20 things you can do to roll back neoliberal capitalism and live a better life– Part 1

20 things you can do to roll back neoliberal capitalism and live a better life– Part 1
Richard Hil

Time to talk

Activists are constantly wanting, waiting and hoping to affect some sort of change. It’s why they’re activists. They don’t always agree about the change they want, or how to achieve it – and that’s OK.

There are of course many pathways to change, not all of them grand, revolutionary or universal, but each contribute to a transformational space process. If the change we’re after is a more equitable, peaceful and sustainable world then we need relevant, meaningful conversations that are grounded in the reality of our everyday lives. These conversations are both urgent and necessary. It may sound clichéd, but we do indeed face many intersecting crises, not least that of anthropogenic climate change. 

This is a major existential threat for which the only answer is to replace the current rapacious economic system with something else – something more attuned to ecological survival, wellbeing and social/personal fulfilment. How we achieve this remains open to question, but it’s clear we’re witnessing the fissures and ruptures of a system on the verge of collapse. The most pressing imperative at this juncture is time: there’s not too much of it left before the full suite of catastrophes envelopes the globe. Equally concerning is the hiatus created by public disillusionment in liberal democracies and the opportunity this affords to various nefarious figures and movements.  

What’s imperative now, perhaps more than ever, is a global social movement united around a common set of principles. We need more than the usual critique of neoliberal capitalism – vital though this is. The task now, surely, is to urgently consider the values, principles, policies and practices required to guide us to a different future. That’s the challenge. 

There are plenty of people out there seeking to wrap their heads around a change agenda. It’s worth touching on some of their views and ideas. In Part 2 of this article, I will draw on some of these ideas to suggest a list of things we can all do (within our spheres of influence) to make change happen.

Thinking about activism

In The Activist’s Handbook, Aidan Rickets argues that change hinges on the values we espouse, along with our preparedness to embrace the unexpected, chaotic and mysterious. Blueprints, programmes and rigid formulas are, he says, to be avoided as they can lead us down some very long rabbit holes. The same cautionary message applies to demagogues, zealots, ideological evangelists and other self-anointed purveyors of the truth. If someone is telling you what to think, avoid them like the plague. If they want to engage you in dialogue, that’s an entirely different matter.

US-based activist and social ecologist, Dr Charlie Brennan, insists that the change we’re seeking will involve a mix of trade-offs, compromises, and elements of both reform and outright rejection of the current order. There’s no single prescription. Author of Post capitalism, Paul Mason, sees in the current order glimpses of future possibilities based on sharing, cooperation, collaboration and other forms of mutuality. Director of the Change Agency, James Wheelan, argues that activists play a multiplicity of roles in seeking change. They operate either independently or in concert with others as they pursue common goals. 

Change thoughtsters, Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms in New power, assert that recent technological developments and social media in particular have given rise to new cultures of change, rendering us less reliant on organised politics, traditional hierarchies, and more embracing of uncertainty and diversity. Social media holds enormous influence and promise, they say, especially in terms of diffusing existing power relations and creating new social networks and co-created spaces. 

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In No is not enough, renowned Canadian activist/journalist, Naomi Klein, talks of “intersectionality” and the need to embrace the great diversity of interests that make up progressive social movements. She also urges activists to consider the stories and visions we might need to create an alternative system based on more humanitarian and ecologically sustainable values and practices. As one of the instigators of the Leap Manifesto, Klien knows something about the challenges associated with getting people to agree to a broad set of principles. It’s not easy, but it is pivotal to change. Too often the progressive left has remained fragmented, disunited; full of internal hostility. Preferred positions are read as truths when what is needed, say Klein, is good faith, agreement and combined purpose.  

Tim Hollo of the Green Institute argues for values and practices that revitalise the idea of the commons and the commonwealth, as opposed to the “junk values” which, according to English journalist, Johann Hari, inform the ways in which many of us now live – competition, status-seeking, financial success, over-consumption etc. In revisiting an idea – the commons - with considerable historical pedigree, Hollo is making the case for a society fundamentally opposed to the values of neoliberalism. It’s also a challenge to all progressives to think harder about how ideas of collectivism, mutuality and communitarianism enfolded around a new agenda for the future – one perhaps unshackled from rigid ideological stances?

