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Neo-liberalism, socialism: Never the same again

Governments of the US and UK have grown continuously for the past decades. What exactly is happening here and what can we expect in the future? The University Post sought out an answer from the political theorist Noel Parker

After the financial crisis, big government has lunged ahead, and the markets are viewed with suspicion. Maybe we can expect ideological changes. Is the financial crisis the ultimate failure of the neo-liberal consensus? Are its arguments dead?

Noel Parker, associate professor at the Department of Political Science at the University of Copenhagen, is distrustful of this notion.

»It’s easy to suggest and easier still to believe that we are on the threshold of the ultimate disappearance of something, of a way of thinking. Ways of thinking are like theories. They resurface,« he says.

Neo-liberalism can re-invent itself

But we shouldn’t expect the ultimate of anything.

»When the leading nations find themselves in deep economic trouble, their notion of how they run the world is going to take a blow. They’ve lost confidence in it, albeit just for a moment. And when international institutions, which are led by the leading nations like the IMF, cease to receive their stream of support, then these institutions will also find themselves bereft of this confidence,« Noel Parker says.

»What will come out of it? Not necessarily something so different from neo-liberalism. We might have something afterwards that resembles it, but that will be called something different. It is not something that I wish for, or expect, but I would not put it past neo-liberalism to reinvent itself,« he says.

How does this crisis differ from the oil crisis of 1973 and the Asian crisis of the 1990’s?

»This crisis has a wider ‘wash’ across the world. It’s happening within the ostensible centre of neo-liberal western financial and economic strategies, so it’s closer to the heart of things, whereas the reaction to 1973 and to the Asian crisis was to reinforce predominant perceptions. It’s much harder for this crisis to reinforce the predominant conception because the crisis is emanating and experienced from the US«.

Reputation of socialism

Marxism has been aired as a result of this crisis. What do you make of this?

»I have noticed very little mention of Marxism outside a minority within intellectual circles. But socialism has always been a more malleable movement – it has always covered all manner of political steering of economic and social purposes. Funnily enough, the main reassertion of socialism that I’m noticing, takes place in America, where socialism, which is a scare word there, is sneaking back in, as something the opponents of it want to scare the public with by blackening the proposals coming from the Obama administration as ’socialist’,« he says.

On the other hand, »it may happen that instead of the proposals being defeated with the word socialism, the proposals will succeed and thereby undercut the negative meaning attributed to socialism. If these proposals go through, then it may change the reputation of socialism into something that might be considered,« Noel Parker explains, adding:

»Or maybe the advocates of intervention to revive the economy will prefer to adopt another name, a positive sounding term like Roosevelt’s New Deal. So either the name remains with the bad connotations, or it transforms itself due to the proposals.«

Worn out concept

Following the Great Depression of the 1930s, Keynesianism and a much less market-fundamental version of liberalism came about. Could a merging of a reinvented liberalism, and your suggestion, the aforementioned ‘absolved’ socialism, lead to a kind of social liberalism 2.0?

»A fusion of that version of socialism and the more top-down intrusive version of liberalism can certainly be imagined. There’s reason to think that the communist end of socialism is not going to re-surface. So it could be a narrower socialism without certain revolutionary elements, making it more digestible,« he says.

»But perhaps this suggestion of a re-merging of socialism and liberalism is too worn out?,« Noel Parker asks rhetorically.

‘Decadence’ leads to authoritarian solutions

Some point to decadence as a cause of the crisis, as if the cause was consumerism gone amuck or just greed. This is a bit like the historical theory that decadence was the culprit for the fall of the Roman Empire and l’Ancien Régime. What do you think of the term decadence in this connection?

»Decadence! This term is certainly used, but it offers no explanation for what happened in Rome or anywhere, actually, because of the term’s shallow and normative character. Decadence is a failure to live up to your own social standards. You become decadent due to too much self-indulgence. In Rome there was the Augustan universality, and then things got decadent with Caligula and Nero. The claim of decadence actually reinforces the previous standards, so as an explanation it has a weakness in that it leaves the standards unquestioned. We’re kidding ourselves with this sort of language,« he says.

»We implicitly say with this term that what we should do now is what we should have done in the first place. And then you want to punish yourself or punish people. That quickly leads to an authoritarian agenda. The term is a misleading conceptual framework to explain the collapse of something. Sure, the relationship between people’s behaviour and their supposed values changes. But there is always a tension between virtuous principles and the values of practice. We’ve never been without sin« he says.

System had fatal weakness

»Now the term ‘crisis’ is more open, because it allows for, and indeed encourages, us to discover that something was going wrong in the previous system. I think something was going wrong«, he explains.

»The crisis was facilitated by a fatal weakness latent in the previous system, of which the simulacra aspect of money gone rampant constitutes a substantial component. But the optic of decadence glorifies the days of yore, and amplifies the crisis into becoming a futile question of moral degeneration, and therefore a matter of a Madoff here and a Madoff there. In other words, the term is nothing from which beneficial knowledge may be extracted«.