Ours are turbulent times of rage and peril. This is currently most clearly evident on the streets of Chile and Lebanon, where huge protests have taken place over the past 10 days.
In Lebanon, hundreds of thousands of people have mobilised around the demand that the government must resign and in opposition to corruption and escalating costs of living. Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s government has promised several reforms and a new budget for
2020, but this has done little to appease the country’s insurgent citizens.
In Chile, increased metro fares sparked the protests, which quickly expanded to target the privatisation of basic services, weak social protection systems, and widening gaps between haves and have-nots. President Sebastían Piñera has imposed a state of emergency, and the authorities are resorting to heavily militarised policing to quell the unrest, which has so far left 15 people dead.
These uprisings are part of a longer arc of popular protest that emerged in response to the financial crisis of 2008 and its long aftermath. A common denominator for these protests has been the fact that they oppose neoliberal policy designs and their socioeconomic consequences, either in part or in whole.
In the Global North, the most prominent manifestation of this has been the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States, which challenged the rampant inequality of the United States economy, and the popular protests against austerity policies that played out on town squares in Europe — especially on the margins of the Eurozone, in Greece, Spain, Portugal and Ireland.
Parallel with these eruptions, the Global South witnessed the Arab Spring — a popular revolt across the Middle East and North Africa region that demanded democratisation and social justice — as well as numerous mobilisations throughout Latin America, for example, student protests in Chile and mass protests for free public transport in Brazil. More recently, protests have shaken regimes in a range of countries including Ireland, South Africa, Tunisia, France, Mexico, and Ecuador.
Rage on the streets has not necessarily resulted in unequivocal victories or decisive advances for popular claims and demands. Indeed, in several cases rising waves of protest have broken against the rock of state repression, for example in the case of the Arab Spring.
Nevertheless, the fact that the past decade has seen an increasing frequency of protest around the world testifies to how the neoliberal project, which became hegemonic across the North-South axis during the 1980s and 1990s, is mired in a crisis of legitimacy. In a context of deepening inequality and precarity, the promise that material progress will follow for countries that conform to the dictates of global markets and individuals who adopt an entrepreneurial mindset rings very hollow.
Moreover, the fact that new protests are triggered, as they have been in Lebanon and Chile, by the persistent resort by authorities to quintessentially neoliberal policies tells us something significant about political and economic elites in this moment, namely that they have no plan B — no coherent and persuasive alternative to this crisis-ridden project.
The truth of this observation was brought home recently by Mervyn King, former governor of the Bank of England, who, in a lecture given at the annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund — a chief architect of the neoliberal project — bemoaned the lack of new departures in the field of economic policy. “No one can doubt that we are once more living through a period of political turmoil,” he noted. “But there has been no comparable questioning of the basic ideas underpinning economic policy.”
The reference point for King’s reflections was the fallout of the Great Depression of the 1930s — a period characterised not only by the unravelling of an economic model, but also large-scale protests as impoverished working classes demanded fundamental change. Ultimately, a discredited economic liberalism was made to yield to new paradigms that advocated state intervention in the economy and redistribution through the building of welfare states.
In the Global South, this break with liberal economic doctrine was evident in the state-led development strategies that came to the fore in the wake of mass struggles for decolonisation in the post-war era. Essentially, these departures from economic liberalism saved capitalism from itself.
In sharp contrast, the response to the financial crisis of 2008 has been austerity — in a nutshell, neoliberalism on steroids, which has extended privatisation, cut back government spending on welfare and public goods and services, and pushed further deregulation of labour markets.
Furthermore, as a recent study by the Transnational Institute, an international nonprofit research and advocacy think-tank, makes clear, the few reforms that were implemented after the crisis have been ineffective in addressing the dynamics that drove the world economy into crisis in 2008. The big American banks at the centre of the crisis have only become bigger over the past decade; the financial commodities that spawned the crisis are still being traded on world markets; investor entities such as hedge funds and private equity funds operate from tax havens and continue to escape regulation; global debt levels have reached a staggering $325-trillion, while world gross domestic product stands at $84-trillion.
We have also witnessed the reversal of those departures from neoliberal orthodoxy that did take place during the 2000s, such as in Latin America, where the left-of-centre regimes of the so-called Pink Tide, the turn to the left, have given way to a right-wing resurgence.
The consequences have been dismally predictable. Inequality has kept escalating to a point where 26 people own the same amount of wealth as the 3.8-billion people who constitute the poorest half of humanity. Work, as the International Labour Organisation pointed out earlier this year, often fails to guarantee a life free from poverty. Although the world’s political and economic elites are anxious about the possible fallouts of this scenario, they still cling to a disgraced orthodoxy that only widens the socioeconomic fault lines of our times, and increasingly prefer — as the body count in Chile testifies — to respond to discontent and protest with repression rather than substantial reforms.
In our book We Make Our Own History, my colleague Laurence Cox and I argue that this scenario should be thought of as the twilight of neoliberalism — that we are living through a period in which it is more and more evident that the neoliberal project is dead, but stubbornly refuses to lie down.
To understand the stakes that we confront in this moment, it is instructive to return once again to the stormy 1930s, and to the reflections of a far more compelling thinker than King — namely the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci. Writing from behind the walls of Mussolini’s prisons, where he was confined from 1926 to 1935, Gramsci argued that the systemic crisis of his era was best understood as an interregnum — a period of instability in which an old order had collapsed, and in which opposing social forces clash over how a new order should be organised.
Significantly, he had the following to say about such periods: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
Chief among the morbid symptoms of Gramsci’s time was the rise of the fascist regime that smashed the workers’ movement in which he had been a leading activist and annulled Italy’s democratic order.
Our conjuncture is similarly an interregnum — and it is rife with its own morbid symptoms, above all in the form of authoritarian populisms that fuse neoliberal policy regimes with coercion and cultural nationalism.
In the Global North, toxic whiteness and anti-immigrant racism has propelled the rise of politicians such as United States President Donald Trump, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, and Italy’s recently deposed deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini. In the Global South, weaponised religion underpins the regimes of illiberal strongmen such as India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro.
One of the primary perils of the present lies in the further consolidation of this political tendency. This would result in the perpetuation of inequality and the dimming of the light of democracy. In this context, the persistence of uprisings such as those sweeping across Chile and Lebanon serves as a timely reminder that, if we want to move out of the twilight of neoliberalism and towards futures of greater equality and freedom, it is social movements from below that will lead our way there.
Alf Gunvald Nilsen is professor of sociology at the University of Pretoria. He studies social movements and the political economy of development and democracy in the Global South, especially Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa