After neoliberalism

Published April 15, 2024
The writer teaches sociology at Lums.
The writer teaches sociology at Lums.

SLOWLY but surely, the signs of a global political and cultural realignment are becoming apparent. Several commentators trace the origins of this realignment to events of the last two and a half decades — the so-called war on terror and its impact on Muslim societies, the global financial crisis and the concurrent growth in Asian economies, and greater migratory flows, especially to the West.

A number of these varied trends are clubbed together and summarised as the end of neoliberal globalisation. Trade wars between the US and China, the fracturing of peace in Europe, the rise of right-wing nationalist and populist movements, the breakdown of the (admittedly) thin consensus on open borders, and the resurgence of the state as a coordinator of economic activity all show a world quite different to the one envisioned by the Davos crowd in the 1980s and 1990s.

On the economy front, quite a lot has already been written about the decoupling of trade and the rise of state interventions in the economy, even in the West. Drawing on China’s successful implementation of political capitalism — ie, a system where political power of the state is used to fulfil economic goals — even countries generally reluctant to embrace any form of state intervention (such as the US), have switched to some variant of industrial policy, especially in key sectors like battery and green technology and semiconductors. In her recent trip to China, US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen suggested, almost ruefully, that the (neoliberal) mantra of free trade championed by her and her predecessors in office had been detrimental to American workers.

These economic shifts will become more apparent as countries across the Global South attempt to catch up using a variety of different interventionist approaches. Selective engagement with the world, rather than an unencumbered embrace, is likely to be the pattern in the years ahead.

However, neoliberal globalisation was not just an economic project. It came armed with a range of political and cultural ideals whose task was to generate mass consensus, especially among the so-called losers of globalisation.

The slowdown of economic growth has led to chauvinist politics.

A primary one was the ideal of liberal democracy, supposedly guaranteed globally by the US. The simple fact, though, is that the commitment to this ideal remained selective at best, contingent on US foreign policy goals. The West was comfortable working with dictatorships of all stripes as long as its interests in a particular region were guaranteed. However, even this superficial consensus seems to be fraying. With the rise of far-right and populist movements in the West, democracy is eroding in its supposed heartlands.

Simultaneously, the (selective) success of autocracies in generating popular support and consensus through economic growth makes them seem an attractive alternative. Regardless of the extremely specific factors that allow some autocracies to generate growth, every aspiring autocrat, such as those frequently found in Pakistan, seems to think that limiting popular representation is a key ingredient in delivering growth.

In an insightful recent exposition, sociologist Cihan Tugal cites the case of Erdogan and Turkey’s AKP, which have deftly used targeted state welfare, interventions in the economy and authoritarian politics to create a durable ruling arrangement. These arrangements have proven to be somewhat successful in limiting, though by no means finishing, challenges to its rule over the last two decades.

Finally, the cultural agenda of neoliberalism is also being challenged, both in the West and abroad. This agenda was based on the extremely selective co-optation of ideals of inclusion and representation. It found its clearest manifestation in places like the US, where check-box tokenism became the basic mode of dealing with racial and gender minorities without any actual accompanying reordering of economic and social hierarchies.

The slowdown of economic growth, especially in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, has led to an upsurge of racial, nativist, and chauvinist politics, which sees even these watered-down efforts of social justice to be an affront that need to be done away with. In a throwback of sorts to the inter-war period of the 20th century, minorities and immigrants are being scapegoated for the unmet aspirations of the majority.

This retreat towards primordial loyalties is also increasingly apparent in migrant communities, especially conservative Muslim ones across the world. The genocidal acts of Israel in Gaza, and the blatant encouragement provided by Western governments, have created a major schism with Muslim communities and dealt another blow to liberal political rhetoric and its talk of multicultural societies.

Anecdotally, conversations with Pakistani migrants in the West reveal a range of anxieties; not just with regard to the rise of racial and Islamophobic politics, but also with prevalent modes of gender and sexual politics that are seen to be antithetical to conservative belief systems. This is particularly true for young, first-generation migrants who are raising families in the West.

One outcome of this is an even further rise in the attractiveness of the Gulf monarchies, especially for high-skilled, high-credentialled Muslim migrants. There is now renewed appeal of greater cultural conformity, alongside the usual economic advantages associated with life abroad.

Global transformations rarely reveal themselves in one, clearly distilled moment. Instead, they become apparent through various, drawn-out and slow-moving processes. In the present, these shifts in the global economy, political systems, and cultural values are all important indicators of such a transformation. Some of these shifts may be read as broadly positive. A focus on state-led national economic growth is one such example, which may help fix the inequities created by neoliberalism.

On the other hand, ethnic, cultural and racial insularity, and the ongoing retreat towards such identities can be seen as a more worrying trend. As seen in the past, the biggest fallout of heightened nativism is usually further exclusion and discrimination of gender and racial/ ethnic minorities.

The writer teaches sociology at Lums.

X: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, April 15th, 2024

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