Many of us working in networks focused on promoting social change identify neoliberalism as the root problem of the challenges that we confront.
As Common Cause often highlights, neoliberalism encourages extrinsic values — the pursuit of material self-interest through the accumulation of wealth, and the desire for social status and public image. These are the values that are modelled by many of our public and private institutions — that is, institutions which engage people as consumers rather than citizens, which see success as something endogenous to the ‘individual’, and that tolerate huge inequalities while promoting the financial interests of “wealth creators”.
But these same extrinsic values, which neoliberalism normalises and champions, are also its life-blood. It is an explicit part of the neoliberal project that it operates to elevate extrinsic values and suppress intrinsic values. Remember Margaret Thatcher: “Economics are the method, the object is to change the heart and soul”! Public tolerance for the social and environmental impacts of neoliberalism rest on its success in changing our values, and in persuading us that it is an immutable facet of human nature that we are basically selfish and must simply make the best of it.
Amitav Ghosh, in his recent book The Nutmeg’s Curse, tells this story of neoliberalism. He puts it like this:
“When the idea that the selfish pursuit of individual interests is a universal feature of human nature is adopted as a basic tenet, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
But do we focus on neoliberalism just because we can tell a good story about it? Might there be other reasons?
In his book, Ghosh goes much further. He suggests that there is a direct relationship between the “biopolitical wars” of colonisation — in which environmental destruction was weaponised as a means of genocide — and today’s ecological crisis.
“When an island is lost to the rising seas, when a wildfire sweeps in at blinding speed, when a rain bomb explodes over an unprepared city, it is difficult to connect the catastrophe to a human conflict: it seems like an altogether different category of phenomenon. But it was exactly this kind of environmentally mediated conflict that accompanied the colonization of the Americas…
“Now, as before, the idea that the laws of nature operate just outside the domain of human agency makes it possible to justify inaction. In this sense inaction is itself a strategy of conflict that pits people with high per capita greenhouse gas emissions against those whose emissions are much lower. Now, as before, the battle lines are ultimately drawn over a will to power and over irreconcilable differences in ways of life”.
Bird’s eye view of Banda Neira in Indonesia, once the sole source of nutmeg from Wikimedia Commons
There is a continuity, Ghosh suggests, between inaction on climate change and colonialisation. In reflecting on the inaction of rich countries to make the changes that any humane response to climate change necessitates, Ghosh asks whether widespread popular support for the status quo may arise precisely because the tactic of conflict through inaction has proven so effective for colonisers in the past — because, that is, they learnt that “omnicidal war would always work to their advantage”.
By focusing on neoliberalism, Ghosh suggests, “radicals” can avoid confronting this uncomfortable possibility:
“Western intellectual and academic discourse is so configured that it is easier to talk about abstract economic systems than it is to address racism, imperialism, and the structures of organized violence that sustain global hierarchies of power.”
This challenge to preoccupation with “abstract economic systems” is one that is developed in a paper we recently encountered by Jack Coffin, an academic at the University of Manchester in the UK.
In his paper, Jack argues that neoliberalism, though important, is actually a symptom of a deeper malaise, which is located in our unconscious fears and desires. Whatever comes to replace neoliberalism, Jack suggests, must be designed in response to an understanding of how these fears and desires might be exacerbated by this alternative system. In other words, the designers of that system must respond not just to an economic understanding of how markets fail, but also a psychological understanding of how our economic and political systems intersect with these unconscious fears and desires.
We asked Jack to contribute a blog for Common Cause, which he kindly did. You can read it here. In this piece, he doesn’t elaborate on what these “fears and desires” might be — but the implication is clear: they run much deeper than the desires, often confected by people in advertising agencies, for whatever new consumer fad the market has served up.
They connect, presumably, with our understanding of who we are in the world in relation to those others with whom we share the planet; with our feelings towards others who are different to us (made clear both in the empathy many people have shown for Ukrainians, and the racism that has lurked beneath this concern); and to our understanding of what makes life sacred. A focus on neoliberalism, abhorrent though it is, doesn’t take us nearly deep enough.
With care and solidarity for these times we’re in,
Tom, Ruth and Elsie
From Common Cause
Common Cause IRL
Earlier this month the Common Cause team met in person for the first time in two years (and for Ruth and Elsie it was the first time we’d ever met!). We spent a lovely two days together in the sunshine and were having such a good time that we forgot to take any photographs, So here’s one Ruth and Tom took of a Heron on a walk along the River Ouse.
Values 101 Workshop
We still have places for our next Values 101 workshop series taking place in May and June.
If you’re interested in exploring a new approach to transformational change based on what really motivates people to care for one another and the wider world, then do check out the upcoming trainings by clicking the link below.
In the world
A brief selection of books, articles, videos, podcasts and events that resonate with us that we think you might enjoy…
Book: The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis
Amitav Ghosh’s The Nutmeg’s Curse argues that the dynamics of climate change are rooted in a centuries-old geopolitical order constructed by Western colonialism. The story of the nutmeg becomes a parable revealing the ways human history has always been entangled with earthly materials — spices, tea, sugarcane, opium, and fossil fuels. Order the book here.
Podcast: Black material geographies
Continuing the theme around climate change and colonialism; Black Material Geographies with host Teju Adisa-Farrar is a collection of conversations and stories using Blackness and textile material culture to explore how we can create more sustainable systems and processes amid global climate crises and lifestyles deeply entrenched in global capitalism. Find out how to listen here.
Podcast: What could possibly go right?
Earlier this month former Common Cause Foundation chair Peter Lipman talked to Vicki Robin on her podcast What could possibly go right? Amongst other things, Peter suggests that cultural change towards empathy and connection will help address challenges and “be an enormously important part of that having a go, that holding that belief that we can do better” Listen or watch the podcast here.
Event: Cultures of Care
On Monday 4th April the Othering & Belonging Institute will launch its new project online; Cultures of Care, featuring a panel of artists, activists, and thinkers. Cultures of Care celebrates people that practice collective care in unconventional and insurgent ways. Find out more and sign up here.
From caring for the vulnerable to caring about each other — a new narrative about social care
Neil Crowther’s article for Reset Narratives explains the work of Social Care Future to put forward a new much-needed narrative, or ‘North Star,’ about what social care should be and do, and why it is valuable to everyone to wish to see investment and reform. Read the article here.