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Living and Working Differently and Self-Optimization

by Ulrich Brand and Winfried Grum Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2015 at 3:19 AM

How did neoliberal policy gain a mass influence? To neoliberalism, we must soon oppose a great alternative narrative of freedom, democracy and solidarity before the social dislocations neutralize the positive resources amid a collapsing world climate.


By Ulrich Brand

[This blog article published on June 22, 2015 is translated from the German on the Internet, Ulrich Brand is a professor of international politics at the University of Vienna.]

Ecological questions are social questions closely connected with power and rule. The perspective of social-ecological transformation emphasizes important dimensions of distribution, what is produced and how it is produced in society under what social and ecological conditions and what social conditions are needed for a good life for all.

A specter goes about in Europe. Austerity policy is criticized ever more intensely because it is carried out on the backs of employees and poor countries. A policy that only relies on distribution of income, wealth and power is important but too narrow. What is discussed in expert debates under the term “social-ecological transformation” is increasingly articulated as a public demand for a “good life for everyone.” How is this possible? With crises to be fought everywhere, should other things like the battle against climate change or more justice have priority? No! Crisis strategies should consider the possibilities of a good life for all and answers to the ecological crisis.

Excessive consumption of natural resources destroys the environment and fuels climate change. The weaker members of society and regions are impacted by this climate change. Far-reaching use of renewable energy is imperative. A changed energy system should consider what is actually produced with the energy. Should industrially manufactured food be produced perhaps even imported from other world regions at great expense – or should production be sustainable and healthier?


Good life for all is a political challenge and does not only have a cultural dimension of changed lifestyles. Decisions between alternatives are made amid power and interests. Employees and their organizations play a central role. The rebuilding process must be politically organized. This should not be left to investors and businesses and their political representatives.


The current discussion of growth criticism emphasizes something other than the question “Growth Yes or No.” The capitalist growth imperative must be pushed back along with the competitiveness and “location policy” that are seemingly without alternative.

The excessive orientation on economic growth ensures hierarchies of power, namely the interests of investors and global businesses that play off locations against each other. Where can they find the most advantageous anti-social and anti-ecological conditions from their perspective?

The drivers of growth must be tackled. How can power be contained and how can democracy be developed? For a long while, the dominant experience of most people is that society cannot be organized. Others sit at the levers of political, economic and cultural power.


The demand “good life for all” requires forms of individual and social prosperity that are supported by political organization, socially-ecologically compatible production and an attractive life for people. The de-stabilizing forms of capitalist growth and its allied interests must be changed. With that, social conditions will be possible under which people can live and develop their individuality – in a social connection of solidarity which is the first condition of free personality development.


Thus social organization is vital alongside individual responsibility. Calls for “renunciation” are not heard – many people have nothing to renounce – or the green-liberal desire for “liberation from glut.”

The good news comes to the rescue. Society is no longer numb or paralyzed in its annoyance over social division and environmental destruction and over against the arrogance and ignorance of the powerful. More and more people are living differently at least in partial areas and buying more durable products, ecologically and socially produced food. These are the “pioneers of change” who must be encouraged and supported – by progressive businesspersons, unions and political conditions.

Conflicts like the one around the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Agreement (TTIP) show that resistance is mounting against a further round that codifies neoliberalism internationally. The good life for all is an increasingly more visible horizon and already appears in many discussions and solidarity practices today.


Reflections on Patrick Schreiner “Submission as Freedom – Life in Neoliberalism,” PapyRossa publisher Koln 2015-08-17

By Wilfried Gaum

[This book review published in sopos 6/2015 is translated abridged from the German on the Internet.]

For too long, we in Europe did not understand a new neocolonial practice was enforced in Latin America and elsewhere in the global South under the kind auspices of the US and the tolerance of the main European powers. A strategic counter-draft to postwar societies organized as welfare states was implemented there. Fritz Scharpf who analyzed the end of Keynesian crisis policy in 1987 was one of the first to recognize that this episode was at an end. His strategic recommendation for social democracy was the creation of a supply-oriented economic policy and“socialism in one class,” the redistribution of income and work possibilities in the sectors of wage-earners…

The challenge of neoliberalism took an offensive form in the countries of the global North with Thatcher’s 1979 election victory in Great Britain and Reagan’s 1980 presidency. This history has been written often enough. Still both Thatcher and Reagan came to office in elections in parliamentary democracies. No coup and no dictatorship were needed to gain mass loyalties and mass support for carrying out the political ideological hegemony of neoliberalism. How did neoliberal policy gain a mass influence so no coup was necessary in the core capitalist countries? How could another variant of totalitarian thinking become established and hegemonial in Europe after National Socialism and Stalinism?

Patrick Schreiner’s spiritedly written and well-reasoned book helps in these questions. He asks “about the everyday, supposedly apolitical mechanisms through which people accept these approaches and ideas as good, appropriate and without alternative […]. Neoliberalism has long been acknowledged as a foundation of lifestyles. As such it is much more stubborn than a simple social- or political-economic ideology.” [p.8].

In a short instructive chapter, Schreiner explains his understanding of neoliberalism and how it developed from a fringe minority opinion to hegemony in economics and politics… Free markets, freedom of contract and private property are primary interests for politics [p.11]. From the 1990s, the social democratic or left-liberal parties in the West have changed to this course. “They urge more personal responsibility, more flexibility on the labor market, less social spending and balanced budgets” [p.16]. These parties prevailed more or less in Anglo-Saxon and many continental European countries.

