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Protest Planet: How a Neoliberal Shell Game Created an Age of Activism

Posted on Nov 12, 2011
ericwagner (CC-BY)

A protester raises an endorsement of the worldwide Occupy movement at Occupy San Francisco.

By Juan Cole

This article was originally published by TomDispatch.

From Tunis to Tel Aviv, Madrid to Oakland, a new generation of youth activists is challenging the neoliberal state that has dominated the world ever since the Cold War ended.  The massive popular protests that shook the globe this year have much in common, though most of the reporting on them in the mainstream media has obscured the similarities. 

Whether in Egypt or the United States, young rebels are reacting to a single stunning worldwide development: the extreme concentration of wealth in a few hands thanks to neoliberal policies of deregulation and union busting. They have taken to the streets, parks, plazas, and squares to protest against the resulting corruption, the way politicians can be bought and sold, and the impunity of the white-collar criminals who have run riot in societies everywhere. They are objecting to high rates of unemployment, reduced social services, blighted futures, and above all the substitution of the market for all other values as the matrix of human ethics and life.

Pasha the Tiger

In the “glorious thirty years” after World War II, North America and Western Europe achieved remarkable rates of economic growth and relatively low levels of inequality for capitalist societies, while instituting a broad range of benefits for workers, students, and retirees. From roughly 1980 on, however, the neoliberal movement, rooted in the laissez-faire economic theories of Milton Friedman, launched what became a full-scale assault on workers’ power and an attempt, often remarkably successful, to eviscerate the social welfare state.


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Neoliberals chanted the mantra that everyone would benefit if the public sector were privatized, businesses deregulated, and market mechanisms allowed to distribute wealth. But as economist David Harvey argues, from the beginning it was a doctrine that primarily benefited the wealthy, its adoption allowing the top 1% in any neoliberal society to capture a disproportionate share of whatever wealth was generated.

In the global South, countries that gained their independence from European colonialism after World War II tended to create large public sectors as part of the process of industrialization. Often, living standards improved as a result, but by the 1970s, such developing economies were generally experiencing a leveling-off of growth. This happened just as neoliberalism became ascendant in Washington, Paris, and London as well as in Bretton Woods institutions like the International Monetary Fund. This “Washington consensus” meant that the urge to impose privatization on stagnating, nepotistic postcolonial states would become the order of the day.

Egypt and Tunisia, to take two countries in the spotlight for sparking the Arab Spring, were successfully pressured in the 1990s to privatize their relatively large public sectors. Moving public resources into the private sector created an almost endless range of opportunities for staggering levels of corruption on the part of the ruling families of autocrats Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunis and Hosni Mubarak in Cairo. International banks, central banks, and emerging local private banks aided and abetted their agenda.

It was not surprising then that one of the first targets of Tunisian crowds in the course of the revolution they made last January was the Zitouna bank, a branch of which they torched. Its owner? Sakher El Materi, a son-in-law of President Ben Ali and the notorious owner of Pasha, the well-fed pet tiger that prowled the grounds of one of his sumptuous mansions. Not even the way his outfit sought legitimacy by practicing “Islamic banking” could forestall popular rage. A 2006 State Department cable released by WikiLeaks observed, “One local financial expert blames the [Ben Ali] Family for chronic banking sector woes due to the great percentage of non-performing loans issued through crony connections, and has essentially paralyzed banking authorities from genuine recovery efforts.” That is, the banks were used by the regime to give away money to his cronies, with no expectation of repayment.

Tunisian activists similarly directed their ire at foreign banks and lenders to which their country owes $14.4 billion. Tunisians are still railing and rallying against the repayment of all that money, some of which they believe was borrowed profligately by the corrupt former regime and then squandered quite privately.

