What next after neo-liberalism?

Ian Christie
26 May 2010

I admire Anthony's superb post-election essay on The End of Thatcherism. Some of the thoughts it prompts are these.

1) None of the parties won the election, but Cameron and Clegg have shown boldness and imagination in responding to an unfamiliar set of results. As a result the Coalition looks like a genuine break with the politics of the past 30 years of neoliberal style 'conviction' politics. 

2) It's clear, though, that New Labour could have made such a bold move in 1997-2000; and perhaps again when Brown took over promising change and renewal in 2007. It didn't. Not only that, where was the opposition within the Party that was calling for it? Blair and Brown, whatever their virtues and achievements, were at root cautious and self-restraining politicians, trapped in the attitudes bred during the long reign of Thatcher's neoliberal Toryism. They were, as Simon Jenkins and others have argued, 'Thatcher's Sons' in this respect. The Labour Party as a whole is left looking conservative, blinkered and  unimaginative in relation to constitutional change and the political culture. Cameron and Clegg have gained what could be a long domination of the language and practice of political innovation and imagination. They look braver than anyone in Labour has been for a long time because they both are taking big risks with their own parties.

3) If the Coalition is in practice, significantly more progressive than Labour on many issues will this open up a trap for the next Labour leadership? Either they will have little room for disagreement and differentiation, or they will have to tack sharply leftwards, and risk being portrayed as self-marginalising. 

4) Anthony's main argument is that the coalition marks the end of the neoliberal era of big government plus big markets, with its corrosive effect on social solidarity and intermediate institutions of civil society. The neoliberal model in politics and economics - the basis of what I call the 'Long 1980s' in the West - certainly lacks intellectual and moral authority now. But this does not guarantee its demise. Consider the contrast between now and the end of the social democratic phase in the UK and USA in the late 1970s. The prevailing model was in disarray and there was a confident, sharply articulated ideological programme and ethos on offer from the neoliberal Right. Now that programme has few overt defenders in high places, but its opponents have no consistent and persuasive countervailing ideology or programme. Hence the incoherence of the backlash against the political establishments that presided over and profited from the neoliberal period. 

5) Convinced and largely unrepentant neoliberals are still in charge in the financial sector and over most of the mass media of US and UK. Therefore, a lot will hinge on how far Obama, the EU leaders and others can mobilise non-finance capitalist interests to back re-regulation and the public interest goals that we need confident state power and social-democratic solidarity to pursue. 

6) The Long 1980s might be over in UK and US politics, and in the EU, but the management of the exit from the neoliberal model in the economy is going to be a terribly rough business - as was the original overthrow of social democratic economics in the UK and USA. This could still open up huge risks of right-populism - as we see in the crazed state of much of the American Republican Party, in far-right gains in Hungary and the Netherlands and Belgium, and in the dire condition of Italy. A badly handled period of economic cold turkey for Greece could even endanger its democracy. 

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