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Review :: Labor
Vivisection of Neoliberalism: Book Review
07 Feb 2008
"There is no such thing as society," said Margaret Thatcher. Society in ther neoliberal picture of the world only exists as a framing condition of the market. "The neoliberral understanding of democracy is marked by skepticism and open hostility." (Ptak)

By Otto Meyer

[This article published in: Ossietzky 24/2007 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,]

“There is no such thing as society” was one of the core sentences of Margaret Thatcher, the “Iron Lady,” who from 1979 as England’s Prime minister, subjected England’s social structure to the drastic neoliberal cure. With “neoliberalism” as their doctrine of salvation, the global capital elites began to counter the fall of profit rates endangering their role since the early 1970s. Their high priests like Friedrich August von Hayek and Milton Friedman propagated a change of policy – away from Keynesian state interventions and the welfare state – to the competition state – without reserve as a “neoliberal counter-revolution.”

The economist Rainer Ptak ascribes almost religious-totalitarian characteristics to neoliberalism. “Formulated in an exaggerated way, neoliberalism represents a project for dissolving politically-organized society. In a nearly idolatrous way, the market with its structure and conditions is the center of all analyses… To that extent, society in the neoliberal picture of the world only exists as a framing condition of the market, as an exogenous reality or synonym for the market. In neoliberal thinking, society is not an independent reality.” Ptak’s detailed analyses are found in his article “Foundations of Neoliberalism” in the book “Critique of Neoliberalism” (“Kritik des Neoliberalismus”) with co-authors Christoph Butterwegge, Bettina Losch and Tim Engarter.

The “neoliberal understanding of democracy is marked by skepticism and open hostility” (Ptak). With their majority of votes, the masses could prompt the governing to demand more taxes from the winners for social balance. But according to neoliberal dogma, the governing would thereby blatantly violate market principles, a sin against the Holy Spirit so to speak. Therefore neoliberals only accept a “controlled democracy.” Governments must submit to the free enterprise practical constraint. “There is no alternative,” Margaret Thatcher said. “International restrictions” were instituted in an independent central bank and Maastricht criteria that hinder the governing from yielding to the temptations of their voters. Neoliberals reserve “an authoritarian option for enforcing free enterprise freedom that in an “emergency” even includes dictatorship.” Ptak’s co-authors concentrate on presenting the neoliberal counter-revolution continuing for over thirty years which in the main western countries must choose the way of continuous “reforms” for tactical reasons. Bettina Losch writes about “the neoliberal hegemony as a danger for democracy.” She thematicizes the “recourse to elite- and competition theories” and the myth of civil society as a rule-free and power-free space.”

In a knowledgeable way, Tim Engartner discusses “Privatization and Liberalization – Strategies for Self-Dethronement of the Public Sector.” Engaged and critical, Christoph Butterwegge in his article “Justification and Consequences of Neoliberal (Social-) Policy” shows the responsible actors from governments and parties in Germany. For example, Peer Steinbruck, the current German finance minister, formulated neo-social democratic morality in 2003: “In the future, social justice must mean promoting those who do something for the future of our country: those who learn and train themselves, who work, have and raise children, who undertake something and create jobs, in short who produce results for themselves and our society. Politics should only look after then.” Butterwegge diagnoses here a “total deformation of the idea of justice” and a breach of the German constitution’s welfare state command.

The authors take sides for social justice, freedom, democracy and emancipation which is everything but self-evident among sociologists. This impressive book deserves many readers who can still get worked up and organize resistance.

The Koln academics should research further! Their work has several blank spaces and can be read as though almost the whole world is in the hands of a tiny clique of conspirators. But how could it happen that the so-called command socialist states imploded and the Keynesian welfare states are also pulled down by the neoliberal movement? What inner contradictions contributed and contribute to the decline of past ideas of society? How did everything go in the wrong direction? Keynesianism with the welfare state and parliamentary democracy dominant until 1970 did not shake the capitalist hierarchy of power and the hegemony of the rich and powerful. The question of ownership of the means of production should supersede play no role in Keynesianism. In truth, it must remain taboo. The profit expectations from the seventies with the welfare- and intervention-state can no longer be guaranteed since students and the working class somewhat ensured by the welfare state demand more. The capital elites changed to the neoliberal horse to more ruthlessly enforce their absolute privilege to rule and capital profits.

These elites needed and need helpers, motivators, founders of religion and opinion-makers to create loyalties. The winners of the neoliberal “reforms” could be investigated. Some estimate the material beneficiaries at over 30 percent of the whole population. The expectations and hopes for more “freedom,” more “self-determination” and more “personal potential” not possible or very inadequately possible in the “one-dimensional society”. (Herbert Marcuse) of Keynesianism with welfare state quotas could be thematicized. In the middle- and lower classes, there was and is a great host of “believers” who expect more from the market and competition than from governmentally organized solidarity. The latter was always associated with coercion. That market pressures are often more severe and oppressive is repressed as long as possible. Is there a new historical project – with many interpolations – for a socialism/communism liberating each and every one?

My desires go far beyond what is allowed a reviewer. I demand something impossible, a “vivisection,” an investigation of the still living body of neoliberalism exploring or unmasking the structures. After its elimination in the hopefully near future, this special development of the capitalist monster can be subjected to an exact “autopsy” or post-mortem.

Christoph Butterwegge, Bettina Lasch, Ralf Ptak and Tim Engartner, “Kritik des Neoliberalismus,” 248 pages, 12.90 E
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