A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of neoliberalism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this apparition: the unions and the poor, Corbyn and Mélenchon, French radicals and British intellectuals.
Where is the party in government that has not been decried as neoliberal by its opponents? Where is the opposition that has not hurled back the branding reproach of neoliberalism, against the more advanced opposition parties, as well as against its reactionary adversaries?
This ironic paraphrase of the Communist Manifesto reflects a common sentiment on university campuses. More often than not, you hear undergraduates utter the word “neoliberal” in heated discussions over a pint. Our professors occasionally smuggle the word into lectures on inequality, gender or climate change. There, neoliberalism can be blamed for everything; from world hunger to economic crises. However, the devil is in the details. Firstly, there is no universally agreed definition of neoliberalism. Secondly, there are no self-described neoliberals and in fact free-marketeers try to avoid using the term (Rowden, 2016). So, what are we doing then? Are we just indulging in collective straw-manning of capitalism? Or is it “a truly dominant ideology of today”? (Harvey, 2005)
This presents a very interesting epistemic paradox. On the one hand, the academic community created a new science behind neoliberalism with neatly constructed terms and handpicked methodology; all in the interest of taming the neoliberal beast. Whereas ,an average Joe seems to be jet-lagged. The pure academic talk about consumerism, the rate of exploitation and post-collonialism sounds like gibberish to him. After all, the neoliberal critique was initiated within the confines of academia, so it might seem like a pseudo-intellectual construct…
It might be the case that this misunderstanding is built upon a great many assumptions made in sociology (Barnett, 2005). To resolve this issue, we need to conduct a Cartesian-like inquiry and start the whole investigation from scratch; that is to say, without any preconceived notions. This can be done be first examining the relationship between the individual and the market. From there we may discern the key aspects of neoliberalism.
Personally, I do not believe that neoliberalism is a mere fabrication akin to alchemy (and even if it were, the key intuitions of alchemy often coincide with some true beliefs about the world). I would posit that neoliberalism represents a much wider cultural shift, one that cannot be understood along the party lines, but one that strikes deeper into human psyche.
Normally, I would start by providing a definition of neoliberalism. However, each sociological theory skews the definition for its conceptual purposes. Hence, let’s consider how this term originated. The term neoliberalism was coined to denote revolutionary laissez-faire reforms of 1980s. They were designed to promote strong property rights, low market regulations and free trade. What immediately springs to mind is the Iron Lady (the lovingly bestowed moniker of Margret Thatcher) cracking down on trade unions, or Reaganomics with its promise of the trickle-down effect. These reforms achieved varying degrees of success. They, for the most part, stabilised markets against the threat of inflation, whilst they simultaneously increased global inequality. After that, the term of ‘neoliberalism’ began to live its own life…
For instance, Bauman believes that neoliberal reforms turned states into consumerist societies (Bauman, 2004). In this new culture, a longing for consumer goods becomes a major drive for individual actions. Our desire to consume is further solidified by several impulses, such as advertising or planned obsolescence of products.
I think a great example of how pervasive neoliberalism can be is the product placement in TV shows. For instance, the new season of Stranger Things was absolutely filled with famous brands (the total advertising value is approximated to be around $15 million). My favourite moment was when Mike and Luke, characters from the show, argued about the “new Coke” for an entire minute. This conversation had zero impact on the character development and was just awkwardly funny. Thereafter, I considered Coke to be a reoccurring character by virtue of its screen time. Other memorable commercial bits include:
What is so frustrating about this practice is the fact that we can no longer peacefully enjoy our favourite TV shows. Even though a subscription-based streaming platform, such as Netflix or HBO GO, was designed to liberate us from commercial breaks, famous brands found a backdoor to creep back in. And once again, they mine the same old sentiment of positive association. To put it bluntly, junk food loses its negative essence once associated with popular TV series.
However, we still like to believe that we have a built-in resistance to commercials. As we encounter pop-up ads on daily basis, be it on Facebook or YouTube, we have learned to zoom out and ignore them. In addition, we like to rely on some sort of escapism. In fact, there are ways in which one can stand up to the market economy:
- (1) either directly, by promoting alternative ideologies such as Marxism or anarchism;
- (2) or indirectly, by embracing a market-free lifestyle.
