In this book, I treat neoliberalism as a governing rationality through which everything is “economized” and in a very specific way: human beings become market actors and nothing but, every field of activity is seen as a market, and every entity (whether public or private, whether person, business, or state) is governed as a firm. Importantly, this is not simply a matter of extending commodification and monetization everywhere—that’s the old Marxist depiction of capital’s transformation of everyday life. Neoliberalism construes even non-wealth generating spheres—such as learning, dating, or exercising—in market terms, submits them to market metrics, and governs them with market techniques and practices. Above all, it casts people as human capital who must constantly tend to their own present and future value.
Here’s where thinking about neoliberalism as a governing rationality is important: this rationality switches the meaning of democratic values from a political to an economic register. Liberty is disconnected from either political participation or existential freedom, and is reduced to market freedom unimpeded by regulation or any other form of government restriction. Equality as a matter of legal standing and of participation in shared rule is replaced with the idea of an equal right to compete in a world where there are always winners and losers.
The promise of democracy depends upon concrete institutions and practices, but also on an understanding of democracy as the specifically political reach by the people to hold and direct powers that otherwise dominate us. Once the economization of democracy’s terms and elements is enacted in law, culture, and society, popular sovereignty becomes flatly incoherent. In markets, the good is generated by individual activity, not by shared political deliberation and rule. And, where there are only individual capitals and marketplaces, the demos, the people, do not exist.
An example? Take, perhaps, Saudi Arabia's recall of its ambassador to Sweden, after Sweden's foreign minister Margot Wallstrom criticized Saudi Arabia in March 2015 for its treatment of women (who cannot leave home without a male guardian and cannot drive under any circumstances) and for its sentencing of blogger Raif Badawi to 1,000 lashes. She went on to voice her opinion that Sweden should not sell arms to Saudi Arabia. Leaders of major Swedish companies voiced their opposition to Wallstrom's comments, and Sweden's king and prime minister struck a note of apology with the Saudi king. Nick Cohen observed the economic importance for Sweden of its relations with Saudi Arabia:
Sweden is the world’s 12th largest arms exporter — quite an achievement for a country of just nine million people. Its exports to Saudi Arabia total $1.3 billion. Business leaders and civil servants are also aware that other Muslim-majority countries may follow Saudi Arabia’s lead.
Cohen said that "the rest of liberal Europe shows no interest in supporting her," and he added that "a Europe that is getting older and poorer is starting to find that moral stands in foreign policy are luxuries it can no longer afford."
Christopher Lasch wrote in 1984 that the social changes brought about by industrialization
have gradually transformed a productive system based on handicraft production and regional exchange into a complex, interlocking network of technologies based on mass production, mass consumption, mass communications, mass culture: on the assimilation of all activities, even those formerly assigned to private life, to the demands of the marketplace. These developments have created a new kind of selfhood, characterized by some observers as self-seeking, hedonistic, competitive, and ‘antinomian’...Critics of ‘hedonism’ attribute its increasing appeal to the collapse of educational standards, the democratization of an ‘adversary culture’ that formerly appealed only to the intellectual avant-garde, and the decline of political authority and leadership. They complain that people think too much about rights instead of thinking about duties.This criticism – and its common rejoinder that it’s good to give people options in life – both fail to question, Lasch wrote, “the debased conception of democracy that reduces it, in effect, to the exercise of consumer preferences. Neither side questions the equation of selfhood with the ability to play a variety of roles and to assume an endless variety of freely chosen identities.”
Lasch explained some of the philosophical history behind this assumption:
The highest form of practice, for Aristotle and his followers, is politics, which seeks to promote the good life by conferring equal rights on all citizens and by establishing rules and conventions designed not so much to solve the problems of social living as to encourage citizens to test themselves against demanding standards of moral excellence (for example, in contests of oratorical skill and physical prowess) and thus to develop their gifts to the highest pitch. The Aristotelian conception of practice has more in common with play than with activities defined as practical in the modern sense. Practices in the Aristotelian sense have nothing to do, as such, with the production of useful objects or with satisfying material needs. This goes even for the practice of politics. Only in the sixteenth century did Machiavelli and Thomas More define material survival, the physical maintenance of life, as the chief business of the state. From that position it was a short step to the modern conception of politics as political economy, which assumes, as Jürgen Habermas points out, that “individuals are exclusively motivated to maximize their private wants, desires, and interests.”
David Callahan, more briefly: "Liberals have made serious mistakes in the past forty years. In a sentence, they have failed to think enough about either the downsides of social freedom or the upsides of economic freedom."
Siva Vaidhyanathan explained neoliberalism in 2011:
The notion of gentle, creative state involvement to guide processes toward the public good was impossible to imagine, let alone propose.
This vision was known as neoliberalism. Although Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher championed it, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair mastered it. It had its roots in two prominent ideologies: techno-fundamentalism, an optimistic belief in the power of technology to solve problems (which I describe fully in chapter 3), and market fundamentalism, the notion that most problems are better (at least more efficiently) solved by the actions of private parties rather than by state oversight or investment. And it was not just a British and American concept. It was deployed from Hong Kong to Singapore, Chile, and Estonia.
Rachel Maddow wrote in 2012:
Counterinsurgency doctrine [for example, that produced by The U.S. Army /Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual by David Petraeus, which Maddow described as “a can-do treatise on how to fight wars that were both indefinite and expandable, a full-on twenty-first century rewrite of US military doctrine”] is elegant and fulfilling as an academic exercise, particularly for liberals: the story of how a public entity (that is, the military) does everything the right way, anticipating and meeting a population’s every need, and thereby wins. The idea is that the Iraqis will love us in the end, and want to be like us, as long as our military applies the correct principles.
Stanley Fish, in 2009:
Short-term transactions-for-profit replace long-term planning designed to produce a more just and equitable society. Everyone is always running around doing and acquiring things, but the things done and acquired provide only momentary and empty pleasures (shopping, trophy houses, designer clothing and jewelry), which in the end amount to nothing. Neoliberalism, David Harvey explains, delivers a “world of pseudo-satisfactions that is superficially exciting but hollow at its core.” (A Brief History of Neoliberalism.)
Timothy Snyder, in 2017:
We learned to say that there was ‘no alternative’ to the basic order of things, a sensibility that the Lithuanian political theorist Leonidas Donskis called ‘liquid evil.’ Once inevitability was taken for granted, criticism indeed became slippery. What appeared to be critical analysis often assumed that the status quo could not actually change, and thereby indirectly reinforced it. Some spoke critically of neoliberalism, the sense that the idea of the free market has somehow crowded out all others. This was true enough, but the very use of the word was usually a kowtow before an unchangeable hegemony.
Booked #3: "What Exactly is Neoliberalism?" Wendy Brown, interviewed by Timothy Shenk. April 2, 2015.
"Sweden’s feminist foreign minister has dared to tell the truth about Saudi Arabia. What happens now concerns us all," Nick Cohen, The Spectator, March 28, 2015.
Christopher Lasch. The Minimal Self: Psychic Survival in Troubled Times. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1984. pp. 51-52, 254.
David Callahan. The Moral Center: How We Can Reclaim our Country from Die-Hard Extremists, Rogue Corporations, Hollywood Hacks, and Pretend Patriots. USA: Harcourt, 2006. p. 19.
Siva Vaidhyanathan. The Googlization of Everything: (And Why We Should Worry). University of California, March 2011.
Rachel Maddow, Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power, 2012. p. 210.
"Neoliberalism and Higher Education." Stanley Fish. "Think Again" blog for the New York Times. March 8, 2009.
Timothy Snyder. On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2017. p. 120.