The high cost of neoliberalism

Financial liberalisation undermines democracy, handing power to a “virtual senate” that acts on beha

In the contemporary world of state-capitalist nations, loss of sovereignty can lead to a diminution of democracy, and a decline in the ability of states to conduct social and economic policy on their own terms. History shows that, more often than not, loss of sovereignty leads to liberalisation imposed in the interests of the powerful. In recent years, the regime thus imposed has been called "neoliberalism". It is not a very good term, as the social-economic regime in question is not new; nor is it liberal, at least as the concept was understood by classical liberals. The very design of neoliberal principles is a direct attack on democracy.

The central doctrine of neoliberalism is financial liberalisation, which took off in the early 1970s. Some of its effects are well known. With the increase in speculative capital flows, countries were forced to set aside much larger reserves to protect their currencies from attack. It is striking that countries which maintained capital controls - among them India and China - avoided the worst of the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98.

In the United States, meanwhile, the share of the financial sector in corporate profit rose from just a few per cent in the 1960s to over 30 per cent in 2004. Concentration also increased sharply, thanks largely to the deregulatory zeal of the Clinton administration. By 2009, the share of banking industry assets held by the 20 largest institutions stood at 70 per cent.

Among the consequences of financialisation is the creation of what an analysis by the investment bank Citigroup calls "plutonomy". The bank's analysts describe a world that is dividing into two blocs: the plutonomy and the rest. The US, UK and Canada are the key plutonomies: economies in which growth is powered by - and largely consumed by - the wealthy few. In plutonomies, these rich consumers take a disproportionately large slice of the national pie. Two-thirds of the world's economic growth is driven by consumption, primarily in the pluto­nomies, which monopolise profits as well.

The virtual senate

Citigroup's "plutonomy stock basket" has far outperformed the world index of developed markets since 1985, when the Reagan-Thatcher programmes for enriching the very wealthy were taking off. This is a substantial extension of the "80-20 rule" that is taught in business schools: 20 per cent of your customers provide 80 per cent of the profits, and you may be better off without the other 80 per cent. Corporations recognised years ago that modern information technology allows them to identify profitable customers to whom they can provide grand treatment, while deliberately offering skimpy services to the rest, creating a form of "consumer apartheid".

Financial liberalisation also creates what some international economists have called a "virtual senate" of investors and lenders, who "conduct moment-by-moment referendums" on government policies. If the virtual senate determines that those policies are irrational - meaning that they are designed to benefit people, not profit - then it can exercise its "veto power" by capital flight, attacks on currency and other means. Take one recent example: after Hugo Chávez was elected president of Venezuela, capital flight escalated to the point where assets held abroad by wealthy Venezuelans equalled a fifth of the country's GDP. With capital flow liberalised, governments face a "dual constituency": voters and the virtual senate. And even in the richest countries, the private constituency tends to prevail.

The Bretton Woods system put in place at the end of the Second World War was designed on the understanding that capital controls and regulated currencies would create a space for government action responding to public will - for some measure of democracy, that is. Keynes considered the most important achievement of Bretton Woods to be the establishment of the right of governments to restrict capital movement. In dramatic contrast, in the neoliberal phase that followed, the US treasury department came to regard free capital mobility as a "fundamental right", unlike such alleged rights as those guaranteed by the United Nations Universal Declaration of 1948: to health, education, decent employment and security - entitlements that the Reagan and Bush administrations dismissed as "preposterous", "letters to Santa Claus", mere "myths".

In earlier years, the public had not been much of a problem. In his definitive history of the international monetary system, the economist Barry Eichengreen observes that, in the 19th century, governments had not yet been "politicised by universal male suffrage and the rise of trade unionism and parliamentary labour parties". This meant that the severe costs imposed by the virtual senate of lenders and investors could be transferred to the general population.

