Neoliberalism’s many deaths and strange non-deaths 

neoliberalismBy Jack Copley and Alexis Moraitis

The coronavirus pandemic has required states to take unprecedented steps to backstop the world capitalist economy. This has included enormous liquidity injections into financial markets, guaranteeing the wages of furloughed workers, and temporarily requisitioning and coordinating parts of the private sector. Yet last year a different threat – not epidemiological but proletarian – similarly forced states to adopt redistributive policies against their wills, albeit on a smaller scale. 

From the vantage point of the current uprisings against racist police violence, the empty streets of the early 2020 lockdown appear as a brief exception to the broader trend of mass unrest. In 2019, streets, avenues, and squares in different parts of the world flooded with protestors decrying the pro-rich policies of their respective governments. The scale, endurance, and spectacular disruptiveness of these popular explosions pressed governments from Western Asia to Europe to Latin America to abandon so-called neoliberal fiscal rectitude and reluctantly embrace Keynesian stimulus policies.

In Chile, on the eve of the autumn 2019 revolt, billionaire austerian president Sebastián Piñera invoked a classic metaphor of neoliberal stoicism to explain how he would resist popular opposition to his painful reform programme: ‘Ulysses tied himself to a ship’s mast and put pieces of wax in his ears to avoid falling for the … siren calls’. Less than one month later, this modern Ulysses had broken free from his tethers, announcing increases in the minimum wage, healthcare benefits, pensions, electricity subsidies, and the reform of Chile’s very constitution. There are clear parallels with France’s Emmanuel Macron, a former investment banker who assumed power in 2017 on a platform of market discipline, only to buckle under the weight of the relentless Gilet Jaunes movement and announce a €17 billion package of concessions.

How are we to grasp the jarring Keynesian U-turns of such cartoonish neoliberal governments in the face of mass protest and pandemic? It is commonly assumed that the neoliberal project represented the shrinking of the state sphere and its replacement by the cold logic of the marketplace. The 2008 bank bailouts appeared to buck this trend, as states were called upon to undertake drastic interventions. But this turned out to be a hiccup in neoliberalism’s larger narrative arc, as austerity quickly took hold. Yet perhaps this latest accumulation of crises will at last force states to reclaim the territory they had ceded to the market. After its ‘strange non-death’, is neoliberalism finally dying?Read More »

Pandemics and the State of Welfare

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In the midst of what might possibly be the worst recession since 2008, and staring down the barrel of overwhelming economic, social and human disaster, there is widespread recognition that increased welfare spending is critical not just to contain the fallout from the pandemic, but also to effectively combat it. By ensuring timely delivery of essentials and basic income support, one can minimise the chances of people venturing outside, and hence contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

There are valid concerns raised as to whether these measures go far enough in helping workers or whether institutional mechanisms will be able to convert announcements into genuine progress on the ground. This blog post analyses the arguments behind the justification of introducing welfare schemes in today’s times, and the underlying economic logic behind them. 

The increase in welfare provision is sorely needed in a catastrophic situation such as the one we face. But while the readiness to deploy instruments to achieve this is unprecedented, the measures themselves are not. Much of the welfare measures rolled out by governments are standard income support and welfare packages, larger in scale but with no fundamental changes in their basic design. Much of these measures, moreover, have been advocated by many to deal with fallouts from economic crises in the past, only to be met with middling levels of success and acceptance by the powers that be. The impact of the coronavirus has shown us how quickly governments can turn over the fundamental principles of austerity if they are pushed to do so. 

This post does not simply aim to criticise government policies of the past in light of current actions, but to outline a warning for the future. The problem of economic distress will not go away once the pandemic does, because then we will be dealing with battered economies, high unemployment, and weak to non-existent growth. In such times, when the threat of the virus has ebbed, there will be calls to roll back the welfare measures of the government. These calls will have to be countered stringently, on the grounds that the need to protect welfare and ensure government assistance is not contingent simply on the existence of a virus, but on the inability of the economic machine to provide for welfare.Read More »

Neoliberalism on Trial: Jokowi 2.0, Omnibus Bill and the New Capital City

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When the majority of Southeast Asian countries began to enact more aggressive responses to the novel coronavirus, Indonesia turned a deaf ear to virus mitigation efforts. As it had no confirmed cases of the coronavirus as of February, Joko Widodo’s (Jokowi) government instead kept pushing extensive economic reform agendas. It submitted a 1,028-page Job Creation Omnibus Bill on 12 February, calling the bill the country’s third great structural reform program after the  1998 International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) Letter of Intent and the 1967 Foreign Direct Investment Law. Despite criticism from the opposition, the president insisted on this neoliberal agenda, claiming that the objective of the bill is to promote more foreign direct investment (FDI) in the manufacturing sector and thus create more jobs. 

