The turn of the 1980s marked the beginning of a new era in the Euro- Atlantic world: Inspired by the work of neoliberal economists and legal scholars, the “conservative revolutionaries” who came to power during these pivotal years used their offices to undermine the thinking and dismantle the institutional framework upon which welfare capitalism had rested. In their view, the role of the government was not to protect vulnerable segments of the population from the potential violence of market relations but, instead, to shelter the allegedly fragile mechanisms of the market from stifling rules and the disabling influence of so-called “special interests” which ranged from organized labor to protectors of the environment. They also believed that, once markets were properly shielded, their domain could be extended beyond the traditional borders of the private sector.
Eager to blunt the resistance raised by their agenda, neoliberal reformers initiated a series of deregulations, regarding capital flow and asset creation, that were meant to replace social protection and guaranteed employment with abundant and accessible credit—thereby endowing all economic agents with entrepreneurial ambitions and discipline. Yet, under the guise of diffusing the ethos of the self-reliant entrepreneur throughout the entire population, their reforms eventually enabled the speculative logic of financial markets to preside over the allocation of resources on a global scale. Thus, far from restoring thrift and frugality as the virtuous paths to personal independence and lasting profit, the reign of deregulated finance defined success as leverage, understood as the ability to invest with borrowed funds, and compelled the less fortunate to stake their livelihood on perennial indebtedness.
Much more than a mood swing, whereby the advocates of freer markets would temporarily prevail over the harbingers of a more protective State, the policies instigated under Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, and further refined by their “Third Way” successors, have successively transformed everything from corporate management to statecraft, household economics to personal relations. In the world shaped by these transformations—a world where the securitization of risks and liabilities greatly widens the realm of potentially appreciable assets—even the criteria according to which individuals are incited to evaluate themselves no longer match the civic, business, and family values respectively distinctive of political, economic, and cultural liberalism.
Along the way, the purchase of markets and “market solutions” has expanded to a range of domains hitherto associated with public services or common goods—from education to military intelligence to environmental stewardship. Simultaneously, the number and purview of democratically debatable issues has been drastically reduced by the sway of “good governance” and “best practices”—two notions originating in a corporate culture devoted to the creation of shareholder value but later co-opted by public officials whose main concern is the standing of the national debt in bondholders’ eyes.
For a long time, many critics on the left hoped that the changes they were witnessing might be transient. As the unconstrained quest for short-term capital gain would bear its bitter fruits, the thinking went, gaping inequalities and the prospect of an environmental catastrophe would induce elected officials to change course or, if they failed to do so, expose them to a massive popular upheaval. However, neither the steady deterioration of labor conditions nor the increasingly alarming damages caused to the environment has acted as the anticipated wake up call. To the contrary, the aftermath of the Great Recession has demonstrated the remarkable resilience of a mode of government, disseminated across public and private institutions, that gives precedence to the gambles on tomorrow’s presumptive profits over the mending of today’s social woes and the prevention of after-tomorrow’s ecological disaster.
Once filled with the hopes and apprehensions of radical change, the near future has been taken over by speculations on investors’ tastes. As such, it mandates the sacrifice of the present and the deferral of any serious grappling with long-term sustainability. Yet, for those who wish to uncover alternative trajectories, the ultimate purpose of exposing the current dominance of speculators and the nefarious effects of their short-termism is not to forego the near future but to find ways of reclaiming it.