Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The End of NeoLiberalism: A Crisis of Unimaginable Consequence

It is a common tendency among human beings to believe that the problems and challenges facing their particular generation during their particular lifetimes are more momentous and of greater consequence than almost any that have come before them. Every war, it seems, is crucial to the fate of liberty; every political battle of the essence in determining the fate of the nation, or even the world. It is therefore important to keep some perspective when making grand pronouncements about political struggles in which one is presently engaged.

Nonetheless, I think it not unreasonable to suggest that we are embroiled today in a climactic and deeply consequential struggle that will not only test the mettle of the collective human spirit, but also has the opportunity to discredit for at least one generation or more an entire ideology of evil and selfish greed.

I speak, of course, of the battle over global warming.
Almost anyone reading this piece is aware of the imperative urgency surrounding the problem: the melting of the Antarctic and of the Arctic ice caps at rates faster than anyone had predicted; the threatened loss of millions of species; the Pentagon's own report on food and water shortages causing mass instability and migrations; the list of catastrophic consequences of failure to act on this crisis is nearly endless.

It is also a given that any action taken to mitigate the crisis must be global in nature, with the participatory cooperation of all the major industialized nations for any movement towards a reduction in greenhouse gases and an increase in sustainability to be meaningful over the long run. This will, of course, require the firm hand of governments worldwide in regulating corporate behavior and spurring investment in new technologies. While America consumes the lion's share of the world's oil and produces increasingly enormous amounts of greenhouse gases, failure to engage China, India and other industrialized nations in the collective effort will render much of this activity moot.

It will be a difficult challenge--one that could easily cause waves of pessimism in students of human history. How we as a species react to this unprecedented challenge will say a great deal about who we are and what are capable--or incapable--of.

All of this, however, has been said before at various times and in various ways. What has been less reported on, but is of nearly equal importance to my mind, is the almost Manichean socio-political and ideological consequences of this battle for both the United States and constitutionally democratic (at least in theory) nations across the globe.

The ideology most under threat from worldwide acceptance of the necessity to act in mitigating global warming is that of "Free-Market" Neoliberalism. Just as the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan have helped to discredit the concept of neoconservatism everywhere but the lame-duck halls of the White House, the free market's failure to stop the devastating creep of global warming will, if brought to internationally recognized popular consensus, obliterate the credibility of the prevailing economic conventional wisdom surrounding the Washington Consensus.

This baleful philosophy of neo-liberalism holds as its guiding principle the idea that--if given enough time--corporations in a free-market system unfettered by governmental (i.e., consumer and labor) regulation will provide the greatest variety of products and services at the lowest prices to the greatest number of people. It also holds that unswerving allegiance to this principle will result in greater worldwide prosperity, increased jobs, and a brighter future for the world's citizens.

When confronted with the abject failures of this ideology (though many would argue that rather than failures, these consequences were the entire goal from the beginning--namely, the redistribution of wealth from the middle-class and the poor to the very rich), such as America's large number of uninsured, the unquestionable disaster that was energy deregulation, the increasing gap between the massively rich and the rest of us, the disastrous consequences of IMF/World Bank-controlled "globalization", etc., the defenders of the status quo usually engage in one of two different responses:

"Give it more time and even less regulation--it will work, I swear!"


"The cure would be worse than the disease."

In the case of uninsured children or the bleak future of many African and South American countries under the weight of IMF loans, the former is the usual response: that the healthcare industry is under the weight of too many lawsuits; that corruption is still too rampant in third-world countries; that the market will eventually provide a solution for healthcare for the American poor; that we just haven't given African economies enough time.

The latter, however, is often cited as well on a host of different issues: single-payer healthcare is supposed to be worse than the present system; reasonable economic protections are supposed to lead to even greater poverty; state-controlled electricity is supposed to lead to even higher prices. Though these arguments are all demonstrably false, they are continually employed by the desperate mandarins eager to continue the fleecing of the hoi polloi.

Time and fear are the greatest assets of the neoliberal--a situation remarkably similar to that of the neoconservative, whose mendicant pleading for yet another Friedman Unit in Iraq and threats of another 9/11 in the wake of Democratic electoral victory manage to hum the same tune--if only on a lower, more ominous octave. The melody in both cases is sharp, disturbing and painful to the ears of Truth.

Global warming, however, is a problem that not only points to an utter failure of the neoliberal system, but also cannot be assuaged by appeals to fear or to a continued stay of patience on the part of the world's increasingly suffering population.

The fact that a problem of such momentous impact has gradually arisen under the watchful eyes of our quarterly-report-obsessed Wall Street bureaucrats with nary the movement of a little finger to stop it is itself proof of the myopic blindness (not to mention selfish greed) that afflicts a purely market-driven system. It is proof of a failure of long-term thinking and visionary planning in pursuit of higher and higher record corporate profits.

But the fact that global warming is an autocatalytic process--i.e., one whose negative impact will increase, feeding off itself--means that there IS NO MORE TIME. We cannot wait for the "free market" to eventually provide the bounties that the Thomas Friedmans of the world insist are at the end of the neoliberal rainbow, if only we march long and hard enough in pursuit of the mirage. The threat is upon us NOW--and if nothing is done to stop it NOW, soon nothing will be able to stop it.

And the corporations in the free market certainly won't be able to stop it themselves.

Meanwhile, there is almost no cure that could be worse than the disease of apocalyptic climate change resulting in the elimination of polar ice caps, the loss of millions of species, world wars, famines, droughts, diseases, natural disasters, mass migrations, energy depletion, and the very real possibility of global economic and even civilization collapse. One is reminded of Al Gore's joke in his potent documentary An Inconvenient Truth in which the Earth is balanced on a scale, counterweighted with gold bars. In comparison with losing one's civilization, one's freedom, one's stability, even the planetary patterns of life we have come to know and depend on, almost any economic cost is preferable.

And it is instructive to note that most of the corporatist effort has at this point been to attempt to discredit the very premises behind global warming, rather than to mitigate the perceived need to act. Because they know that if the public comes to accept the basic premises, there will be no way for them to defend the ideology that has been their prevailing basis of power for decades.

These are truly momentous times, and the stakes could not be higher: not only for the world and for our environmental futures, but for our political and ideological futures as well.

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