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Kilburn Manifesto: Rethinking the neoliberal world order

Neoliberalism is an international phenomenon. It is not enough to challenge it in Britain alone, we must also understand it and oppose it as a global system.

Doreen Massey Michael Rustin
13 October 2014

The Kilburn Manifesto is a statement being made in twelve monthly instalments, issued free on-line, about the nature of the neoliberal system which now dominates Britain and most of the western world, and about the need to develop coherent alternatives to it. OurKingdom will publish a discussion of each instalment of the Manifesto. To see the rest of the series click here.

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Earlier instalments of the Kilburn Manifesto have focused on the impacts of neoliberalism on British society, and on how we might begin to conceive of feasible alternatives to that regime. But in thinking about the sphere of international relations, and the position Britain takes up within the world, it is necessary to take a more global perspective. We are taking as our starting point for understanding these issues, the situation that emerged following the defeat of Communism and the end of the Cold War at the end of the 1980s. What is in the forefront of our analysis here is the continuing sequence of failures—catastrophes in fact—which have characterised the international policies of the west during that entire period, now of more than thirty years. There is need to understand the dynamic forces, and the ideological beliefs, which have brought this situation about

We want to focus particular attention on the sequence of crises that have taken place in the Middle East, and now in Europe. These include the disintegration of Iraq into warring sub-states and of Libya into warring fiefdoms, a bloody and unresolved civil war in Syria, the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan as the strongest power, the ungoverned and self-destructive brutality of Israel in the treatment of the population of Gaza, and the descent of Ukraine into a state of civil war. And most recently there has been added the emergence of ‘Isis’, The Islamic State, which has swept aside resistance and is engaged in the establishment of a new theocratic state, or caliphate, occupying territories which were until now part of Iraq, Syria, and the de facto autonomous region of Kurdistan. Scarcely ever have governments the world over seemed less capable of responding with clear understanding and capability to the problems they encounter. It is not without significance that the situation in the Ukraine called forth comparisons with the chaotic situation which led to the outbreak of the First World War and the end of the ‘long peace’ of the nineteenth century.

We think of these events as a series of catastrophes not because of any particular commitment to the regimes and territorial arrangements which preceded these upheavals, but rather because of the huge losses of life, expulsions of populations, and disintegration of more or less peaceable conditions of social order, that have been their consequence.

Our contention is that this has not been a contingent series of events, a random sequence of foreign policy accidents, but that they are in their own way systemic—a kind of organised disorder—and that understanding them is closely related to the task we have set ourselves in this Manifesto’s analysis and critique of neoliberalism as a global system.

The end of the Cold War was expected by some to be a moment of opportunity. However, there have remained important continuities with the earlier organisation of the capitalist world. For example, the west has continued to deploy humanitarian and libertarian arguments to mask purposes of different kinds, and strategies of covert and overt military intervention routinely practised (on both sides) during the Cold War have been adapted for use against mostly new enemies in the post-Cold War period. A society organised around a paranoid fear and hatred of its communist enemy has found replacement bogies (these have been necessary not only to sustain itself ideologically but to help prop up its ‘military industrial complex’).

We can also see that the post-Cold War transitions from one-party state socialist rule to versions of democracy in Eastern Europe led to a belief in the possibility of further projects for transformation; it was imagined (or fantasised) that such transitions would be feasible in nations ruled by authoritarian regimes such as Iraq, Syria, Libya and Afghanistan. Then there is Ukraine, which can even more clearly be seen as unfinished business of the Cold War, given that it can be seen to be still divided between its Russian and its European Union affinities. This context of Cold War hangover also shapes Britain’s position in the global neoliberal system.

