization has failed to deliver on all fronts of economic life – growth, equality and stability (ibid, p. 28)

Politico-Democratic Failure

With the empirical evidence of its socio-economic failures so greatly stacked against it, it may seem odd that neoliberalism remains the dominant economic agenda advocated across governments, the media, education and international economic institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank. Yet this is exactly the case. The reasons generally revolve around a combination of both misguided and dogmatic beliefs in the efficiency of free markets (also known as Market Fundamentalism) and the deliberate distortion of the facts in the service of an economic elite. As McChesney puts it, a ‘generation of corporate-financed public relations efforts’ serving the interests of an already wealthy few have ‘given [neoliberal] terms and ideals a near sacred aura’, so that by now ‘the claims they make rarely require defence’ (cited in Chomsky, 1999, p. 7). Pursuant to this is the sheer scale of socio-economic inequality (that is, the effective redistribution of wealth that has made the rich richer and the poor poorer) produced by neoliberalism over the past 30 years, which, as Harvey (2005, p. 38) outlines, has led to ‘immense concentrations of corporate power’, to the extent that an elite group of wealthy interests now command a hugely ‘disproportionate influence over the media and the political process’. As such, they retain ‘both the incentive and the influence to persuade us that we are all better off under a neoliberal regime’ (ibid).

This point was exemplified by a 2015 Oxfam report explaining that by 2016 the world’s richest one percent will own more than half of the remaining 99 percent and that the primary reason for it is their overwhelming economic and political influence. The report detailed how the one percent is comprised predominantly of individuals who share interests in or are connected to major multinational corporations that tirelessly lobby governments on issues and policies that promote their business interests at the expense of the public. For example, in 2014 these corporations collectively spent $3.26 billion on lobbying the US government, mostly against public spending, appropriation and corporate taxes (see Centre for Responsive Politics, 2015). As one recent study of the US political system found, neither ‘experts’ nor public opinion have any ‘significant effect on government officials’ and their policies; it is in fact ‘internationally oriented business corporations’ that exert the most ‘consistent influence’ on policy makers (see Jacobs and Page, 2011, p. 121).[6] In Europe, a 2014 report by the Corporate Europe Observatory estimated that, on average, over €120 million is spent on lobbying EU institutions every year by the financial sector, compared with a mere €4,000,000 afforded by non-governmental organisations (NGOs), trade unions and consumer organisations (p. 14). The report concluded that with their ‘tremendous resources’ and their ‘privileged access to decision makers’, the ability of the financial industries ‘to shape legislation’ poses a ‘serious problem for democracy’ and the public interest (p. 3, 21).[7] On a far greater scale, Rowden (2001) and Peet (2003) have shown how over the past thirty years the global economy has increasingly come under the control of what they describe as an unelected quasi-state triad of global governance institutions: the WTO (World Trade Organisation), the IMF and the World Bank. Aside from advancing neoliberal economics, these institutions’ governance structures massively bias them toward the interests of the rich countries, thus preventing any meaningful challenge to their policies (see also Chang, 2007, pp. 34-5).

Privatising Profits and Socialising Costs

Perhaps the most critical point pertaining to the expansion of neoliberalism is the general shift from production-based economies to financial capitalism (known as Financialisation). Broadly, this refers to the exchange of capital between lenders, investors, and borrowers. As deregulation has ensued under neoliberalism, financial firms have gradually expanded their activities and developed increasingly complex and risky financial instruments, based largely on speculation, to draw profits from.[8] While the financial sector has grown immensely profitable (albeit for a relative few at the top) from its expansion, the speculative and high-risk nature of its activities have made global economies vastly more unstable, which has, in turn, had severe implications for the majority of the world’s populations, especially the poorest. The ultimate example of this came with the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-08, which was a direct result of financialisation and deregulation (see Foster and Magdoff, 2009; Cooper, 2010). As the US Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (2011) concluded, ‘the crisis was avoidable [emphasis added]’, and among its predominant causes were: a ‘widely accepted faith in the self-correcting nature of the markets [market fundamentalism]’; ‘More than 30 years of deregulation […] actively pushed by the powerful financial industry at every turn’, which ‘had stripped away key safeguards’; ‘dramatic breakdowns in corporate governance’ with too many financial firms acting ‘recklessly, taking on too much risk’; and ‘key policy makers’ who lacked a ‘clear grasp of the financial system they were charged with overseeing’.