Tunisians had their own 1%, a thin commercial elite, half of whom were related to or closely connected to President Ben Ali. As a group, they were accused by young activists of mafia-like, predatory practices, such as demanding pay-offs from legitimate businesses, and discouraging foreign investment by tying it to a stupendous system of bribes. The closed, top-heavy character of the Tunisian economic system was blamed for the bottom-heavy waves of suffering that followed: cost of living increases that hit people on fixed incomes or those like students and peddlers in the marginal economy especially hard.

It was no happenstance that the young man who immolated himself and so sparked the Tunisian rebellion was a hard-pressed vegetable peddler. It’s easy now to overlook what clearly ties the beginning of the Arab Spring to the European Summer and the present American Fall: the point of the Tunisian revolution was not just to gain political rights, but to sweep away that 1%, popularly imagined as a sort of dam against economic opportunity.

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By prosefights, November 19, 2011 at 8:31 pm Link to this comment

Fracking mess?

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By prosefights, November 19, 2011 at 6:41 pm Link to this comment

msm bs?

“People understand now that Iran is determined to reach nuclear weapons,” Barak, a former Israeli prime minister, said on CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS” in an interview to be aired tomorrow. “The countdown toward nuclear materials in the hands of terrorists will start, even if it takes half a generation. But more than this, they will use the nuclear umbrella to kind of intimidate neighbors all around the Gulf to sponsor terror.”

Think electricty generation?

Scary stuff?

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By prosefights, November 15, 2011 at 9:01 pm Link to this comment

Scary stuff.

Sunday November 13, 2011 07:29

The US leader was rebuffed when he demanded private guarantees that a strike would not go ahead without White House notification, suggesting that Israel no longer plans to ‘‘seek Washington’s permission’‘, sources said.

Romney said that if “crippling sanctions” and other strategies fail, military action would be on the table because it is “unacceptable” for Iran to become a nuclear power.

Gingrich agreed, saying that if “maximum covert operations” and other strategies failed there would be no other choice. First, though, the United States consider “taking out their scientists,” and “breaking up their systems, all of it covertly, all of it deniable,” Gingrich said.

Field trip.

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By gerard, November 15, 2011 at 6:01 pm Link to this comment

Neoliberalism—neoconservatism—just two examples of making up words to cover up lies. Neither -ism is or was new.  Both were efforts to deceive working people (lower and middle classes) in order to siphon off more public money into private bank accounts. Both are based on capitalism. Both hate the “common peope,” the “masses”, the majorities in every country on earth. Both despise democracy. It is inevitable that such “systems” breed what Cole calls “activism” which could more accurately be called “revolt.”  Naturally. What else is left for people at the bottom of the ladder when a few at the top own everything?
  Meantime, those at the top know what is coming, and instead of acting reasonably, they act unreasonably and employ armies and police forces to “fight off” the “masses” of “underdogs.” (Vocatular tells it all!)
  Recent uprisings are historically unique. The “underdogs” are refusing blood-and-guts civil wars. Something tells them in the depths of their young hearts that there has to be a better way.  They look to nonviolent methods practiced by the Mahatma in India and theoretically explored by sociologists like Gene Sharp.  They see possibilities.  They have imaginations. They are willing to explore alternatives. 
  More power to them!  If the human race has a future, it will be with them, not with the “neocons” and the “military-industrial complexes” and the Wall Street thieves and the perennial prophets of “blood in the streets.”

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By prosefights, November 14, 2011 at 5:22 pm Link to this comment

The most infamous quote, “Israel must be wiped off the map”, is the most glaringly wrong. In his October 2005 speech, Mr. Ahmadinejad never used the word “map” or the term “wiped off”. According to Farsi-language experts like Juan Cole and even right-wing services like MEMRI, what he actually said was “this regime that is occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time.”

Imam ghoft een rezhim-e ishghalgar-e qods bayad az safheh-ye ruzgar mahv shavad.

We’re after our stolen #22,036.

