PART 1 –Breaking up with TINA
COVID and the future of neoliberal inevitability
Accountants hover over the earth like helicopters,
Dropping small bones engraved with Hegel’s name.
– Robert Bly, An American Dream
THE DISCOVERY OF COVID-19 outbreaks in multiple nations across the world was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) on March 11, 2020, with the US declaring a national emergency on March 13.
With the exception of China and several other Asian nations, which began lockdowns in late January, quarantine and social distancing mandates began shortly after these declarations, an average 82 days ago in 78 countries across the world.
CDC public domain map of countries reporting COVID-19 cases, June 16, 2020
Before the onset of COVID lockdowns, twin political and economic crises were threatening to destabilize the international economic and social order that has dominated the world for nearly four decades. By the end of 2019, all the warning lights on the global economic and political dashboards were blinking red, with policymakers scrambling to find ways to effectively respond on a scale equal to what appeared to be a looming meltdown.
Encoded in the G-7 structure of developed nations, the globalized post-Cold War model that was unraveling in real time had been predicated on rampant financial speculation out of all proportion to actual productivity on one hand, and enormous social inequities, permanent war and environmental degradation on the other hand, provoking ever increasing political instability.
In spite of the well documented severity of across the board pre-COVID political and economic crises, there has been only superficial coverage of a $20 to $40 trillion (minimum initial estimate) global financial and political restructuring that is taking place in response. This is the case largely because the ongoing financial and social engineering is flying under the wholesome banner of emergency stimulus aimed at helping a frightened populace who are under de facto house arrest during a worldwide pandemic.
I call the emerging financial program COVIDNOMICS.
In an incredible irony, the outbreak of broad based and long suppressed civil unrest over the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police has also drawn scrutiny away from this staggering financial reordering, even as it has thrown the cynical hypocrisy of the previous three months lockdown into sharp relief, provoking blistering critiques from leading media commentators on both the putative left and right.
Yet without powerful intervention, COVIDNOMICS will leave in its wake a new global order that is essentially medieval in its underlying social and economic structure.
What follows is the first in a series of articles that retrace the history that brought us to this confluence of crises in sufficient detail to inform and empower the hard work that lies ahead mapping a future of viable democratic self-governance.
MEET TINA, THE GO-GO PARTY GIRL OF 1980’s CAPITALISM
In a series of policy speeches during the 1980’s, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously and repeatedly proclaimed that with the Soviet Union in decline, “There Is No Alternative” to a global neoliberal capitalist order led by Britain and the US. This doctrine was quickly transformed by media pundits into the acronym TINA, with Thatcher herself often tagged as Tina in articles and books about her.
Public domain photo of Thatcher reviewing the Royal Bermuda Regiment in early 1990
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. Thatcher’s acolyte, former US president Ronald Reagan, shared the Christian tinged sense of destiny and Hayekian inevitability encapsulated in the TINA philosophy. In time, it became the guiding doctrine of the G-7 nations.
Political life before COVID had devolved into a series of increasingly intense but inchoate reactions across the world against a sense of fatal historical entrapment originally encoded in Thatcher’s TINA credo of neoliberal capitalist inevitability.
The Brexit vote of 2016 was an early warning sign to globalist elites that the rabble (known in polite discourse as “voters”) were beginning to reject en masse the TINA philosophy of inevitability that has driven global capitalism for nearly four decades. In spite of three years of delay and obfuscation by Euro elites, the populist Brexit movement refused to die, bringing Boris Johnson to power in 2019.
Donald Trump was also elected president of the US in 2016 running on a retrotopian vision of anti-globalism laced with race-baiting populism as a purported antidote to the doctrine of neoliberal inevitability.
During the 18 months before global COVID lockdowns began in March 2020, political upheaval was convulsing neoliberal governments across the world. In January 2020, investment risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft published a report characterizing 2019 as a “nadir for political stability worldwide” and forecasting serious political unrest in 40% of the world’s 193 nations in 2020. In addition to the rise of self-styled anti-globalist leaders in the US and UK, whose economies account for nearly 30% of global GDP, other notable hotspots included:
There had been sustained anti-austerity protests by the Yellow Vest Movement (Mouvement des gilets jaunes) in France for 15 months with 69% public approval.
Weekly street demonstrations over 1 million strong in Chile against austerity and privatization imposed by billionaire corporatist president Sebastián Piñera enjoyed 55% public approval and pushed Piñera’s approval into single digits.
