Big Business and Boris: what is neoliberalism?

[Image description: Still from a Boris Johnson speech overlaid by a quote, reading: “Inequality is essential for the spirit of envy.”]

Article by Amelia A. J. Foy

So, I watched the Prime Ministerial Debate when it was on TV. Amongst many other scream-worthy moments (like Corbyn essentially calling Boris Johnson scrooge), a moment that sticks out is when they were asked about austerity. More specifically, a woman in the audience gave her experiences under austerity, and asked the leaders what they would do about it.

Corbyn goes first: he’ll end it. That was his answer - that he will end austerity, the past decade of welfare and public service cuts at the expense of the most disadvantaged in the country. It was originally introduced to bolster the economy following the 2008 financial crash. Essentially, the Tories wanted to… redistribute the wealth… from the poorest people in the country… because of the actions of the rich, specifically bankers, in causing the crash. Hmm.

Johnson then takes the question. He does not promise to end austerity in the slightest. He instead says we should, for our economy to grow, believe in and support businesses. Then he accused Corbyn on “trying to overthrow capitalism”... in response to an austerity question.

So, that’s a mess.

But it got me thinking about how polar these responses were to the question - and why. Why, in the face of recent figures showing 130,000 preventable deaths have been caused by austerity, did Boris not immediately guarantee an end to this scheme? Why did he dodge around the question by referring to businesses - of course, avoiding the question is almost second-nature to a politician, but telling a woman that investing in business is a good thing after she literally asked about austerity is something else.

What underpins these kinds of arguments? It got me thinking about some of my latest university reading. In the US, the Republican party ran with (continues to run with!) the phrase “Good For Business, Good For America!” which I found almost disturbingly echoed what Boris Johnson has to say in the debate. Closer to home in the UK, Thatcher was instrumental in this kind of ideology - opening up the market for businesses to thrive.

This is what we call neoliberalism. Here’s some key factors of this ideology:
  • Free-market economy, aka the self-regulation of pricing and exchange by businesses. (Linked to the 2008 financial crash.)
  • Competition between businesses is good for the economy
  • Of course: capitalism and consumerism, expressing your freedom through your buying choices…
  • Myth of meritocracy: firstly, hard work pays off regardless of your background (institutional barriers, who?) meaning if you don’t succeed, it is your fault.
  • The “trickle-down effect”: justifies the accumulation of wealth at the top of society, as it will be slowly dispersed throughout the social levels… If anyone’s seen any of that happening, let me know!

But, everything I’ve just described can be said in everyday terms.
  • “You get what you deserve”
    “If you work hard, you can do anything”
  • “[Insert millionnaire name here] gave [some impressive-sounding amount of money that is about 0.5% of their wealth]! Be grateful! He earned that.”
  • Take out a payday loan” instead of using a food bank (said by a Tory MP)

Neoliberalist ideology has become almost a natural part of our society - so much so that people can’t call it out by name most of the time. This is why it is so important to take a step back and look at things. Why are we buying - literally and figuratively - into this?

Harvey (2016) highlights that a key part of enacting neoliberalism is cutting back social welfare institutions. Yep. You read that right. State interventions for public health for example, such as the sugar tax, are dubbed “nanny state” interventions - in other words, an infringement of free-market capitalism and individual liberty.

(By the way, there are 32 Conservatives with direct or indirect financial connections to theInstitute of Economic Affairs (IEA), who have literally made a table of nations with "nanny state" interventions. Including Boris Johnson.)

We could go on here, but first let’s turn back to Thatcher. Her regime against the mining community in the UK was a pivotal victory for neoliberalism. The miners, who were working-class from mining towns where it was their primary job source, were squashed out by Thatcher’s schemes. Meanwhile, she opens a free-market economy up in the UK, and big businesses still to this day love her.

She couldn’t do everything, though. We still have the NHS and the wider welfare state, which was introduced post-war and widely received by the population. In fact, a key part of Britain’s identity is our welfare state. Free healthcare and the NHS is the pride of the country, and even for the Tories as they slice and slice the funding away. 

Seems a bit contradictory, doesn’t it - for the austerity party to proclaim their love for the NHS. Actions speak louder than words, which is also key here - can you love something you’re destroying, selling patient data from GP surgeries to US companies (Big Pharma, anyone?) amongst other things, or cutting NHS student bursaries?

This is a conflict of interest for the Tories that they have to tip-toe around. Their Big Business mentality is at odds to the country’s love for, and reliance on, the NHS. Taking the NHS away would be astronomically bad for the party. So instead, they chip away at it slowly, and hope it goes unnoticed, so appease their business friends who fund their campaigns. But consider, for a moment, the NHS wasn’t established - instead, it was proposed in more recent years. Perhaps by Labour’s current manifesto: “make healthcare free for all”.

Do you think the Tories would still receive it with open arms? Better yet, would the country?

Let’s examine that using Corbyn’s other policies: free broadband in every home, free travel for under-25s on buses, scrapping tuition fees for Higher Education, amongst others. What has the response been from the Tories, their supporters and sceptics (ignoring Brexit, which Boris seems to think is the answer to any question directed at him?)

“There’s no magic money tree!” “Where will we get the money from?” “Why am I being taxed for this?”

Note: Corbyn’s manifesto has been backed by 163 economists. It is economically viable. So why this response?

Because taxing the 5%, redistributing the wealth through the system and funding our social institutions are so far removed from the “trickle-down effect” of current neoliberalism it seems like socialism. (Maybe there are elements, but it is not fully socialist by any means, let alone communist). Because neoliberalism is so entrenched in our understanding of human relationships, that this seems like robbery to the 5% - it’s unfair, because they’ve earned it. It’s implausible, because we have lived under the strain of austerity for so long - and pre-dating that, Thatcherism - it is the norm. Neoliberalism has become almost unconscious, and super pervasive, seen not just in business or politics but in education. Tuition fees were only introduced in 2004. Nobody dared beforehand to even try. When they were tripled to £9,000 under the Tory-Lib Dem coalition, there was an uproar. And now, the thought of scrapping them seems economically unviable, as if it wasn’t free fifteen years ago?

What this boils down to is: question what you are sold by the media and the Conservative Party. Historically, neoliberalism has never been effective at generating global wealth - it’s biggest asset is maintaining class power, and not just that but justifying it. When we start to notice this ideology in our culture, we can better combat it. Do not buy into the idea that inequality is essential.

...Also, while I’ve got your attention: Vote Labour.