Collapse of the neo-liberal consensus

Conciliation and cooperation are the catchphrases of the liberal world. However, only a short time ago (even if it now seems like a long time ago), Western civilisation was busy imploding. It was only after the Second World War that the Western powers decided to spend more time sharing the spoils rather than fighting over them. Keep in mind that it is Europeans who have been responsible for the most number of deaths through organised combat through recorded human history, and have been piling up the dead for centuries. It just so happens that the new form of global domination that has been established by the United States has managed to avoid most traditional warfare altogether (on its own soil the record is blotched up by that wretched new enemy, terrorism).

The development of finance has also radically altered the struggle for control over the means of production. While many actions of the empire are still in the form of direct swoops for physical resources, there are now significantly different considerations for the metropolitan capital core as compared to even 50 years ago. For a while there was even talk of the new "knowledge-based economy". However, the crash of the virtual economy in the United States two years ago put paid to the delusions that money can continue to be minted in thin air. Even so, the coming to age of financial capitalism has brought a whole new set of 'values' and corporate 'cultures' to the fore.

In any case, it would appear that the so-called liberal values have started to become as global as capitalism itself. In the 1990s, supposedly ingenious new means of attacking poverty were devised including many of the component practices of community development approaches, based on the notion that poverty and exploitation should not be discussed in the same breath. Rather than go on about how poor people are victims of the prevailing set of social and economic relations, why not directly address poverty through partnership and compassion?

In actuality, the public relations effort of imperialism, as has always been the case, focuses on distracting from the crux of the matter. In other words, let us forget that thousands of Iraqis have been killed and maimed as a direct consequence of the US invasion, and instead let us talk about freedom, democracy, and importantly for the capitalist in us, reconstruction. The imperial effort culminates in the glorious fact that certain norms and values start to permeate what can loosely be termed culture. The question that sticks out like a sore thumb for the ideologues of capitalism as well as for those of us who resist is: Are these values and norms starting to displace previously existing norms and values in the form of a new global consciousness? Or have these norms and values always prevailed and the only difference now is by matter of degree?

Ever since Woodrow Wilson, American statesmen have done their best to depict themselves as humanists. Through the Cold War, it was not possible for the liberal perspective to gain worldwide "acceptance" as it were, because of the existence of another worldview, and with it another set of values and norms that were also constructed to be all-encompassing. Marxism in its very basic form propagates the notion that human history is characterised by class conflicts, and that the struggle of oppressed classes against the ruling classes is what has been, and will continue to be, the reclamation of humanity. Naturally this view of the world is almost diametrically opposed to that which proposes micro-credit schemes as a viable means of addressing the root causes of poverty without any mention of power and powerlessness.

And so, the existence of the Marxist antithesis to liberal capitalism ensured that, if nothing else, the values and norms proposed by the West remained only one set of values and norms among many, and not the only set of norms and values that would seem to be have some kind of mass acceptability. Be that as it may, the liberal tradition in many parts of the Western world, and in particular in the United States, is quite deeply rooted. In Europe, liberalism is generally equated with a set of values and norms that is somewhat outdated, and seen as tending toward the right. Indeed, it must be postulated that the European welfare state that developed over the past century was a direct result of the fact that the Marxist discourse claimed a place on the main stage of global politics. Having said that, there has been a steady shift towards the right across the world after the 1989 collapse of the Soviet Union, Europe included.

Nevertheless, the distinction between Europe and the United States remains, and this explains in large part the strong protests against US (and UK) foreign policy across the European continent in recent times. Regardless of whether there is or there is not a genuine political impetus behind these protests in Europe (and indeed in many other parts of the world even if on a smaller scale), the world has seen the maturing of a process of rejection of liberal values and norms—in short the liberal consensus—over the past few months. This tide emerged some years ago during the protests against the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Seattle and it has continued to manifest itself at various meets and celebrations of the global elite ever since. September 11 provided the impetus for a newer and fresher regurgitation of liberal rhetoric by the empire, even though this 'liberalism' resembles fascism more than anything else. However, George W Bush's ranting and raving about hunting down those who "hate freedom" has probably done the imperialist cause more harm than good with quite serious questions of credibility of political leadership emerging in the US and UK.