Nearly a year’s worth of anti-austerity, anti-corruption protests in Lebanon pushed the country into political crisis.
There were mass pro-democracy revolts in Hong Kong coupled with economic frustration at wage stagnation even as the Colony had become a wealthy center of global banking.
In Indonesia, protests centered on new laws limiting sexual freedom but were also fueled by economic frustration that Jakarta’s role as a financial center was leaving all but corrupt elites behind.
This wave of popular uprisings is just the latest manifestation of an ongoing revolt that has been shaking the wobbly foundations of globalized post-Cold War capitalism since at least 2008, leaving elites scrambling to find ways to contain the upheaval. While the specific causes of revolt vary in each country, all have in effect been rejecting the TINA doctrine of inevitability, with people rising up with increasing populist vehemence at the ballot box and in the streets.
The speed and ease with which this popular democratic rebellion was suspended worldwide under cover of the COVID-19 pandemic was like a godsend for global elites, who were suddenly inoculated from the virus of popular opinion by a public health emergency.
The predicted second outbreak of greatest concern will not be epidemiological, but political. Understanding why requires a review of how the pre-COVID world got to the brink of collapse at TINA’s hands.
SEEDING THE REBELLION AGAINST INEVITABILITY
Thatcher’s TINA 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 three 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 former 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 ultimately 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 G-7 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 social-economic model in the pre-COVID era, disparate groups worldwide had become the unwitting faces of revolt against inevitability.
Anonymized behind the august facades of global financial institutions, neoliberal capitalism under TINA produced political rage, confusion, panic and a worldwide search for scapegoats and alternatives across the political spectrum.
Before COVID, environmental activists attempted to counter the end-of-history narrative at the heart of TINA with the scientific inevitability of global climate-induced ecological catastrophe. Donald Trump came to power offering a racial or foreign scapegoat for every social and economic malady created by TINA, much like the far-right nationalist parties that emerged across Europe, while Bernie Sanders focused on billionaires and Wall Street.
Leftist movements such as Podemos in Spain or Syriza in Greece also embodied attempted declarations of revolt against the narrative of inevitability, as did the angry vote for Brexit in England and Wales. Even the morally bankrupt homicidal violence of putatively Islamic terrorists was driven in part by what they thought was a definitive rejection of Western inevitability.
Yet lurking global instability was sufficiently alarming that after Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, even the World Bank began talking about the need to move “beyond neoliberal negligence” to a “more durable form of globalization.” In his 2019 book, “The Political Theory of Neoliberalism,” Thomas Biebricher of Goethe University in Frankfurt concluded that pre-COVID neoliberalism had morphed into “an authoritarian liberalism whose reign has only just begun.”
JIHAD vs. McWORLD & THE NEW THEOLOGY OF CAPITAL
Benjamin Barber’s 1992 essay and subsequent book, Jihad vs. McWorld, is a better guide to the pre-Covid politics of rage than the 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 has always been economically feudal, spiritually empty, predicated on permanent war, global poverty and the wreckless destruction of the biosphere.
McWorld has been cutting its destructive path under a self-promoting presumption of historic inevitability because after four decades of the TINA narrative, the underlying rationale of market predestination is no longer economic. It is theological.
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.
One does not have to be Catholic, nor Christian, to appreciate Pope Francis’ warnings against the danger to Christian values from “a deified market” with its “globalization of indifference.” Throughout his tenure, the pope has been 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 have become 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 being subsumed under a market rubric touted as historically preordained.
Brazilian Philosopher Eduardo Giannetti characterizes this new market theology as “extremely aggressive and daring” in its relentless effort to impose market rationality on both the natural world and humanity’s archaic brain. The stone faced god of the market does not offer ecclesiastical indulgences. Giannetti describes a resultant crisis in the “psychic ecology” that mirrors the ecological crisis in the physical environment. (From 2:50 in the video linked above.)
The nearly biblical arrival of the COVID pestilence occurred in the same historical moment that the capitalist ideology of inevitability had become not only theological, but apocalyptic in its refusal to acknowledge limits. COVID confronted a world in which modern capitalism’s instrumentalized view of human nature and nature itself was propelling the planet toward a descent into social chaos and barbarism.
In The Great Transformation, 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 “stark utopia.” The ever increasing chaos of pre-COVID politics represented a spontaneous, ongoing and uncoordinated eruption of resistance against this encroaching sense of inevitable dystopianism.
Under TINA’s false utopian market dispensation, abstract financialization unbound from the messy realities of flesh and blood history had become the purest spiritual expression of theologized markets, with complex debt producing financial transactions acting as the most exalted form of prayer.
