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BOOK REVIEW: INVISIBLE DOCTRINE: THE SECRET HISTORY OF NEOLIBERALISM

Edward Liger Smith

May 22, 2024

While neoliberalism is the economic and political ideology that dominates most of the Western world today, it is an ideology that is unknown to most American citizens. The purveyors of neoliberal ideology present themselves as objective and as being above ideology, which serves as a method of concealing the real underlying principles of neoliberalism, which are actually wildly unpopular with regular people. In this book journalist George Monbiot and filmmaker Peter Hutchison attempt to reveal these hidden principles of neoliberalism so that the ideology can be better understood and combatted. And while they do a good job revealing what makes neoliberal capitalism such a predatory, exploitative, unequal, imperialistic, and ecologically disastrous system, they also fall into the left-anticommunism that plagues so much of the Western left, which was critiqued brilliantly by Michael Parenti in his 1997 classic Blackshirts and Reds.      


The most valuable contribution of this book is that it traces the ideological history of neoliberalism through different thinkers such as Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig Von Mises, and Milton Friedman, up until today where neoliberals themselves now reject the word neoliberalism because of how unpopular it has become. Instead, neoliberals prefer to posture as being above ideology, and to portray the principles of neoliberalism as being natural and eternal.


The authors show how the rise of politicians like Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Agusto Pinochet represent a transition away from Keynsianism and toward neoliberalism, or an unregulated, monopolistic, financialized, version of capitalism, justified by the idea that if we allow the rich to concentrate as much wealth and power into their hands as possible, then somehow this wealth will eventually “trickle down” to the rest of us at the bottom. Since the rise of Reagan and Thatcher inequality has skyrocketed, ecological degradation has accelerated, countless wars have been fought on behalf of corporate plunder, rents and debts are through the roof, and wealth has been concentrated at the top at unprecedented rates.

       

The book also makes a pertinent and valuable analysis of the rise of right wing populist demagogues like the business tycoon Donald Trump in the US, the Musolini praising Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, and the far right Hindutva associated leader of India Narenda Modi. Monbiot and Hutchison avoid falling into what some have called “Trump derangement syndrome” by making a sober and realistic analysis of Trump’s rise to power, arguing convincingly that deteriorating economic conditions make people more susceptible to right wing demagogues who claim to be fighting the establishment while doing its bidding in reality. They point out that it was Bill Clinton, the husband of Hillary Clinton who Trump ran against in 2016, that allowed many good manufacturing jobs in middle America to be outsourced to the Global South with the passing of the free trade agreement NAFTA. Free trade is a core principle of neoliberal ideology, and thus the authors show how it is neoliberalism that set the stage for the populist right wing movement, masterminded by the likes of Steve Bannon, and brought to fruition by his preferred candidate Donald Trump.        


I also found the author’s analysis of mental health under neoliberalism to be pertinent, as too often we overlook the atomization of humanity and the lack of social connection that permeates throughout the neoliberal system. Obviously these factors play a role in the unprecedented rates of depression, opioid addiction, and mass shootings that now exist across the US. Too often the issue of social isolation in society is overlooked as politicians push half-baked cure-all solutions to these problems that won’t upset their corporate donors. For example the Democrats pushing for gun control, and gun control alone, everytime a new shooting takes place, while generally having very little to say about social isolation and the deterioration of community. It is important to understand that these social issues are complex and are rooted in the social system, and therefore, require systemic and complex solutions. The authors do a fantastic job of making this case in their systematic critique of neoliberalism.      


Neoliberals tell us that the current state of society is the way things have to be, that this is the natural order of life which must be maintained forever because there are simply no alternatives. And it is this assumption that Monbiot and Hutchison look to challenge in their book. However, by also claiming that communism is a “failed ideology” {1}full stop, with absolutely no explanation or analysis of why it has “failed”, they too are unwittingly propagating the idea that there is no alternative to capitalism. In the words of Michael Parenti, “to claim that Communism can never work is to ignore that fact that it has for millions of people around the world.” Today China is leading the charge against neoliberalism and in doing so have accomplished the incredible feat of bringing 800 million people out of poverty. {2} A fact that the authors of this book don’t even attempt to grapple with, instead falling back on the lame cold war talking point that communism has simply failed.


I would encourage these two authors to read economist Michael Hudson’s fantastic article “America’s Neoliberal Financialization Policy vs.China’s Industrial Socialism”{3} which lays out in great detail the systemic differences between American neoliberalism and Chinese socialism. Although, if a positive word was spoken about Chinese socialism in this book it might not have gotten published by Penguin publishing house. Thus, the decision to badmouth socialism while completely ignoring all of its successes may have been more of a financial decision than a scholarly one.

