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What is neoliberalism?

Liberalism, as Osita Nwanevu explains, "is an ideology of the individual⁠. Its first principle is that each and every person in society is possessed of a fundamental dignity and can claim certain ineradicable rights and freedoms. Liberals believe, too, in government by consent and the rule of law: The state cannot exercise wholly arbitrary power, and its statutes bind all equally." This is well known. Two liberal values sometimes conflict: "freedom of speech, a popular favorite which needs no introduction, and freedom of association, the under-heralded right of individuals to unite for a common purpose or in alignment with a particular set of values."

But what is neoliberalism?

Wendy Brown, author of Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (Zone Books, 2015)
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.

She continues,

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."

A 2018 Project Syndicate video said:

“Austerity is closely associated with the neoliberal doctrine advocated in the 1970s and 1980s by the likes of Milton Friedman and Margaret Thatcher, and embraced in the 1990s by major center-left parties, when it became known as the Washington Consensus. The first pillar of that Consensus is increased economic competition achieved through deregulation, market opening, and free trade. The second is a reduced role for the state, achieved through privatization and limits on the ability of governments to run fiscal deficits and accumulate debt. ...neoliberal economists have sought to prove that government spending is either destructive or futile.”

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, said that he has been accused of wanting to neoliberalize academia, based on his arguments that professors should stick to academics inside the classroom and keep their political activism separate. (His critics find this unnaturally limiting for the professors and less than exemplary for their students.)

...neoliberalism is a pejorative way of referring to a set of economic/political policies based on a strong faith in the beneficent effects of free markets. Here is an often cited definition by Paul Treanor: “Neoliberalism is a philosophy in which the existence and operation of a market are valued in themselves, separately from any previous relationship with the production of goods and services . . . and where the operation of a market or market-like structure is seen as an ethic in itself, capable of acting as a guide for all human action, and substituting for all previously existing ethical beliefs.” (“Neoliberalism: Origins, Theory, Definition.”)

* * *

Whereas in other theories, the achieving of a better life for all requires a measure of state intervention, in the polemics of neoliberalism (elaborated by Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek and put into practice by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher), state interventions — governmental policies of social engineering — are “presented as the problem rather than the solution” (Chris Harman, “Theorising Neoliberalism,” International Socialism Journal, December 2007).

* * *

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.

In Robert Wright's "Nonzero Newsletter" on March 7, 2020, he wrote: "Unlike most ideological labels, it ["neoliberal"] is claimed by virtually no one. It's used mainly as a pejorative, typically to mean something like 'a free market fundamentalist who happily does the bidding of corporate overlords, helping them run roughshod over the world’s working people.'" Nonetheless, "it's possible to apply it with some precision. If you follow the term 'neoliberal' back to the 1990s, you’ll find it referring to a distinct set of policies — policies collectively called 'the Washington consensus' — and an underlying philosophy."

“Laying the problems of American capitalism on the poor is a staple of neoliberalism that protects American exceptionalism mythology," Roberto Sirvent and Danny Haiphong wrote in 2019. "American exceptionalism tells us that it is the ‘high-risk borrower,’ the individual who failed to ‘make it,’ who is responsible for whatever economic ailments plague the United States."

In a Project Syndicate interview sent by email on 12 November 2019, Paola Subacchi mentioned the failures of the free markets.

PS: You’ve suggested that neoliberalism is actually a form of social engineering, in the sense that those societies that embraced free-market ideology “have become increasingly divided in terms of economic power, influence, education, and health.” And, judging by many of these societies’ politics today, there has been considerable buyer’s remorse among voters. Which policies would do the most to address their grievances?

[Paola] Subacchi: The failures of neoliberalism, from sharp inequality to environmental degradation, confront us every day. In my forthcoming book The Price of Free Money, I argue that, after the 2008 crisis, the world’s major mistake was to reset the system, rather than overhaul it.

But it may not be too late for significant reform. The key to success would be a kind of “New Deal” that balances traditional economic objectives – growth and wealth creation – with a range of other priorities, including strong social safety nets, equitable labor markets, fair distribution of resources, environmental sustainability, and community openness.