What effects do neoliberal policies have on political and economic life in Indonesia and state-capital relations in particular? This blog post follows David Harvey (2006) in taking a historical-geographical approach to investigate this question, with a focus on policies put in place in the current president Jokowi’s second term. For many observers, such a bold move to deregulate the economy signals the resurgence of state-led development in a new form. Put differently, what this article would like to argue is that deregulation, an all-encompassing hegemonic ideology rather than simply a policy, has become some sort of ‘banner to unite under’ for the ruling capitalist class in Indonesia. Read More »

In Service of Neoliberalism – The Art and Science of Perpetuating the ‘State versus Market’ Dichotomy

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How should one assess a book on economic policy that takes a dim view of the state and redistribution in a country that is home to multiple and intersecting inequalities? Economic inequality and the role of the state in tackling inequality emerged as a major talking point in the last decade and it is likely that it will continue to animate academic and policy debates in the following decade too. Therefore, it would not be unreasonable to evaluate any book on economic policy based on the seriousness with which it engages with inequality and how it imagines state intervention in the economy. This review seeks to do precisely that by unpacking the conventional wisdom about the nature and role of the state presented in the book In Service of the Republic: The Art and Science of Economic Policy by Vijay Kelkar and Ajay Shah.Read More »

NEW BLOG SERIES: State capitalism(s) – Interrogating the ‘return’ of the state in development

6a00d83452719d69e2014e86055c29970d-800wi.jpgFrom Quantitative Easing to neo-mercantilist policies, the renewal of industrial policy, the multiplication of sovereign wealth funds and marketized state-owned enterprises, increased state participation in global value chains and global networks of corporate ownership, the state seems to be ‘back in business’ everywhere. This raises a series of questions:

  • Are we witnessing a shift to state-led development? A return of ‘state capitalism’ under a globalised and financialized form? Are these processes challenging market ascendance and/or neoliberalism as a global development regime?
  • Has there been a transformation of the developmental state and of the logics and instruments of ‘catch-up’ development? New tools of state intervention for industrial and innovation policy?
  • What are the implications of the resurgence of ‘state-capital hybrids’ (state-sponsored investment funds, state-owned enterprises, development banks, etc.) as key actors in development? Are these transforming the global development finance architecture? What is the relationship between, on the one hand, state-owned, state-controlled, and state-directed capital, and on the other hand, private capital?
  • What are the wider geopolitical and geo-economic shifts in which the rise of the new state capitalism is embedded? What is new about the recent ‘wave’ of state capitalism across the global economy? What are the strategic, structural/epochal, and contingent drivers of its emergence?
  • What is the progressive potential of these developments, both in the global South and in the global North? What are the limits to the new state capitalism, and the various forms of resistance to it?

Read More »

State Capitalism Redux?

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By Ilias Alami and Adam Dixon

Recent transformations in the global economy have sparked renewed interest in the role of the state in capital accumulation. Such transformations include a ‘return’ to various forms of state-led development across the global South since the early 2000s (in China, Russia, and other large emerging economies), extensive state intervention following the 2008 global financial crisis in the global North, and the multiplication of various forms of state-capital entanglements such as sovereign wealth funds (SWFs) and state-owned enterprises (SOEs). For instance, the number of SWFs increased from 50 to 92 between 2005 and 2017, while assets under management grew to over $7.5 trillion worth of assets, which is more than hedge funds and private equity firms combined. According to a recent study, ‘SOEs generate approximately one tenth of world gross domestic product and represent approximately 20% of global equity market value’. SOEs now dwarf even the largest privately-owned transnational corporations, with PetroChina currently leading the list with a market value of more than $1 trillion. Three of the top five companies in the 2018 Fortune Global 500 are Chinese SOEs (State Grid, Sinopec Group, and China National Petroleum Corp). Significantly, these state-capital hybrids have also become increasingly integrated into transnational circuits of capital, including global networks of production, trade, finance, infrastructure and corporate ownership. Does this renewed state activism – and its remarkably outward orientation – indicate a changing role of the state in capital accumulation and the emergence of new political geographies of capital?Read More »

From Addis to Davos: International Development Finance gets Conspicuous

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The theme of the 2018 World Economic Forum was, “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World.” Its six richest attendees each boasted an estimated net worth of $5.2 billion or more, or the same amount as the total burden of Somalia’s outstanding debt, which, amid the splendor of the event, Somali Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khayre  met with IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde to discuss clearing. In this era of extreme global inequality, it is estimated that the United Nations agenda of seventeen sustainable development goals (SDGs) known as Agenda 2030, will require 4.5 trillion dollars of investment per year to be realized, or more than twice the amount expected to be available from traditional official development assistance (ODA) alone. Due to the increasing concentration of private wealth in the global economy, discussions around development finance have focused on private sector engagement, rather than more traditional, ODA from predominantly Western donor governments and multilateral institutions.Read More »

Small and Medium Enterprise Development: A Case of Hamlet without the Prince

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Towards the end of 2016, something remarkable happened in the relationship between the private sector and state in South Africa. In an effort to keep the big three rating agencies from downgrading the country’s the sovereign credit rating to “junk status” the CEO Initiative was convened at the request of the President and his Deputy and led by the then Minister of Finance. The initiative’s initial goals were to prevent a sovereign rating downgrade and to stimulate inclusive and sustainable growth. To achieve this, three work streams were established: a fund for small and medium sized enterprises (SME), a youth employment scheme, and an investment intervention team. This post critically assesses the theoretical basis for SME development as a tool for inclusive growth.Read More »