        

Existing socialist countries are only mentioned a few times in this book and always disparagingly. In Blackshirts and Reds Michael Parenti says “For decades, many left leaning writers and speakers in the United States have felt obliged to establish their credibility by indulging in anti communist and anti-Soviet genuflection, seemingly unable to give a talk or write an article or book review on whatever political subject without injecting some anti-red sideswipe. The intent was, and still is, to distance themselves from the Marxist Leninist Left.” {4} The authors of Invisible Doctrine: The secret history of neoliberalism repeatedly engage in this time honored tradition of bashing socialist countries in order to distance themselves from the communist left, and to fit their message within what is allowed by the established political orthodoxy. It’s amazing how the authors can be aware of the fact that our society is dominated by corporations, bankers, and shareholders, who spend billions of dollars trying to manipulate the public’s understanding of political economy, yet they seem to believe everything that these entities are telling us about communism. As a result the author's analyses of communism sound no different than what you would see in old school cold war propaganda, or a corporate owned news outlet like Fox.

         

Parenti’s text goes on to say that “sorely lacking within the US (or in this case the British) Left is any rational evaluation of the Soviet Union.” {5} Likewise, sorely lacking from the Invisible Doctrine: The secret history of Neoliberalism, is any kind of rational evaluation of China, Cuba, Vietnam, or even non-socialist nations like Iran, who are attempting to construct an alternative economic system to Western neoliberalism. Which you’d think would be important in a text about neoliberalism. The authors choose to totally ignore the emerging multipolar world which is challenging the existing Western power structure and trying to bring about a world where the neoliberal US is no longer the unipolar global hegemon. Even the notedly anti-communist academic Noam Chomsky made a better analysis of China and the multipolar world in his recent book The Withdrawal which was a joint effort with Communist academic Vijay Prashad. {6}


Instead of socialist nations like China, these authors choose to champion the region of Rojava as an existing example of a possible alternative to neoliberalism. Rojava is a semi-autonomous region in Syria which is governed by a self described socialist party with many different branches known as the PKK or the Kurdistan Workers Party. During the Syrian Civil War the PKK sided with the US and CIA backed Free Syrian Army which allied itself with Jihadist extremist groups like ISIS and Al-Nusra in their effort to overthrow the sovereign Government of Bashar Al-Assad. It was in the chaos of this horrific civil war that the Syrian Kurds were able to establish a semi-autonomous zone in so-called Rojava for the first time. Rojava and the PKK have been criticized, especially by the Marxist Leninist left, for acting as proxies of Western imperialism, and for enforcing ethno-nationalist policies that have reportedly led many Syrian Christians to flee Rojava. [7]


The authors champion Rojava because of its efforts to implement Democratic reforms, socially progressive policies distinct from the rest of Syria, and to establish worker cooperatives. But there are many reasons to question whether Rojava should be upheld as a viable alternative to Western neoliberalism, especially when Rojava and the Kurds were recently used as pawns in a regime change effort led by Western neoliberals, intended to overthrow a sovereign state by putting arms in the hands of some of the worst extremist groups in the region. The US currently maintains seven military bases in so-called Rojava which further brings into question whether or not this region is truly a new kind of popular democracy distinct from Western neoliberalism. It is highly possible that Rojava is being allowed by Western neoliberals to experiment with some new forms of Governance so long as they continue to act as a proxy of Western power in the Middle East. {8}


Similarly to Rojava, the state of Israel has adopted a progressive veneer in the past, claiming to be champions for women's rights and for the labor movement, or even claiming to have a socialist economic system due to the prevalence of worker co-ops. However, nobody in their right mind would argue that Israel is a country that anyone should attempt to emulate. As they have of course been charged with maintaining a system of apartheid that systematically discriminates against Palestinian Arabs, who have been ethnically cleansed by the US and British backed State of Israel for over 70 years. Palestinian living standards have reached disastrously low levels, and over 70% of Palestinian people are now living in refugee status, proving that it is impossible to build an equitable and democratic state so long as you allow yourself to be a pawn of western imperialism.  We should be wary of any US backed countries that claim to be heroes for women's rights and Democracy.


Comically, Parenti’s Blackshirts and Reds singles out two left anti-communist intellectuals for specific criticism, those being the anarchist environmentalist Murray Bookchin, and the self described socialist novelist George Orwell. Murray Bookchin once mocked Parenti for trying to make a balanced analysis of the Soviet Union by derriding him for caring so much about “the poor little children who got fed under communism” (his words). Ironically, it is Bookchin’s vision of a future society that Monbiot and Hutchison champion as the most viable alternative to neoliberalism. Despite the fact that no such society has ever been created and sustained in practice, unless you accept their fallacious argument about Rojava. This is not the case with Marxist-Leninist socialism, which has seen a great deal of success in practice, and has already elevated living standards for billions of people.


