I studied politics at university from 2010 to 2013. It was a period of global economic recession and non-recovery. It was a time in which Obama reigned in the worst excesses of Bush and Blair’s War on Terror but at a fundamental level failed to end (an unsympathetic commentator would say actively continued) the very same clandestine, extrajudicial foreign policy methods. Neoliberal austerity punished the people for the disastrous consequences of under-regulated, free-as-a-bird capitalism.
The dominant ideology of politicians, policymakers and their institutions – domestic and international – was liberalism. The cutting edge of international relations (and all interesting political philosophy) was all critical theory and post-structuralism. Pushing back against the narrative of the ’90s that the West had won. Highlighting the institutional violence and injustice in the assumptions and policies of universalist liberalism.
I have recorded myself reading this article for those of you who, like me, like to listen to something stimulating while you get on with a mundane task.
Throughout this article I use the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘neoliberal’. Whilst they (obviously) don’t mean exactly the same thing, I’m using them interchangeably. The main reason for using different terms is that neoliberalism tends to refer only to economic policies, while politically, most scholars simply talk about liberalism. I consider the two part of the same ideology that has ruled Western foreign policy for more or less my entire lifetime.
International Relations ~1991-2017
Francis Fukuyama epitomised this when he wrote, in 1992, “What we may be witnessing is . . . The end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government” (and, many others would add, global, liberal capitalism as the final form of economy).
Such hubris led to the disastrous “shock therapy” of total overnight privatisation of Soviet public industries and imposition of free market economics in a society completely unfamiliar with them, the gross loss of personal privacy and judicial rights after 9/11 in the name of defending liberal democracy, and culminated in the Iraq War; designed and planned before George W. Bush even entered the White House to bring to the Middle East, one country at a time, democracy, prosperity and freedom.
Academics by-and-large already realised that despite this great weight of evidence of its manifold failings, Western states and policymakers remained wedded to such neoliberal ideas and when it came to the economic crisis of 2007/08 utterly failed to reform. Rather than identifying it as an event that demanded a new worldview and fresh policy, “liberal elites” (hence where the term originates) reinterpreted the recession not as an exceptional event but rather an inevitable part of successful capitalism and healthy democracy. Despite Gordon Brown often claiming “No return to boom and bust“, politicians and economic policymakers (but definitely not the academic consensus) were quick to tell themselves and the public that recessions happen, there are good times and there are lean times, it’s economics 101, and it can all be managed within the existing ideological framework.
Thus came the bailout of the banks and the American motor industry, corporation and capital gains tax cuts, low interest rates and quantitative easing. All measures to help ‘the market’. The people weren’t bailed out. Skilled, dependable, well paid jobs were replaced by unskilled, insecure, poorly paid piecemeal work. The value of their savings declined each year as house prices in areas with reasonable job prospects soared.
The people paid for it. VAT rose, austerity reigned. The neoliberal orthodoxy was clear; excessive government debt is a destabilising force on the market. The recession was recast again – certainly not a symptom of misguided economic policy, neither a normal part of the boom and bust cycle, but in fact evidence of the insufficient adoption of liberal values. The solution; spread neoliberal economic values deeper and further than ever. On the European continent, supranational organisations forced austerity upon states. At home, public services were cut back, purportedly trimming inefficient, unnecessary fat, but in reality shaped by public mood and voting demographics. The most vulnerable and the least heard suffered most.
As I say, this was our bread and butter. Universalist liberalism is a great, just force, but like any other set of beliefs it has its excesses and while it conquers many injustices, is blind to many others. Papers were read and essays written about the undemocratic nature of such a consensus; elections are held but none seriously challenge neoliberal orthodoxy, so what choice do citizens really have? About how modern Western governmental and charitable aid to developing countries operates in very similar ways to the colonialism of a hundred years ago. About how although free markets have empowered millions of women in developing countries by giving them economic independence, they have done so by semi-enslaving them in factories where they work 80+ hours a week and live in dorms above the production floor.
In conversations with lecturers and visiting professors we regularly despaired at how, despite these insights and now a couple of decades since it had become mainstream wisdom, the left was still without concrete answers to neoliberalism. It was only by embracing it wholeheartedly that socialist-esque political parties had found electoral success – notably Clinton and Blair. Either that or they succumbed to its irrefutable wisdom eventually – Obama’s inability to close Guantanamo and addiction to drone strikes, Hollande’s liberalisation of workers’ rights, Syriza’s capitulation to the ECB.
