Liberalism is associated with the emergence of the bourgeoisie in the 17th and 18th centuries, initially in Europe. Liberalism, like the emerging capitalist system with which it was associated, embraced both a progressive and a class exploitative dimension.
The progressive side of liberalism lies essentially in the challenge it posed to feudal ideologies. Feudal ideologies (those still found in a marginal form in the countryside of our country, and in societies like Swaziland) hold that there are natural divisions between individuals and groups - some are chiefs/lords/aristocrats by birth, and others are commoners.
Liberals of the 17th and 18th century argued, in opposition, that we are all born equal, and that class divisions are not in-born, natural realities. The French 18th century philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote famously that man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.
These views gave rise to progressive struggles for individual rights - freedom of speech, of movement, freedom against coerced labour, and, of course, the right to individual property. These struggles for individual rights also in time gave birth to struggles for the right of individuals to vote - one person one vote.
The emergence of capitalism in Europe tended also to be associated with the formation of national markets and of nation states. In many societies (Italy, for example in the 19th century), still dominated by multi-national feudal empires (in the case of Italy, the Austro-Hungarian empire), the emerging bourgeoisie adopted liberalism to the national liberation struggle.
The right of individuals to individual choice/self determination was expanded to the nation/people - the nation was said to have a right to self-determination - i.e. to be independent of imperial/feudal/external control.
All of these essentially progressive themes developed in European liberalism in the 17th -19th century, were taken up in the 20th century in Third World anti-colonial struggles. This applies very strongly to our own NLM. In an anti-colonial context, oppressed peoples took up the liberal idea that we are ALL EQUAL, we are all the bearers of individual rights - in the face of colonial ideologies and institutions that divided people racially, tribally, and into citizens and subjects who were still under the thrall of colonially manipulated tribal authority. The call for self-determination of nations has also had a powerful resonance in the NLMs of the third-world, including our own. It is no accident that our own post-1994 democratic constitution carries forward many important (and progressive) liberal values.
However, since liberalism is essentially associated with capitalism, it has always had a reactionary/exploitative side to it. This reactionary side is essentially associated with two interrelated assumptions/myths:
* liberalism equates freedom and individual liberty with the so-called free market. It holds up the (capitalist) market as the ideal model of a free society of freely contracting individuals, of buyers and sellers, of suppliers and consumers - in which, supposedly, the market and not anything else (your race, your creed, your gender, etc) determines how much you must pay for a loaf of bread or a barrel of Brent Crude Oil. This myth of the free market disguises, of course, the fact that buyers and sellers confront each other, not merely as individuals, but as different classes, some the owners of the means of production, and others with nothing to sell except their labour power.
* this myth of the free market is related to the second key myth of liberalism - namely its exaggerated belief in individualism. Historically, liberalism critiqued the feudal belief that different individuals are inherently/naturally different (chiefs or commoners). But in arguing against feudal beliefs, it carried its own argument too far. It argued, essentially, that society itself is artificial, a construct. The liberal theoreticians of the 18th century argued that society was built on a social contract, a kind of market-place agreement between freely contracting individuals. Margaret Thatcher carried this to its logical extremes when she argued that there is no such thing as society – only individuals. Early societies, by contrast, had understood, correctly, that there is no such thing as a free-standing human individual (a Robinson Crusoe). We are only humans because we develop within societies and cultures. The ancient Greek philosophers said that humans are political animals - i.e. animals that only become humans within a political society.
In our own southern African cultures the same reality was always recognised - eg. the Sotho saying: motho ke motho ka batho babang (a person is a person because of the other people). The individualism of liberalism tends to be a-historical. It might be right to argue that there are no inherently natural differences of any great significance between human individuals, but it fails to analyse (or, perhaps, deliberately obscures) the historical forces that shape inequality - between classes, continents, social groups etc. We are not born equal - some of us are born into wealth and resources, others of us are born into communities that have been dispossessed by capitalist primitive accumulation, by colonialism, etc.
Neo-liberalism is rooted in all of the above liberal traditions and assumptions. However, neo-liberalism is an adaptation of these views and its ideological ascendancy is linked directly to a particular period in the imperialist stage of capitalism.
Its development into global ascendancy can be traced to a particular moment, a moment of structural crisis within global imperialism - the early 1970s. The post-World War 2 decades 1945 to around 1973 have been called the golden years of developed capitalism. The US confirmed its global economic ascendancy in this period, but it was also a period of significant capitalist reconstruction and development in Western Europe and of state-led capitalist growth in Japan and slightly later in S Korea, in particular. In this golden era the leading capitalist ideology was a variant of Keynesianism. In the US and Western Europe, in particular, growth and development were based considerably on demand-led expansion, fuelled by a range of welfarist policies. In Japan and S Korea, the state-led developmental growth was premised more upon an export-led orientation, but there was still a considerable and deliberate expenditure on land reform, education, and the capitalist-led development of the national (and regional) markets. State-led developmentalism was also the predominant policy package that was proposed, by the dominant capitalist powers, to newly independent third world countries.
