Hidden charms of neo-liberalism

Points to consider:

1. In the last quarter of the 20th century the concept of soft power came to be an important tool of analysis, at least for some quarters of international studies. I would like to use an analogy from this concept of soft power to describe neo-liberalism: that is, of all forms of hegemony, neo-liberalism could be thought of as the most sophisticated, coherent, strategic form of soft violence against the possibility of living together peacefully within each and every society in the world. If that is the case, the question is: how could neo-liberalism gain such a strong momentum during this period of time? In other words, what have been internal strengths of neo-liberal discourse and what have been external weaknesses of its critics?

2. While the present economic crisis could and does bring some de facto critiques of the main premises of the neoliberal agenda, it is not necessarily valid to think that it is at the same time eliminating the weaknesses of its critics. Furthermore, one can consider the hypothesis that, in one way or another, when the curve of this present crisis turns, those that adhere to a lineage of neo-liberal thinking could and probably will push for a regenerated version of their agenda.

3. When looking at South-South relationships in present times we need to bring into the perspective two specific dimensions that are related to the local and regional contexts. Elements that might converge or diverge are our understandings of the global impact and perceptions of neo-liberalism. Of these elements, one is the perverse role of the state in some of the societies of the South to practice policies of neo-liberalism, while criticising the hegemony of neo-liberalism globally. In other words, what is being practiced in these societies might potentially be the worst example of neo-liberal policies, and it is being practiced without even a minimal degree of transparency. The second element in this context is the call to individual entrepreneurship and in a broader sense, to individualism as a possibility for human emancipation, a call that is implicitly or explicitly present in neo-liberal discourse. The idea that in some social contexts this individuality is being constrained, contained or forced to operate covertly, can be very seductive.

4. It seems important to de-idealise South – South relations as being essentially emancipatory. South-South relationships are twofold: on the one side, one could say they have been growing by default. Limitations, contingencies, and protectionism imposed by the North in trade with the South has forced a kind of South-South relationship that acts as a substitute for the desired relationship with the North; it becomes a kind of temporary solution until the South-North relationship improves. In the other case, South-South relations could also be also a way of avoiding interference in and criticism of the existing working conditions in the South, which would be expected if the partner was from the North. In this case, South-South relationships could in fact be a very useful exit route for the ‘Empire’ to avoid any loud voices speaking out about the harshness of conditions of labour in the South.

5. A promise, a potential, an idea: if the neo-liberal hegemony can be reproduced and maintained at a global scale, a certain mental space for thinking about and eventually constructing alternatives to the neo-liberal agenda can be considered, organised and practiced in a South-South relationship that won’t be necessarily geographical; a South-South relationship that would be critical of neo-liberalism and have the audacity to conceive of the world in a different way. In that case, the best that the North has to offer could be integrated into this new South-South relationship.

The Big Story

It is a big story that is capturing our headlines at the moment; not least in terms of the sheer quantity of zeros that represent the trillions of dollars that are being talked about. The other day I was told that in one year the “global economy” succeeded in vaporising 50 trillion dollars. One would think it would take a dedicated, collective effort to waste such a vast amount of resources. But it was only a small group of people who achieved it, and received the bonuses from it. This raises our blood levels, but what can we do about it? Do we just continue to read the headlines and watch the news, fuming silently in our armchairs? Certainly we should at least look a little further, gather information and attempt to understand how the shock waves will impact on the wider society. Because if the big stories are about trillions of dollars, the small stories are the tent towns growing out of San Jose and Sacramento populated by new waves of homeless people. They are the millions of newly unemployed in post-industrial societies who now live under the heavy burden of trying to work out, on a daily basis, how to make ends meet. It is a new generation being socialised into a world with more uncertainties than they could have imagined. Sure enough, these impressive statistics make impressive headlines in the mass media. Big numbers sell papers, whether it is the growing number of people who unemployed, homeless, having their homes repossessed, or slipping below the ‘poverty line’. This creates a rather dim view of human creativity and resilience. Very few of the small stories are represented by the media which is dominated by the financial and economic language through which we have come to understand ‘the crisis’. We get a sense of the tragedy in the numbers, but they are conveniently abstracted and pie-graphed for us. No alternative or positive interpretations are posed or shown. These big number stories level off the diversity and innovativeness of millions of people into convenient sound bites of passive statistics. Thus the media, by transforming our small stories into big numbers, kills the way that people try to reinvent the script by which they live their lives.

In December 2008 and January 2009 a fascinating “literary” phenomenon occurred in Japan. A book entitled Kani Kousen by Kobayeshi Takiji became a bestseller for weeks. The translation of its title could be read as “Early Proletariat”, and it detailed the difficulties of daily life for working class people in the 1920s. But this was not a retrospective, historical study; the book was written in 1929. Furthermore, the word proletariat has been banned in collective Japanese memory since the end of the 1960s. How is it that now, at the beginning of the 21st century, this book becomes a major reference for people trying to define their contemporary situation, and their own place within it? This attempt to re-define oneself has not only been achieved through reading choices. In Japan, there have been many instances recently of people creating small stories of social consciousness and social action. In the last few months in Japan the number of small stories and the wide span of society that they encompass have grown with an impressive speed. Below are some examples of small stories of people who refuse to be only a number in the negative column of the balance sheet.

Autonomy in Muslim Thought

The second session of the study group on “Human Autonomy in Muslim Thought” was held at the ISMC-AKU on 12th March 2009. Professor Modjtaba Sadria, facilitator of the Study Group, highlighted that the aim of the group to discover the basic elements or characteristics contained in the notion of autonomy in Muslim thought.

He spoke of two premises for investigating the idea of autonomy in Muslim thought. The first is based on the idea of the possibility of ‘multiple modernities’, while the second is the recognition that elements of autonomy exist in Muslim thought but not in an articulated and coherent form. The aim of the group is to explore, analyse and debate these elements of human autonomy by looking at human interactions, and human relationships with the environment and God.

To approach the issue, he suggested that the study group avoid an exclusive focus on the notion of autonomy in Western thought, which has already been articulated and integrated into society, and has yielded to a coherent, compact and essentialised definition of human autonomy. It was suggested that rather, the prime concern of the group could be to study the changing dynamics of Western thought, and to approach the notion of autonomy as an embryonic concept in a process of formation and thus open to confrontation and contestation.

It was proposed that across different Muslim contexts, through literature, poetry, art and philosophy, thinkers have been debating issues relating to autonomy. However, while this level of discussion has articulated various elements and aspects of autonomy, it has not achieved a level of debate in which autonomy is expressed as a defined and realisable concept. Based on these debates it may be possible to develop an articulated concept of autonomy, endogenous to different Muslim contexts. This could also open a discussion on ways this autonomy can be socially recognised.

Ghulam Abbas then presented on the scriptural perspective on human autonomy. He focused on the dimension of Qur’anic discourse which supports human intellectual autonomy by encouraging thinking and reflection. He argued that at least eight levels of the Qur’an have encouraged human reasoning which may be considered an aspect of human autonomy.

However, it was also highlighted that the Qur’an presents diverse approaches to individual human reasoning. It thus creates a variety of discourses which at times seem to be in conflict with each other, and thus appear paradoxical and even contradictory in relation to encouraging or discouraging human thinking and reflection. This may be considered as a reason that the Qur’an is the source of inspiration for all categories of orientations, ranging from radical traditionalist to modern intellectual traditions. These considerations open the avenues to explore human autonomy in terms of semantic and hermeneutic approaches to Qur’anic discourses. In this regard, the debate regarding the notion of thinking and Aq’al (Intellect) were also brought into consideration.

The session was concluded with an emphasis on the discovery of the notion of intellectual autonomy while keeping the rich discourses of the Qur’an in view.