Unsurprisingly, as the crisis unfolded and a number of financial firms were faced with potential collapse, their economic weight and political influence ensured that their respective governments bailed them out with public funds (that is, taxpayer money). The costs of what were the collective failures of world governments and economic institutions to regulate the activities of financial firms were transferred to the public, who were then in turn required to help make up the shortfall through tax increases and public spending cuts. In a number of countries this meant austerity measures that had devastating effects on the majority of the populations they were imposed on, hastening a rise in relative poverty and inequality.[9] Indeed, with the collective bargaining power of populations so limited (as observed above), any significant political challenge to the situation was assuredly prevented. What is particularly outrageous about this scenario, however, is that it is not a new one; financial crises, followed by government bailouts with public money, followed by the imposition of tax hikes and public spending cuts that devastate populations have been playing out on a smaller scale in countries all over the world for the past thirty years of neoliberal expansion.[10] Here I will conclude by reviewing one of the most recent examples: Greece.

The Greek Tragedy

In late 2009, the Greek Government found itself unable to keep up with the payments of the debts it had incurred from its borrowing over the previous decade. The situation, which became known as the Greek government-debt Crisis, had its roots in the European banking system. As Professor Mark Blyth (2015) explains, when the euro was established in 1999 European banks were able to borrow and lend alike in what was essentially a cheap foreign currency. As poorer countries in Southern Europe were able to borrow just like richer countries in the North, a credit boom erupted where, for the next decade, banks expanded their lending in the form of loans and other financial assets. As Lewis (2012, p. 42) explains: ‘Cheap credit rolled across the planet between 2002 and 2007 – entire countries were told the lights are out, do what you want, no one will know’. Predictably, credit from the North flooded the South, and by 2009 a large portion of Greece’s debt was held by German and French banks. When doubts emerged over Greece’s ability to repay its debts, interest rates were increased. The cost of borrowing to sustain its economy then became too great for Greece, and the country was faced with the prospect of defaulting. Such a default, however, would have thrown a number of major European banks (notably German and French banks) into serious crisis, potentially leading to their collapse. In such a scenario, European governments would have had to bail out their own banks again using public funds, a move that would certainly have angered voters who had just funded the 2008 bailouts. To avoid this scenario, European governments, together with the financial sector, came to a solution via the Troika, an alliance of institutions comprising the IMF, the European Commission and the ECB (European Central Bank). The Troika, using pooled taxpayer funds predominantly from the EU, extended loans to the Greek Government so it could pay back the European banks. As Blyth (ibid) points out, the Troika’s loans to Greece were in effect ‘bailouts-on-the quiet for Europe’s big banks, and taxpayers in core countries are now […] stuck with the bill’. The Greek situation, he adds, is merely a ‘continuation of a series of bailouts for the financial sector’.[11] Moreover, the Troika stipulated that, in return for the bailout loans, the Greek Government had to implement austerity measures (cuts in public services: transport, education, housing, welfare and wages), along with a number of other neoliberal reforms to its economy such as privatisation and deregulation. As Oxfam (2013b, p. 1, 16) later acknowledged, these stipulations had ‘a striking resemblance to the ruinous structural adjustment policies’ (SAPs) imposed on developing countries by the IMF and World Bank back in the 1980s and 1990s.

The Effects

The effects of the Troika’s demands, particularly the austerity measures, were indeed ruinous, leading to what the EU has itself recognised as a ‘humanitarian crisis’ (BBC, 2015). Effects have included: numerous economic recessions, a shrunken economy, massive increases in unemployment, poverty, inequality, homelessness, public-health emergencies (including a series of HIV, tuberculosis and malaria epidemics), suicides, migration and a weakening of trade unions (for further and more specific details, see: Hall, 2011; Koukiadaki and Kretsos, 2012; Markantonatou, 2013; Matsaganis, 2013; Oxfam, 2013c; Stuckler and Sanjay, 2013; Fazi, 2014; Unicef, 2014; Flassbeck and Lapavitsas, 2015; Mantalos, 2015). Moreover, as studies by both the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH, 2014) and associate Professor in Law and Human Rights at LSE Margot Salomon (2015) have found, the management of the crisis and the effects of the austerity amount to what may well be defined as ‘massive violations of human rights’ (ibid, p. 2, see also Katrougalos, 2013).