And: How is it influenced by conservatism? Peter Levine, in 2013:

The conservative movement had intellectual forebears, writers like Friedrich von Hayek, Milton Friedman, and William F. Buckley. But its signature policies were not necessarily consistent with any of these authors’ ideas (which, in any event, conflicted with one another). That is not a criticism but a respectful acknowledgement that conservatism was a balance of diverse principles, heroes, examples, and cultural expressions — not a simplistic application of ideas.

Corey Robin, in a 2018 edition of his book The Reactionary Mind:

“The Nobel Prize-winning economist Friedrich Hayek is the leading theoretician of this movement, which is often called neoliberalism but can also understood as the most genuinely political theory of capitalism the right has managed to produce. The theory does not imagine a shift from government to the individual, as is often claimed by conservatives; nor does it imagine a shift from the state to the market or from society to the atomized individual, as is often claimed by the left. It takes what Nietzsche called grosse Politik — a conception of political life as the embodiment of ancient ideals of aristocratic action, aesthetic notions of artistic creation, and a rarefied vision of the warrior — and locates that vision not in high affairs of state but in the operations and personnel of a capitalist economy. The result is an agonistic romance of the market, where economic activity is understood as exciting rather than efficient, as the expression of aristocratic virtues, aesthetic values, and warlike action rather than a repository of bourgeois conceits.

* * *

As Wendy Brown has argued, neoliberalism is, among other things, the conquest of political argument by economic reason."

Will Storr in 2018 defined it as "a heightened form of individualism":

"It’s as if the brain asks a single, vital question: Who do I have to be, in this place, to thrive? If it was a boastful hustler in ancient Greece and a humble team-player in ancient China, then who is it in the West today?

The answer is a neoliberal.

* * *

For Mr. Reagan and Mrs. Thatcher, saving ourselves meant rediscovering our individualist roots.

They cut taxes and regulations; they battled unions; they shrunk the welfare state; they privatized assets and weakened the state’s safety nets. They pursued the neoliberal dream of globalization — one free market that covered the earth. As much of human life as possible was to become a competition of self versus self.

Here's a similar use of the term. The 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Marianne Williamson, "like conservative thinkers, often blames material problems on personal failures," Noah Berlatsky writes. "Her ideology may sound airy and inoffensive, but it is ultimately one of neoliberal victim shaming."

As an example, Remington Breeze said: "as Derrick Jensen mentions in his article Forget Shorter Showers (which is worth a read if you have the time), if every American did everything they could to reduce their carbon footprint, it would only reduce U.S. gross emissions by about 22%."

To some extent, this hearkens back to an ethics question about whether you need to be virtuous to do "the right thing," or whether you can just make some calculation or follow some rule, or whether the situation can be better designed to somehow take care of itself.

Adam Piore:

"Bailenson, who has a PhD in cognitive psychology, came to realize one of the main reasons we fail to act on social problems is that we tend to blame individuals for their problems, not any situation or social condition. In social psychology, blaming an individual is known as “the fundamental attribution error.” [The term was coined by Stanford psychology professor Lee Ross.] When bad things happen to them, it’s their fault. When bad things happen to us, it’s not ours. We lose sight of ourselves in the social fabric. In recent years, however, research has shown that granting somebody the perspective of another person can reduce the fundamental attribution error — seeing the world through another’s eyes can make us less quick to judge them."

Lauren Berlant, in her 2011 book Cruel Optimism, referred to "that moral-intimate-economic thing called 'the good life'" (Introduction, p. 2) and asked: "What is the good life when the world that was to have been delivered by upward mobility and collective uplift that national/capitalism promised goes awry in front of one?" (Chapter 2, p. 69) "Neoliberal interests are well served by the displacement of so many historical forms of social reciprocity onto emotional registers, especially," she observed, to "dramatize" the idea that freedom is just around the corner. In other words, solidarity (which might actually achieve a political goal) is converted into individual hope (which cannot, and merely disguises loss). (Chapter 6, p. 222)

Michelle Goldberg:

Since the election of Ronald Reagan, America has tended to value individual market choice over collective welfare. Even Democratic administrations have had to operate within what’s often called the neoliberal consensus. That consensus was crumbling before coronavirus, but the pandemic should annihilate it for good. This calamity has revealed that the fundamental insecurity of American life is a threat to us all.

