Neoliberalism and Government Intervention with Brendan O’Neill

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In part two of this interview for Conatus News, Brendan O’Neill speaks to Brian Graham about neoliberalism, Thatcher and government intervention.

This is the second interview in a three-part series with Spiked Magazine editor Brendan O’Neill. The first part of the interview can be read here. An audio version is available at the bottom of the article.

B.G.: I want to ask you about the old narrative of left versus right. It seems to me that Spiked doesn’t have a pronounced interest in some traditionally socialist policies. You don’t want redistributive taxes which would impact the very wealthy. I don’t think you would support a maximum wage. There are quite a few pieces about the National Health Service on Spiked as well. In addition to that, Spiked provides a platform for Phil Mullan, who advocates economic policies, which I think some commentators might view as somewhat Thatcherite, in fact. So it seems to me that there is a lack of interest in certain traditional socialist policies. In a way, I guess Phil Mullan is the closest you have to an economics editor – he’s your Larry Elliott. And so, if we’re working with that left-versus-right paradigm, sometimes I wonder where Spiked is coming from regarding economic policy. And another thing I have on my mind when I ask you this question is that I once heard you on the Spiked podcast say that you’ve always disliked the Labour Party more than the Conservatives.

B.O.: A hundred percent.

B.G.: Right, so I guess that the point to engage with is this: Is the economic policy of Spiked neoliberal in some way?

B.O.: I would say no. We would take issue with the word ‘neoliberal’ to begin with. This idea that we live in – or have lived in – an era of free-market fundamentalism doesn’t stack up. If you look at the amount of public spending – even during the Thatcher years – it grew year on year. So the idea of free-market fundamentalism, neoliberalism or a neoliberal era doesn’t hold water. And across the West, in fact, public spending, state spending and state intervention in the economy has been growing and continues to grow. So we would challenge the starting point of the discussion, i.e. the idea that we have something like the end of neoliberalism or that that kind of thing is even possible, which I don’t think it is. But it’s a hard one to untangle without sounding like you are stuck in the past. You know, the great clash within the left in recent decades if not centuries was over the question of the state – the role of the state – and whether you wanted the state to disappear (‘whither away’, to use Lenin’s phrase), or whether you wanted the state to stay around and do everything that you think is good and socialist. That was the defining dividing line on the left for a long time. And Spiked, as you indicated earlier, comes from an organization called the Revolutionary Communist Party. As its name suggests, it was quite revolutionary.

One of the reasons that a lot of the British left didn’t like us was because we always took a fairly firm line on the state, which is that we disagreed with the idea that the state was the solution either to societies’, communities’ or individuals’ problems. We didn’t accept that and thought it a simplistic, destructive narrative that could extend intervention into not only the economy but also into political life and individual life. And I think that has been borne out – we live in an era of huge state intervention in all areas of public, political, economic and personal life. So going back years and years and years, we were never fans of the state, and we remain non-fans of the state today. So take something like the redistribution of wealth – you know, I wouldn’t go to the barricades in opposition to that; I don’t think it’s particularly a problem.

But I do think it speaks to the low horizons of the left and particularly their abandonment of what was a key ideal of the left in the past, namely the ideal of economic growth – huge, earth-shattering, nature-conquering economic growth. That is what the left used to argue for, and they don’t argue for that anymore, because they think humanity is a skid mark on the environment, in essence. So, the less they argue for that, the more they argue that the existing amount of wealth must be shared that more fairly. And I think that is fundamentally driven by their lack of faith in the ability or the wisdom of humanity creating new wealth. So they become obsessively focused on what to do with existing wealth. So I think that that does reflect low horizons that you get this obsession with that.

Now, you say that Phil Mullan expresses Thatcherite ideas, but I don’t think anything he says is actually Thatcherite. I think the key argument he is making at the moment is about the unwillingness of the elites (the political class and so on) who run society to think about the possibility of creative destruction. So his argument is that their propping up of what he calls ‘zombie businesses’ or clapped-out businesses or ‘zombie capitalism’ (because they are worried about the consequences of letting them go the wall – and there would be huge consequences) is bad for society and bad for human beings because it allows them to keep this zombie, unproductive, useless capitalism staggering along. So I think that is driven not by the Thatcherite imperative of how do you ramp up the profit motive for a small section of society but by the far more humanist imperative of how can we make the economy more productive to benefit more members of society.

B.G.: But what would you do in relation to that short-term pain, I wonder? And what you say about Phil Mullan strikes me as bang on. I have heard him say that Thatcherism only provided the destruction but not the creation. And so what he’s advocating is something rather different. But at the same time, the short-term picture would be very similar to what happened in the 1980s. So what we do about that?

