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Barack Obama's presidency

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George W. Bush's presidency since 2007

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George W. Bush's presidency from 2005-06

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From free trade to the Kosovo crisis.

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Battling 'Neoliberalism' in Wisconsin

By Daniel C. Maguire
February 18, 2011

Editor’s Note: For a third day, protesters rallied in Wisconsin’s capital to protest a plan by the state’s new Republican governor to reduce the budget, in part, by stripping public employee unions of many collective bargaining rights.

These Wisconsin demonstrations are the first major challenge to the newly empowered Republicans and their "neoliberal" goal to slash government and to protect tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, as Marquette Professor Daniel C. Maguire notes in this guest essay:

It has been well noted that the protest in Madison, Wisconsin, is not about the budget but about union-busting, but that is a symptom, not the root of the problem. 

Gov. Scott Walker’s project is to impose the neoliberal (neoconservative) political economy on a state that pioneered many progressive traditions and reforms.

Neoliberalism (or neoconservatism) has been the operating system of the Right since the 1980s, though its roots go back further. It has these four characteristics:

---Neoliberalism has been called a philosophy of “possessive individualism.” Historian Richard Hofstadter called it “beneficent cupidity” or the notion that “greed is good,” in more modern parlance. It embodies Social Darwinism — survival of the fittest — which sees society, as C.B. MacPherson said, as a mass of competing “dissociated individuals.” 

Margaret Thatcher, the British prime minister in the 1980s, even asserted there is no such thing as “society,” only individuals and families. If there is no “society,” we owe society nothing – and there is no such thing as social justice. 

And thus Fox News’ Glenn Beck, the clown prince of neoliberalism, can urge his faithful to walk out of church if their pastor so much a mentions social justice.

Of course, some other famous thinkers had a different point of view. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle said that justice holds the city together. Thomas Aquinas, the 13th Century Catholic philosopher, asserted that “justice consists in sharing.”

Indeed, a government grounded in the moral traditions of Judaism and Christianity is a government that acts as the caretaker of the common good with a special concern for the poor and the powerless. Neoliberalism is heretical to the Judeo-Christian moral tradition.

--Neoliberalism despises government because government is the enforcer of the sharing (e.g. taxes, regulations, monopoly curbing) needed for the common good. Neoliberals want to shrink government so small that it can be drowned in the bathtub, as right-wing political operative Grover Norquist cleverly put it.

Consistent to this anti-social core, neoliberalism stresses “privatization,” taking things out of government hands and giving them to private business.

Following the neoliberal script, President George W. Bush tried to “privatize” Social Security, handing over retirement benefits to the mercy of the stock market. Water supply has in some places been privatized; airports and roads have been targeted for privatizing. 

--Neoliberalism is anti-union. Though neoliberals laud competition, they do not want competition coming from workers who are instead reduced to “human capital” that can be discarded as readily as a worn-out machine. You don’t do collective bargaining with machines, so why should you with workers?

In 1981, President Ronald Reagan went after the air traffic controllers union, setting an anti-union tone that would dominate the decade. Today, Gov. Walker is going after public workers’ unions trying to deny them the right to collective bargaining. It’s all of the same piece.

--Neoliberalism is a kind of secular religion which demands that we embrace a pious faith in the “market,” which must be granted unfettered freedom to work its will, the sort of power that traditional religions ascribe to God.

Believers in neoliberalism talk about “the magic of the market” or what “the market decides” as if it were some supernatural or all-knowing deity, not just a collection of corporations and investors. The goal of the corporations and investors, of course, is profit and growth, not the common good.

So, not surprisingly, neoliberalism, when unleashed, produces economic and social inequality. But its adherents insist that whatever the “market” creates is “good,” regardless of the harm to the planet’s environment or the human pain.
“It is our job to glory in inequality!” Thatcher once declared – and she was as good as her word. 

In pre-Thatcher Britain, one person in ten was classed as living below the poverty line. When she finished in 1990, one in four was poor and among children the ratio was one in three.

Reaganism achieved a similar result in the United States. Kevin Phillips, a former aide to President Richard Nixon, notes that during the 1980s, wealth gushed to the top. The top 10 percent of Americans increased their average family income by 16 percent; the top five percent by 23 percent; and the ecstatic top one percent reaped a whopping 50 percent increase.

As economist Susan George pointed out, the bottom 80 percent all lost, and the lower you were on the scale the more you lost.

However, the Progressive tradition of Wisconsin is not dead. Today, it roars in the rotunda of the Capitol building, where on the ceiling is depicted the Wisconsin image of justice, a woman holding scales but she is not blindfolded.

She is holding the scales with a determined look on her face that seems to say: “Don’t you dare fuss with these scales of justice.”

In these heartening yet trying days, as Americans take to the streets to defend those principles, one can detect a hint of a smile on the strong face of Lady Justice – as she looks down on workers united in spirited protests against neoliberal injustice.

Daniel C. Maguire is a Professor of Moral Theology at Marquette University, a Catholic, Jesuit institution in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He is author of A Moral Creed for All Christians. He can be reached at

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