I have attended a number of lectures and events on neo-liberalism and the problems of capitalism over the last few months (see here, here, here, here and here). These have, in various ways, demonstrated the contradictions of capitalism and the inequalities it produces as well as the contemporary neo-liberal strategies which serve to increase capital accumulation through the expansion of markets. Some of the speakers and commenters at these events have expressed a disillusionment with the potential of an alternative to contemporary forms of capitalism. Perhaps even more worrying has been a bewilderment with the lack of the emergence of an alternative from the left in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. The most recent of these events really made me sure that the issue is not a lack of alternatives but the relationship between the alternatives and perception of what constitutes a realistic option.
This recent fantastic talk I attended at Leeds Metropolitan University by Matt Sparkes discussed the relationship between neo-liberalism and credit in Britain. A comment made by Milton Friedman in Capitalism and Freedom was highlighted in which he stated that:
“Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.” (1982, p. xiv)
This led to a discussion which was similar to ones at the other events with people asking why the left has not been able to articulate a viable alternative. Friedman's point is astute but somewhat disingenuous as it is not the case that his ideas were merely lying around and so were therefore taken up by politicians. Rather, his ideas were positioned in the right place and at the right time.
In the most recent financial crisis there were plenty of ideas “lying around” and many alternatives. The more pessimistic tend to emphasise that what is needed is a “viable” or “realistic” alternative.
Alternatives of varying degrees of viability were very much in existence at the time of the recent crash ranging from classical Marxist proposals of revolution, accellerationists claims for the speeding up of capitalism to quicken its destruction of itself, David Harvey's suggestion for a zero growth economy, Occupy's calls for the collective actions of the “99%” and more moderate proposals of a citizen's incomes. While some or perhaps all of these might be deemed unrealistic by some people neo-liberalism wasn't deemed viable until it was implemented (indeed Heath's experiment with neo-liberalism was an abject failure in the early 1970s as Sparkes also demonstrated).
To criticise the alternatives offered by the left as unrealistic is counter-productive as any meaningful change seems impossible until it happens. Those who call for change but think that it must fit neatly with the established order perhaps do not really want change. The success of the neo-liberal project, as Sparkes showed in his paper, was not in the force of their ideas but in the manipulation of the social and political framework to fit the philosophy not the reverse. Perhaps there is not a clear or agreed method of shifting political discourse to suit a leftist philosophy but there are alternatives to neo-liberalism.