Insurrection against neoliberalism

Gone are days when we in Pakistan plainly hoped for a Republican president just because Jimmy Carter wasn’t nice to us

Saad Siddique Bajwa April 18, 2016
The writer is a barrister-at law based in Islamabad. He tweets @SaadSBajwa

On a balmy June night last year, a hunched old man from Vermont set the tone for his Democratic presidential nomination, by thundering on live primetime television, "It is time to redistribute money back to the working families of this country from the top one-tenth of the one per cent, and tax policy is one of the ways we do that." By uttering these lines, Bernie Sanders challenged a political consensus that has reigned over Western democracies since 1979 and harkened back to hallowed old days of the US New Deal era. He went on to suggest a tax rate of 50 per cent for the wealthiest Americans. Predictably, his candidacy was shunned as an aimless, Hail Mary punt before the elders in the room i.e., the mainstream candidates, took control. Often, such movements gather more sulphur from their opponents’ condescending litany of sermons, before exploding to their rivals’ sheer dread. That is precisely what is being felt by the likes of Hillary Clinton and Messrs Cruz and Rubio vis-a-vis a certain Mr Donald Trump.

Sanders’ assertions relate to an era where financial institutions were effectively regulated and wealthy individuals and corporations paid their fair share of taxes to help the state reduce inequality. Trump’s street talk relates to a time when political correctness was just a feature on college campuses.

Since the days of Reagan and Thatcher, neoliberal ideas have become the bog-standard set of reforms that were introduced all over the globe, with its detractors often portrayed as either closeted conservatives (with a small ‘c’) or naive socialists. Cue Messrs Trump and Sanders in the US, and Messrs Nigel Farage and Jeremy Corbyn across the Atlantic. Reduction of barriers to trade, deregulation of financial institutions and support for progressive social movements, has been pushed by most national and transnational institutions, since 1989.

Since the 2008 financial markets’ crash and the subsequent recession, opposition to these ideas has emerged from both the Right and the left.

These political insurgencies share common elements. The new, radical Right has embraced hard-line positions on immigration and integration of minority ethnic communities. Trump’s racial views, though extreme in comparison to the UKIP’s, are essentially similar to the latter’s as far as political correctness and integration are concerned. In particular, political correctness is now seen by Trump’s supporters as the ultimate duplicitous politician’s and media’s blackmailing tool to suppress dissent. As far as Sanders and Corbyn are concerned, their consistent opposition to the excesses of Wall Street and the City of London, takes its root from the massive taxpayer funded bailouts meted to financial institutions deemed as being ‘too large to fail’. They have called for comprehensive regulation of finance industry and executive bonuses, with Sanders calling for reintroduction of the Glass-Steagall Act, to separate commercial banking (and ordinary deposit holders) from high-risk gambling of investment banking. Moreover, they also voice stringent opposition to excessive inequality, which they believe is perpetuated by neoliberal economics, and call for higher tax rates for the affluent individuals and corporations.

What is even more surprising is that the solutions suggested by Sanders and Corbyn had been part of the mainstream political consensus before 1979, and it was only due to the demise of hard Left in 1989 that these ideas were shunned as radical.

The insurgent foreign policy views, both on the Left and the Right, shun active interference in the Middle East squabbles. Trump has gone as far as suggesting that rapprochement with Putin’s Russia, an opinion that is considered to be a challenge to the establishment view. Gone are the days when we in Pakistan plainly hoped for a Republican president just because Jimmy Carter wasn’t nice to us. The game has changed; its chess for checkers players. There might be someone in the White House who doesn’t see foreign policy the way the state department does.

Why have these political insurgents received widespread support in the two significant western democracies? A deep-seated distrust of conventional politicians and the political system, debate-stifling political correctness, influence of big money on the electoral process and media, and increasing social and economic inequality, are often cited as the primary reasons. All of these problems have led to a massive democratic deficit, whereby the aspirations and will of the public get lost in a whirlwind of entrenched vested interests of businessmen, media moguls and politicians. This undoubtedly sounds all too familiar to us Pakistanis as well.

If we have to entrench stability in our nascent democratic polity, we must learn from the gathering clouds of political rebellion in the US and the UK. Unless we are able to reduce social and economic inequality via broad-based progressive taxation and accountability that covers the axels of the neoliberal system i.e., corporations, wealthy individuals and media men, we might be subjected to an infinitely fiercer, possibly violent political upheaval at home than the one threatened by the likes of Trump or Corbyn seven seas away.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 19th,  2016.

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Toti calling | 7 years ago | Reply I am for reducing economic inequality as long as that is possible without upsetting the system. Those working in manual and low level jobs must earn reasonable wages. But that should not mean punishing those who invest millions in industry and reduce their profits. After all with possibility of transferring money elsewhere, the workers will lose their jobs altogether, if they invest in another country.. This is not the case in America where US capital has already spread worldwide and coco cola and jeans are marketed worldwide. I am for reducing social inequality which is part of our culture. We talk to servants and junior employees with disrespect and shooting is part of out communication with them. That must stop. Only when we treat people with respect, the society will not become peaceful and harmonious. In America this is part of the relationship and people give employees the respect they deserve.
Frank | 7 years ago | Reply Very impressive article. I look forward to reading more from this new writer. There is a strong reaction to neoliberalism in the West but I personally don't see the sheepish population of Pakistan producing one. Just look at their reaction to the Panama leaks. Nawaz Sharif will still win the next election despite getting caught with his pants down.
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