We’re leaving neoliberalism and entering something worse

For much of this crisis there has been a dominant sense that we will eventually return to pre-pandemic normality. There are many reasons why this hope is misplaced, with the pandemic likely to accelerate existing tendencies towards digitalisation, automation, occupational polarisation and political turbulence. If we have been in a Gramscian interregnum since 2007/08 then perhaps with this crisis a new world can be born, moving beyond neoliberalism and perhaps beyond capitalism. However there’s little reason to assume post-neoliberalism, even post-capitalism, will represent progress. For as Peter Fleming has recently suggested, the worst is yet to come.

I’ve been thinking about this through the lens of the consumer. What’s been called ‘skimpflation’ is widespread where firms respond to supply disruptions and labour shortages by offering a qualitatively and quantitatively inferior service. The form this takes varies immensely but there’s a common dilemma underpinning it. The commercial parameters of service industries have broken down over the last 18 months and it’s likely that supply shocks will become more rather than less common as the climate crisis deepens. The additional costs which have entered into the system are stable features of our context rather than fleeting responses to crisis, calling into question the just-in-time flexible orthodoxy which has defined neoliberal governance. The rentier economies which accompany them stifle adaptation by preventing renegotiation, killing off hospitality now ironically coupled to the baby boomer parents of hospitality workers whose pension funds are heavily invested in those commercial landlords.

Everything is going to be more expensive, service is going to be worse. We’ll be paying more for less. This is a deeply middle class framing of the issue but I think it’s interesting to think about what this trend means for the legitimacy of capitalism (or what Varoufakis calls nascent techno-feudalism) in the eyes of that middle class. The promise of upwards mobility broke down years ago, with asset Keynesianism being the only vehicle through which parents sought to insulate their downwardly mobile and highly educated children from the increasingly vicious political economy which economists drily write about in terms of occupational polarisation. Inflation has returned with a vengeance, with the ever intensifying cost of living crisis hitting hardest those who rent and for whom energy costs making up the largest proportion of their household budget. A Tory government is increasing the marginal tax rate on graduates to 50% while affecting a post-austerity stance by a self-serving and limited injection of spending after ten years of brutal cuts.

It’s a recipe for hollowing out the remaining middle class while expanding the ranks of the working poor. But what of the middle class which remains? If the pleasures of that middle class existence which underwrote their basic investment in the status quo increasingly evaporate as either out of reach or literally non-existent because they were contingent on now unviable business models, it raises the question of who exactly still endorses the system? “The powerful have a way of sticking to time-honored strategies even when the reality is radically changing”, as Patel and Moore (2018: loc 216) observe in their panoramic history of capitalist development. But I find it increasingly difficult to see who would want to stick to time-honoured strategies in view of this emerging political economy. The problem is that there’s no reason to assume this impulse towards change would take a progressive form:

Is this what we deserve? To scrub the palace floors? To fight amongst ourselves? As we scramble for the crumbs they spit out, frothing at the mouth about the scapegoats that they’ve chosen for us. With every racist pointed finger I can hear the goose-steps getting closer. They no longer represent us so is it not our obligation to confront this tyranny?

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