Has neo-liberalism reached use-by date? Ayn Rand and the failure of philosophy

It has long been evident that the extreme neo-liberalism that followed Ayn Rand’s views has had a malign influence on the world economy leading to massive inequality. And the system is now like an unstable house of cards. Matthew Wright explains in this super post.

Matthew Wright

A good deal of what I’ve been seeing of late on social media – but also in mainstream journalism – revolves around the notion that the Covid-19 pandemic will be the trigger for a shift away from the neo-liberalism that has characterised leading western economic policies since the early 1980s.

That might be right. Back then this ideology was trumpeted as a ‘more sophisticated’ approach than the liberal democratic western policy mixes of the mid-twentieth century. When the eastern bloc fell over in the early 1990s its triumph seemed complete. History, Francis Fukuyama declared, had ended as a result. From then on, The Future would consist of a changeless neo-liberal nirvana.

Well, quite. It was an absurd statement, curiously built on the same faulty assumption that Karl Marx had applied to his thinking in the 1840s: that societies, by nature, move towards an ideal end-point – a meaning summed up…

View original post 2,081 more words

Time for the Magic Money Tree

One of the great things my children tought me was that, when you are playing a game with defined rules, if the rules are not working well you change them. The meta-game of manipulating the rules is itself of value, and extends the life of the game. This has application in real life!

It seems not long since UK politicians were proclaiming that the magic money tree does not exist, and there was no alternative to austerity. Yet it turns out that it does indeed exist, and is being deployed by central banks to help governments to handle the financial crisis erupting in the wake of covid-19. Money is created, by the central bank, at the stroke of a key on a keyboard, is used to solve the problem, and may get paid back eventually. There is now no alternative to the magic money tree.Read More »

Disasters

I wrote this post a while ago, but didn’t publish it because it seemed too negative. But then again it is facing the truth, they are coming thick and fast…

Disasters are in the nature of things. Life is evolution and change. Galaxies collide, solar systems merge, orbiting objects crash into each other, storms and subterranean events cause cataclysmic events on planets. So however stable things might seem, it is inevitable that disasters will occur.

california wildfire
Wildfire, Ventura, California, December 2017, NY Times

So is it any surprise that disasters are also caused by human beings. However, we do seem to be particularly good at creating the conditions for them, e.g. we:

  • invest in new sources of fossil fuels that we know are not sustainable, thereby exacerbating the global warming we know is happening – and continue to prevaricate on taking effective action to minimise and mitigate its effects.
  • degrade our soil and food with chemical-based farming, when biological and organic methods are the only sustainable way.
  • base our economic system solely on growth, regardless of the quality of that growth and its ecological non-sustainability.
  • propagate increasing inequalities that history tells us are not sustainable and result in conflict, yet refuse to contemplate alleviatory measures, such as taxes on financial transactions, wealth and land.
  • elect those who base their campaigns around separation and collective illusions, such as making countries ‘great again’, standing above others.
  • fill our seas with plastic, to the extent that our food coming from the oceans includes increasing residues of it.
  • cut down forests to create more land to feed animals for food or grow more oil, thereby removing the planet’s lungs (analogy).
  • globalise everything such that (with climate change) diversity of species is drastically reduced.
  • invest in escalation of arms including nuclear, chemical and biological weapons that no sane person would wish to see ever used.

The entrenched status quo appears to be manipulated by the main beneficiaries (the rich and powerful) such that any rapid change of direction is not possible.Read More »

Inequality

The recent issue of London Review of Books has an interesting review by James C. Scott of the book The Great Leveller: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the 21st Century, by Walter Scheidel. It seems that the increasing inequality exhibited in the recent neoliberal era is not a historical anomaly, but a characteristic of periods of reasonable stability in all societies over thousands of years. Those that have get more and more, at the expense of those that have not. The great levellers are wars, plagues, and their consequences such as revolutions or massive disruptions such as the Great Leap Forward.

It seems that Scheidel’s book is a bit of a counsel of despair, in that he suggests that most of the social advances made in social justice, democracy, education, trade unions, welfare state… have little effect on this underlying trend.

As a counter-example, Scott does point to the example of Scandinavia, which is particularly stable because “They provide even the poorest with the resources necessary to maintain their dignity.” This is surely the measure of a decent society, and sadly one that many free marketeers appear not to believe in.

Of course, it is arguable that if the level of all is rising, then it does not matter, as the situation of even the lowest is improving. The period of austerity since 2008 seems to have reduced any leverage this argument may have had.

I would suggest that it is not beyond the wit of man to come up with more equitable systems that allows all human beings to maintain their dignity. Good places to start include taxation of scarce or undesirable resources – land, wealth, carbon, financial transactions,… progressive taxation, removing tax havens, money reform so that new money benefits society directly, basic income with a reduced minimum wage, provision of adequate ‘social housing’… There is no shortage of good directions, it just needs the will, particularly of the better off.

Featured image shows UK wealth distribution by decile (IFS), but of course hides the extremes and unknowns at the right hand end. And many countries have much worse profiles.

What happened to politics?

Why are people in US/Europe fed up with current politicians and moving towards more intolerant/right wing positions (Trump, Brexit, French FN,…) or, to more extreme left wing positions (Corbyn, Sanders, Podemos, Syriza,…)?

A simplistic answer is that everyone in these countries is no longer sharing in the good life. The rich have got a lot richer, the poor have got a lot poorer. The banks crashed the system but largely got away with it, leaving most of us poorer. So there’s more to bitch about.

Globalisation has spread the good life around, but more for ‘them’ than for ‘us’. We just see the bad side of this, as the chickens come home to roost – from various foreign adventures in Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, Libya, now Syria, etc – from the effects of climate change where globalisation has pressed the accelerator pedal – from population movements that have inevitably resulted.