Even so, a famous sociologist George Ritzer proposes a much darker take on neoliberalism; a position where anti-system attitudes often perpetuate the system itself.
Ritzer proposed so called idea of the “McDonaldization of society” by which our decisions tend to be subdued by instrumental rationality (Ritzer, 1996). This mode of reasoning prefers efficiency of an action over its ethical expense. Consider the example of McDonald’s; the food is cheap, abundant, delivered quickly and the whole experience is very predictable. The benefits provided by McDonald’s make us forget the fact that the whole meal contains in excess of 1,000 calories and more than 50 grams of fat (a ‘Big Mac’, large fries, and a strawberry milkshake).
This idea was taken to its absolute extreme in the popular TV series Rick & Morty. One episode takes place in a neoliberal dystopia called The Citadel. It presents a technologically advanced society which has managed to capture human memories into chocolate bars. So, in order to experience a truly beautiful event, all you have to do is to eat a piece of candy! These chocolates have various flavours such as: ‘memories of a man who rebelled against the system‘; or a ‘man who did woodworking and spent time with his family‘.
The TV show is trying to imply that under neoliberalism it is more convenient for us to buy our fantasies rather than actually living them. Why pursue martyrdom if we can consume it? A great example of this paradox is the story of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara. He spent his entire life fighting the forces of capitalism only to end up on t-shirts sold at Gap or Next. The ultimate tragedy of Che’s life is that even he became a marketable product.
The major takeaway, in light of Ritzer’s philosophy, is that through instrumental rationality it becomes more practical for us to indulge in fantasies rather than actions. Based on a simple cost-benefit analysis, actions are more time-consuming and far more riskier than imaginations. What’s more, the market provides you with a plethora of ways to entertain your illusions such as computer games, TV shows, pornography or social media. Setting up online profiles actually allows you to imprint your fantasies onto a wider network, and lends your imagination a sense of realism.
Hence, nowadays, the nature of human experience is being fundamentally changed. Our needs are turned by the market into consumerist cravings and we start to refrain from actions in favour of imaginations. Nevertheless, this is not, by any stretch of imagination, an inherently bad thing! On the contrary, a market economy would call this circumstance a ‘pursuit of happiness’. This is because individual fantasies give us freedom from the coercive force of collective morality. Furthermore, a zealous pursuit of consumerism ultimately yields material security. This is the problem with sociological perspectives. They tend to emphasise the frustrating side of social systems, only to leave the positive aspects in footnotes.
Sociologists often find themselves in a dead-end because they analyse societies in terms of power structures. However, each society is built upon several trade-offs and to truly understand why any ideology is sustained over time, we need to understand what kind of happiness it provides. Also, we must bear in mind the complexity of happiness. No one knows the elixir for ‘being happy’ especially because it includes an odd mixture of rational, emotional, material and even perverted pleasures!
So, do not think of ideologies as only guardians of morally prescriptive values. Think of them as vessels floating towards a particular form of happiness. Then, you may understand why even rotten states are able to prevail. For instance, oligarchic theocracies provide their poor subjects with spiritual pleasures that transcend material conditions. In regards to authoritarian regimes, they also provide you with some “higher goal” such as material equality (Communism) or uniformity (Fascism). Apart from that, communist countries often champion communal ways of living, which Epicures hailed as the best way to achieve contentment. Moreover, radical ideologies deprive the individual of the burden of personal responsibility. A joke from the old Soviet bloc: “if there is bad weather or a storm, all these communists screwed it up again!” The message: when politics got crooked, at least you were not the one who voted for it.
What is neoliberalism then? I would say that it is a reactionary ideology to the above mentioned forms of government. It seeks to maximise free choice, so that each individual can pursue a personalised fantasy, rather than a collective one. In order to make that work, material abundance has to be procured even through pragmatic means. This makes it economically sustainable because the neoliberal mentality obeys the laws of market like a source of wisdom (Foucault, 1979). It is nevertheless ideologically feeble, as people like to resort to collective fantasies that cloud individual imperfections. That is why neoliberal governments are in constant struggle with rising nationalism and socialist tendencies.
So, can we use the term neoliberalism to describe the contemporary state of affairs? If you ask this question, you have already answered it. What else would you use?
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