This is the fourth in a seven-part, multi-week series of commentary on the COVID-19 crisis entitled WHAT IS TO BE DONE? A MANIFESTO FOR POLITICS AMID THE PANDEMIC AND BEYOND by Radhika Desai, Professor of Political Studies and Director of the Geopolitical Economy Research Group at the University of Manitoba.
The terrain of the political war constituted by the public health, economic and political crisis is widening every week, if not every day, sweeping up apparently chance events in its inexorable logic. Though the trend of lethal US police violence disproportionately targeting Black and racialized people is hardly new, the murder of George Floyd opened fissures for the molten anger of centuries to erupt onto the unstable surface of US politics, still the directing centre of neoliberal capitalism.
It was hardly coincidence. Racialized inequality is chief among the ugly realities of neoliberal capitalism the pandemic has deepened and exposed. It threw into relief the deadly epidemics—of drugs, violence, poverty, incarceration, overcrowding and generally deprivation–that have been ravaging non-white lives, largely ignored by the rest of society. Racialized minorities everywhere suffer higher fatalities as a result of COVID-19 because they suffer from poverty and deprivation-related co-morbidities and are disproportionately employed as healthcare and essential workers. Precariously employed and housed, they suffer disproportionately greater job, income and home losses. Finally, as tragically underlined by Floyd’s murder, they, like the marginalized everywhere, face the brunt of the authoritarian policing so integral to the neoliberal response to the pandemic.
No wonder the incident reverberated far beyond the borders of the United States. It coincided with the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet in a police encounter in Canada and that of Adama Traoré, who died in police custody, also of asphyxiation, in France. In the United Kingdom, demonstrators demanding justice for Floyd recalled the still-fresh Windrush scandal in which the Conservative government deported thousands invited to work in the UK in the 1950s or their descendants to lands they barely knew because they were black and could not produce papers. Indeed, in an international coordination of outrage not seen since the worldwide demonstrations against the impending war in Iraq in 2003, protests against racism broke out simultaneously in dozens of countries. The pandemic is revealing the racist foundations of the liberal and neoliberal capitalist West.
Will they be dismantled? It is a real possibility. The present crisis is no ordinary recurring recession. It represents the comprehensive exhaustion of neoliberal capitalism. The pandemic merely accelerated the long-overdue reckoning. Since no other type of capitalism is possible—and has not been since the late nineteenth century—it is a crisis of capitalism per se. Necessarily multi-faceted, it can and will throw up powerful new forces demanding change practically overnight. However, to give effective battle, the left that seeks to organise these forces must know itself, its resources and the limitations it must overcome. It must also know the resources, strategies and aims of the right and the capitalist classes. “Know your enemy”, said Sun Tzu in The Art of War.
That, today, also involves knowing the enemy’s contradictions. Great as the resources of capitalist and right forces are, and long as their experience in permanent counterrevolution is, what they want and need–to launch a new phase of neoliberalism –is almost certainly unobtainable. Given that, the left must prepare to deal with the sheer destruction their efforts will wreak. It must prepare to carry society out of it and place it on a radically different, preferably, socialist and anti-imperialist foundation, one that is ecologically sustainable and geared towards gender and race equality. This is the responsibility of the left today.
To discharge it, we need to know a great deal about neoliberal capitalism. How have Western responses to the pandemic remained within the neoliberal paradigm, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding? What is neoliberalism, actually, as revealed by its history? Why has it promoted the power of giant corporations, particularly financial, rather than advancing free markets, as it claimed to do? Where has it left capitalist and right forces after forty years? What does the behaviour and activities of its major leaders tell us about the new phase of neoliberalism which they will attempt to establish? Why is it almost certain to fail? Let us take these questions in turn.
Plus ça Change, Plus c’est la même Chose
Encouraged as we have been as neoliberal governments broke the core taboo on public expenditure during the pandemic, on closer scrutiny most Western government responses turn out to have neoliberalism’s paw prints all over them.
