I recently read a critique of the market-oriented economic theory known as “neoliberalism” and decided to add some of my thoughts about it in a series of short messages on a social media platform dedicated to providing an outlet for short messaging. I have decided to expand upon those messages and provide a slightly more fleshed out appraisal here.
“Neoliberalism” has gone from being a monetarist theory first mentioned in academic circles about the primacy of finance capital in the pyramid of global capitalism to a school of economic thought based on that theory, to a type of economic policy (via the Washington consensus) promoted by international financial institutions to national governments, to a broad public policy framework grounded in privatisation, low taxation and reduction of public services, to a social philosophy based on reified individualism and decontextualised notions of freedom of choice. Instilled in two generations over the last 35-40 years, it has redefined notions of citizenship, collective and individual rights and responsibilities (and the relationship between them) in liberal democracies, either long-standing or those that emerged from authoritarian rule in the period 1980-2000.
That was Milton Friedman’s ultimate goal: to replace societies of rent-seekers under public sector macro-managing welfare states with a society of self-interested maximizers of opportunities in an environment marked by a greatly reduced state presence and unfettered competition in all social (economic, cultural, political) markets. It may not have been full Ayn Rand in ideological genesis but the social philosophy behind neoliberalism owes a considerable debt to it.
What emerged instead was societies increasingly marked by survivalist alienation rooted in feral capitalism tied to authoritarian-minded (or simply authoritarian) neo-populist politics that pay lip service to but do not provide for the common good–and which do not adhere to the original neoliberal concept in theory or in practice. Survivalist alienation is (however inadvertently) encouraged and compounded by a number of pre- and post-modern identifications and beliefs, including racism, xenophobia, homophobia and social media enabled conspiracy theories regarding the nature of governance and the proper (“traditional” versus non-traditional) social order. This produces what might be called social atomisation, a pathology whereby individuals retreat from horizontal solidarity networks and organisations (like unions and volunteer service and community agencies) in order to improve their material, political and/or cultural lot at the expense of the collective interest. As two sides of neoliberal society, survivalist alienation and social atomisation go hand-in-hand because one is the product of the other.
That is the reality that right-wingers refuse to acknowledge and which the Left must address if it wants to serve the public good. The social malaise that infects NZ and many other formally cohesive democratic societies is more ideological than anything else. It therefore must be treated as such (as the root cause) rather than as a product of the symptoms that it displays (such as gun violence and other anti-social behaviours tied to pathologies of income inequality such as child poverty and homelessness).
As is now clear to most, neoliberalism is dead in any of the permutations mentioned above. And yet NZ is one of the few remaining democratic countries where it is still given any credence. Whether it be out of wilful blindness or cynical opportunism, business elites and their political marionettes continue to blather about the efficiencies of the market even after the Covid pandemic has cruelly exposed the deficiencies and inequalities of global capitalism constructed on such things as “just in time production” and “debt leveraged financing” (when it comes to business practices) and “race to the bottom” when it comes wages (from a labour market perspective).
I shall end this brief by starting at the beginning by way of an anecdote. As I was trying to explain “trickle down” economic theory to an undergraduate class in political economy, a student shouted from the back seats of the lecture hall “from where I sit, it sure sounds more like the “piss on us” theory.
I could not argue with that view then and I can’t argue with it now. Except today things are much worse because the purine taint is not limited to an economic theory that has run its course, but is pervasive in the fabric of post-neoliberal societies. Time for a deep clean.
PS: For those with the inclination, here is something I wrote two decades ago on roughly the same theme but with a different angle. Unfortunately it is paywalled but the first page is open and will allow readers a sense of where I was going with it.