Neoliberalism. Seldom throughout history has a single word held such drastic ramifications for the people of the world, while remaining relatively unknown and unused by the general population.
Certainly not to be confused with social liberalism — in fact, most people who consider themselves “liberals” in the general sense will find themselves staunchly opposed to the neoliberal doctrine — neoliberalism refers to the prevailing economic policies of the last 30 years, policies that, while providing unprecedented wealth concentrated in the hands of policymakers, have worked to promote social and economic inequality, increase deprivation for the poorest nations, and put the earth on a fast track toward environmental catastrophe.
Originally associated with Reagan and Thatcher, during the past three decades neoliberalism has dominated as the global political economic trend supported by parties on either side of the aisle, forming a “Washington consensus” of sorts. The concept is relatively simple: Laissez-faire liberalism is not enough. Modern economic policy is required to produce truly efficient markets; private interests should be able to control as much of society as possible in order to maximize profits, increase competition and consequently benefit society as a whole. Thus, neoliberalism.
But in reality, neoliberalism benefits a small portion of society. While it is true neoliberal policies generally promote economic growth, it is often to the exclusive benefit of financial institutions and private interests and at the tyrannical expense of the poor, the working class and the environment.
The abjections of the poor and working class in the developing world are documented and understood well enough in our society that they do not warrant extensive reflection. It’s pretty much common knowledge multinational corporations exploit labor in the developing world. Most people I know think this is abhorrent but accept it as “just the way things are.”
There’s some truth in that. These uncivilized practices are simply the byproduct of our neoliberal political economic system, a system that places profit on a pedestal and regulations on the curb.
It’s important to note how this systemically impedes any environmental progress. According to neoliberal theory, since profit-making is the essence of democracy, any governmental procedure that limits markets is undemocratic and must be done away with. Armed with this backward logic, private interests are thus rationalized when they fight to end environmental regulation. That trashes our world all in the name of profit, lest the government intervenes and behaves “undemocratically.”
Deeply embedded in neoliberalism, this perverse understanding of democracy is especially troubling when one sees Americans are beginning to wake up from their environmental apathy. The numbers are rising: Poll after poll shows Americans are realizing our environment is in bad shape, man-made global warming is largely the cause and carbon emissions should be regulated by the federal government.
The people have spoken.
And what’s more still, earlier this week, climate scientists at Manchester’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research released commentary about the issue of climate change aversion within our orthodox political economic paradigm. The researchers concluded avoiding climate chaos in our lifetimes is “wildly unlikely” as long as economic growth is valued above all else as the essence of neoliberal political economic policy.
Taking all this into account, anyone concerned about the current state of our environment and the direction in which it’s headed should first understand the fundamental paradigm that our economy operates within, and how substantial environmental legislation isn’t going to be enacted while such systemic inefficiencies stand in the way.
In the fight for a sustainable future, we must not forget private interests are not accountable to the public like the government is. We as citizens, through direct action or otherwise, have to fight to bring the faults of neoliberalism into public debate and address these central problems facing our environment and our nation.