Perhaps one can say that the culture of neoliberalism ends when the consumer exits the center stage of political culture? Of course, the exit of the consumer does not mean the departure of corporate dominance or global capitalism. In fact, it seems the departure of the consumer could mark a turn for the worse, as the consumer at least embodied a lingering claim for a “democratic face” for capitalism. In the United States during the decade of the 2000s, book and record stores closed; purchases concentrated in featureless big-box outlets and discount stores, eliminating small businesses and commercial variety; and television advertising became dominated by pharmaceutical ads, car insurance commercials, and corporate-sponsored electoral campaigns. Whereas the mid-twentieth century landscape of consumer cultures and identities had come to embody a multi-cultural universe of taste and styles, in the twenty-first century this consumer world was supplanted by a landscape medicated, indebted and propagandized publics.
After 2008, as the “credit crunch” became the Great Recession, neoliberalism was once again proclaimed dead and the emperor of global finance was revealed to have no clothes. Practices of investment banking, mortgage lending, and derivative trading revealed themselves as having no rational relationship to markets, to supply-and-demand logics, much less any socially generative logic of “productivity.” Financial elites who had claimed to be technical experts capable of mastering market symbols and prophesying consumer and investor preferences, were revealed to be masters of spin and fraud, whose decisions were shaped by predatory herding and hoarding. They practiced coordinated acts of deception to dump their “debt instruments” onto consumers, shareholders, investors and eventually the tax-payer.
During the financial crisis many were able to confirm their view of neoliberal finance as an insular and self-serving set of class-distinction and caste-preservation mechanisms, concentrated in the impermeable, immensely powerful circuits of global banking. They were monopolistic, rent-seeking, and racketeering nature, rather than competitive, entrepreneurial, or productive. This global class formation could no longer draw on (or no longer bothered to refer to) the market mythologies of neoliberalism. The mask of economic rationality was removed.
In the 2008-9 period, then, it seemed that the Left and social-democratic governments would increase their room for maneuver, as the red lines of neoliberalism faded and its ideological power was shaken and partially dispelled. Banks in Britain were taken over by the state and the term bank nationalization was even debated seriously on the floor of the US Congress. It seemed that the entire edifice of neoliberalism was crumbling, and some of the key terms of neoliberal hegemony were stolen back and re-signified. For example, one of neoliberalisms key framing terms, “investment”, was taken back for a moment by the state.
In the 1980s, neoliberal ideology had identified the term investment with practices of corporate takeovers and liquidation of jobs. And by contrast, public support for human capital, infrastructure, industrial development, or social spending was stigmatized as profligate “spending.” This term, spending, like the word welfare, became (racially, sexually) signified as waste or theft; as an unjust extraction from productive, successful, and hardworking (white) people; or as a dumping of resources on the poor and the public in ways that would only corrupt and spoil them. However, for a time after 2008, the term spending was replaced by the Keynesian reappropriation of the term investment. Global leaders, including the US President Barack Obama, renationalized the term investment, using it to mean the reassertion of state commitment to planning a productive, inclusive future for the national community.
But soon it became apparent that in the Global North a profligate, elitist, racially coded hoarding culture of revanchist post-neoliberalism, a post-economistic logic of austerity, had reasserted itself in the United States and European Union zones. New leaders would preside over new bank-pleasing austerity that aimed to terminate not just the norms and redistribution mechanisms of the European welfare state, but also bury the idea of promoting “economic growth” as the driving aim of government. Neoliberalism’s liberal political façade was suspended, support for liberal parties plummeted in Germany, the UK, and Canada, while the liberal branch of the Republican Party in the US dissolved. Highly repressive “technocratic” governments were installed in Greece and Italy, where German bankers selected new prime ministers, detouring, at first, around democratic processes. Austerity would persist in its most pure form , exorcized of its living political spirit and without the soul of its animating “pro-growth ideologies and justification- not even so much as a hi-ho for “trickle-down.”
In this form post-neoliberalism would rack up a series of cadaverous- zombie, vampire- triumphs in the post crisis Global North, there would be no return to social-democratic models, New Deal Marshall Plan initiatives. Instead, new fiscal regimes would unleash a kind of upside-down Keynesianism. That is, predatory and unproductive banks would be bailed out and absorbed into the deep well of public debt. Corporate and bank losses would be socialized (passed on to the public), while their profits, more than ever, would be privatized (i.e. channeled into the hands of a small class of CEO’s and shareholders). Institutions formerly identified most with neoliberalism had become, explicitly, a massive network of parasitical racketeering operations.
As the Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman summed it up on 19 December 2010 in the New York Times opinion piece entitled “When Zombies Win”, “When historians look back at 2008-2010, what will puzzle them most, I believe, is the strange triumph of failed ideas. Free-market fundamentalists have been wrong about everything- yet they know how to dominate the political scene more than ever . . .we all understand the need to deal with one’s political enemies. But it is one thing to advance your goals; it’s another to open the door to zombie ideas. When you do that, the zombies end up eating your brain –and quite possibly your economy too.”
While neoliberalism was revived in an undead, vengeful form in the North, the missionaries of shock treatment, fiscal austerity, and roll-out neoliberalism who had spread from Chicago and Washington into the Third World in the 1970s and 1980s were now being forcibly evicted from the Global South and ordered to march back northward. Policy talk seemed to go in the opposite direction in the surging semiperiphery. On 22 October 2011, Hassan al-Boraei, Egypt’s labor minister, proclaimed a “Marshal Plan.” He said, “I am afraid that the Arab Spring could turn into autumn if the issue of social justice is not achieved. The Arab League secretary general, Nabil Elaraby, in a similar vein, stated, “If the Arab Spring hopes to achieve anything it is to attain good governance. This does not necessitate only democracy and freedom but social justice, meaning economic policies that meet popular expectations.”
Samir Amin, the Egyptian pioneer of “dependency theory” spoke at the World Social Forum, in February 2011, after spending a week in Tahrir Square:
Egypt is the cornerstone of the US plan to control the planet . . . Neoliberal capitalist integration into the global system is at the root of all these social devastations . . . what Obama means by “smooth transition” [after Mubarak’s downfall] is a transition that would lead to no change, only some minor concessions . . . the system is strong –nobody can get rid of the system in five minutes. It will be a long process. Nobody in Egypt is antistatist. They feel the state is responsible for the economy. The blah-blah of the market solving problem, nobody buys. The state must take up responsibilities, subsidies, control, nationalizations, etc . . . We need a strong, popular, democratic state to restrict capital and to fight imperialism . . .Egypt is a country of long revolutions. The people are accustomed to it but everybody knows that in Egypt we shall continue to struggle until we have won.
There are new and ongoing kinds social and political animation and protest in countries of the Global South like Egypt and Brazil. The intersecting logics of securitizing governance embodied in them do not converge around any ideal type and cannot entirely forsake the militaristic, dis-possessive and neocolonial relations of power that originally nurtured them. Their powers are woven of the contradictory logic of religious moralization, police paramilitarization, judicial individualism as well as from insurgent forms of worker ideology and labor politics, but these are not forms of zombie neoliberalism or cadaverous imperialism.
The new forms of securitized humanity and the human-security regimes in the Global South are animated, internally contradictory, and restive and as such, they are propelling our planet towards new future