B.O.: This is where the state – or society more broadly – could play a role, and one point that Phil Mullan has made – and I completely agree with him – is that if you were to have this process of creative destruction, which he thinks is very important (and I agree with that too), you would need to protect people from the consequences. You would need, firstly, to provide people with the resources to survive when they were made jobless or while their former industry was put out to pasture. You would also need to input a lot of resources into training them into the new spheres of the economy which would rise up or that would be encouraged through both state and private intervention. So it would be a huge, broad, society-wide initiative that would involve the government, the state and hopefully civil society, community groups and everything else. So this is not a small project. And I think it is precisely the fear of that kind of thing, of having this kind of discussion – of sitting down and thinking: What does society need to do together in order to propel us forward into a new era? – that means we keep chugging along with this kind of zombie capitalism, zombie businesses and zombie forms of industry that don’t really serve much purpose.

It sounds cruel to say we need a period of creative destruction, a period in which some people will lose their jobs, but I think that as long as we are having a serious discussion about what we need to set in motion in order to ensure that the consequences of that do not hurt anyone – and, more importantly, about what we need to set in motion in order to ensure that, as you say, it’s not just a Thatcherite destruction but there’s also the creativity – then I think we will move on. The problem with the situation we have now is that right now it’s hurting people. Right now it’s hurting people because their wages are not going up and in fact they might be going down, or because they’re working part-time and they’d rather full-time, or because they are not making enough money to buy houses or feed their families. So there are destructive consequences of refusing to pursue the path of creative destruction, and I think that’s important to bear in mind.

B.G.: Absolutely. And as someone who lives in Denmark, I do think that one of the features of Danish social democracy could come in quite handy here. We have unemployment insurance funds in Denmark, which mean that if you lose your job you can actually access a sizeable percentage of your salary for a considerable amount of time. And it’s actually not state-driven – these are private associations. I wonder if Phil Mullan knows about that because presumably, some kind of safety net is extremely important in that regard.

B.O.: Yeah, I think so. I do have an issue with the welfare state, and it’s for the same reason the radical leftists had an issue with the welfare state when it first came to existence in its very early forms in the early twentieth and of course more institutionally in the mid-twentieth century. They were worried that it would naturalise unemployment and poverty and that it would create a situation in which not having a job, not being gainfully employed, not being a contributing member of society, would not be a problem because you’d be okay. This is the kind of discussions people used to have in the past. So when I say that we need to think very carefully about how society can ensure that no one suffers the consequences of creative destruction, I also think we do need to take a critical approach to the institutionalisation of welfarism for long periods of time. As a safety net for those who simply cannot cope – that’s absolutely a civilised and humane thing to do. As a safety net during a period of creative destruction – it’s essential. But as a constant permanent feature of society – as such, I think it becomes destructive.

B.G: One last question relating to left and right. I think some of your critics might also feel that you are in a sort of Thatcherite [lineage]because of this emphasis upon self-determination. Again, in academic circles, this would be called part of neoliberal ideology today. As someone who was a teenager in the ’80s, I always remember Norman Tebbit telling people to get on their bike and go and find a job. But is the ethos which you’re advancing here not related to that moment in British social history?

B.O.: Well, I’m frustrated with the right and the left on this question. I’m frustrated with the left because they, in my view, undermine individual autonomy and treat it as insignificant or a myth. How, they ask, can people possibly be autonomous and sovereign when they don’t have much money or live in the circumstances beyond their choosing? They have this idea that because people struggle and suffer and have difficulties (and that’s all true), that the idea of the individual being sovereign and self-determining is a kind of capitalist or elitist myth or something that only rich people can enjoy. I find this deeply patronising – and wrong. Even in the most difficult circumstances, people can make choices that can improve their lives – and can improve lives generationally even more importantly. If you think about your parents or your grandparents who might move from one country to another and take incredibly difficult, brave decisions – that can have huge consequences for themselves and other people. So I really detest that argument on the left, this idea that people are just going through the motions and have no choice, and that asking them to be sovereign over themselves is a fantasy – I hate that argument.

I’m also frustrated with the right because they think everything comes down to simply a matter of the individual action, and if the guy pulls up his socks and gets on his bike, as Tebbit says, then everything is fine. That’s too simplistic. There may not be legal impediments – or the ‘jackboot on the face’ – preventing someone from moving to another town, country or whatever it might be, but there are often very real barriers that people face – economic, political, social – which means that their choices are fewer than other people’s choices. So I’m frustrated with the left and the right. But the point I would always make in relation to this is that it’s simply wrong to see individual sovereignty or autonomy and collective dynamism or a collective endeavour as mutually exclusive or contradictory. I think in fact they are utterly complementary. And John Stuart Mill made the point that the more dynamic, coherent and adventurous a society is, the more likely it is to produce individuals who have those same values.

The more that individuals have those values – of thinking ‘I’m strong-willed, I’m autonomous, I control my life, I’m a good person’ – the more likely they are to want to contribute to something more collective. So these really are complementary values. And I think both the left and the right (including the alt-right) are dealing in myths when they argue that the individual is a myth and it’s all about the state helping us (the leftist view), or that it’s all about the strong, Randian individual who can stand up and puff his chest out and make everything alright (the attitude of the right). We’ve got to find a more reasonable, or radical (if that’s not contradictory) middle-ground, which recognises the value of both of those attitudes.

Listen to the audio here:



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