Tag Archives: neoliberalism

French lessons for British social democrats

Opposition has brought a certain coherence to the British left. There is nothing like a hate-figure being in power to bring about a sense of unity. And the idea that runs through the left’s thinking on the state is social democracy. But last weekend’s electoral disaster for the French Socialists, and the rise of Marine Le Pen’s National Front should give them pause. The left is becoming is becoming disenfranchised from the working class.

What do I mean by social democracy? It is the coming together of several elements. The first is the conventional understanding of western democracy and the rule of law – in contrast to a more radical revolutionary style. The second is a grudging acceptance that the private sector is the primary motor of the economy – but heavily managed to prevent its excesses damaging society, including strong protection for employees’ job security. Next is strong, national government, setting standards that apply across the whole country, rather than the chaotic and inconsistent approaches that come from bottom-up policy. Then there is a faith in large public services, covering health, education, railways and much more.  A strong social, state-funded safety net is added to it. And it is all funded by high levels of taxation, with a strong progressive element.

In Britain I have noticed that a historical narrative has built up around this idea. Social democracy’s breakthrough moment was the Labour government of 1945 (after the perceived success of the country’s state directed war effort). Something like a consensus built up around it, as economic growth allowed the scope the social democratic system to be extended. Then disaster struck in 1979, when a new breed of politicians, the “Neoliberals” were allowed to take over. Mrs Thatcher’s government started to dismantle the social democratic apparatus. Tony Blair’s Labour government wasn’t much better. But at least Mr Blair’s public sector “reforms” were balanced by Gordon Brown’s creeping extension of the scope of public services. In 2010 the Tory-led coalition of Tories and the neoliberal wing of the Liberal Democrats has continued the dismantling process. But the neoliberal ideology is a demonstrable failure – leading to the financial crisis and escalating inequality. The new Labour leadership, under Ed Miliband, has shown interest in reviving the old social democratic system, but it is being urged to be more radical. Social democrats within the Lib Dems hope that the party’s current leadership will be up-ended and the party will never again be associated with Tory government.

My aim here is not to challenge this flawed narrative, though I choke when I’m told that privatised industries like energy, telecoms, water and even the railways all better run when under public ownership. I want to draw parallels between this social democratic vision of society and France. For surely the country where these ideas have been carried through most thoroughly is France. Of course the Left would rather talk about the Scandinavian countries, Denmark and Sweden especially. But these are small, homogenous countries which do not make good parallels – and never mind the often rose-tinted spectacles.

But France is a big, diverse country like Britain. It’s anti-capitalist attitudes are deeply embedded. It combines a very efficient private sector with a strong central government run by a very well-educated and brainy elite. More than half the national income is paid in tax. And in 2012 the Socialists were swept back into power in a landslide. But now the economy is sliding and the Socialists are deeply unpopular. The working classes are defecting en-masse to the anti-establishment, anti-immigrant, anti EU National Front. What are the lessons?

But first a word of caution. It is commonplace for Anglo-Saxon commentators to write the French economy off as a basket case. It is not. Slow growth is probably an affliction that all developed economies will have to deal with. It was no accident that France weathered the 2007/09 crisis better than most developed economies – and just how secure is the new growth in Britain and the USA? Still, it has some big problems.

There are important lessons for the left in both strategy and tactics. Strategically the toughest lesson is than not all neoliberal inspired ideas are rubbish. The world economy is changing, thanks to trade and, above all, to technology. National economies must adapt to this. Developed economies are already highly dependant on global trading – shutting it off would mean a step backwards and reduced living standards. Accepting it means that industry has to reshape, causing job losses in obsolete industries. The neoliberal approach of letting market forces shape the change, by allowing struggling business to go bust and not getting in the way of new industries to take their place, is the quickest and cleanest way of adapting to this change. Fighting it means declining tax revenues, which means putting pressure on the public services and the social safety net. By pretending that there is an alternative to the globalised market economy, all the left does is build up false expectations about what can be achieved. That is the first cause of the Socialist failure in France. Too many on the British left don’t understand this basic, strategic problem.

