The shortcomings and false promises of mainstream economics are impossible to ignore in the context of the Brexit vote and Trump’s success in the Republican primaries, with working and middle class individuals in both the UK and the US clinging to some promise of socio-economic salvation. Lately, we’ve seen an especially pronounced disconnect between political parties and the social classes they respectively govern. These instances of political manipulation have similar dynamics: the key is to cultivate an image of the far right’s intentions that suggest they are aligned with class interests, only to pursue methods that further marginalize their own supporters. And when their policies inevitably fail and it’s time to place blame, who bears the brunt of it all? Immigrants.
But, I digress. Let’s talk neoliberal restructuring to set the stage. You know, that period that began in the 70’s where the US and the UK experienced pronounced economic stagnation. When stagflation set in, who better to blame than those damn liberals and the economic policies of the welfare state they induced (am I right, Reagan)? The resentful rhetoric propagated by Reagan and Thatcher suggested that such policies created “welfare queens” looking to loot the government for all they’ve got (just when mainstream economics had me convinced these were the self-interested economic actors dreamed up by the neoclassical synthesis). The ascent of conservative capitalism- in the US under Reagan and George Bush Sr. and in the UK under Thatcher- meant tax cuts, the erosion of labor unions, and new regulations imposed on the economy. These economic regime changes were based on the mainstream theoretical presupposition that what we really needed to do was create an economic environment conducive to unbarred corporate innovation and investment and eagerly accept international policy which, together, opened the proverbial floodgates allowing neoliberalism to leak all over the globe. What a mess.
Free trade agreements, like The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT), and the emergence of the World Trade Organization allowed labor and capital mobility across borders. Interestingly, the majority of Democrats and Labor party folks alike took no issue with such policies-not under Clinton, not under Blair, not even under Obama. Obama, in fact, unfortunately followed the policy-tide of the bank-bailout Bush administration- the very administration that watched middle and working class American homeowners drown financially (but sure, save the banks)- before him. Post-2008 financial crisis, Obama supported the Trans Pacific Partnership, which certainly aids the perpetuation and spread of Neoliberalist influence. While Obama has made modest strides in terms of challenging the Neoliberal economic scheme- enduring the constant stymie of the republican party- his approaches to socio-economic issues have been predominantly market centered (e.g., Dodd Frank, ACA, etc.). The economic and political quintessence of neoliberalism remains unfettered. As a parallel, the Labor Party actively attempted to defend minorities, but did very little to keep the UK in the EU and have also struggled to directly address neoliberalism.
Unfortunately, the general population of U.S. and the dominant political parties of Europe have bought the story of neoliberalism told by our paternalistic politicians. They convinced the majority that the continuation of this approach is what’s best for them. Meanwhile, the working class suffered and the middle class disappeared; but how? Aren’t we all being provided the greatest possible economic good? Mainstream preachers of Pareto Optimality – a scenario where economic actors can improve their position without disadvantaging/compromising the position of another economic actor- imply the changes that come out of neoliberalism (that of the economic structure, the promotion of free trade and globalization, etc.) should be “efficient;” the loss of some jobs in domestic goods production would be neutralized by the trade stimulus, right?
Wrong. The myth of trickle-down economics proved itself, well, mythological. We’ve seen surging inequality, static wage growth over the last four decades, and disappearing jobs in manufacturing (a 37% decrease in the number of manufacturing jobs since 1979, as per the BLS). These are all hindrances to working and middle class Americans. They paid for neoliberal restructuring only to be denied the prospect of economic security and benefit which induced them to submit to such a socio-economic and political climate.
At the same time, we watched Bush and Blair start politically chaos with Bush’s War on Terror- again, an unrequested paternalistic move that subverted and unsettled the Middle East (note: not a monolith) and provoked an occidental response (well, duh), thus designing an ideal birthplace for ISIS. We’ve seen the Syrian crisis displace millions of Syrians- refugees sprawled across European nations with unequal access to livelihood.
Trump enters the race (and unfortunately the hearts of far too many Americans) and Britain exits the EU. We’ve seen neoliberalism literally create the “problem” Trump has convinced many Americans we have; Mexico’s economic instability is arguably due to the effects of NAFTA and to escape poverty, many immigrate to the US in search of employment. Low-skill working class whites perceive additional threats to their already delicate economic standing-posed by people of color at that- and suddenly the existing issues built by neoliberalist restructuring are not the problem.
The Leave campaign and Trump have hacked the interests of UK and US low-skilled working class white individuals, who blame immigrants for their job losses. These individuals really lost their jobs because of neoliberalist restructuring as free trade moved manufacturing jobs overseas, while simultaneously causing economic insecurity in nations like Mexico, thereby motivating immigration. By creating and playing on the sentimentalism attached to xenophobia, patriotism/nationalism, religion, racism, and lack of economic confidence (all bound up with one another, by the way) caused by neoliberalist restructuring, Trump and the UK’s Independence Party became the “saviors” with class interests at the heart of their intentions. This is undoubtedly a self-reinforcing mechanism. Their manipulation continues to reap them undue success and secure mass appeal. It is only suitable that the last 30-40 years of the Right wing utilizing racism and the conflict between traditionalist and progressive values has culminated into the likes of a Trump candidacy and the Leave campaign. These are merely the current guise of the neoliberal economic agenda, still hell-bent on toiling any hope for socio-economic equity.
The moral of the story? If we, presumably progressives and proponents of heterodoxy, seek to challenge the social constructions which contribute to economic instability, rising inequality, unjust wage structure, and a labor force altered by free trade like racism and harmful traditionalist notions, we cannot let the underlying perpetuity of neoliberalism go unaddressed. Working and middle class individuals will only continue to act against their class interests. Workers will continue to feel hopeless. Wages will continue to stagnate and jobs to disappear. This cycle will continue as long as we allow a power-serving social, economic, and political climate- that says rejecting the establishment in the form of racism, xenophobia, and overt nationalism is the solution to their problems- to persist.
Written by Daniella Medina
Illustrations by Heske van Doornen