The other ideologue who Parenti criticizes, George Orwell, used his voice to vehemently denounce and criticize the Soviet Union at a time when they were locked in a mortal struggle with Hitler and the Nazis. Ironically, George Monbiot won the Orwell award for journalism in 2022 and has since given lectures for the George Orwell Foundation {9} carrying on Orwell’s legacy of criticizing capitalism, while bashing and deriding those around the world who are doing the most to construct an alternative to it.


While this book grasps the evils and contradictions of neoliberalism quite well, it fails to understand the geopolitical situation today in which a new multi-polar order is arising against US dominated neoliberal hegemony. The US is desperate for regime change in countries like China, Russia, Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, etc. because they continue to build stronger economic ties with one another, while preventing western neoliberals from plundering their resources and manipulating their Government policy.


Confusingly, the authors at one point lump Russian President Vladimir Putin together with neoliberal demagogues around the world such as Bibi Netanyahu in Israel, Donald Trump in the US, and Narenda Modi in India. And while Russia did fall in line with the Neoliberal world order during the 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet Union and subsequent plundering of the Russian economy by Western capital, under Putin they have largely reversed course, building stronger trade ties with China, nationalizing sections of the energy industry, cracking down on certain oligarchs and Russian firms, and investing more resources in infrastructure development. It is for these reasons that the US desperately seeks regime change in Russia today, dumping billions of dollars into a Ukrainian Proxy war against Russia, and terroristically blowing up the Nord stream Pipeline to sever Russian economic relations with Europe. The Russia of today, with Putin at the helm, is far from fitting in with neoliberal puppets of the West like Netanyahu in Israel or Zelensky in Ukraine. This is why Putin receives only vitriol from the US Government, while the other two receive a seemingly endless supply of money and guns.


The authors also make the claim in this book that China’s production quotas under Mao Zedong had no social utility whatsoever, which simply shows a complete lack of understanding of Chinese history and socialist economic planning. Prior to the era of Mao, China was a feudal agrarian country with very little industry to speak of. The country was dominated by feudal landlords who ruled over vast swaths of land worked by impoverished peasants. In order for China to become a modern society Mao needed to industrialize the nation and teach these peasants to engage in modern economic practices such as steel working. This is why the now infamous backyard furnaces came about, as Chinese peasants had to be given tools by the state in order to teach themselves how to do modern industrial production. And while these policies were far from perfect, the first years of Mao’s rule in China were the fastest increase in human life expectancy that has ever been seen in human history. China transformed in a matter of decades from a backwards feudal agrarian dictatorship, into a modern economy where social metrics like literacy, housing, and access to healthcare, have been massively expanded. To say that the production quotas under Mao had no social utility, and to compare them to production as it now exists in the neoliberal United States, is a statement that can only be described as absurd and ignorant.


The authors do choose to acknowledge the power of central economic planning and how it can be used to direct production towards social ends. However, instead of analyzing how the USSR and China used economic planning to transform themselves from being semi-feudal agrarian countries into industrialized global superpowers in a matter of decades, the authors instead choose to praise Franklin Delano Roosevelt for the way that he was able to direct all production towards military equipment during the Second World War. And to be fair, this is not a bad example. It does show that the US can, and has historically, used central economic planning to direct production toward social ends. However, to use this as an example while dismissing China’s use of central economic planning as a failure is completely ludicrous.


An area of agreement I have with the authors is that the left of today needs to offer people a new narrative as to how our system can be radically changed. We at the Midwestern Marx Institute for Marxist Theory and Political Analysis have been attempting to do just that, by fleshing out a theory of American Marxism, or what we call the American Trajectory. We believe that America has already gone through three periods of revolutionary change, those being the 1776 revolution against british colonialism, the Civil War of the 1860s which abolished slavery and made capitalism the dominant mode of production in the American South, and the civil rights movement which did away with apartheid putting black and white workers on a more equal playing field, and allowing them to organize together against the ruling class as one. As Americans we need to understand that our history is one of colonial plunder and corporate power, but it is also a history of resistance to that power. Heroes like WEB Dubois and Martin Luther King helped to fight for historic advances that brought us to the situation we are in today free of slavery and apartheid. The struggles of the past have moved our society forward and set the stage for what must come next… American Socialism. The abolition of the neoliberal capitalist system and the transition into a truly democratic system where production is directed towards social ends, rather than the production of surplus value alone. This is the American Trajectory and this is the “New Story” that I believe we need to start selling the American Public on.


