It was Adolf Hitler who understood the nature of propaganda perfectly when he said ‘ When you tell a lie tell the big lie ‘ . What did he mean by this ? His explanation was that if you come out with something seemingly outrageous and untrue people will struggle to disbelieve it , but if you tell what amounts to a little white lie people will say to themselves maybe , maybe not. The big lie is irresistible . The little lie is very resistible.
The Neoliberalism virus told and then spread the big lie. The big lie that became second nature was that democracy and economic democracy are one and the same. This lie has been repeated and repeated by all the media as the essential condition for mankind. It is the conventional wisdom sine qua non and by offering bribes here and there to the populace ( think: the opportunity to buy shares cheaply in a newly privatised utility ) the lie has sunk in and as no alternative worldview has gained any traction over the last thirty years the Neoliberalism virus has created one party states throughout the world where democratic elections take place as a type of theatre where the actors ( politicians ) pretend to oppose one another , but go off to drink together in the green room after the show. Fringe alternatives were permitted to add colour and variety – green parties fulfilled this role perfectly by adding a bit of additional virtue to the mix – but nothing that would threaten the primal condition of neoliberalism.
The only core idea of the Neoliberalism was that set out in Powell’s memorandum that corporations should have supremacy over people. Everything that Neoliberalism became flowed from that singular idea, an idea which in its essence is dehumanising and the evidence of that is just about everywhere : deregulation, downsizing and privatisation theses are the three essentials of the Neoliberalism virus.
The Coronavirus has no truck with any of this . It has no goal, no memorandum to set out its mission and bring independent thinkers within its orbit. It simply doesn’t care meaning it doesn’t take seriously all human aspirations, vanities and greed . It is going to do what it is going to do and whatever changes result from that, we humans are going to have to work them out.
A slogan of the Neoliberalism virus might easily have been ‘ Don’t stop to think ‘ because had we done so before now we might have noticed our advance towards the cliff edge somewhat sooner. The arrival of the Coronavirus and the lockdowns that governments all over the world have felt compelled to introduce has brought about that pause for thought that the Neoliberalism virus had intended should never happen. Now it’s happened across the world . And those with eyes to see and an open mind will have noticed that the Neoliberalism virus is struggling to maintain its monopoly on what constitutes reality . The TINA ( There is no alternative ) mantra has has been challenged at its core because without an alternative the everyday life of every country’s citizens couldn’t continue in a state of lockdown. Governments have had to step up and create the money necessary to maintain the cashflow of businesses and individuals while lockdowns continue. No-one is asking ‘ where is the money coming from , because it’s so blindingly obvious – it’s being created like all money is out-of-thin-air on a computer. This revelation is anathema to the Neoliberalism virus which has spread the Big Lie about money that government doesn’t have any money of its own and relies upon taxes to spend money. Governments around the world have devised various schemes to meet this challenge of distributing money to its businesses and its citizenry . The country that has failed the test in spectacular fashion has been the United States, the country where the Neoliberalism virus first appeared and where it has spectacularly failed in becoming the rising tide which would ‘ lift all boats ‘ as was claimed it would do.
Suddenly in the light of the Coronavirus simply to be human and to be alive is to be cherished and valued for its own sake. Such thoughts are antithetical to the Neoliberalism virus which aims to anonymise our being by labelling us . One such label is the use of the word ‘ team ‘ to refer to a group of people working inside an organisation. Sounds innocuous enough doesn’t it , team ? But as used by the corporation it keeps the identity of the members hidden. So you want to speak to a human being when you have an issue with your bank account or your electricity bill . Once upon a time, not so very long ago that would have meant an individual whose name and identity would be known . Not anymore . That human being has been eliminated and instead you can speak to a member of ‘ our team ‘ . That ‘ member ‘ is a commodity to which a monetary value has been applied and no other quality is even considered valuable in calculating the member’s worth.
This has infected organisations and institutions across the board from the charities to the police and broadcasting. The other effect is to keep you on the outside, not to engage with you and to have power over you but not be accountable to you.
