The ideology of neoliberal globalization has been on a roll since the early 1980s. It was not in fact a new idea in the history of the modern world-system, although it claimed to be one. It was rather the very old idea that the governments of the world should get out of the way of large, efficient enterprises in their efforts to prevail in the world market. The first policy implication was that governments, all governments, should permit these corporations freely to cross every frontier with their goods and their capital. The second policy implication was that the governments, all governments, should renounce any role as owners themselves of these productive enterprises, privatizing whatever they own. And the third policy implication was that governments, all governments, should minimize, if not eliminate, any and all kinds of social welfare transfer payments to their populations. This old idea had always been cyclically in fashion.
In the 1980s, these ideas were proposed as a counterview to the equally old Keynesian and/or socialist views that had been prevailing in most countries around the world: that economies should be mixed (state plus private enterprises); that governments should protect their citizens from the depredations of foreign-owned quasi-monopolist corporations; and that governments should try to equalize life chances by transferring benefits to their less well-off residents (especially education, health, and lifetime guarantees of income levels), which required of course taxation of better-off residents and corporate enterprises.
The program of neoliberal globalization took advantage of the worldwide profit stagnation that began after a long period of unprecedented global expansion in the post-1945 period up to the beginning of the 1970s, which had encouraged the Keynesian and/or socialist views to dominate policy. The profit stagnation created balance-of-payments problems for a very large number of the world’s governments, especially in the global South and the so-called socialist bloc of nations. The neoliberal counteroffensive was led by the right-wing governments of the United States and Great Britain (Reagan and Thatcher) plus the two main intergovernmental financial agencies — the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank — and these jointly created and enforced what came to be called the Washington Consensus. The slogan of this global joint policy was coined by Mrs. Thatcher: TINA, or There is No Alternative. The slogan was intended to convey to all governments that they had to fall in line with the policy recommendations, or they would be punished by slow growth and the refusal of international assistance in any difficulties they might face.
The Washington Consensus promised renewed economic growth to everyone and a way out of the global profit stagnation. Politically, the proponents of neoliberal globalization were highly successful. Government after government — in the global South, in the socialist bloc, and in the strong Western countries — privatized industries, opened their frontiers to trade and financial transactions, and cut back on the welfare state. Socialist ideas, even Keynesian ideas, were largely discredited in public opinion and renounced by political elites. The most dramatic visible consequence was the fall of the Communist regimes in east-central Europe and the former Soviet Union plus the adoption of a market-friendly policy by still-nominally socialist China.
The only problem with this great political success was that it was not matched by economic success. The profit stagnation in industrial enterprises worldwide continued. The surge upward of the stock markets everywhere was based not on productive profits but largely on speculative financial manipulations. The distribution of income worldwide and within countries became very skewed — a massive increase in the income of the top 10% and especially of the top 1% of the world’s populations, but a decline in real income of much of the rest of the world’s populations.
Disillusionment with the glories of an unrestrained “market” began to set in by the mid-1990s. This could be seen in many developments: the return to power of more social-welfare-oriented governments in many countries; the turn back to calling for government protectionist policies, especially by labor movements and organizations of rural workers; the worldwide growth of an alterglobalization movement whose slogan was “another world is possible.”
This political reaction grew slowly but steadily. Meanwhile, the proponents of neoliberal globalization not only persisted but increased their pressure with the regime of George W. Bush. Bush’s government pushed simultaneously more distorted income distribution (via very large tax cuts for the very well-off) and a foreign policy of unilateral macho militarism (the Iraq invasion). It financed this by a fantastic expansion of borrowing (indebtedness) via the sale of U.S. treasury bonds to the controllers of world energy supplies and low-cost production facilities.
It looked good on paper, if all one read were the figures on the stock markets. But it was a super-credit bubble that was bound to burst, and is now bursting. The Iraq invasion (plus Afghanistan plus Pakistan) are proving a great military and political fiasco. The economic solidity of the United States has been discredited, causing a radical fall in the dollar. And the stock markets of the world are trembling as they face the pricking of the bubble.
So what are the policy conclusions that governments and populations are drawing? There seem to be four in the offing. The first is the end of the role of the U.S. dollar as the reserve currency of the world, which renders impossible the continuance of the policy of super-indebtedness of both the government of the United States and its consumers. The second is the return to a high degree of protectionism, both in the global North and the global South. The third is the return of state acquisition of failing enterprises and the implementation of Keynesian measures. The last is the return of more social-welfare redistributive policies.
The political balance is swinging back. Neoliberal globalization will be written about ten years from now as a cyclical swing in the history of the capitalist world-economy. The real question is not whether this phase is over but whether the swing back will be able, as in the past, to restore a state of relative equilibrium in the world-system. Or has too much damage been done? And are we now in for more violent chaos in the world-economy and therefore in the world-system as a whole?
Immanuel Wallerstein is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Sociology, State University of New York at Binghamton. Among his numerous books are The Modern World-System (1974, 1980, 1989), Unthinking Social Science (1991), After Liberalism (1995), The End of the World As We Know It (1999), and The Decline of American Power: The U.S. in a Chaotic World (2003). This commentary was published on 1 February 2008. © Immanuel Wallerstein, distributed by Agence Global. For rights and permissions, including translations and posting to non-commercial sites, contact: email@example.com, 1.336.686.9002 or 1.336.286.6606. Permission is granted to download, forward electronically, or e-mail to others, provided the essay remains intact and the copyright note is displayed. To contact author, write: firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit the archive of Wallerstein’s previous commentaries at <www.binghamton.edu/fbc/cmpg.htm>. These commentaries, published twice monthly, are intended to be reflections on the contemporary world scene, as seen from the perspective not of the immediate headlines but of the long term.