In the wake of the June 23 Brexit vote, global media have bristled with headlines declaring the Leave victory to be the latest sign of a historic rejection of “globalization” by working-class voters on both sides of the Atlantic. While there is an element of truth in this analysis, it misses the deeper historical currents coursing beneath the dramatic headlines. If our politics seem disordered at the moment, the blame lies not with globalization alone but with the “There Is No Alternative” (TINA) philosophy of neoliberal market inevitability that has driven it for nearly four decades.
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher introduced the TINA acronym to the world in a 1980 policy speech that proclaimed “There Is No Alternative” to a global neoliberal capitalist order. Thatcher’s vision for this new order was predicated on the market-as-god economic philosophy she had distilled from the work of Austrian School economists such as Friedrich Hayek and her own fundamentalist Christian worldview. Western political life today has devolved into a series of increasingly desperate and inchoate reactions against a sense of fatal historical entrapment originally encoded in Thatcher’s TINA credo of capitalist inevitability. If this historical undercurrent is ignored, populist revolt will not produce much-needed democratic reform. It will instead be exploited by fascistic nationalist demagogues and turned into a dangerous search for political scapegoats.
The Rebellion Against Inevitability
Thatcher’s formulation of neoliberal inevitability manifested itself in a de facto policy cocktail of public sector budget cuts, privatization, financial deregulation, tax cuts for the rich, globalization of capital flows and militarization that were the hallmarks of her administration and a template for the future of the world’s developed economies. After the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, whose coercive state socialism represented capitalism’s last great power alternative, the underlying philosophy of economic inevitability that informed TINA seemed like a prescient divination of cosmic design, with giddy neoconservatives declaring the “end of history” and the triumph of putatively democratic capitalism over all other historical alternatives.
Nearly four decades later, with neoliberalism having swept the globe in triumph through a mix of technological innovation, exploitative financial engineering and brute force, eclipsing its tenuous democratic underpinnings in the process, disgraced British Prime Minister David Cameron maintained his devotion to TINA right up to the moment of Brexit. In a 2013 speech delivered as his government was preparing a budget that proposed 40 percent cuts in social welfare spending, sweeping privatization, wider war in Central Asia and continued austerity, he lamented that “If there was another way, I would take it. But there is no alternative.” Although they may want a change of makeup or clothes, every G7 head of state heeds TINA’s siren song of market inevitability.
As the de facto test subjects for the inexorable media-fueled march of this ubiquitous global model, disparate groups worldwide have become the unwitting faces of revolt against inevitability. Anonymized behind the august facades of global financial institutions, neoliberal capitalism under TINA has produced political rage, confusion, panic and a worldwide search for scapegoats and alternatives across the political spectrum.
The members of ISIS have rejected the highest ideals of Islam in their search for an alternative. Environmental activists attempt to counter the end-of-history narrative at the heart of TINA with the scientific inevitability of global climate-induced ecological catastrophe. Donald Trump offers a racial or foreign scapegoat for every social and economic malady created by TINA, much like the far-right nationalist parties emerging across Europe, while Bernie Sanders focuses on billionaires and Wall Street. Leftist movements such as Podemos in Spain or Syriza in Greece also embody attempted declarations of revolt against the narrative of inevitability, as do the angry votes for Brexit in England and Wales.
Without judging or implying equality in the value of these varied expressions of resistance, except to denounce the murderous ethos of ISIS and any other call to violence or racism, it is clear that each offers seeming alternatives to TINA’s suffocating inevitability, and each attracts its own angry audience.
“Jihad” vs. “McWorld” and the New Theology of Capital
Benjamin Barber’s 1992 essay and subsequent book, Jihad vs. McWorld, is a better guide to the current politics of rage than the daily news media. Barber describes a historic post-Soviet clash between the identity politics of tribalism (“Jihad”) and the forced financial and cultural integration of corporate globalism (“McWorld”).
McWorld is the financially integrated and omnipresent transnational order of wired capitalism that has anointed itself the historic guardian of Western civilization. It is viciously undemocratic in its pursuit of unrestricted profits and violently punitive in response to any hint of economic apostasy. (See Greece.) This new economic order offers the illusion of modernity with its globally wired infrastructure and endless stream of consumerist spectacles, but beneath the high-tech sheen, it is spiritually empty, predicated on permanent war, global poverty and is destroying the biosphere.
McWorld cuts its destructive path under a self-promoting presumption of historic inevitability, because after more than four decades of the TINA narrative, the underlying rationale of market predestination is no longer economic. It is theological. A historic transformation of market-based economic ideology into theology underpins modern capitalism’s instrumentalized view of human nature and nature itself.
Descriptions such as “free-market fundamentalism” and “market orthodoxy” are not mere figures of speech. They point to a deeper, technologically powered religious metamorphosis of capitalism that needs to be understood before a meaningful political response can be mounted. One does not have to be Christian, nor Catholic, to appreciate Pope Francis’ warnings against the danger to Christian values from “a deified market” with its “globalization of indifference.” The pope is explicitly acknowledging a new theology of capital whose core ethos runs counter to the values of both classical and religious humanism.
Under the radically altered metaphysics of theologized capitalism, market outcomes are sacred and inevitable. Conversely, humanity and the natural world have been desacralized and defined as malleable forms of expendable and theoretically inexhaustible capital. Even life-sustaining ecosystems and individual human subjectivity are subsumed under a market rubric touted as historically preordained.
This is a crucial difference between capitalism today and capitalism even 50 years ago that is not only theological but apocalyptic in its refusal to acknowledge limits. It has produced a global, social and economic order that is increasingly feudal, while also connected via digital technologies.
Economic historian Karl Polanyi warned in 1944 that a false utopian belief in the ability of unfettered markets to produce naturally balanced outcomes would produce instead a dystopian “stark utopia.” Today’s political chaos represents a spontaneous and uncoordinated eruption of resistance against this encroaching sense of inevitable dystopianism. As Barber noted, what he refers to as “Jihad” is not a strictly Islamic phenomenon. It is localism, tribalism, particularism or sometimes classical republicanism taking a stand, often violently, acting as de facto social and political antibodies against the viral contagions of McWorld.
The historically ordained march of theologized neoliberal capitalism depends for its continuation on a belief by individuals that they are powerless against putatively inevitable forces of market-driven globalization. It is too early to know where the widely divergent outbreaks of resistance on display in 2016 will lead, not least because they are uncoordinated, often self-contradictory or profoundly undemocratic, and are arising in a maelstrom of confusion about core causation.
One lesson nonetheless seems clear. The “power of the powerless” has been awakened globally. Whether this awakening will spark a movement towards equitable, ecologically sustainable democratic self-governance is an open question. Many of today’s leading political theorists caution against an outdated Enlightenment belief in progress and extol the virtues of philosophic pessimism as a hedge against historically groundless optimism. Amid today’s fevered populist excitements triggered by a failure of utopian faith in market inevitability, such cautionary thinking seems like sound political advice.