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By Solidarity_withthe_Masses, November 14, 2011 at 1:34 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Do not confuse neoliberal with liberal. “Neoliberal” is the official term for
economic/fiscal policies & approaches that we often refer to as “Reaganomics” or
“Trickle-Down Theory.” (This article also explains why I hate that Reagan-lovers
have been “teaching” our children that Ronald Reagan was a hero… he’s only a
hero to the wealthiest in that he convinced the world that
neoliberalism/reaganomics benefits everyone. psh!)

There is nothing liberal about neoliberalism.

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By Inherit The Wind, November 14, 2011 at 4:55 am Link to this comment

Thank you, Prof. Cole for a BRILLIANT article that untangles and clarifies the progressive protest movements around the globe, connecting the Arab Spring, the Indignados, Chile, OWS and amazing, Israel.

I have long argued in this space that Israel is NOT the problem but that the Likud and the power of the Right and religious fanatics, including the settlements, is.  Prof. Cole clarifies this superbly, and, even though they know EVENTUALLY they must, Israel’s movement, for now, is staying away from the mistreatment of the Palestinians.  If they can take back Israel, and return it to the progressive, liberal state it was intended as, then they’ll be able to bring about a just peace with a new Palestinian state.  The Likud’s predatory, deceptive and illegal actions virtually ENSURE another Intifada—and I believe those bastards want EXACTLY that.  Just as Bush used 9/11 to roll out the Patriot Act, they’ll continue to provoke Arab violence and then use it to suppress Israeli dissidence.

Neo-Liberals and Neo-Conservatives are not the same thing, thought it’s sometimes hard to tell. As Neo-Conservatives are NOTHING like true Conservatives (a nearly extinct breed), so Neo-Liberals are nothing like Liberals.  A Neo-Liberal is no more a liberal than a butterfly is butter or a fly.

Interestingly, Prof. Cole also shows how unions HAVE been a key to ALL the movements, but how the now-reactionary Murdoch-type press has suppressed that key information, so the link between Wisconsin and the Arab Spring (and OWS) isn’t made in the press.

Bravo, Juan! Well done!

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By Stilley Periodical, November 13, 2011 at 9:25 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

neoconservative is an ideological position of free markets and deregulation.

neoliberal is a calculated position of capitalists to take power from people and move it to corporations.

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By Marian Griffith, November 13, 2011 at 2:30 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Outside of the USA liberal means something different. They would call the american neocons neoliberals.

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By Fearless, November 13, 2011 at 12:19 pm Link to this comment
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By charro, November 13 at 10:20 am

“Neoliberal?? Don’t you mean ‘neoconservative’?”

Neoliberalism and Neoconservatism are often used interchangeably due to their frequent intersecting and convergence as justifications for imperialism.

Neoliberalism, to my understanding, promotes the utmost privatization of capital and resources as means to most efficiently achieving its goal of liberalized free trade. 

Neoconservativism, to my understanding, seems to be a more socially-driven ideology which tends to champion the US’s role in spreading democracy throughout the world, often through resolutely unilateral action and/or assistance.

Neoconservativism seems to be used as a thin veil for neoliberal motives. In my opinion, neither justify aggressive intervention.

Funny how Juan Cole derides neoliberalizism given his wholesale endorsement of NATO’s criminal bombing of Libya to privatize the country’s oil and banking.

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By charro, November 13, 2011 at 10:20 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Neoliberal?? Don’t you mean “neoconservative”?

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By balkas, November 13, 2011 at 8:31 am Link to this comment

as i have been suggesting for yrs, it is best to chuck away all isms and just ask
for healthcare, free education for all, and the right TO KNOW.
young people [99.9999% of them] on the right, left, center or wherever cld unite
on these issues and never let go of them no matter what the 0001 to 30% of
americans say, do, or think.

for now ignore catholicism, mosheism, islamism, socialism, capitalism,
communism, liberalism, baptism, lutheranism, social ‘science’, scientology,
psychiatry, sociology, political ‘sciences’, monetarism, any ideology whatever,

this ends millennial history/mystory for all time; never ever allow its return or
rerun!  tnx bozhidar balkas vancouver

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