Some long-cherished beliefs were, to begin with, plentifully in evidence, such as that in the magic of monetary policy. In setting interest rates and determining liquidity in the banking sector through asset sales or purchases, central banks have used it (and deregulation) throughout the neoliberal decades to favour financial—or what John Maynard Keynes would have called rentier—,interests, as opposed to productive ones.
In the 1980s and 1990s, high interest rates gave owners of state debt high and risk-free returns at taxpayer expense. However, after the dot com bubble burst in 2000, low interest rates became the new game. Now, high returns came from speculating in asset markets with borrowed money. This form of unproductive profiteering, which had already begun in the 1990s by taking advantage of Japan’s low interest rates, involved investors, big financial institutions and high net worth individuals who took great risks and enjoyed high returns when the going was good. When it turned bad, the Federal Reserve regularly came to the rescue.
Beginning in 1987 with the infamous Greenspan put, it essentially injected liquidity into the financial sector to save it from its own follies. It also encouraged such speculation by deregulating the financial sector, including by repealing the Glass Steagall Act in 1999, so even ordinary commercial banks with their vast reservoirs of ordinary peoples’ savings, got in on the act. To this monetary policy repertoire, central banks added, after 2008, Quantitative Easing, essentially buying less liquid (often valueless and unsaleable) assets at book price for good cash.
Such monetary policy has been plentifully in evidence since March 2020. The frantically diarrheal monetary policy–with rates brought down to zero and unlimited asset purchases–held up the plummeting markets for bonds, US Treasuries and other assets and even led to historic rallies in stocks such that the Standard and Poor stock index made up all its losses of March. However, such market euphoria could not contrast more with the malaise and uncertainty afflicting the productive economy in which bankruptcies were multiplying despite the temporary government relief programmes. It remains unclear how long the ‘recovery’ can last. Since, unlike the long string of previous crises punctuating the neoliberal age, the present one arises from the economy, not the financial markets, these e underlying economic realities will determine the fate of the financial sector. They imply a zombie rally making it difficult to pretend that monetary policy alone can fix the economy.
The emaciation of the underlying economy and the unpreparedness of most neoliberal national health systems for the pandemic forced the lockdowns and the unprecedented support packages. It also ensured that the most neoliberal governments, those of the US and the UK, were in the lead. Their productive economies were correspondingly more fragile because, over the neoliberal decades, they had hot-housed precisely the sorts of ‘non-essential’ service sector economic activities–cheap tourism, hospitality, entertainment, and personal care, all reliant on cheap labour–that proved most vulnerable amid the lockdowns.
The devil was, however, in the details of the broken taboo. Take the billions suddenly made available for the public health response. In the core English-speaking neoliberal countries, in particular the US and the UK, and to a lesser extent elsewhere, they have been less about saving the people from the pandemic and more about ensuring that corporations make huge profits. This may be most obvious in the US, with its private health care system, but is no less true in the UK where neoliberal ‘privatization by stealth’ has preyed on the popularly cherished National Health Service for decades. Corporations in the medical industrial complex continue to receive lucrative contracts, whether to test or to track or just to consult with no accountability for the spectacularly bad health outcomes that have come to distinguish these countries.
This would be par for the neoliberal course. Big Pharma already stands to make a killing selling treatment drugs of dubious efficacy and the race for the vaccine is only now getting going. With powerful private interests in competition with one another and with already available drugs, misinformation is bound to circulate at ever-higher decibel levels. Consider, for example, the strange career of hydroxycloroquine, which managed to trip up even the prestigious Lancet. Such disinformation can kill people and destroy what little trust remains in public authorities, not to mention science. Needless to say, profiteering during the pandemic prevails far beyond health care. Neoliberal governments hand out hundreds of contracts for risk-free profits without adequate oversight while parliamentary scrutiny is disabled by social distancing.
