The following was originally published in the Occupy Times of London on 2 November, 2011:
When I was little, my grandfather took me on his knee and explained the market to me. In theory, it was a way for people to invest in businesses and commodities that they saw had a future in the economy. For a handful of bills, we could own a tiny slice of a business. However, in the last decade this simple act has exploded into complexity. Over-the-counter derivatives, futures contracts, currency speculation, tax credit default swaps… does anyone know what these things even are? And to think these nebulous concepts are being traded nearly at light speed, with incredible profits being made at the blink of an eye.
Market finance became the new Baal worship: What would the market think? What would the market say? Without even knowing why, the common person was suddenly exhorted to care very deeply about how the market “felt” about something. If the market is upset, something so unspeakably terrible would happen! Better to offer up our flesh and blood as sacrifice, cut social spending and our children’s futures short so that the market might be pleased. The high priests of power encourage us to trust them and to simply let them act in our best interest whether or not we understand what is going on.
“Why,” we might ask, “is it so important to develop an understanding of the market and of neoliberal market theory?” There are two answers to this: first, it is not difficult to understand what is going on. There might be very confusing terms thrown about but it boils down to simple concepts. Secondly, because neoliberalism is the cause of this crisis and your reason for being here. This “Occupy ____” movement is, at its heart, a movement that is the sworn enemy of this system. Speaking about the bankers, the traders, the bail-outs, this is all well and good. Yet this is like going to the doctor and complaining of a sore throat, stuffy nose, and chills without simply saying you think you have a cold. We are living in a sick world, and the sickness is what we can safely identify as neoliberalism. In order to cure an illness, we must first diagnose it. Only then will we be able to formulate the proper medication needed to get better.
Neoliberalism is a term that can cause confusion while trying to pinpoint a standard definition. David Harvey defines it as “a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade.” To put it simply: the market must be free, without government interference past enforcing private property laws. The confusion sets in when we remember that with all these bailouts, tax cuts, and slaps-on-the-wrist, the market isn’t really free at all! If anything, it is now intimately connected with the state. So, neoliberalism is something that is inherently contradictory to its stated ideology.
Yet if we understand neoliberalism as an ideology that at heart encourages the rich accumulate more and more at the expense of the poor by any means possible – a radical redistribution of social and economic power – then state involvement by way of bail-outs and austerity cuts suddenly seems more reasonable.
Neoliberalism assumes that the state has a new role in our lives. Instead of it being something that is elected by and for the people, it is now an institution that is the protector/enforcer of the market and its whims. In return, the state gains an incredible amount of power. Under the auspices of “protecting private property”, governments now have the legal ability to intrude on your life in ways never before imagined.
Neoliberalism started out by attacking the most vulnerable among us: those who live hand to mouth in the third world, the poor, the mentally ill, the cold, and the hungry. Yet just as capitalism demands more access to markets in order to expand, so too does it demand new populations to bring low.
The United States is a fantastic example. A reckoning for the sins of the father came upon the United States in the form of rotting houses in New Orleans, empty factories in Detroit and homeless veterans from our imperialist wars freezing to death in the streets of New York. The wealth gap grew, as wages started to fall, and as jobs grew scarce, we began to notice that our social safety net had been cut from under us: no health insurance, unemployment compensation at £120 per week, houses being foreclosed on and suddenly empty retirement accounts. As social security and education is hauled up on the chopping block, so too are our futures being consumed by the great monster the United States itself enabled.
Yet the most dangerous part of neoliberalism is that it assumes that society is simply made up of individuals and that these individuals are to participate in a democratic fashion by buying things. This individualization of humankind created not only a vacuous consumer culture, but also ended up isolating us to an astonishing degree. The true miracle of the Occupy movement has been a reclaiming of public space and mass solidarity. When was the last time you stood around and spoke to perfect strangers about how the world should be run? And it is this, this kernel of hope incubated in every human gathering of minds who recognize their sacred (non-monetary) value that terrifies the 1%. This is why skulls get cracked in New York, flash bangs and gas gets thrown in Oakland, and the police parade around with machine guns here in London.
It is the simple act of gathering that the 1% is most afraid of … if it is not around the television and not on Oxford Street, then it is unacceptable to them! If the people have found a way to excuse themselves from their bleak existence by gathering, feeding and caring for each other for free, then this does not fit into a system built on speculative profit.
Therein lies the real threat to the 1% – not health and safety or fire codes or losing tourist money – it is a people who are self-actualized without the help of bankers who know better and the endless cycle of consumption. And therein may lie the cure to the disease of neoliberalism.