Why It's Still Kicking off Everywhere: Are We Witnessing a Global Revolt against Neoliberalism?

By Mason, Paul | Soundings, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Why It's Still Kicking off Everywhere: Are We Witnessing a Global Revolt against Neoliberalism?


Mason, Paul, Soundings


Two years on from the Arab Spring, I'm clearer about what it was that it inaugurated: it is a revolution. In some ways it parallels the revolutions of before - 1848, 1830, 1789 - and there are also echoes of the Prague spring, the US civil rights movement, the Russian 'mad summer of 1874' ... but in other ways it is unique. Above all, the relationship between the physical and the mental, the political and the cultural, seems to be inverted. There is a change in consciousness, the intuition that something big is possible, that a great change in the world's priorities is within people's grasp.

What is underpinning the unrest that has swept the globe? In reality it's reducible to three factors. Firstly, the neoliberal economic model has collapsed, and this has then been compounded by persistent attempts to go on making neoliberalism work: to ram the square peg into the round hole, thereby turning a slump into what looks like being a ten year global depression. Secondly there has been a revolution in technology that has made horizontal networks the default mode of activism and protest; this has destroyed the traditional means of disseminating ideology that persisted through two hundred years of industrial capitalism, and has made social media the irreversible norm. Thirdly, there has been a change in human consciousness: the emergence of what Manuel Castells calls 'the networked individual' - an expansion of the space and power of individual human beings and a change in the way they think; a change in the rate of change of ideas; an expansion of available knowledge; and a massive, almost unrecordable, revolution in culture.

What we are seeing is not the Arab Spring, the Russian Spring, the Maple Spring, Occupy, the indignados. We're seeing the Human Spring. We are seeing something that reminds us, long after the historians reduced it to a list of battles and constitutions, why they called 1848 the springtime of the nations; and why Hegel, in the aftermath of the first French revolution, wrote: 'Our epoch is a birth-time. The spirit of man has broken with the old order of things, and with the old ways of thinking, and is in the mind to let them all sink into the depths of the past and to set about its own transformation (Phenomenology of Mind, 1807)

The collapse of neoliberalism

As an economic model neoliberalism died on 15 September 2008. Alan Greenspan's words in the subsequent House Committee hearing were prophetic: 'I found a flaw', he said: 'A flaw in the model that I perceived [to be] ... a critical functioning structure that defines how the world works ... That's precisely the reason I was shocked, because I've been going for 40 years or more with very considerable evidence that it was working exceptionally well' (October 2008). Neoliberalism told us that the market was self-regulating; that the self-interest of the deal participant was a better policeman than the regulator. It created a dominant finance sector and told that sector to enrich itself - and that sector has now crashed the world economy.

We are left with what Nomura economist Richard Koo calls a 'balance sheet recession' - in which fiscal stimulus, zero interest rates and a $6 trillion global money printing operation can only keep the patient alive. The Western elite can't address this prolonged stagnation because it can't bear to do any of the things that would end the depression: write off the debts, inflate them away, or step back from globalisation to protect their own populations from its depressive effect on living standards. So they're left staring at the old model: and not only is the dynamo of it knackered, it is rapidly losing social legitimacy. All attempts to make the old model work without solving the global imbalances on which it rests lead to the policy of austerity: not just fiscal austerity, as in Britain and southern Europe, but a long-term strategy of reducing the wages, welfare benefits and labour rights of the workforce in the West. …

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