In the wake of Brexit and Trump vote, the term ‘neoliberalism’ has surfaced time and time again, amidst much soul searching and political recriminations that have since followed. According to Britannica, ‘neoliberalism’ is: an ‘ideology and policy model that emphasizes the value of free market economics … most commonly associated with laissez-faire economics … often characterized in terms of its belief in sustained economic growth as the means to achieve human progress, its confidence in free markets as the most-efficient allocation of resources, its emphasis on minimal state intervention in economic and social affairs, and its commitment to the freedom of trade.’
But here’s the challenge. Money whispers seductively because, generally, we ‘love wealth with immense love,’[i] and it’s usually the morally depraved who always cave in. Almost two years before the Credit Crunch, Bill Bonner wrote that everybody likes a credit boom and believes that they have money. ‘The businessman believes there is more demand for his products than there really is. The consumer believes he has more purchasing power than he really has. The lender believes the borrower is a better risk than he really is. All these mistaken judgements lead,’ according Bonner, ‘to spending, investing and lending – which look for all the world like a bona fide boom.’ And sure enough, the penny sank for some, when Will Hutton remarked, ‘Now we know the truth. The financial meltdown wasn’t a mistake – it was a con.’
On the plus side, globalisation – heralded by some as the triumph of neoliberalism, has over a few decades brought millions across the world out of poverty, and, together with modern technology, it has enabled greater transnational interconnectedness with the exchange of ideas, people and commerce. It is, on the face of it, ‘a great moral improvement over being driven by fervour, craving and tyrannical propensities,’ as Amartya Sen points out. Yet, at the same time we’ve also seen the ugly side of ‘runaway globalisation’ that has worsened income inequality between the haves and have nots, destroyed people’s spiritual needs and historically-attested to social structures, as well as irreversibly wrecking the environment. It’s become okay, if you like, for society to develop at the expense of local contexts, communities, ecology, social history and spiritual needs.
These failures show that free markets work for mutual benefit when the right ‘institutional structure[s] and behavioural codes’ act as restraining forces. The intervening actions of regulatory bodies overseeing ethical and consumer standards, as well as preserving things significant to people – their own values, the environment and ethical standards, to name a few.
It’s worth pointing out though, as many economic philosophers have, that the free market mechanism (supply, demand, prices, advertising, competition etc.) isn’t outside of moral choices per se. When market factors move (towards equilibrium, perhaps) they often do so because of choices people make. Buyers, sellers, suppliers, customers, regulators – they’re all people who partake in the free market mechanism. Whose actions reflect world views, identities, values, needs and lifestyle choices. Notwithstanding, then, unintended consequences and the limits of human agency, one can argue that free markets are not devoid of free moral choices; it’s not just an abstract system, but the intentions and behaviours of human beings are at the heart of it. And, of course, as with most things in life, choices and whether one succumbs to a particular grievous marketing claim, requires scruples and awareness of one’s needs, blind spots and limits. Such qualities are not straightforward, and can themselves often be confused with ‘desire’; where ‘unhealthy instincts’ can appear under the guise of ‘rational arguments.’
The story for far-right extremism is arguably linked to the story of neoliberalism. The twentieth century was by far the most ravaging in the history of mankind, driven by the belief in the exclusivity of national identity. What comes to mind is the promise of Iblis the cursed, who, as the Qur’an explains, questioned God: ‘Will You place upon it [Earth] one who causes corruption therein and sheds blood?’[vi] Iblis, I guess, had some reason to be confident. The same egoistic impulse that prevented him from obeying God’s command to prostrate to Adam, would be inherent in human beings, and, as a result, I speculate, Iblis instinctively knew that Adam’s progeny would cause carnage on Earth as they vie to be superior to one another.
Thankfully, a world ravaged by wars leading up to modernity eventually heralded the formation of supra-national organisations like NATO, UN, WTO, the EU and decolonisation. This reversing of what had preceded in the last 500 years was a welcome relief – human fraternity seemed to come to fruition at last. All geared to foster mutual collaboration, not just to lessen the chance of a despot reigning terror in the West, but to become more mutually productive and peaceful societies. Some even claimed that the human race was marching towards greater security where the past no longer mattered.
But, as with most things in life, globalism has its own set of challenges. Increases in cross-border flows of capital, information, people and ideas inevitably lead to new forces of pluralism and decentralisation of local, ethnic and religious definitions, impacting not just the ability of governments to manage their own economies, but also their ability to create values and definition of citizenship. This conjoining has consequences at all levels of life and tests people’s ability to manage impacts, tolerance, patience etc. In the absence of clear demonstration of the value of globalisation, there can often be an unfortunate tendency for zealot suspicion of otherness. And when new immigrant communities develop within ‘cultural microcosms’– as often natural to diaspora communities almost anywhere in the world, geographically small, yet telescopically they look far beyond national borders to other parts of the world because of economic, cultural and religious ties, the zealot claim of ghettoised no-go zones can easy gain traction. Coupled to the post-industrial breakdown of working class white communities in Western societies, what we get is a fertile ground for extremism – this time of white supremacist groups, racism and hatred.
For people of virtue and morality, the response to these things cannot be like that of Iblis, but like God’s rebuke of him, when he said: ‘I will make upon the earth a successive authority.’[ix] I keep asking myself, who today will work to renew the modern conscience and work to heal the deep wounds of neoliberal and far-right extremism? Who will engage the tough questions of our time with moral philosophy, graceful manner and wisdom, and bring into focus renewed ideas and arguments that enlighten the human conscience? The mesmerising part of the Qur’an, that ‘Human beings are in a state of loss except those who have faith, and do righteous deeds, and join together in the mutual teaching of truth, and of patience,’[x] surely, must mean something.
I very much doubt if this is about partaking in the usual unoriginal ideological way that the right and left tussle each other. It’s also not about the Huffington Post’s and The Guardian’s versus the Breitbart’s and The Sun’s of the world. Neither is it about in-your-face, self-righteous ‘dawah’ populism that’s overtaken some Muslims. Today, such unoriginal engagement has led many to join in with the popular abusive tirade against Donald Trump. And it’s not just him but it seems anyone critical or scathing of Muslims or Islam. How one can reconcile such undignified reactions with God telling the Prophet, ‘And if you had been rude [in speech] and harsh in heart, they would have disbanded from about you. So pardon them and ask forgiveness for them and consult them in the matter,’[xi] is beyond me. As it turns out, many are the same people that complained when the Muslim Brotherhood was ousted. Such inconsistent approach is a sign of how flawed our grounding on moral philosophy is.
Erdogan had a point when he said that denouncing Donald Trump was ‘disrespecting democracy.’ Similarly, the Electoral College system in America has its pros and cons, but Obama was right to remind people that democracy isn’t easy. And who these days seriously studies American culture to see that America is actually built on contradictions? Christopher Bigsby identifies America as a secular country immersed in religion, where, ‘All expensive hotels will have a Gideon Bible,’ yet American culture is at the same time, ‘a puritan culture in love with pornography.’ It is said that some ‘11,000 adult films were released in 2000,’ and ‘it gave the world Playboy magazine.’ America, Bigsby goes on, ‘celebrates the individual,’ yet its citizens are ‘always joining clubs, cults, good fellow societies, teams. In its films America is drawn to apocalypse provided it is followed by redemption. It weds violence to sentimentality, invincibility to vulnerability. America celebrates the family while for every two marriages there is one divorce.’
There is one thing that comes out in all of this, which is that, unnuanced, unmannered populism has overtaken far too many Muslims, and it’s their most important asset – moral philosophy, that is being eroded.