So pervasive has neoliberalism become that we seldom even recognise it as an ideology. We appear to accept the proposition that this utopian, millenarian faith describes a neutral force; a kind of biological law, like Darwin’s theory of evolution. But the philosophy arose as a conscious attempt to reshape human life and shift the locus of power.
Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. It maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning.
Attempts to limit competition are treated as inimical to liberty. Tax and regulation should be minimised, public services should be privatised. The organisation of labour and collective bargaining by trade unions are portrayed as market distortions that impede the formation of a natural hierarchy of winners and losers. Inequality is recast as virtuous: a reward for utility and a generator of wealth, which trickles down to enrich everyone. Efforts to create a more equal society are both counterproductive and morally corrosive. The market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve.
We internalise and reproduce its creeds. The rich persuade themselves that they acquired their wealth through merit, ignoring the advantages – such as education, inheritance and class – that may have helped to secure it. The poor begin to blame themselves for their failures, even when they can do little to change their circumstances.
Never mind structural unemployment: if you don’t have a job it’s because you are unenterprising. Never mind the impossible costs of housing: if your credit card is maxed out, you’re feckless and improvident. Never mind that your children no longer have a school playing field: if they get fat, it’s your fault. In a world governed by competition, those who fall behind become defined and self-defined as losers.
Among the results, as Paul Verhaeghe documents in his book What About Me? are epidemics of self-harm, eating disorders, depression, loneliness, performance anxiety and social phobia. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that Britain, in which neoliberal ideology has been most rigorously applied, is the loneliness capital of Europe. We are all neoliberals now.
George Monbiot on the creed that dare not speak its name.
In conservative/libertarian/alt-right/whatever circles, “neoliberalism” is treated in the same way as the term “cultural Marxism” is by the progressive left, i.e. as a kind of imaginary dog-whistle word that has no real meaning.
For the record, cultural Marxism is actually a real thing–it usually refers to applying Marxist praxis to the social sciences, though it can also have the same sense as “cultural Christian” does, i.e. someone who claims the ideology but does nothing about it–but it’s pretty much never used that way in practice. Saying maybe videogames should include less rape and panty-shots and more nuanced female characters, for example, is not “cultural Marxism”, if for no other reason than most people who make that argument like to appeal to capitalist sensibilities (“women have money and will buy more of our stuff if we don’t denigrate them in it!”). Ditto for things like companies adopting QUILTBAG-friendly policies, for the same reason (“gay and trans people might have skills we need and might go work for our competitors if we’re awful to them!”).
Neoliberalism, meanwhile, is actually a Really Real Thing and a really real term that was adopted and used by its proponents. Or, at least, it was until apparently someone worked out sometimes not naming a thing–leaving it to appear so “natural” that it doesn’t need to be named–worked even better.
Go figure, I guess.