ROAPE Editorial: Neoliberalism, Labour Power and Democracy

Every quarter the Review of African Political Economy’s quarterly journal is published by Taylor and Francis, posts an extract from the editorial. In the context of a widespread revolt against neo-liberalism, including Jeremy Corbyn’s re-energised Labour Party, Hannah Cross writes about the ‘neoliberal invasion of Africa’ and an issue that addresses the ‘attacks on gender relations and rights, workers and standards of living.’ This extract of the editorial is taken from Vol. 44, Issue 153 of ROAPE, available here.

By Hannah Cross

Labour will take robust action to end the self-regulation of [UK] Department for International Development private contractors, establishing and enforcing new rules to ensure aid is used to reduce poverty for the many, not to increase profits for the few.

… The current global tax system is deeply unjust. Africa’s economies alone lose more than £46 billion annually through corruption and tax evasion – more than 10 times what they receive in aid. Labour will act decisively on tax havens, introducing strict standards of transparency for crown dependencies and overseas territories, including a public register of owners, directors, major shareholders and beneficial owners for all companies and trusts. (Labour Party 2017, 122)

Not only promising to maintain aid commitments and international agreements, the above development policies and others in the UK’s Labour Party manifesto reflect its core aims to dismantle the rigged economic system, expand public ownership and strengthen workers’ rights. They expose the international development for the few that has persisted in the shadow of Thatcher’s reign, through Tony Blair’s pro-privatisation ‘New Labour’ regime, and which is now being pushed to extremes. More than a departure from neoliberalism, the stakes are even higher in the prospect of a disjuncture from British imperialism (Cross 2016). Meanwhile, the Conservative government projects the fantasy of returning to its heights in a post-Brexit world. The International Development Secretary Priti Patel aims to use aid money to secure post-Brexit free trade deals that would drive down prices, remove tariffs, and cut regulation whilst increasing the private share of development aid (Global Justice Now 2016). Her party aims to ‘create millions of jobs in countries across the developing world’, a punishing prospect when the collaborating International Trade Secretary Liam Fox has repeatedly undermined workers’ rights and claims they are unsustainable for business (Stone 2016).

Prime Minister Theresa May called the UK’s snap election on 8 June 2017 on the calculation that she would destroy the opposition to her party’s austerity programme and grandiose ‘Empire 2.0’ Brexit vision, backed by a plutocratic national media that promotes xenophobic nationalism and apathy. Yet the mass mobilisation of the Labour campaign offered unprecedented hope of an alternative when it significantly weakened her government and left her clinging to power. It prevailed both over a media almost unanimously presenting leader Jeremy Corbyn as ‘unelectable’ at best, a supporter of terrorism at worst, and over the stubborn adherents of neoliberalism in his party.

A major theme in this collection of articles, neoliberalism is a political project orchestrated by the capitalist class in the 1970s. It originates in the aim to suppress the power of labour by opening up global competitiveness between workers, empowering finance capital, and crushing jobs with privatisation, deregulation and technological change. Think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation followed up with the ideological front, eventually infiltrating universities (David Harvey in Jacobin 2016). The neoliberal construct of ‘governance’ is hostile to politics, ‘meshing [the] political and business lexicons through which neoliberal reason is disseminated’ and reducing people to ‘self-investing and responsibilised human capital [in] the project of a growing economy’ (Brown 2015, 70). As a consequence, for Brown, Marx’s depiction of capitalism as ‘vampire-like, exploitative, alienating, inegalitarian, duplicitous, profit-driven, compulsively expanding, fetishistic, desacralising of every precious value, relation and endeavour’ is inadequate to the damage neoliberal rationality has wrought to democracy as well as the economy (Brown 2015, 111).

