Liberalism in an age of market fundamentalism
The preponderance of current left “liberal” and right “liberal” arguments in favour of the campaign for Britain to remain in the EU fall far short of the holistic notion of liberty, an intellectual legacy attributable to the great thinkers of post-industrial society – a notion that is unfortunately increasingly side-lined in public discourses in the neo-liberal world. The travesty is the usurpation of liberalism by economism – the economics of free trade, free flow of capital and free movement of labour. The problem with such left and right liberal arguments is that they reductively equate humanity with labour, conflate human freedom with the right to access markets freely and believe that human social relations are best expressed within a framework that allows free movement of commoditized money.
Theirs’ is the rhetoric of the free market and anyone who favours Brexit is illiberal and by implication either right wing fascist or rabid nationalist. The risk this entails is the conflation by “liberals” of genuine desires amongst significant sections of the British public for social protection, localized stability and meaningful co-operation under re-negotiated international institutional arrangements on the one hand, with the visceral arguments of extreme representatives within the Leave campaign, on the other. In effect, this risks putting campaign over construct, effectively clouding judgement beyond repair.
But perhaps that should not come as a surprise any more. After all, we live in an age of market fundamentalism. An age where meanings and expressions are coloured ex-ante by interpretations that privilege notions associated with the free market. An age in which society is believed to be liberal when its members are “free to choose”. These are freedoms of choice that must be exercisable at all times in matters of consumption and employment. In matters of investment and trade. In matters of travel and leisure. Any protective move, even collective and voluntary, towards the restriction of such choices is inherently deemed illiberal.
For, in this version of the neo-liberal world, all liberty is economic and it is only through economic prosperity that humans in society are deemed capable of attaining social fulfillment. By implication, this is a doctrine that calls for the removal of economic barriers. To take the alternative position is to risk attracting the charge of promoting narrow nationalist or sectarian interests at the cost of a larger integration of global humanity – the globalization project.
The reality of society
And yet, there is an inherent problem in this economistically situated “liberal” argument. Try as we might, three centuries of advancement in science, technology and industry have failed to “liberate” man from the fundamental reality of society. Possibilities of inter-stellar mobility co-exist with the de-humanizing realities of conflict driven inter-territorial migration. Advances in healthcare remain beyond the reach of billions. Dignified housing is a pipe-dream for billions in Asia and Africa. Higher education constantly seeks to enrich and innovate itself and yet affordable, quality public higher education is increasingly eluding the grasp of millions in the West just as it has remained a moving target for the societies of the East.
The reality of society is the reality of its communities, of its localized human constituents who inhabit its localized spaces. There is nothing deterministic or evolutionary about how communities have come to inhabit their local spaces in the present neo-liberal world. They live as they do in the slums of Mumbai, the “roughs” of London, the Syrian refugee camps of Jordan and Greece, the Roma habitations in Slovakia and Romania and the homeless shelters of Chicago, because of choices “we” make – not “we” collectively as global citizens of a make-believe globalized world, but, “we” the local political and intellectual elite within each of our societies.
We choose to unquestioningly cast our lot with the promised land of the global, free market without borders – the promised land where we would be free to choose ad infinitum. We choose the lure of the promised land over the reality of society. We choose to ignore the reality that humans are inherently protective – about themselves and their families, the communities into which they are born and raised, about their livelihood and their dignity, and the social relations in which they live. Any system that chooses to ignore the reality of society must eventually rest on tenuous foundations however much it may aspire to be part of a “Union”.
As we await the outcome of the vote in Britain, “we” must remind ourselves that this is not a vote about narrow arguments predicated on global financial market impact, the UK’s international trade prospects or its international reputation as a “liberal” society. This is about the right of the British people to protect their aspirations to lead stable lives in stable communities across the UK. It is about the aspiration of the members of the British working class to be able to afford a dignified home, a decent standard of life, affordable and inclusive education for their children and decent retirement prospects – hopes which have been increasingly frustrated in the face of large scale financialization, bail-outs and rising obscene inequality. In this sense, such aspirations are representative of movements within communities and societies world-wide that seek self-protection from the forces of the self-regulating market.
The threat that these objectives are impossible to achieve under Brexit and must require free trade and free movement of labour under a unified Europe for their fulfillment, is precisely just that – a threat; one that seeks submission by evoking fear and anxiety of the consequences of seeking protection within the confines of locality and community. One cannot wish away the fact that nearly one half of the sampled votes in several online and telephone surveys in the last several weeks prefer Brexit.
This significant viewpoint is perhaps as much a reaction against the consequences of the operation of three decades of post-Thatcherite liberal market ideology within Britain as it is, now, against the looming prospect of an enduring single market – a bigger and more precarious version in the expanding neo-liberal project. For the “liberals” however, notions of international competitiveness appear to have completely displaced imperatives of social stability in a mindless archetypal discourse that ignores how an unhappy or unstable Britain, already in the grip of economic uncertainty, would contribute stability to a struggling EU by choosing to Remain, or vice versa.