It is Neoliberalism not Occupy that is the Utopian Fantasy

By David Ritter - 28 October 2011

It was inevitable that the global Occupy movement would be denounced as utopian by any number of detractors, but such criticism is a stark and wilful misreading of the real nature of things.  Occupy is certainly rebellious, but it is driven by imperatives that are deeply sensible and practical in nature.  It is not the Occupiers, but the proponents of the status quo who are dangerously doctrinaire.  The Occupiers display a pleasingly muddled democratic heterogeneity of world views while those whom they oppose are united by their faith in the dogmatic ideology of neoliberalism with its blind adherence to the mythology of neoclassical economics.  The true ideologues sit in the soft leather chairs of the tall towers, not the motley tents and sleeping bags of the squares.  It is global economic elites and their technocrat servants who seek to remake human relations and the world around us in accordance with a stark and frightening utopian vision.

What started on Wall Street has been globalized as citizens have taken over public places in cities around the world under the loosely unifying Occupy banner.  Although there are local differences between occupations, the overall theme is clear: the excesses of global capitalism that characterised the era of the neoliberal hegemony must end; meaningful reform of global financial arrangements is urgent and essential; and the system should benefit ‘the 99%’ not ‘the 1%’.  The justification for these demands is plain enough.  In the US where the protests began, inequality has reached levels unseen since the Great Depression, while corporate profits continue to climb.  As legendary investor Warren Buffet said bluntly earlier this month: ‘there’s been class warfare going on for the last 20 years, and my class has won’.

Similar or related concerns apply all over the world.  As The Economist put it, the Occupy protests have share the feeling that ‘someone, somewhere, should do something to right the problems of global capitalism as currently constituted’.  The position is necessarily imprecise, but it is also decent and common sensical, deriving from the fundamental conviction that any system which delivered the crash of 2008 and is causing spiralling inequality around the world, at the cost of environmental damage so serious that the very conditions that have enabled human existence are imperilled, must surely be challenged.

In contrast, according to their utopian beliefs (see John Gray’s explication of neoliberalism as utopian ideology in his brilliant Black Mass) the 1% insists that everything will be okay so long as business is given a free hand.  Believing in the myth of the efficient market hypothesis,  understanding human beings as no more than rational self maximisers, and desiring to commoditize not only social relations but the very biosphere itself,  the utopian acolytes of the neoliberal faith remain set in their destructive voodoo worship of the zombie ideas of neoclassical economics

The great Hungarian political economist Karl Polanyi’s idea of the ‘double movement’ aptly describes the struggle that is presently taking place.  Polanyi reasoned that efforts to commoditize the world (the first arm of the double movement) would inevitably give rise to spontaneous protective responses on the part of society (the second arm).  As Polanyi understood, the utopian dream of the neoclassical economics cannot succeed because it is riven with insoluble contradictions; but as with any political project animated by extreme dogma, immense damage is occasioned by the undertaking to ‘make it so’.  The neoliberal attempt to recreate the world according to the fantasy of their understanding is enormously destructive: it must be turned back. 

David Ritter was away last week, so no blog.  You can follow David on Twitter here.

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