Yet the transnational capitalist class can no longer unite in this runaway project. The International Monetary Fund and international organisations attempt to moderate the neoliberal programme of austerity in the increasingly rogue US and UK governments, while liberal international institutions that buffered the neoliberal invasion in Africa and elsewhere can no longer reconcile themselves with the attacks on gender relations and rights, workers and standards of living (Giugliano 2015; Bretton Woods Project 2017). Regionalism is also breaking down its unity as the USA’s geopolitical power declines along with the other ‘triad’ countries in Western Europe and Japan. The power of financial oligarchies in their political systems is fragile in the periphery because it does not accommodate political regimes of popular legitimacy (Amin 2016) Insights from Odinga and Dobler in the current issue (Vol. 44, Issue 153) of the Review show respectively how the USA is weakened by dependency on uncertain allies, and how, on the other hand, globalised liberalism in its erosion of regulatory power has opened up countries to the reproduction of comprador class dynamics by non-Western powers.

As Brown (2015) has explained so eloquently how neoliberalism is ‘undoing the demos’, now the demos is undoing neoliberalism in the countries that pioneered it. Its ideology has been fundamentally challenged by popular socialist campaigns that gained the majority of youth votes in US, French and UK elections (Blake 2016 Anderson 2017; Seymour 2017). Its hegemony is fatally eroded at the core. As a result, it can no longer be stabilised without recourse to increasingly authoritarian tactics, which disrupts the complicity of its bureaucratic upholders. Bereft ‘centrists’ might find comfort in Emmanuel Macron’s victory over the far right in France, but there lacks a more positive argument of support for the tactical election of a former investment banker who promotes 1990s-style ‘modernisation’ and entrepreneurship to be found in the dismantling of welfare and collective bargaining rights for workers (Halimi 2017, 2). This ‘third-way’ politics championed by Tony Blair and Bill Clinton has left much to grieve for – a world of cheap labour competitiveness and war, with more than 65 million forcibly displaced people and persistent deaths at sea, those caused by the disasters of deregulation and privatisation, not to mention the environmental consequences of unfettered growth. The violent ideologies of Islamic extremism and fascism have found support in communities that have been betrayed, impoverished, disempowered and patronised by self-styled liberal ‘experts’, while capitalist interests benefit from and sponsor these cultural interpretations of social and economic division. This regression was inevitable, not something that can be controlled with better management, and the remaining promoters of neoliberalism appear increasingly outdated and driven by narrow self-interest rather than rationality.

David Harvey, however, warns that ‘most anti-neoliberalism fails to deal with the macro-problems of endless compound growth – ecological, political and economic problems. So I would rather be talking about anti-capitalism’ (Jacobin 2016). As distasteful as neoliberalism has become socially and culturally, the shock rise of Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity in the UK, to become its most popular leader soon after the election, has emerged in an equally shocking, but absolutely necessary, class framing of political struggle. ‘For the many not the few’ was a sufficiently simple message to rapidly shift political consciousness beyond the committed left, rendering the elite capture of social movements, such as that found in the ‘Make Poverty History’ campaign of 2005, unimaginable. The election campaign defied the pluralism and compromise often expounded in radical forms of democracy, instead promoting the substantive class narrative that destroys neoliberal logic, with impetus from newly empowered working class politicians and minority groups. The irony of its radicalism is that it is a moderate vision of democratic socialism to counter the neoliberal revolution that shifted the capitalist world order to new extremes and totality. It does not depart entirely from capitalism but does open up the space to conceive of a different world beyond capitalism – one that no longer accepts the hierarchical ordering of ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries or assumes Western elites’ superiority of knowledge and interpretation, and instead remakes it according to material realities and the knowledge found in local resistance and global struggle, where the intellectual action is. As veteran activist Angela Davis (2017) argues: ‘we always use as our standard, those who are at the centre of the structures we want to dismantle.’ In dismantling these fraudulent structures, it is time to pursue a different standard by reimagining citizenship, work and democracy from a renewed socialist perspective …



