How do we make sense of our extraordinary political situation: the end of the debt-fuelled boom, the banking crisis of 2007-10, the defeat of New Labour and the rise to power of a Conservative-Liberal-Democratic Coalition? What sort of crisis is this? Is it a serious wobble in the trickle-down, win-win, end-of-boom-and-bust economic model which has dominated global capitalism? Does it presage business as usual, the deepening of present trends, or the mobilisation of social forces for a radical change of direction? Is this the start of a new conjuncture?
Gramsci argued that, though the economic must never be forgotten, conjunctural crises are never solely economic, or economically-determined 'in the last instance'. They arise when a number of contradictions at work in different key practices and sites come together - or 'con-join' - in the same moment and political space and, as Althusser said, 'fuse in a ruptural unity'. Analysis here focuses on crises and breaks, and the distinctive character of the 'historic settlements' which follow. The condensation of forces during a period of crisis, and the new social configurations which result, mark a new 'conjuncture'.
My argument is that the present situation is a crisis, another unresolved rupture of that conjuncture which we can define as 'the long march of the Neoliberal Revolution'. Each crisis since the 1970s has looked different, arising from specific historical circumstances. However, they also seem to share some consistent underlying features, to be connected in their general thrust and direction of travel. Paradoxically, opposed political regimes have all contributed in different ways to expanding this project.
The term 'neoliberal' is not a satisfactory one. Its reference to the shaping influence of capitalism on modern life sounds recidivist to contemporary ears. Intellectual critics say the term lumps together too many things to merit a single identity; it is reductive, sacrificing attention to internal complexities and geohistorical specificity. I sympathise with this critique. However, I think there are enough common features to warrant giving it a provisional conceptual identity, provided this is understood as a first approximation. Even Marx argued that analysis yields understanding at different levels of abstraction, and critical thought often begins with a 'chaotic' abstraction - though we then need to add 'further determinations' in order to 'reproduce the concrete in thought'. I would also argue that naming neoliberalism is politically necessary, to give resistance content, focus and a cutting edge.
Pragmatism may account in part for this scepticism about neoliberalism as a concept: English intellectuals often cannot see the practical efficacy of long-term, theoretical ideas. A discussion on, say, the principles behind capital punishment quickly degenerates into a debate on whether hanging, drawing or quartering best achieves the purpose. I recall that many refused to apply the term 'project' to Thatcherism and New Labour, though it was crystal clear that neither political formation had been instituted by sleep-walkers, driven by purely pragmatic imperatives. But in English common sense, pragmatism often rules.
The neoliberal model
What, then, are the leading ideas of the neoliberal model? We can only pull at one thread here. However anachronistic it may seem, neoliberalism is grounded in the 'free, possessive individual', with the state cast as tyrannical and oppressive. The welfare state, in particular, is the arch enemy of freedom. The state must never govern society, dictate to free individuals how to dispose of their private property, regulate a free-market economy or interfere with the God-given right to make profits and amass personal wealth. State-led 'social engineering' must never prevail over corporate and private interests. It must not intervene in the 'natural' mechanisms of the free market, or take as its objective the amelioration of free-market capitalism's propensity to create inequality. …