The structural crisis of post-WW 2 capitalism in the early 1970s was triggered, in part, by the 1973 oil price hike. But it was more fundamentally associated with what Marxism calls a crisis of realisation - the rapid technological advances and global spread of capitalism meant that, increasingly, fixed capital invested in plant in the developed core of capitalism (N America, W Europe, and, to some extent, Japan) was being outrivaled by new plant in the newly industrialising societies (S Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia and, more recently of course, the PRC) before the investments in this fixed capital could be fully realised - i.e. before ncapitalists could effectively recover the costs of their investment in plants by way of realised profits.
This underlying systemic crisis helps to explain all of the key features of the last three decades:
* in the first place, it helps to explain the intensification in the last 30 years, of the century-long imperialist globalisation process. Resurgent US capital, and recovered, stabilised and now matured capital in post-war W Europe and Japan were anxious to move out of their national markets, and out of their no longer competitive fixed capital investments at home. This moving out took several forms, including:
* a growing shift out of productive capital and into speculative financial capital - and the accompanying vogue of monetarism and macro-economic state policies
* fixed capital investments and acquisitions (including through privatisation processes in the third world) in external markets
* the break out from national markets also saw attempts to roll back welfarism, to break national social accords between, say, Swedish capital and Swedish workers/small farmers/middle strata, and to privatise key infrastructural service utilites that lay at the heart of the welfare state (water, transport, electricity, housing utilities);
* this has involved, logically, the re-defining of the state - not its rolling back, so much as developing it much more as a lean and mean entity - lean to diminish taxes on companies and the wealthy, mean to push through the reforms required - privatisation, rolling back trade union influence, swingeing tax cuts on the wealthy, and with power centred increasingly around Finance Ministries and Central banks, etc.
In the Third World, the vogue of state-led capitalist developmentalism (involving, amongst other things, significant investments in infrastructure and import-substitution policies) in countries as diverse as Brazil, Turkey, and apartheid South Africa, also felt the tremors of the global 1970s structural crisis of imperialism. The huge accumulation of of petro-dollars (the consequence of the oil-price hike in 1973) lying unproductively in, mainly European, private banks, became the source of a wave of massive (usually unwise) investments in the Third World - including huge white elephant infrastructure programmes, and arms procurements. Levels of Third World debt rose unsustainably in the 1980s, and the IMF and World Bank (originally RDP-type instruments for post-War War 2 European reconstruction) were refashioned as instruments to take over and manage this third world debt, essentially through enforced Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs).
As a result of all of the above adjustments, imperialism has, for the moment, (and with considerable and robust innovativeness) succeeded in surpassing its early 1970s structural crisis - but this surpassing (because we are dealing with an inherently contradictory system) has only really displaced the crisis into a series of scattered regional crises and, above all, future crises for the whole of humanity- not least the bio-physical exhaustion (through the depletion of natural resources, eg. bio-diversity, oil, atmosphere) of the conditions for any kind of sustained human life at all.
Neo-liberalism - and its evolving variants Thatcherism, Reagonomics, monetarism - has been the organising and hegemonic ideology of this overall process of global capitalist restructuring. It has sought (and it has succeeded in considerable measure) to present as progressive, natural, desirable and (in any case) unavoidable all of the key processes underway and the values that underpin them.
The hey-day of neo-liberalism, its period of greatest triumphalism, was the decade of the 1990s, when it was the socialist bloc (and not capitalism) that collapsed. In the last several years, the seemingly impregnable dominance of neo-liberalism has been challenged from several quarters:
In the first place, the ideological challenges have come from within leading imperialist circles, both from the right and centre-left. The right challenges (or rather adaptations) to some aspects of neo-liberalism come from the neo-conservative circles associated with President George Bush Jnr. The neo-cons represent a more naked assertion of US unilateral, imperial and militaristic ambitions, toning down on the global and universalising claims of the more classic versions of neo-liberalism which saw the whole world being unproblematically spurred to growth by the unimpeded flow of capital to the far reaches of the world. Now we have them and us mobilisation, the coalition of the willing versus axis of evil, etc. The neo-cons represent, in part, the growing paradoxes of US power - it is more predominant than ever before, but this predominance rests more and more on military supremacy, and less and less on productive competitiveness.
A range of ideological interventions of a centre-left, and more classically liberal kind have also increasingly emerged from within the key ideological centres of imperialism - names like Jeffrey Sachs, Joseph Stieglitz, and, to some extent these moderations of the extremes of neo-liberalism, are also beginning to impact institutionally, in places like the World Bank and some major governments. These alternative currents, which amount to a liberal revisionism, mark something of a rupture and should, without any illusions of course, at least be welcomed for beginning to burst the bubble of self-confidence. These liberal revisions are all, quite self-consciously and openly, rooted in the admission of the manifest failure of neo-liberal policies in addressing, in particular, the crisis of underdevelopment whether in the former Soviet bloc, or in Latin America, Asia and Africa.
The ideological challenges to neo-liberal dominance have also come from without. Some of these ideological challenges assume an essentially conservative/right-wing posture (Islamic fundamentalism, for instance). Others are of a centre left, left and even ultra-left variety -anti-globalisation movements, a wave of more progressive governments in Latin America, etc.
It is important to realise and admit, however, that while neo-liberalism retains considerable hegemony and power, the left/progressive alternatives, speaking internationally, are diverse and often mutually incoherent. This is not just, it is not even primarily a reflection of a lack of thinking or of debate on the left - it is, ultimately, a reflection of what Marx said a century and a half ago - the ruling ideas of an epoch are the ideas of the ruling class.