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Neoliberalism in Crisis

by Christoph Butterwegge Thursday, Nov. 08, 2007 at 5:06 AM

Liberation theology warns the future of the first world is the third world. Everyday time is replaced by kairos time, the time of decision, when lawlessness masks as lawfulness. The language of proclamation runs crossway to the language of time. Cast your net on the other side!


By Christoph Butterwegge

[This article published in: Ossietzky 10/26/2007 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, Christoph Butterwegge teaches political science at the University of Koln and is a member of the attac advisory board. His most recent book is titled “Kritik des Neoliberalismus” (Critique of Neoliberalism).]

The international finance crisis whose consequences are in no way mastered is a result of overly liberal credit awards of US mortgage banks and the inevitable result of a banking system redesigned according to neoliberal ideas. This system embodies “casino capitalism” (Susan Strange). The British economist John Maynard Keynes warned of this. Instead of industrial value-creation, highly speculative money investments are central. The banks develop ever more complex possibilities (derivatives). Inconceivable riches arose for a few financial magnates with more and more poverty in the so-called third world and in the consumer societies of the North. The neoliberal projects create social inequalities in a form unknown up to now while promising more prosperity, permanent economic growth and reduced mass unemployment as though a stock market crash and recession did not follow on the heels of every economic upswing.

The more hedge funds, private equity firms and neoliberal conglomerates dominate economic activity across the planet without public institutions, competent oversight boards and political regulatory mechanisms setting limits, the more unstable become the capital markets. A central controversial point lies here between neoliberals and their critics who see unfailing evidence in the frequent price drops for the failure of an economic policy that refuses nearly every demand for intervention measures, economic supervision and more rigorous controls on finance markets.

Unlike classical liberalism that as a progressive middle class movement was first directed against the feudal state or its remnants, neoliberalism – understood as an economic theory, social philosophy and political strategy raising the market into the general social regulation – fought all state interventionism putting political shackles on capital. Since the 1974/75 world economic crisis, criticism of the intervention state assailed the reforms realized by an SPD/FDP coalition under German chancellor Willy Brandt after the student movement and the extra-parliamentary opposition at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s. The Lambsdorff paper of September 9, 1982 was important for the further development. This paper urged significant improvement of capital profits and a “cheapening of the factor labor” by lowering social benefits to the level of 25 years ago and led to the breach of the social-liberal coalition. The later reading of the memorandum suggests the paper was the official script for the economic- and social policy today and a crucial forerunner of neoliberal hegemony. Many measures pursued since then correspond to that catalogue of demands. From a temporal limitation of unemployment benefits to twelve months and introduction of a “democratic factor” to limit pensions to greater personal participation in the public health system, the Lambsdorff paper listed almost all the “social cruelties” realized by the subsequent German governments up to today.

After the change of government from Schmidt to Kohl, neoliberalism following the models of Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain and Ronald Reagan in the US changed in Germany from fundamental criticism of the intervention state to a rigorous “reform policy.” Since the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of all “command socialist” state systems in Eastern- and Central Europe, neoliberals and economic lobbyists strongly influenced the public opinion, social climate and political culture of Germany. With the unattractive system alternative, the last barrier fell against the transformation of the Rhine model of the social market economy to the depraved finance market- and shareholder capitalism that now prevails over nearly the whole world.

With deregulation of the markets and (re-) privatization of public goods and social risks, neoliberalism aims at “pure capitalism,” a market society without a developed welfare state and economic interventionism. While the intervention state is rejected, the market is promoted as the universal regulation mechanism even though it undermines society in the tumult of competition, splitting society in poor and rich and promoting rivalry and brutality among people. Being neoliberal means holding the market as the most efficient regulatory authority of society and distancing from the welfare state. Being neoliberal also means more than putting “private ahead of the state.” Ultimately neoliberal means being unsocial and insensitive to the growing social problems. In that more and more areas of society are systematically subjected to the principle of profit maximization, the sphere of the free decision of individuals degraded to “customers” and thus objects of the advertising industry diminishes along with the freedom of democratic institutions.

There are signs the welfare state is experiencing a renaissance and the period of privatization of businesses, health care and social risks is coming to an end. Nevertheless the neoliberal hegemony is unbroken, creates social asymmetry and remains a danger for democracy because it devalues the political processes of decision-making. Many young persons resign amid the apparent superiority of the economic in relation to the political and withdraw into private life instead of being engaged for a better world as attac envisions. Perhaps the first truly global finance market crisis will help overcome market radicalism’s control of public opinion and rehabilitate state intervention.

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