The tactics are just as important. In France the Socialists have become part of a distant elite, remote from struggling working-class communities. They are full of clever intellectual answers, but they don’t feel the pain. Hence the appeal of the National Front. The British left too is too attached to its own intellectual sphere, sustained by Westminster think-tanks, and various left-wing publications – as well as intellectual cells in universities and (to a lesser extent) insulated public services like schools and hospitals. Strategy is set by using opinion polls and focus groups, not by politicians in the hard grind of finding solutions for hard-pressed local communities.

There is a tactical blind alley here. The focus group approach is telling politicians to respond to working class (and much middle class) anger by taking a tougher line on immigration, the EU and so on. To be fair on the left, they are resisting this temptation. But it isn’t just the pollsters and focus groups that are pulling politicians in that direction: any politician who spends serious time with the public understands that the pollsters aren’t making this up. The problem is that pandering to this anger also leads to false expectations; for very good reasons the politicians can’t deliver, and if they did the public would not like the result.

How to win back working-class communities while staying true to liberal instincts? Well you won’t find the answer in grand reforms and new laws promulgated in London or Paris. It isn’t about crafting the right sort of attack material to wound the right. It is about politicians winning trust by getting out into their local communities, meeting people and facilitating solutions that people can see. The choice of the word “facilitating” is important. It is about helping people to help themselves, not creating new government schemes (though these have a place). It is about mediating between different interest groups, not stoking up fights. People are much more realistic than many give them credit for. They appreciate honest facilitators and mediators more than people who just stoke up anger. But they are suspicious of elites that would rather talk to focus groups than their local electors, or who want to make their name with some new national reform – rather than helping to sort out a local housing estate, or bring together local ethnic groups.

It’s a hard road, but it is one the left must embrace if they are to avoid the fate of the Socialists in France.



What is neoliberalism? The left’s muddle does not help reverse its progress

Political movements tend to be united by what they oppose, rather than any positive things they stand for. Today the political left unite against a universal enemy, which they name “neoliberalism”. The word is bandied about much as “socialism” is by the political right. But what is it? And is it a useful descriptive term? I believe it is, but that the left is muddled by what it is and is not.

According to Wikipedia neoliberalism started its life in the 1930s as a middle path between classical liberalism on the one hand, and the state planning ideologies of fascism and communism on the other. Classical liberalism advocated a minimal state, and, in practice, a world in which big capitalist corporations could thrive. It was widely blamed for the economic catastrophe that followed 1929 in capitalist economies. Neoliberalism stood for something called a “social market”, backed by a strong state. Nowadays, the left make no real distinction between  classical liberalism and neoliberalism. This speech by Susan George in 1999, and posted recently on Facebook by a friend, illustrates this quite well – a lot of what she rails at should in fact be defined as classical liberalism. This is interesting, and not necessarily wrong. Neoliberal ideas have provided cover for a lot of classical liberal ideas – and neoliberals have seen state socialism as their main enemy, rather than unfettered capitalism.

I think it is best to understand neoliberalism in terms of three core ideas:

  • Markets are an unbeatable information exchange. Markets are idolised, because they are seen as the most efficient possible way of reconciling the masses of information that modern societies require to keep moving. This idea of the market as an information exchange, famously advanced by Freidrich Hayek, is a very powerful one, and an advance on the rather abstracted ideas of classical economists.
  • People respond to incentives. Pretty much all human behaviour, good or bad, can be understood as a response to external incentives. This is often developed into the idea of all people being independent agents rationally responding to the opportunities around them according to a set of pre-defined preferences – often referred to as homus economicus. However, the idea is deeper and stronger than this theoretically convenient way of looking at things.
  • Direct state management is inefficient. This actually follows from the previous two ideas, but takes on a life of its own in the minds of its followers. The state is incapable of processing information about people’s wants and needs with the efficiency of a market; the state’s officers generally respond to their personal incentives, often simply to secure a stable and easy job. Result: gross inefficiency. When any of the known theoretical weaknesses of markets are presented to neoliberal advocates, their response is often to accept them, but to point out that to try and solve them through a state managed solution would make things even worse.

There is a general view, supported by Ms George’s speech, that neoliberalism took hold in the 1980s, under Britain’s Margaret Thatcher and America’s Ronald Reagan’s political leadership, and the economist Milton Freidman providing theoretical heft. From these beginnings it developed into an orthodoxy across the developed world that, according to the left, still grips the political establishment today. The financial crisis of 2007-09 has not drained it of power, as the left thinks it should have done.

