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Neoliberalism: ‘Capitalism’s Response to Democracy’

Matt Gallagher watched Guardian columnist George Monbiot make the case for a ‘politics of belonging’ – but how to get there?

Queen Elizabeth II with US President Ronald Reagan and UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at Buckingham Palace, London, in June 1984. Photo: PA/Alamy

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George Monbiot has spent decades condemning Britain’s political, economic, and media establishment. Comedian Nish Kumar – at an event he described as “designed to give Daily Mail readers a heart attack” – interviewed the veteran Guardian columnist live at London’s Conway Hall last week. Both speakers offered interesting insights into the upcoming general election and the future of British politics – especially relevant to Britain’s disillusioned young progressive population. 

Monbiot may be 61, but the room was packed with young people. As we jotted down notes and held our questions for the Q&A, the pair on stage walked the audience through the decline of British democracy – beginning with the story told in Monbiot’s latest book (co-authored with film-maker Peter Hutchinson), Invisible Doctrine: The Secret History of Neoliberalism. 

Monbiot describes “neoliberalism” – the all-encompassing (and yet somewhat ill-defined) economic dogma of 2024 Britain – as “capitalism’s response to democracy”. Trade unions, regulatory frameworks, welfare systems, and the other democratic limitations placed on capitalism have been subverted because “democracy is a problem that capital is always trying to solve”. 

This now ubiquitous ideology, he claims, posits that “competition is the defining state of humankind” and that “any attempt to interfere in the discovery of the righteous by the invisible hand of the market is illegitimate and should be wiped out”. That includes democracy.

In addition to prompting the US-led overthrow of democratically-elected governments in countries such as Chile and Indonesia (as detailed brilliantly in Vincent Bevin’s The Jakarta Method), he argues that neoliberalism culminated in Western democracies that are “fundamentally unable to answer our questions”, because the real decisions about how to govern have already been made in lofty conference rooms elsewhere. 

The Austrian and Chicago economic schools – the original incubation chambers of neoliberal ideology – first inculcated their doctrine into politicians on the right. Thatcher and Reagan were not visionaries but “cyphers”, Monbiot observes; “channels for a pre-existing philosophy” that had spent decades percolating amongst fringe economists and social thinkers.

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Ultimately, according to Monbiot, Tony Blair and Bill Clinton represented their near-total victory over the entire political spectrum. Thatcher, memorably asked about her greatest political accomplishment in 2008, once famously responded that it was Tony Blair.  

The result, in Monbiot’s narrative, is that Britain has been converted – against the public will – into a “rentier’s paradise”, a system built on the monopolisation of land and other crucial resources that “parasite[s] people’s productive activity”. 

Politically, the failure of traditional politics to facilitate meaningful debates has created an “anti-politics” – Monbiot’s euphemism for the rise of Trump, Johnson, Bolsonaro, and a plethora of other anti-establishment right-wing populists around the world. 

From Monbiot’s perspective, the question remaining for the next election is not about the defeat the Conservatives, who hold responsibility for the state of crisis in the UK today, but a much harder question about how to defeat an ubiquitous global economic system and slow or reverse the “commercialisation of everything”. 

Neither Monbiot nor Kumar view Keir Starmer’s Labour Party as a solution to that second dilemma.

Monbiot describes Starmer as a “coward” who “kicks down” the vulnerable and “kisses up” to the powerful, heading a political project that’s “failing by design”. He describes our entire system as “the thinnest and weakest version of democracy possible”. 

When asked what the answer to this, Monbiot observed: “They have a story, and we do not.”

John Meynard Keynes, whose economic theories dominated mid-century politics in Britain and the US, had one. The neoliberals, with their tales of freedom, choice, and liberty, have one. Even the far-right have a rabid and hateful tale to tell. Those who believe in democracy are left mostly just trying to mitigate the damage. 

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According to Monbiot, the story that needs to be told begins right where the neoliberal story falls short. Where neoliberalism breeds loneliness, he believes we should emphasise a “politics of belonging”. Where it enclosed land and resources, we should build new and accessible commons. Where it simplifies our social dynamics into unfeeling numbers, we should embrace the complexity of the systems that drive our lives. Where it breeds distrust, trust people. 

“We should preach to the choir – and grow our choir a little bit bigger every year,” he argued.

For Monbiot, “deliberative and participatory” democratic systems in the here and now are the answer, as well as a need to “ignore those in Westminster that have nothing to do with us”. We should simply start creating the democratic world we want to live in, and eventually we’ll reach a tipping point where the entire population gets on board, is his view. 

It’s a powerful message, but I was left wondering what the catalyst for this democratic change is supposed to be, if it wasn’t the invasion of Iraq, the 2008 financial crash, or even the COVID pandemic. Who will be the ones to undertake it? 

Back in 2003, Monbiot penned a polemic on youth politics for the Guardian entitled “Rattling the Bars”. In it, he condemned the zombie governments of the West. The “structures” of democracy still exist, he wrote, “but the life within them has died.” He argued that “the young have not lost interest in politics. Politics, of the kind represented at Westminster, has lost interest in the young”.

Perhaps then, just as the neoliberal system’s own failures could create the nucleus of a new and compelling story, those left out of mainstream politics will be the ones to tell it. Twenty-one years later, we’re still trying to find a way to “rattl[e] the bars of our enclosed and corrupted parliaments without succumbing to their enclosure and corruption”.

As I have written in these pages previously, there’s a lot we could do to bring about a more utopian mindset in Britain; to restore hope and foster the belief that real change is possible. As Monbiot would say, we just need to start ’embodying the democracy’ that we want.

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