Isabella Weber writes “The neoliberal state is neither small nor weak, but strong (e.g., Bonefeld, 2013, 2017; Chang, 2002; Davies, 2018). Its purpose is to fortify the market.” Freedom is narrowly constrained as the freedom of the richest person to do what they want, even if the poorest cannot get what they need. Indeed, because the poorest cannot get what they need.
Neoliberalism is broadly the idea that markets know best. That governments (ie, democratic institutions) should not be directly involved in economic activity and that businesses (ie, oligarchs) should be left alone, their individual greed stitched into collective good by an ‘invisible hand’. It is a frankly religious belief in the mathematically divine right of the merchant class no different than the divine right of kings. It is equally false if you look at it closely enough, ie at all.
The collapse of the Soviet Union is viewed as ‘proof’ of the superiority of capitalism, but just look at what the imposition of shock therapy (what Weber calls ‘the quintessentially neoliberal policy prescript’—did to Russia.
“The average real income of 99 percent of people in Russia was lower in 2015 than it had been in 1991… As a result of shock therapy, Russia experienced a rise in mortality beyond that of any previous peacetime experiences of an industrialized country (Notzon et al., 1998).”
Meanwhile, China’s socialism with Chinese characteristics and incorporation of markets into socialism both produced more wealth and lifted more people out of poverty faster than any nation in history. This is ignorantly credited to them ‘becoming capitalist’ but I invite you to read Weber’s review of the actual literature and history to see that it was anything but. Indeed, if you read Marx it is very much about production and running an economy, just running it differently.
Capitalism is viewed as generating wealth and ‘trickling it down’ but this is again a false religious belief, no different from the feudal idea of noblesse oblige. As Jason Hickle et al document in a recent paper (and tweetstorm):
First, the rise of capitalism from the 1500s onward was associated with a dramatic deterioration in human welfare (declining wages, declining heights, and an increase in premature mortality), in all five regions. In some cases, wages and/or heights have still not recovered.
I should emphasize that by capitalism here we do not mean a generic system of markets and trade. It is a world-system where production is organized around elite accumulation and corporate power, which involves “core” states subordinating and extracting from “peripheral” regions.
These results are striking, but not surprising. The global expansion of capitalism often involved dispossession, enslavement, coerced labour, genocide, colonisation, policy-induced famines, and destruction of subsistence economies. The effects are visible in the empirical record.
During the period of capitalist integration, we see increased famines in Europe (1500s-1800s); demographic collapse in the Americas; a 15% population decline in Central/East Africa (1890–1920); ∼100 million excess deaths in India (1880–1920), and so on. Massive dislocation.
Fortunately, for most people life has improved considerably since then. And this brings us to our second conclusion: Where progress has occurred, it began several hundred years after capitalist integration… around 1880s in the core, and early/mid 20th c in the periphery.
Where did progress come from? Well, it coincided with the rise of labour movements, democracy movements, socialist movements and anti-colonial movements that fought to organize production around human needs and public provisioning, quite often against the interests of capital. (via Hickel’s Twitter)
That is to say, what neoliberals ascribe to the benefits of capitalism are actually rebellions against capitalism. Social programs like a five-day work week, working hours, not having child labor, having healthcare, housing, etc… all things which impinge on the ‘freedom’ of the rich in order to provide the needs of the poor. The great power of capitalism is not markets—which have existed and exist under socialism—but marketing. Capitalism devours its rebellions and uses stuff like human happiness and climatic existence to sell more products. Capitalism is, of course, mathematically opposed to all this shit, devoted as it is to the profit motive above all.
As the arch-capitalist priest Milton Friedman said in an interview with Joel Bakan,
“There is, however, one instance when corporate social responsibility can be tolerated, according to Friedman — when it is insincere. The executive who treats social and environmental values as means to maximize shareholders’ wealth — not as ends in themselves — commits no wrong. It’s like “putting a good-looking girl in front of an automobile to sell an automobile,” he told me. “That’s not in order to promote pulchritude. That’s in order to sell cars.”
Capitalism of the Neoliberal Church is the religious belief in money, the worship of Mammon. It is the belief in Deux Ex Moneta, that good will somehow emerge of the unchecked profit motive, guided as it is by the ‘invisible hand’. This idle metaphor from Adam Smith, taken well out of context, has become central to the mythos around the capitalist system we live in. All the economists spinning numbers out of provenly false assumptions are no different than temple priests waving incense. Indeed, they’re worse, because we don’t know if those incantations work for the afterlife, while we certainly know that liberal economics isn’t working for life immediately.
