The slow death of neoliberalism

Would Hayek like minimum pricing for alcohol? No.

Consider the following developments in UK policy. Last year, Britain’s Office for National Statistics published its first ever set of ‘national wellbeing’ indicators, which were based on surveys of how satisfied people felt with their lives. Next year, it will be illegal to sell a bottle of wine in Scotland for less than £4.69. Meanwhile, in the face of prolonged economic stagnation, welfare claimants and young people are being urged or forced to work for free in order to develop the mindset and motivation to render them employable in the future. 

None of these examples alone seems especially significant. Taking them together, however, we can begin to trace the outline of a subtly new way of conceiving of economic activity, one that is exerting a growing influence among policy-makers in Britain. Crucially, for good and for ill, the authority of monetary prices as authorititative indicators of value is diminishing. Formerly, society’s progress was measured in terms of GDP, a bottle of wine was worth whatever the market would allow and work was remunerated in wages. Now, the rise of psychological perspectives on the economy is providing a new framework. As the sciences of wellbeing and economic behaviour grow more sophisticated, the potential arises for a new way of understanding value. And as we witness this framework on the rise, so we may be witnessing the slow death of the paradigm known as neoliberalism. . .

The prolonged economic slow-down of the 1970s created a thirst for new policy ideas, which the neoliberals cleverly satisfied. Although the purity of Hayek’s vision was inevitably polluted by the messy reality of politics, the new era ushered in by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan treated free markets, governed by the magic of price, as the basis for the moral and economic logic of state and society. At the heart of the neoliberal era were two fundamental assumptions. Firstly, individuals were the best judge of their own tastes and welfare, not experts. Secondly, the price mechanism of the market could be trusted to adjudicate between the competing ideas, values and preferences that exist in modern societies. The state, by contrast, could not.

By this definition, a society in which it is illegal to sell a bottle of wine for £4.50, no matter how profitable it is to do so nor how much demand there is for it, is no longer a neoliberal society. A different set of assumptions is built into such a policy. Evidently it is no longer assumed that individuals are necessarily the best judge of their own welfare. And although a price still exists, it is no longer set only by the magical forces of supply and demand. Expert decree now has a place. To put this another way, policy-makers are recognising that there is a limit to how much consumer freedom we can cope with.

This is an extract from a piece published today in Aeon Magazine. Read the whole piece online.

Friedrich Hayek. Photograph: Getty Images
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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.