How Neoliberalism Drafted Our Death Warrantby Alan Devey on 10/18/20
“But however sanguine you might be about the proposition that we have already ravaged the natural world, which we surely have, it is another thing entirely to consider the possibility that we have only provoked it, engineering first in ignorance, and then in denial, a climate system that will now go to war with us for many centuries, perhaps until it destroys us.”
- David Wallace-Wells, ‘The Uninhabitable Earth’
I read David Wallace-Wells’ excellent book during the initial lockdown earlier this year. In some ways that was an apt time to absorb his accessible, scientifically-supported insights into the current and coming effects of global warming*. The reason this non-fiction felt so timely is that Wallace-Wells puts the pandemic into perspective. He points out that deadly viruses were always likely to arise from modern factory farming, as well as melting glaciers and live animal markets, and that this is just one strand of what is in store for the human race, moving forward. Getting through Covid will be a cakewalk compared with everything humanity must endure over the coming decades. In the near future we’ll progress from the first cataclysms of the Anthropocene being witnessed now; the wildfires and devastating floods and record temperatures, on to disappearing ice caps, rising sea levels and many populated regions being unable to support human life. This will mean the forced migration of millions, a constant struggle for resources and the resulting unrest leading to more conflict, war and genocide.
*I won’t be referring to the phenomenon as ‘climate change’ as this is a deliberately equivocal term, foisted on us by the powerful who wanted to apply a more neutral phrase to an incredibly negative situation they’re largely responsible for. It was utterly shameful to see the big polluters’ term adopted worldwide by an ever-supine media.
Yes, that’s on the way kids, and you might be forgiven for feeling a little narked at your future becoming a struggle for survival, even in one of the world’s richest countries. After all, on a personal level millions of us in the West have been doing our bit for years. We recycle more than ever, have cut down the amount of meat we consume and switched to more environmentally friendly cars; casting aside diesel vehicles and gas guzzlers. If we can eschew plastics, fly less regularly, resist having more than a couple of kids and cut back on waste in general, we can get through this like they said, can’t we?
Sadly, no. There is a one-word answer to explain why our individual efforts will make no difference to the future and that word is Neoliberalism. Our economic system has gone by many names over the last forty years. You may know it as late capitalism or conspicuous consumerism; Thatcherite ideology; Reaganomics or unfettered free markets. Whatever we call the idea underpinning our system it is very clearly flawed. Neoliberalism relies on those labouring at the sharp end swallowing establishment lies, including the biggest: that rich countries can enjoy perpetual economic growth on a planet of limited resources.
Now, I’m not suggesting all our problems began in the early eighties. Greed has always been prevalent in humanity and mankind has generally taken a rapacious approach to the environment throughout history. But nowhere was rising exploitation enshrined in a kamikaze economic system that brooked no ideological dissent until Neoliberalism took hold, to then be facilitated by the technological advances of recent decades. That’s why we have billionaires and the one per cent. That’s why more than half the carbon in our atmosphere has been put there over the past thirty years as emissions continue to accelerate. That’s why those countries which embrace the most extreme forms of Neoliberalism, such as the US and UK, have the highest poverty rates and widest levels of inequality in the west, as the illusion of ‘trickle-down economics’ (where crumbs supposedly fall from the tables of the richest for the benefit of all) turns out to be another damaging lie. And that’s why life expectancy has been falling, here and across the pond, even before Covid, as austerity, homelessness, hunger, addiction, suicide and the failure of private healthcare took hold for all to see. Neoliberalism held the promise of everyone gaining but that fantasy is now in its death throes. Only a tiny minority ever became super-wealthy, and they tended to be men who were already rich in the first place. These individuals accrued more and more while abandoning the idea of any contribution to wider society in the form of taxation. That would only go against their prevailing ethos of selfish individualism. Using their privilege and connections they held on to positions of political or ideological power, making a point of ensuring no economic alternative could gain a fair hearing in our broken media. Just look at how the British and American establishment crushed any opportunity of a progressive government, as put forward by Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders.
Those in charge of manipulating how we think have done very well out of Neoliberalism so they aren’t going to open their minds to the alternatives anytime soon, not even under the looming threat of global environmental collapse. But somehow it’s confusing to them that young people might have grown angry over the wanton destruction of our planet. After all, they have enough squirreled away to ensure any offspring are protected from the coming horrors (at least, that’s what they like to believe). As Bruce Cannon Gibney points out in his excellent polemic ‘A Generation of Sociopaths: How The Baby Boomers Betrayed America’, theirs is essentially a criminal pathology, most clearly embodied by the actions of the current President and those of his generation who share Trump’s values. After 2030 they will all be dead or demented anyway, so what does it matter if this planet goes down with them? What counts is keeping the short-term profits high from burning fossil fuels, constant airline travel and spilling out the microplastics.
As others have observed, it's no coincidence those societies that overwhelmingly embraced Neoliberalism have found themselves unable to cope with a public health crisis on the scale of Coronavirus. Spend years cutting back the state, penny-pinching across government departments, outsourcing essential services to rapacious corporations while pushing the belief that publicly funded is inherently bad, privately-funded good, and look what happens. The mindset of prevention or even preparation is abandoned for moment-to-moment survival in the run-down world of public health. Our state doesn’t amass the equipment or resources any longer so would rather adopt the mentality of allowing thousands of ‘economically inactive’ citizens to die than shell out to save them, since that money will only have to be clawed back later. In America healthcare is a for-profit institution while here the government throws tens of billions at the inept and immoral likes of Serco to run a track and trace system that falls over when someone doesn’t have the Excel training. The only consequence for these negligent companies is even more money and contracts pushed their way, as they recklessly endanger us all. Meanwhile the government quietly takes our railways back into public hands. Because even the right-wing lunatics in charge understand a private company running the trains without enough passengers to make a profit is either going bust, or will one day wash its hands of the whole thing and stop running a service altogether. Then commuters won’t be able to get into work and the economy collapses. But the same gang of ideological idiots who put the railways into private hands still maintain privatisation is wonderful, although that’s mainly because they will sit on the boards of monopolistic cartels and profiteering multinationals once their career in politics is done, thereby earning a fortune. To pay for this ‘consultancy’ the bills sent to ordinary people for our sold off water, electricity and council services continue to rise exponentially.
For a short time we had a glimmer of hope, both here and in the US. Sadly both countries have since returned to establishment candidates, the current power struggle being the far right versus ‘moderates’ or ‘centrists’, none of whom are inclined to take the kind of action we collectively need; well-off men who would see their financial backers stand down if they did. The establishment have their candidates on the ‘liberal’ side in the form of Joe Biden and Kier Starmer, neither of whom are going to frighten any horses owned by media moguls, CEOs or the super-rich. Progressives have been shunted out of the political limelight, possibly forever. There is no major party offering anything positive for the under forties in the US or UK anymore, and I fear it will stay that way. We had the chance to elect a genuine alternative last December but too many fell for baseless smear campaigns and media-fuelled Brexit bullshit. Our country blew it and now there’s no going back. Even some lifelong Conservative voters are waking up to the reality that there’s no good way out of this.
Because if a nation has been utterly polarised for short-term political gain, as Cameron, Farage, May and now Johnson and Trump intended, how can you expect those same citizens to immediately put their differences aside and reunite when it’s time to collectively fight a deadly virus? Can any of us truly be surprised that Leavers and Remainers, Republicans and Democrats, the left and right; Progressives and Fascists, will not forget entrenched differences and instantly work for the greater good? In many ways Covid-19 has acted as a harbinger for bigger, more existential disasters to come, a red flag showing us the error of our ways in allowing reactionaries, bigots, nostalgics, liars and snake oil salesmen to possess all the power in this world. The UK economy is going through a shock right now, one that disaster capitalists welcome as a way of further profiting from this country’s ruins. Those who feigned horror at consumerism evolving slightly through the death of superannuated retail chains or the closure of city-centre sandwich branches now have to accept that everything is going to be very different, there’s no way around it. By their very nature Conservatives will refuse to adapt to this change or even acknowledge an evolving demographic, ignoring voices that have gone unheard as they’re finally granted a platform. Right-wingers can't believe we don’t ‘rule the waves’ anymore and that we won’t, as a nation, go back to being pro-slavery any time soon. Many of them seem quite disappointed about that.
What the Neoliberals have always relied on is one simple fact about human nature: people tend to be ever so slightly dissatisfied with their lot, whatever their circumstances. This can be a positive of course, it means men and women will strive and pursue, achieve great things for the collective good. But when it comes to the financial side, far too often dissatisfaction means your level of personal wealth can never be enough. The rich are compelled to set up businesses to generate more and more, creating a collective carbon footprint from the wealthiest ten per cent that comprises more than half of all global emissions. For the rest of us, shopping for non-essentials seems very much by-the-by when there's the risk of infecting someone we love with deadly flu by diving into the Primark scrum. But if we can prioritise societal good, so can those in charge and their billionaire paymasters. Through the coming trauma we must speak truth to power whenever we can; follow the example of Greta Thunberg in holding the feet of the powerful to the fire. Because there is no way of maintaining this system that doesn’t provoke the planet into fighting back and perhaps destroying much of humanity in the process, as Wallace-Wells points out.
Despite my downbeat assessment of our situation, I believe this is a fight we have the ability to win. Younger generations always eventually sweep the beliefs of their deluded elders into the dustbin of history - just look at Thunberg. In 2019 she secured a commitment from the President of the European Union that a quarter of all their spending would be directed toward climate adaptation and mitigation. She was sixteen years old at the time. Or witness Sadiq Khan, our Muslim Mayor of London, reducing air pollution in one of the most choked cities in the world. Inside three years the number of Londoners living with dangerous levels of poisoned air has fallen from two million to 119,000, a downward trend that is continuing.
Where there’s a political will, there is a way, as the world proved in uniting to fix the ozone layer when CFCs were phased out, back in the nineties. But to achieve anything we need more than individual action, living the greenest lives while protesting that damage done in our name and using our voices to advance understanding as best we can. Great swaths of the electorate have been trained by propagandists to disbelieve science and therefore global warming, because taking action would hit the profits of vested interests. This same mindset has now spread into dangerous anti-vaccination campaigns, 5G phone mast firebombings and Covid mask ‘truthers’ like Trump and his fully-infected inner circle. There are consequences to turning people against experts and even reality itself, and this needs to be tackled by the failing superpowers like American and ourselves. We should demand the opportunity to vote for politicians who have our best interests at heart and, when that opportunity arrives, we must put these women and men into power, just as the citizens of New Zealand, Scotland, Germany, Portugal and others have, around the world. There is hope, but only if we treat real, systemic, structural change of the economy as the greatest of human priorities. That way we can provide a beacon of light through the tough times ahead.