The World Is Finally Fighting Off the Infection of Neoliberalism

Tunisians counting votes.

Tunisians counting votes.

The narrative seems simple enough: on December 18, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, an over-educated but under-employed Tunisian fruit seller, immolated himself in protest and died at the age of 26. His act touched off a wave of activism that toppled the governments of his own country, neighboring Egypt, and (in different circumstances) Libya. The revolutionary wave touched most countries considered to be part of the Arab World, along with many others, and continues to place the governments of the region in precarious positions. Directly and openly inspired by this, a Canadian magazine called Adbusters issued a call for similar tactics to be used in the United States, specifically targeting the Wall Street financial district in New York City. This led to the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, which in turn spread across the United States and thereafter to many other locations around the world.

After taking a step back and examining all of this from a larger perspective, the chain of events is still evident and accurate, though much less linear. During the height of the Egyptian Revolution in late winter and early spring, thousands of citizens of the state of Wisconsin occupied the state’s Capitol building and the surrounding grounds in order to protest a contentious anti-union law. Demonstrators drew parallels between their situation and that in Egypt, and the Egyptians noticed, sending orders of pizza and other assistance in solidarity. Similarly, during the past year Israel was roiled by extraordinarily large (and tactically similar) demonstrations focused on deteriorating living conditions, and anti-austerity protests swept most of Europe, notably including the occupation-style tactics of Spain’s Indignados. A large anti-corruption movement emerged in India, masses of Mexicans indicated that they feel the Drug War must end, and Evo Morales’s Bolivian government’s construction program drew the ire of some of its indigenous supporters. This is just a sample.

In other words, 2011 has been a busy year, and much of the aforementioned activity crossed national (and ethnic, and religious) boundaries, with activists in different countries communicating with one another and coordinating their activities internationally, or at least acting in solidarity with those they see as their brethren. This stands to reason. All of these movements are battling neoliberalism, the guiding principle of Western governments and their foreign satraps for over three decades. Under the guise of such slogans as “free markets,” “free trade,” and the like, the end result is privatization of gains and socialization of risk, or, to put it another way, welfare for the rich and free markets for the poor. Corporations and the wealthiest classes receive tax breaks and subsidies in ordinary times and bailouts in emergencies, all under the stated rationale that this will result in increased investment, thereby spreading prosperity to the rest of society through a “trickle-down” effect. Meanwhile, various social programs and measures designed to protect workers, the environment, and the disadvantaged are weakened or eliminated entirely, in the name of austerity, among other things.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, these trends were initiated by those who grew up with all the advantages they sought to remove. By the 1970s, most of those on both sides of the North Atlantic who had struggled, often in the face of lethal opposition, for such things as labor rights, progressive taxation, workplace safety, universal education, environmental protections, and the like were dead, and their descendants had known nothing but the resulting broad-based prosperity that followed, at least in peacetime. Either a lack of appreciation for these struggles created an environment where they could be lumped in with “big government” in general as the cause of the stagflation and other economic problems of that era, or reactionary elements finally saw an opportunity to roll back changes they had violently opposed for generations, or perhaps both scenarios are true.

In any case, the 1980s saw Margaret Thatcher declaring “there is no alternative” to the neoliberal prescriptions of the era, while in the United States, the Reagan Administration famously pursued “trickle-down economics,” also known as “Reaganomics.” The change seems striking when one considers that Reagan’s Republican predecessors such as Eisenhower and Nixon dismissed such policies in their terms in office, and even his own Vice President, George Herbert Walker Bush, had earlier referred to neoliberalism as “voodoo economics.” In other developed nations around the world, neoliberal reforms similarly flew in the face of a hard-won social compact, and while such reforms were most enthusiastically pursued in the United States and United Kingdom, they proceeded apace almost everywhere, to varying extents.

