The British Elite’s Unquestioning Acceptance of Questionable Claims

This article was published in the Morning Star on 25th April 2017. See here.

Despite a distinct absence of evidence, virtually the entire British media declared Assad guilty of chemical weapons use and Trump justified in using air strikes earlier this month

On April 4 2017, reports came from the community of Khan Sheikhoun in the rebel-held Syrian province of Idlib that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons against civilians in an airstrike.

Two days later, on April 6, the Trump administration broke international law by unilaterally launching its own airstrike, firing 59 Tomahawk missiles at the very airbase from which Assad was said to have launched his strike from.

Trump declared: ‘there can be no dispute that [Assad] used banned chemical weapons’.

The Pentagon reiterated, saying that the US response was ‘in retaliation for the regime of Bashar Assad using nerve agents to attack his own people’.

Unsurprisingly, the British government quickly announced its full support for ‘the US action’ which it said was ‘an appropriate response to the barbaric chemical weapons attack launched by the Syrian regime’.

Thereafter, virtually the entire political and media establishment in both the US and Britain (and beyond) aligned itself with the US government.

Conservatives praised Trump for his ‘presidential’ response, while liberals who’ve spent months deriding him as an incredulous fool and a dire threat to democracy applauded him. Remarkably, only one out of 46 major editorial newspapers in the US opposed his airstrikes, while in the UK, as professor of journalism Roy Greenslade observed, the most ‘identifiable theme in almost every leading article and commentary’, from both liberal and right-leaning publications, was: ‘Well done Donald’.

Lack of Evidence

Given the near unanimous support for Trump’s airstrikes from all these apparently clever people, one might be forgiven for thinking it was a foregone conclusion that Assad had used chemical weapons and that the US response was therefore justified.

However, the reality is quite different. Aside from the genuinely horrific reports, pictures and videos of victims that came through from Khan Sheikhoun, which prove nothing about who was responsible, no evidence was presented proving Assad was behind the use of chemical weapons, and still none has been presented to this day.

This was pointed out immediately after the events by a number of very credible sources, including Scott Ritter and Hans Blix – both former chief UN weapons inspectors to Iraq – and the former British ambassador to Syria Sir Peter Ford.

Despite this absence of evidence, virtually the entire British media and political elite declared Assad guilty. No enquiry, no questioning of the Trump administration’s official narrative – just pure acceptance of the casus belli.

Legitimate Questions

While the Assad regime is most certainly deplorable, there is, contrary to the mainstream narrative, good reason to believe that it wasn’t responsible for the use of chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhoun, and that Russia and Syria’s explanation – that Syrian jets struck a rebel warehouse containing bombs and other toxic substances – may have some legitimacy.

For starters, consider the sources. The reports emanating from Khan Sheikhoun on April 4, which blamed Assad for the attack and which Western media reported widely, came largely from pro-rebel sources – namely, the White Helmets, an organisation with proven ties to Jihadist rebels, including al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Nusra Front.

Verifying any of those sources as ‘independent’ so soon after the attacks would have been very difficult given that the region is occupied by jihadists (yes, the same ‘terrorists’ we’re supposed to be at war with) who’ve been at the center of the anti-Assad movement in Syria since 2011.

As journalist John Wight wrote: ‘No Western journalist or news crew would dare set foot there, or indeed in any part of opposition-controlled Syria, knowing that as soon as they did they would be kidnapped and butchered’.

Then consider the timing. Why on Earth would Assad risk provoking international outrage by using chemical weapons against the rebels when he was already beating them with conventional ones?

Furthermore, why would he do it just days after the US announced that removing him was no longer their priority, and days before the European Union was set to hold its important doner conference in Brussels on the future of Syria? It would be an act of complete and utter political and diplomatic self-harm.

If anything, Assad had much to lose from committing a chemical attack, while the rebels had everything to gain from its provocation of foreign US intervention against him.

Then there were the inconsistencies with the reports coming out of the rebel-held region. For example, it was reported by Kareem Shaheen in the Guardian that all that remained amongst the rubble was ‘a faint stench that tingles the nostrils and a small green fragment from the rocket’.

Yet, as the BBC reported: ‘Sarin is almost impossible to detect because it is a clear, colourless and tasteless liquid that has no odour in its purest form’.

More questions lay around the lack of protective clothing worn by the White Helmets in the images being fed to Western media.

As former chief UN weapons inspector to Iraq Scott Ritter observed, if military grade Sarin was used, as reports were claiming, ‘the rescuers would themselves have become victims’. While there were some accounts of this, they were, as Ritter notes, at the site of the attack where claims of a ‘pungent smelling’ chemical were made.

