In recent times our colleagues have been evaluating neoliberalism and its impacts upon farming – and upon rural society, more generally. A significant contribution has been Steven Wolf and Alessandro Bonanno’s edited collection The Neoliberal Regime in the Agri-food Sector: Crisis, Resilience and Restructuring which arose from an RSS Sociology of Agrifood Research Interest Group (SAFRIG) mini-conference held in Chicago in 2012. In August this year the theme of the European Society for Rural Sociology Congress was ‘Places of Possibility: Rural Societies in a Neoliberal World’. Globally, agri-food scholars including Alessandro Bonanno, Hilde Bjorkhaug, Larry Busch, Hugh Campbell, Jennifer Clapp, Madeleine Fairbairn, Vaughan Higgins, Phil McMichael, Terry Marsden, Bill Pritchard and many others have sought to understand links between neoliberalism and agrifood restructuring. What have been the impacts of neoliberalism upon agriculture and rural society? Are we moving beyond neoliberalism?
Neoliberalism is often constructed as having different features from ‘liberalism’. If liberalism is a belief that individual decision-making and action (to fulfil personal needs and desires) provides the most appropriate/beneficial basis for the socio-political and economic organisation of society, then neoliberalism – or liberalism in its new form – goes beyond this. Its adherents believe that the state has intervened in social and economic relations in a manner which has distorted market signals, and that the best outcomes for society will be realised when the state ‘retreats’. The writings of Hayek and Friedman are often drawn upon to justify this belief, while politicians like Thatcher and Reagan are considered to have embodied the ideology in economic policy. That is, neoliberalism is not only a belief about the best way to operate a market economy, but is also a political project which has real-world effects arising from the imposition of economic rationalist policies. Such policies include free trade, the curtailing of government expenditures (which often goes hand-in-hand with privatisation of state services), fiscal austerity, along with ‘structural adjustment’ of economies to limit government spending as well as to confront the power of unions. Scholars have argued that these, and other, policy settings have been embraced in a so-called ‘Washington Consensus’ – a deliberate program of Washington-based institutions such as the World Bank and IMF to ‘force’ fiscal discipline, trade liberalisation, deregulation and financialisation onto nation states, with an overall aim of supporting a global free trade regime. The assumptions are that private sector growth will lift people out of poverty, reduce the costs of goods and services, and provide much needed jobs for a burgeoning global population.
Not unexpectedly, there has been major opposition to global neoliberalism and its incarnation in the Washington Consensus. Among the criticisms, the following are the most prominent:
- Neoliberal policies increase income disparities between the wealthiest and poorest in society
- Workers experience deteriorating wages and conditions as labour markets are casualised and made more ‘flexible’ – and as the state retreats from welfare-net support
- Being locked into global free markets erodes the ability of nation states to pursue their own domestic priorities
- The deregulatory nature of the regime opens up opportunities for natural resource exploitation and for environmental pollution and destruction
- Deregulation and privatisation increases the power of firms in the corporate sector, which can have a detrimental effect on overall competition and economic activity.
The questions posed at the start of this column were ‘What have been the impacts of neoliberalism upon agriculture and rural society?’ and, potentially, ‘Are we moving beyond neoliberalism’?
Some writers have argued that the reduction of the state’s involvement in agriculture has provided opportunities for the corporate agribusiness sector to increase its influence globally. The corporate sector makes its profits by selling inputs to farming (fertilisers, insecticides, seeds and machinery) and by taking the products of the farm and turning them into food, fibre and biofuels. Concentration of power in the corporate sector has reduced the viability of many ‘family farms’, while promoting the growth of large, specialised, farms. Industrialised agriculture – including so-called concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) along with huge (but often family-owned-and-run) farms featuring monocultures of grains and oil crops – has thrived in a neoliberal world. Yet, the negative ‘externalities’ from this form of farming include soil degradation, water pollution, inappropriate water extraction, accelerating production of carbon dioxide, and loss of biodiversity. Regulations that were once in place to prohibit or limit such outcomes have been removed or watered down, resulting in increased environmental degradation and the production of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. Private standards, public-private partnerships and decrees about ‘corporate social responsibility’ (all embodiments of the neoliberal state) have gone some way to acknowledging and/or addressing these problems, but the corporate-based agri-food model is viewed as being unsustainable and as generating poor health outcomes. Indeed, the final players in the corporate food sector – the supermarkets – have been roundly criticised for ‘squeezing’ family farmers (via conditions of oligopsony), fostering energy-inefficient long food chains and, together with the fast food industry, for encouraging consumers to embrace obesogenic diets. This is despite food insecurity and malnutrition remaining an unacceptable part of life in depressed areas of the global North, and in many regions of the global South. The great paradox of hunger amongst plenty is viewed, by some, as evidence that the free market – lauded by neoliberals – is incapable of guaranteeing food security for all.