Resistance was immediate, with activists pointing out that the First World was now experiencing what the Third World had experienced for centuries at the hands of foreign imperialists and their local collaborators. A perfect example is the British de-industrialization of the Indian subcontinent, with its motive to protect the fortunes of British industrialists and resulting in calamitous effects that are still being felt today. This was the general pattern for Euro-American-Japanese-etc. imperialism for ages. The phrase “local collaborators” is crucial, because very often the elites of the colonized nations were indispensable to the process of empire, and as time went by, imperialists dispensed with colonization (or even direct rule) entirely, instead ruling through compliant clients. This has been the preferred method of the United States (notwithstanding Hawaii, the Philippines, and elsewhere,) and thus it is fitting that the first successful resistance to neoliberalism emerged in Latin America.

In late February of 1989, massive urban strife embroiled Caracas, the Venezuelan capital. The unrest was touched off by an attempt by President Perez to implement a package of neoliberal reforms at the behest of the International Monetary Fund. The Washington-based IMF and the Perez administration sought to take advantage of Venezuela’s economic problems in order to restructure the country along neoliberal lines. These events were unique in neither circumstance nor scale, but they did occur at a precipitous time: the Cold War was ending. During the Cold War, attempts by Latin American activists (labor unions, peasants’ organizations, religious groups, and armed rebels) to challenge the state of affairs in their countries were met with accusations of Communism, followed by state violence and repression, usually with funding, training, and sometimes direct military assistance from the United States.

Red-baiting not a necessary excuse for intervention, but after decades of stating that intervention was necessary to combat a Communist menace, it became politically problematic to wage such interventions when the Communist menace no longer existed. After decades of repression, culminating in the especially brutal 1980s, and in the face of unfriendly regimes, Latin American social movements began to regain their momentum, and by the end of 2010 much of Latin America was (or had been) ruled by leftist (often “left populist”) administrations for the first time in the history of many countries.

Poverty and inequality are still ubiquitous in much of the region, but at the same time these and other social ills have been under intensive attack. For example, in Brazil, the administration of President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, a former metalworker and trade unionist, embarked on social programs that would likely have brought an aggressive response from right-wing Brazilians and their backers in Washington and elsewhere. This is exactly what happened to President Joao Goulart in 1964. Lula, in contrast, finished his term having overseen steep drops in poverty and inequality, and also worked to deepen the process of Latin American economic integration.

None of the governments in the “new Latin America” have entirely pleased the social movements responsible for their elections. Lula’s administration compromised with international financial institutions, and also participated in the occupation of Haiti after the controversial toppling of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, though Lula did oppose the coup against Honduran President Manuel Zelaya (the Cold War is over, but reactionary forces remain.) The recent problems of Bolivia’s Evo Morales were mentioned above. Meanwhile, and perhaps ironically, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s “Bolivarian Revolution” is in serious economic trouble. The point is that the people of Latin America have shown what is possible, and the issues that motivate their struggles are the same of most people around the world. On October 25, a “Solidarity Statement from Cairo” appeared on the website of Occupy Wall Street, making similar assertions. While some have questioned the statement’s veracity, the aforementioned gestures of support during the Wisconsin imbroglio, recent visits to American demonstrations by Egyptian activists, and a march from Tahrir Square to the American embassy in solidarity with embattled Occupy Oakland all show the global solidarity that characterizes this “movement of movements.”

“Movement of movements” was one phrase used to describe the collection of environmental, labor, and trade groups (though their opponents, and the mainstream media, used the label “anti-globalization”) that achieved considerable prominence by the late 1990s in their struggle against neoliberalism. Their struggle was/is international, actually global, with abundant participation from the Global South. Such a focus on international solidarity goes back as far as 1864 and the founding of the International Workingmen’s Association (aka the First International,) if not earlier. The focus has always been to remind the world’s masses that those who rule them always seek to divide or distract them along national, racial, religious, ethnic, and other lines. This is essentially what happened in the First World War, among other occasions, but in contrast, if people are able to organize, sustain their activities, and support one another locally and globally, there are few limits on what can be achieved. That is exactly what the Occupiers and every allied struggle worldwide have in mind.

Scott Charney is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.