Book Review: ‘Cooperatives Confront Capitalism: Challenging the Neoliberal Economy’

Cooperatives Confront Capitalism: Challenging the Neoliberal Economy by Peter Ranis

Reviewed by Callum Alexander Scott for Peace News, June – July 2017 | Issue 2606 – 2607

Consider a system of organised production in which a single person (owner) or a group of people (shareholders) at the top make all the decisions and give the orders; they decide everything from rates of wages to what is produced, how and where it is produced and where it is sold.

Below them are managers who receive and transmit the orders to a group of workers further down the pecking order who are permitted to sell their labour for just a fraction of the wages that those at the top grant themselves. This form of organisation characterises capitalism, that is, the private ownership of the means of production. It is inherently hierarchical and fosters relations of domination and subordination. It is, one might observe, totalitarian by nature.

Alternatively, consider a system of organised production in which a group of members collectively own, manage and democratically decide (via membership votes) everything from rates of wages to what is produced, how and where it is produced and where it is sold.

Furthermore, consider that managers, to the extent that they exist, are democratically elected by members and job roles are regularly rotated to ensure education and the betterment of skills for all members.

This form of organisation characterises socialism, that is, the worker ownership of the means of production. It is inherently egalitarian and, rather than sustaining relations of domination and subordination, it seeks to foster relations of co-operation and partnership based on mutual respect. It is, one might observe, democratic by nature.

That the former system prevails in our society is no law of nature. Indeed, as Peter Ranis shows in this book, the latter can and does represent a workable alternative to the dominant hierarchical structures of our prevailing modes of employment.

Presenting numerous case studies from across Europe, the US and Latin America, Ranis explores how co-operative organisations of the kind mentioned above have developed and prospered the world over in response to economic crises, global protest and the general desire of working people to emancipate themselves from the aristocracy of their employers.

By combining the work of key theorists such as Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg and Antonio Gramsci with that of contemporary political economists like Thomas Piketty, Josephn Stiglitz and Fred Block, Ranis provides a clear analysis of the ideas, achievements and historical context of the co-operative movement.

As he points out, the latter has always aimed to provide ‘a counter-narrative to the one that assumes only owners and managers can provide leadership and function effectively in the world of production’. Certainly, if this book provides anything for the reader, it is just this.

A worthwhile read for anyone interested in understanding alternative, more egalitarian modes of production and employment.

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

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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