A democratic answer to neoliberalism and authoritarianism

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Bryn Jones

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Mike O’Donnell

Bryn Jones and Mike O’Donnell, editors of Alternatives to neoliberalism,  examine the problems of authoritarian nationalism and explain that the best hope for greater equality and quality of life lies with people themselves, and in more, not less democracy. The paperback of Alternatives to neoliberalism is out now.

When the hardback edition of our co-edited book was published in early 2017, it was the long, harsh aftermath of the 2007-8 financial crisis and subsequent recession – encapsulated in the term ‘austerity’ – that we challenged and sought answers to.

Along with a growing number of progressive critics and politicians, we named the extreme free-market ideology of neoliberalism as the underlying cause of the economic and social disruption that still persists. Alternatives to neoliberalism offers a range of democratic and egalitarian alternatives from progressive academics and policy practitioners. Their answers apply now even more urgently and provide a concrete vision of a participative society in which power is exercised by citizens, routinely in the communities and institutions in which they engage, and through robust systems of accountability at regional and national levels.

In the last year the need to defend and extend democracy and social justice has become even more acute. The neoliberal theorist, Fredrick Hayek, was a proponent of ‘the free-market’ but tended towards political and social authoritarianism so that business could be executed with the minimum of inconvenience. One man’s freedom…

“Liberal capitalist regimes, especially neoliberal ones, tend to respond to economic crisis and the social protest it provokes, with a shift to authoritarianism.”

However, the current resurgence of authoritarianism in many parts of the world, notably in the United States, Eastern Europe and Russia, and the Philippines, is not significantly the product of theoretical thinking – rather the opposite.  Liberal capitalist regimes, especially neoliberal ones, tend to respond to economic crisis and the social protest it provokes, with a shift to authoritarianism. Thus, they impose austerity on the majority in order to pay off debts caused mainly by financial speculation. The cry ‘we are all in this together’ rings out and populist nationalism is offered as the antidote to ‘the peoples’ complaints.

In reality, political turbulence following economic chaos serves to obscure the real causes of crisis and misleads popular opinion. ‘Taking back control’ in terms of sustained democratic participation is a fair description of what is least likely to happen. Alternatives to neoliberalism seeks to make these processes transparent and to offer solutions.

“…populist leaders and supportive media frame ‘the solution’ in terms of a supposed long-suffering national majority and ‘others’.”

Authoritarian nationalism typically couches the promise of restoring economic prosperity in terms of cultural inclusion and exclusion. These two aspects are rhetorically conflated as populist leaders and supportive media frame ‘the solution’ in terms of a supposed long-suffering national majority and ‘others’, frequently recent migrants or more established but easily differentiated and scapegoated groups. This was the scenario in inter-war Germany and is currently being played out in numerous parts of the world, if for now in somewhat less brutal terms. Why ‘we’ behave in this way is not best explained in terms of the psychopathology of the few – although that has some traction – than in the exploitation of insecurity and want.

It need not be so. The message of our book is fundamentally optimistic. Sceptical of the sustained intentions of remote elites to deliver on electoral promises, we believe that the best hope for greater equality and quality of life lies with people themselves, in more, not less democracy.  However, we mean this not in terms of current populist bombast but in the extension of citizens’ engagement and rights.

Thomas Marshall’s classic book on citizenship published in 1950 chronicles the development of a trilogy citizen’s rights in Britain; civil (legal), political and social. We advocate a fourth phase in the accretion of citizen’s rights: the development and implementation of democratic participation and accountability from the bottom to the top of society. Already many community and voluntary organisations as well as more formal organisations such as trade unions and small businesses contribute to sustain their localities.

Anna Coote, a contributor to the book, argues for a ‘new social settlement’ that would channel capital and resources ‘upstream’ drawing on civic organisation and vitality, leaving to residents more control of expenditure and development be it, for instance, in social care, additional educational and leisure facilities, community enterprise, and the maintenance and protection of the environment.  A complementary policy presented in the book would require supermarkets to negotiate and contract for the provision of certain services such as sourcing a minimum quota of local produce and/or meeting enhanced environmental standards.

“Such redistribution of power as we are currently seeing is into the hands of populist politicians.”

Building a more participative society will take organisation. Like any major change it has a political as well as a socio-economic dimension. It requires a redistribution of power. An increase in democratic participation in locally based institutions of, for instance, big business, education and in budget allocation will cumulatively have major regional and national implications. If sustained it will create a participative democratic society. Such redistribution of power as we are currently seeing is into the hands of populist politicians.

After the virulently totalitarian inter-war bout of authoritarianism and the war required to defeat it, there was a widespread desire for social reform. That reform, Marshall’s third phase of citizens’ rights, has been pushed back and as a priority must be defended and re-established. But beyond necessity awaits the tantalising possibility of a society of meaningful participation and opportunity.

Jones_Alternatives to neoliberalism [FC]Alternatives to neoliberalism edited by Bryn Jones and Mike O’Donnell is available with 20% discount on the Policy Press website. Order here for £20.79.

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