Alternatives to Neoliberalism? A retro conversation with the British Left and Ha-Joon Chang

March 26, 2014 1 By Duncan Green

Had a fun and slightly retro evening last week launching ‘Critique, Influence, Change’, a new series of Zed Books (actually new editions of some of their Zed launchold books), along with my friend and guru Ha-Joon Chang and Ellie Mae O’Hagan, a smart young Guardian columnist/activist in Occupy and UK Uncut. The Zed series includes a new edition of Ha-Joon’s 2004 book Reclaiming Development (with Ilene Grabel).

The topic was ‘alternatives to neoliberalism’, hence the retro – haven’t heard that phrase for a while. Back in the 1990s, I was writing books on Latin America with whole chapters devoted to the topic. Then, the debate was between alternatives within capitalism, and alternatives outside it. These days, most discussions seem to be happening within the first category (with the notable exception of the whole planetary boundaries/limits to growth debate).

Why? Because it has become increasingly clear that neoliberalism is only one variant of capitalism, and not a very successful one at that. The rise of state capitalism (China), the rediscovery of the need for an activist state (industrial policy) and the spectacular financial crashes of 1998 (Asia) and 2008 (everywhere) means that the old anglo-saxon doctrine of ‘state bad, market good and if it moves, deregulate it’ doesn’t hold much weight any more.

But as Ellie Mae said, quoting Žižek, ’these days, it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.’ In Latin America, there seems to have been lots of progress over the last 20 years in constructing new kinds of politics and social movements, but economic policy ideas don’t stretch far beyond resource nationalism (Venezuela, Bolivia) and cautious, market-friendly social democracy (Brazil). In Africa, there’s been lots of progress on human development, some on governance, but most economies are even more dependent than ever on digging up and exporting everything that lies beneath African soil (and sea). Asia is pursuing various forms of capitalism, but experimenting more with social policy. There are plenty of ideas (eg the ‘social and solidarity economy’) at local level, but they have not gelled into national alternatives, as far as I can see.

As for Oxfam, we increasingly focus on promoting poor people’s ‘power in markets’, eg supporting women to enter the money economy on better terms, or strengthening producer organizations to get a better deal.

Down with this sort of thingQ&A centred on people lamenting the state of the British Left (or even whether such a thing still exists). Not really my field, but hopefully the much more positive lessons from elsewhere in the world eased their pain. I was particularly struck by a discussion on culture v politics. Culture is a crucial part of building any movement – people come together partly because they find they have things in common in terms of experience (frustration, oppression) and values (faith, purpose). They should celebrate and build on those.

But problems start when that becomes a substitute for political action – politics as lifestyle statement can become hugely self defeating. John O’Farrell’s hilarious book on the British Left under Margaret Thatcher recalls (only half jokingly) a time when even smiling and eating vegetables came to be seen as somehow Tory. We need to have the confidence to talk to, understand, even empathise with people who don’t share our values, and build alliances with them. Discomfort is good, circling the wagons around a lifestyle is not. Or as Ellie put it ‘’Activism fails when it becomes a lifestyle, cloaked in jargon.’

I did my usual thing about how the role of activists is often to clarify a problem to get it on the agenda, rather than delude ourselves that we have the policy solutions to fix it – a good killer fact is worth many unread pages of recommendations, as our recent KFs on inequality demonstrate.

A trade campaigner retorted that it’s pretty weak to go into meetings or press interviews and say ‘there’s a problem, but I have no answers’. What alternatives are there? On trade, Ha-Joon Chang demonstrates one brilliant alternative – the lessons of history. When he wrote Kicking Away the Ladder, the discussion on trade and globalization was largely taking place in a  vacuum, dominated by voodoo modelling rather than learning from what successful countries actually did on trade policy. I watched Ha-Joon transform the morale of developing country delegates at the WTO simply by pointing out the extraordinary historical hypocricy of the rich countries (who pioneered industrial policy and protectionism) in telling them to liberalize.

If you want more, check out the collected tweets and pics – the new (and much more accessible) version of minutes.

Stop Press: Prospect Magazine is a World Thinkers’ poll, which includes Ha-Joon – you know what to do.

Update: Zed’s put together this rather nice 15m video of our discussion