Plunging into a Dark Age of Neoliberalism


The choking effect of neoliberalism on the aspirations of people in Ireland, Europe and globally to live better lives, to end poverty, to achieve equality, to progress, is becoming ever more clear.

There is an audible growth of discontent.

Neither human well-being nor progress are being advanced by neoliberalism and its assumption that individual freedom is guaranteed by the freedom of the market. In fact the opposite is the case.

Neoliberalism has seen a drive to make the state and government responsible for less and less.

It tells us, in terms of public services, social protections and wealth distribution, ‘thus far you shall go and no further’ but also actively seeks to reverse much of the progress that has been made over the last century.

Those functions which the state took on progressively from the 19th century and which were transformational in the lives of ordinary people – from health and education to water and sanitation – are now struggling for survival in the face of growing pressure to privatise and deregulate.

Neoliberalism seeks to create markets where they currently do not exist: in water, education, healthcare, prisons and social security.

The impact which this marketization of public services has on the ability of people to access them matters not to the proponents of neoliberalism. Neither does it matter to them that they are an essential component in making the lives of all of citizens better.

Gradually neoliberalism has seeped into every aspect of our governance – in national, European and supranational institutions and organisations. Its advocates have gained positions of influence in the media, in academia, in corporations, in financial institutions.

Neoliberalism is the elephant in the room – every discussion we have north and south about public policy, about investment in public services, about austerity, is impacted by the extent to which neoliberalism has infected the European Union and in turn states like Ireland.

It is impeding the ability of governments to act in the best interest of citizens.

It is an attack on the solidarity between citizens.

It has become something that is anti-democratic and authoritarian.

Its advocates are becoming bolder in what they seek to take from citizens and from states.

We see this in TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) and the ISDS (Investor State Dispute Settlement) mechanism.

We need only look at examples where ISDS has been initiated in the past to understand how it undermines national governments and to grasp its health and environmental implications.

An ISDS action by chemical manufacturer Ethyl saw Canada reverse its ban on the toxic chemical MMT and agree to a $13million payment.

The Swedish Energy company Vattenfall has claimed €4.7 million over Germany’s decision to close two nuclear power plants as part of it’s phasing out of nuclear energy.

The proponents of neoliberalism would plunge us into a new dark age for democracy and for human progress.

A dark age of corporate power, of emasculated states, of deregulation, of privatisation, of low paid precarious work, of billionaire oligarchs, of environmental destruction, of resource wars and of growing wealth inequality.

Neoliberalism harks back to the past.

It harks back to a time before public services, before state protections, before the great advances of the modern nation state.

And yet it relies on the state to enforce the freedom to conduct business, accumulate wealth and to regulate the ability of organized labour to act in the interest of workers.

Critics of neoliberalism have set out how, in an unmatched historic reversal, almost a half a century of economic and social progress has unravelled in little more than two decades.

We can see that neoliberalism has indeed been a political project to restore the political power of an economic class that saw its wealth and power decline in the post Second World War period.

The impact of this began to be felt from the 1980s.

From the Troika programmes in Ireland and Greece, to the ISDS case taken against the Egyptian minimum wage, to the structural programmes imposed on developing countries in Africa, neoliberalism is acting against our best interests.

The European Union – supposedly conceived as a solidarity between nations in Europe – has become an enforcer of neoliberal policies within its member states.

But as people rose up against colonialism, imperialism, feudalism and every other system which denied them their essential equality and rights, so too it is inevitable that citizens globally will rise up against neoliberalism.

As we look to the future, we can but imagine how little progress would have been achieved had neoliberalism always held the power it now does.

Would child labour have been outlawed? Would the eight-hour-day have been secured? Would slavery have been abolished? Would pensions for the elderly have been introduced? Would the welfare state have been created? Would our systems of public health and education been created? Would environmental protections and consumer protections have been introduced? Probably not.

In envisaging a better future for people globally – a future based on equality, on wealth redistribution, on environmental sustainability, on ever improving working conditions – it is hard to see how these can be achieved unless we overthrow the destructive influence of neoliberalism.