The Lesson of Neoliberalism.
Some argue that these days, it hardly matters anymore who you vote for. Though we still have a right and a left, neither side seems to have a very clear plan for the future.
In an ironic twist of fate, the neoliberalist brainchild of two men who devoutly believed in the power of ideas (Hayek & Friedman) has now put a lockdown on the development of new ones. It would seem that we have arrived at “the end of history,” with liberal democracy as the last stop and the “free consumer”as the terminus of our species.
By the time Milton Friedman was named president of the Mont Pèlerin Society in 1970, most of its philosophers and historians had already decamped, the debates having become overly technical and economic. In hindsight, Friedman’s arrival marked the dawn of an era in which economists would become the leading thinkers of the Western world. We are still in that era today.
We inhabit a world of managers and technocrats. “Let’s just concentrate on solving the problems,”they say. “Let’s just focus on making ends meet.” Political decisions are continually presented as a matter of exigency – as neutral and objective events, as though there were no other choice.
John Maynard Keynes observed this tendency emerging even in his own day. “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences,” he wrote, “are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”
When Lehman Brothers collapsed on September 15, 2008, and inaugurated the biggest crisis since the 1930s, there were no real alternatives to hand. No one had laid the groundwork. For years, intellectuals, journalists, and politicians had all firmly maintained that we’d reached the end of the age of “big narratives” and that it was time to trade in ideologies for pragmatism.
Naturally, we should still take pride in the liberty that generations before us fought for and won. But the question is, what is the value of free speech when we no longer have anything worthwhile to say? What’s the point of freedom of association when we no longer feel any sense of affiliation? What purpose does freedom of religion serve when we no longer believe in anything?
On the one hand, the world is still getting richer, safer, and healthier. Every day, more and more people are arriving in Cockaigne. That’s a huge triumph. On the other hand, it’s high time that we, the inhabitants of the Land of Plenty, stake out a new utopia. Let’s rehoist the sails. “Progress is the realisation of Utopias,”Oscar Wilde wrote many years ago. A 15-hour workweek, universal basic income, and a world without borders…They’re all crazy dreams –but for how much longer?
People now doubt that “human ideas and beliefs are the main movers of history,”as Hayek argued back when neoliberalism was still in its infancy. “We all find it so difficult to imagine that our beliefs might be different from what they in fact are.” It could easily take a generation, he asserted, before new ideas prevail. For this very reason, we need thinkers who not only are patient, but also have “the courage to be ‘utopian.’” Let this be the lesson of Mont Pèlerin. Let this be the mantra of everyone who dreams of a better world, so that we don’t once again hear the clock strike midnight and find ourselves just sitting around, empty-handed, waiting for an extraterrestrial salvation that will never come.
Ideas, however outrageous, have changed the world, and they will again. “Indeed,” wrote Keynes, “the world is ruled by little else.”
Rutger Bregman, from his book ‘Utopia for Realists’