Like James Whelan, the founder of Citizens UK and author of How to resist, Mathew Bolton, articulates an approach to activism grounded in a respectful appreciation of peoples’ everyday life. He asserts that it is only through mutually respectful relationships –intersubjectivities based on dialogue and storytelling - that we can create the conditions for inclusive social movements. Famed Brazilian educationalist and activist Paolo Freire understood this all too well, as did the liberationist theorists whose intellectual energies helped give birth to anti-colonial and anti-capitalist movements in South American and elsewhere.

At the heart of this approach is mutual respect not condescension or a sense of intellectual superiority, or even simple opposition. It’s through such relational practices that we develop the curiosity necessary to comprehend our world, our shared experiences, and the possibility of something very different to what is. Critical to all this, as Stuart Rees, Gillian Triggs, Julian Burnside and many others have noted, is a human rights framework with teeth; that is, grounded in law and applied meticulously via the judiciary to legislation passed by the executive. This would, says Rees, prevent much of the “cruelty as policy” that we witness today. 

Perilous times

There’s, little doubt that the election of Donald Trump and the rise of nationalistic popularism has taken many of us aback. Not all of us though. The more optimistic Pollyannas among us continue to believe that we remain on a steady path of progress. What they fail to appreciate however, are the unexpected wicked problems that arise from altered material conditions and fractured relations. What has transpired over recent years in the US and across Europe bears this out. 

Still, amid a cold civil war in the US we have seen many forms of resistance and realignment, and more importantly, a rethinking of how we might set about creating an alternative future. Co-founder of the Occupy movement and author of The End of Protest, Micah White, rails against pubic protest as a means of achieving change, arguing that we need to think more profoundly about how to build a global social movement capable of countering the current hegemonic order. 

Whilst too dismissive of protest as one route to change, White argues for a public conversation around the values, principles, strategies and tactics that might underpin a global progressive movement. Others have also put forward manifestos (not manifestoes) and grand statements of principle as contributions to a change agenda.

Yet others, me included, argue that a global movement is already in existence, and has been for some time. What’s needed now, as George Monbiot suggests in his ground-breaking book, Out of the Wreckage, is a story about us: about what it means to be human in a complex, interconnected world – a bundle of issues considered, amongst many other Australian writers, by Clive Hamilton in Defiant Earth, Ian Lowe in A Lucky Country, and Hugh Mackay in Reimagining Australia

As neoliberalism fractures from within and without, the challenge now, as noted by Australian economist Richard Dennis in a recent Quarterly Essay, is to posit ways in which we can elevate the social over the economic and ecosystems over the redundant ideas of growth, competitiveness and productivity. 

First though, we need a more nuanced understanding of the current system than those which currently abound in progressive circles. It’s not simply that we are being dominated by corporations – which in many ways is true - but rather that every area of life is impacted by neoliberal values – from how we view ourselves, our relationships with others, to our engagement with the physical and spiritual world around us. As Jane Mayer, Owen Jones, David Harvey and many others have observed, we need to comprehend how the plutocratic elites have successfully implanted neoliberal values – the centrality of the deregulated market, individualism, competition, greed etc - into every corner of our society. Each of us needs to consider how we may have consciously or otherwise replicated neoliberal junk values in the way we live, in how we constitute our relationships, and in how we consume and invest.

To unshackle ourselves from these chains is not easy. But changes can be made at various levels and in a multiplicity of ways. These changes will take time; sometimes they might endure, sometimes not. In the short to medium term, as noted by Charles Eisenstein, the rebuilding of community life, strengthening of civil society, neighbourliness, social gatherings and economic relocalisation are essential to survival should the system break down, as many predict it will. 

Moreover, as noted by generations of feminist thinkers, the personal is indeed political, so what we do in our own lives is a vitally important aspect of change, just as vital as political campaigning.  I would argue that this multilayered view is how we need to understand the global environmental justice movement – as a swirling, complex, trans-national shared consciousness expressed at various micro and macro levels. Each of us in this movement needs to highlight, actively support and nurture in every way possible the green shoots of positive, more sustainable initiatives which create wellbeing in people, communities and in the environment.

Each of us too has a sphere of influence which changes over time and depends on many things: our foundational knowledge, values, belief systems, skill levels, economic circumstances, passions, alliances, networks, etc. 

And there are many arenas in which change can be pursued: the social, economic, cultural, political, ideological, or all of these. 

In Part 2 of this article I’ve suggested just a few things which, at this point in time, seem to me to be important ways that we might hasten the change process. I have drawn from numerous sources and recent conversations. This is by no means an exhaustive or original list, but it’s something of a start.