Secondly, most of the apparently generous measures announced are temporary. They assume that we can go, in short order, from saving lives to saving livelihoods, a choice we should never have to make. However, both the exhaustion of the neoliberal paradigm well before the pandemic and the deficiency of neoliberal healthcare systems–their corporate as opposed to socially based character–make any return to normal difficult if not impossible. Returns to normal require nationally organised track, trace, and isolate arrangements involving labour-intensive shoe-leather epidemiology, not the capital-intensive corporate health care systems that have done so poorly for the last several months, and indeed long before then.
We can only imagine the economic pain that will follow the withdrawal of these measures. It will come on top of an unresolved public health crisis and will multiply the already dramatic economic pain of the lockdown. Unemployment is skyrocketing in nearly all neoliberal countries despite the temporary job retention measures and, as the expiration dates of these temporary measures nears, firms will likely lay off more workers given that no real recovery is in sight. In the UK, for instance, many fear unemployment will reach Great Depression levels. The expiration of other temporary measures are likely to make things worse. Housing advocates predict ‘tsunami of evictions’ in the US, UK, Canada and elsewhere after moratoria on debt repayments and evictions end. If so, they will make the current protests in the US and elsewhere mere trailers for what is to come.
There are other problems with the fiscal measures undertaken so far. Predictably, most of the new spending is going to bail out businesses directly, from airlines to defence industries. For workers and small businesses, the usual means testing, form-filling and complex eligibility criteria mean that support often does not reach the needy. Moreover, this fiscal activism is adding to debt, public and private. Where states are giving income support grants, they are borrowing from markets to do so, complying with rentier interests which have long insisted “don’t tax us, borrow from us” even though central banks are having to buy a lot of this debt to keep debt markets liquid. Further, income support programmes are often channeled through employers, giving them the discretion over which jobs retain and furlough. Elsewhere, states are guaranteeing loans to business for income support and much of this private debt will likely be socialised. Therefore, our heavily indebted economies are only piling on more debt, and more debt that is harder to pay given that the governments and business borrowing are doing so when their revenues are low and prospects of recovery dim. This is business-as-usual neoliberalism: free profit opportunity for financial institutions and more debt for decreasingly solvent governments, firms and households.
Finally, it is important to remember that neoliberalism has not just been miserly towards ordinary, working and poor people. It has also been punitive, and this has intensified during the pandemic. Lockdowns have effectively incarcerated people in their own homes, trapping vulnerable women, children and men in situations of domestic abuse. They have turned carceral institutions, run for profit in the US, into nests of infections leading to movements for the release of prisoners otherwise facing death without sentence. Policing of the lockdowns has pushed the boundaries of police power outwards. Police control of the poor and minorities, racism and anti-immigration rhetoric and policy are already in evidence in the West and even more elsewhere, particularly in the Third World. As one observer put it,
… in a time of acute material security [sic, it should say insecurity], police are arresting and imprisoning people for offenses such as stealing whiskey, shoplifting groceries, and curfew violations resulting from homelessness in cities such as New Orleans, Avon (Ohio), Orlando, and undoubtedly in countless others as well. In fact, some police departments have cynically increased the punitiveness of their practices by adding corona-related charges to non-corona-related charges or by tricking drug-users to have their drugs tested for the virus at a police department. Thus, the criminalization of life and poverty, something viewed by many as “necessary,” is the only state-sponsored response to a crisis for which there exist no other possible state-sponsored responses.
Thus, while one major neoliberal taboo has been broken, neoliberalism seems alive and well amid the pandemic, not least because right and capitalist forces have no other ideology or policy toolkit to replace it. Indeed, broken taboos litter neoliberalism’s tumultuous course. While the entire period since the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and Ronald Reagan in 1980 is rightly designated neoliberal, neoliberalism has been a shape-shifter all along.
Neoliberalism and its Avatars
Economic and political realities have long dictated a wide gap between the rhetoric and reality of neoliberalism. What really advanced under the covering fire of its free market discourse was the power of giant corporations. The popularity of the welfare state and public education and healthcare meant they could not be abolished, only hollowed out. Moreover, since its diagnosis of the growth slowdown of the 1970s was never accurate–it was not caused by state or union interference–neoliberalism never did revive growth. Unsurprisingly, the career of neoliberalism required frequent shifts in strategy though, thanks to left weakness, they could be executed in ways that benefited the right and metropolitan capital. In all these cases, the US set the trend and, for the most part, the rest of the neoliberal world followed suit.
The Thatcher-Reagan mantra of free markets was already losing credibility by the end of the 1980s when the World Bank endorsed a more active government role in the economy. The decade of ‘globalization’ followed. The neoliberal baton passed from the New Right to left parties that had, over the previous decade, decided to accept rather than fight neoliberalism. People may have voted against neoliberalism, but only got a new version thereof. Since their social base did not permit them to extol the virtues of markets as fulsomely, the Clintons and the Blairs found globalization ideologically handy: they argued that this unstoppable juggernaut required welfare and social spending cuts and the transformation of the labour market with weak unions and workfare. This required accepting a state role in the economy but only to promote the interests of large corporations. This involved pursuing ‘free trade’ deals that were moreso ‘free investment’ deals, aggressively deregulating at home and leaving the economy in charge of central banks representing the interests of big financial houses and promoting free capital flows internationally. In the West, these moves accelerated both deindustrialization and the financialization, two sides of the neoliberal coin.
By 2001, the rhetoric and policy of George W. Bush’s ‘empire’ had replaced ‘globalization’. Empire combined militarism with fiscal largesse towards the rich, breaking the taboo against budget deficits, the observance of which had defined the Clinton administration. As he posted the greatest of US budget deficits, Bush also left the Federal Reserve to get on with running the economy. This time, it produced that mother of all financial bubbles, the mortgage credit bubble which burst in 2008.
The 2008 crisis required breaking the taboo against ‘printing money’. The world focused on the $750 billion Troubled Asset Relief Programme (TARP), complete with the deliberately leaked drama of Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson going down on bended knee before Nancy Pelosi to beg her to get it through a Congress dominated by the Democrats. However, this was peanuts compared to what the Federal Reserve did. It printed trillions to save the banking system that had bankrupted itself by its own risky behaviour.
The socialization of private debt that these fiscal and monetary bailouts entailed the austerity that defined the rest of the neoliberal period until now. Though it was stronger in Europe, thanks to its greater monetary orthodoxy, the Western world in general underwent even slower growth, a more or less complete collapse of productive investment and even greater maldistribution of income as activity was concentrated in finance as opposed to production. The enervated economy was already on its way to a crash when the pandemic hit.
If neoliberalism’s career has entailed (at least) these changes, there is absolutely no reason why the recent turn to fiscal largesse should not mark just another phase in the history of neoliberalism, one that preserves its essential core, the power of ever-larger private corporations.
Corporate Power or Competitive Markets
At their core, ideologies justifying capitalism must be about preserving the power of private property. The rest is incidental. Capitalist ideologies took a ‘free markets and free Trade’ or ‘laissez faire’ form in the mid-nineteenth century Britain when a youthful capitalism brought the world the first industrial revolution with its small firms and competitive markets.
By the late nineteenth century, a new phase of capitalism began. In the second industrial revolution, now encompassing Britain as well as her rivals, inter alia, Germany, the US, Japan, production units and technology became more massive. Capital requirements were many times greater. Mergers and cartelization led to monopoly and oligopoly in most sectors. Banks rose to a new prominence in facilitating them. The state was increasingly dragged into regulating capitalist competition as well as the class struggle domestically, and in aggressively seeking new economic territory through imperialism internationally. The latter was momentous. In this period, the relatively unresisted ‘expansion of England’ gave way to the aggressively militarised competition for colonies between her and her rivals and culminated in the First World War and the Thirty Years’ Crisis of 1914-1945.