When any economic event the media considers might have an impact on us all, it reports it in these terms ‘ ……….the markets ‘ . No explanation of who or what they are is considered necessary. But if the news that the markets consider is ‘ bad ‘ then hold on to your hat we’re in for a rocky ride . Well fortunately for most peoples’ sanity they haven’t taken any notice of these apocalyptic pronouncements. But with the onward movement of the Coronavirus sweeping all before it has come the extraordinary announcement that ‘ oil has gone negative ‘ . Translation : it costs more to get it out of the ground than it can be sold for. Now oil isn’t just any old commodity . It’s THE energy source of just about everything we do and until now we were always looking for new sources of it. Fracking being the most recent example. The potential impact of this phenomenon globally are impossible to assess at this moment. For decades the ‘ green activists ‘ have lobbied to bring about the demise of the fossil fuel industry without success and now in the space of a few months the Coronavrus has done just that.
Next up : the financial markets. What is their greatest fear ? Simple. That governments might wake up and realise they have power over the markets. In the old days a king could cut off the head of a moneylender , or a speculator who got in his way. Any of those old kings would be dumbfounded to see our modern kings bowing down before the markets. And what is the power governments have over the markets ? Money creation . The markets by convincing governments that they are subservient to them simply ‘ permit ‘ governments to create all the money and then tell them ‘ you depend on us now ‘ and then proceed to manipulate the money created in myriad schemes to multiply the money created into more money for themselves. This is another essential mutation of the Neoliberalism virus.
To everything turn, turn, turn, There is a season
Turn, turn, turn,
And a time to every purpose under heaven
For over two hundred years Capitalism has been a pretty robust system, but once the Neoliberalism virus took hold it sowed the seeds of the destruction of the entire system. From its beginnings at the end of the 18th Century in Britain the development of Capitalism was dependent on a strong legal and administrative framework . Some of the earliest legislation curbing ( not preventing ) the use of child labour in the 1830’s and 1840’s was opposed by factory and mine owners, but without these laws over time the very labour force upon which the capitalists depended would have been destroyed because these children would not have grown to adulthood in any fit condition to perform the tasks that only adults could perform in those factories and mines. During the remainder of the nineteenth century and for the first seventy years of the twentieth century a tacit agreement prevailed between capitalists and workers that such laws were necessary. That was until the Neoliberalism virus seeded itself in the 1980’s and began to attack the institutional framework of societies across the world . The virus mutated to adapt itself to different cultures , so the American version is different to the Chinese , or the Australian . But whatever the differences one common thread runs through them all and that is that societies can be reorganised around some form of ‘ market’ . So if we think about an everyday sort of street market with stalls selling all sorts of goods and then try to imagine that operating on a vast scale that has been the Neoliberalism’s great achievement . In order to succeed though it needed to breakdown most of the institutions that had developed over time to protect it including the political institutions that enacted the legislation that gave that protection.
In the old saying the success of the Neoliberalism virus became ‘ too much of a good thing ‘ , so when the new Coronavirus struck it had no means of rising to the challenge the new virus posed . So what did it do ? It pleaded to those same legislators all around the world to put it on life support. And just as with the Coronavirus there are fatalities to be contended with so with the Neoliberalism virus there will be fatalities .
They said, ” You have a blue guitar, You do not play things as they are.”
The man replied, ” Things as they are Are changed upon the blue guitar.”
The Man with the Blue Guitar – Wallace Stevens
For most people change begins with the idea that the world is not okay as it is, but despite protests against Neoliberalism after the Great Financial Crash in 2008 the best known movement that arose at that time – Occupy Wall Street – which coined the term ‘ the 1% and the 99% ‘ failed to develop sufficiently to crash the system . But the Coronavirus has achieved that in matter of a few months on a worldwide scale. So here we are faced with a difficult choice : either we accept the world as it , that is with the existence of the Coronavirus, whatever that means, as it develops out of the emerging future, or we don’t and hope for the projected future of the Neoliberalism virus.
The Coronavirus has brought Economic Growth to a standstill . All the media report this with graphs and charts to support this assertion. So completely has this notion of ‘ growth ‘ been absorbed that no commentator even bothers to define it . Here’s the definition : It’s an increase in Gross Domestic Product . And what is that ? Well ‘ GDP ‘ as it’s usually referred to is the total value of all the goods and services produced within a country. The necessity for Economic growth is the central tenet of the Neoliberalism virus because without it the Neoliberalism virus dies. It is impossible to overstate this. It is essential that this doctrine is absorbed by all of us as though our lives depended on it so that all the shenanigans that Finance and Efficiency bandits can construct their schemes to delegitimise the ordinary person’s contribution to society. Any activity that makes a profit is automatically assumed to contribute to the national pie which must go on increasing for the good of all . That’s how the story goes.
Well it turns out it’s not quite that simple. Wealth creation – defined in terms of a quantity of money – may actually comprise a proportion of money extracted from the pie. Surely that’s an anachronism .No it isn’t and this is why. Take a single example : insurance . For the most part we accept the need for it , even if we resent paying for it . But do all those premiums we pay increase the size of the national pie ? You only have to think about the question for a moment or two to come up with the answer ‘ no ‘ . No good or service that did not exist previously is created by insurance. The premiums we pay are extracted from the money value of all the goods and services we create. But when GDP is measured all those premiums are added together with all the goods and services to come up with a total . A very important sounding, but entirely bogus phrase has been invented to perpetrate this falsehood . ‘ wealth creation ‘ . Who could possibly question it ? Well the Coronavirus has done just that .
So there are ‘ wealth creators ‘ and ‘ wealth extractors ‘ . But GDP counting doesn’t discriminate between them . The money values of both are all added up to make the total.
‘ If we open a quarrel between past and present we shall find that we have lost the future ‘ Winston Churchill
What is the future ?
The pursuit of indiscriminate economic growth has been seen as a necessity and for that matter a virtue that no country in the world has disdained. The Coronavirus has stopped that pursuit dead in its tracks. What has been the response of the Neoliberalism virus to this ? It has been to look back to things as they were before the Coronavirus struck and to project forward to a time when the Coronavirus has been tamed or brought under some sort of control sufficient to enable the propagators of the Neoliberalism virus to be back in charge of society . This is the projected future which is to say everything will go back to being just like it was before the Coronavirus struck. Does anyone actually believe this when no-one knows when the Coronavirus will have been tamed or brought under control.
Then there are our individual futures. We could call these the planned future . All those plans and aspirations big or small some of which, maybe many of them are now on hold or abandoned , or postponed to a later date, but without the degree of certainty we once took for granted in making future plans.
And then there is another future for which we possess a gift we seldom if ever recognise as real – the imagination. The imagination, if we are prepared to trust it can point us towards another sort of future. This is the emerging future. A future not coming out of the past or planned by us , but one that is coming towards us and which we can only apprehend by imagining it. In everyday life we almost never give a name to what it is that enables us to conceive of a future which is unknown and cannot be projected from the past or planned for. So for now we exist in a kind of no-man’s land between the crumbling projected future and the yet to be realised emerging future. It is inevitably a melancholic moment.
Interestingly the etymology of the verb to emerge is from the Latin emergere meaning ‘ to open to the light ‘ so with that in mind and as hard as it may seem the emerging future is a future that can be trusted.
‘ He argued that every certainty is an empty throne . That those who knew but one path would come to worship it, even as it led to the cliff’s edge ‘ Steven Erickson
How has the Neoliberalism virus infected politics ? The assumption in the question is that it has. Is that a fair and reasonable assumption to make ? Well here’s the evidence : it comes once again from Mrs. Thatcher . Her mantra which she gave voice to frequently was shortened to an acronym TINA or in its long form ‘ There is no alternative ‘ . What did she mean by this ? In a nutshell it was to run the country as though it were a household which was an analogy that made sense to the public. Then once she had started with her privatisations with sales of shares to the public in small amounts and , at a knockdown price, the opportunity to make a few extra pennies by becoming a shareholder in one of the newly privatised public sector utilities – telecoms, electricity, gas, water – was irresistible.
