How the idiots took over and everything became neoliberalism – Yep

12-01-2023

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Everything is now the fault of neoliberalism. Most of the time it really is. From the problems in the healthcare system to the benefits case and institutional racism. There is always something to trace back to neoliberalism. It sounds exaggerated, but fits the concept exactly. Neoliberalism was conceived by those who invented it as a set of ideas that take root in society. A bit like a religion does. Everything and everyone becomes aware of it, often without realizing it, and it affects everything. The churches used to have hospitals, now they are in the hands of neoliberals. Although no one will call it that.

Many people believe that British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and US President Ronald Reagan are the initiators of neoliberalism, but this is not the case. In their book Neoliberalism, a Dutch history Merijn Oudenampsen and Bram Mellink show that the ideology arose much earlier and how it already gained a foothold in the Netherlands in the 1950s.

The book has been discussed here and there over the past few months, so I won’t repeat it here. I also do not want to talk about topics such as the wage-price policy, which plays an important role in the history of Dutch neoliberalism and therefore also in the book. But I want to share some thoughts I got while reading.

The book describes a battle of ideas. As always, there are all sorts of nuances and contradictions that you can easily get lost in, but the authors manage to stick to the common thread. They show, for example, how the opposition to the basic concepts of neoliberalism was slowly but surely crushed. But another image from the story also stood out to me, which is not in the book. And it is not nuanced.

Traditional liberalism believes that the government should interfere as little as possible in economic activities. The laissez faire principle. With the help of an ‘invisible hand’, the market will then regulate itself as a kind of natural process.

Neoliberals see it very differently, the book explains. “Neoliberals are moving away from the idea of ​​a ‘natural’ free market. They believe that the market exists because of a government that regulates property rights, facilitates international trade and, where possible, encourages competition.”

The devil is mainly in the last sentence. Everything and everyone has to compete with each other. This goes far beyond restraint in ordinary commerce and economics. For example, neoliberalism wants to get rid of as many utilities and the welfare state as possible. According to the neoliberals, competition is driven by asset formation. In a good welfare state and social society, the need for property is less. For example, you do not need to be a home owner to be assured of a good old age. It is an obstacle to the neoliberal ideal, so the stock of social rental housing must be reduced as much as possible.

The patriarch of neoliberalism, the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, saw the welfare state as the cradle of fascism. It is an absurd idea, but absurd ideas are precisely a characteristic of neoliberalism. On the note that if told well, they seem very convincing. It is another similarity with religion. For example, Hayek believes that crises are good and necessary to ‘cleanse’ systems. That kind of thinking is playing with fire.

In traditional liberalism and other democratic ideologies, the state takes care of society. According to the neoliberals, society does not exist. “There is no such thing as society,” Thatcher famously said. After all, we are all individuals who have to compete with each other. And if there is no society, then you don’t need an adequately equipped government to make it function properly. “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” Ronald Reagan said at his inauguration.

The consequences are known. The government has been so stripped of neoliberal views that it is barely able to respond to crises. As I said, a lot is now being written and debated about the consequences, but I think the interesting thing about the book is that you read how it came to this.

Hayek was not interested in change through the traditional means of establishing a political party. After all, it can be voted down again. He wanted the ideas of neoliberalism to be embraced by as many parties as possible. Therefore, he founded a society to develop and spread the ideas, the Mont Pèlerin Society. Named after a mountain in – never mind – Switzerland. The international association mainly focused on converting (top) officials and scientists, after all they often devise policy.

In the Netherlands, the Mont Pèlerin Society succeeded astonishingly well. It was mainly due to the top official in the Ministry of Economy, Frans Rutten, who with a certain fanaticism pushed the neoliberal ideology everywhere. The book does not allow it to be mentioned, but Rutten’s life took a remarkable turn. After his retirement, it became clear that he was a Catholic religious fanatic. He announced the end of time and traveled to a mountain where Mary would appear. He even appeared on TV with it. Completely insane.

When I read it, I wondered to what extent he was already a madman in his working life. One that is not hampered by reality. Also because he is not the only odd one in the story. For example, Professor Eduard Bomhoff also seems to be an important driver of neoliberalism. How twisted this guy was became clear when he became Minister of Health, Welfare and Sports on behalf of the LPF in the first Balkenende cabinet at the beginning of this century. He even went so far as to argue with his LPF rival Minister Heinsbroek during the funeral of Prince Claus, dragging the cabinet into ruin.

Several notable names appear in the story. For example, Rotterdam professor Wim Couwenberg is a driving force. The book does not mention it, but in the eighties he was the only academic associated with the extreme right-wing Center Party.

Fortuyn was later also a distinct advocate of neoliberalism, the authors show. His criticism of the purple cabinets was not that they were neoliberal, but that they were far too few. Fortuyn wanted to fire as many civil servants as possible and transfer as many tasks as possible to business. He was considered an oddball for most of his life, but after his assassination these ideas were widely embraced in politics. It was called new politics, and everyone had to believe it.

Sometimes you wonder how we got to where we are now, with energy crisis, housing crisis, care crisis, progressive far right and a powerless state. The book outlines this path minutely and thoroughly. I will not attempt to summarize it briefly. It is serious scholarly work and is reticent to judge, but when I finished it I knew: We were listening to idiots.

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