Some of the most acute analyses of this new capitalism emerged from Marxists of the time: Hilferding wrote of finance capital, Lenin, of monopoly capital and Bukharin of the nationalization of capital. Marx had foreseen this concentration and centralization of capital. As he and these later Marxists saw it, as enterprises got larger and larger, the top-down centrally planned authoritarian space of the firm expanded at the expense of the anarchy of the market. The more social production was planned, the more easily it could be converted into the rational and democratic planning of a socialist economy, inter alia, by making it easy to gain control of the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy.
Laissez faire liberalism could no longer serve this world. Enter neoliberalism. Precisely because they too realised just how close this monopoly-finance-nationalised capital stood to socialism, intellectuals financed by big capital, such as the Austrian pioneers of neoliberalism, Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, organised rearguard intellectual action in the early twentieth century, combining denial and cunning. We know it today as neoliberalism. On the one hand, they insisted, against all evidence, that capitalism continued to resemble, in some essential sense, the competitive capitalism of old. They deployed elaborate theories about competitive markets processing information that only millions of competing sellers and buyers had, and producing the best possible coordination of their capacities and needs, to justify capitalism. These theories rested on theories of price formation that were erroneous even for competitive markets, let alone the new monopolistic or oligopolistic ones. Paradoxically, they retain their allure, even for many on the left who insist that there is much to learn from Hayek and his tradition.
On the other hand, the relationship between the state and capital contained new opportunities and dangers. On the one hand, the state had to defend the power of property against the increasingly insistent demands of highly organised working classes for social reform. If it did, it would interfere with capitalist accumulation, for instance by raising regulation or wages. The increasing prominence of planning, by states and large corporations, led Hayek, for instance, to reject nineteenth century laissez faire or free markets for ‘planning for competition’, essentially their theorization of US anti-trust law, in his famous, The Road to Serfdom. Although many assume US anti-trust law is about breaking up monopolies, it effectively created the appearance of competition by organising and supporting oligopoly.
Since states were deepening their involvement in the economy, theorists like Hayek drew clear lines between what states should and should not do. They must maintain the sphere of private action and accumulation for private capital, no matter how monopolistic they got, while conceding as little as possible to the demands of the working class. Keeping up a high-decibel denunciation of socialism as a denial of freedom. Hayek and his ilk reserved a special venom for those who sought to extend negative liberal legal and political ‘freedoms from’ to positive economic ‘freedoms to’. Pursuing that would lead, more or less directly to ‘serfdom’.
Neoliberalism did not win the day immediately. The Thirty Years Crisis of 1914-45, during which neoliberalism incubated, had transformed the logics of the world, away from capitalism, as many contemporary observers saw at the time. Popular mobilizations–for war, revolution and national liberation–had produced a world of empowered working people. Nothing symbolised that more than the stabilization of the fledgling Russian Revolution into a stable and industrial society whose contribution made the difference between Allied victory and defeat in the Second World War. This popular empowerment put restraints on metropolitan capital, forcing reforms at home and decolonization abroad. The resulting expansion of demand made for a ‘golden age’ of the world economy.
In the West, it took the form of a compromise between the power of capital and labour. The crisis of that order, chiefly due to the incompatibility of their interests, could have been resolved by strengthening the power of either. During the contestations of the 1970s–the strikes, the Third World international assertion and a host of anti-war, feminist, civil rights and other movements–it appeared for a moment that things could have gone either way. However, that was not to be and the weaknesses of the left already surveyed, played a role. The result was vengeful metropolitan corporate capitalist assertion under the banner of the hitherto neglected neoliberalism.
Neoliberalism’s moment had come. It had done so when capital was, if anything, even more uncompetitive, concentrated, centralised and cartelised. Even the justification of oligopoly produced by the early neoliberals could not suffice. Now Chicago School intellectuals shifted the discourse further, justifying monopoly as the logical result of competition through which the fittest had survived. This version of neoliberalism aimed not to preserve consumer choice anymore but consumer ‘welfare’, however defined. Corporations were only a definition away from being states and that, as we see below, is where capitalist and right forces now intend to take us.
