By Medea Benjamin and Nicolas JS Davies *
All over the world, country after country, people are rising up to challenge entrenched and failing neoliberal political and economic systems, with mixed but sometimes promising results.
Progressive U.S. Congressional leaders refuse to reverse Democrats’ promises to U.S. voters to reduce poverty, expand rights to health care, education and clean energy, and repair a safety net social shredded. After decades of tax cuts for the rich, they also pledged to raise taxes for wealthy Americans and businesses to fund this popular program.
Germany elected a ruling coalition of Social Democrats, Greens and Free Democrats that is excluding conservative Christian Democrats for the first time since 2000. New government promises $ 14 minimum wage, solar panels on all suitable roofs, 2% of land for wind farms and the closure of Germany’s last coal-fired power plants by 2030.
Iraqis voted in an election called in response to a popular protest movement launched in October 2019 to challenge the rampant corruption of the post-2003 political class and its enslavement to US and Iranian interests. The protest movement was torn between participating in the elections and boycotting them, but its candidates nonetheless won around 35 seats and will have a voice in parliament. The party of longtime Iraqi nationalist leader Muqtada al-Sadr won 73 seats, the largest of all parties, while Iran-backed parties whose armed militias killed hundreds of protesters in 2019 lost control. popular support and many of their seats.
Billionaire Chilean President Sebastian PiÃ±era is indicted after the Pandora Papers exposed details of corruption and tax evasion in his sale of a mining company, and he could face up to 5 years in prison. Mass street protests in 2019 forced PiÃ±era to agree to a new constitution to replace the one written under Pinochet’s military dictatorship, and a convention that included representatives of indigenous and other marginalized communities was elected to draft the constitution. Progressive parties and candidates are expected to succeed in the November general election.
Perhaps the greatest success of popular power has come in Bolivia. In 2020, just one year after a right-wing US-backed military coup, a massive mobilization of mostly indigenous workers forced a new election and Evo Morales’ socialist MAS party returned to power. Since then, he has already introduced a new wealth tax and social benefits to four million people to help end hunger in Bolivia.
The ideological context
Since the 1970s, Western political and business leaders have peddled an almost religious belief in the power of “free” markets and unbridled capitalism to solve all the world’s problems. This new “neoliberal” orthodoxy is a thinly disguised return to the systematic injustice of 19th century laissez-faire capitalism, which led to blatant inequalities and poverty even in rich countries, famines that killed people. tens of millions of people in India and China, and horrific exploitation of the poor and vulnerable around the world.
For most of the 20th century, Western countries gradually reacted to the excesses and injustices of capitalism by using the power of government to redistribute wealth through progressive taxation and a growing public sector, and ensure wide access to public goods. like education and health care. This has led to a gradual expansion of the widely shared prosperity in the United States and Western Europe through a strong public sector that has balanced the power of private corporations and their owners.
The steadily increasing shared prosperity of the postwar years in the West was hampered by a combination of factors, including the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, the Nixon freeze on prices and wages, inflation. galloping caused by the decline of the gold standard, then a second oil crisis after the Iranian revolution of 1979.
Right-wing politicians led by Ronald Reagan in the US and Margaret Thatcher in the UK have blamed the power of unions and the public sector for the economic crisis. They launched a âneoliberalâ counterrevolution to break unions, downsize and privatize the public sector, cut taxes, deregulate industries and supposedly unleash âmarket magicâ. Then they took the credit for a return to economic growth that actually owed more to the end of the oil crises.
The United States and the United Kingdom have used their economic, military and media power to spread their neoliberal gospel around the world. The Chilean experience of neoliberalism under Pinochet’s military dictatorship has become a model for US efforts to reverse the “pink tide” in Latin America. When the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe opened up to the West at the end of the Cold War, it was the type of extreme neoliberal capitalism that Western economists imposed as “shock therapy” for. privatize public enterprises and open countries to Western enterprises.
In the United States, the mass media have turned away from the word âneoliberalismâ to describe the changes in society since the 1980s. They describe its effects in less systemic terms, such as globalization, privatization, deregulation, consumerism, etc., without drawing attention to their common ideological roots. This allows them to treat its impacts as separate and unrelated issues: poverty and inequality, mass incarceration, environmental degradation, increased debt, money in politics, disinvestment in public services, decline in public health, permanent war and record military spending.
After a generation of systematic neoliberal control, it is now evident to people around the world that neoliberalism has utterly failed to solve the world’s problems. As many predicted from the start, it has just allowed the rich to get richer, much more, while structural and even existential problems remain unresolved.
Even once people understand the selfish and predatory nature of this system which has overtaken their political and economic life, many still fall victim to the demoralization and helplessness which are among its most insidious products, as they undergo a brainwashing to see themselves only as individuals and consumers, instead of being active and collectively powerful citizens.
Indeed, confronting neoliberalism – whether as individuals, groups, communities or countries – requires a two-step process. First, we need to understand the nature of the beast that holds us and the world in its grip, whatever name we choose. Second, we must overcome our own demoralization and helplessness, and rekindle our collective power as political and economic actors to build the better world we know is possible.
We will see this collective power on the streets and in the aftermath of COP26 in Glasgow, when world leaders come together to face the reality that neoliberalism has allowed corporate profits to trump a rational response to the devastating impact. of fossil fuels on Earth’s climate. Extinction Rebellion and other groups will be on the streets of Glasgow, demanding the long-delayed action needed to address the problem, including an end to net carbon emissions by 2025.
While scientists have warned us for decades of the outcome, political and business leaders have peddled their neoliberal snake oil to continue to fill their coffers at the expense of the future of life on Earth. If we fail to stop them now, living conditions will continue to deteriorate for people all over the world as the natural world on which our lives depend is washed away under our feet, gone up in smoke and, species by species, dies. and is gone forever.
The Covid pandemic is another real-world case study of the impact of neoliberalism. As the official death toll hits 5 million and many more go unreported, rich countries are still hoarding vaccines, pharmaceutical companies reap a boon from vaccines and new drugs, and deadly injustice and devastating the entire neoliberal “market” system. is laid bare for the whole world to see. Calls for a âpopular vaccineâ and âvaccine justiceâ have challenged what is now called âvaccine apartheidâ.
In the 1980s, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher often told the world, “There is no alternative” to the neoliberal order she and President Reagan unleashed. After only a generation or two, the self-serving madness they prescribed and the crises it caused made humanity a matter of survival in order to find alternatives.
Everywhere in the world, ordinary people are rising up to demand real change. The people of Iraq, Chile and Bolivia have overcome the incredible trauma inflicted on them to take to the streets by the thousands and demand a better government. Americans should also demand that our government stop wasting billions of dollars militarizing the world and destroying countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, and start solving our real problems, here and abroad.
People around the world have a better understanding of the nature of the problems we face than a generation or even a decade ago. We must now overcome demoralization and powerlessness to act. It helps to understand that the demoralization and helplessness that we may feel are themselves products of this neoliberal system, and that simply overcoming them is a victory in itself.
As we reject the inevitability of neoliberalism and Thatcher’s lie that there is no alternative, we must also reject the lie that we are just passive and powerless consumers. As human beings, we have the same collective power that human beings have always had to build a better world for ourselves and our children – and now is the time to harness that power.
* Medea Benjamin is co-founder of CODEPINK for Peace, and author of several books, including Inside Iran: The True History and Politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Nicolas JS Davies is a freelance journalist, researcher at CODEPINK and author of Blood on our hands: the American invasion and the destruction of Iraq.