Can Europe Make It?

Neoliberalism in Europe - weekly comments roundup

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A look at our new front page, as well as this week's best reader comments on our Can Europe make it? debate.

Alex Sakalis
22 July 2013

Much like our beloved continent, the Can Europe Make it? page is undergoing a structural reform. And, much like our beloved continent, we are still evolving and trying to find out what works and what doesn't. What we will look like when we emerge from this witches' stew of ideas and experimentation is uncertain—much like our...

Some changes should be immediately obvious. We now have a front page on which to display articles we feel are especially good. A space for us to highlight some of our debates, and maybe draw attention to some of our more eccentric articles, which otherwise might disappear in a fast-moving article feed. For example, our current front page highlights an interview with Kerem Oktem and Dimitar Kenarov discussing the recent protests in Turkey and Bulgaria and their implications - check it out if you haven't!

We also wanted to feature two articles from our current Joining the dots debate on Football, Politics and Society: nationalism in Serbia, and positive social forces in Turkey, We have also included two articles from openDemocracy's recent partnership with the University of York entitled Neoliberalism, crisis and the world system which, while not originally published under the Can Europe Make It?

The first of these is Simon Parker's A Greek tragedy on the London stage: the City, the Eurozone crisis and an urban dark age to come. Reading the comments, I was struck by Anna Triandafyllidou's observation:

Τhe analysis is very good but only says half of the story.

 

It says that half, or that 70% of the story that is generally not told in the large media, national and international, about how so much austerity and the pain it has caused to the citizens was neither necessary nor sufficient to solve the problem. At the same time the author fails to acknowledge that in the southern European countries (not sure about Ireland) there were and there still are important structural problems that are not related to some sort of "good" social solidarity but to a nation state solidarity-through-clientelism.

 

The big fish embezzled big money, that is now in tax havens and off shore companies, (and the Greek state for one has not yet managed to confiscate) and the small fish were appeased with small favours like a job in the public sector, a construction permit in violation of the law, tax evasion and bribery of tax officials to conceal profits, etc. Free riders in wonderland would not continue for ever though, Euro or non Euro, troika or non troika.

 

So while the urgent problem is now to protect the vulnerable strata of the population from unproductive austerity measures that only serve the interests of foreign banks and finance groups. It is absolutely important also to enact the medium term changes in the system that will dismantle and discredit clientelism.

 

In addition there is a need for more civicness, a better understanding that there is such a thing as a common good, that you need to protect ALONG WITH your individual/family interest. There is a need for understanding that we need a collective project to safeguard our public services and public goods. We cannot keep thinking only of what is of immediate profit for our own pockets at the expense of everything public.

 

I wonder why do our kids learn everything about climate change and how to act responsiblly towards the environment, and they do not learn a civic spirit in schools!!?? The medium term structural and mentality changes are a bet that the crisis countries have to win, with or without the Euro and the troika.

Simon Parker responded:

You make a valid point Anna and I'm afraid I did not have the space to provide more political context to the problems of the southern eurozone where clientalism is and remains a historic problem. I did however suggest that PASOK was a major player in Greece's postwar corruption scandals and it has its equivalents in Italy, France, Spain and Portugal - plus of course Ireland.

 

None of this is to say that the political elites of the Northern European democracies are immune from lining the pockets of their parties and indeed themselves with ill gotten gains from lucrative contracts and political favours. This Latin/Mediterranean 'political culture problem' was identified back in the 1960s by Almond and Verba and Edward Banfield who believed the solution was to make everywhere an identical democracy to the USA. Stimulate the market, do away with the public sector and welfare transfers (which just creates dependent clienteles) and eliminate 'extreme' political alternatives (i.e. communist and socialist parties).

 

As we see from structural adjustment programmes in Latin America, Africa and the former Soviet Union -- clientalism, corruption and a lack of democratic competition are always used to justify the neoliberalisation of the economy and the imposition of 'market friendly' compliant elites who can be assured of lucrative post-political sinecures if and when the voters turn them out. The economic benefits for the public at large are rather less obvious.

 

I completely agree that we need to teach the importance of public services and public goods and that instrumental self-seeking individualism is not ultimately in the interests of even those who consider themselves to be 'winners'. Education is definitely a battle ground where the neoliberals have already pitched their tents and on which progressives must engage if the minds of a generation are not to be closed off to the possibility of social solidarity and social justice.

Sadly, it seems that neoliberalism has its tentacles out for society too, as William Davies' article argued.

In the comments, Jeremy Gilbert had this to say:

While this analysis is clearly very valuable, what troubles me about it is its implicit tendency to understand the paradoxical relationships between new modes of sociality and neoliberalism solely in terms of their supposed organic fit (which may well be a mere symptom of its brevity, I accept).

 

What this seems to miss is the crucial dimension of active conflict, capture, and intervention which has to be understood as having produced those relationships in their current form. To put this more simply - the rhetorical assumption here seems to be that 'social media' are somehow inherently 'neoliberal'. This is a critical mistake.

 

I doubt this 'critical mistake' actually represents Will's considered view rather than a polemical shorthand but still - it's a point worth making, even if Will might not need me to make it to him: social media have no inherent political valency. Rather - the precise ways in which they are currently deployed are shaped by neoliberal priorities because of the deliberate and non-inevitable intervention of agencies committed to those priorities.