The high priests of the new religion include the Chair of the US Federal Reserve bank, the Secretary of the US Treasury Dept, the President of the European Central Bank and their handpicked proxies at the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), while global financial markets have become the modern analogs to the cathedrals at Chartres and Reims.
As in the medieval era, the new religious order requires a vast peasantry to fund its operations. The financial burden for the accumulation of speculative theological debt therefore falls on the public sector, as sovereign states are forced into bankruptcy, privatization and austerity, liquidating social assets to underwrite private debt, and shredding the social contract upon which their citizens depend.
As Barber noted, “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.
COVID vs TINA
A good pandemic has its uses. For the moment, the global outbreak of COVID has granted a temporary reprieve to the TINA loving masters of the universe.
Whatever one thinks of official responses to the COVID-19 virus, irrespective of which nation is examined, the collateral political and economic damage, and the speed with which it is happening, are staggering. By late March and early April 2020, as various forms of government mandated lockdown and “social distancing” were implemented across the planet, nearly all political protest worldwide effectively ended. Indeed, it was declared illegal.
Before COVID, popular CNN correspondent Kat Kinsman, author of “Hi, Anxiety,” echoing Giannetti, observed that a kind of “weaponized uncertainty” was being thrown at nearly everyone on a daily basis via the relentless personal intrusions of globalized social and electronic media, fueling what has been called an "anxiety epidemic" affecting over 40 million people just in the US.
Noted French physciatrist Marie-France Hirigoyen notes the need to be “always in performance, striving to conform to the demands of globalized market culture.” She adds that “its promises of infinite progress have been coupled with a much darker setback: addictions, the rise of inequalities, refusal of the other” and constant “pressure to be flawless.”
With the arrival of COVID, this weaponized anxiety has been even more deeply personalized. Every person is a potential threat, every biological function a potential source of the virus, every overt political act a violation of the isolation and de facto house arrest legally mandated to “keep us safe.”
Meanwhile, the Christian Science Monitor reports that half the world’s workforce, 1.6 billion people, are in immediate danger of losing their livelihoods, adding for emphasis that “…it is far from certain that their jobs will reappear even when the crisis is over.”
The National Institutes for Health reports on surging suicides amidst what they describe as "A global psychological pandemic." Domestic violence and femicide, child neglect and abuse, depression, alcohol and drug abuse have either surged or are expected to surge, while critical medical procedures and preventive care are postponed in nations worldwide as the majority of hospital beds sit empty and many hospitals teeter on the brink of bankruptcy.
A Main Street America survey notes that 7.5 million of 30 million US small businesses are at risk of shutting down permanently under the COVID lockdown, while business bankruptcies had already increased by 26% at the end of April.
And now the streets are burning with the fire not only of popular revolt against systemic racism, but against the tightening grip of inevitability encoded in the COVID lockdown.
It is too early to know where this irruption of protest will lead, but it is clear that the historic demand for racial justice at its heart has also fused with pent up frustration, anger and pain from the COVID lockdown and the shape shifting confusion inherent in speculative, theologized capitalism. It is an explosive mix.
With Donald Trump pushing for a militarized response to the resultant social unrest in the face of historically unprecedented defiance from his own military leaders, the moment is fraught with peril for a constitutional crisis in the US.
However, a new COVIDNOMICS aimed at saving a dollar denominated global economic order had already been in process for several months without meaningful scrutiny or oversight when protests erupted over the murder of George Floyd.
It is thus ironic that the protests and the constitutional showdown they have triggered also serve to draw attention away from an ongoing reconfiguration of the global economy that has no historical parallel. This reconfiguration will restructure not only the world economic order, but the current social order for decades to come.
COMING NEXT: RESCUING TINA WITH COVIDNOMICS
Note: Sections of this article were adapted from my Truthout article, "We Don’t Need Trump or Brexit to Reject the Credo of Neoliberal Market Inevitability.”
This article is part of a series that will be accessible only to paid subscribers. The outline for the series, subject to revision, is:
Part 1 - Breaking up with TINA
Part 2 - Rescuing TINA with COVIDNOMICS
Part 3 - How COVIDNOMICS works - Liquidity
Part 4 - How COVIDNOMICS works - Labor Flexibility, Privatization & IMF Revival
Part 5 - The Present Age, part 1
Part 6 - The Present Age, part 2
Part 6 - Revisiting Polanyi and Other Alternatives
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