Colin Crouch's new book follows on from his previous Post-democracy and The Strange Non-Death of Neo-Liberalism. The latter, in particular, analysed how Neoliberalism has managed to survive, indeed thrive, even in these times of financial crisis. It went on to propose how a defence could be mounted against the privations of this all-conquering 'One True Faith' but, as he acknowledges at the start of this book, his proposals lacked any real concrete agenda, relying on a rather nebulous 'civil society'. In this volume, not only does Professor Crouch strengthen and deepen his analysis of the global dominance of Neoliberalism, he also comes up with a much clearer set of pathways and objectives to finding a way between the Scylla and Charybdis of actually existing (and failed) state socialism and the total corporate dominance of the global agenda.
To start with, Professor Crouch identifies three forms of Neoliberals. These are:
'...[P]ure neoliberals, who believe that society will be at its best when the conditions of perfect markets can be achieved in all areas of life...This does not imply a weak state; it is strong in protecting property rights, extending the role of markets to ever further areas and guaranteeing competition.' (P23-4)
'...[T]hose who, while accepting the value and priority of markets in the economy, are aware of their limitations and deficiencies, in particular their inability to cope with externalities and public goods. They also believe that the market is not appropriate in some areas of life and wish to protect these from it.' (P24)
'...'actually existing' neoliberalism, which refers to the amalgam of corporate lobbying of governments and the deployment of corporate and other private wealth in politics that today usually accompanies introduction of the neoliberal agenda.' (P24)
The first sounds to me very much like classic Austrian or Hayekian neoliberalism.
The second, while accepting the basic tenets of Neoliberalism, see its almost viral-like spread as essentially corruptive - Michael Sandel's 'What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets' springs very much to mind, especially with its emphasis on 'moral limits'.
The third is, as Professor Crouch states, pretty much what we have got. It is perhaps at its most overt in the US (see, for example, Thomas Frank's excellent discussion of the power of corporate lobbyists in Washington. A current example would be the debacle over the 'Affordable Care Act', opposition to which has been largely funded by the Koch brothers).
Professor Crouch takes the second position. A free market is the best way yet devised to avoid the pitfalls of an over-arching and all-powerful state. However, an all-conquering free market almost by definition leads to the loss of competition, the emergence of cartels and (along with globalisation) corporatocracy, oligarchy, kleptocracy etc. It is only by the development of a strong social democratic movement can a balance be made between the demands of individual and corporate 'freedom'.
Clearly, this approach risks being seen as a 'middle way', New Labour's 'Third Way', as compromise, as essentially defensive. But Professor Crouch strongly rejects this defensive posture, instead developing his ideas into what he terms an 'assertive social democracy' - asserting the rights of those who work within, and who may fall victim to, a rigorous utilitarian free market (and its guiding 'invisible hand') and a burgeoning and manipulative corporate transnational Neoliberalism.
This is an almost wholly convincing approach. Somehow, he largely manages to avoid the vaguely religious/spiritual proselytising of writers such as Roberto Unger, the Skidelskys and Jeffrey Sachs in favour of a reformulation of social democracy as 'The Highest Form of Liberalism' (P134). He can, like Guy Standing, actually call for greater commoditisation as a way of getting employers to pay a true and fair price for labour, by putting a price on the negative externalities caused by industry and by enforcing the 'rules of the game'. But Professor Crouch does not following Standing in proposing a 'basic income', preferring instead the flawed but still suggestive 'flexicurity' systems developed in Denmark and the Netherlands - providing a high degree of income security and opportunities for personal development (training etc.) as a counter-balance to the employment 'flexibility' (read 'hire and fire') demanded by a fast-moving global free market. This does sound a bit like Roberto Unger's view that the European left:
'...has retreated to the last ditch defence of a high level of social entitlements giving up one by one many of its most distinctive traits, both good and bad. The ideologists of this retreat have tried to disguise it as a synthesis between European-style social protection and American-style economic flexibility.' (P172)
But Professor Crouch, by emphasising the 'assertive' nature of his social democratic model (and its roots in the very neoliberalism it proposes to both sustain and ameliorate) avoids, to my mind, both Unger's critique and the critique levelled at Unger by Zizek, in that Crouch is not denying the 'underlying Real of capitalism' but is seeking a way to couple this Real with the Real of the human social animal. As an aside, it has been pointed out by many that so much of the supposed inventiveness and innovation of the free market is based on the 'pure' research carried out, or at least paid for, by governments - the Internet, the World Wide Web, discovery of DNA, many pharmaceutical breakthroughs, IT and advances in microchips etc. etc. etc.
There are many, many dangers ahead. The current crisis is giving rise not just to greater pressure from corporate lobbyists, but to xenophobic and racist right-wing movements, from the Golden Dawn party in Greece, to the apparently more socially and politically acceptable face of UKIP in the U.K. Professor Crouch suggests that, in the case of these right-wing parties:
'...neoliberalism wants unfettered global markets; if mass populations are engaged in mutual suspicion and intolerance, they are also unlikely to accept the transnational regimes that are the only institutions that might regulate these markets.' (P4)
Apart from reading virtually like a definition of UKIP, this also points out the crucial importance of transnational organisations in the development of a new 'assertive social democracy'. As Professor Crouch later suggests, in relation to the EU:
'The most straightforward means of democratizing the EU and encouraging parties and governments to work constructively would be a formally very simple rule that said that the Commission should be elected by the European Parliament and not nominated by member states. That would transform the Commission into being a government of Europe and would lead parties of all kinds to develop serious cross-national programmes and to take elections seriously.' (P187)
Professor Crouch knows perfectly well that this is not going to happen as national governments are not going to give up their power to appoint commissioners, but, as he suggests, it is important to 'place the simple proposal on the agenda, as without that it will never even be debated.' (P187)
This short book is packed with ideas, with practical proposals, with clear insights and with a degree of theoretical underpinning which, although I do not agree with 100% (being a bit of an old Marxist), I am sufficiently a 'left libertarian' (whatever that is) to feel a huge amount of sympathy with. O.k. people - this is What Needs To Be Done - let's get on with it.