The pandemic is demonstrating that we can resist neoliberalism

A few snippets today, being Wednesday and my short-form blog day (sometimes). I will have a few announcements to make early next week. One will concern a streaming lecture I will be giving next Tuesday as part of my usual work in Finland this time of the year. The title of my talk will be: Political economy thought and praxis post pandemic. I give an annual public lecture in Helsinki but this time it will be coming from the East Coast of Australia, given the pandemic. Details about access will be coming early next week (Monday’s blog post). For now some comments on the pandemic.

The power of the state

The Lancet editor, Richard Horton tweeted on December 7, 2020:

One issue about Brexit I don’t understand. COVID-19 has shown that sovereignty is dead. Global problems demand global solutions. The idea of “take back control” is illusory. Yet our govt believes we can be an island alone. We can’t. We depend on our neighbours for our future.

However, on June 23, 2018, he wrote an article in Lancet – Offline: Defending the left hand of the state.


Brexit did that to the Remainers.

Richard Horton discusses the work of French intellectual – Pierre Bourdieu – who died about 19 years ago today (January 23, 2002).

He is a very missed voice.

As a sociologist, he provided deep analysis on the “dynamics of power in society” and the capacity of societies to sustain social order.

Richard Horton focuses on Pierre Bourdieu’s “two hands of the state” distinction, where:

The left hand represented those ministries that “are the trace…of the social struggles of the past” – notably, health and education. The right hand was symbolised by “the technocrats of the Ministry of Finance”.

This is the classic dichotomy that neoliberalism has accentuated.

The powers of the technocrats under pressure from the corporate lobbies have so compromised the state – reconfigured it to advance their own narrow interests, that the state no longer necessarily works as our agents to advance the well-being of the majority.

Pierre Bourdieu considered the neoliberal era to be one of the significant retrenchments in our civilisation:

… the failure of the state as the guardian of the public interest.

We considered that reconfiguration and its consequences in our book – Reclaiming the State: A Progressive Vision of Sovereignty for a Post-Neoliberal World (Pluto Books, September 2017).

Pierre Bourdieu predicted that the consequences would see an erosion of support for the state as the public starting “treating it as an alien power to be used so far as they can to serve their own interests”.

I have written and talked about the anti-establishment revolt that is well developed in many countries.

Brexit, Trump, Yellow Vests, right-wing populism, storming of the Capitol, and more – are all examples of this disdain the citizenry have for the role of the state and the let down they are feeling as they realise that the promises made by the neoliberals of prosperity and security were just lies designed to cover the tracks as the raiders pillaged national income and took more and more for themselves.

Richard Horton, correctly notes that neoliberalism is a “specific form of capitalism, an intensification of capitalism”.

The reconfiguration of the state was not in the form that the neoliberals allowed the people to believe.

While they batted on about free markets and deregulation, which gave the impression that there would be less state, the fact is that they supercharged the state using its legislative and regulative machinery to work better for their own ends.

As Richard Horton writes:

Neoliberalism then takes a unique turn. It does not endorse a small laissez-faire state. Instead, it demands an interventionist state, one that clears away all obstacles to the market. If markets don’t exist, the state creates them (carbon trading). The state will create new spaces for markets to flourish, supranationally (the European Union’s single market) and subnationally (decentralisation of power to cities).

And the problem then is that the “left hand” has been compromised so badly that coopted that it no longer functions the way it was intended – to advance human well-being.

His special interest, obviously (as Lancet editor) is the health sector and he opines that “Medical and scientific institutions have warmly adopted the neoliberal project” and that has extended into our higher education sector, where bosses (managers, vice chancellors etc) now pay themselves grotesque salaries, claiming they have fundamentally modernised a corporate university sector.

Leeches don’t modernise. They suck.

The important message that I always took from Pierre Bourdieu’s work was that “neoliberalism was not inevitable”.

He taught us that the state is powerful and can be used for good (if so pressured) and bad (neoliberalism). He was not a fan of states surrendering their competencies to pan national structures.

But then again he also believed that strong states with coherent national identities could work towards global cooperation to advance well-being everywhere.

While the anti-establishment revolt is somewhat uncoordinated and has lead, in some cases (not Brexit) to very poor outcomes (Trump etc) we still have the overwhelming power as united citizens if we choose to coordinate and use it.

So I thought it was strange that Richard Horton would be out there Tweeting that the state is now powerless in the face of the pandemic.

Strong decisions by some national governments (lockdowns etc) supported by a citizenry that has clearly placed high value on saving human life has meant that some countries (Australia, New Zealand) etc have escaped the worst of the virus.

And it is also becoming clearer that the economic penalty for doing so has not been as great as it has been for nations that have tried to ‘stay open’.

The state has been far from powerless in dealing with the pandemic in Australia.