On representative fields, the book shows what a neoliberal self-image and worldview means and how and with what ideologies it is produced. For understanding neoliberalism, it is important that it promises freedom and absence of paternalism, treating people like children whether in a governmental or collective way. Performance is the basis for success. From that point of view, Raul Zelik’s approach that survival is the most important driving force of productivity in neoliberalism is too simplistic [Raul Zelik, Die Macht der Angst, Journal of Rosa Luxemburg foundation, 1/2015, p.24]. Zelik explains the rule of neoliberalism with the fear of social descent or devaluation. For that, he refers to the studies of the Frankfurt school on the mental structure of the dominated.

We could ask why there was a change of form of the underling mindset to fascism/ Stalinism and today neoliberalism. I think the first two forms of totalitarian ideology in their core represented racist or class-based devaluation of others and warped forms of a collective ideal while neoliberalism in its core combined its individualist freedom ideal with the social devaluation of other “less efficient persons.” A continuity to the great narratives of social democracy and the workers’ movement is emphasized. Performance counts for ascent and success, not origin or privilege. [cf. Franz Walter, Vorwarts Oder abwarts, 2010].

Neoliberalism reduces this term performance. What counts is the result, not the expense necessary for the result. Still the social climber milieu from the 1950s to the 1980s easily forgets ascending in the economy and state and enjoying – now endangered – prosperity was not exclusively or mainly their own achievement. That ascent was the result of political and union collective action. Nevertheless a neoliberal morality was implemented that is connected with the terms market conformity, adjustment readiness, self-discipline and active, competitive, entrepreneurial and egoistic life praxis. Therefore a person must “thematicize, optimize and represent him/herself. Schreiner shows this in many examples from casting shows and advice literature to esoteric possibilities.

The missing individual adaptability is always responsible when individuals cannot keep up any more in the competition and their affluence level melts away, never the social structure or the dominant ideology. Only inner adaptation helps that can be produced with the help of experts and advisors, not collective resistance and political action. So submission appears as freedom.

The challenge of the book was to present and emphasize the forms of neoliberalism…

In her 2007 book “Shock Therapy,” Naomi Klein describes how neoliberal economic policies were implemented after military coups in countries of the global South (Chile 1963; Argentina 1976 et. al.). The population was “shocked” by the violent overthrow of the past government. Leftist union activists were persecuted, arrested, tortured and killed. The whole familiar system of social, political and industrial relations was burst open. A tabula rasa was made with parliamentary democracy, unions, political opposition and critical thinking with the enforcement of market-fundamentalist practices. With the economic programs of the Chicago Boys, solidarity securities and collective organization of needs were persecuted as “subversive” and thousands of activists killed. This systematic violence traumatized large parts of the population, paralyzed their resistance and was a prerequisite for carrying out individualist strategies of life and survival. What is “liberal” about destroying individual identities remains the secret of Hayek, Friedman and their apologists worldwide.

No shock strategy was necessary in Europe to make neoliberalism hegemonial. Its victory and continuing hegemony is another defeat after the shock therapies of the 1st and 2nd world wars and the destruction of the freedom movements of dependent employees by National Socialism and communism. But what makes neoliberalism fascinating for broad sectors of the population? How does neoliberalism find approval in social democracy? How could a “modern social democracy” become the avant garde of such a policy? This question has to interest every serious analysis of the politics of the last 20 years if one does not want to be taken in by unfruitful betrayal theories or persist in the social Darwinian and misanthropic view of the person splitting societies.

An answer to that can be found in the inability of the left to develop an image of the person that clearly contrasts with the terrible nightmare of “command socialism” and simultaneously gives a positive spin to upgrading individualism across all sectors and milieus. In a 2013 address in Zagreb, the Greek finance minister Varoufakis criticized Marx and the movements following him for proposing “justice” and “equality:” as leit-motifs for the workers’ movement and not “freedom” and “rationality” – so neoliberalism confiscate the term freedom. Historical determinism followed by the old reformist workers’ movement did not develop the idea of a free society that went beyond the creation of social security systems. The Mediterranean syndicalist workers’ movement was different. The explicitly libertarian part of the workers’ movement after its historical defeat in the 1939 Spanish Civil War did not help liberal socialist alternatives gain mass influence. Proposals for such an alternative existed in the welfare state but remained social minorities. We cannot forget the liberal revolts of 1968 had only a few friends in the bureaucratic machines of the workers’ and union movement.

Perhaps our challenge is to recognize the concept of freedom through justice that combines individuality, freedom and solidarity securities. The discussion around a guaranteed minimum income points in this direction. Varoufakis rightly refers to the problem that a democratic society in solidarity cannot mange without a conception of freedom anchored in solidarity and operating democratically. Such a conception cannot be defined any more by the myths of collective action of the workers’ movements of the last century. Its emancipatory forces helped organize individual ascent and social welfare in Europe for a certain time. Now they are exploited and consumed. The victory and continuing rule of neoliberalism in heads and social reality – even beyond politics – is connected with this conceptual weakness. No social majorities and transformation projects that support these insights have formed with any prospect for success. To neoliberalism, we must soon oppose a great alternative narrative of freedom, democracy and solidarity before the social dislocations neutralize the positive resources amid a collapsing world climate.

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