There is some puzzlement on the left as to how this neoliberal takeover happened. Ms George paints a glowing picture of the Keynesian consensus that preceded it, and derides any idea that neoliberal ideas had any real persuasive power in their own right. She resorts to a sort of conspiracy theory of coordinated and determined vested interests. Well, I was there, and voted for Mrs Thatcher in 1979 (though not afterwards), and find the rise of neoliberal ideas entirely unsurprising. Britain, in particular, was in a miserable state: and the “Keynesian” consensus was an evident failure. It had failed to respond to the changed world that followed the oil crisis, resulting in unemployment and inflation. We were surrounded by national bureaucracies and nationalised industries of an inefficiency that today people would find unbelievable. Much of what they said, especially about state directed solutions, rang true. Many politically powerful vested interests opposed the change – but the neoliberals were pushing at an open door in the world of ideas.

Trying to put all this in perspective is made harder by the following things that have accompanied the rise of neoliberalism:

  • There has been a dramatic change to the industrial and economic base to developed societies since 1945 (well since long before that, of course). In the first phase manufacturing industry advanced, in such a way that much of the capacity built to support the war effort could be readily redeployed (in contrast to what followed the 1914-18 war); this was the basis of an unambiguous economic miracle that lifted many out of poverty. In the second phase, from the 1980s, manufacturing industry became much more efficient, while the appetite for its production hit saturation; the economy switched to services. This has created huge dislocation, and, more recently, the disappearance of mid level jobs. It has driven overall growth in wealth, but also tended to increase inequality. Neoliberal policies have helped this transition forward, but were not the underlying cause of it.
  • Capitalist corporations have remained as strong as ever, and have grown increasingly able to press forward their interests in the political system, especially in America. They are not fundamentally neoliberal in outlook (their aim is to rig markets and not empower them, but they usually camouflage their lobbying in neoliberal terms. We should be careful not to exaggerate their power though. The corporations have not had it all their own way: their life expectancy has dramatically reduced over the period. Neither are these faceless corporations entirely managed for the benefit of a small elite; they have also benefited armies of employees, and their institutional shareholders are often pension funds that likewise transmit their gains to ordinary people.
  • A lot of theoretical economists have got carried away with their models based on homus economicus, and these have become a soft target for neoliberalism’s critics. But often these criticisms amount to criticising the tactics and not the strategy: about how people respond to incentives, and not the idea that incentives drive behaviour.

Ms George manages to be muddled by all of these things, leading to a speech that can only be called paranoid. I suspect many on the left share her views, though, and feel that they have been vindicated by the events of the decade and a half since. This muddle, and their failure to clear identify and advocate alternative approaches to the neoliberal consensus, means their persuasiveness is doomed to be very limited.

Meanwhile political centrists seem to be trying to recover something of the original neoliberal outlook: the social market. The use of market mechanisms within a society that is still dominated by the state. As somebody who tends to the political centre I would like to say that this offers the most constructive way forward. But I have to  point out that the great financial crisis of 2007-09 resulted from the collapse of just such a middle way philosophy, in the world of finance and banking. While the left blames it on rampant capitalism and greed, cack-handed state intervention was just as much of a problem, and the combination was lethal. It was a neoliberal project in the original sense of the word.

Where does that leave us? A lot of what neoliberals say is true. We need to grow up and recognise that. But a lot of it isn’t; and its failures are currently more important that its successes. Our societies’ institutions have not kept pace with the changed nature of society and the economy. But it will require a large dose of state direction, especially in education and housing, to fix this.


Capitalism, crony capitalism and neoliberalism. What’s in a word?

Are the Occupy protesters on to something?  Or is theirs just a hopeless battle against abstract nouns?

I have been rather exercised about some abstract nouns recently.  First was the word “Neoliberalism” selected by Simon Titley of the Liberator as one of three Bad Ideas to have infected British politics over the last 30 years, sweeping along the Liberal Democrat leadership with the rest of the mainstream.  The other ideas were the “Westminster Bubble” (the idea promoted by a lazy media that only ideas that have taken hold in Westminster matter), and that the Westminster elite have a monopoly of political wisdom (expressed by contempt both for grassroots activists).  Neoliberalism had a starring role in the previous month’s Liberator when Mr Titley and David Boyle roped it into their narrative of what went wrong with British politics in their article “Really Facing the Future”.  Mr Titley felt he had written enough already on the subject to explain what he meant by neoliberalism – unfortunately before I have been subscribing to Liberator.

