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May 04, 2006

Today's Ruling Ideology is not Neo-Liberalism - it is Neo-Libermanism: Lincoln Allison explains how Evsei Liberman came to run the world

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Today's ruling ideology - at least in the English speaking world - is neo-liberalism, we are often told. Not so, argues University of Warwick politics academic Lincoln Allison. Our ruling ideology is only neo-liberal if Hitler was neo-nice or roast beef is neo-vegetarian. In fact, today's dominant ideology is neo-Libermanism. We are all following a path set by Soviet theorist Evsei Liberman, argues Lincoln Allison.

I have been enraged (formally, at least) in recent conferences on politics by the widespread use of the term "neo-liberal". The current government of our country falls into this category as do most governments in the English-speaking states over the last twenty years. The lowest common denominator of a characteristic of such a government is that they make strenuous efforts to control public expenditure and make it more accountable.

"Neo-liberal" governments make plans, they set aims and objectives, targets and goals. They assess and appraise. They pursue the "failing": their most typical act is the “league table”. They do all this not only to their own departments and agencies, but they reach out also into the traditionally independent sectors of civil society which they fund (a little) and control (a lot). They have done enormous damage in two areas which concern me, universities and sport. In each case governments have set up mechanisms to control organisations which were once much more independent. Thus we have sports council grants and lottery funding which are dependent on government objectives such as "social inclusion" and "excellence". And we have the wretched Research Assessment Exercise, the coffin in which decent university life has been buried. But I have banged on about this lots and will resist the temptation now.

What on earth has this got to do with liberalism? The only thing which liberalism and neo-liberalism would appear to have in common is a belief in competition. But the two kinds of competition are opposites: market competition is uncontrolled and amorphous whereas state pseudo-markets are a technique of manipulation. You don't have to believe in the infallibility of the "free" market to believe that it is going to be more liberal (and more productive) than a competition organised by the state. And real liberals should believe in a large civil society (which would certainly include universities and sports clubs) which is independent of both the state and the market. A system of targets set by the state is not liberal in any way. It is etatiste, quasi-Soviet; it is only neo-liberal if Hitler was neo-nice or roast beef is neo-vegetarian because it is usually served with vegetables.

I suspect it's a misprint. They don't really mean neo-liberalism, but neo-Libermanism.

You will recall that Evsei Liberman of the romantically named Institute of Work and Technology at the University of Kharkhov became the leading reforming theorist of the Soviet Union after the death of Stalin. The context was that the USSR was stagnating, running out of its fund of patriotism and ideological enthusiasm. Although successful in the pet projects of the state (Olympic medals and a man in space) it was falling increasingly behind the West in the production of "consumer goods".

Liberman was given space to criticise the status quo and to suggest that the system needed more competition, which was a good thing provided that it was organised in terms of targets set for the benefit of the people. Liberman argued that, whereas Western forms of competition sometimes served the people by accident, as it were, Soviet competition would serve the people by its nature. Factories would be praised, but also named, shamed and even closed. However there was no prospect of a real entrepreneur: nobody was going to be a billionaire or do anything which the state functionaries hadn't approved or set themselves up as an independent power base.

Liberman was, for a time, very important. His reforms were partly implemented in the USSR and other Comecon countries. In the West the likes of Walt Rostow and Raymond Aron saw him as symptomatic of the "convergence" of the two worlds into a kind of social capitalism run by bureaucrats. He appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1965. His reforms did briefly revive the Soviet economy before it slipped back into an even deeper stagnation which ended with glasnost and perestroika. It was left to Deng Xiaoping, he of the two cats, to introduce real markets into a Communist country. Liberman died in 1983, aged 85; I have no idea what he then believed about the future of the Soviet Union.

"Convergence" was an interesting theory which we have tended to forget since the collapse of the USSR. They came in our direction, didn't they? But we also went in theirs: the convergence thesis at its best was about the nature of the modern state of which the Soviet Union was a kind of hyper-paradigm from which we should have learned lessons, but didn't. Our posthumous mimicry is massive: we pay athletes to win medals in events nobody cares about, we use educational institutions for social engineering projects and we set coercive production targets for goods nobody wants (like academic articles). Anyone who thinks these practices have anything to do with liberalism is an ill-educated idiot.

Lincoln Allison has recently retired as Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick.

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Pray let us not forget the International Meddling Industry, spending hundreds of billions and costing innumerable foreign and domestic lives in the process. Were we neutral, like the Swiss, we would be safer, save fortunes, and still pay the market price for our goods regardless. But there are too many special interests imposing sanctions, obtaining monopolies and invading countries all for spurious motives and dubious benefits at best.

Posted by: s masty at May 9, 2006 05:31 PM
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