“There’s no such thing as society,” Margaret Thatcher famously said. “There are individual men and women and there are families.” Tell that to the families effectively under house arrest until society gets this right.

Christopher Forth on willpower and food:

Having been described as a life-shortening and disfiguring disease since the 16th century, “obesity” became even more vocally denounced by doctors as the harbinger of sickness, disability, old age and death. Demands that people curb their appetites while adopting healthy diet and exercise regimes transformed the body into something that had to be regularly managed through sheer acts of willpower. All of this reflects the paradoxes of a mass society that encourages consumption while simultaneously demanding greater self-control. This self-control, in a further paradox, requires purchasing fitness products and services that are part of the same consumer society credited with producing fatness.

These trends would develop more fully in the decades to come. With the rise of neoliberalism in the 1970s, as well as the attendant “culture of bulimia” that coupled compulsory consumption with an equally insistent demand for self-discipline, fatness would become one of the most recognizable emblems of a loss of personal control and a social fall from grace.

In Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump, Asad Haider identifies tuition hikes as a neoliberal policy.

Jason Stanley says that neoliberalism rests on assumptions of social Darwinism:

"Once fascists achieve a requisite level of respectability, fascism itself can start to plant roots. At its core, fascism is based on a particular understanding of social Darwinian struggle – hence the title of Hitler’s autobiography, Mein Kampf (My Struggle). And social Darwinism, in turn, is the common bond linking neoliberalism (or economic libertarianism) and fascism. This is why it is no surprise to hear Trump talk constantly of “winning” in business, regularly signaling his disdain for “losers.” Now that he is in the White House, this facile ideology is being translated into a project of national struggle against other countries."

In a 2018 article for Medium, "Holding Patterns: On Academic Knowledge and Labor," Eugenia Zuroski points out that "minority a foundation of particular forms of knowledge and expertise that universities have a way of recognizing and extracting without crediting." Furthermore, "all expertise is hard-earned," in this case "by living through, and thinking through, unjust conditions of being." It is not automatic or "a natural byproduct of identity." A common "neoliberal fallacy" maintains that people with minority status either they haven't gained real, meaningful, worthwhile knowledge as a result of their minority status or they happen to have such knowledge but they didn't have to put in effort to acquire or develop it; that their minority status is a kind of power or privilege that gains them "preferential treatment"; and that they are disproportionately or undeservedly sought after for academic job offers. The same neoliberal thinking also fails to realize how the academic institution is still built around the dominant identities and supports and rewards them disproportionately while extracting undercompensated knowledge from people with minority status (e.g. by having them serve on diversity committees) and tokenizing those minorities by actually positioning them, or by depicting their position, as giving information or credibility to the institution without having the institution change to really include or reflect them. To use some of Zuroski's assumptions, then, one might say that neoliberalism has to do with upholding current power structures while pretending to critique them (or even perhaps really believing that it is critiquing them when it is not).


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.

"PS. In Theory: Rethinking Austerity." [Video.] Project Syndicate. July 20, 2018.

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.

Christopher Forth. "On the Evolution of Fatness in Society." Literary Hub. July 29, 2019.

Asad Haider. Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump, Verso, 2018.

Siva Vaidhyanathan. The Googlization of Everything: (And Why We Should Worry). University of California, March 2011.

Adam Piore. "This Is What Climate Change Looks Like in VR." Medium. July 31, 2018.

“Here Come the Death Panels.” Michelle Goldberg. New York Times. March 23, 2020. Accessed March 24, 2020.

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.

"The Metamorphosis of the Western Soul." Will Storr. New York Times. August 24, 2018.

Corey Robin. The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump (Second ed.). New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. pp. 133, 264.

Timothy Snyder. On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2017. p. 120.

Roberto Sirvent and Danny Haiphong. American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—from the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror. New York: Skyhorse, 2019. Chapter 11: "A Rising Tide or a Sinking Ship? American Economic Decline and the Rise of the Unexceptional Majority."

Peter Levine. We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: The Promise of Civic Renewal in America. Oxford University Press, 2013.

"Our increasingly fascist public discourse." Jason Stanley. Project Syndicate. Jan. 25, 2019.


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