In this post I want to talk about neoliberalism and Oblong’s work. I’ll write about what I understand by that concept and link this to Oblong’s work. And I’ll say why I think local work like Oblong’s is significant, even in the face of a global economy.
The term ‘neoliberalism’ is bandied around a lot but sounds a bit baffling. Right in the middle of the word is ‘liberal’. Liberal politics might refer to political views and policies supporting tolerance, human rights and social cohesion, but this is different to liberal economics. As defined by the Financial Times, liberal economics means classic free-market capitalism, with no interference from the state except to provide support structures (like roads or train lines to move things around on, courts to settle disputes, or education so people have basic skills). Liberal economics relies on the ‘invisible hand’ producing the best outcome for everyone through a market economy where everyone acts out of self-interest. So, if ‘neo’ means ‘new’, then what’s new about neoliberalism? As a political philosophy it means to make trade and markets even more free, so that even things like infrastructure and basic goods (i.e. public transport, or even water) can be privately owned and traded for profit. The idea is that wealth will ‘trickle down’ from those who make a lot of profit to those who don’t. The government’s role in all this is to maintain favourable circumstances for the companies doing the trading and profit-making.
Neoliberalism acts as an overarching political approach, not just an economic one. It goes back to the ‘80s – Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher favoured a neoliberal ideology. Neoliberalists favour keeping workers’ wages as low as possible to help increase profit margins. But since wages provide the money people can spend on the products companies are selling, loans and credit then had to become much easier to get, to keep the demand for products up. People in more industrialised, developed countries have much more credit card and mortgage debt than in the past – and that debt is loaned out by companies who invest their money in markets all over the world. In the past 30-40 years we’ve seen the prices of goods and services everywhere increasingly affected by things like international credit and stock markets. The price of oil, for example, affects the price of everything because we get most of our energy from oil and we need energy to make, transport and provide almost anything you can think of. This comes to roost in our lives locally not just by affecting prices but also through decisions on social policy, public services and military action. When governments see their role as creating conditions favourable for profit (and therefore, supposedly, helping everyone), they end up taking a back seat in other roles citizens might think important, like providing public services, regulating the price of essentials, ensuring a social safety net, and keeping us safe by maintaining international peace. Austerity measures exemplify the effects of a neoliberal approach: the state retracts responsibility for ensuring people can live decent lives, in the hopes of stimulating commercial activity. This leaves communities – including groups like Oblong – to fill in the gaps, without providing the resources necessary to do it.
This is the danger of the neoliberal philosophy: what if the trickle-down effect doesn’t work? We can see clearly that it doesn’t – the gap between rich and poor keeps growing larger and larger. The environmental damages our economy causes hurt poorer people much more than they hurt richer people (though eventually they will hurt us all). But even in ‘democratic’ societies, we’ve forfeited much of our power to redress this. In order to afford campaigns as vast and flashy as each other’s, politicians take funding from large businesses. Even if they don’t, they find themselves constricted by the power of large corporations that control a lot of wealth. This leaves voters with paltry choices, largely similar to each other and mostly talk – if we bother to vote at all. We can blame political parties and we can blame corporations, but those organisations are made up of individuals, just doing their jobs. For example, it’s a CEO’s responsibility to make a profit or face losing her job. She’s built her life on values from the culture all around her, which rewards individualism, money-making and hard work with a prestigious job and a high standard of living. It’s understandable (if not commendable) how she might make decisions which in fact trickle down harm, not help. As societies, we have ignored voices of warning and embraced the logic of profit. It seemed like a good idea – some said, “A rising tide will lift all boats.” But we know some important things now: firstly, placing profit about other priorities does not improve everyone’s lives – in fact it causes many people to suffer. Secondly, the constant growth needed to produce this profit is fundamentally unsustainable. Neoliberal capitalism isn’t working, and our institutions aren’t dealing with the problem. So what do we do? We can bang our heads against the wall of reforms that need to be made…or we can try and find a way over, or through.
This is where local, values-based groups like Oblong come in. Obviously, Oblong alone isn’t going to solve the global economic crisis. But getting involved with something where there are opportunities to have a voice, be heard and put ideas into practice – in cooperation with other people – makes a crucial, sometimes life-sustaining change from trying to get by in a boring or competitive job, or dealing with increasingly restrictive and undermining ‘benefits’ from the government. For example, planning and teaching an English class with other volunteers can make a welcome change from factory work. A group like Oblong, which states clearly that it values people and their development, provides a place where a desire for empowerment, equality and working together doesn’t feel like madness in a world revolving around money and individual gain. I feel better about the world, and my life, when I interview volunteers about the work they’re doing at Oblong than I do when I listen to the news, that’s for sure. People build up and reinforce values, for themselves and others, by defining them and putting them into practice. (This is how neoliberal rhetoric and policies work, too.) These skills – understanding what our values are, why we have them, how to talk about them and how to practise them – are skills we all need increasingly as our democratic institutions fail to redress the effects of inequalities and exploitation. It’s not easy to counteract global problems on a local level, but if it’s the best option we can see, let’s get as good at it as we can.
It’s not simple, not least because practising non-profit, people-centred values like Oblong’s means constantly rubbing up against the necessity to get and spend money. It’s not like we can say a heart-felt good-bye to profit-based capitalism and go our separate ways. It’s more like, say, a messy break-up, with kids and shared possessions…and the ‘ex’ is the richest, most influential person in the world. An individual’s strength in a situation like this comes from conviction in beliefs, networks of support, and willingness to be understand and be flexible, to learn and adapt. These same things sustain organisations. By collectively developing a commitment to self-defined values and continually working out ways to practise these, even within the context of economic austerity, organisations like Oblong – and the people involved – can build strength and resilience.
I’m fascinated with the ways Oblong manages to practise and sustain its values, because these practices offer me hope in the face of the darkness and disaster I see in neoliberal globalisation. If all of these global forces can affect our little, local action, then it must also be true that our little, local action can affect these global forces. For that reason, what we’re doing at Oblong is important and significant, and so is whatever you’re doing wherever you are. We can grow in awareness, imagination and power by sharing these things.