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The Crises of Neoliberalism Won’t be Solved by More Neoliberalism

We’re in a world of trouble if we are unable to conceive of alternative economic models. We need not linger on the details of rising inequality, political instability, tightening corporate control of governments, looming environmental crisis, increasingly precarious employment (if even available) and the inability to meet the basic needs of billions of people around the world to see that capitalism is failing humanity.

To put this in a nutshell, on a global basis, about 200 million people are unemployed among 2.4 billion who have no stable employment.

Neoliberalism is not a virus foisted on the world by some secret cabal; it is merely the latest phase of capitalism, one that, from the standpoint of capitalists, is the logical outgrowth of the breakdown of mid-20th century Keynesianism. We’re not going back to Keynesianism, because that was a brief period dependent on an industrial base and market expansion. A repeat of history isn’t possible because the industrial base of the advanced capitalist countries has been hollowed out, transferred to low-wage developing countries, and there is almost no place remaining into which the capitalist system can expand.

So when I saw a paper titled “Industrial policy in the 21st century: merits, demerits and how can we make it work” in the latest issue of Real-World Economic Review, I was intrigued. As its title implies, Real-World Economic Review specializes in papers by economists who think far outside the orthodox box that serves industrial and financial elites very well; the very fact that a field requires a publication with such a title speaks for itself.

The disappointing prescriptions offered in the paper, however, might at best be described as “neoliberal lite.” The author of “Industrial policy in the 21st century,” Mohammad Muaz Jalil of the NGO Swiss Foundation for Technical Cooperation, is well-intentioned, but advocates the same export-oriented policies that have led to sweatshops and dangerous working conditions across the developing world. It also implies endless growth, a dangerous illusion.

More of the same hardly seems a likely escape, and that is before we contemplate the mathematical impossibility of every country exporting its way out of economic difficulty. For every country that achieves an trade surplus, some other country has to have a trade deficit.

What works for a few doesn’t work for all

Mr. Jalil begins by noting that East Asian countries used industrial policies, including protectionist policies, to build their economies, most notably Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. He uses the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) definition of industrial policy:

“Industrial Policy is any type of intervention or government policy that attempts to improve the business environment or to alter the structure of economic activity toward sectors, technologies or tasks that are expected to offer better prospects for economic growth or societal welfare than would occur in the absence of such intervention.”

The above East Asian countries used various mixes of export-oriented growth strategies and protection for young industries. Favored corporations received export subsidies, reduced interest rates and preferential allocation of foreign exchange with the goal of these enterprises becoming competitive globally. Manufacturing in these countries started at a low level but steadily moved up the “value chain” — that is, they were able to produce increasingly sophisticated products.

Mr. Jalil does acknowledge some criticisms of this type of policy, noting the difficulty in foreseeing who or what will be the winners in the future, the much stiffer international competition of today, that international supply chains have become dominant, and that today’s severe global trade regime restricts the ability of governments to intervene. Governments today nonetheless use industrial policies, albeit within the so-called “Washington consensus” (which is really the “Washington diktat”) that imposes neoliberal policies around the world through the World Trade Organization and international lending banks controlled by the United States and to a lesser degree the European Union.

When we get to specific examples, the paper’s prescriptions rapidly break down. Mr. Jalil presents Brazil and South Africa as examples. Brazil is one of the world’s most unequal societies, and one with severe economic problems not likely to improve in the wake of the Brazilian Right’s soft coup against former President Dilma Rousseff. A weak currency, lack of growth, continuing inflation, huge piles of debt owed in dollars and euros, and local corporations saddled with debt and low credit ratings seems not a rosy picture. Poverty is widespread, and activists who challenge land owners who clear-cut rain forests are not infrequently killed.

South Africa has the most inequality of any country in the world. The African National Congress threw away its moral authority to implement its “Freedom Charter” upon taking power by negotiating away its economic control. The ANC took office handcuffed, and having tied themselves to financial markets, those markets applied further “discipline” by attacking the South African economy at the first sign of anything that displeased them.

South African workers, especially miners, are subjected to violence at the hands of the ANC government, abetted by ANC-aligned unions. More than half of South Africans live in poverty and the unemployment rate is 26.6 percent. This is an example to emulate?

Sweatshop advocates don’t have to work in them

Next up, the author promotes the Bangladesh garment industry as a success story! Well, for Wal-Mart and other global retailers who rack up enormous profits on the backs of sweatshop workers being paid starvation wages this is undoubtedly a success. But as a development strategy beneficial to working people? Let’s look at the evidence.

Bangladeshi garment workers can work 14 to 16 hours a day, some seven days a week. The minimum wage is little more than half of the minimum required to provide a family with shelter, food and education, according to the activist group War on Want. The Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights estimates that a worker in Bangladesh would have to labor 15 1/2 hours to buy a gallon of milk. In 2014, the Wal-Mart chief executive officer earned 24,500 times more than a Bangladeshi sweatshop worker. Yet despite repeated accidents resulting in mass deaths, little has changed.

The shipbuilding industry is also promoted as a route to prosperity for Bangladeshis. A key component of this industry is “ship-breaking,” whereby ships are driven onto land to be disassembled. The Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights reports that ship-breakers work 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, and are paid 30 to 45 cents an hour to perform a job “in which it is common for workers to be maimed or killed.” The ship-breakers are reported to live in crowded hovels, sleeping on concrete floors.

Nobody would choose to do such things except under the most dire deprivation. That such work is a route to sustainable development is a common trope of neoliberal apologists, but defies common sense in any humanistic context.

The author points to the increasing number of developing-country corporations among the world’s biggest, but those numbers are nonetheless still minuscule. In fact, the corporations of the Global North remain overwhelmingly dominant. A study by Sean Starrs in New Left Review found that, when the world’s industries are grouped into 25 broad categories, U.S. firms led in 18 and in 10 of those U.S. corporations hauled in at least 40 percent of the aggregate profits. Germany and Japan hold the lead in two other sectors.

In support of these prescriptions, Mr. Jalil argues that as countries move up the value chain, the next country can “take over” “entry” industries and begin its own ascent. But there is only so much productive capacity that the world can absorb — the idea that every country can become a manufacturer of the same high-end electronics equipment, for example, defies reality. It also ignores, again, that every country can’t be a net exporter. It also sidesteps the fact that China’s growth threatens to “crowd out” other competitors due to its massive size.

Minqi Li, in his book The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy, argues that the huge mass of low-wage Chinese workers will drag down wage levels globally; the increase of industrialization in developing countries will lead to exhaustion of energy sources; and that ecological limits will force a halt to growth, fatal to a system dependent on growth. Professor Li argues that an upward convergence of wages around the world in present-day low-wage havens would significantly reduce capitalists’ profits.

In this scenario, capitalists would seek to cut wages in core countries to make up the difference, which in turn would trigger reductions in demand. Reduced demand would spell trouble for any export-oriented economy, especially as the ultra-low wages suppress domestic consumption.

Nor can sufficient jobs be created for the expanding population of farmers and others dispossessed from the countryside — Samir Amin calculates that even with an increase of seven percent in gross domestic product for the next 50 years, no more than a third of this population could find regular work. No such growth has ever occurred for such sustained periods.

Where is the second Earth going to come from?

Finally, all this imagined explosion of industry is predicated on endless growth. We live on a finite planet, and thus infinite growth is impossible. Consumption is already growing beyond Earth’s carrying capacity and the anthropogenic changes to the atmosphere have us dangerously close to the point of no return in terms of global warming. Humanity is currently consuming the equivalent of 1.6 Earths, and at current rates of consumption trends, that will rise to two Earths by the 2030s.

Ramping up ever more production, even assuming that markets could be found for it, can not be a long-term solution for poverty. Managers of corporations are answerable to private owners and shareholders, not to society, and thus do all they can to externalize environmental and other costs onto society. Alas, renewable energy is not a short cut to reversing global warming. Renewable energy is not necessarily clean nor without contributions to climate change (the production of wind turbines and electric cars lead to plenty of pollution), and the limits that living on a finite planet with finite resources presents are all the more acute in an economic system that requires endless growth.

Finally, the belief that industrial policy can create prosperity is predicated on developing countries having the independence to implement protectionist measures. Mr. Jalil argues that the poorest countries have temporary reprieves from World Trade Organization rules until the end of this decade, but that they have room for maneuver is questionable at best. Not only WTO rules, but the bilateral and multilateral “free trade” agreements render such protections illegal. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, which includes several developing countries, would further restrict any ability to protect local industries — and the TPP is intended to be a model for other countries. (Although wounded, TPP is not dead yet because a two-year window has yet to expire.)

In a world where “free trade” agreements strongly constrict the ability of governments to enact laws and regulations, and which grant multi-national corporations the right to sue to eliminate any law they don’t like — in essence, a requirement that corporate profits trump any labor, safety, environmental or health measure — the road to becoming a net exporter will begin and end with sweatshops for most countries.

Low wages and a lack of enforceable regulations are precisely why multi-national capital is invested in developing countries like Bangladesh. The global “free trade” regime is nothing more than a mechanism for the most powerful industrialists and financiers of the Global North to accelerate a race to the bottom and increase their exploitation to the maximum humanly possible. That developing countries can win at this — or that the advanced capitalist countries will allow more competitors to arise — is fantasy. A neoliberal fantasy.

Mr. Jalil concludes with a call for private-sector funding able to “respond to diversity and dynamism inherent in markets.” Huh? Markets in the capitalist world are nothing more than the aggregate interests of the largest industrialists and financiers — allowing markets to make an ever wider range of social decisions is what has led the world to its impasse and ever harsher austerity for working people. Neoliberal capitalism may teach that people exist to serve markets, but we don’t have to accept that.

The belief that private funding — which, after all, is done to extract profit regardless of social or environmental cost — will make us live happily ever after should be left to the realm of fairy tales. As the saying goes, insanity is believing that doing the same thing over and over again will produce different results.

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Pete Dolack writes the Systemic Disorder blog and has been an activist with several groups. His book, It’s Not Over: Learning From the Socialist Experiment, is available from Zero Books.

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