Britain in the world

Britain’s integration into the global strategies of the neoliberal west in the period stems from several of its historical features. Among the most significant of these are the residual mentalities of Britain’s position as the former centre of a world-wide empire. British governments have continued to be able to maintain public support for military interventions across the globe (in the Falklands/Malvinas, in the former Yugoslavia, in Sierra Leone and in the first Iraq War). Its integral involvement in western global strategy has also been connected the distinctive ‘financialised’ form of British economic development, itself a legacy of empire. Rent from the ownership of and trade in land and other forms of property, whether held within Britain or abroad, has long been more important in the mentality and practice of Britain’s ruling class than industrial production.

Throughout the post-war period, Britain has firmly aligned itself with the United States, as its defence of its overseas interests became closely linked to cold war strategy and rhetoric. This has meant a turning away from the European Union, which could have provided an alternative, more ‘industrial’, less militarised and more consensual framework for development.

Even within Europe, the class interests of British capital were to the fore in the campaign by successive Tory governments to change EU from a potential social-democratic bulwark into a haven for business and market fundamentalism. Their commitment to the ‘widening’ rather than ‘deepening’ of the European Union reflected this free-market priority.

The latest manifestation of this trend can be seen in UK government support for the Trade and Services Agreement, the numerous Bilateral Investment Treaties, and, most threateningly, the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Together these will create an even more aggressively deregulated environment for business, and they also constitute a further attack on democratic rights: the interests of companies are to be given the power to restrict the policy-making options of elected governments. The current Coalition is an enthusiastic supporter of these trends.

Alternative principles and commitments

The failures of the west’s international strategies in the post-cold-war period give rise to the need to rethink these orientations in a fundamental way. In this Manifesto we have developed a critique of the neoliberal system in regard to its economic and social effects. Below we suggest some of the principles that should guide Britain’s role in the international sphere:

1. The first concern of international policy should be the avoidance of war as a means of pursuing conflicts, for the reason that they are nearly always more harmful in their consequences than the ‘evils’, real or imputed, that they purport to remedy. The primary grounds for such interventions should be the preservation of lives, those of by-standers and even enemies, as well as fellow-nationals. Military interventions should never be supported unless sanctioned by the United Nations and for the implementation of international law, which includes the prevention of genocide.

2. To this end, Britain’s longstanding over-investment in its military power should be reduced. Its nuclear deterrent should be abandoned, and it should reduce its economic reliance on arms manufacture.

3. Britain needs to emerge from the shadow, and unfinished business, of the Cold War. Russia should not be regarded as an enemy, and the aim of policy should be to increase its social and economic exchanges with the rest of Europe. There is no good reason to advance the powers of NATO or its penetration of Eastern Europe, and this organisation’s quest to find a new military and ideological role for itself should be resisted. Indeed there may now be good reason to advocate its dissolution since its ideological justification as a bulwark against Communism has vanished.

4. The idea should be rejected that access to raw materials, such as oil, depends on occupation of the territories where they are produced, or the domination of those who produce them.

5. In so far as British governments wish to promote their own liberal, democratic, or even at some point democratic socialist values, it should do this by example, and by rhetorical, political and economic support for progressive efforts elsewhere.

6. The undermining of democracy by market forces and corporate interests, far from being encouraged, should be actively opposed.

7. Britain should be strongly committed to European integration, despite the failure of the European Union so far to fulfil the social democratic possibilities which it once seemed to possess, and despite its failure to respond progressively to the financial crisis of 2007-8 and the deeper contradictions of neoliberalism which this revealed.

8. Britain should support the strengthening of the United Nations as an instrument for the resolution of national and sub-national conflicts, and for international co-operation.

9. An urgent commitment must be made, as we argue in other instalments of this Manifesto, to the environmental sustainability of the globe, which calls for a commitment to radically reduce the production of carbon dioxide and other harmful greenhouse gases, and to economic models that seek to reduce the consumption of the world’s scarce natural resources.

In this Manifesto, we have developed an analysis of neoliberalism and of its harmful impacts on many aspects of social and economic life in Britain. Our argument here is that, given that neoliberalism is a global system, we need to understand and coherently oppose it at the international level.

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