Neoliberalism and the Politics of Social Ecology




[This article was submitted by Matt H., an alum of the ISE summer program and a graduate of the MA in Social Ecology program at Prescott College. Comments and discussion are welcomed and encouraged!]

Neoliberalism and the Politics of Social Ecology

by Matt H.

The current expression of communalist politics is incapable of resisting and providing a viable alternative to neoliberalism. With the dismantling of the welfare state, costs and responsibilities are increasingly localized. Indeed, communalism may serve to propagate neoliberalism in the name of localism and political participation. Meanwhile, inequality is rising as wealth and power are increasingly concentrated in the corporate state, international governance regimes, and amongst the global elite. In this short blog post, I argue that social ecologists need to reconsider the commitment to communalist politics and the dual-power strategy of libertarian municipalism, at least under contemporary political-economic conditions.

While neoliberalism takes a multitude of forms, scholars typically identify three main tenets.  First, neoliberalism embraces markets to fulfill policy objectives. This includes the outsourcing of government services and the privatization of public goods. Second, neoliberalism enables the globalization of capital via trade liberalization and global trade agreements. And third, neoliberalism seeks to manage the fallout of privatization–particularly rising levels of inequality–through market-based efforts. This includes a focus on self-responsibility and individual entrepreneurialism, as well as economic development through public-private partnerships and social enterprise.

Many celebrated localist initiatives operating within poor and working class communities–including DIY-initiatives, community-based organizations & non-profits, and social enterprises–align with this third tenet of neoliberalism. In such situations, individuals and communities are expected to take responsibility for their own wellbeing, no matter the barriers they face. Often, this compels them to become entrepreneurs and enter into market-based relations. Unfortunately, the deck is stacked as they have limited access to capital and wealth continues to be extracted from their community. Under such conditions it is unlikely that these initiatives meet the needs of community members. Ultimately, this strengthens the corporate state by maintaining a surplus army of labor, among other things.

In the face of rising inequality, what are the options for social ecologists? Communalist politics and the dual-power strategy of libertarian municipalism do not appear to be able to address the needs of working class and poor folks within the context I have described. Such a movement is likely to be relegated to the middle class.

A hypothetical question that I find myself returning to regarding libertarian municipalism is: Under capitalist relations of production, how would libertarian municipalism combat acts of “defensive localism” and parochialism that pit localities against each other for jobs and industry? Surely a place like Chicago’s south side would welcome jobs and even today community-based organizations, community leaders, and elected officials try to court industries just for the prospect of employment.

I find all of the answers that I come up with to the above question require much different material conditions than what currently exists, namely greater social equality. Perhaps northern European countries have political-economic conditions which provide better political opportunities for a movement such as communalism.

Some question that I think social ecologists need to grapple with then include: What are the conditions necessary for a thriving libertarian municipalist movement? Are there other avenues for social ecologists to pursue that can create the appropriate political opportunities for the development of a relevant libertarian municipalist movement? Might libertarian municipalism continue to be irrelevant even under improved political-economic conditions?

Most likely, the answer to these questions involves participation in what some social ecologists may deride as reformist initiatives. Welfare rights, labor, cooperative, environmental reform, environmental justice, and climate justice are just a few movements that are working to improve people’s lives and possibly create future political opportunities where a communalist politics may be relevant. Indeed, many social ecologists and people formerly associated with the ISE currently work within these movements. Perhaps its time for social ecology to shed itself of the specter of libertarian municipalism and its narrow strategy for social change as the ultimate expression of social ecological politics.