For a critical theory of neoliberalism



Neoliberalism with its hard core power; diffuse, it is everywhere. It is necessary to identify it, name it, expose its seductive and destructive logic


Nobody is neoliberal? Are we all neoliberals?

When Friedrich Hayek, the central thinker of the neoliberal tradition, made public his programmatic book The Constitution of Liberty (1960), practically all of his judgments, arguments and propositions were minority within the liberal tradition itself and almost scandalous in the face of majority public opinion in Western democracies. At the beginning of the third decade of the XNUMXst century, these judgments, arguments and propositions have become almost dogmas within the liberal tradition and enjoy, from a business media convergence that penetrates every pore of society, the condition of a common sense season.

The proposition that the Central Banks should be removed from the control of the democratically elected executive authorities and that they dedicate themselves primarily to establishing targets for controlling inflation, putting employment objectives in the background, certainly did not have the support of the majority of liberals, even Americans, still under the Keynesian paradigm.

A systematic culture of attacks on the growth of public budgets in democracies and defense of rules that “tie the hands” of the executive through legal or constitutional impositions, creating a permanent austerity regime, had not yet been created. But it is already systematically argued in this work by Friedrich Hayek.

The proposition that all economic planning in democratic societies would lead to a totalitarian path, already present in The Path of Serfdom (1943) and taken up in all its consequences in the cited work, was understood as an unbalanced, sectarian judgment and inconsistent with one's own lived experience.

The frontal attack on Welfare State policies, described as centralizing, bureaucratic and unjust because they burdened market winners and rewarded failures, as is done in this book, would be in itself a piece of scandal. The defense of Welfare States, with their universalist, redistributive and rights-forming logic, even in North American culture nourished by the traditions of New Deal, was part of the dominant public language, which even conservative politicians had to somehow adapt.

In the book, Friedrich Hayek systematically and articulately praises social inequality as adjusted to competition and seen as an essential factor for progress and innovation. Even the sumptuary consumption of the richest would be a factor of social progress because they indicated new habits of civilization, which would later be generalized. Inheritance tax, in addition to being unfair, would break the lines of continuity of capital and victorious knowledge in innovation.

But, at that time, social equality and its gradual conquest, which legitimized progressive taxation and the reallocation of resources to policies of popular appeal, was not a value openly publicly questioned. Social inequality was recognized by the majority as an undesirable result of market societies, which should be corrected by State policies.

The criticism of trade unionism as the cause of corporate privileges, a disincentive to labor mobility, coercive in relation to the individual contractual freedom of the worker and cause of mismatches in the price system is extensively developed by Friedrich Hayek. There was certainly still at that time a majority sympathy for workers' unions, recognition of their legitimacy, laws protecting their activities and even their institutionalization in corporate arrangements.

And in the center of The Constitution of Liberty there was an economicist radicalization of the meaning of freedom, as previously formulated in the liberal tradition: if the market economy was previously conceived as a condition for the exercise of the liberal political man, now it is freedom itself that is understood as an expression of market dynamics, which should be protected by a strong State against all its enemies, reformers and revolutionaries. Literally, the liberal politician is, in the work of Friedrich Hayek, engulfed by the mercantile cosmos, its values ​​and dynamics.

Friedrich Hayek boldly declares himself a liberal rather than a democrat. Liberalism is an end, and democracy a mere means that must adjust to the dynamisms of the market. In this sense, democracy can be against freedom, and authoritarian forms of the State, in circumstances in which the neoliberal consensus is questioned or violated, can be legitimated and necessary.


Hegemony, consensus and coercion

Em Neoliberalism and the crisis of legal theory, Corinne Blalock (2015) shows how a new legal paradigm emerged with neoliberalism, undermining and narrowing the place of public law in favor of the creation of stable and well-protected private property rights, coercive mechanisms on the fulfillment of contracts and limitation of exercise of powers regarded as arbitrary by governments. But the most interesting part of the article is its questioning of neoliberal hegemony.

Hegemony is understood here in the Gramscian sense, in the consensus + coercion formula, that is, one does not work with an idealist vision purely on the level of free wills. Neoliberalism, contrary to the defensive position of the so-called social or Keynesian liberalism, built as a response to the crisis of capitalism and the revolutionary or reformist pressures of socialism, certainly has its active field of promises, illusions, symbols, the fabrication of adhesion, disputing the formation of values ​​that form a person's subjectivity. But membership is just a hypothesis for building hegemony.

Neoliberal policies, in general, with a strong anti-popular content, make permanent use of force and coercion: they produce, also in this way, mass conformism: in the face of pressure from a greater force and the absence of a possible or credible alternative , I conform. Someone does not subjectively recognize himself in these values, in these behaviors, but adapts to their validity.

Beyond mass conformism, there is a possible resignation: neoliberalism, in its globalizing and epochal force, seems to saturate all time and space. The historical crisis of socialism – as an alternative to prevailing capitalism – plays a decisive role here. Outside of a neoliberal government, or one that transits and negotiates with its institutions and laws, there would only be an abyss. Are we, then, even those who do not agree with him, all neoliberals?

Neoliberalism – in this weak, unstable and problematic sense of hegemony as a form of domination that makes heavy use of repression and coercion – is not inclusive like Fordism. The working classes are not included as dominated in the mass consumption market, but are thrown into a dynamic of overexploitation, precariousness and social separation. Here we are far from the situation of Fordism, where, as Gramsci says, “hegemony begins at the factory”.


A nameless fellow?

Today there is no party, in Brazil or even internationally, of any importance that calls itself neoliberal. Although, for example in the Brazilian case, the overwhelming majority of parties defend neoliberal programs and even sectors of the left conform to their horizons or do not openly confront their central dogmas.

There is a simple reason for this: Friedrich Hayek and the main theorists of neoliberalism call themselves classic liberals in dispute and critics of the so-called social or Keynesian liberalism, which they regard as traitors to the initial paradigms of liberalism formation at the time of English hegemony. Certainly, this semantic dispute about what true liberalism is corresponds to a neoliberal strategy of reclaiming tradition, of reclaiming its heritage and conquests.

There would be, in the reflection of Philip MIrowsky, a referential historian of neoliberalism, a strategy of “double truth”: cultivator of the spontaneous order of the market, understood as formed in the experience of humanity and seen not as the result of a conscious will, neoliberalism would be interested , even when he openly uses political power, to erase his steps and distance himself from any position that can be attributed as constructivist or imposing a will.

If in the political or values ​​dispute, neoliberalism denies its name to occupy common sense, a general place and not exactly just a certain doctrine, in academic circles the debate on neoliberalism is stopped or marginalized as the bearer of a “contested concept” , that is, overpoliticized for the interested use of a certain field of anti-capitalist criticism. Furthermore, neoliberalism would be such a vague, uncertain and generalizing concept that it would be inadvisable as an instrument of knowledge and analysis. In Brazilian political science, for example, studies on neoliberalism are extremely marginal.

Changing this condition is a necessity. To know, criticize and overcome neoliberalism it is necessary to start by naming it, identifying it, denouncing it, publicly, openly and courageously attacking its dogmas and its legitimacy in crisis.

Juarez Guimaraes is a professor of political science at UFMG. Author, among other books, of Democracy and Marxism: Criticism of Liberal Reason (Shaman).


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