Another tiresome abstract noun has been even more prominent: “Capitalism”.  This has been the main target of Occupy.  It was recently brought into further focus by Tory MP Jesse Norman in an FT article based on his pamphlet “The Case for Real Capitalism“.  This pamphlet is not a particularly coherent or convincing piece of work, though to be fair he does say that a longer, and presumably better argued, version is in preparation.  But by harnessing a couple of qualifiers (“crony” and “good”) he tries to make sense of capitalism, and brings neoliberalism into the picture too.  It’s good place to start a probe into whether these words have any useful purpose.

In Mr Norman’s picture the world has been suffering from “crony capitalism”.  He identifies various strands (e.g. “narco-capitalism”, taking it well beyond what I would call “crony” capitalism, which should really involve cronyism – business leaders being too close to political leaders.  Still he does offer a workable definition of bad capitalism:

Crony capitalism is what happens when the constraints of law and markets and culture cease to be effective.  Entrepreneurship and value creation are replaced by rent-seeking, and certain groups become enormously wealthy without taking risk. These factors in turn lead to long-term economic underperformance, and sometimes to social unrest.

Apart from the use of “crony” and the economics jargon of “economic rent” (which means profits accruing to a business over and above the opportunity costs of inputs) this is quite useful.  Something that is recognisably capitalism – an economy based mainly on private enterprise – can look like this, and when it does, it is bad.  But capitalism doesn’t have to be this way – hence Mr Norman’s employment of “good capitalism”.  This version emphasises the need for free competition and the consistent application of the rule of law.  But that by itself is not enough.

Mr Norman contrasts “good capitalism” with our friend “neoliberalism”, which does not have a moral dimension.  Like Mr Titley, he does not bother to define neoliberalism.  But from context I can identify it with what the FT writer and economist John Kay called “the American Business Model” in his 2002 book The Truth about Markets which was part of my Christmas reading.  This elevates the simplifying assumptions of classical economics (rational behaviour, consistent and stable preferences, perfect competition, and so on) into a moral value system.  In particular it idealises a ruthless focus on maximising personal gain in the framework of impartially enforced rules (property rights in particular).  This way of thinking remains very popular in America, with the Chicago School giving it considerable intellectual heft.  But it has never taken off in Europe, and Britain is very much part of Europe on this issue, as in so much else.  The emphasis on personal gain – greed – and antipathy to social solidarity are too much for all but a lunatic fringe to accept.  And that includes Conservatives like Mr Norman.  Good capitalism has a moral dimension – and one that celebrates the virtues of hard work and social responsibility.

Meanwhile the use of “neoliberalism” on the British left (including Mr Titley) clearly does not conform to the definition that Mr Norman uses.  Within its scope are swept Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and the “Orange Book” Liberal Democrats such as Nick Clegg.  But none of these are or were Chicago School types.  Apart from Mrs Thatcher, maybe, all see a huge role for government in our society and would expand its remit.  But they have criticised the way producer interests have captured public services, profoundly undermining its quality.

Another issue needs to be mentioned here: and that is financial explosion in the UK and US that occurred in the period 1997-2007, and which ended so badly in the current crisis.  This is closely associated with greed in the public’s minds, of bankers mainly, but also chief executives and (whisper it) all those ordinary members of the public that racked up credit card and mortgage debt.  This is swept into the general idea of “capitalism” and “neoliberalism”.  And indeed neoliberal ideas were used to justify the behaviour of many of the more egregious participants.  But true believers in neoliberalism have little difficulty in shrugging such criticism off.  To them what caused the crisis was excessive government intervention (e.g. by encouraging subprime lending in the US)  and the failure to uphold proper open markets (through the implicit government guarantee of banking activities, for example).

All of which renders the words “capitalism” and “neoliberalism” as useless abstract nouns.  There is little consistency in their use between the different political factions; their use by one faction is misunderstood by the other in an endless cycle of talking at cross purposes.  The Occupy movement seems particularly bad at this.

To make headway in the political debate we need to move on from the abstract to the practical.  What is the best way of providing health and education services?  What should the scope be of social insurance?  How can we get private businesses to invest more in the future and distribute their profits (or economic rents if you prefer) more equitably?