Neoliberalism

Beware, weary traveller, for here be dragons!

 

Not just because neoliberalism is an abstract noun, and so can be a substitute for thought, rather than thinking deeply.

Not just because it brings together a wide range of phenomena, making it hard to agree upon what we are talking about.

Not just because it is an ideology, and so more often a term of abuse.

But also because neoliberalism describes an ongoing process, making it hard to distinguish the important points from unimportant points, the disease from the symptoms.

 

All these make explanation difficult.

 

Neoliberalism is the belief in the power of the marketplace, not only to provide goods and services cheaply and efficiently, but also that the marketplace can solve all ethical and political questions as well.

So in answer to an age-old political question – do we find freedom through government or from it? – neoliberalism uses government to protect markets and often to create new markets where none existed before.

One result is a rag-bag of policies that seem to contradict each other. Praising free trade while giving subsidies and tax-breaks to large corporations, and even resorting to gunboat diplomacy. Privatising state-owned, profitable companies that then make severe losses. Selling off social housing yet maintaining a housing bubble. Rescuing the financial sector from its crises yet leaving the manufacturing sector to its fate.

With neoliberalism, the emphasis is on capital, but not quite in the sense that Marxists describe: of capital versus labour, of bourgeois versus proletariat, of rich versus poor. Because the market now covers ethics and politics as well, it changes the way we look at the world and ourselves.

Instead of citizens, we become consumers. Instead of workers, we become one of millions in an international job market. Instead of loyalties and social bonds, we have legal contracts. Instead of finding political solutions to social problems, we rely on technology to boost our standards of living.

Instead of the product of our upbringing and environment, we are responsible only to ourselves, even if that means denying our own past. Instead of communities working together for their common benefit, we have the paranoia of a zero-sum game where the winner takes all. Instead of a bright future of human progress, we face only uncertainty.

 

When people charge the neurosciences of being neoliberal, they mean this: that the brain is a convenient patsy to push this vision of neoliberalism onto the sense of ourselves.

Not only because any promise to enhance our brains is inherently marketable.

Not only because bettering our brains puts technology above political solutions, as has been charged against neuroeducation.

But because the brain becomes yet another piece of capital that we have to improve, so that it is more appealing for the marketplace. In fact, that it is our individual responsibility and moral duty to do so, since the future is so uncertain.

That who we are becomes simply a collection of capacities whose purpose is to attract employers.

The risk is that the brain will become just another form of money, in an age when poverty is seen as a moral failure.