In neoliberalism’s end, a new world’s beginning

This decade saw the seeming death spiral of the neoliberal world order. Now is not the moment for apocalyptic despair but for embracing the antidote of collective power. 

We’ve broken out of the end of history. What’s certain is that the old world is disintegrating, and soon it will not be possible to even pretend that we can return to it. – Mark Fisher, 2010

The politics of the 2010s have probably left you feeling bruised, despairing and fatalistic about the future. Rampant inequality, elite financial corruption, complicit and incompetent politicians, and the emerging signs of environmental collapse have inspired a pre-apocalyptic sentiment among many.  

Most troublingly, we have seen the emergence of a new kind of far-right pseudo-populism. The United Kingdom, United States, India and Brazil have all elected leaders who have risen to power by scapegoating migrants and the poor for the failings of capitalism, while also encouraging their supporters to relish the sadistic pleasure of kicking those lower on the social pyramid.

In South Africa, we have gone through a decade of stagnation and social decay, embodied in the gleeful corruption of Jacob Zuma. He still hovers like a cackling spectre over our national psyche, a reminder that the powerful and super rich may lose official titles but they rarely face true consequences for their greed. 

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The sense that our elected officials are totally disinterested in actually governing was evident during the recent Eskom load shedding. The announcement of new stages six, seven and eight seemed to symbolise a new era of dysfunction, one in which the state can’t even keep the lights on, let alone pretend to deliver social or economic development. 

The widespread, intense flooding that lead to rolling power cuts because of Eskom’s dilapidated and poorly maintained infrastructure was a grim reminder of what American journalist and academic Christian Parenti calls “the catastrophic convergence”. This is the deadly cocktail of extreme weather events, failed neoliberal economic policies and elite corruption triggering a cascade of social and economic breakdown.

During the flooding, a video of a Mercedes-Benz being washed away on the roads of Centurion in Gauteng went viral. It was an apt visual metaphor for the current trajectory of late capitalism, a decade after the 2007 financial crisis – the spoils of consumerism being destroyed by a wrathful nature, while we watch anxiously on social media. And wait for the flood to find us. Last one to die, please turn out the lights.

For a different apocalypse

But while such potently apocalyptic imagery may inspire profound dread, it is only one story about the future. While we are watching the beginning stages of an unprecedented environmental catastrophe, this does not mean human civilisation is doomed to imminent collapse. Rather, what is collapsing is the neoliberal consensus of the past four decades, which in this decade revealed itself as fundamentally incapable of responding to ecological and economic crisis. Faced with the choice between social reform or a retreat into a new kind of post-democratic, Facebook-era fascism, the liberal order is choosing barbarism. 

The exhaustion of this ideology was evident in the South African business media’s response to the Eskom power cuts. While acknowledging the desperate need for South Africa to shift away from fossil fuels to renewable energy, all these were couched in the same pundit language of austerity, reducing collective bargaining rights and lay-offs. Neoliberalism has become like a cult of human sacrifice, in which the working classes are expected to suffer and bleed continually for the inability of the economy to deliver a decent life for all. 

But there is an alternate path, which could secure energy while more broadly advancing democracy and socioeconomic justice. There is no physical or technical barrier to South Africa rapidly transitioning to renewables, while also reskilling fossil fuel workers and creating a green public works programme to tackle our chronic unemployment and failing public infrastructure.  

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We could retrofit our broken cities and towns to meet the climate emergency with decent public housing, accessible transport and beautiful public spaces. We could finally begin to realise the promise of democracy by breaking the addiction to fossil fuels and spatial apartheid that offers only a future of catastrophe and reactionary politics. 

The South African situation is a microcosm of a global malaise. The past decade was culturally defined by a sense of deflation, from the popularity of zombie and apocalypse fiction to the glorification of depression and addiction in contemporary hip-hop. The stories we tell speak the message of No Future, just steadily unfolding catastrophe. 

In the popular imagination, the word apocalypse means the obliteration of human civilisation. But in the original Greek, it has a more expansive meaning. Apocalypse is a revelation about what exists, a pulling back of the curtain to show the world as it really works. 

The apocalyptic dread that pervades contemporary life doesn’t mean that the world is about to end. Rather, it is a symbolic recognition that the political and economic arrangements under which we are yoked are dying. Our leaders and bosses have no idea what they are doing. The feeling that our world could break down at any hour is terrifying. But this very fragility could be a cause for optimism.

Seeds in the snow

Despite the grim tenor of the times, the world is ripe for progressive and emancipatory politics. While the hard right may appear to be winning political hegemony, this victory is by no means guaranteed.  

In 2019 alone there was a remarkable sequence of protests against austerity and authoritarian politics. The force of collective power that can shake the world was seen on the streets of Haiti, Chile, Ecuador, Iraq, Lebanon and many other cities. Despite Labour’s loss in the British elections, internationally the youth are embracing concepts of democratic socialism and economic democracy.  

There were massive climate protests across the globe, with many of the marchers espousing openly anti-capitalist messages. The visibility of movements like Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and the 2015 Fees Must Fall protests in South Africa all dramatically challenged racial and gender hierarchies.

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Beyond the overt politics of parties and social movements is a rich vein of everyday dissatisfaction with capitalism. The global health crisis of anxiety and depression internalises rage that could be aimed outward and focused on creating a world that is actually worth living in. 

Progressive politics should offer more than just reforms. They should celebrate antisystemic rebellion, disobedience and imagination, and offer a world of human connection, environmental harmony and individual freedom that eclipses the pseudo-liberty of the cyberfeudal world order. 

There is no easy path out of our multiplying crisis. But the lesson of the past decade is that all bets are off and the cards are on the table. This decade may end with ghouls like Donald Trump, Jair Bolsanaro and Boris Johnson in power, but it should be remembered that it began with the Arab Spring, anti-austerity protests and Occupy Wall Street. 

Like seeds in melting permafrost, liberatory and emancipatory potential is around and within all of us. It just requires the courage to face the future’s void and grasp for something better.

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