The right, which had never put much stock in liberal values, and even less in thoughtful, critical analysis proposed easy solutions; lower immigration and less free trade. We gave those short shrift, but as we can see with the 20/20 vision of hindsight, it is these ideas that have come to form the basis of popular opposition to neoliberalism today. For our inability to conceive of and articulate a better alternative, the left must accept some blame.
Clearly January 20th is a day of momentous occasion, but it was on Tuesday January 17th 2017 that so much of the whole critical analysis I have just written about suddenly seemed largely irrelevant.
It was on the 17th that a British prime minister declared economic neoliberalism dead (at least in terms of international relations, domestically it, as yet, continues). For whatever Theresa May talks of free trade, it is quite obvious that anyone who believed in free trade, free capital and free markets as the sole engine of national prosperity and individual freedom would be actively, fervently devoted to trying to join, not leave the European Union. Yes she has a referendum to honour, but there is such a thing as the European Economic Area, which logical deduction infers would carry the most public support.
Since then, each day has brought an even more horrifying headline than the last from across the Atlantic. While continuing to talk of “draining the swap”, Trump’s cabinet is to be segregationists, ex-Goldman Sachs bankers, oil magnates or else completely without experience in their role.
On Friday 20th, Donald Trump became president and autocratic action began. Trump’s publicity staff were made to say demonstrably false things, perhaps as a loyalty test, or to further debase truth and fact in preparation for greater untruths to come. The term ‘alternative fact’ was deployed seriously by the regime, without irony.
Encouraged by Trump’s plan to unilaterally move the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem – shared and disputed territory – Netanyahu immediately pushed ahead on a huge new programme of seizing Palestinian land and economically incentivizing Israelis to live there.
20+ million Americans will lose access to healthcare in under 100 days.
America has withdrawn from the Trans Pacific Partnership, further isolating an already deeply threatened Japan and leaving the institution as a rather lame duck. Unless China parachutes in to save the day, become the deal’s guarantor and continue its rise to regional hegemony.
Safe abortions will no longer be considered essential public healthcare in the United States. They will be a luxury only for the wealthy living in urban centres. A chilling new gag law for international organisations will require them to either not talk about or provide safe abortions anywhere in their institution, or lose all US funding. Funding that totalled 43 billion in 2014.
Torture, Trump has declared, “absolutely works“, and regardless of its legality he advocates its use.
American federal agencies have been politicised. All their communication, including publication of government statistics and scientific reports, must first be cleared by the president’s communications (a modern word for propaganda) department.
Trump believes that voter fraud is absolutely rampant in America, with 3-5 million illegal votes cast in the presidential election. They were all seemingly for Democrats, and so the solution will not be a re-run, but an expansion of voter ID laws already proven to disenfranchise Latinos, African Americans and the poor.
Each act taken alone is either a terrifying precedent, disastrous, directly contradicts other policies, or a monumental break with agreed norms, and often many of the above all at once. Although many are domestic, they clearly have impacts abroad, directly; on all the other scientists around the world who rely on quality American data for their research, on the citizens who rely on America to stand up for their rights when their government won’t, or by example; advocating torture, debasing truth, doubting democracy when it produces ‘the wrong’ result.
Don’t worry, be happy
Democratic checks and balances will protect us. As you’ve just made clear, the world needed change. A threat is also an opportunity. History zigs and zags.
Are these appropriate responses? Do I simply need to stop mourning the passing of a familiar world and face “this new age”, as Mrs May has called it, with hope and optimism? Am I a once-slave of neoliberalism, now freed and suffering from Stockholm syndrome?
I don’t believe so.
The political past I studied and know so intimately could be characterised as something like “the rule of unintended consequences”. Although its universal, liberal ‘laws’ and myriad institutions undoubtedly led to great prosperity and enabled the fulfilment of countless human lives, in pursuing such apparently noble ends violence was committed. It was often institutionalised, concealed or presented as the unavoidable cost of the slow march of progress. The task for those of us focused on increasing the net justice of the world was to uncover and critique these practises.
