Long Live Neo-Liberalism?

By Leighton, Dan | Renewal, Autumn-Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Long Live Neo-Liberalism?


Leighton, Dan, Renewal


We are still very much in the midst of the financial crisis triggered by the sub-prime crash and collapse of Lehmans. With the markets in turmoil at the prospect of sovereign debt default in the eurozone and the downgrading of US bonds, the way out remains anything but obvious. Yet as a private debt crisis has mutated into a sovereign debt crisis, two things at least seem clear.

The first is that the centre-left has to date been utterly incapable of capitalising on the crisis, both electorally and intellectually. Secondly, despite the neo-liberal paradigm being 'mugged by reality', the primary agents of the financial crisis that survived have come out of the situation stronger than before, and their frameworks dominate practical prescriptions on what needs to be done to bring about recovery. George Osborne's defence of his strategy of austerity is that bond markets approve - yields on British bonds are now the lowest on any country. While the basic bargain of neo-liberalism's trickle-down economics seems to have broken down, its criteria still frame the limits of the politically possible.

The salient fact about the financial crisis to date is that both the power and the narrative of neo-liberalism remain intact. In The Strange Non-Death of Neo-Liberalism, Colin Crouch, Professor of Governance and Public Management at Warwick Business School, and one time chair of the Fabian Society and editor of the Political Quarterly, provides a guide to the perplexed as why this is the case (Crouch, 2011).

Crouch is a noted authority on the comparative sociology of capitalist economies, penning compendious tomes on the subject for primarily academic audiences (most recently Crouch, 2005; in these pages see Crouch, 2008a). Yet every few years he surfaces with books and pamphlets intended for a wider public that compress his academic learning into a more acutely political direction (for example Crouch 2000; 2003; 2008b). He has a knack of coining terms and concepts that help the general reader understand the complexities of contemporary political economy, which help hone a more effective strategic understanding of power relationships, possibilities and the limitations of political change.

Yet the tone and intent is what could be called strategic clarification for ordinary citizens, rather than blueprints for immediate action by activists or policy prescriptions for policymakers. This civic humility is neatly encapsulated in the opening paragraph of his latest book:

  Most literature about subjects of this kind is written from
  the standpoint of someone showing how the world might
  be changed, either by the authors themselves if they ever
  got the chance, or by political leaders whom they hope
  to address. But very few people are ever in a position to
  change the world; among those few are many who would
  change it for the worse. There is a far bigger audience of
  people who have to cope as best they can with the world
  they find. It is for them that this book is written.
  (Crouch, 2011, xi)

Crouch's key claim is that the conventional polarities of state vs. market that is characteristic of debate between left and right ill-serves those seeking to understand the world as it currently exists. Both principled defenders and critics of the market have fallen to prey to a sleight of hand in which neo-liberal rhetoric about markets camouflages the reality of a political and economic regime in which the giant corporation dominates public life.

In Post-Democracy (Crouch, 2004), which started life as Fabian pamphlet (Crouch, 2000), Crouch highlighted how the global corporation had superseded political parties, amongst other formal political actors, as the key political institution, in a manner which hollowed out the meaning and power of liberal democratic polities. In the Strange Death, he extends the argument to claim that under corporate-dominated neo-liberalism 'democracy is joined by the market as a kind of victim' (Crouch, 2011, ix). …

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