TINA – There is No Alternative

There Is No Alternative, Margaret Thatcher uttered this famous mantra as part of a stiff defense of her policies and Neoliberalism. There is something remarkably pervasive about these words, to suggest the status quo is no longer up for questioning or debate.

Perhaps we ought to define TINA, in Laura Flanders words, “Globalized capitalism, so called free-markets and free trade were the best ways to build wealth, distribute services and grow a society’s economy. Deregulation’s good, if not God”.

By no means do I intend to make a thorough economic evaluation of Thatcher’s policies or record, my objective is to expound in a broader sense the effects of market liberalization, in the economic, political and social arena.

Thatcher put in affect her policies in 1979 when she took office as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, the prevailing sentiment of the time was the infinite game in which the 2 major superpowers were engaged in, USA vs USSR, Democracy vs Dictatorship, Capitalism vs Communism. Change was unforeseeable, the bipolar world order would endure until either sides found the upper hand to subvert the other. In the midst of it all, social democracy stood out as the best of two worlds, applied far and wide by most democratic governments in Europe – strong state intervention, social aid, support for a market based economy as long as it did not jeopardize the states ability to intervene -. The socio-economic system established by this ideology allowed Europe to flourish economically and protect it’s citizens from economic hardship, no one was to be left behind, wealth redistribution through the state was an efficient way to ensure everyone would have the same opportunities, being paid by means of progressive taxation: Health, Education, Security, Justice. However, in 1991 the unthinkable came to be, the dissolution of the USSR meant the communist menace ceased to exist, the western block and it’s ideology had outlasted communism, a sense of democratic triumphalism came about, the belief that democracy and market freedom was the ideal model to be implemented, history was at an end, Francis Fukuyama believed ideological conflicts would cease, both democracy and neoliberalism would eventually spread out to all the corners of the world.

Without the looming spectrum of an eternal enemy menacing the survival of western civilization, corporations and politicians seized the opportunity to dismantle the post WWII consensus and established social contract, all economies would be pushed into overdrive through privatization of all state enterprise. 2 narratives emerged by one of the most influential thinkers of our time, Milton Friedman: the belief that governments were incapable of running an efficient economy, “The government solution to a problem is usually as bad as the problem”, and the belief that a free economy was the only means to emancipate the people, “underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself”. Therefore, all policies would have to conform to these 2 basic principles, ultimately presented by the Washington Consensus.

The Washington Consensus1, established in 1989 by John Williamson set about 10 economic policy prescriptions, which were considered a one size fits all solution. The reform package put forth by this consensus encompassed policies in such areas as macroeconomic stabilization, economic opening with respect to both trade and investment, and the expansion of market forces within the domestic economy. This orientation refers us to a market-based approach, some would describe it as market fundamentalism or neoliberalism.

The application of the proposed formula initiated an unprecedented wave of privatization, the diminishing role of state intervention (deregulation), and the globalization of world politics and economy. The majority of the means of production would be held by private interest groups or states that were driven by a market ideology, consequently, technocratic economic policies became a top priority for governments: discipline in matters of fiscal policy; redirection of public spending from subsidies earmarked for education, primary health care and infrastructure investment; tax reform, by broadening the tax base and adopting marginal tax rates. All these policy reforms created the illusion of prosperity for the common people, the economy was indeed growing, more wealth was being created, however, the accumulation of this wealth was funneled towards a very small percentage of the population, the established infra-structure protected and favored those with the means, marginalizing white-color workers, whose disposable income shrank year by year, as competition and open borders allowed corporations to move operations to developing countries with cheaper labor. All financial institutions ensured this environment would come to be, through lobbying, media narratives, and manufacturing consent from the people.

Universal competition relies upon universal quantification and comparison. The result is that workers, job-seekers and public services of every kind are subject to a pettifogging, stifling regime of assessment and monitoring, designed to identify the winners and punish the losers.

Creating a bureaucratic nightmare capitalism was supposed to free us from. We changed a tyrant for another one in sheep clothing.

The privatization or marketization of public services such as energy, water, trains, health, education, roads and prisons has enabled corporations to set up tollbooths in front of essential assets and charge rent, either to citizens or to government, for their use.

2008’s financial crisis was the vindication of the critics of neoliberalism, it exposed all it’s fragilities, the mismanagement, the corruption, the short sightedness of politicians and it’s agendas. Rationally, governments would institute regulations, punish the perpetrators, and break up the big banks who caused the meltdown. It wasn’t so – very limited reform was enabled, superficial at best, banks were bailed out with tax payers money, inequality kept rising, dissatisfaction with the system was wide-spread – all the while politicians kept ignoring the reality and pushed forward with economic reform, confusing the problem with the solution. Selling different narratives to divide public opinion, polarizing it, with the ultimate effect of alienating the general population. Tocqueville predicted this outcome, disinformation and indoctrination created an anti-intellectual movement, everyone’s opinion is valid, since they represent a vote, thus, democracy had failed to prevent the very thing it represented, it became self-defeating, the majority became a tyranny.

Perhaps the most dangerous impact of neoliberalism is not the economic crises it has caused, but the political crisis. As the domain of the state is reduced, our ability to change the course of our lives through voting also contracts. Instead, neoliberal theory asserts, people can exercise choice through spending. But some have more to spend than others: in the great consumer or shareholder democracy, votes are not equally distributed. The result is a disempowerment of the poor and middle. As parties of the right and left adopt similar neoliberal policies, disempowerment turns to disenfranchisement. Large numbers of people have been shed from politics. Ideological ambiguity has set in.

There needs to be a conscious attempt to design a new system or reform the Washington consensus, tailored to the demands of the 21st century:

  • It should aim at stabilizing the real economy as well as inflation;
  • It should attempt to improve the regulatory framework of the financial system, rather than assume that liberalization is the only game in town;
  • It should include a competition policy;
  • It should consider various possible mechanisms for improving the efficiency of government, rather than seeking to minimize government’s role (remember that Stiglitz interprets the Washington Consensus as advocating minimal government);
  • It should focus on improving human capital formation; and
  • It should seek to increase the transfer of technology to developing countries.

Xiang Zhou

25 de janeiro de 2018