The hidden force of current international uneasiness

Recent events are evidence of the failures of neoliberalism as the dominant ideology in the international order.

Former US President Ronald Reagan [Getty]
Neoliberalism reached the core of the international system with the election of Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the US, writes Blanco [Getty Images]

It is indisputable that the current international zeitgeist is definitely characterised by a profound uneasiness. The sense for many is that the international order as it is currently known is, at least, in check.

The signs are plenty: the environmental crisis, the financial crisis of 2008, the rise of the far-right in Europe, Brexit and Donald Trump in the White House, to mention just a few.

Surprisingly, these events are normally reasoned individually, which is undoubtedly misleading. Remarkably, the veiled force underneath all these events is not even mentioned.

However, an attentive observer of the international reality perceives, quite clearly in fact, that these events are all evidence of the failures of neoliberalism as the dominant ideology in the international political and economic order.

Neoliberalism as the dominant ideology

Even though it is often overlooked by many people, neoliberalism shapes every aspect of contemporary political, economic and social spheres.

In such an environment, it is quite hard to remember that neoliberalism was not always the structuring force in international politics. It was only in the 1970s when neoliberalism started to position itself as a dominant ideology in many countries across the globe.

This path started in the periphery of the international system. One of the first countries to implement neoliberalism as a structuring framework was Chile. Unsurprisingly, this was operated through a coup against a democratically elected government. After deposing President Salvador Allende, General Augusto Pinochet made Chile function as a sort of laboratory, a kind characterisation for a guinea pig, for the “Chicago Boys” – the graduates from the University of Chicago, an important intellectual powerhouse of this economic framework – and their social engineering.

In the late 1970s, neoliberalism reached the very core of the international system with the election of Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom (1979) and Ronald Reagan in the United States (1980).

From that time onwards, neoliberalism started to take the global stage as a dominant ideology. At this point, the tenets of neoliberal policies such as deregulation of different spheres, massive tax reduction for the rich, privatisation of state-owned companies, outsourcing of businesses, free trade, austerity measures, dismantling of public services and so on were decidedly stimulated.

It is myopic to believe that the failures of neoliberalism just affected the periphery.


Inversely, elements such as regulations, taxes, state programmes, union activities and so on were severely blocked.

Thatcher was bluntly clear when she said that there was no alternative to such an agenda. This agenda was disseminated internationally with a varying degree of violence: through a veiled violence, by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, when countries had to structurally reform their economic, political and social spheres in order to borrow money from these international financial institutions, or through a brutal force, by the violence against unions or protesters and the regime changes around the world.

Failures and current shockwaves

The widespread neoliberal offensive across the globe certainly had consequences. Contrary to what is commonly advertised, it is clear that the world experienced a noticeable deterioration in many spheres.

David Harvey, for instance, in his A Brief History of Neoliberalism, evinces neoliberalism’s link with the increase of poverty and unemployment, the concentration of income and wealth, and the rise in inequality after decades of decline.

Even economic growth – a cherished indicator of the neoliberal mantra – was much slower during the neoliberal dominance in comparison with the preceding decades.

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These consequences were devastating for the vast majority of the people across the world and overwhelmingly severe on the middle and working classes. In the periphery, the results were destructive. Not by coincidence, the 1980s is known as the “Lost Decade” in Latin America.

However, it is myopic to believe that the failures of neoliberalism just affected the periphery. Not surprisingly, the middle and working classes in the core of the international system were also not immune. The fact that the failures of neoliberalism negatively affected both classes worldwide generated several shockwaves across the globe. These are engendering the current uneasiness perceived globally.

Continuity in the failures

It is with this background in mind that one should reason a wide range of current international developments that, on the surface, are not related at all. The failures of neoliberalism produced a deep anger worldwide and opened the space for nationalist and xenophobic groups to galvanise supporters, channelling a wide range of frustrations and benefiting from this anger in different elections around the world.

The election of Trump is the most manifest shockwave of the failures of the neoliberalism as the dominant ideology in the international order. It is enough to remember that a significant part of his support came from the workers of the manufacturing industry, a segment that suffered over the past decades of neoliberal dominance. Not by coincidence, Trump won in key states of the so-called “rust belt”.

Therefore, it is incomplete if one tries to understand Trump’s election without considering the long-term failures that led to the international financial crisis in 2008 – which is another fundamental pillar of the current international uneasiness, and a direct consequence of the neoliberal dominance internationally.

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Moreover, the failures of neoliberalism are the same underneath force, due to its severe impact on the middle and working classes in several European countries, producing the rise of the far-right and nationalist populism across the whole continent.

This is observed, for instance, in the European Parliament but also with the rise of the Freedom Party in Austria, the Swiss People’s Party in Switzerland, the Finns in Finland, the Jobbik in Hungary, the Golden Dawn in Greece, the UK Independence Party, the National Front in France and also, more recently, Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union.

Consequently, to properly apprehend the current international zeitgeist one has to dig beneath the surface. Most importantly, to overcome the current international uneasiness properly, we need to frontally address its underneath force – neoliberalism as a global dominant ideology.

Ramon Blanco is a researcher and professor of international relations at the Federal University of Latin-American Integration (Brazil).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.