To some extent it has also demonstrated that political pragmatism (motivated by a knowledge of the sentiments of the population) has proven to be a bulwark against the neoliberals.

In the Australian setting, the neoliberals have been complaining about business being closed and border restrictions (domestic and international) right down to mandated mask rules.

Their voices have been drowned out by the massive scream by the vast majority of us who want to virus eliminated through lockdowns.

That should be an interesting model for progressives to build on. Find the right cause and the people unite.

Music – Bunny Livingston

This is what I have been listening to while working today. Getting mellow while staying angry.

This is the dub version

This is from Jamaican singer, poet, drummer – Neville O’Riley Livingston (aka Bunny Livingston, aka Bunny Wailer).

The latter assignation (Bunny Wailer) comes from his status as one of the original Wailing Wailers with step-brother Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. That band would split and produce three separate and brilliant musical contributions in the 1970s and beyond.

To some extent Bunny is my favourite despite the fact that he is probably the lesser known of that illustrious trio from the 1960s.

He was often backed as a solo artist by the premier Jamaican rhythm section – Sly and Robbie – which comprised Robbie Shakespeare on bass and Sly Dunbar on drums.

Horn sections were usually supplied by the Blazing Horns (Tommy McCook and Bobby Ellis).

This song – Rise and Shine – was off his 1981 release from Solomic Records (with Solomic Dub on the B-side). This is the 12 inch dub version and the best.

I regularly received shipments of Mento, Ska, Rock Steady, Reggae and Dub singles from the UK in the 1970s and beyond. They were very cheap and you could buy a big box of records for hardly anything.

Some of the gems of all time were in those boxes and I learned a lot of the diversity of artists, recording studios and their technical differences from those bits of plastic.

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2021 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

This Post Has 17 Comments

  1. Once again Bill uses his forensic skills in separating baby from bathwater; recognising others ability to recognise the baby and the bathwater he admonishes their failure to retain the baby and discard the bathwater.

  2. “Unless you accept the entire neo-liberal structure of the 4 Freedoms, then we won’t co-operate in any areas of mutual benefit such as education or security”. EU rep stamps little foot and Remainders nod.

  3. “The powers of the technocrats under pressure from the corporate lobbies have so compromised the state – reconfigured it to advance their own narrow interests, that the state no longer necessarily works as our agents to advance the well-being of the majority.” As “Reclaiming the State” made clear, THIS is the paradox we find ourselves in. The very institution, the ONLY institution, that has the power to roll back the austerity, oppression, and militarism of neoliberalism, to bring about a better, more beautiful world, has lost the allegiance of the people, because the state has been captured and controlled by the elite to serve their interests at the expense of everyone else and the planet itself. If the essential role of the state is not obvious to us at this point, then it shortly will be as Covid returns in waves and mutates, as viruses are wont to do, again and again freezing our neoliberal shark of an economy in its tracks, a shark which must swim to breathe. If we fail to reclaim the state, the future is bleak. If we do reclaim the state, the future can be glorious. But have decades of neoliberal degradation sapped our hope, our courage, our belief and confidence in ourselves, to the point where we can no longer even imagine what a glorious future would look like, feel like? If one’s heart has understandably become faint in this regard, if one is lost in a sea of despond, I know of only one antidote: read Bellamy, first “Looking Backward,” then “Equality, ” both free on the net. These books are CPR for a failing heart; at least they were for mine.

  4. There was some overlap of Trump’s populist policy measures and those of Bernie Sanders such as a willingness to enlarge the federal deficit, moderating or reversing the globalisation and free trade agenda to reduce off-shoring of US manufacturing, not starting any wars and ‘bringing the boys home’ and even acknowledging the fact that working people were betrayed by the ‘liberal elites’ of the big cities.

    One of the centres of power that backed Trump was a manufacturing industry based group so he was not all bad and his supporters were mostly concerned about jobs.

    Sanders got close in the 2016 primaries against Hillary Clinton and got close in the 2020 primaries before the pandemic knocked his campaigning strategy off course and the Democratic Party establishment and their media networks shut Sanders down. Sanders can still run in 2024 as he is mentally and physically in better shape than Biden.

    A charismatic populist candidate like Sanders of the left who is competent and has integrity working from within the Democratic Party is the strategy closest to gaining office by a considerable margin. The US electoral system makes the ascent of third parties very difficult but the Libertarianists have managed to gain a reasonable vote. The US Green Party just does not have the resources to provide the essential media coverage required.

    “Leeches don’t modernise. They suck.” – that summarises the ruling establishment in both halves of the duopolies that rule the Anglosphere at the moment but perhaps New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern can be the first to stop the relentless march of neoliberalism and financialisation at least a little and perhaps Joe Biden will at least outperform class traitors Barack Obama and Bill Clinton.