But with the radicalisation of the general public during the Great Depression and the anti-fascist war that followed, this luxury was no longer available to private power and wealth. Hence, in the Bretton Woods system, Eichengreen writes, "limits on capital mobility sub­stituted for limits on democracy as a source of insulation from market pressures". It is only necessary to add the obvious corollary: with the dismantling of that system from the 1970s on, functioning democracy was restricted.

Real choices

In Latin America, specialists and polling organisations have, for some time, observed that the extension of formal democracy was accompanied by an increasing disillusionment about democracy and a lack of faith in democratic institutions. A persuasive explanation for these disturbing tendencies was given by the Argentinian political scientist Atilio Boron, who pointed out that the new wave of democratisation in Latin America coincided with neoliberal economic "reforms", which undermine effective democracy. The phenomenon extends worldwide, although it appears that the tendency may have reversed in recent years, with departures from neoliberal orthodoxy.

The annual polls on Latin American opinion by the Chilean polling agency Latinobaró­metro, and their reception in the west, are interesting in this respect. Few elements of the reigning western orthodoxy are upheld with more fervour than the view that Chávez is a tyrant dedicated to the destruction of democracy. The polls are therefore a serious annoyance that have to be overcome by the usual device: suppression.

The November 2007 poll had the same irritating results as in the preceding few years: Venezuela ranked second behind Uruguay in satisfaction with democracy and third in satisfaction with leaders. It ranked first in the assessment of the current and future economic situation, equality and justice, and education standards. True, it ranked only 11th in favouring a market economy but, even with this flaw, overall it ranked highest in Latin America on matters of democracy, justice and optimism, far above the US favourites Colombia, Peru, Mexico and Chile.

The Latin America analyst Mark Turner has written of an "almost total English-speaking blackout about the results of this important snapshot of [Latin American] views and opinions". He also found the usual exception: there were reports of the finding that Chávez is about as unpopular as Bush in Latin America, a fact that will come as little surprise to those who are familiar with the bitterly hostile coverage to which the Venezuelan president is subjected in the media, not least (and this is an odd feature of this putative dictatorship) in his country.

In the US, faith in institutions has been declining steadily. It is interesting to compare recent presidential elections in the richest country in the world and the poorest country in South America, Bolivia. In the 2004 US presidential election, voters had a choice between two men born to wealth and privilege, who attended the same elite university, joined the same secret society where privileged young men are trained to take their place in the ruling class, and were able to run in the election because they were supported by pretty much the same conglomerations of private power. Their announced programmes were similar, consistent with the needs of their primary constituency: wealth and privilege.

By contrast, in the December 2005 election in Bolivia, voters were familiar with the issues: control of resources, cultural rights for the indigenous majority, problems of justice in a complex multi-ethnic society and many others. They eventually chose Evo Morales, someone from their own ranks, and not a representative of narrow sectors of privilege. There was real participation, extending over years of intense struggle and organisation.

Election day was not just a brief interlude for pushing a lever and then retreating to passivity and private concerns, but one phase in ongoing participation in the workings of the society. The comparison, and it is not the only one, raises some questions about where democracy promotion is most needed.

Latin America has real choices, for the first time in its history. The usual modalities of imperial control - violence and economic strangulation - are much more limited than before. There are lively and vibrant popular organisations providing the essential basis for meaningful democracy. Latin American and other former colonies have enormous internal problems and there are sure to be many setbacks, but there are promising developments as well. It is in these parts of the world that today's democratic wave finds its basis and its home. That is why the World Social Forum has met in Porto Alegre, Mumbai, Caracas, Nairobi, not in northern cities, though by now the global forum has spawned many regional and local offshoots, doing valuable work geared to problems of significance in their own regions.

The former colonies, in Latin America in particular, have a better chance than ever before to overcome centuries of subjugation, violence and foreign intervention, which they have so far survived as dependencies with islands of luxury in a sea of misery. These are exciting prospects for Latin America, and if the hopes can be realised, even partially, the results cannot fail to have a large-scale global impact as well.

