A neo-liberal nihilism?

A debate on the morality of neo-liberalism - and of the bankers behind the financial crisis. See Thomas Ash's response and George Gabriel's follow-up.
George Gabriel
16 June 2009

An OurKingdom conversation. [History: Thomas Ash > David Marquand > Thomas Ash > this post > Thomas Ash > George Gabriel > Thomas Ash > George Gabriel]

Does the current popular political rage owe its existence to the ravagings of neoliberalism? Corruption in Parliament should always be cause for outcry but given the dull thuds made by the cash-for-questions, cash-for-honours, and party funding "scandals" in comparison with the resounding "crack" from British legitimacy caused by the expenses crisis we must recognise that the scandal is situational. This "context" is that of economic collapse: high unemployment, home repossessions, the demolition of pension savings, and a future of public spending cuts; in other words a context of consequents of neo-liberalism.

David Marquand expands the debate: neo-liberalism like most ideologies is not only an economic, but a moral philosophy that claims "the unhindered, rationally calculated pursuit of individual self interest in free, competitive markets was not just economically efficient, but also morally right." As such, no political reform will succeed without addressing the "real culprit", the "hyper-individualistic, materialistic hedonism of the entire culture".

OurKingdom's Thomas Ash suggests that in fact public anger stems from violations of free market norms, and when the idea of "too big to fail" effectively nationalises the risk of the banking sector without nationalising its profits we must recognise that he has a point. But Ash's suggestion does not actually clash with Marquand's call to consider the moral economy, it points deeper, to a contradiction at the heart of neo-liberalism.

The congregation believes in neo-liberalism as a social vision, that fair and free competition will allow those who deserve it to advance in the market in the pursuit of happiness by the sweat of their brows. Yet in a bizarre twist of fate the money-lenders have become the priests, and they believe in a different God. Of course they proclaim the market's social value, but what really answers their prayers is the unlimited sanction of the pursuit of self-interest.

This is not a moral vision, it is nothing short of neo-liberal nihilism. Marquand suggests that this pursuit is deemed "morally right" by neoliberalism. Though this may be the case for the congregation, the neo-liberalism of the priests deems this pursuit inevitable. They follow what is known as "psychological egoism", believing that though self-interest is a complex beast it is one we all and exclusively hunt. This is an amoral philosophy, if all we can do is pursue our self-interest it is meaningless to talk of obligations to do otherwise, such as play fair or respect Human Rights, this is neo-liberal nihilism. It's true that the fig leaf remains, self interest pursuit is called good, but when this is all one can do how significant is the claim?

The rational man of economic models is a psychological egoist, he is only motivated by his self interest, though as Ash points out he may err in this pursuit. To prove their point bankers must render Robinson Crusoe(pdf) real, they must become the "rational man". It is this that drives the fanatical, collegiate pursuit of ever-greater pay in the banks. It is also this drive that wrecked global capitalism, as bankers ran incredibly high social risks on ever-increasing bets that generated an ever-increasing commission.

Any ideological response to neo-liberalism must not only advance institutional alterations, it must offer an alternate conception of man, the unit upon which these new institutions are to be built. Such a response need not call for the birth of a "new man" to bring us back from the brink of neo-liberal nihilism. In raging against corrupt MPs ordinary men and women the length and breadth of the country espouse an ethic of honesty and integrity that goes beyond their self-interest. They focus on the relatively small damage to each of our self-interest done by the public purchase of a duck island rather than the public and private bankruptcy. Neoliberal nihilists will call this a mistaken pursuit of self-interest, to the rest of us it is basic decency, clear as day.

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