Monthly Archives: December 2012

The Trajectories of Neoliberalism

How will neoliberalism change in the light of the “Pacific Pivot” and US energy independence?

By Giulio Amerigo Caperchi

We are all well acquainted with the narratives embedded in the ideology of neoliberalism. Its emancipatory promise of a globalized world where the free exchange of goods, ideas and cultures would lead to peace, interdependence, prosperity, and the spread of democracy are well known. On the heels of the fall of the Soviet Union, so the story went, no alternative was left other than to embrace that dynamic American mix of capitalism and democracy. Borders would increasingly blur, nations and nationalisms would be rendered irrelevant as the new world order would be benevolently guided by international institutions such as the World Bank, the World Trade Organization and the United Nations. If only countries would deregulate, privatize and liberalize their economies democracy and prosperity would eventually follow. Human rights and free trade, we were told, go hand in hand.

Of course, the utopia came crashing down on 9-11, and then in Iraq and Afghanistan. It came crashing down in the financial meltdown of 2008. It came crashing down with the rise of nations such as China which demonstrated that authoritarianism can simply do capitalism better. Pundits now predict the end of the American hegemony and hail the advent of the “Asian Century”.  The future, as of today, seems pretty bleak for neoliberalism.

Two paradigm-shifting occurrences, however, might question the apparent neoliberal decline: the so called “Pacific Pivot” and the realistic possibility of US energy independence in the near future. In the light of these two issues, the global geopolitical panorama will of necessity undergo dramatic changes. Two key questions must be addressed here. Firstly, how will these changes impact the emancipatory narratives of neoliberalism? And secondly, how will they affect the military, financial and political institutions exercising neoliberalism’s global power?

The Pacific Pivot is the White House’s response to China’s growing military and economic clout. The Economist reports that China, although nowhere close to the US (yet), has upped its annual spending on defense from $30 billion in 2000 to $120 billion in 2010. In 2012 China will have spent $160 billion on modernizing its military. Analysts predict that China will outspend the US by more than half a trillion dollars by 2050 on defense related expenses.

Accordingly, as the wars in the Middle East wind down, the Obama administration has decided to revamp America’s reputation as a Pacific power. In its latest Strategic Guidance document, the White House states that “while the U.S. military will continue to contribute to security globally, we will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region”. Pacific deployments of marines are well under way, while joint military training operations have increased with the region’s pivotal allies, namely Japan, South Korea, Thailand and the Philippines. In the coming years, the DoD will be spending over $10.6 billion establishing a rotational force of 8000 marines stationed in Guam, Hawaii and Australia.

EIA US Energy Production and Consumption

EIA Energy Production and Consumption. Photo Credit: eia.gov

On another front, energy analysts predict near energy independence in the US around the year 2050. According to the US Energy Information Administration, bolstered by technologies allowing the tapping of previously inaccessible shale gas and petroleum reserves, the US will dramatically reduce energy imports. In the adjacent graph, the EIA predicts a decrease in the gap between US energy consumption and production, resulting in a decline of energy imports of around 10% in 2040 compared to the year 2011. Within only three years the EIA estimates that the US will become a net exporter of liquid natural gas. It is no surprise that both presidential candidates of the 2012 Presidential election have made domestic energy production a priority of their respective electoral campaigns.

So what will these future changes entail for the emancipatory promises of neoliberalism? What of the world where free exchange of ideas and products would lead to international cooperation and render petty nationalisms and conflicts a distant memory of a barbaric past? Of course, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have overwhelmingly disproved neoliberalism’s promises of spreading democracy. But the Pacific Pivot does not even try to mask its ambitions with a concern for peace and democracy. There is no apology for the Pacific deployments: it is Machiavellian Realism 101 devoid of humanitarian underpinnings and defined by the pursuit of national interest. The Pacific Pivot is not justified by the ambitious projects of exporting human rights or engaging in nation-building as past US foreign policy so often has.

Energy independence could bolster this belligerent attitude, freeing the US from dependence on a turbulent Middle East and allowing it to increasingly concentrate its influence on Asia. Energy independence might actually fuel uniltaeralism and free the US from the need to calculate energy geopolitics within its foreign policy, potentially allowing it to forgo cooperation in international fora.

Moreover, this attitude is reflected in the key political, financial and military institutions which articulate neoliberal ideology. Let us take a brief look at these. Out of the financial crisis institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF have emerged stronger than ever, with countries at the heart of Europe ceding them national sovereignty. The “too big to fail” investment banks responsible for fraudulent lending and illegal practices (LIBOR and HSBC scandals –to mention the most recent) have been bailed out and are continuously sustained by tax payer money worldwide. Multinational corporations have posted record profits and are presently sitting on enormous piles of cash, with many of them refusing to raise wages and accept higher taxes. Military operations such as drone warfare and Special Forces incursions increasingly operate unaccountable and well out of the reach of international law. Neoliberalism’s most powerful players are probably stronger today than they were in the previous decade.

The ambivalent binomials inherent in neoliberalism, namely those of globalization and prosperity, of free trade and human rights, of military interventions and free societies have unraveled. The US neoliberal project has shed its emancipatory promises and embraced the pragmatic pursuit of military and financial interests. What it has left behind is an architecture of world government devoid of the spirit of Wilsonian idealism which had incipiently conceived it; bereft of a democratic ethic and fuelled by its unsustainable hydrocarbon bonanza.

So even if neoliberalism has crashed and burned, and, as stated by Slavoj Zizek, amply demonstrated that the marriage between capitalism and democracy has effectively ended, it is nonetheless emerging stronger, leaner and meaner than ever. The Pacific Pivot along with energy independence will be the chief contributors to the rebound of a new neoliberalism which will have definitely abandoned its humanitarian and democratic justifications. Perhaps, it will be incorrect to refer to it as neoliberalism at all, for there is nothing “new” nor anything “liberal” left in it any longer.

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Filed under Human Rights, Nationalism, Neo-liberalism, neoliberalism

Towards a New Definition of Liberty

Neo-Roman liberty: beyond positive and negative freedom

By Giulio Amerigo Caperchi

Delacroix-La liberté guidant le peuple. Credit: Wikipedia

Delacroix-La liberté guidant le peuple. Credit: Wikipedia

One of the most influential essays in the political tradition of classical liberalism is without a doubt Two Concepts of Liberty (1969) by Sir Isaiah Berlin. In it, the brilliant Berlin presents a positive and a negative understanding of the idea of liberty. These two different conceptualizations of freedom, says the author, have informed the philosophies of influential thinkers as well as the policies of many governments. Even to this day they remain very influential, and are at the core of the ideologies of the left and right respectively.

In this essay I argue that the positive and negative definitions are not exhaustive of the concept of liberty. Moreover, accepting Berlin’s dichotomy is limiting and excludes alternative conceptualizations of a vital concept at the heart of democratic theory. By presenting the research of Professor Quentin Skinner I will propose a different idea of liberty: a novel definition which may greatly contribute to our political discussions. But first let us turn back to Isaiah Berlin.

Put in very generalizing terms, positive liberty involves the right of an individual to participate in the collective decisions which influence his or her life. In positive liberty, government is a natural expression of the popular will to the point where the individual’s interest and the government’s coincide. Negative freedom, contrarily, is manifest when an individual is not constrained by external impediments, particularly from laws imposed on him or her by the political apparatus.

Berlin states that governments which have adopted a positive understanding of freedom have most often exhibited authoritarian tendencies, inevitably sacrificing the individual’s private rights for the good of “the people”. Expressions of positive liberty are Jacobin France and Rousseau’s volonte generale. Berlin concludes that negative liberty is a safer understanding of freedom because, in the end, the natural rights of individuals (those to life and private property chiefly) remain sacrosanct and inviolable.

It is safe to say that within the field of political theory these two understandings are the most commonly accepted definitions of liberty to date. So pervasive are Berlin’s definitions that the ends of the political spectrum still identify with them. The left has generally embraced positive freedom, expressing it through a prominent role of government in the individual’s life. While the right has usually given prominence to free enterprise and free markets, allowing individuals to be free of governmental intervention. An alternative way of thinking about the concept of liberty may help us break this conceptual impasse.

The Statue of Liberty. Credit: Wikipedia

The Statue of Liberty. Credit: Wikipedia

The intellectual historian Quentin Skinner does not embrace the negative and positive dichotomy. Through a meticulous historical analysis, Skinner recovered a third understanding of liberty referred to as civic republican or neo-roman liberty. This formulation of liberty has roots in ancient Greece, expresses itself in Republican Rome, resurfaces in the Italian renaissance republics of Florence and Venice, forms the ideological backbone of the English Revolution, and influenced the language of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution.

Skinner states that neo-roman liberty does not express freedom through government as the positive articulation has it. Nor does it embrace a negative position whereby the individual is free only if there are no constraints put on him by other actors. Neo-roman liberty is best described as the condition of the absence of dependence, where human agency is not dependent on the will of another individual.

This idea of freedom emerged historically in reaction to absolutist and aristocratic claims to power. Its proponents asked the question: how can I be free if my actions must be sanctioned by an arbitrary higher will? Civic republican freedom exists when an individual is not subject to the power of anyone else. It ceases to exist when an individual finds him or herself in a condition of dependence. An individual need not be directly constrained by another actor: it is the mere possibility of one’s actions depending on the will of someone else that engenders the loss of freedom.

Skinner concedes that neo-roman liberty is indeed a strand of negative liberty. But what distinguishes it from Berlin’s definition is how the condition of dependence is to be avoided. In neo-roman liberty, removing the dependence on greater powers requires massive doses of participation in civic life. Maintaining liberty from powerful interests –be them governments or private agents- is to constantly check, balance, control and limit their influence through participation in the political process. For Skinner, the lesson that the civic republicans teach us is that “if we wish to maximise our personal liberty, we must not place our trust in princes; we must instead take charge of the political arena ourselves”[1].

Positive liberty tends to place too much trust in the guidance of governments. Negative liberty lends itself to ideologies based on the infallibility of free markets. Neo-roman liberty, contrarily, does not trust either. The ancient Romans, the English Revolutionaries and the American Founding Fathers all new that power corrupts -be it public or private. Their answer, however, was not to retreat to a negative conception of liberty limiting itself solely to the obsessive guardianship of liberal natural rights (as Berlin might seem to suggest). They knew that power must be controlled through political means. They knew that popular participation in the political process was absolutely central to balance the influence of powerful interests.

What conditions of dependence are we in today? Well, for one, our whole economic system seems to be inextricably tied to the fate of unaccountable and far-removed financial institutions such as the Fed, investment banks, the WTO, credit rating agencies, the IMF, and the European Central Bank. If Wall Street fares well, all is good (or so says the trickle-down theory). If Wall Street has a bad day, or worse, experiences a financial meltdown, our economy plummets. This, dear reader, is thralldom. And the only way to reverse this condition of dependence, as the civic republicans taught us, is to subject those powerful interests to democratic control, making them accountable to citizens and forcing their decisions to be taken in the public sphere in an open and transparent fashion. The same can be said for the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, which allows powerful private interests to unduly influence the democratic process. It puts the citizen in a condition of dependence vis-à-vis those interests. The examples are endless.

Neo-roman liberty is grounded in a profound suspicion of all power and in the wisdom that powerful interests must be always made accountable to the public at large. Above all, it teaches us that if we wish to maintain our liberty we must take charge of the political arena ourselves, as free and equal citizens.

For more information on the subject consult the following:

  • Berlin, I. 1969 “Two Concepts of Liberty” in Isaiah Berlin Four Essays on Liberty. Oxford University Press: Oxford
  • Pocock, J.G.A. 1975. The Machiavellian Moment, Princeton University Press: Princeton
  • Skinner, Q. 1998, Liberty Before Liberalism, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

[1] Skinner, Q. 1992, “On Justice, the Common Good and Liberty” in Mouffe, C.Dimensions of Radical Democracy, Verso: London

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Filed under Democratic Theory, liberalism, Liberty, political philosophy, political theory