To confront power, one must first name it: Neoliberalism and the sustainability crisis

January 8, 2017

Recently, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker ordered references to human-caused climate change be deleted from the state Department of Natural Resources website. Scientific findings concerning the natural world have become an embarrassment for the neoliberal world view. The answer in this case seems to be to delete them.

But what is the neoliberal world view and why is it important to understand? Paraphrasing theologian Walter Wink, British writer George Monbiot explains that in order to confront power, one must first name it. The power Monbiot has in mind is the power of those enacting the neoliberal agenda. He explained in a talk last year that this ideology is embraced by leaders of both the political right and left throughout much of the world.

More disturbing is that few people are aware of this fact, and fewer still can define what neoliberalism is. It’s important to understand that this ideology animates much of the governing class on the planet. It’s important because this ideology almost completely opposes doing anything serious about climate change or any of the other environmental and social ills which afflict us.

First, neoliberalism should not be confused with modern-day liberalism which is generally associated with tolerant social policies and governmental intervention and regulation of the economy. To the contrary, neoliberalism harkens back to 19th century classical liberalism. Neoliberals champion a return to laissez-faire economics by means of the privatization of public services and property, fiscal austerity, deregulation and, of course, free trade.

Neoliberalism was first enunciated in the late 1930s as a response to fascism and communism. Only later did neoliberal ideas find their full expression in the presidency of Ronald Reagan and the government of Britain’s Margaret Thatcher. For obvious reasons neoliberal ideas have been championed and lavishly supported by wealthy corporate interests.

These ideas were also highly influential in the presidency of Bill Clinton and the government of Tony Blair. Thus, both left and right have adopted many of the tenets of neoliberalism. Both Clinton and Blair mixed the redistributive policies of the left with the economic ideas of neoliberalism. Certainly not every politician left and right embraces the neoliberal ideology; but it is now largely an article faith on both the left and the right that markets are the preferred solution to any problem.

One modern example is that addressing problems with public schools requires competition from publicly funded private schools often called charter schools. Other examples include privatizing public lands and minerals, public recreation facilities, and public services such as water, public parking and even prisons. Of course, not all on the left have embraced these policies. But the left has largely accepted corporate dominance of government policy which has led to a less than robust attempt to roll back such measures or to regulate industry.

Of course, the marketplace alone cannot address climate change, soil depletion, fisheries decline, deforestation, toxic waste disposal, and pollution in general. And so, in order for the neoliberal program to succeed it must prevent ideas about limits in nature from taking root. In general it must pretend that the problems mentioned above either do not exist or are a subject to ready technical fixes.

Scott Walker may be an egregious example on the right. But politicians on the left should not be let off lightly. The insistence, for instance, that the deployment of renewable energy will solve the climate change problem is disingenuous at best. It should be obvious to those who understand climate science that only drastic reductions in overall energy use and major changes in our infrastructure and in our daily routines can hope to bring down greenhouse gas emissions sufficiently to avoid catastrophic climate outcomes. And again, the marketplace alone isn’t going to do these things for us.

This message is inconvenient for both right and left in that it suggests that we must dispense with the growth economy and structure our economic lives based on other principles, say, sustainability above all and solidarity through shared sacrifice. These principles have the possibility to be inspiring, but they simply do not fit into the neoliberal vision of perpetual growth and concentration of wealth in the hands of the few.

The first step, the very first step, however, is to know that much of the world’s political elite subscribes to the neoliberal vision whether in its most austere trappings or in a softer form that retains some of the social safety net.

The irony is that though neoliberalism began as a response to fascism and communism–to the authoritarian concentration of political and corporate power in the state–neoliberalism has now morphed into an ideology that accepts corporate control of government policy, policy that is increasingly authoritarian in its economic and security (surveillance) apparatuses.

It is important to understand that neoliberalism as originally conceived and now practiced is hostile to social democracy. Most people recognize that many European states are social democracies and that Canada and Australia also qualify. But fewer acknowledge that the United States is also a social democracy as evidenced by its old-age pension and health care programs known as Social Security and Medicare, respectively. In addition, there is Medicaid, a health insurance program for the poor, and subsidized health care for many others under the Affordable Care Act.

Unemployment benefits and the Earned Income Tax Credit are yet other elements of America’s social democracy as are subsidized housing for low-income households and subsizied home mortgages for special groups such as veterans. Americans often hate to think of their country as a social democracy. But they must now come to understand that it is if they wish to oppose the neoliberal agenda which aims to end the programs mentioned above and many others.

Monbiot is on to something when he says we must name the power we are up against. If you care about sustainability, if you care about social stability, if you care about the poor, the power you are up against is the neoliberal ideology as expressed on both the right and the left. If you don’t understand that, then you will end up shadow boxing against a shadowy and ill-defined opponent.

P.S. I encourage you to watch the entire talk by Monbiot which is perhaps the clearest explanation I’ve seen of the neoliberal agenda.

Photo is from George Monbiot’s talk about neoliberalism on YouTube.

Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions.