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on 12 September 2011
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Neoliberalism is a strange doctrine. It sees market forces as a solution to all problems. If schools are inefficient, introduce market forces. If the water supply is run inefficiently, introduce private monopolies and let market forces work. If the banks collapse, there clearly weren't enough market forces operating: clearly government intervention and tampering were to blame! If a firm pollutes a river and kills the fish downstream, let the fishermen pay the firm enough not to pollute it: let market forces work things out.

In case you think I am taking the Mickey, or living in some parallel universe, let me say that all of the above arguments have been and are being made by neoliberals. So they are a weird, fringe group, right? On the contrary, they are at the centre of economic thinking today, and have been at the forefront of economic philosophy for some thirty years!

Colin Crouch has written a compelling book here, which charts the rise and development of neoliberal thought, which is at the heart of privatization, PFIs, targets, outsourcing and all the other responses to the inefficiencies inherent in the megalithic nationalized industries we inherited here in the '80s. His message is, not to go back to those days, but just try to logically analyze the thinking behind "market forces" and see whether those are really being applied in our current solutions.

Chaper 1, "The Previous Career or NeoLiberalism" is a primer in the rise of the new doctrine, a reaction to the inflationary pressures inherent in the Keynsian approach. He also covers Social Democracy in passing.

Chapter 2, "The Market and its Limitations", examines how the market operates and how it can fail. It is known mathematically that, under well-defined conditions, there is an equilibrium between supply and demand, leading to an optimal "price for everything." However, as Colin points out in this chapter, those preconditions are certainly not met in many situations where its mantra is blindly applied, such as in local monopolies (water), or where there are large barriers to entry to the market (aircraft manufacture). Moreover, not everything has a price (health, education, fresh air and water: my personal list). There are further problems with the mathematical foundations of the market where the volume of transactions is low (housing) because there are then sudden shocks to the market. Customers also need perfect information to make their choice, but this can be manipulated by the big players (Apple, Microsoft), by the media (News International?) and also by large corporations being able to influence government. I might add that, even when there is an equilibrium point in a mathematical system that is of course no guarantee that the system will settle down in that equilibrium, or that such an outcome is desirable: there can by cyclical or chaotic behaviour instead.

Chapter 3, "The Corporate Takeover of the Market" tackles the problems of international corporations that are so big that they can decide the market, influence governments by lobbying and funding election campaigns, and threaten to move abroad if they do not get their way. As of writing (2011) we can see this at work as the banks in the UK fight to avoid being split up, or to have their bonuses curbed. They see themselves as too large and important to the economy to be tampered with and nobody doubts their ability to campaign, overpay, lobby or threaten to move offshore! Plus, they are almost immune from market forces.

Chapter 4, "Private Firms and Public Business", examines the contrast between marketization and privatization. It is one of the most interesting chapters to me. Privatization often did not introduce a market into a nationalized industry (utilities) and moreover was often no better, because of that, than what it replaced (rail). We also see here the neoliberal idea that if a privatized industry fails, it is because of all that interference from the state (regulations) rather than a failure of the philosophy or its application.

Chapter 5, "Privatized Keynesianism: Debt in Place of Discipline", examines a curious artefact of the belief that the state should not intervene in economic cycles. The Keynesian tendency to spend your way out of a depression has been replaced by a privatized version: instead of state debt, individuals themselves take on debt to prime the market multiplier (credit cards, re-mortgaging). This dampened down the boom-bust cycles that plagued earlier years, but led to an even more catastrophic crash in 2011, where even ostensibly well off people faced ruin through debt. The rescue of the banks was totally anti-neoliberal, and yet seen as totally necessary.

Chapter 6, "From Corporate Political Entanglement to Corporate Social Responsibility", looks at some ways in which large corporations make themselves more palatable to the public. Rather than interfere in politics, they take on public charitable work themselves. Of course, this is in direct opposition to the neoliberal view that the firm's sole objective is to maximize shareholders' returns, except that indirectly, for example, Bill Gates' gigantic spending on his charitable foundation might encourage more customers to buy goods from him, and so increase share dividends! The worrying aspect is that what should be public decisions are left to the whim of these profitable enterprises and their captains.

Chapter 7, "Values and Civil Society", was, for me, the weakest part of this book. It looks at how certain professions have their own organizations and code of conduct, and various other "value systems" in society. In a situation where a multinational can impose its will on a nation state and where political parties have lost any contact they once had with the people they represent, it tries to find a meaning for the belief of neoliberals that free markets are "best" for society.

Chapter 8, "What's Left of What's Right", tries to come to some conclusions about the way we should view the aims and methods of society, either global or nation state. Colin seems to reach a conclusion that there are conflicting issues and that neither a massive state nor a massive private sector will deliver all the goods. We the consumers are the powerless ones caught in the middle.

I thought the last two chapters weaker than the first six, but the book is certainly well worth reading. At only 180 pages, it is not difficult to tackle. It certainly gives a better understanding of many issues that all political parties seem quite confused about. Communism isn't the answer, nor is neoliberalism, nor even the lip service paid to neoliberal ideas once they have navigated the political process.

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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 20 December 2011
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If you want to understand why, despite the failure of the financial system, the model of neo-liberalism continues - read this book.
Firstly it explains what neo-liberalism means and how the concept of the `free' market has been distorted through its use to expand and embed the political, as well as the overwhelming economic power, of large corporations. In particular, the banks believed that they had become so powerful that governments would not allow them to fail (one weapon of the free market). In the meantime, individuals have been left to suffer the consequences of the shift of wealth to the those who run the large corporations and bailing out the banks through the tax system and cuts in public expenditure.
Crouch points to the continuation of the system; fantastic bonuses are maintained and the failure of the financial system has been re-written as a failure of governments to curb their spending.
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VINE VOICEon 5 April 2013
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My review will be much shorter than many here, but my sentiments will echo most. Read. This. Book. If you believe that the notion of the primacy of the Free Market has tainted everything in our society, from education to housing to hospitals...this book goes as long easy to explain the philosophy behind the economics.Yes, he may be too optimistic in his solutions, but it's refreshing to feel his search for answers. Let's join him! Man the barricades...
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Mr Crouch has presented a clear, readable and I think very important look at the socio/economic structure of modern capitalism over the last three decades or so since the laisez faire, neo liberal, neo conservative, call it what you will, ideology of basically unregulated, free market trading has come to dominate governments, public authorities, political parties and politicians almost the world over. I pause for breath.

The author seems to be well qualified academically for his opinions, he is Professor of Governance and Public Management at Warwick University's Business School. He is a member of the Royal Academy, has worked at the European University Institute in Florence, worked and taught at both Oxford and the L.S.E., has several books and a 194 recorded publications to his name mostly in the field of economic sociology, governance, industrial and labour relations etc. etc.. Hell, he even looks like a Professor on his web site photo!

What he probably does not have experience of is working in some low paid macjob, seeing his job 'outsourced' to a cheaper labour country, seeing his wages and pension rights being squeezed till the pips squeek - if he is lucky enough to have a job, had to survive on sixty five quid a week dole, spent months in the soul destroying search for any employment that will put food on the table. Seeing his kids get qualifications but not a job, ending up slinging pizzas in a hut or retail drudgedy - if they are lucky!

What he has seen in the last 30 years or so is the total demise of those ocupations that soaked up those in the U.K. population who had few or no qualifications. The mining industry, the shipyards and car factories, heavy and light engineering, the merchant navy, product assembly, the hundreds of thousands of clerical and office jobs in insurance companies and banks etc. All gone because the Government is controlled by what is good for big corporations, not what is good for the people.

We elect the governments, pay their wages and expenses. The lobbyists working for big business, the banks and other vested interests pay the 'election', 're-election' and other politican and political party running costs. Urr... sorry, I meant 'donate'. They also pay the fabulous 'consultancy' fees and provide the high paying directorship gigs the politico gets for introducing or voting for business friendly law or regulation. Big business controls more and more of government policies especially in the United States where democracy is but a farce. Difficult to become a candidate, let alone get elected unless you are rich or have some corporation or vested interest bunging millions into your campaign chest.

Professor Crouch expains this a clear and very straightforward way avoiding specialist jargon. He also explains that now some corporations are so big, there is virtually no competition in many markets allowing one conglomerate to dominate - and make up their own rules! Also the power exercised over public policy by corporations whose government service 'contracts' allow for a 'special relationship' with governments and ministers.

One good example, not really touched on in the book is the NHS. Did you vote for a total re-organisation, probable destruction and privatisation of the NHS in the 2010 election? Was it in any Tory or LibDem manifesto, part of the campaign? No, it was bought on by the private healthcare lobby and big business consultants like Ernst & Young - just an example of the power of big business in getting the government to formulate policies that increase or create new profit streams at consumer expense. It is reckoned that at least 20% of taxpayer money spent on the 'reformed' NHS will go straight to massive director salaries and shareholder or private profit. At todays NHS costs that is getting on for £20 billion p.a. that will not be spent on healthcare for the British public. Austere times indeed - for some! Be interesting to add up how much has been 'donated' to Tory party funds, individual ministers and M.P.s by private healthcare firms and their front organisations over the past ten years or so. How many former health ministers and secretaries of state are now in the pay of the private healthcare sector? At least three I know of. Probably a good few 'Lords' as well. Some people might call it corruption on a massive scale, the government calls it lobbying.

However, the Professor does point out that public authorities have been given incentives to open up details of their work to private firms in order to allow said private firms to bid for the same work. (Who says Cameron's 'reforms' are not about selling the NHS off?) We also know the coalition has been talking to German and American firms about running NHS hospitals. The race to the bottom and a two tier system are well under way. To me that just says this was being planned and put into operation long before any new bill was passed by both houses in Westminster.

So far so good. Or not so good depending on your political outlook.

Where I part company with Prof Crouch and why I cannot give the book five stars, is with his so called 'solutions' or lack of them. He thinks that these monster corporations will listen to some sort of reason in their never ending search for that elusive 3% year on year capital accumulation that is basically needed to keep capitalism alive and ticking over. He seems to think we can tame these greed driven beasts by shaming them or dragging them into 'political controversey'. Sorry, does not wash with me, slight reformist tinkering at the edges will not work. I know Marxist/Socialist answers are not the flavour of the day but the only way I see corporations, banks and service companies being put to work for the good of all mankind is by breaking them up and nationalising them, run by the people for the people. Sounds a bit simple but I am but a simple man, a retired working prol who converted to Socialist and Marxist ideas since taking part in the 1966 Merchant Seaman's strike.

Read the book, it is not heavy going, anything but, couple of hundred pages that really are an eye-opener. Read it, get angry and get involved, I believe the author is right that this whole ideology which has so far failed miserably for the vast majority of us, is a threat to democracy and only serves the uber rich elite that own and control the vast proportion of world capital. Then you must decide the way out of this mess.
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on 24 August 2011
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Colin Crouch's book takes it's cue from George Dangerfield's 1936 classic `The Strange Death of Liberal England,' in which Dangerfield tried to explain the sudden collapse in the early 20th century, of the political ideas and a party that had dominated the late Victorian Age and pre-WW1 Britain. With Neo-Liberalism, he does however turn this analysis on it's head; his aim is to explain why, following a huge economic and political crisis based fairly and squarely within the ideologies of Neo-Liberalism, it hasn't collapsed and, indeed, hasn't just survived but is getting back on it's feet again determined to get back to business as usual.

This resilience of Neo-Liberalism is a fascinating phenomenon and a rich seam of socio-political analysis to mine, and Crouch does an admirable job of it. He charts the fundamental aspect of Neo-Liberalism that is simple but rarely acknowledged- either through myopia on the Left, or wilful masking and divertive myth-making on the Right, that actually existing- as opposed to ideologically pure- Neo-Liberalism is in no way as devoted to free markets as it relentlessly professes to be.

Crouch clearly explains how the trans global corporation is the true embodiment of Neo-Liberal economic theory, and that in reality has nothing to do with maintaining open, free markets in a democratic, `libertarian' political structure free of overt influence from the state. It is more to do with transferring power from the state- which by definition is believed by Neo-Liberals to be at best inefficient, at worst corrupt and nothing but self-serving, as well as naturally erring towards the creation of monopolies at the expense of consumer choice- to the private sector. but the shape of this private sector is not one of a raft of competing small-medium size enterprises, but that of a small number of increasingly inter-related, planet-striding corporations. He also interestingly explains a key aspect of Neo-Liberalism that the ideology uses at the core of all it's arguments to explain away this process: when cornered on such issues, they carefully describe the process of corporatism as one of enhancing consumer `welfare,' not consumer 'choice.' So, as long as wealth is being created somewhere in the system- even if it is concentrated amongst only a select few- it enhances consumer welfare no matter what.

The irony of this anti-state rhetoric- that everything characteristically wrong with the state in Neo-Liberal analysis has in fact, been merely transferred to the private sector- is still strangely lost on many people, but Crouch successfully shows us how this is in fact the reality of the 21st Century. At the core of Neo-Liberalism is not the urge to free everyone from the shackles of a nanny state into a vibrant world of competing privately run firms, but the direct aim to privatise power into a small group of the global elite. And this privatisation process can be seen at work relentlessly around us day in day out. The turning of private, corporate debt into public debt in the aftermath of the 2008-09 crash; the switching of corporate failure and market inefficiencies into an issue of overtly expensive and un-necessary public services; the process of now moving that public state debt onto the ordinary citizen through forcing them further into debt; the eroding of their living standards by high inflation/low interest rates etc., and so it goes on...

Colin Crouch has therefore provided us with a timely, much needed and erudite analysis of how a political ideology that, in the `normal' state of affairs would be on it's knees gasping it's last breath, has perversely emerged stronger from it's crisis primarily because unlike in previous crises, where the key players where toppled by world events- such as the Keynsians in the 70s- the key players and proponents of Neo-Liberalism, namely the corporations, were saved and maintained by the state to get back to what they do best: creating profit for themselves and themselves alone.

Not just the Left, but the moderate Right needs to understand this, and must get to grips with the neo-Liberal phenomenon and fully understand it before our social democracy and values are made even more difficult to repair, and this book is a good starting point from which to do just that.
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on 12 August 2012
Crouch has written an excellent critique of corporate lobbying power and the failure of the neoliberal economic model. It's detailed, informed, embedded in its appropriate contexts and everything else one would expect from such a work, and I would have liked to give it 5 stars. However, I agree with the consensus that seems to be building in most of the very good reviews here. Crouch's faith in 'civil society', with all its social movements and pressure groups, is naive and almost quaint, a 19th century solution to a 21st century problem. In his defence, though, he is working in an academic environment in which a coherent alternative to the current neoliberal model simply does not exist, and, like the rest of us, he is encouraged (read forced) to conform to the edict, imposed upon us years ago by Weberian liberals such as Anthony Giddens, who dominate the scene, to see solutions in the mythical beast of 'civil society'. Whether Crouch, in his heart of hearts, actually believes this would be interesting to know, but it is the fashion to say it. So, in a way, it's heartening that people seem to be growing suspicious of this. Crouch provides us with an excellent analysis of the economic scene as it is, but the next step is to start creating a coherent economic model to replace neoliberal capitalism. If we can't, or if the corporate bloc is so powerful that it is able to resist all political attempts to regulate or change the current model, we are in far deeper trouble than Crouch suggests here.
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on 4 August 2011
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Colin Crouch's analysis of the continuing dominance of neoliberalism starts with a definition and history of his terms, showing how the word 'liberal' in particular has gone through some almost total reversals since the repeal of the Corn Laws. The ascendency of 'neo-liberalism', however, began in the 1980s, after the perceived failure of Keynsian economics.

The original 'Hayekian' or 'Ordoliberalismus' anti-totalitarian formulation whereby competition is seen as 'a process that would maintain in existence large numbers of firms, near-perfect markets and widespread consumer choice' was replaced by the Chicago School's view that competition should be seen:

'in terms of its 'outcome' as the destruction of small firms and medium-sized enterprises, the dominance of giant corporations and the replacement of the demotic idea of consumer choice by a paternalistic concern for 'consumer welfare' (P16-17)

This concept of 'consumer welfare' is crucial. Unlike Hayek, this formulation accepts, even welcomes, the idea that competition will eliminate competition:

'If there would be efficiency gains from a number of smaller firms being bought out by a larger one, then that would be the outcome that would maximise what they called consumer 'welfare', even if it led to reduced competition and left consumers with a reduced choice of goods. What should therefore be the concern of the law courts in deciding antitrust cases is what outcome would be most conducive to the maximisation of consumer 'welfare', not 'choice' as such.' (P55)

By 'welfare', the Chicago economists considered the overall wealth of the society. The fact that the wealth may become increasingly concentrated in the hands of a small and diminishing number of transnational corporations (or TNCs) and a stateless elite is neither here nor there. Any redistribution of wealth should be undertaken by governments and is not the concern of the corporation.

But then, the Chicago school has a major problem with the idea of government. Here, their ideas fit neatly in with those of the University of Virginia. The Virginia school considers that civil servants, politicians et al, are there purely for self-advancement - as portrayed in Margaret Thatcher's favourite sitcom 'Yes Minister' where the Machiavellian machinations of Sir Humphrey had little to do with the promotion of societal good. Governments are seen as 'at best incompetent and at worst corruptly self-seeking' (P63).

The only way to ensure any efficiency and effectiveness in government is to apply the rules of the market. In other words, governments should act like, and learn from, firms. Thus we have the endless setting of targets, the breakup of government agencies into competing bodies and, most importantly, the inclusion of firms in the running of government in Public Private Partnerships (PPP), Private Finance Initiatives et al in almost an odd sort of reversal of mercantilism.

What develops from all this is a tripartite division - firms (TNCs), national governments and, surprisingly perhaps, the market. Here, 'the market' really refers to small and medium sized enterprises (or SMEs). It is perhaps interesting to compare this with Dani Rodrik's 'trilemma' where power is negotiated between the 'nation state', 'democratic politics' and 'hyperglobalization' - here 'hyperglobalization' more or less equates with the TNCs while the 'nation state' and 'democratic politics' conflate into national government, but the market is not really considered. I find Colin Crouch's model more convincing.

Although Crouch doesn't use the term kleptocracy, he does refer to oligopolies. Quite frankly, in the case of international banking in paricular, the difference is only one of degree. The virtual merger of politics and corporations, particularly in the US, is plain to see. The revolving door between government agencies, lobbying organisations and the corporations is notorious (see Thomas Frank's excellent 'The Wrecking Crew') but, at the same time, corporations consider themselves to be only responsible to their shareholders - the maximisation of shareholder value is considered to be management's sole aim, even though they are increasingly intimately involved in the legislative process.

It is odd, then, to see the rise of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). More often than not, of course, this is simply just a marketing tool. Crouch puts it nicely in the heading of chapter 6 - 'From Corporate Political Entanglement to Corporate Social Responsibility'. Political power has become increasingly concentrated in firms, or governments acting like firms or firms working for/with governments. This is hardly surprising. As Crouch says:

'a polity in which economic resources were very unequally shared would be likely to be one in which political power was also concentrated, economic resources being so easily capable of conversion into political ones.' (P125)

Later, he seems to echo Peter Oborne's 'The Triumph of the Political Class':

'...the state, seen for so long by the left as the source of countervailing power against markets, is today likely to be the committed ally of giant corporations, whatever the ideological origins of the parties governing the state.' (P145)

It seems that CSR has, then, almost taken the role of what the French aristocracy used to refer to as 'noblesse oblige' (P150). But, suggests Crouch, the growing CSR movement might be seen as a reaction to pressure from a fourth element outside the 'firms, state and market' - 'civil society':

'Civil society includes, though extends further than, the voluntary sector. It defines all those extensions of the scope of human action beyond the private that lack recourse to the primary contemporary means of exercising power: the state and the firm...States and firms do dominate our societies, but there is a lively field of contention. Challenges to domination can be made, concepts of public goals explored and turned into practical projects, against the state's claim to monopoly of the legitimate interpretation of collective values, and against the firm's claim that the conversion of values into the maximisation of shareholders' interests is as good as life can get.' (P153-4)

Crouch considers that there are potentially five types of groups that may challenge the state and the firm. Most of these are pretty well compromised, he feels, and I would agree. Political parties (see Peter Oborne) and most organised religions - both seem unlikely contestants. Whether campaigning groups, the voluntary sector and ethically motivated professionals can make the difference and wield the 'power of the powerless' is finally what this book is about. Where Dani Rodrik calls for a 'reining in', a deliberate limitation to 'hyperglobalization' in order for nation states to again exert a moderating influence, Crouch sees the nation state as hopelessly compromised and the only moderating and humanising influence coming from civil society:

'Civil society...operates in the interstices left among the great erections of political and economic power, like little houses springing up busily and untidily, creating vitality in a street dominated by the inaccessible security-controlled doors of skyscrapers. Since it contains a vast array of competing groups, with different and sometimes opposed moral agendas, it also embodies a kind of moral relativism. But this is moral relativism only at the meta-level of the character of the system as a whole. Within it the great majority of participants act with moral purpose. In societies that contain a plurality of rival values, where no religion or set of beliefs has hegemony, that is all we can hope for.' (P161)

The question is, is it enough? Is this anything more than a 'post-modern relativist politics' or a restatement of 'pressure group politics'? I'm not convinced - but the ideas just might help fuel resistance to the neoliberal monolith. Thank-you Professor Crouch. :-)
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VINE VOICEon 8 September 2011
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If you want to know the root causes of the crisis and what we can do to make sure it doesn't happen again then read this book.

The author shows how the roots of the crisis lie in the ideas of the neo-liberal economists and in particular Milton Friedman and the Chicago School. The author presents their view that the market is the ultimate arbiter of human interactions. Without the market we cannot trust politicians or any other aspects of society as everyone is out for their own advancement at the expense of other and nobody has a bigger view of society. So if we allow the amoral markets to make our decisions then we will not have any corruption.

The central thesis of the critique is that the problem with the markets is that they are not free-flowing and they are not perfect. This is exemplified by the growth of the large multi-national corporations. In this crisis the problem has been the financial sector and in particular the banks which are "too big to fail". Without the possibility of failure the financial services sector is not a market at all and so it is open to corruption and abuse without the correcting factors of the market.

The author explains how this has had an effect on both the way the public and private sector operate and how the Chicago school have modified their philosophy against their critics to explain obvious faults. It is this ever moving neo-liberal view that makes its survival almost assured especially given the current balance of political and economic power, but in the final chapters he suggests that there is another potential factor that can act to balance this weakening of democracy and of social service.
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VINE VOICEon 23 November 2011
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There is a great book in here, Colin Crouch has written a good analysis of the current dominant ideology of our times.

He points out the weaknesses of the current 'Chicago' school of economics which maintains that the market fixes all problems. He analyses the distortions of the market caused by monopoly players and the various imperfections of information transfer that cause the real economy to deviate from the ideal situation. He's very good on all this and ultimately it's clear that the market performs poorly in situations where there are natural monopolies or where there isn't a clear job or profit to be made. His tables on p-30 and at the start of Chap 4 are excellent and really summarise the weaknesses of the market-led approach.

However the book isn't for the general reader, it's very dense with jargon and a slow read. He also doesn't supply much in the way of solutions, the firm becoming more politically engaged (almost quasi government) is one idea but he doesn't really follow it up. It's clear things are broken but more advice on how to fix them would be good.
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on 10 September 2011
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This is a question many of us have been asking: with the abject failure of neo-liberalism, how come it isn't in full scale retreat? On the contrary it seems to have used its latest disaster to trumpet its message (shrink the state - unfettered freedom for business). Only this week academic economists have been railing against the injustice of a 50% tax for exceedingly wealthy people using clichés instead of evidence, and in fact in the teeth of the available evidence that reducing tax on the poorest does far more for the economy than decreasing it for the richest.

The answer is unsurprisingly in the power of the global corporations to frighten & intimidate governments, and the vast amounts of money they can mobilise to lobby and bribe their way to the changes that suit them.

The analysis is excellent and the style is accessible an audience (me in this case) who don't have academic credentials in this area.

The one jarring note is his solution: he proposes that it is the little man, standing up for his small corner, as our only bastion against the march of the corporations. This seems a rather defeatist stance. Surely we should be trying to put the mettle into our governments, seek international agreements so that corporations couldn't pick and choose between countries with such abandon for the consequences. But that is a minor point and it arguably not the job of the academic to find a solution, but to present a convincing analysis of the problem - and this he does admirably. This reader is certainly the better for his incisive analysis.
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