What is ‘Neoliberalism’?

I keep facing people who ask me what neoliberalism is, or who argue that as no-one calls themselves neoliberal, it is just a meaningless slur.

One definition is that neoliberalism is the corporately sponsored philosophy that makes ‘the market’ (not the economy) the only important function in society. And the market should, ideally, be ‘free’. Nothing else really counts.

The idea of free markets, in practice, means that governments should support and pander to business, as business is the only worthwhile activity. This becomes a moral imperative: if something cannot make a profit, then it should not exist. Everything should be administered as if it was a business, with profit coming before pleasure or effectiveness.

Furthermore, the free market idea means that government has to look after business by breaking unions whenever possible and lowering wages and working conditions to let business be ‘flexible’ and ‘responsive’ – although it is the workers who always suffer the discipline. As part of this process, government tries to reduce welfare spending, so that people are forced into working for low wages – but it always fails because governments simply spend more on bribing the prosperous middle class or in providing subsidies to business.

The free markets idea is used to argues for tax cuts for business, and wealthy individuals as they are the virtuous and they earned that money supposedly without any help from anyone, or without any history of theft.

It claims that these activities are all about getting the government off your back, which it does if you are wealthy and wish to pollute as part of your business, but the government is necessary to stop ordinary people from protesting or organising, and prevent them from taking power.

Neoliberalism has proven completely incapable of dealing with ecological despoliation and climate change, because as far as it can see, if nature or the environment is not owned by someone then it is simply an externality and a cost. It cannot effectively be factored into the ‘free market’ model. All costs should be minimized.

Few people would actually vote for this mish-mash – hence no one calls themselves neoliberal and neoliberals pretend they are about liberty, and something called ‘values’. These ‘values’ are used to hit dissenters, but are rarely important if there is a clash between values and established profit. Hence the promotion of the supposed ‘culture wars’ by neoliberals, as a distraction, as a way of recruiting conservatives to their cause, and as a way of getting government back on your backs, more stringently than before.

In the English speaking world we have had neoliberalism as the dominant ideology since the late seventies or early eighties of the last century (with Thatcher, Reagan and Keating), so we have had nearly 40 years of it. We know what it produces. It is not a mystery.

Neoliberalism uses “free market talk” to support and entrench corporate power.


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