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After neoliberalism? Introduction to the Kilburn Manifesto

Doreen Massey introduces the Kilburn Manifesto from Soundings, an ambitious 12 month project that looks to map out alternatives for the post-08 world. OurKingdom will be publishing accompanying articles to each installment.

The Killburn Manifesto is a statement being made in twelve monthly instalments, issued free on-line, about the nature of the neoliberal system which now dominates Britain and most of the Western world, and about the need to develop coherent alternatives to it. Its principal authors, Stuart Hall, Doreen Massey and Michael Rustin have had a long association with the New Left, since its first days in 1956, and have  been significant figures in its various initiatives, such as the founding of Universities and Left Review and New Left Review, the May Day Manifesto  (just reissued) and the Greater London Council led by Ken Livingstone. They are the founding editors of the journal Soundings, which is responsible for the Kilburn Manifesto, and which has reissued the 1968 May Day Manifesto in the context of this initiative.

Our Kingdom will publish a discussion of each instalment of the Manifesto. This is the first of these.


I kept up with the goings-on around the funeral of Margaret Thatcher with horror, but also fascination. What fascinated was the attempt to turn Thatcher into an a-political figure; to take what she stood for as given; to raise her above political contestation. It was an attempt to depoliticise an utterly political figure – one of the originators of ‘neoliberalism’. It was precisely the attempt to depoliticise that was so very political.

Of course it may not work. There was dissent. There is hope. But it was a very interesting moment.

And it’s absolutely emblematic of what we are on about in The Kilburn Manifesto: that while there is an economic crisis (the neoliberal system of financialisation, privatisation, deregulation, has experienced an implosion), there is very little disruption of the political and ideological consensus that supports and surrounds that economic model. Indeed the very crisis has been used to reinforce that consensus and its practice.

*

‘Neoliberalism’, in the way we are using the term, is about more than economics. It’s about the forging of a new common sense – of market relations, of competitive individualism, of private gain and the denigration of the public, of disregard for the planet. It has altered our very senses of ourselves. It has invaded our imaginations and moulded our identities. It is a common sense driven home by constant repetition, reinforced by a powerful media which is either militantly right wing or pretty much submissively acquiescent. It is a common sense that – precisely – removes things from political contestation. This is a social settlement, hegemonic in the UK for the last three or four decades, that is radically different from the social democratic settlement that preceded it. And our argument is that if things are to change this common sense must be challenged.

It is of course not unusual to want an end to neoliberalism, but our sense is that we need to address it at this more fundamental level, and that for that we need to understand it in a more systemic, historical, and geographically global context. That is what we begin to sketch out in the Framing Statement – to see the neoliberal settlement as a moment in the larger temporal and spatial sweep of the development of global capitalism.

*

In this brief introduction, however, I shall concentrate on recent history in the UK – that is, neoliberalism as the social settlement that triumphed finally in the UK in the 1980s after the foundering of the previous social democratic settlement.

Now, even just understanding that history itself demonstrates that common senses change. The 1960s common sense of Keynesianism, collectivity, and the necessity for a welfare state was very different from the market-dominated competitive individualism we have now. So if things that once seemed beyond question have changed – indeed have been swept away – they can change again.

Moreover, that shift, from social democracy to neoliberalism, did not just ‘happen’. In the retrospective accounts that we read now, social democracy is said to have ‘broken down’ or ‘run into the buffers’, and the neoliberalism that succeeded it is painted as the obvious corrective. (Mrs T. solved the problems generated by social democracy.) It is a story of seamless inevitability. It is astonishing how many people write that history in that way now.

For in fact it was nothing like that. The transition between settlements was a story of political struggle. From Allende’s alternative future in Chile and his violent removal by military coup in 1973, to the battle over London and the metropolitan counties in the UK in the 1980s (in London between Thatcher’s City of financial deregulation and a vision of an alternative future that Ken Livingstone’s GLC was trying to give form to). Neoliberalism triumphed, but its victory was not inevitable. It was a battle, and there were alternatives. In just the same way now, there is more than one way out of the current crisis. There is always an alternative. And it will take a battle.

Moreover that highlights a further point, which revolves around the very term ‘neoliberalism’. Sometimes it is used to refer to an economic theory (in which case the critique may remain technical). In the Manifesto we’ve used it as the name for a whole social settlement (which raises also much wider social and cultural issues). But what is actually fundamentally at issue is social conflict.

The neoliberal settlement has reasserted – and has been about reasserting – the powers of capital and of elites. It is about complex class interests. It has entangled and entailed the reconfiguration of social divisions around gender, sexuality and race. What are at issue are not the technicalities of how to run an economy, but power, profit and privilege on a host of dimensions.

It is indeed arguable that, not only did neoliberalism not take over seamlessly from social democracy, but that social democracy was itself actively undermined by antagonistic interests. As a basically redistributive model it had been too successful, redistribution had gone too far, and the attacks upon it (on the welfare state for instance, and on the trades unions), and indeed the globalisation of manufacturing, were efforts to undermine those gains.

Which means, finally, that we cannot go back. Social democratic redistribution found its political limits. Indeed, like neoliberalism, it took ‘the market’ as given: it tried to mitigate its effects, but it did not seriously question its structural dominance. Moreover it relied on endless growth and, we want to argue, for a host of reasons including ecological, we can no longer do that. We must challenge the fetish of growth. So we can’t go back. We must invent something new.

*

This UK history, however, as we analyse in our Framing Statement, is set within a global system. The repercussions of neoliberalism – and not just of its crisis but of its normal functioning too – on land, labour, resources, inequality, democracy, have been catastrophic around the world. And the globalisation and voraciousness of its interests have been behind interventions, military and otherwise, around the planet. We need more clearly to acknowledge the UK’s role in this: in the initial invention and dissemination of neoliberalism, and in its current role as a neoliberal HQ, a tax haven, and an arms exporter (as well, obviously, as subservient supporter of the USA and its interests).

But if it’s a global system, it’s also contested in lots of places around the world. From Occupy and the Indignados, to formal parties such as Syriza, to the attempts by both social movements and progressive governments to invent alternatives in Latin America. Neoliberalism may be hegemonic, but the whole point of the concept of hegemony is to insist on contestability. The system is never closed. So contest we must; and we hope that The Kilburn Manifesto will be a contribution.

About the author

Doreen Massey is professor of geography at the Open University. She is co-founder & co-editor of Soundings: a journal of politics and culture. Among her books are For Space (Sage, 2005) and World City (Polity Press [forthcoming, 2007]).

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