Neoliberalism, the concealed adversary

In the tumult and panic of the post-referendum world, commentators debated with furore and bewilderment at the result. Void of leadership and consumed with uncertainty, our democracy seemed broken and yet vibrant, the establishment had been defeated and yet also had won. Afraid of what had been uncovered in our national psyche, we had stared into the mirror for too long, unable to recognise the scary face in the reflection. On that Thursday, I walked my dog past window after window proudly plastered in pro EU posters, outnumbering Brexit ones 10 to 1. I wasn’t foolish enough to think this London inner-city picture was representative of the country as a whole, but still, as I was being pulled along it offered some comfort for the long election night ahead. The EU referendum result was supposed to be symptomatic of the current state of the nation as a whole. The impact of austerity, the 2008 crash, the decline of UK manufacturing and of course, the major preoccupation with immigration. All of these issues were given as the cause for the majority of us to vote leave. Eager politicians clambered over each other to now claim that the future must bring about a system that benefits not just the elite few, but a larger slice of society. Wealth must be more fairly distributed, taxation for all, not just those without able and expensive financial consultants. Various candidates for the (now numerous) leadership positions have promised this all and more. What was not mentioned in all of the postmortem debates was the decades old overarching project that has brought this country to the position it now faces. Neoliberalism and the effect it has had on Britain is the chief reason that the country now faces the division and torment that the EU referendum has brought to the surface.

These problems have been long suffered by us, whether we speak of the housing crisis, wage stagnation, job insecurity or immigration. The root cause of these issues is a neoliberal consensus that has dominated British policy for over three decades. While there might be a decent grasp in the electorate of general ideological divisions within the two major parties, neoliberalism has spanned consecutive governments from Thatcher to Blair to Cameron and it has been a key lynchpin of policy formation and theory. It was heralded as the key to the future, doing away with colossal mechanisms of state to bring greater prosperity and security in an increasingly competitive postcolonial world. The only question was, for who? When you hear politicians speak of free markets, internal markets, or greater freedom of choice, these were bywords for neoliberal principles. It is a theory that decisions should be made through markets, that they are superior in results to the best laid plans of any government. Friedrich Hayek, one of the key neoliberal thinkers explained this superiority was because “the mind cannot foresee its own advance”. Apart from the market possessing ‘force’ like powers, the other component to make this theory work is a smaller, weaker state to provide the least friction. This is why you used to hear many a politician promising to ‘roll back the state’ and get rid of ‘red tape’. Thatcherism and Blairism were both attempts to adapt the principles of neoliberalism to our British reality. It’s also why Thatcher went on a privatisation spree, trying to minimise the state. It’s why Blair was fixated on internal markets within state industries and was obsessed with appeasing the city. It’s why, when faced with the 2008 crash (caused by neoliberal deregulation of the banking system), Cameron imposed austerity on the poorest of the nation, while avoiding any consequence for the city.

Thatcher, a pioneering proponent of neoliberalism famously didn’t even believe in society. This is because at the heart of neoliberalism is the core belief that altruism has no part in the construction of society and that the self-interest of individuals provides a more reliable basis on which a secure world can exist. As such society has been reconstructed and increasingly atomised into smaller and smaller groups of people. Neoliberalist principles weren’t just restricted to our economy, they were applied to our society and culture. This stemmed from the idea that the markets supposed wisdom should be spread to all parts of the human experience. It is from this idea that we have now been moulded, focusing on materialism and individualism as our chief motivators in life. The consumer was pitted against his fellow citizen in a competition to accumulate the most material gain. The market was now present in societal bonds, as well as in the workplace. This is the true legacy of Thatcherism. Those of us born in the 80s and 90s are Thatcher's children, born into a world where this reality is all we have known, so being able to discern any other reality is very difficult. This dismemberment through individualism had a number of outcomes.

The loosening of ties between citizens caused suspicion and resentment, differences were made even starker by the widening wealth gap. With neoliberalism came greater apparent wealth, but also greater inequality, an inequality that has seen stupendous wealth littered in the London and suffocating poverty not befitting a first world country just a few streets away. It has lead to a poorer quality of life for most of us, a decrease in our mental health and a pervasive insecurity and anxiety. Loneliness has also increased greatly in the country, with Britain being classed as the “loneliness capital of Europe”. This is despite us having the second highest GDP of the EU.  Only the elevated and wealthy elite that have prospered through these policies have been unaffected. Our anxiety stems from a fear of what the future will hold, because of our precarious positions in a financial system that gradually erodes income. The marketisation of society, including charities and social organisations, has led to greater competition at the expense of cohesion and stability because of the commodification of the individual as a point of market value. In short, we are losing our human value.

The involvement of the market in democratic institutions in the name of freedom has actually managed to ensure the opposite. Democracy has never been an efficient process to make decisions; it’s why most capitalist business structures are not democratic in their internal organising. Compromise, which is essentially what the democratic system produces, is not conducive to capitalism, which will alway seek the easiest route to profits. When big business then harnesses democracy to its ends rather than the opposite, an erosion of the democratic experience is not a surprise.

The widespread unrest and resistance to this neoliberal system has manifested itself in a number of ways, which have circumvented the traditional left/right political spectrum. People no longer care much what colour ribbon you wear; what the people clamber for is relief and radical conduits for change. There is no longer any faith in the traditional means of change through parties that don’t represent the public at large, or even their party members. Instead, career politicians function in a democratic system that is finely tuned to the needs of the wealthy and the corporate world. In a neoliberal capitalist system that prioritised the individual and the material, it was only natural that this attitude would end up leading to a restructuring of the political system. We’ve all had enough of the status quo, a country order built upon mistrust and assumption that we must all look our for ourselves. This generation has had to face up to a future poorer than their parents, unlikely to get on the housing ladder, in immense debt and dwindling opportunities. While many have blamed immigrants for these ills, the truth is that our political classes sold us a dud of a future. We are now reaping the woes of this ideology that never really had our interests at heart. Instead it has created a plutocracy that relies on self interest. Nationhood and society exist on planes of mutuality and brotherhood. Basically, the same first lesson your primary school teacher taught you: to share. The rejection of neoliberalism is very clear amongst the electorate, the ability to explain and articulate this rejection clearly has yet to manifest. Until we have leaders that can both unite the disparate and project a better future, it seems that neoliberalism still has a few more wounds to inflict before its demise.

Hamza Salmi is a co-founder of Honest London. His favourite topics of discussion include politics, new music, and documentaries. He also enjoys intermittently posting on Twitter and Instagram