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Neo-liberalism and public unrest: Time to make the connection

Neo-liberalism’s focus on reducing the responsibility of the state while promoting privatisation to favour those with access to resources and influence is playing havoc with the lives and livelihoods of ordinary people, spurring disenfranchisement and protests across the world.

In Egypt, Turkey and Brazil, people expected democracy and political freedoms to transform their societies, and spread social and economic justice. But the political and economic elite working in tandem neutralised these aspirations, spurring a feeling of disenfranchisement which drove the protests.

Whether it is the removal of subsidies protecting the poor against inflation and price shocks in Egypt or the enormous cost of hosting high profile sporting events in Brazil at the expense of social services or government plans to commercialise a beloved public space in the heart of Istanbul, the headlong embrace of neoliberal economic policies by governments is likely to cause further dissatisfaction and unrest around the world.

Neo-liberalism’s focus on reducing the responsibility of the state towards citizens – while promoting privatisation to favour those with access to resources and influence – is playing havoc with the lives and livelihoods of ordinary people. Despite planted perceptions, the sad reality is that free markets don’t automatically regulate themselves nor do they naturally respect individual or community rights.

Notwithstanding ample evidence of corporate excesses around the globe, governments are going out of their way to ensure an ‘enabling environment’ for big business while making drastic cuts in public spending on social welfare. This is fuelling frustration and alienation among electorates, spurring protests.

Furthermore the exponential expansion in the power of transnational corporations has exacerbated income and wealth disparities which are threatening to tear societies apart. The World Economic Forum’s 2013 annual survey of global risks identifies ‘severe income disparity’ as a key concern likely to manifest itself over the next decade. The International Monetary Fund’s Managing Director has admitted that the top 0.5% of the globe’s population holds 35% of its wealth.

Although civil society groups have cautioned governments and financial institutions about the pitfalls of searing inequality, they continue to spin arguments about the need to privatise services when they should be focusing on how to make the public sector fit for purpose. Shockingly, during a global economic downturn, political leaders and captains of industry have together managed to subject ordinary people to double jeopardy: having to pay taxes to the state and then having to fork out profit-adjusted higher costs for privatised health, education, public transport, telecommunications, road works, electricity, water supply and so on. These services are indeed governments’ responsibility to provide as part of the social contract between citizens and the state.

In the past, the political and economic elite have erroneously sought to deride the occupy movements, indignados and anti-corruption protestors as fringe elements without clear vision or majority support. But with greater numbers of people taking to the streets to voice their dissatisfaction against corruption, environmental degradation and top down austerity policies, decision makers have a reality check staring them in the face. But will they right the ship on neo-liberal economic policies when they are privately profiting from it? Perhaps citizen action will help answer that.

Mandeep Tiwana is a lawyer specialising in human rights and civil society issues and the Head of Policy and Advocacy at CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance. The current blog is an abridged version of the article of same title appeared originally in Al Jazeera.

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