It is true that the 'liberal' perspective now dominates the political mainstream. One need only observe that the vast majority of governments around the world have adopted the Bush-ian anti-terror doctrine to confirm this fact. Nonetheless, much like the manner in which capitalism has taken on a truly global character over the past decade and a half, even as it excludes greater numbers of people, so too the liberal discourse is universally accepted though only at the level of the ruling classes. Within the majority of working class and even white-collar populations around the world, the liberal language of Bush & Co. is losing ground. This might lead one to believe that a new counter-hegemony is emerging, at the local, national, regional and global levels.

Sadly, this cannot be claimed with any degree of seriousness. A genuine counter-hegemony must be based on what the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci called "active consent" of the population, so that its values are exercised in all realms of social relations. As has been hypothesised by many scholars, the prevailing feature of social relations at present is the universality of consumption. Consumption of common goods and services throughout the world lends itself to a "cultural" hegemony that is unprecedented in human history. Whether it is music, food, sport, and most significantly politics, there is a tendency towards convergence in the values and preferences of the global consumer that cannot be understated. It is the uniformity of consumption patterns that thwart any chance of the moral indignation against the liberal banter of Bush and his cronies metamorphosising into the political force that it could so easily become.

The political liberalism that is being propagated by the ruling junta in the capitalist core is being superseded by a cultural liberalism that is reflected in the globalisation of consumerism. Naturally, these consumption patterns, and the accompanying development of complementary value systems, are founded upon the expansion of multinational capital. What has come to be commonly termed neo-liberal economics now dominates the policymaking discourse in most of the periphery, facilitating the capture of resources and markets in these countries by multinational capital. In the absence of the necessary economic mechanisms to permit the free flow of consumer values throughout the world, it would be impossible to conceive of what is propagated as the epitome of liberal consciousness—the global village. However, this global village faces one basic contradiction: while trade and financial liberalisation have permitted any and every form of capital to rush to the periphery, the workers of the world are not given free entry and access, and therefore cannot partake in the pickings.

The World Trade Organisation (WTO) has been touted as the success story of the post-Cold War "free" world, a world in which all nations of the world can share in the fruits of technological advancement. As with all of the other liberal fictions that make up global capitalism's ideology, the WTO too seeks only to reinforce the inequities of the neo-colonial regime. Along with the development finance institutions, the WTO is moulding the global economy to suit the needs of multinational capital and to paralyse meaningful political resistance to the neo-colonial system. But there is, in fact, quite a bit of resistance. The effort to derail the WTO has succeeded in creating Cancun. However, at the same time, there is an acute need to understand that as the global economy becomes more and more intertwined, simply maintaining the consumption patterns of the present will preclude any serious challenge to capitalism. As the pre-eminent revolutionaries of the twentieth century pointed out so insightfully, there must be a direct economic challenge to imperialism, potentially at its weakest link, for it to be challenged.

The cultural-economic-political foundations of the global system are difficult to distinguish in each of their separate manifestations. There is a need, however, to distinguish between the conflicting roles and consciousness of working people as working people, and working people as consumers. It is only when working people recognise themselves first as working people, and then as consumers, and then embark on the difficult task of organising themselves as working people to be able to improve their lot, both as workers and as consumers, that the system's contradictions will be fatally exposed. As such, the requisite political impetus may well be lacking for such a process to evolve at present. This question must be asked, debated, and then finally answered by those committed to resisting imperialism within the core countries themselves.

What is more likely is that the working people of the periphery, and especially those that are found in rural areas, will face more and more acute forms of oppression in coming times, and that this will lead to greater and more unified instances of resistance. This constituency has nothing to lose but its chains because it has, as yet, not been fully engulfed by the consumer tidal wave that has blanketed the rest of the world. As the compulsions of over-production push the capitalist core toward those markets that it has not yet captured, there will be direct attacks on the resources of the people of the periphery. Therefore, it can and should be expected that Gramscian counter-hegemony will develop, as cultural resistance to consumerism takes on distinct political form in countries like those of South Asia. In some cases, there is greater resistance, and in others, like Pakistan, unfortunately, there is less. However, it is the sum total of the resistance in all parts of the world that will lead to a weakening of the global financial elite and to more instances such as those that found "old" Europe and the United States divided over the invasion of Iraq. If we make sure that there is that much less to go around, the age-old alliance of the elite will start to crumble. And then the conciliation and cooperation farce will be exposed for what it really is.

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Himal Southasian