Herd Mentality

Remarkably, in the face of these legitimate questions, virtually the entire British media and political elite willingly chose to accept the reports of possible Al-Qaeda affiliates and the assertions of the Trump administration, which based its own evidence on the same questionable reports.

We know this because on Tuesday April 11 the White House released a declassified intelligence report outlining why it believed Assad was responsible for the chemical attack.

To the White House’s own admission, the report cited a  ‘wide body of open-source material’ and ‘social media accounts’ from inside the rebel-held region, including footage from the White Helmets.

Reviewing the report and alleged evidence against Assad, weapons scientist and professor emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Theodore Postol said that it ‘contains absolutely no evidence [emphasis added] that this attack was the result of a munition being dropped from an aircraft’.

He added: ‘I believe it can be shown, without doubt, that the document does not provide any evidence whatsoever that the US government has concrete knowledge that the government of Syria was the source of the chemical attack in Khan Shaykhun’.

In a subsequent and more detailed review of the report, Postol concludes that it ‘contains unambiguous evidence’ that the White House made ‘false and misleading claims that could not possibly have been accepted in any professional review by impartial intelligence experts’.

This of course adds credence to the claims that Syrian jets, using conventional weapons, may have struck a rebel warehouse containing toxic substances.

As Jerry Smith, former UN weapons inspector in Syria and the official who led the UN-backed operation to remove Assad’s chemical weapons in 2013-14, said to Channel 4 news: ‘if it is Sarin that was stored there and conventional munitions were used, there is every possibility that some of those [chemical] munitions were not consumed and that the Sarin liquid was ejected and could well have affected the population’.

Certainly, it’s not inconceivable that the rebels were storing – or that they even planted – chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhoun in anticipation of the Assad regime bombing the location.

Reports that rebel groups were in possession of and had used chemical weapons in Syria were confirmed back in 2013 by UN special investigator Carla del Ponte.

As a leading member of the UN’s Commission of Inquiry on Syria in 2013 that was investigating alleged chemical weapons usage by Assad, del Ponte stated that ‘we have no indication at all [emphasis added] that the Syria government had used chemical weapons’.

To the contrary, she added, it appeared that chemical weapons were ‘used by the rebels’. It’s also worth pointing out here that the oftcited example given by media personnel and politicians that Assad previously used chemical weapons against civilians in Ghouta, Damascus in 2013 is also unproven.

While confirming unequivocally that chemical weapons were used, the subsequent UN investigation into the allegations produced NO evidence that it was Assad who used them, and thus DID NOT conclude such a thing.

This point is highly significant given that so many prominent media and political figures falsely hold up Ghouta as an incontrovertible example of Assad having used chemical weapons in the past.

Intellectual Timidity

Let’s be clear, Assad is a despicable dictator. No moral human can defend him or his regime. But this is no reason to abandon rational thought and to cease asking challenging questions about the reasons for bombing an already war-torn country.

While Assad may indeed be behind the use of chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhoun, the evidence thus far is flimsy and open to reasonable doubt, something shamefully not reflected in the mainstream.

Has the experience of Iraq taught us nothing?! Indeed, the failure of our political and media elite to ask the simplest of questions regarding the narratives that came from both Idlib province and the Trump administration (which are still being reiterated) betrays the obvious fact that they are utterly incapable of independent critical thought.

As the former chief UN weapons inspector to Iraq Hans Blix asked following Trump’s airstrikes: ‘If you had a murder and you strongly suspect one fellow, do you go to judgment and execution straight away?’

No, of course you don’t. Yet this is exactly what our highly educated cultural and political opinion leaders have done – they’ve gone straight to judgement off of the fanciful claims of the US government and dubious sources without any critical analysis of the evidence – or lack of – in front of them. Now doesn’t that sound familiar?



‘Opposites Attract’: Britain and the Bad Guys

This article was published in the Morning Star on 8th April 2017. See here.

With Theresa May away pandering to Middle Eastern dictators this week, it’s worth recalling that the British Establishment has always courted deplorable people – from Fascists in the 1930s to Trump in 2017. As long as they serve the commercial interests of British business then they have a place at the table.

Like all Prime Ministers, May presents herself in public as a person of integrity and principle – she claims to uphold ‘British values‘, to be a feminist, a champion of working people and equal opportunity, a proponent of freedom and democracy, she’s apparently against unnecessary wars, repression, torture and injustice (unless it’s for ‘defence’ purposes, of course).