What of presenting solutions? Post-structuralist methods of inquiry are particularly mindful of the need to resist the natural temptation to battle one ideology with another. Free trade has problems, but those of protectionism are greater. Military interventions may cause great harm, but isolationist foreign policy has never succeeded either. The thread running through all serious critiques was a proposal of incremental, stakeholder led transformation. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Listen more and dictate less. Consider that universal human values can be interpreted and practised differently in different settings. Realise that while capitalism can deliver material prosperity in spades, it only does so through the wholesale, radical disruption of human lives as lived for thousands of years. Perhaps an excess of theorising and lack of radical proposals is why such critiques never captured public attention.
Even Bristol politics professor Vernon Hewitt who taught a third year unit – ‘Empire‘ – in which he critiqued the European Union as a continuation of the same European imperial project, from Rome through Napoleon, and thus given to the same excesses, wrote passionate pleas to vote remain in the EU referendum.
The political future that began just over a week ago is one Thucydides (400BC) would have recognised well. The mantra of the new ‘illiberal elite’ may well be “Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”. It is astonishing to me that democratic nations have chosen it. Democratic nations that have known war, have witnessed tyranny and fought against it many times in their history, that study such struggles in their schools.
We may be witnessing the end of an age of liberal nations working together to maximise prosperity and mediate conflict through shared laws and norms. Trump and May call for realism, for nation-first policies in a hostile, anarchic international space. Trump in particular sees economic development as zero sum. If any certain part of the US economy has suffered under NAFTA, then that alone is evidence that the whole deal is unfavourable. He has no idea that parts of the Mexican and Canadian economies have similarly not benefited from NAFTA, but in the whole, the net prosperity of all three signatories might have (assuredly has) been increased. But May and her ministers too, intuitively fall back on combative, mercantile rhetoric if they feel at all threatened by other nations. Either we win, or everybody loses.
Clearly May sees herself and her position as an evolution of the previous liberal order and not, as Trump advocates, a wholesale abandonment of it. She talks much of transnational institutions and liberal norms, but also states unequivocally that “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere”. She has given no comment on the implications of the fresh construction of a wall between two liberal democratic nations.
Yesterday she talked of an end to US and British foreign intervention, except in their own interests. How long until such callous realism leads to another Rwanda? Another Kosovo? Another covert presidential funding and organisation of a campaign of indiscriminate terrorism to overthrow a state threatening against US self-interest a la Reagan’s Nicaragua. “Fight fire with fire” Trump says. Will May be the one to tell him that that just makes a bigger fire? She seems much too focused on her own national interest to be so, liberal.
Think of the difference between the extraordinary rendition practised immediately after 9/11 and the announcement on Wednesday by President Trump that he advocates reintroducing extraordinary rendition. The two are in entirely different moral universes. The Bush administration and the various world leaders, secret agents and private charter companies who assisted them did everything they could to keep the whole programme a secret. They did this because they knew that these activities were outside the moral norms of their societies, even of world society. They believed that the ends justified the means. Waterboarding was employed because legal representation said it wasn’t torture. To Trump, and to the terrifying new world order he ushers in, such actions need not be sanctioned morally, legally or otherwise by anyone but himself. He wants to bring back extraordinary rendition, openly and publicly. He believes in torture, so he’ll use it.
The task at hand changes
I anticipate that much of the harm of this post-neoliberal political and economic order will look the same as the harms of the previous decades. The job of those who seek justice won’t be to uncover suppressed wrongs, but to explain why the actions, often succinctly expressed in 140 characters or less, are wrong. This will, intellectually, be simpler, but the stakes will be so so much higher. The difference between “this method of distributing aid reifys colonial practices of white civilised peoples bequeathing knowledge to barbaric coloured peoples” and “government aid will drop from 0.7% of GDP to no longer having its own department and will be used solely to promote trade deals for the UK” is, well, hundreds of millions of meaningful human lives.
The real challenge, beyond convincing the voting majority of our democratic republics of our cause, will be not to become the neoliberals, universalists or liberal hawks we once critiqued. Post-structuralism and critical theory still offer, I believe, our best tools for imagining and implementing a more just future. The future we propose must be new. The future must be a synthesis of what was great about political liberalism and the awesome power of markets to improve standards of living and the necessary corrections to that dogma that (we hope!) the current era will bring.