Marxism is not a failed ideology. It is a science that must be applied uniquely to each country so that we might understand our current situation and how to change it through class struggle. Once we learn to apply Marxism to our own conditions and use it to understand our country’s history, we can start to understand how we got to the current situation, and how we can best move forward with changing it. There are many analyses in this book that are passed off as unique, but were already made by Karl Marx more than a century ago. Such as the idea that the ruling economic class of society will try to portray its own narrow interests as being in the interest of the whole of society, including the workers they exploit. This was something that Marx and Engels realized as early as 1840 in his text The German Ideology. The authors reformulate Marx and Engels’s analysis in different words without crediting or citing them, before turning around and claiming that Marxist ideology has failed. Such instances are common among Western Leftists who tend to throw endless shade at the work of Marx while copying some of his most important analyses of capitalism without credit.


Despite falling into left-anticommunism throughout, the authors of Invisible Doctrine: the secret history of neoliberalism, provide a solid and pertinent critique of capitalism and the current neoliberal social system. Because of this book, many people will come to understand how the social problems we face today are rooted in capitalism, and the neoliberal political ideology that stems from it, and serves to justify its continued existence. The book proves without a shadow of a doubt that for the vast majority of people living under neoliberalism the system has failed.


However, by arguing that capitalism's antithesis, socialism, has also failed, the authors further confuse the masses and push them to seek solutions in the anarchist school of thought which has yet to produce a successful revolution, or build a social system separate from western capitalism and imperialism. By arguing that keynesianism, neoliberalism, and socialism have all failed the authors extinguish some of the hope that the masses might place in the rise of socialism and the multipolar world. This might be acceptable if the authors made a sober analysis of rising socialist powers like China and Cuba, or their non-socialist allies like Russia and Iran, in order to argue that their rise will not be enough to destroy neoliberalism, and there is still much work to be done by workers here in the imperial core. Which is an argument that I would agree with. However, the authors instead fall back on cold war style state department talking points to dismiss these rising socialist and socialist adjacent powers without offering a shred of real analysis. And thus the book gives a solid analysis of neoliberalism, but confuses the current state of geopolitics by neglecting to analyze the massive and growing resistance to neoliberalism that is taking place in the East and the Global South.


Read this book if you want to gain a better grasp on modern neoliberalism, and especially its ideological roots which can be traced back to the beginning of the last century. However, also make sure to pick up Vijay Prashad and Noam Chomsky’s The Withdrawal for a more all encompassing and accurate analysis of the current geopolitical situation. Also don’t be afraid to pick up some Marx and Lenin. I promise there is more to learn from them than what much of the Western left would lead you to believe.



Citations


  1. Monbiot, George, and Peter Hutchison. The Invisible Doctrine: The Secret History of Neoliberalism. Penguin Books Ltd, 2024.

  2. “Lifting 800 Million People Out of Poverty – New Report Looks at Lessons from China’s Experience.” Worldbank.Org, The World Bank, 1 Apr. 2022, https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2022/04/01/lifting-800-million-people-out-of-poverty-new-report-looks-at-lessons-from-china-s-experience. Accessed 2024.

  3. Hudson, Michael. “America’s Neoliberal Financialization Policy vs. China’s Industrial Socialism.” Michael-Hudson.Com, 14 Apr. 2021, https://michael-hudson.com/2021/04/americas-neoliberal-financialization-policy-vs-chinas-industrial-socialism/.  Accessed 2024.

  4. Parenti, Michael. “Left Anti Communism.” Blackshirts and Reds: Rational Fascism & the Overthrow of Communism, City Lights Books, San Francisco, California, 1997, p. 43.

  5. Parenti, Michael. “Left Anti Communism.” Blackshirts and Reds: Rational Fascism & the Overthrow of Communism, City Lights Books, San Francisco, California, 1997, p. 45.

  6. Prashad, Vijay, et al. The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and the Fragility of U.S. Power. The New Press, 2022.

  7. Hamou, Ammar, and Will Christou. “Syrian Christians: Exploited or Protected Minority?” Syria Direct, 22 Dec. 2019, syriadirect.org/syrian-christians-exploited-or-protected-minority/.

  8. Line Struggle Collective. “On Rojava and the Western Left.” Linestruggle.Medium.Com, Medium, 22 Apr. 2022, https://linestruggle.medium.com/on-rojava-and-the-western-left-bac1b858173e. Accessed 2024.

  9. “George Monbiot.” The Orwell Foundation, The Orwell Foundation, 13 July 2022, www.orwellfoundation.com/journalist/george-monbiot/.


Author


Edward Liger Smith is an American Political Scientist and specialist in anti-imperialist and socialist projects, especially Venezuela and China. He also has research interests in the role southern slavery played in the development of American and European capitalism. He is a wrestling coach at Loras College.


Republished from Midwesternmarx.com with thanks

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