The end of the era of free-market rhetoric

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at:, or follow me on Twitter.

All of the Western nations began to shift to the right during the mid 1960s, and they’ve been shifting further and further to the right ever since. But perhaps that trend has come to an end? With the rise of Trump, and Labour again having a real Leftist for a leader, there are fewer voices arguing for free markets.

In the early years of the 21st century, the inevitability of an ever more competitive, deregulated, internationally orientated market economy, to which both government and society were subordinate – a doctrine often called neoliberalism – was accepted right across the mainstream of British politics: from the Thatcherites who still dominated the Conservative party; to the increasingly pro-business Liberal Democrats, who would soon form a coalition government with the Tories; to the Scottish National party, whose then leader Alex Salmond praised Ireland and Iceland for their low corporate taxes; to the Blair cabinet itself, where, I was told by a senior Labour figure in 2001, “You won’t find a single member with anything critical to say about capitalism.” It was assumed by the main parties that most voters felt the same way.

Margaret Thatcher’s government had overcome fierce opposition to install a free-market economy in Britain. But under Blair, seemingly more consensual and less dogmatic, the extending of markets into ever more areas of everyday life was presented as unavoidable, or simply practical: “what works”. The British housing market was thriving, with home ownership reaching an all-time high in 2003. There had not been a recession since 1991, a blissfully long time for the previously fitful British economy. Compared to the sometimes tatty, depopulating country of the 70s and 80s, much of Britain in the early 2000s looked successful – a society of regenerating city centres and steadily rising wages.

The free-market ascendancy was acknowledged even by some of its strongest critics. In 2000, the Marxist historian Perry Anderson declared: “The only starting-point for a realistic left today is a lucid registration of historical defeat … Neo-liberalism as a set of principles rules undivided across the globe: the most successful ideology in world history.” In 2007, Naomi Klein wrote in her book The Shock Doctrine that capitalism was “conquering its final frontiers”.

In 2017, that aura of invulnerability has evaporated. Disenchantment with the economic status quo has been potently expressed in elections across the world, from France to the US. But in no democracy has the political shift against the free market been as stark as in Britain.

Since Thatcher’s election in 1979, Conservative and Labour governments have privatised and deregulated, reduced taxes for business and indulged its excesses, opened up the economy to foreign capital and commercialised the national psyche, until Britain became one of the world’s most thoroughly neoliberal societies. And yet, at last year’s EU referendum, the votes of those “left behind” by all this played an unexpectedly pivotal role. Then, at this year’s general election, both the Conservatives and Labour campaigned – or appeared to campaign – against the economic system that they themselves had created.

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