Extracted from "Hopes and Prospects" by Noam Chomsky (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99)
© Noam Chomsky 2010

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When it comes to responding to Islamic State, there is no middle ground

If Britain has a declared interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria, it is neither honourable nor viable to let others intervene on our behalf.

Even before the brutal terrorist attacks in Paris, British foreign policy was approaching a crossroads. Now it is time, in the words of Barack Obama, addressing his fellow leaders at the G20 Summit in Turkey on 16 November, “to step up with the resources that this fight demands”, or stand down.

The jihadist threat metastasises, and international order continues to unravel at an alarming rate. A Russian civilian charter plane is blown out of the sky over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, killing 224 people, most of them returning from holiday, and the various offshoots of Islamic State bare their teeth in a succession of brutal attacks in France, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey and further afield. Our enemies are emboldened and our friends want to know to what extent we stand with them. The UK can no longer afford to postpone decisions that it has evaded since the Commons vote of August 2013, in which the government was defeated over the question of joining US-led air strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime following a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians. MPs’ continued introspection is on the verge of becoming both irresponsible and morally questionable. There is no fence left to sit on.

On Sunday night, two days after the Paris attacks, the French – with US support – launched a series of bombing raids against Islamic State targets in Raqqa. With much more to come, the choice facing this country may not be easier but it is certainly clearer. Britain must determine whether it wants to be a viable and genuine partner in the fight against Islamic State, and in the long-term efforts to bring an end to the assorted evils of the Syrian civil war; or whether we are content to sit on the sidelines and cheer on former team-mates without getting our knees dirty. We can join our two most important allies – France and the United States, at the head of a coalition involving a number of Arab and other European states – in confronting a threat that potentially is as grave to us as it is to France, and certainly more dangerous than it is to the US. Alternatively, we can gamble that others will do the work for us, keep our borders tighter than ever, double down on surveillance (because that will certainly be one of the prices to pay) and hope that the Channel and the security services keep us comparatively safe. There is no fantasy middle ground, where we can shirk our share of the burden on the security front while leading the rest of the world in some sort of diplomatic breakthrough in Syria; or win a reprieve from the jihadists for staying out of Syria (yet hit them in Iraq), through our benevolence in opening the door to tens of thousands of refugees, or by distancing ourselves from the ills of Western foreign policy.

That the international community – or what is left of it – has not got its act together on Syria over the past three years has afforded Britain some space to indulge its scruples. Nonetheless, even before the Paris attacks, the matter was coming to the boil again. A vote on the expansion of air operations against Islamic State has been mooted since the start of this year, but was put on the back burner because of the May general election. The government has treated parliament with caution since its much-discussed defeat in the House in summer 2013. The existing policy – of supporting coalition air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq but not Syria – is itself an outgrowth of an awkward compromise between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, an attempt to reverse some of the damage done by the 2013 vote in parliament.

The Conservatives have waited to see where the ground lies in a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party before attempting to take the issue back before the Commons. Labour pleaded for more time when Corbyn was elected, but there is no sign that the Labour leader is willing to shift in his hostility to any form of intervention. More significantly, he has now ruled out Labour holding a free vote on the matter.

If anything, the coalition of Little Englanders, anti-interventionists and anti-Americans in the House of Commons seems to have dug its trenches deeper. This leaves the Prime Minister with few options. One is to use the Royal Prerogative to announce that an ally has been attacked, and that we will stand with her in joining attacks against Islamic State in Syria. The moment for this has probably already passed, though the prerogative might still be invoked if Isis scores a direct hit against the UK. Yet even then, there would be problems with this line. A striking aspect of the killing of 30 Britons in the June attacks in Sousse, Tunisia, is just how little domestic political impact it seems to have made.

Another option for Cameron is to try to make one final effort to win a parliamentary majority, but this is something that Tory whips are not confident of achieving. The most likely scenario is that he will be forced to accept a further loss of the UK’s leverage and its standing among allies. Co-operation will certainly come on the intelligence front but this is nothing new. Meanwhile, the government will be forced to dress up its position in as much grand diplomatic verbiage as possible, to obfuscate the reality of the UK’s diminishing influence.

