as if the people of the Soviet Union had never heard of communism. The
ideology that dominates our lives has, for most of us, no name. Mention
it in conversation and you’ll be rewarded with a shrug. Even if your
listeners have heard the term before, they will struggle to define it.
Neoliberalism: do you know what it is?
anonymity is both a symptom and cause of its power. It has played a
major role in a remarkable variety of crises: the financial meltdown of
2007-8, the offshoring of wealth and power, of which the Panama Papers
offer us merely a glimpse, the slow collapse of public health and
education, resurgent child poverty,the epidemic of loneliness,
the collapse of ecosystems, the rise of Donald Trump. But we respond to
these crises as if they emerge in isolation, apparently unaware that
they have all been either catalysed or exacerbated by the same coherent
philosophy; a philosophy that has – or had – a name. What greater power
can there be than to operate namelessly?
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.
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.
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
counter-productive and morally corrosive. The market ensures that
everyone gets what they deserve.
We internalise and reproduce its creeds. The richpersuade themselvesthat
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.
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 documentsin his bookWhat 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,
isthe loneliness capital of Europe. We are all neoliberals now.