Capitalism after Forty Years of Neoliberalism
Neoliberalism was unable to revive the productive economy, and exacerbated its underlying demand problem instead. It achieved only the further concentration and centralization of capital and its financialization to hitherto unprecedented levels. As a result, forty years of neoliberalism have only demonstrated that preserving the power of capital can be antithetical to the health of economies. Ultimately, moreover, these failures endanger the longevity of capitalism itself.
The contradictions of the neoliberal order could be contained for decades in part because the previous statist era had created a sufficiently robust productive economy and a sufficiently stable political order to cannibalise. These, however, were finite resources. Moreover, in the last decade, during which states socialised private debt, inflating government debt and justified the imposition of austerity, they were stretching the neoliberal order to a breaking point, economically and politically.
Economically, the financialised corporate capitalism had reached the point where the financial parasite had come close to killing its host, the productive economy. It was already emaciated with demand expansion curtailed and forced into precarious forms of production. Ever-lower cost production based on perilous supply chains served mass markets. Those with discretionary income, say the 10 or, at most 20 percent, could also have certain services–hospitality, tourism, personal care and cleaning–based on low cost labour (chiefly marginalised and immigrant groups) within the West. Of course, high-end business and financial services catered to the big corporations and the really rich, helping them siphon off more and more profits and wages issuing from the productive economy by burdening it with debt.
What cannot go on will not go on and signs of the exhaustion of this paradigm were proliferating well before the pandemic. After 2008, international capital flows swooned and, despite a recovery, remained 65 percent short of their 2007 highs, limiting opportunities for financial profit making. World trade, which had been slowing already, atrophied further as supply chains, particularly between the US and China, retracted and domestic markets became more and more important as stimuli for growth. Implosion of the Eurozone with its own economic crisis added to the stresses. Last, but not least, China and other emerging economies that were able to avoid or limit neoliberalism continued to grow, exposing the limitations of neoliberalism, providing new models and re-structuring the world order and its governance.
The lockdowns have dealt a heavy blow to the productive economy. Most severely affected are the very sectors–travel and tourism, hospitality, restaurants, sports and cultural events, personal services–that burgeoned in the inegalitarian political economy of neoliberalism. They offered more and more to those that already had a great deal and enticed lower income earners into downmarket versions of such luxury consumption, often on debt. With these productive corporations–airlines, hotels–now drawing down, rather than adding to, their financial assets, the financial system has lost a major part of its foundation. Without it, all the willingness of central bankers to come to the aid of the financial sector is irrelevant, putting the future of (financialised) capitalism in doubt.
Politically, everywhere, the discontents of neoliberalism, which the left proved unwilling and unable to mobilise, led to the rise of right-wing populism and the election of populists such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. This rise of right-wing populism revealed a most pertinent contradiction of capitalism today. On the one hand, it has no alternative to neoliberal ideology. On the other, it was never easy to win elections with it. The election of political outsiders on a wave of discontent against neoliberalism in the Anglo-American heartland of capitalism was, if not the last, the penultimate straw. It has complicated the access of big corporate capital to political power, particularly that of the big internet, pharmaceutical and defence industries. While the likes of Trump and Johnson are as right-wing as they come, they know that the neoliberal establishment, conservative or social democratic, cannot win elections. They have managed to cobble together the only electoral coalitions that any right can win. They know that, to maintain them, it is necessary to be seen to reject aspects of neoliberalism, if not to actually reject them.
The Emergence of Pseudo-Philanthropic Neoliberalism?
The neoliberal establishment must today operate on this difficult terrain. It has certainly been busy. However, success is far from guaranteed: there are many obstacles to navigate.
The lockdowns have created winners and losers within the capitalist class—to take some obvious examples, airlines, oil companies and hotels are suffering while supermarkets and internet-based companies have never had it so good. This will inevitably mean that different groups of capitalists will be pulling in different directions, if not entering in direct conflict, leading to historically unprecedented disarray within the metropolitan capitalist class.