Despite the undeniable devastation they have caused, however, the austerity measures and neoliberal reforms imposed on Greece have continued to be upheld as a condition for the Troika’s bailout loans. Greece’s debt still remains, except now, given that the majority of the loans went to European banks, most of the debt is owed back to the Troika (that is, EU taxpayers). The problem going forward is, as Sachs (2015) points out, that anyone ‘who does the Greek debt arithmetic […] knows that it cannot repay its […] debts […] without a level of pain that is simply beyond the tolerance of democratic societies’. Even the IMF (2015) has acknowledged this, stating that in order for Greece to recover it needs ‘debt relief measures that go far beyond [emphasis added] what Europe has been willing to consider so far’ (see also Nardelli, 2015).[12] Effectively, European elites, via the Troika, are punishing the Greek population for what are essentially not their mistakes. As Fazi (2015) puts it, ‘reckless borrowing’ by previous Greek governments ‘was financed by equally reckless lenders’ (German and French banks, predominantly), yet it is the Greek population who are mortally paying the price.[13]

Needless to say, the response of the Greek population was, and continues to be, that of widespread indignation, even leading to an increase in support for what in 2013 became one of the largest far-right nationalist movements in Europe: Golden Dawn (see Markantonatou, 2013, p. 19). However, in the Greek election of January 2015, it was in fact the left-wing party Syriza who were voted into government under a popular mandate to (i) end austerity measures, (ii) negotiate a write-off of a large portion of Greece’s debt, and (iii) negotiate a reversal of many of the neoliberal reforms that had been imposed on the economy (see Syriza, 2014). As the party’s leader Alexis Tsipras put it, Syriza aimed to return the country from a ‘neoliberal experiment to a model of social protection and growth’ (Makris, 2014). The economic plans put forward by Syriza were acknowledged by many (see Economist, 2015; Dimitris and Vassalos, 2015; Matsas, 2015; McGoey, 2015) to be mild Keynesian policies of the kind that, as pointed out above, facilitated higher growth rates, rising equality and greater stability for much of the world in the post-War era. But as was perhaps to be expected, Syriza’s election was met with considerable hostility in the neoliberal-dominated European community, and in 2015 it was forced to capitulate to the conditions of a new bailout loan from the Troika, despite the Greek population voting in a referendum to reject it.

To Conclude

I have attempted here to outline a number of neoliberalism’s common features, among which include: privatisation, deregulation, financial liberalisation and austerity measures. I have by no means given an exhaustive list of its features, and of course the surface has barely been scratched in terms of its effects. Nonetheless, it has been outlined how in the latter half of the twentieth century neoliberalism grew to become the dominant global economic agenda, affecting both social and political issues to boot. The results were, and continue to be, strikingly bad for the majority of the world’s populations: a decline in economic growth, together with most social indicators; a huge increase in social and economic inequality; a skewing of political power in the favour of wealthy interests (that is, reduced democracy); and an increase in financial activities that have led to more frequent economic crises in which the costs are socialised and the profits are privatised.

Despite the facts, neoliberalism continues to be promulgated around the world by influential people and world-leading economic institutions that consistently attempt to delegitimise any threats to the orthodoxy. In Britain, for example, where the Conservative government was and remains a champion of neoliberalism (to this day it has privatised more public assets than any previous British government, including Thatcher’s) and continues to impose austerity measures on its population, the reaction to Syriza’s election in 2015 was marked: former Prime Minister David Cameron warned of an ‘increase in economic uncertainty across Europe’ (Cameron, 2015), while his Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, warned of a ‘full-blown crisis’ (Sabin, 2015). Moreover, swathes of the British media portrayed Syriza with scorn and characterised them in excessively negative ways, associating them with perceived enemies of Britain and referring to them constantly as a party of ‘Marxists’, ‘Maoists’, ‘Trotskyites’ and ‘socialists’ of the ‘radical far-left’ (see Cromwell, 2015; Smith, 2015).[14]

For anyone familiar with how the British media have been reporting Jeremy Corbyn and his shadow Chancellor John McDonnell in the past year, the parallels will be clear; scaremongering terms such as ‘Marxist’, ‘communist’, ‘Trotskyite’ and ‘Red Jez’ have also been rife, along with excessive attempts to associate Corbyn with perceived enemies of Britain (see Edwards, 2015a, 2015b, 2015c, 2015d; Cammaerts et al., 2016; Schlosberg, 2016). Of course, the parallels are far from coincidental: like Syriza (and Podemos in Spain and Bernie Sanders in the US), Corbyn and McDonnell are passionately and openly anti-neoliberal. Their explicit goal, if elected, is to ‘transform [Britain’s] economic system’ into one of social protection and equitable growth, and specifically to ‘break the neoliberal stranglehold’ on policy-making both at home and abroad, as McDonnell puts it (see BBC, 2016a; McDonnell, 2016). This, quite understandably, places them at odds with the legions of personnel spanning governments, political parties (including factions of the Labour Party and its supporters), education, the media and corporate and financial institutions that advocate, push and benefit from the perpetuation and expansion of neoliberal policies.

Only recently, speaking in relation to the future of Brexit, the current British Prime Minister Theresa May declared at a G20 summit that she wants the UK to become ‘the global leader in free trade’ (BBC, 2016b). At the subsequent Prime Minister’s Questions, Corbyn rebutted that the current ‘model of running the global economy’ had produced ‘huge increases in inequality and failed in its own terms’ (see Tapsfield, 2016). He continued:

The free trade dogma the Prime Minister spoke of [at the G20 summit] has often been pursued at the expense of the world’s most fragile economies, and has been realised with destructive consequences for our environment […] I urge the Prime Minister to stand with me against the use of Britain’s aid and trade policies to further the agenda of deregulation and privatisation in developing countries. We need a trade policy that values human rights and human dignity (ibid).

Far from acknowledging the facts, May’s response was the following:

If we are going to see prosperity and growth in the economies around the world, the way to get there is through free trade […] It is free trade that underpins our growth. We will be the global leader in free trade […] Free trade can be the best anti-poverty policy for those countries. I will unashamedly go out there and give the message that we want a free trade country (ibid).

Indeed, in the face of such market fundamentalism and outright falsification of the effects of free trade policies (neoliberalism), it is no wonder – and in fact only right – that huge portions of the population (at home and abroad) feel politically disenfranchised, confused and angered by an establishment class of politicians and media personnel who simply do not make the truth clear to the people they are supposed to serve.

The bottom line: neoliberalism is an economic failure that has negated both democracy and human rights – it must be stopped and its effects reversed.


[1] The IMF and World Bank were originally set up following the Second World War. The IMF’s purpose was to lend money to countries struggling to pay debts so they would not have to resort to deflation, and the World Bank’s purpose was to help finance the reconstruction of post-war Europe and post-colonial societies (building roads, dams and bridges and so on). Following the Third World Debt Crisis, however, their roles significantly expanded into other realms of politico-economic policy, gradually enabling them to influence such things as government budgets, pricing, (de)regulation and privatisation (see Chang, 2007, pp. 31-37).

[2] Interestingly, SAPs represent a key difference between Adam Smith’s free market (laissez-faire) theory and today’s neoliberalism: the former would have the lenders (banks) accept the losses of their bad investments or loans, while the latter sees the borrowers (poorer countries) ‘forced by state and interventional powers [such as the IMF and World Bank] to take on board the cost of debt repayment no matter what the consequences for the livelihood and well-being of the local population’ (see Harvey, 2005, p. 29). As we will see below, this is exactly what has been happening in Greece in recent years.

[3] The figures are reviewed by Harvey (2005, pp. 9-19), Chang (2007, p. 60), and more recently Piketty and Goldhammer (2014). Also see Oxfam’s (2016) briefing note. See Savage’s (2015) study for an outline of the resulting social stratifications during the neoliberal period. And for a comprehensive analysis of the damaging effects of increased social and economic inequality on global populations resulting from neoliberalism, see Wilkinson and Pickett (2010).

[4] This is only the case when China is excluded from the analysis. Indeed, Pollin excludes China because it did not follow neoliberal policies during its biggest growth period.