  5. I find all this talk about somehow the bourgeois state is able to serve us is silly.

    We need to grow beyond Bernie’s level. We cannot look to him or AOC or entertain the silly idea of going back to Roosevelt days. I don’t think the world Bernie sees is accurate. Its also wrong to look to some savior in general.

    Bernie’s free college will drive wages even further down and provide even more able and obedient workers for capitalists to choose from to increase profits even further than it is now. That is not a solution.

    Our graduate students spend 80 percent income on rent. We have 20 percent youth NEETs here in California. They are not building skills. So many of my friends are developing mental problems.

    Then on the issues of climate change, housing, employment, and healthcare etc. Our solutions WILL challenge profits and authority of capital. When capital controls government like today, there can be no reform.

    Fact is that our government is completely bought and everyone knows. How can we expect reform when the government is bought and serves capital? Capital and workers have opposing interests.

    Solution is re volution. Its simply not realistic to organize around single issues like climate change or housing when they all share a common cause that is capitalism and capitalists.

  6. @Tom Y, you talk about student rents and housing. These are about the ownership of land not capital. It’s been a century since the left understood landlordism.

  7. Carol do you think there has been a drop in amount of reading leftists do? My impression is that people just don’t read.

  8. @Tom Y: I think revolution is not going to happen. By what mechanism ? I think Bill’s advocacy of challenging neoliberalism and reinstating the power of the state for the common good is achievable and even that will be an enormous challenge.

  9. “Solution is re volution.”

    What do they say the definition of insanity is? Repeating a failed activity expecting a different result.

    Socialism in the 20th century failed comprehensively.

    The Chinese discarded and abandoned socialism 40 years ago and replaced it with a totalitarian state married to monopoly and oligopoly capitalism – fascism.

    Every socialist state that appeared in the 20th century has introduced capitalist “reforms”.

    Good luck with your revolution.

  10. Historically there has been a tendency for society to consolidate and increase the scale of components. I suppose everything started from family. Then there was clan, tribe… followed by village, city… State is a modern large scale unit of political organization. I, however, don’t think it’s going to be the final one. Consolidation doesn’t stop at the state. Scale will likely grow. Moreover, there’s nothing special about nationality. Citizenship is a better concept. What does remain constant is the presence of a central authority with specific legal rights, responsibilities and ability to command resources and compel others into obedience. We may call it ‘government’. In a family it is likely a father or a mother, sometimes both. It is a chief or a group of elders in a tribe and so on. I think the emphasis should be on a centralized institution with certain rights, responsibilities and capabilities. That said, too much centralization and reduced diversity is detrimental to progress. So will all of human kind ever be united under one government? Is it even a worthy goal? What about a galaxy?

  11. Lavrik “So will all of human kind ever be united under one government?”

    One world government has effectively already been implemented in the form of global financialisation and neoliberalism by global corporate/banking/vested interests imposing it through a web of international agreements like the TPP, TTIP, the central bankers global meetings, the five eyes spying agreement, military alliances and through captured international institutions like the WTO, IMF and World Bank and nearly all national and state/regional governments feeling compelled to also serve that process because of near total corporate capture and a compliant populace subjected to decades of mass media imposed manufactured consent.

    MMT recognises the power of issuing the national currency and therefore it makes sense that democratic and political power be centred at the national level but that most government services be administered where practical at the local level, for example the JG.

    Reclaim the state people or live, suffer and die as serfs to the global oligarchy!

  12. Re: Andreas Bimba. It would seem you have misunderstood. The organizations you mention are not the ‘government’ as I define it since, as you rightfully point out, they are not sovereign. Besides, your example is a list of institutions and legal structures essentially unrelated to each other. I am thinking more along the lines of a centralized, perhaps federal system akin USA, where modern countries are part of a functional federation under the central authority with full fiscal power. I am also assuming single currency, central bank and some form of global democracy, of course.

  13. @Tom Y

    Tom, a call for “revolution” and wishing that we could simply go beyond what is proposed by Bernie sounds noble and perhaps may be good and all, but you haven’t given any detail of how you arrange said revolution, what revolution means, and on what timeframe etc. These are all tough but very important questions. Subject to properly setting that out, it does not seem reasonable or productive to outright reject other people’s more moderate attempts to improve lives and do what good can be done within the confines of the existing system and prevailing attitudes.

    I suggest listening to the considered discussion in this video from timestamp 37:20 (“Revolutionary Prospects of The Imperial Core and Periphery”)

  14. Dear Anthony K.

    Those are the questions I am perfectly aware of. Please don’t lump me with college radicals who say things to get noticed. I am NOT interested in that. I come from a science background and i am constantly trying to improve myself and learn more and do practical things to improve peoples lives. I have NEVER rejected outright people’s moderate attempts. In fact, i am constantly trying to help, discuss, and learn with them everyday in my trade union. I am not a talker and its something i completely reject.

    Thanks for your help in providing some resources to me.

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