Donald Trump, however, seems a world away – he is a public showman, a billionaire, an obvious misogynist who’s bragged about grabbing women ‘by the pussy’, he has repressive, warmongering and authoritarian tendencies, and he has shamelessly harnessed racism, xenophobia and division to win the presidency of the United States, among other reprehensible things.

So when asked about how she’ll manage the differences between herself and Trump, what might we expect May to say? ‘He’s a despicable man’, ‘I intend to avoid him at all costs’, ‘Britain will refuse to do business with him because we are a nation of principle’? No, of course not. When asked this very question in January 2017 she responded: ‘Haven’t you ever noticed, sometimes opposites attract?’

Opposites most certainly do attract, especially when it’s in the commercial interests of Britain for them to do so. In fact, Britain’s commercial interests have always trumped its principles. This is why May and her predecessors have supported the royal family of Saudi Arabia, a repressive, authoritarian, human rights abusing regime of billionaires who permit the beheading of criminals, the stoning of women and the funding of Islamic terrorism around the globe.

They’re also engaged in a campaign of terror in Yemen right now that’s killed over 10,000 civilians, a campaign that May’s government supports and has continued to provide weapons for. How are ‘British values’ being upheld here? Or how are they being upheld when May visits Turkey and brokers a £100m arms deal with its authoritarianhuman rights abusing, free speech supressingmisogynistic, ISIS sympathising president Erdoğan? And then there’s British support for Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt under Sisi (and previously Mubarak) – all are repressive, authoritarian human rights abusers who the British government happily trades with (particular commodities include oil and weapons).

Or lest we forget Britain’s collusion with Colonel Muammar Gaddafi under Tony Blair, which helped broker a £550m deal for Anglo-Dutch oil giant Shell to explore for gas in Libya. Or Britain’s support for Saddam Hussein under Margaret Thatcher, who continued selling him arms despite knowing he’d used chemical weapons against Iranians in the Iran-Iraq war between 1980-88 and had committed genocide against the Kurds in 1988.

Or Thatcher’s faithful support for the brutal and murderous Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet, who she affectionately described as Britain’s ‘true friend’.

Then there was her support for General Suharto of Indonesia, whose dictatorship has been described as ‘one of the most brutal and corrupt of the 20th century’. After coming to power in a military coup in 1965 his regime tortured and killed around 500,000 people and in his subsequent invasion and occupation of East Timor in 1975 he killed around 250,000 more. Thatcher described him as ‘One of our very best and most valuable friends‘, while Elizabeth Windsor received him on a State Visit in 1979.

Or further still, how about Thatcher’s problematic stance on apartheid South Africa, in which she opposed sanctions and condemned Mandela’s African National Congress as a ‘typical terrorist organisation’?

Oh, and then there was Britain’s support for the Shah of Iran from 1953 to 1979. The Shah, another brutal dictator, came to power after the British, under Winston Churchill, helped the US overthrow the democratically elected government of Mohammed Mossadegh because he wanted to nationalise its oil industry. Where were the so-called ‘British values’ of freedom, justice and democracy then?

Indeed, it’s important to understand, in the light of May’s kowtowing to Trump and the Queen inviting him on a State Visit, that the British Establishment has always pandered to, and supported, the most despicable people when it has suited the interests of British business.

A most outrageous example of this, which has been tactfully erased from most British history books, came in the 1930s when a large portion of the British Establishment, by way of finance, weapons and diplomacy, supported fascism at home and in Germany and Italy. From the Royal Family to Churchill, fascism was of little concern until it directly threatened British interests. As the renowned British historian AJP Taylor wrote:

‘Every politician extolled the virtues of democracy, especially at the expense of Soviet Russia. Despite this rhetoric […] Ramsay MacDonald wrote friendly personal letters to the Fascist dictator Mussolini; Austen Chamberlain exchanged photographs with him and joined him in family holidays; Churchill sang his praises in newspaper articles’.

Or take Lord Reith, the founding director-general of the BBC. He openly admired both Hitler and Mussolini. As early as 1933 he declared that ‘I am certain that the Nazis will clean things up and put Germany on the way to being a real power in Europe again […] They are being ruthless and most determined’. Dare we even remind ourselves of the following footage of a seven-year-old Elizabeth Windsor giving a nazi salute with her mother, sister and uncle in 1933. It’s certainly a powerful, if controversial, illustration of just how normalised and accepted fascism was among the British establishment during that period – that is, before it threatened our own national interests.

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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