After facilitating the atrocities of the Pinochet dictatorship and helping introduce neoliberal policies around the world, Milton Friedman wrote in an essay from 1982 that "Only a crisis""actual or perceived"""produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around."
In the world of 2020, the downside of making crises into a governing tool has become apparent for the global corporatocracy. Neoliberalism was a response to the threats to capitalism's economic and political hegemony that appeared during the 1970s, with a recession and brewing social discontent having prompted the bourgeoisie to abandon a robust welfare state. Social services were cut, wealth was drastically redistributed to the top, and the so-called "excess of democracy" that neoliberal philosophers decried was solved by expanding corporate power over the government. But then a few decades later, this project began to produce a perpetual series of unmanageable crises, and late-stage capitalism became all too obvious.
Climate change kept intensifying. The blowback from America's post-9/11 wars made American global influence begin to diminish. The 2008 crash provoked rising social unrest and widespread hatred for the wealthy. Another rearrangement of the economic and political paradigm was needed to preserve the power of the bourgeoisie. And a decade or so into this post-economic crisis era of instability, a new normal has indeed set in, one where the imperialists and the capitalist oligarchs constantly exploit crises to further their interests.
Friedman's shock doctrine applied to a world in turmoil
In terms of capital management within the core imperialist nations, the recent crises have been exploited in obvious ways. The 2008 crash gave the big banks an excuse to get hundreds of billions of dollars in bailouts and vastly consolidate their economic power; capitalist governments have continued to carry out austerity measures, tax cuts for the rich, and deregulations throughout the last decade; in order to secure the stability of bourgeois society, police have been militarized throughout the capitalist world and democratic institutions have been further dismantled. But the corporatocracy has also managed to leverage the last decade's crises in a more subtle fashion: by using the world's growing instability to foment proxy wars, color revolutions, and pro-imperialist political terrorism around the globe.
This was what the imperialists did when they used U.S.-backed jihadists to ignite the Syrian war in 2011. Washington had been quietly financing and training terrorist groups for an attack against the Syrian government as far back as 2005, and throughout that time of preparation, the region had been roiling in chaos as a result of the disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq. The region was also feeling the effects of climate change, making it ripe for unrest. With these factors in place, and with a vast propaganda apparatus to make Assad seem like the real source of Syria's problems, the U.S. used the "moderate" rebels to plunge the country into war.
ISIS is the creation of the United States, both in that they rose out of the chaos of the Iraq War and in that they've often been directly aided by Washington. With the U.S. having also provided aid to Al Qaeda throughout the last decade, Islamic extremism has been largely co-opted by the imperialists. By co-opting it, Washington has been able to use it as a geopolitical weapon beyond the Middle East, with the U.S. helping facilitate a pipeline of religious extremism that extends into China's Xinjiang province. This has led to multiple terrorist attacks within China, which have only stopped after China has put in a terrorist rehabilitation program.
The imperialists wouldn't have been able to do so much damage without the crises of climate change and Middle Eastern instability, which have provoked violent radicalism that the empire has made use of. A similar dynamic has emerged in some of the places that have been impacted by neoliberalism, with imperialist interests working to steer economically motivated civil unrest towards benefitting Washington.
A prime example is the recent Hong Kong protests. At one point last year, around two million people joined in on them, and for understandable reasons; Hong Kong has been experiencing rising real estate prices and insufficient wages, similarly to how living standards have been declining throughout the rest of the capitalist world. But with the narrative management of Western propaganda, and with the influence of the CIA's organizational branches within Hong Kong, the protests have been turned away from class struggle and become deeply reactionary.
They are, in effect, a fascist movement. The protesters have blamed mainland China for all of Hong Kong's problems, despite China not being responsible for the neoliberal legacy of British colonialism on the island. They've praised Donald Trump and expressed nostalgia for British rule, in some cases saying they want to "make Hong Kong great again." They've engaged in demonstrations against communism and vilified mainlanders, often with violent actions a ttached to these reactionary sentiments. Washington has portrayed these developments as a "pro-democracy movement," and has used them as an excuse to pass a Hong Kong "human rights" act that enables more sanctions against China.
In other cases, Washington's attempts to exploit dissatisfaction with economic and political conditions have taken sneakier forms. Since anti-corruption protests broke out in Lebanon this fall, Washington has worked to co-opt them and turn them against the anti-imperialist resistance group Hezbollah. The other goals are to marginalize Lebanon's Shia movement in order to weaken Iran, and to install a government that's friendly to Israel. It's fiendish irony that these protests emerged as a response to Lebanon's neoliberal, imperialist-backed oligarchy, which has mismanaged the economy and assaulted the public sector amid an economic crisis. As Rania Khalek reported in December:
American meddling in the protests is not yet a full-scale operation, however it has been seen through the presence of US-backed political parties and activists backed by the most familiar outfits of the US regime-change machine: the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the US Institute for Peace (USIP), and USAID. Together, these elements are seeking to popularize the call for a technocratic, Hezbollah-free government in provocative actions across the country.
They've done the same in Iraq, exploiting the grievances of people who are suffering under a U.S.-installed neoliberal Iraqi regime. This was revealed when Iraq's caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi made a speech last month which described what had caused him to resign in November:
After my return from China, Trump called me and asked me to cancel the agreement, so I also refused, and he threatened [that there would be] massive demonstrations to topple me. Indeed, the demonstrations started and then Trump called, threatening to escalate in the event of non-cooperation and responding to his wishes, whereby a third party [presumed to be mercenaries or U.S. soldiers] would target both the demonstrators and security forces and kill them from atop the highest buildings and the US embassy in an attempt to pressure me and submit to his wishes and cancel the China agreement.
I did not respond and submitted my resignation and the Americans still insist to this day on canceling the China agreement. When the defense minister said that those killing the demonstrators was a third party, Trump called me immediately and physically threatened myself and the defense minister in the event that there was more talk about this third party.
The agreement Mahdi referred to is a deal to have Iraq export more oil to China, which represents a great blow to Washington's influence over Iraq. The U.S., taking advantage of Iraqi unrest that's ironically emerged because of American intervention, has intimidated Iraq's government into being more obedient.
The end of "friendly" neoliberalism
The ideal situation for global capitalism is the one that existed right after the end of the Cold War, when socialism had collapsed seemingly for good and neoliberalism was able to function in a relatively peaceful world. Yet the "end of history" was an illusion, one that's been followed by ever-rising inequality, expanding wars amid a decline in American power, and the collapse of the climate.