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"Occupy may have already accomplished more than the 68ers"

by Colin Crouch Wednesday, Jun. 20, 2012 at 3:14 AM

"In bad times, politics hearkens back to the simple, heavy-handed neoliberal thought model. Neoliberalism simply says what the rich and powerful like to hear. The trust and faith of the younger generations in the established system is broken.."


Interview with Colin Crouch

[This interview published in: Freitag, 6/7/2012 is translated from the German on the Internet

Colin Crouch, b. 1944, is a British political scientist and sociologist who became known internationally in 2004 with his book “Post Democracy.” He defended the thesis that the public staging of politics is appearance while the real decisions are made in the back rooms. In 2011, his new book “The Strange Non-Death of Neoliberalism” was published. Crouch explains how the current financial crisis has strengthened neoliberalism.]

Neoliberalism is still very powerful but has been unsuccessful for a long while. British sociologist Colin Crouch explains why.

Freitag: Why do people trust economists and technocrats in the current crisis? They are experiencing a Renaissance at the moment.

Colin Crouch: Economic knowledge is acknowledged today in a way that is completely incomprehensible to me. Economics is occupied with things on an intellectual plane far removed from real social life. Economists are very abstract persons; they are like mathematicians. Nevertheless their research findings and their abstract theory have a great echo in politics. They are also revere3d by decision-makers in the financial sector. This chasm between their theory and life is very strange, an absurdity of the last decades.

But didn’t the crisis automatically curb the power of economists – as a kind of logical consequence?

That would have been logical. The austerity policy demanded by the powerful Euro countries for the crisis countries demonstrates: in bad times, politics hearkens back to the simple, heavy-handed neoliberal thought model. Neoliberalism is the result of a lack of imagination.

You write about that in your new book “The Surprising Non-Death of Neoliberalism.” You say neoliberalism came out of the crisis strengthened. Will it still be successful at the end?

That is insidious or perfidious. Neoliberalism neither was nor ever will be successful. But neoliberalism is powerful. Two characteristics helped it become popular. Firstly, like Marxism, it represents a kind of practical instruction that is simple to read and seemingly easy to apply. There are only a few basic assumptions. Starting from these assumptions, one can concoct reality as one pleases. Neoliberalism is simple and by no means modern. Secondly and more importantly, neoliberal policy reflects the interests of the rich or powerful. Neoliberalism simply says what they like to hear. They want to hear that their taxes should stay low and that employee protection and just wages aren’t necessary. They want to hear reducing the welfare state generates growth… Power and interests are central, not success.

Does politics only sit back and watch?

Max Weber’s farsighted description of politics as a calling has long been reality. Politicians have mostly pursued political careers their whole life. They desert the university, work in party-friendly think tanks and wait to be hoisted into a parliamentary office. Often they are no more than political animals that hardly resist their structures and orders.

In 1968 intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre were the shining example of a movement because they voiced their displeasure about the system. Where are intellectuals today?

Practicing doctors, teachers and simply all persons with knowledge are important, not only traditional intellectuals. Doubting orthodox dogmas is necessary, not political knowledge. A climate where alternative themes and opinions reach the powerful, thrive and ultimately grow into their demands is vital. In Great Britain, rock stars, actors and comedians criticize openly. They play an important role and have more influence today than intellectuals because they reach a wider public.

In 2011, Harvard students left a lecture by Gregory Mankiw to protest against his neoliberal economic theory. Mankiw is one of the most influential macro-economists and was an advisor to George W. Bush. Do you feel students are more political today at the universities?

Colin Crouch: After the student revolts of the 68-movement, the lecture halls became noticeably quieter. Students have adjusted and act more system-conforming than in the past. I notice an increasing skepticism since the latest crisis. The trust and faith of the younger generations in the established system is broken. This reflects a more critical attitude toward neoliberalism although I don’t judge students in a generalized way. I didn’t do that at that time and I don’t do that today.

Like intellectuals, most university professors are silent. They hardly speak up in social debates.

At the moment, many of them pass through a kind of Fordist process similar to the Fordist process many workers experienced a century ago. Pressure grows. Their work will be measured by production of articles in technical journals. This serves their careers. Participation in general public debates becomes difficult. Young colleagues now have the choice of writing such articles or speaking up in a debate. Most decide for the former and remain silent.

At the moment, new social movements like Occupy are gaining great attention and manage without a seminal intellectual or star. Do we need modern cutting-edge forms of protest in post-democracy?

Absolutely. This change is primal-democratic and not only right and healthy. These movements do not need any cult- or symbolic figures. No one has really earned such a supporting role. These protest groups find being supported by a multitude of activists more fruitful. They are praxis-oriented since they unite very different citizens with the most different knowledge. They may have already accomplished more than the intellectuals of the 68-movement. The growing social inequality, the power of capital and the undermining of democracy are the challenges of our time. Occupy insisted politics must comment and move these themes into focus. Five years ago no one spoke about these themes. They were marginal notes, nothing more. Today they drive activists worldwide to the street.

Viewed from the outside, the Occupy-movement may seem very vague and disunited in its demands.

This may be the nature of social movements and is not a defect. Social movements are mostly fleeting and run with the times. Only in the rarest cases do they have continuity. Still they are an important social phenomenon because they create clarity. An organization or structur5e could ultimately discredit or weaken a movement. Their strength lies in their diversity; they can appear everywhere at the same time. Accordingly they are indispensable for overcoming the neoliberal system. We need them.

Why are they necessary?

The real problem is breaking through the hierarchy of power in a globalized world with deregulated financial markets, not a shortage of ideas. The global financial elite, this little circle of men in screened-off office towers, influences other economic areas and politics. This must become a core theme.

What points must be made concrete?

This group of money-players is very self-assured and feels superior to us. For them, the rest are marionettes. But this remnant is great. Social movements must show this elite that the status quo cannot continue. The financial elites must realize they must make compromises. The ingenious austerity dictates now experienced by Greece are too simple and extremely anti-social. We must be successful with our alternative ideas; politicians must be forced to listen. Obviously the demands of movements are often vague. Still they create a political climate where alternatives can be formulated. For their conversion, we need above all a close alliance of the political left.

Your essays in the past often left little ground for hope. Can you look more positively into the future today?

I hope so! My way of writing draws upon the idea of dystopia, the opposite of utopia. I want readers to think at the end: “Oh no! Is this how it really is?” Ultimately I want to be convinced that I am wrong with my views. I want to warn people. They should see that the current way is wrong. It is too early to say whether I am right. Regrettably my thesis that neoliberalism came out6 of the crisis strengthened is also confirmed by the political measures and reactions to the Euro crisis. I hope very much that I will be taught something better.

In America and England, the universities are very strongly connected with and financed b y the private economy. Is there still something like a free system?

This increased openness of universities toward economic enterprises makes me rather distraught. What is special in this relation is that powerful and influential persons almost never need to actively exert and directly apply this power. That others know about this is enough. This is not different at universities than elsewhere. The universities have a hard time in concretely proving and understanding the reality of influencing and control. Universities must always ask: how independent are we?

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