[5] Among these countries are: Japan, the ‘tiger’ economies of East Asia (South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore), Malaysia, Thailand, Hong Kong and China. Chile is somewhat of an exception, however, as neoliberal policies did work to some extent, although not without great human cost under the regime of General Pinochet, and significant deviations from neoliberal orthodoxy (see Felix, 1986; Santiso, 2007). It is also the case that most rich countries, including Britain and the US, did not grow rich from their adoption of neoliberal economics. As Chang (2007, p. 15) writes, ‘practically all [his emphasis] of today’s developed countries, including Britain and the US, the supposed homes of the free market and free trade, have become rich on the basis of policy recipes that go against neo-liberal economics’. Only after Britain and the US became rich did they adopt free market economic policies, but never to the extent that they encouraged developing countries to.

[6] Ferguson (1995) has also shown how federal candidates and political parties in the US are subservient to the wealthy investors and corporations that fund their campaigns. More recent research by Gilens (2014) has shown how wealthy individuals and business-backed special interest groups are almost entirely responsible for policy making in the US.

[7] Cave and Rowell’s (2015) study reveals the same problem with lobbying in Britain. King (2015) also highlights the issue.

[8] Among these are: futures, options, derivatives and hedge funds. For a breakdown of what financial capitalism is and how it works, see Chang (2014, ch. 8), Foster and Magdoff (2009, ch. 4) and Lapavitsas (2014).

[9] For a further outline of the devastating effects of austerity in Britain, see Oxfam (2013a), O’Hara (2015) and Mendoza (2015).

[10] These countries, to name a few, include: the US, Chile, Sweden, Malaysia, Russia and Brazil (see Chang, 2014, p. 311). It is also worth noting that in the post-war period before financial deregulation began, virtually no country in the world experienced a financial crisis (see Reinhart and Rogoff, 2009, p. 252, figure 16.1).

[11] As of January 2015, roughly 230 billion euros had been loaned to Greece, and of that figure it is estimated that just 27 billion (11 percent) had reached the Greek population, with the rest going to European banks, particularly in Germany and France, for maturing debts and interest payments (see Mouzakis, 2015). By another account it is estimated that less than 10 percent has reached the Greek people (see Jones, 2015).

[12] Leaked minutes from an IMF board meeting in 2010 show that even before the IMF imposed austerity and neoliberal reforms on Greece, many countries (including Switzerland, Argentina, Brazil and China) had serious doubts about the efficacy of the Troika’s bailout plans and believed that debt relief was a more appropriate solution (see Wall Street Journal, 2013). See also this discussion between Noam Chomsky and former Greek Finance Minister for Syriza, Yanis Varoufakis, where Varoufakis describes in detail his deliberations with high-ranking IMF officials in which they admitted to him personally that they knew the policies they were imposing on Greece would not work.

[13] It warrants noting here, as Koukiadaki and Kretsos (2012, p. 518-19) explain, that the common explanation for the outbreak of the Greek Government Debt Crisis, and thus the justification for the imposition of austerity measures and reforms, is that it is rooted in Greece’s failure to modernise its over-regulated, welfarist economy and embrace neoliberal reforms earlier (for example, see Hatzis, 2012). However, as Laskos and Tsakalotos (2014) show, neoliberal policies (including privatisation, deregulation, tax cuts for the wealthy and a reduction of union power) have been central policy agendas of consecutive governments in Greece since the 1990s (see also Karamessini, 2008; Tsakalotos, 2010; Agnantopoulos and Lambiri, 2015). Karamessini, (2012) argues that the crisis has been exploited as an opportunity to complete this process of neoliberalisation. Nonetheless, while Greece has certainly experienced internal problems with its economic management (see Lewis, 2012, pp. 62-3), there have been repeated attempts, notably by German and French interests, to frame the problem in ideological and moral terms, pitting the ‘profligate, debt-ridden wrongdoers of [Greece] against the virtuous, responsible countries of the core’ (Fazi, 2015). See, for example, German Chancellor Angela Merkel who, in support of the Troika’s actions, inaccurately characterised Greeks as lazy, despite the average Greek between 2000 and 2013 having worked 500 hours more per year than the average German and taking less vacation time (see Böll and Böcking, 2011).

[14] See my research (here) into how BBC2’s Newsnight reported on Syriza during the first week after their election. I show how there was frequent negative framing of Syriza and its politicians; excessive and unnecessary use of ideologically charged terms (such as ‘communist’, ‘Marxist’ and ‘Maoist’) to describe Syriza’s politicians; and frequent efforts to associate Syriza and its members with perceived enemies of the West.


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