Contributions in the current Issue 153 of The Review show neoliberal carnage and forms of resistance in Africa. The logic of the former is one of ‘shared sacrifice’ by whole communities, the demand that people suffer slashed jobs, pay, benefits and services, ‘with no immediate returns to those who sacrifice or are sacrificed … [for the] restoration of economic and state fiscal “health”’ (Brown 2015, 216). In this model of development, Lauren Maclean’s article examines the expansion of non-state providers of social welfare, showing how they produce new inequalities of access, complex barriers to accountability towards citizens, and the long-term erosion of state capacity. Labour migrancy is another outcome of this ‘shared sacrifice’. Based on a collaboration with ROAPE founding editor Lionel Cliffe (whose take on the political events of the past year would have been a delight to discuss), the next article comparatively examines the political economy of migration and labour mobility in West and Southern Africa. It includes analysis of Samir Amin’s regionalisation of Africa and the mechanisms of cheap labour, suggesting agenda and methods for approaching contemporary patterns.

The next two articles explore trade unionism in Africa, particularly in South Africa. Nick Bernards analyses the interaction between the International Labour Organisation and trade unions, assessing the ‘tripartite fantasy’ of formal institutions through which government mediates between workers and employers. Within the global rise of neoliberalism, their capacity to advance workers’ interests is restricted and deviations from the depoliticised and non-radical ideal are seen as a ‘moral failing’. David Dickinson’s article than examines casual workers’ organisation in the South African Post Office in a form of ‘insurgent unionism’ that is understood in the context of structural violence within a vastly unequal society.

The final two articles focus on the role of outside powers – the USA and China – in African politics. Sobukwe Odinga examines US-Ethiopian intelligence cooperation, revealing how Ethiopia has leveraged the liaison for its regional objectives and enabled the Meles administration to evade criticisms or sanctions for its increasingly autocratic politics. Gregor Dobler examines how China’s new role in Africa influences local lives, social and political relations, finding that this cooperation widens the rifts between the elites and the people. He highlights the importance of the political and technical regulation capacity of the state for determining international actors’ role in its political economy.

For the full editorial click here. readers can access Briefings and Debates in the journal by registering and logging on here.

Hannah Cross is author of Migrants, Borders and Global Capitalism: West African labour mobility and EU borders, Routledge 2013. She is a lecturer in International Relations at the University of Westminster, and an editor of ROAPE.


Anderson, P. 2017. “The Centre Can Hold: The French Spring.” New Left Review 105, May–June

Amin, S. 2016. “The Election of Donald Trump.” Monthly Review, November 30

Blake, A. 2016. “More Young People Voted for Bernie Sanders Than Trump or Clinton Combined – By a Lot.” Washington Post, June 20

Bretton Woods Project. 2017. “IMF and World Bank Labour Policies Criticised by UN Expert.” April 6. Accessed June 27, 2017.

Brown, W. 2015. Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution. New York: Zed Books. 

Cross, H. 2016. “Corbynism and Africa: Breaking from Imperialism?” Review of African Political Economy online blog, November. Accessed June 27, 2017.

Davis, A. 2017. “Angela Davis in Conversation.” Women of the World Festival, Southbank Centre, March 11. Accessed June 28, 2017.

Giugliano, F. 2015. “IMF Paper Warns Low-risk Governments against Needless Austerity.” Financial Times, June 2

Global Justice Now. 2016. “Dreaming of Empire? UK Foreign Policy Post-Brexit.” November. London: Global Justice Now. Accessed June 26, 2017.

Halimi, S. 2017. “Unprecedented Politics: Decades of Practice at Tactical Voting May Keep the Far Right Out, but at the Price of a Business as usual Neoliberal for President.” Le Monde Diplomatique, April, translated by George Miller

Jacobin. 2016. “Neoliberalism Is a Political Project: An Interview with David Harvey.” July 23, Brooklyn, NY

Labour Party (UK). 2017. For the Many, Not the Few. The Labour Party Manifesto 2017. London: The Labour Party

Seymour, R. 2017. “Where We Go from Here.” Novara Media, June 11.

Stone, J. 2016. “The New International Development Secretary Wanted to Scrap What is Now Her Department.” Independent, July 14.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.