Between these extremes are most of other firms and there are strong signs that vast swaths of the capitalist class are no longer confident about the future and were not well before there was any trace of the novel coronavirus. One indication was the unprecedented spate of corporate CEO resignations. The first 10 months of 2019 witnessed, according to NBC news, a record 1,332 resignations of CEOs, despite the stock markets continuing their historic upward trend. The trend continued into 2020 when a record 219 CEOs resigned in January alone and Fortune magazine dubbed 25 February 2020 ‘the Great CEO exodus of 2020’ when a record four CEOs of major companies, Disney, Salesforce, MasterCard and Uber, all resigned on the same day. The captains of industry were not only abandoning their ships in huge numbers, they were, unusually, doing so while stock markets were still soaring. They clearly knew something. The Financial Times reported on a second trend: the extensive insider stock selling that took place throughout 2019, estimating that it would reach a 20-year high, just surpassing that in 2007, while Bloomberg reported the trend continuing into 2020. This reversed the trend of stock buybacks since 2009.
Of course, amid this the usual cozy relationships between the state and corporations were also evident. In March 2020, it was reported that “a number of [US] senators sold their stock holdings after being briefed about the coronavirus and the massive impact it will have upon the economy, jobs and the stock market. While telling the American public that there wasn’t much to worry about, they bailed out of their stock holdings to avoid large losses”. Jeff Bezos went one better, selling $3.4 billion worth of his own stock in Amazon just before markets fell, presumably knowing he could further profit from buying them back at bargain prices before the Federal Reserve’s intervention sent stock prices back up.
In this quite complex picture, at least one major force appears to know the only path along which neoliberalism can now advance: towards an ever-closer state-corporate embrace sanctified by the discourse of philanthropy and public welfare. Its success is far from guaranteed. Nevertheless, its attempts are shaping governmental responses to the novel coronavirus and wish to shape the post-pandemic new normal.
Corporate philanthropy is an old game, dating back, in the US, to Andrew Carnegie and continuing into the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations. Through it, US capitalists have sought to shape politics, society, culture and foreign policy. Neoliberalism has boosted the power of giant corporations further, bringing corporate philanthropy to its peak–the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is its latest and largest iteration.
Many distinguish corporate philanthropy from the more recent idea of corporate social responsibility (CSR). The former refers to corporate activities that do not concern the primary profit-making activities of a corporation–say an airline sponsoring Jazz Festivals or aiding the search for cancer cures. The latter denotes a promise by corporations to act responsibly with regard to their core business activities by recognising the ‘externalities’–such as environmental degradation or addictions–they produce and deal with them.
CSR is the counterpart to the trends toward deregulation and regulatory capture, justifying both with the claim that corporations need not be regulated by the state and can be relied on to police their own activities and curb their own excesses and externalities. While, undoubtedly, there are differences between corporate philanthropy and CSR, what unites them is a common drive, since the advent of corporate capitalism in the late-nineteenth century, toward extending the political control of private corporations over society, culture and politics.
Many have thought of CSR as being about ‘good corporate citizenship’ given that modern law considers corporations, no matter how large they are or how many people they employ, individuals. Many others are bolder. They argue that corporations, to whom more and more core governmental functions have been contracted out–not only the running of hospitals or garbage collections or road building and maintenance, but also core government functions such as the running of prisons, military activities the adjudication of justice, the collection of statistics–are more akin to governments, that they are already governing citizens alongside elected governments. Given the hollowing out of democracy in the neoliberal period, the lack of accountability of governments, this idea does not appear as far fetched as it should to many. Clearly, arguments supporting the power of private property had come a long way. Having begun with free competitive markets, they went through support for oligopoly and outright monopoly to arrive at the point where the might—financial and political—of giant corporations is so great as to essentially beg the question whether the vocation of government is not thrust on them.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation combines corporate philanthropy and the drive to advance ‘socially responsible corporate power’. It has long been working to promote the full range of public-private partnerships that have proved so lucrative to capital, particularly big corporate capital, in the name of addressing human welfare. It has made world hunger a profit opportunity for agribusiness and its patented products such as Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO). It has promoted financial sector interests in the guise of ‘financial inclusion’ and digitalization of payments to eliminate cash. Most relevantly, it has promoted Big Pharma and other parts of the medical industrial complex in the name of protecting humanity from viral diseases. The Foundation works with private capital, universities and friendly governments to advance its causes.
