/The pandemic is demonstrating that we can resist neoliberalism

The pandemic is demonstrating that we can resist neoliberalism

A few snippets today, being Wednesday and my short-form blog day (sometimes). I will have a few announcements to make early next week. One will concern a streaming lecture I will be giving next Tuesday as part of my usual work in Finland this time of the year. The title of my talk will be: Political economy thought and praxis post pandemic. I give an annual public lecture in Helsinki but this time it will be coming from the East Coast of Australia, given the pandemic. Details about access will be coming early next week (Monday’s blog post). For now some comments on the pandemic.

The power of the state

The Lancet editor, Richard Horton tweeted on December 7, 2020:

One issue about Brexit I don’t understand. COVID-19 has shown that sovereignty is dead. Global problems demand global solutions. The idea of “take back control” is illusory. Yet our govt believes we can be an island alone. We can’t. We depend on our neighbours for our future.

However, on June 23, 2018, he wrote an article in Lancet – Offline: Defending the left hand of the state.


Brexit did that to the Remainers.

Richard Horton discusses the work of French intellectual – Pierre Bordieu – who died about 19 years ago today (January 23, 2002).

He is a very missed voice.

As a sociologist, he provided deep analysis on the “dynamics of power in society” and the capacity of societies to sustain social order.

Richard Horton focuses on Pierre Bordieu’s “two hands of the state” distinction, where:

The left hand represented those ministries that “are the trace…of the social struggles of the past” — notably, health and education. The right hand was symbolised by “the technocrats of the Ministry of Finance”.

This is the classic dichotomy that neoliberalism has accentuated.

The powers of the technocrats under pressure from the corporate lobbies have so compromised the state – reconfigured it to advance their own narrow interests, that the state no longer necessarily works as our agents to advance the well-being of the majority.

Pierre Bordieu considered the neoliberal era to be one of the significant retrenchments in our civilisation:

… the failure of the state as the guardian of the public interest.

We considered that reconfiguration and its consequences in our book – Reclaiming the State: A Progressive Vision of Sovereignty for a Post-Neoliberal World (Pluto Books, September 2017).

Pierre Bordieu predicted that the consequences would see an erosion of support for the state as the public starting “treating it as an alien power to be used so far as they can to serve their own interests”.

I have written and talked about the anti-establishment revolt that is well developed in many countries.

Brexit, Trump, Yellow Vests, right-wing populism, storming of the Capitol, and more – are all examples of this disdain the citizenry have for the role of the state and the let down they are feeling as they realise that the promises made by the neoliberals of prosperity and security were just lies designed to cover the tracks as the raiders pillaged national income and took more and more for themselves.

Richard Horton, correctly notes that neoliberalism is a “specific form of capitalism, an intensification of capitalism”.

The reconfiguration of the state was not in the form that the neoliberals allowed the people to believe.

While they batted on about free markets and deregulation, which gave the impression that there would be less state, the fact is that they supercharged the state using its legislative and regulative machinery to work better for their own ends.

As Richard Horton writes:

Neoliberalism then takes a unique turn. It does not endorse a small laissez-faire state. Instead, it demands an interventionist state, one that clears away all obstacles to the market. If markets don’t exist, the state creates them (carbon trading). The state will create new spaces for markets to flourish, supranationally (the European Union’s single market) and subnationally (decentralisation of power to cities).

And the problem then is that the “left hand” has been compromised so badly that coopted.

His special interest, obviously (as Lancet editor) is the health sector and he opines that “Medical and scientific institutions have warmly adopted the neoliberal project” and that has extended into our higher education sector, where bosses (managers, vice chancellors etc) now pay themselves grotesque salaries, claiming they have fundamentally modernised a corporate university sector.

Leeches don’t modernise. They suck.

The important message that I always took from Pierre Bordieu’s work was that “neoliberalism was not inevitable”.

He taught us that the state is powerful and can be used for good (if so pressured) and bad (neoliberalism). He was not a fan of states surrendering their competencies to pan national structures.

But then again he also believed that strong states with coherent national identities could work towards global cooperation to advance well-being everywhere.

While the anti-establishment revolt is somewhat uncoordinated and has lead, in some cases (not Brexit) to very poor outcomes (Trump etc) we still have the overwhelming power as united citizens if we choose to coordinate and use it.

So I thought it was strange that Richard Horton would be out there Tweeting that the state is now powerless in the face of the pandemic.

Strong decisions by some national governments (lockdowns etc) supported by a citizenry that has clearly placed high value on saving human life as meant that some countries (Australia, New Zealand) etc have escaped the worst of the virus.

And it is also becoming clearer that the economic penalty for doing so has not been as great as it has been for nations that have tried to ‘stay open’.

The state has been far from powerless in dealing with the pandemic in Australia.

To some extent it has also demonstrated that political pragmatism (motivated by a knowledge of the sentiments of the population) has proven to be a bulwark against the neoliberals.

In the Australian setting, the neoliberals have been complaining about business being closed and border restrictions (domestic and international) right down to mandated mask rules.

Their voices have been drowned out by the massive scream by the vast majority of us who want to virus eliminated through lockdowns.

That should be an interesting model for progressives to build on. Find the right cause and the people unite.

Music – Bunny Livingston

This is what I have been listening to while working today. Getting mellow while staying angry.

This is the dub version

This is from Jamaican singer, poet, drummer – Neville O’Riley Livingston (aka Bunny Livingston, aka Bunny Wailer).

The latter assignation (Bunny Wailer) comes from his status as one of the original Wailing Wailers with step-brother Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. That band would split and produce three separate and brilliant musical contributions in the 1970s and beyond.

To some extent Bunny is my favourite despite the fact that he is probably the lesser known of that illustrious trio from the 1960s.

He was often backed as a solo artist by the premier Jamaican rhythm section – Sly and Robbie – which comprised Robbie Shakespeare on bass and Sly Dunbar on drums.

Horn sections were usually supplied by the Blazing Horns (Tommy McCook and Bobby Ellis).

This song – Rise and Shine – was off his 1981 release from Solomic Records (with Solomic Dub on the B-side). This is the 12 inch dub version and the best.

I regularly received shipments of Mento, Ska, Rock Steady, Reggae and Dub singles from the UK in the 1970s and beyond. They were very cheap and you could buy a big box of records for hardly anything.

Some of the gems of all time were in those boxes and I learned a lot of the diversity of artists, recording studios and their technical differences from those bits of plastic.

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2021 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.