Already, speaking at the G20 Summit, the Prime Minister emphasised the need to show MPs a “whole plan for the future of Syria, the future of the region, because it is perfectly right to say that a few extra bombs and missiles won’t transform the situation”. In principle, it is hard to argue with this. But no such plan will emerge in the short term. The insistence that Assad must go may be right but it is the equivalent of ordering the bill at a restaurant before you have taken your seat. In practice, it means subcontracting out British national security to allies (such as the US, France and Australia) who are growing tired of our inability to pull our weight, and false friends or enemies (such as Russia and Iran), who have their own interests in Syria which do not necessarily converge with our own.

One feature of the 2013 Syria vote was the government’s failure to do the required groundwork in building a parliamentary consensus. Whips have spent the summer scouting the ground but to no avail. “The Labour Party is a different organisation to that which we faced before the summer,” Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, has said. It is ironic, then, that the Prime Minister has faced strongest criticism from the Labour benches. “Everyone wants to see nations planning for increased stability in the region beyond the military defeat of the extremists,” says John Woodcock, the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party defence committee, “but after two years of pussy-footing around, this just smacks of David Cameron playing for time when he should be showing leadership.”

The real story is not the distance between the two front benches but the divisions within both parties. There are as many as 30 Conservative MPs said to be willing to rebel if parliament is asked to vote for joining the coalition against Islamic State in Syria. It seems that the scale of the Paris attacks has not changed their position. A larger split in the Labour ranks also seems likely. Even before Paris, there were rumoured to be roughly 50 MPs ready to defy their leader on this question.


At first, in the wake of last week’s attacks, it seemed as if the Prime Minister might force the issue. To this end, he began the G20 in Turkey with a bilateral meeting with President Putin. His carefully chosen words before and after that discussion, in which he was much more emollient about Moscow’s role, showed the extent to which he was prepared to adapt to the changing situation. Cameron hoped that if he could show progress in building an international coalition on the diplomatic front, that might just give him enough to get over the line in a parliamentary vote.

This new approach has not had the desired effect. At the time of writing, the government believes it is too risky to call another vote in the short term. It calculates another defeat would hugely diminish Britain’s standing in the world. In truth, the government was already swimming upstream. On 29 October, the Conservative-
dominated Commons foreign affairs select committee, chaired by Crispin Blunt, released a report on the extension of British military operations into Syria, in anticipation of government bringing forward a parliamentary vote on the question. The report recommended that Britain should avoid further involvement unless a series of questions could be answered about exit strategy and long-term goals. The bar was set deliberately high, to guard against any further involvement (even the limited option of joining the existing coalition undertaking air strikes against IS in Syria).

The most flimsy of the five objections to further intervention in the report was that it will somehow diminish the UK’s leverage as an impartial arbiter and potential peacemaker. This is based on an absurd overestimation of the UK as some sort of soft-power saviour, valued by all parties for its impartiality in Middle Eastern affairs. Britain cannot hope to have any influence on policy if it is always last to sign up while others put their lives on the line. As so often in the past, what masquerades as tough-minded “realpolitik” is nothing of the sort. It is just another post-facto rationale for inaction.

Although it is sometimes said that Britain has yet to recover from the consequences of the invasion of Iraq, the committee report had a retro, 1990s feel. Many of the objections raised to burden-sharing in Syria were the same as those raised against humanitarian intervention in the Balkans two decades ago, when Blunt was working as special adviser to Michael Rifkind as defence and foreign secretary, and the UK was at the forefront of non-intervention. Likewise, two of the committee’s Labour members, Ann Clwyd and Mike Gapes, were veterans of the other side of that debate, and strong supporters of the Nato intervention in Kosovo in 1999. They expressed their dissent from the report’s conclusions but were voted down by their Conservative and SNP fellow committee members. “Non-intervention also has consequences,” said Gapes when he broke rank. “We should not be washing our hands and saying, ‘It’s too difficult.’”