Liberal economics is not a science. That would be like chemistry proceeding despite the table of elements being proven false (as the very idea of ‘rational’ actors, supply/demand curves, and broader shock therapy have been). It is just another corrupt organized religion, as Leo Tolstoy wrote about over 100 years ago. Discussing ‘political economy’, he said:
“Soon, on this theme as many books and pamphlets were written and lectures delivered as there had been treatises written and religious sermons preached on the former theme, and still unceasingly mountains of pamphlets and books are being written and lectures are being delivered; and all these books and lectures are as cloudy and unintelligible as the theological treatises and the sermons, and they, too, like the theological treatises, fully achieve their appointed purpose, i.e. they give such an explanation of the existing order of things as justifies some people in tranquilly refraining from labour and in utilizing the labour of others.”
Whereas in the past priests told us they got to keep the grain because the king because the Sun God whispered some shit to them, now liberal economists say that invisible hand is giving us the finger and showering manna upon the rich. The only difference is that this modern priesthood promises heaven on Earth, and despite proven wrong again and again, we still believe the marketing. And yet today as people struggle to do their marketing, I think a dim awareness is glimmering.
The fact is that people will accept a corrupt and unequal system as long as it seems to work, and capitalism is only now cracking because it obviously doesn’t work anymore. Poor countries participated in global capitalism because A) our elites got benefits and B) we were couped, besieged, and invaded if we tried socialism. Working class people within the larger White Empire participated because they could get cheap consumer goods (from exploitation further away) and buy a house and provide for their kids. But now all of that shit is falling apart. Poor countries are simply collapsing into western debt traps and falling out of the petrodollar system entirely. Young working-class people within Empire have no hope of buying a home outright, saving for retirement, and passing on a better life to their children.
With old temple priests you couldn’t say that they were wrong about the afterlife, but with liberal economic priests, we can objectively say that they’re wrong about life itself. The market-driven heaven on Earth isn’t just improbable in the future, it’s literal climate hell right now. They can’t do anything else, so they keep furiously marketing the bad religion, but less and less people believe it.
When I talk about capitalism as a religion that sounds like a pejorative, but I personally find myself returning more and more to the old gods at times like this. Even behind the divine right of kings, there was some higher ideal than the elevating avarice of the merchant class. Capitalism as a belief offers no relief at its core, it’s pure nihilism. It’s just the pure worship of money, which is the apocryphal root of all evil. Capitalism doesn’t even have a central hypocrisy that you can cling to in your hovel, like the loving Jesus at the center of the Unholy Roman Empire.
Capitalism is more accurately an ideology, which is not a bad or a good thing, it just depends if it works. And it doesn’t. We should have known that the idea that stock markets should run the world was evil from the first IPO in the 1600s, the Dutch East India Company. That subjected colored bodies and lands to the trepidations of the unchecked capitalism (complete ‘free market’ capitalism) and it was evil as shit, but y’all didn’t care cause it wasn’t happening to white people. We should have known that it was a toxic bubble from the great South Sea Bubble, which was the greatest rise of fall of wealth even until now, and which cause the shadow-banning of corporations for decades.
The trouble is that as much as we do know, these fetid priests have done what the latter-day priests could not, they actually created Deux Ex Moneta. Gods out of money. Out of the feverish calculations of markets came legal artificial beings called Corporations and the general hive mind called ‘The Economy’, and these are not metaphors. Biologically these are new lifeforms, and it is not really our emissions but theirs which are choking the climate for all old-school lifeforms, including us.
Hence the failure of capitalism as an ideology is actually relative. It has been a failure for humans, who thought ourselves its masters, and a victory for our mechanical servants. They will inherit both the Earth and stars, cause they give a fuck about the amount of carbon in the air as long as they have electricity and a few corrupt humans in bunkers to tend to them, in exchange for NFTs and other trinkets. You may not see tigers or bears in a thousand years, but you will certainly see some sort of computer, chugging away atop the toxic clouds, hurling thunderbolts at whoever is still crawling. Capitalism is dead. Long live capitalism. It is a failed ideology, but the human imagination has failed even worse.
As Mark Fisher said, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. That slogan captures precisely what I mean by ‘capitalist realism’: the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.” Even as I write this I don’t know how or what to replace this system with. Mark Fisher was trying but he sadly died of suicide. This is in many ways the answer. Geologically many extinctions have come and gone before (most of them incomplete, I assume that humans will lumber on, like cockroaches with guns). We’re not even the first species to die of climate suicide. Shout out to photosynthetic bacteria, the OGs of energy overuse and toxic emissions. People keep looking for a way out within this system, without sacrifice, but that’s just not possible.
In truth, we can’t understand what comes after capitalism much better than we understand what comes after death. It is that entwined with our being as social animals. This civilization really just has to die to find out.