India, where the Gates Foundation has been involved since 2002, is a veritable house of its horrors. GMO seeds have long been sold there, and entire constituencies of scientists mobilised in their favour, allegedly to help Indian farmers and end hunger, but have only impoverished them, and often driven them to suicide, while enriching agribusiness corporations such as Monsanto and Cargill. India’s great demonetization disaster of late 2016 constituted the brutally sudden and sweeping imposition of the policy of digitization of payments urged on by Bill Gates for many years when it suited the fascist government of India to impose for its own reasons at that time. Bill Gates cheered on the Modi government, claiming the (corporate) gains would be worth the (poor’s) pain and unmindful of the economic mayhem his policies were causing. India was yet to recover from the economic mayhem it caused when the pandemic arrived. The government now imposed another brutal measure, this time a country wide-lockdown with four hours notice. Everyone has, by now, seen the images of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers crowding bus stations and walking in human caravans, returning home to villages hundreds if not thousands of kilometres away from cities that were never home in the first place.
In these vignettes, we see the outlines of this new phase of neoliberalism. Productive monopoly capital will produce high-priced patented products for governments, transformed from ‘consumer of last resort’ to consumer-in-chief now that four decades of neoliberalism and its squeeze on working class and petty and peasant producers’ incomes has left little in terms of a wider market, at least for Western metropolitan capitalism. Governments will distribute these goods ‘free’ to people around the world, but they will actually have paid with their taxes. Naturally, these products must be justified as being necessary, often, as in the case of medicines or vaccines, urgently so, when, in reality their value may be dubious, if not positively destructive. In this scenario, financial capital can look forward to profiting from lending to governments to enable them to buy these high priced products from productive corporations. If Bill Gates and his ilk were to prevail, they would inaugurate a new phase of neoliberalism, pseudo-philanthropic neoliberalism’, and scale new heights of hypocrisy.
The operative word, however, is if. Powerful though they are, attempts to salvage neoliberalism from its own contradictions face too many headwinds. Consider Event 201. It was a pandemic simulation held by the Gates Foundation, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and the World Economic Forum on October 18, 2019. It published seven recommendations regarding national, international, public and private, economic and media preparedness and coordination. The central message was that they would involve “unprecedented levels of collaboration between governments, international organizations, and the private sector”. While assuming a horrific 65 million deaths (at the time of writing the official worldwide count remains well below half a million), the Malthusian participants of Event 201 assumed that the world economy, its supply chains and financial system would remain largely intact. Only some sectors, such as travel and tourism would be badly affected.
Amid all this the interlocutors—business, academic and philanthropic, government, international and military leaders—as depicted in the heavily edited videos, the only publicly available record of the simulation, discuss how they are going to save the (remaining) world together; or rather with corporations in the lead. The greed and fear are barely concealed under the saccharine humanitarian concern. Undoubtedly, these interests are today directing as much government largesse their way as possible, while touting the merits of corporate science, technology and managerial nous. How far they can go is another matter. Western neoliberal governments are already indebted and many others are quite wary and even hostile. The financial markets, which have an important role in this scenario, have been shown to have little bottom other than Federal Reserve money creation. Worst of all, more and more ordinary people are wise to the disasters they have engineered in the past. The contradictions can only mount.
Radhika Desai is a professor in the Department of Political Studies at the University of Manitoba and currently serves as the director of the Geopolitical Economy Research Group.