Polling figures have shown majority public support for air strikes against IS since the spate of gruesome public executions that began last year, but nothing seems to change the calculus of the rump of anti-interventionist MPs.

All this promises an uncertain future for British foreign policy. On 6 November, the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, suggested that the UK’s existing position, of joining the coalition in Iraq but stopping at the borders of Syria, is “morally indefensible”. The killing of Mohammed Emwazi, aka “Jihadi John”, by a US predator drone on 12 November demonstrates what he meant. Emwazi was a Briton who was responsible for the beheading of British and American citizens, as well as countless Syrians. While the UK government was closely involved in that operation – and has previously used the justification of “self-defence” to “take out” targets in Syria – such are the restrictions placed upon it that we are forced to ask our allies to conduct potentially lethal operations (which are in our core national interests) on our behalf. The very act of “self-defence” is subcontracted out once again.

How long can this last when Islamic State poses a much greater threat to the UK than it does to the US? There is an issue of responsibility, too, with hundreds of British citizens fighting for and with Islamic State who clearly pose a grave danger to other states.


The very notion that Britain should play an expansive international role is under attack from a pincer movement from both the left and the right. There are two forms of “Little Englanderism” that have made a resurgence in recent years. On the left, this is apparent in the outgrowth of a world-view that sees no role for the military, and holds that the UK is more often than not on the wrong side in matters of international security, whether its opponent is Russia, Iran, the IRA or Islamic State. The second, and arguably just as influential, is the Little Englanderism of the right, which encompasses a rump of Tory backbenchers and Ukip. This is a form of neo-mercantilism, a foreign policy based on trade deals and the free movement of goods that regards multilateralism, international institutions and any foreign military intervention with great suspicion, as a costly distraction from the business of filling our pockets.

The time is ripe for long-term, hard-headed and unsentimental thinking about Britain’s global role. The country is not served well by the impression of British “decline” and “retreat” that has gained ground in recent times; and it is no safer for it, either. Given how quickly the security and foreign policy environment is changing, the publication of the Strategic Defence and Security Review in the coming week, alongside an update of the National Security Strategy, is likely to raise more questions than it answers. The officials responsible for its drafting do not have an easy brief, and news forecasting is a thankless task. Strategic vision and leadership must come from our elected politicians.

For all the talk of British decline, we are still one of the five wealthiest nations in the world. What we do matters, particularly at moments when our friends are under attack. However, until a new broad consensus emerges between the mainstream Labour and Conservative positions on foreign policy, the Little England coalition will continue to have the casting vote.

Syria continues to bleed profusely and the blood seeps deeper into different countries. There will be no political solution to the civil war there for the foreseeable future; to pretend that there is a hidden diplomatic solution is to wish to turn the clock back to 2011, when that might have been possible. Nor is the security situation any easier to deal with. A few hours before the attacks in Paris began, President Obama gave an interview in which he argued that he had successfully “contained” Islamic State. For the wider Middle East and Europe, that is simply not the case. Now, France will escalate its campaign, and the US will do more. Russia already has troops on the ground and will most likely send reinforcements.

The war in Syria is becoming more complicated and even more dangerous. The best that can be hoped for is that the Syrian ulcer can be cauterised. This will be achieved through the blunting of Islamic State, simultaneous pressure on Assad, and the creation of more safe places for Syrians. All roads are littered with difficulties and dangers. Yet, in the face of this ugly reality, is Britain to signal its intention to do less as every other major actor – friend and foe alike – does more? If we have a declared national interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria – both because of the growing terrorist threat and because of the huge flow of refugees – then it is neither honourable nor viable to let others take care of it on our behalf.

John Bew is an NS contributing writer. His new book, “Realpolitik: a History”, is newly published by Oxford University Press

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror