This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com.
From Tunis to Tel Aviv, Madrid to Oakland, a new generation of youth activists is challenging the neoliberal state that has dominated the world ever since the cold war ended. The massive popular protests that shook the globe this year have much in common, though most of the reporting on them in the mainstream media has obscured the similarities.
Whether in Egypt or the United States, young rebels are reacting to a single stunning worldwide development: the extreme concentration of wealth in a few hands thanks to neoliberal policies of deregulation and union-busting. They have taken to the streets, parks, plazas and squares to protest against the resulting corruption, the way politicians can be bought and sold, and the impunity of the white-collar criminals who have run riot in societies everywhere. They are objecting to high rates of unemployment, reduced social services, blighted futuresand, above all, the substitution of the market for all other values as the matrix of human ethics and life.
Pasha the Tiger
In the “glorious thirty years” after World War II, North America and Western Europe achieved remarkable rates of economic growth and relatively low levels of inequality for capitalist societies, while instituting a broad range of benefits for workers, students and retirees. From roughly 1980 on, however, the neoliberal movement, rooted in the laissez-faire economic theories of Milton Friedman, launched what became a full-scale assault on workers’ power and an attempt, often remarkably successful, to eviscerate the social welfare state.
Neoliberals chanted the mantra that everyone would benefit if the public sector were privatized, businesses deregulated and market mechanisms allowed to distribute wealth. But as economist David Harvey argues, from the beginning it was a doctrine that primarily benefited the wealthy, its adoption allowing the top 1 percent in any neoliberal society to capture a disproportionate share of whatever wealth was generated.
In the global South, countries that gained their independence from European colonialism after World War II tended to create large public sectors as part of the process of industrialization. Often, living standards improved as a result, but by the 1970s, such developing economies were generally experiencing a leveling-off of growth. This happened just as neoliberalism became ascendant in Washington, Paris and London as well as in Bretton Woods institutions like the International Monetary Fund. This “Washington consensus” meant that the urge to impose privatization on stagnating, nepotistic postcolonial states would become the order of the day.
Egypt and Tunisia, to take two countries in the spotlight for sparking the Arab Spring, were successfully pressured in the 1990s to privatize their relatively large public sectors. Moving public resources into the private sector created an almost endless range of opportunities for staggering levels of corruption on the part of the ruling families of autocrats Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunis and Hosni Mubarak in Cairo. International banks, central banks and emerging local private banks aided and abetted their agenda.