Politically it was a winning formula that saw Mrs. Thatcher win three general elections in succession between 1979 and 1990. Compare and contrast this with one of her predecessors, Clement Attlee who became Prime Minister in 1945 immediately after the Second World War. Between 1945 and 1951 Atlee’s government created the welfare state , the NHS and nationalised major industries and utilities. Atlee wasn’t born into poverty, but he saw it at first-hand in the East End of London in the 1930’s and it had a profound impact on him and his thinking about what needed to be done to improve the lives of the poor once the War was over.
Which of these two leaders did more for society as a whole ? The question answers itself given that Mrs Thatcher said ‘ there is no such thing as society only individual men and women and families ‘ .
Now with the arrival of the Coronavirus we find there is such a thing as society because if we were to be thinking as Mrs Thatcher thought at this moment we would not be equipped to deal with this at all.
A key component of the Neoliberalism virus has been to spread the fear of inflation. Even people who have no interest in Economics as a subject have imbibed the idea that money spent by government is ‘ inflationary ‘ . This has been one of the spectacular successes of the virus . Why is it a spectacular success ? Because it has completely undermined trust in government and by extension, democracy in almost every country that calls itself a democracy. So if any of these governments says this or that programme is ‘ unaffordable ‘ the public believe it. That’s ironic isn’t it. On the one hand people don’t trust government in general, but on the other they trust government when they are told there’s a shortage of money. The Neoliberalism virus thrives on this ironic situation and the control over the public mind. How did such an improbable belief that there is always a shortage of money for government to spend come about ? We have to go back nearly forty years to a lady and her handbag . That lady was Margaret Thatcher the British Prime Minister throughout the 1980’s and it was she who assiduously inculcated the idea that just like a household a government has to ‘ live within its means ‘ whilst never once offering any analysis of this comparison. Why ? Because it was phoney. But the public bought it as did every economics and financial journalist as well as many economists who trotted out various forms of the mantra dressed up to sound ‘ academic ‘. Mrs Thatcher had only to say something was unaffordable and inflationary and the die was cast and that has remained the case until the new Coronavirus appeared . Now both the unaffordable and inflationary are suddenly affordable and not inflationary and no-one is questioning this about turn .
The government have started to spread the New Economic Virus even if they don’t realise it. Forced by the power of the Coronavirus the Government has had to respond by instructing its own bank , the Bank of England to create new money ( by typing digits into its computer ) to assist individuals and businesses harmed financially by the Coronavirus. No pretending that it can’t do this, it’s doing it. No-one is asking the question ‘ how are you going to pay for it ? ‘ anymore .
Now what it needs to do is to banish from all its policies the word AUSTERITY. Austerity always was not just a bad idea , but a dangerous one . The dramatic impact of the Coronavirus on the NHS is evident for all to see . Most obvious is the shortage of beds . New temporary hospitals have had to built in days to cope with the numbers of affected people. In 1948 at the founding of the NHS there were 480,000 beds . The UK population in 1948 was 49 million. 1974 there were approximately 400,000 beds and the population was 56 million. In 1987 the number of beds was 300,000 and in 2019 127,000 . The population in 2020 is 64 million.
In 2016 a drill code-named Exercise Cygnus involving all major government departments, the NHS and local authorities was undertaken . It revealed gaping holes in Britain’s Emergency Preparedness, Resilience and Response plan . Austerity has pared away all flexibility in the system so when the Coronavirus struck nothing was ready to go. Note the key words ‘ resilience ‘ and ‘ flexibility ‘ . That lack of resilience and flexibility is a direct result of the application of the Neoliberalism virus to the running of the NHS . Big business has been running in exactly the same way for the last thirty years in the name of ‘ Efficiency ‘ although not in its usual dictionary definition of well-organised. No, just like Finance this is Efficiency, a standalone subject, designed like Finance to be disconnected from the actual needs of the system it supposedly serves. As with Finance there are many propagators , think-tanks and consultants, ready to extol the virtues of Efficiency . Efficiency is the elimination of resilience and flexibility, or to put it another old fashioned way ‘ putting something aside for a rainy day ‘.