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Review of 2018 Wheelwright Lecture with Alfredo Saad-Filho

by Kimberley Yoo on November 21, 2018

In late August the Department of Political Economy welcomed Alfredo Saad-Filho, Professor of Political Economy from the University of London (SOAS), to Sydney for the 11th annual E.L. Wheelwright Lecture.

Titled ‘The crisis of neoliberalism and the rising tide of authoritarianism’, Saad-Filho’s lecture explored the strange paradoxes characterising global neoliberalism. We have extraordinary wealth with unimaginable poverty, xenophobia alongside increasing immigration, and fractured collective identity with increasing nationalism. But the most perplexing paradox of all is the unprecedented ‘success’ of neoliberal hegemony and its failure to capitalise on said ‘success’.

These contradictions are central to understanding the emergent forms of authoritarian politics today. Indeed, the populist undercurrent of contemporary political discourse is not indicative of a transformative upheaval of a capitalism captured by neoliberal demagogues. What we are seeing is a new process of neoliberalism itself. Or, more precisely, we are seeing an attempt to buttress the failures of neoliberalism through illusory panaceas that speak to the disenfranchised.

A prominent Marxist scholar, Saad-Filho has written extensively on social theory, neoliberal capitalism, the political economy of development and radical macroeconomics. He argues that we have entered into an entirely unique period of neoliberal capitalism where disorganised economic “losers” direct deep anxieties toward the most vulnerable members of societies. We have a rise in support for authoritarian regimes on the back of right-wing populism and we have increasing material inequality and an intensification of financialisation.

According to Saad-Filho, this period comes on the back of prior neoliberal regimes. He argues that from the 1970s to the 1990s, a global transition occurred, characterised by legitimisation of private capital and faith in the allocative function of the market. To address the inherent deficiencies of this regime, there was an increase in financialisation, neoliberal social policies, and a state-directed erosion of collective power (e.g. labour unions) to be replace by “self-responsibility”.

This has led to our current situation. Financialisation has failed to uproot secular stagnation, the environment is in dire straits, and the level of material inequality is absurd. Yet, these anxieties are directed toward the upper echelons of the neoliberal elite, minorities and foreigners. Why? It is easier to deal with a tragedy when there’s someone to blame.

Saad-Filho presents a particularly interesting argument around the election of what some may characterise as fascistic political leaders. The program of neoliberalism requires neoliberal subjectivity; intense individualism allows for the focus to be placed on intrinsic ethical principles, rather than material concerns or collective identity. The failures of neoliberal capitalism can then freely masquerade as a failure of the individual. As such, personal resilience and charisma can feasibly “bulldoze” socio-economic ills in a meritocratic society. A figure with the characteristics of capitalist success can then create a cult of personality, driven by a disenfranchised middle class attempting to “short circuit” the neoliberal system. This is, as Saad-Filho states, “the politics of demagogues and illusionists”.

If we agree that this is a perverse manifestation of neoliberalism reorientated, and new forms of fascistic ideology are real threats to social wellbeing, what can we do? Are there any alternatives? Saad-Filho argues that a systemic rival to the rising tide of authoritarianism is needed, otherwise fascistic political leaders will continue to blame the most vulnerable members of society for neoliberal failures. Alternative programs must, according to Saad-Filho, emerge on a basis of collective action. Strategies must work on developing a collective identity through our shared struggles. On a policy scale, we require a decommodification of social reproduction and an immediate program of definancialisation to combat the true ills of neoliberal capitalism.

Overall, Saad-Filho presents a series of provocative arguments that unpack the current socio-political climate. In deconstructing neoliberal capitalism, Saad-Filho calls for a reconstitution of the left against a new form of authoritarianism. This is no easy task, but one which will hopefully, at minimum, open up social and political discourse toward addressing the neoliberal problematique.

Kimberley Yoo
Kimberley Yoo is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney researching computational modeling and complexity theory. Her research interests include heterodox financial macroeconomics, the political economy of game theory and mechanism design, and computational economics.

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