So it is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be put at risk even if you have a hundred battles.
If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose.
If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself.
These are the wise words of military strategist Sun Tzu, taken from his classic work, The Art of War. It is, of course, the quote from which we get the saying: “Know your enemy.”
As well as knowing our enemy, Sun Tzu’s advice suggests that we have a distinct strategic advantage if our own true nature remains unknown by that enemy. Stealth. Duplicity. Secrecy. These are powerful tools. Which is why bureaucracies of any political flavour are so afraid of privacy. It is also why neoliberalism is so powerful. As George Monbiot put it in an essay for the Guardian earlier this year:
[Neoliberalism’s] anonymity is both a symptom and cause of its power. It has played a major role in a remarkable variety of crises: the financial meltdown of 2007‑8, the offshoring of wealth and power, of which the Panama Papers offer us merely a glimpse, the slow collapse of public health and education, resurgent child poverty, the epidemic of loneliness, the collapse of ecosystems, the rise of Donald Trump. But we respond to these crises as if they emerge in isolation, apparently unaware that they have all been either catalysed or exacerbated by the same coherent philosophy; a philosophy that has – or had – a name. What greater power can there be than to operate namelessly?
Neoliberalism has successfully subverted our economic, democratic and cultural mechanisms of power (and even, with increasingly normalised neoliberal attitudes in many supposed alternative political movements, the traditional mechanisms used in the fight against such power). This has allowed the neoliberals to become a virtually unquestioned political force. It didn’t take tanks in the street. It didn’t take an armed coup. It didn’t take a mass movement. It didn’t even take votes from a majority of the people (although ‘democracy’ is regularly used to justify the actions of neoliberals). As world-shattering (quite literally) as it has become, neoliberalism was not so much an act of revolution as an act of subversion. It could be argued that neoliberalism was the world’s first dominant polity hack.
I described the economic and political dis-empowerment of the working class in part one and part two of this series. For a more in-depth understanding of the global rise of neoliberalsim – and subsequent dismantling of democratic processes – I would recommend viewing Noam Chomsky’s “Requiem for the American Dream” (if you have a Netflix account, it is currently available to download in the documentary section). Don’t worry about your personal political persuasion (unless, of course, you’re avowed neoliberal), this film highlights the key roles political institutions on both the right and the left played in the rise of inequity and the demise of democracy.
As I mentioned in the last post in this series, I believe that cultural dis-empowerment is the most important aspect of the rise of neoliberalism. Not just because it proved instrumental in the political abandonment of the former Labour heartlands, but because it points to a form of power which holds the key to weakening, and perhaps even reversing, neoliberalism’s grip.
If neoliberalism was the world’s first polity hack, then the cultural dis-empowerment of working class communities can perhaps be seen as the world’s first Democratic Denial Of Society (DDoS) attack. Since the seventies we have seen a sustained and growing form of political exclusion which targets those whose lives lie furthest from the neoliberal ideal. Whereas the judicial system was used to discourage (and, in some cases, even outlaw) outsider and/or alternative lifestyles, much more subtle forms of subjugation were used against those communities which were part of the ‘normal’ world, but which had been deemed economically undesirable by the architects of neoliberalism.
Anti-union legislation was, of course, used to dis-arm and discourage dissent in the former industrial heartlands (along with New Labour’s effective criminalising of childhood through the introduction of ASBOs and other ‘anti-social behaviour laws’), but it was what we might call ‘counter-narrative strategies’ which ultimately proved to be the most effective form of control.
Humans are story-dwellers. Like it or not our lives are shaped, organised, driven and controlled by human-created narratives. Some people are offended when their worldview is described as a ‘story’, but that is only because we are prone to undervaluing the power and importance of the narrative as the central organising principle of the human mind.
Everything we do is guided by linguistic maps which are either a product of our own internal monologue (immediate experience) or shared cultural dialogue (socialised norms and values) – or a combination thereof. The problems arise, much to the annoyance of Alfred Korzybski, when we mistake the map for the territory.
Although I would like to believe that I personally favour stories which are testable, and therefore fluid in nature, I am painfully aware that life is too short and too complex to ever fully escape the influence of the dominant (…and ghosts of the previously dominant…) metanarratives. It is a dangerous vanity to think ourselves free of narratives, meta or otherwise, the best we can hope to do is not take our own stories too seriously and never, ever try to inflict them upon one another. Or, as we are currently doing when it comes to the planet’s climate, inflict our maps upon the actual territory.
Neoliberalism, of course, claims to have transcended the metanerrative. Post-modernism, we are told, is the pinnacle of human existence where we no longer needs stories (dreams) of a better world. But anyone who has seen The Usual Suspects knows full well the trick that neoliberalism has been pulling for decades…
Rather than market itself as yet another ideology in an already crowded sea of isms, neoliberalism sought instead to strengthen its hand by undermining those values which run contrary to its own narrative. Things like solidarity, compassion, justice, autonomy or mutual aid are an anathema to the Gordon Gekko-esque gods of neoliberalism. Small wonder then that the working class and their backward notion of ‘community’ were a prime target.
Never mind the obviously dangerous metanarratives like communism or Marxism, Thatcher told us point blank that “there is no such thing as society.” Society FFS! As if the fact that we’re genetically pre-determined highly social primate can be wished away just because it is inconvenient to some anally retentive ideologues. No more metanarratives my arse!
As the narrative – and accompanying norms – of neoliberalism took a hold in the minds of those who help spread the narrative (to understand how dominant ideologies are unconsciously reinforced by people whose careers rely on being able to not to ask the right questions I would recommend reading David Edwards‘ 2000 book, Free to be Human) the mainstream media became ever more critical of traditionally working class communities and their cultural narratives.
This attack on working class culture was at its height during the noughties. This was a time we might call the ‘Little Britain’ era, due to the fact that ‘comedies’ such as these were instrumental in shaking off the last vestiges of the salt-of-the earth narrative which had come to prominence through the industrial era. The following semi-literate tirade aimed at my hometown of Bentley, Doncaster is not untypical of the kind of classism which was everywhere at the time:
Driving around Bentley is like a safari because everywhere you go chavs and chavettes are all over the place getting upto allsorts. Even on the shockingly disgusting buses (63) that are provided there are chavs, gypos, etc everywhere. Because of large chav and teenage pregnancy numbers the buses run every 5 mins.
This kind of abuse was at the more extreme (and extremely stupid…) end of the spectrum, but it is representative of a mainstream shift towards ever growing degrees of classim, poor-blaming and economic bigotry. Owen Jones‘ 2011 book, Chavs, looks at this process in greater detail than I can describe here.
Poorer working class communities are far from perfect (show me a community which is), but they are not the vile, racist, ignorant, benefit-scrounging cesspools which the media would have you believe (a media which was itself sickeningly racist not so very long ago).
Classism and the misrepresentation of working class communities are important factors that must be addressed, but the destruction of once dearly held narratives is also damaging in other, often more immediate, ways. The collapse of a central worldview or narrative can lead to actual mental and physical trauma. When this happens on a national scale then it is the people most invested in the dominant narrative, rather than the weak, the old or the young (who are already removed by some degree from the dominant story), who suffer the most. As Dougald Hine puts it:
In one of his darkly observant essays on the fall of the Soviet Union and its lessons for present-day America, Dmitri Orlov advises against being a successful middle-aged man :
When their career is suddenly over, their savings gone and their property worthless, much of their sense of self-worth goes as well. They tend to drink themselves to death and commit suicide in disproportionate numbers. Since they tend to be the most experienced and capable people, this is a staggering loss to society. (Reinventing Collapse, p.122-3)
The spike in mortality that accompanied the fall of the Soviet Union has few parallels in history. Between 1987 and 1994, life expectancy dropped from 70 to 64, and the group whose likelihood of dying increased most sharply was, indeed, working age men. In other words, despite the material hardships of the period, it was not the weakest and most vulnerable who died in greater numbers, but the physically strong: what was most deadly about the collapse was not the disappearance of the means of staying alive, but the lack of ends for which to stay alive.
This passage was taken from a piece Dougald posted on Edgeryder‘s which is entitled ‘The Regeneration of Meaning‘. The title itself hints at the work which needs to be done if we are to reverse the damage done by neoliberalism.
Despite the overarching and domineering reach of the neoliberal narrative the situation we currently find ourselves in is not inevitable. It is not a product of ‘human nature’ or ‘natural law’. It is as much a human construct as the former Soviet Union, Kim Jong-un’s North Korea or Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Why do we always find it so easy to see the fiction of other people’s stories whilst we treat our own with such unquestioning and undeserved reverence?
Neoliberalism has become the most widespread and domineering metanarrative of them all. Because the technological, scientific and social advances made during it’s reign have been so beneficial to so many people we have mistakenly seen this as a construct of a benign system. But such advances are not a product of the dominant narrative. Indeed the dominant narrative now sits as the greatest obstacle to humans fully enjoying the fruits of their own labour.
The majority of people now live healthier, wealthier and safer lives than at any previous point in human history. But a general rise in the standard of living conditions has also conversely seen a meteoric rise in levels of anxiety, depression, suicide and boredom. What we’re seeing is people who have conquered material needs now succumbing to a lack of meaning in their lives.
Much of this has to do with the unprecedented levels of economic inequality that neoliberalism has produced. Kate Pickett & Richard Wilkinson’s The Spirit Level provides all the scientific data we need to help us understand how dangerous socioeconomic inequity truly is – and how beneficial equity is to society as a whole. But there is also a crisis of meaning created by the lack of humanity, creativity, compassion and cooperation which neoliberalism has left in its wake.
Neoliberalism cannot provide the answers we need. It’s faux-caring ‘sharing economy’ has so far proved itself to be more of the same; as the recent Deliveroo protests and the Uber-driven crisis of affordable homes in Vancouver testify. The dominant metanarrative cannot be reformed, it must be transcended.
But in order to do this we must find new narratives of our own. Robbed of their original meaning the old metanarratives are useless to us. Crumbling before our eyes the neoliberal fairy tale is also on its last legs, but it is capable of inflicting a lot of pain and suffering as it falls. If we are to build anew we must first dream anew. And those dreams must be multiple, diverse, fair, loving and human-scaled – everything neoliberalsim is not. It is high time we created our own ‘counter-narrative strategy’ to counter the lie we have been force-fed for far too long.