Wednesday, May 16, 2007

What's the difference between a neo-conservative and a neo-liberal?

Both want economic policies that open borders to capital flows. The answer might give insight into the clash of outlooks that lead to the uprising against Paul Wolfowitz at The World Bank. Commonly reported as a clash between a "liberal-humanitarian" organization and the hawkish Wolfowitz, it's been assumed the halls were buzzing with resentment even before he arrived at his post. While it's easy to imagine the furor, I can't go along with the description of the tension as a classic liberal vs. conservative clash. The World Bank is known for executing policies which have been shown to further disadvantage the poor in countries where the WB purports to improve their conditions. For example, their policies have favored privatization of water putting human needs further out of reach of the poor. In repayment demands, they have expected governments to impose strict austerity measures including drastic cuts to health and human services. Back to our title question, what's the difference between a neo-conservative and a neo-liberal? To quote Woody Guthrie, one robs you with a six-gun; one with a fountain pen.

There's not so much a policy difference between them but rather the acceptable degree of coercion to back it up. Remember Wolfowitz's original faux-pas at the Bank was not this alleged preferential treatment. (Hey, they approved it. What gives?) No. The true offense was his decision to undermine a loan deal the Bank had spent years discussing by suddenly retracting the offer in the face-to-face meeting with the client, accusing the client of corruption thereby humiliating them and the Bank's representatives. The maneuver confirmed the prejudice of Wolfowitz as a self-righteous bully so convinced of the morality of his view, he feels no need to discuss his judgements--precisely the hubris that landed us in Iraq.

Europeans have a healthy suspicion of bullies and idealism. They will not be bullied and have taken the coward's path to remove one. The World Bank is itself a bully with a polite face. Wolfowtiz unmasked it. His bravado and authoritarian style does not fit with the Bank's desired image. That they routinely allow funds to be diverted to corrupt regimes is only one of their hypocrisies. Crushing Wolfowitz for "corruption" is another. The irony and the sting of this tactic is that he is not corrupt, but rather an ideologue-a true believer- and that is precisely what has made him a danger in positions of power.


yammerskooner said...

"Marx argues that the very completion of [capitals] fetishistic system brings about the moment of capital's political truth, the moment of historical crisis when 'private enterprise' is revealed as social government (and, therefor, as democratically accountable), and the political-economic reality of capitalist society suddenly appears in public culture as fetishistic (that is, as an alien and perversely unnatural reality). Marx located this moment not in the extreme development of the commercialization of social appearances, where readers of Baudrillard might look for it, but in the full development of financial fetishism. The credit-debt system is the fullest institutional expression of a society's relation to itself over time: it is the realization of that social metaphysics which Marx believed to be the true transcendent 'other world' existing within the immanent material world inhabited by human individuals. . . . In chapters 24 to 27 of Capital, volume 3, Marx discusses the evolution of interest-bearing capital (capital's 'pure fetish form') into the general (global) credit system. In the consolidation of a unified credit system, capital both fulfills itself for itself and dis-credits itself in the eyes of society. . . . The social truth of capital - that it is a means of materially temporalizing those social obligations (fulfilled in the performance of types of socially valued labor) by which a population seeks to control and determine its collective future - is increasingly visible the more that capital becomes increasingly concentrated in big investment funds subject to the global credit-debt system. The micropolitical fact that our real social government consists of the private, undemocratic decisions made by corporations and banks becomes visible in the macropolitics of social security funds and international debt." --William Pietz, Fetishism and Materialism: The Limits of Theory in Marx

Jeremy said...

One could add that some "neo-conservatives" (e.g. Irving Kristol) used to think of themselves as on the political left. This is one reason that "paleo"-conservatives have been able to criticize the neo's once the Iraq venture fell on hard times.

Neo-liberals, as far as I know, never claimed to be something else before; "neo" seems to emphasize that there was a revival of radical, (neo-)classical economic theory that abhores anything that is not subject to "market forces." Neo-liberalism took off after the collapse of state socialism in Eastern Europe. "Shock therapy" in Poland was one of it's best-known expressions. Neo-liberalism is not as popular as it once was. Jeffrey Sachs, author of the Polish economic transition, is now pushing for Third World disease relief as an economic development strategy.