In terms of rural society there is evidence that neoliberal policies have had a polarising effect, one that largely supports the growth and prosperity of the city over the country. This works in many ways. The reduced viability of family farming in the global North means less expenditure in local towns by farmers. Towns shrink, services such as education, health care, policing and legal assistance are ‘rationalised’ by the state, causing social dislocation and reducing the numbers of middle class professionals who formerly worked in these fields. In this way country towns lose leadership and are drained of social capital, and the spiralling down continues with the closure of court houses, schools and hospitals. Rural people become second-class citizens but – with a limited population base – they have lost the power to make a difference via the electoral system. Their votes are often irrelevant. The private sector tends to view this decline as a sign of decay and will not invest in the regions (despite private investment being viewed as the ‘key’ to success in a neoliberal world). While some companies do move in to take advantage of cheap land, the labour force is often poorly skilled and poorly educated: most of the young people have moved away. In comparison with the cities, rural regions are often characterised by: higher levels of suicide, higher levels of chronic illness, lower levels of formal education, lower levels of income and a poorer quality of life. Many of us recognise this as occurring in accordance with the ‘Goldschmidt thesis’ – the greater the presence of industrial farming, the more negative the impacts on local communities. In the global South a somewhat different dynamic is underway. As subsistence producers are encouraged or forced from the land (through poor seasons, poor prices or ‘landgrabbing’) to make way for more commercial forms, they move to villages and towns in hope of work. Often, industry will take advantage of cheap labour and jobs will appear. But just as frequently, the dispossessed peasants will join other slum-dwellers and be increasingly subject to poverty, illness and disenfranchisement. Participating in the ‘good society’ and being part of an enhanced democracy fade quickly in such circumstances.
It should be said that many of these features of rural economies were present before neoliberalism became hegemonic. It seems that neoliberal settings exacerbate pre-existing tendencies within capitalism towards economic polarisation, social disadvantage and environmental destruction.
Recent recognition of the problems generated via neoliberalism is thought to have resulted in a rejection of many neoliberal assumptions and the movement toward a post-Washington consensus. This does not represent an abandonment of that consensus but, rather, a ‘softening’. Market forces are still expected to operate in a largely unfettered way, but – post-GFC – some checks and balances are being restored. Financial codes and standards are being reintroduced, the public sector is seen to have a legitimate role in investment in food and farming (although, largely to increase productivity), exchange rates are being monitored, some social safety nets are reappearing, and there is targeted poverty reduction in rural regions. Many of the latter ideas and targets are readily observable in the new Sustainability Development Goals for 2030 that the UN released last month (see: https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/?menu=1300). Such goals do represent a challenge, of sorts, to neoliberal orthodoxy. Indeed, there is an emerging view that neoliberalism is in crisis and is being superseded. Perhaps it is. But it is probably more accurate to say that the impacts of neoliberal globalisation are being questioned throughout the world, opposition movements are targeting neoliberalism as the culprit in economic polarisation, and the legitimacy of a regime which is failing so many of the world’s vulnerable and poor is being held up to increased scrutiny. Rural sociologists have a responsibility to monitor the impacts of neoliberalism in farming and rural society and to seek policy changes where those impacts are destroying people, communities and the planet.