And the big issues are not being addressed, in some degree due to the corporate stranglehold on change, particularly apparent in the US and apparently being rolled out across the world in varous ‘trade agreements’. Which big issues? Here’s a good starter list: refugees/immigration, climate change, failing debt-based money system, tax havens, unreasonable levels of inequality.

Our politicians are apparently unable to address these issues in any meaningful way. Perhaps because of their powerlessness, they appear to come from a position of denial that they are the big issues. From the top, they appear to be more concerned with winning the next election than doing ‘the right thing’ – see the current ‘Brexit’ referendum, a successful wheeze to win the last election for the Conservatives.

Many of the issues require coordinated action at continental or world level, so there are always excuses as to why nothing is done. The national identity politics of the right simply retreats from even trying to coordinate at these higher levels.

Jo_Cox_MP_MemorialNow most politicians probably start out with the very best of intentions. The recently assassinated Jo Cox was a fine example. Somewhere along the way, is the fire in their bellies quenched by the compromises of power and the seeking of it? I am not qualified to answer, but I would like to see more Jo Coxes with the honesty, directness and fire to get on with what is right for their people.

Image by Garry Kinight [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

The higher they fly…

In my days of working in IT at a big international company, I eventually rose to a moderate level in the hierarchy – such that I was once even given the title of vice-president of something or other, to impress some Americans. One thing I did observe during those years was that, in general, the higher level managers were more unpleasant and lacking in empathy than people lower down the scale – not an invariant rule, as there was indeed the odd relatively human high level manager (yes, I probably mean you, if you’re reading this). Also, it was often the more unpleasant and pushy characters who got promoted more quickly.

I was therefore not surprised to read Oliver Burkeman’s review of Dacher Keltner’s book The Power Paradox: How We gain and Lose Influence in Saturday’s Guardian Review. Read More »

Crazy world?

crazyIn my blog profile I say it’s a crazy world we live in. Why?

Where to start?

We live under threat of nuclear annihilation, yet few people have any concern or give any priority to reducing this threat. It didn’t go away after Reagan’s deal with Gorbachev, and new nuclear powers have emerged.

We face a catastrophic change of earth’s climate through global warming, caused by our own carbon emissions. Since Rio 1992 and earlier we have had global discussions on this, yet nothing has been allowed to interfere with the rapid economic/technological/debt expansion that has caused this. We have pious words from Paris 2015, yet are hell-bent on economic expansion and refuse to take necessary actions such as taxing carbon fuels or controlling them at source. Indeed, we still subsidise carbon fuels to a much greater degree than renewables. We are still chopping down trees at a rapid rate, reducing yet more the protections provided by forests and their sequestered carbon.

We have allowed the transfer of resources from poor to rich to continue unabated for many years. Inequality means that life is a struggle for many of the poorest, and the middle class that ensured 70-ish years of stability in the West is being eroded. The erosion of tax base means that resources are being taken away from the public sphere through ‘austerity’ policies.

The globalisation programme over the past 30 years or so has ensured this hollowing out of the centre, moving jobs and pollution to poorer countries of the earth. Yes it enables Western economies to continue to expand, but at what price? The development of expanded free trade areas (TTIP etc) aims to continue and accelerate this process. The crazy competition of low-tax countries and tax havens has greatly reduced the moneys paid by global corporations into the treasuries of the countries in which they operate – so they have competitive advantage against local small/medium businesses – a long term catastrophic change.

The financial crash of 2008 was never fully followed through. Few were punished and many prospered at the subsequent expense of the people. It is arguable that lessons were not learned and the system has reverted to something quite like it was before. The system does not work in the interests of all, and the opportunity should be taken to change it before the next crash – eg measures such as publically created money, tobin taxes, land taxes, basic income, etc.

Religious fundamentalism again stalks the earth, as in the middle ages. Despite major advances in education it continues to gain traction with the credulous and those who will always rise up in times of confllict. Religions themselves seem largely divorced from the inner spiritual experience of many in the modern world.

It is apparent that democracy has a much-flawed implementation in many places, notably the USA where big money and corporations seemingly have overwhelming traction on the political process. In other countries it is often the fig leaf for maintaining a ruling clique in power.

Science has made great advances, which have been translated into wonderful technologies which dazzle us all. The internet gives the potential to revolutionise the way we live our lives. Yet we become more vulnerable to misuse of the technology, such as cyber crime and cyber wars, and to the cracks which we had not foreseen in the world we have created, such as the adaptation and emergence of new forms of bugs and diseases resistant to modern antibiotics and other treatments.

There has long been a ‘war on drugs’ that have millions of users, providing fertile ground for criminal enterprises with massive rewards. This so-called war manifestly failed many years ago. As for the ‘war on terror’, how was that nonsensical idea ever invented?

The spectre of species extinction haunts the earth – particularly the large mammals, birds and sea creatures that remain after the depradations since the European expansions spread across the earth. It is accelerating.

The seas and the soils are becoming increasingly contaminated by plastics and chemicals whose effects in many cases will be long lasting threats to living organisms. The ‘precautionary principle’ appears to be insufficiently applied and often bypassed in the exploitation of new innovations.

What can one say of the Middle East, which appears to be in chaos to such an extent that the disastrous Israel-Palestine impasse is now but a sideshow.

We have a United Nations that is dysfunctional, in that it is powerless whenever so-called Great Powers, aka known as members of the Security Council, disagree. There is no effective system of global governance.

The consumer society. Well I could go on and on about this. Too many cgoods, too much stuff. Too much to do. Focus on the surface, while ignoring the essence and what really matters…

I could go on…

So, crazy world or not?

I rest my case.