 

So what has emerged is not merely a seamless development from one stage of neoliberalism into another: rather, neoliberalism has been, since its inception, a reactive strategy aimed at capturing, commodifying, and individualising the very creative, and necessarily social, energies which emerged from the cultural and technological revolutions of the 1960s, and which capital must to some extent facilitate and intensify precisely in order to be able to exploit them for its own benefit.

 

This paradoxical dynamic, whereby capital must create productive relationships, while also policing them, containing them, and capturing their outputs is not new: it's precisely the contradictory logic of capitalism as analysed by Marx, and conceptualised more recently by Hardt and Negri in terms of the 'parasitic' relationship between capital and 'the multitude'. Without recognising the extent to which this drive to capture and commodify the consequences of new forms of human co-operation is an ongoing political problem for capital and its agents, rather than merely an organic development of capitalism or neoliberalism as such, it becomes very difficult to identify any possible sites of progressive political agency.

 

If you want a concrete illustration of the ways in which the types of relationship under discussion are themselves actives sites of intervention, and consistent sites of anxiety, for agents of neoliberalism, then just consider the ways in which Google and Facebook have tried to control their online territories. Terrified by Newscorp's failure to turn MySpace into an effective site of capital accumulation, they have worried endlessly about how to monetize and commodify that space (striating its smooth space in line with the logic of the 'societies of control', Deleuze would no doubt have pointed out).

 

Their key ideological strategy has been to try to delimit and guarantee the real-world individual identities of users, limiting any potential social media might have for the abandonment or proliferation of modes of belonging and interaction, trying to ensure that the liberal vision of a socius composed of isolated individuals connected by purely voluntary, weak, transparent and time-limited relationships becomes a digital reality. You log in to everything through your facebook account (and increasingly they want to ensure that you only have one and that they know it's definitely yours) so that they can be sure that you are always and only ever 'you' - a little bundle of accurate market data to be marketed on the basis of its veracity in the 'real' world of actual spending.

 

But the point is - they wouldn't have had to introduce these increasing layers of checks and controls if they weren't worried about what would happen if they didn't - which suggests that social media retain a radical potential which we need to think about how to exploit and develop, rather than assuming that it is necessarily a component of 'neoliberalism' (which this article sometimes - thogh not always - seems to use as a term for 'everything that has ever happened since 1970' rather than for a specific ideological element of that conjuncture...I can't criticise for that...I do the same thing myself...but it's important to point it out once it's happening nonetheless).

 

I'm sure Will knows all this - but it remains an important set of points to make, I think. The article as it stands does rather seem to imply, or in fact state, that 'social media' simply ARE a component of 'neoliberalism' - which is a very problematic assertion indeed.

A worthy comment if there ever was one! The response from William Davies was equally illuminating:

Many thanks for this response. These are important points you raise. The example of how facebook strives to embed social media in the 'real' marketplace is a really useful one in thinking this through.

 

You're generous enough to say that you're sure I've thought about all this! I think I've probably assumed a bit too much of it, but certainly agree with you on the central thrust. The article is a more polemical version of an academic paper I gave at the York conference on neoliberalism a couple of week's ago. This polemical version stresses neoliberalism's power and reach. But at the conference, I was actually accused by one questioner of quite the opposite: of taking this new 'social' too credulously, and failing to offer a critique of neoliberalism at all!

 

The reason I might be accused of both too much critique, and not enough, is because the argument is inspired by Luc Boltanski, for whom modes of government/management and modes of critique/emancipation are entangled with each other or even co-constituting. So there is (as you say) emancipatory potential within the social and spatial organisation of capitalism (the factory, the city, the multitude etc). I would go even further and say that there is some emancipatory potential within the philosophy of neoliberalism - we need to take seriously *some* of the normative arguments that Hayek and others were making, take the project of economic liberty seriously. Critique does not sit tidily outside of its object, but co-exists with it in the same situations and institutions.

 

For the same reason, I agree with you that there is nothing pre-determined about the character of social media. This new 'social' is not an illusion, and nor is it reducible only to class interests or economics. It has social-ist aspects and potential, that are very often snuffled out for reasons you well articulate. The idea for the paper originated in a sense that a lot of 'Big Data' and 'smart city' debates seemed to be returning us to the socialist calculation debate, but with monopoly capital on the side of socialist calculation. We might say that capitalism needs aspects of socialism, just as it more obviously needs sources of co-operation. Hence, as you say, there is political potential in these very requirements, that it is wrong to ignore.

 

Typically, I use the term 'neoliberalism' to refer very precisely, to the expansion of economic measurements and valuation mechanisms into previously 'non-economic' domains, with the backing of the state (e.g. new public management, the REF, etc). In the case of social media, clearly this expansion hasn't occurred in a straight forward way. The crucial thing, as I argue in the piece above, is that a logic of networks shares certain properties with one of markets, but is not reducible to economic logic.

 

Hence, straightforward colonisation does not occur, in the same way that it does for public services, say. However, your point about how network logic has to remain cemented to market logic (while also being separate from it) is a very important one, that I'd never quite considered in that way.

We'd love to hear your thoughts on some of these changes, as well as any suggestions that you may have regarding our site or any debates you would like us to host. Leave us a comment, or tweet @oD_Europe.

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