Either I’m surrounding myself with too much of the same news sources or our world is awash with extreme neoliberalism (which is a redundancy because neoliberalism itself suggests something that’s on its own quite extreme).
Neoliberalism was a word that hit home with me circa 2016. And it’s always better to give a word to something if we want to understand that thing more. I mean, I think we all do understand the idea in one form or another but never really knew there was a word for it. We may feel that perhaps “there’s something not right about this” or “that was quite a dick move” eg it’s maybe not quite right to jail a homeless hungry person who steals food even when the act is against the law.
So back to my series of serendipitous articles. First, the Guardian ran an excellent piece on neoliberalism’s longtime sulky progenitor Friedrich von Hayek who made it good when it spawned Reaganomics and Thatcherism in the 80s and subsequently The World Economic Order as we know it today.
Then there was NYT’s article about rich New Yorkers who were embarrassed about their wealth and also elegantly asking whether society should allow unfettered wealth accumulation as long as it is done by “hardworking” people.
Then, blogger Aaron Tang aka Mr Stingy in a viral post described how he helped a cancer-victim makcik prepare a CV for her child with special needs which got me thinking, whether in this time of “plenty”, the makcik and her son were well taken care of by, I don’t know, society or whoever is in charge.
Then, Muhammed Abdul Khalid, author of The Colour of Inequality lamented on our GDP fixation which papers over poverty. Did you know that KL’s GDP per capita is equivalent to South Korea’s and Kelantan’s is between Sri Lanka’s and Indonesia’s?
Then I thought, you gotta be shittin’ me right, this is too much of a coincidence. But I think this video by Malaysiakini takes the cake as I feel it analogises neoliberalism best. It’s almost like an Aesop Fable with a Moral to the story except that this wasn’t a fable.
So what is neoliberalism? What wowed me about the Guardian piece is Hayek’s crazy idea that markets revealed the truth! Not some truth but The Truth (any economist reading this, please correct me if I’m wrong). Prices don’t merely clear markets and reflect commercial choices but are the sum total of what is right for society.
Imagine that, the price of Colgate and Uniqlo’s shirt and a Grab ride to Kepong are not only a snapshot of our choices on cleanliness, comfort and convenience but also collectively the sum total of society’s values, of how we have decided things should be.
The woman in the video is pissed off her car got clamped. The official clamper defends himself by saying it’s the law. If we can imagine this parking situation as a microcosm of our economy, neoliberalism is saying the following is true:
- The price and quantity of parking have been decided by society
- To get parking you must work hard
- You can’t cheat by parking illegally
- If you break the law, you will be penalised
Nevermind that for some screwed up reason, the demand for parking far exceeds its availability, neoliberalism states that if you park illegally, you bear the consequences because to get a parking, you have to rent/buy at a fair price and to do that, you have to be competitive. And if you’re not, it’s your fault.
Nevermind that (big) businesses can hack the system by putting a chair or a cone out to stake their claim on parking space and impose a tacit threat to scratch your car in a way that has the force of law. Nevermind that you need to get food to survive, if you so much as park nearby said food source outside of the yellow lines, you will pay for it.
Now imagine this kind of thinking enlarged to the national and global economy.
You don’t have to imagine it, it is already the reality. In fact, I realise now that the barrage of articles is no coincidence but symptomatic of problems that are bubbling to the surface perhaps due to the lingering effects of the global financial crisis: high graduate unemployment, unaffordable homes, high inequality, environmental problems etc
The most egregious effect is that it allows policymakers an out to shift blame instead of getting to the root of the problems.No money to retire? Work harder! Didn’t do well in school? Lazy bugger. Can’t afford education? Your fault. Homeless? Get a job. No job? Not competitive. EIS? No way!
It also rigs the economy to a kind of cancerous Mafia mentality that if you don’t do as in Rome (or Sicily) and drink the Kool Aid, you will be whacked. So people and corporations and politicians have no choice but to bribe and steal and God forbid, park illegally.