Neoliberalism defies a singular definition, in large part because of its broad application across a variety of disciplines, and as a result of what it produces across diverse economic, cultural, and social terrains. But, despite the endless exercise that ascribing meaning to neoliberalism proves to be, the term is regularly used to signify the constellation of socio-economic and politico-cultural relations that have become status quo during the post-Keynesian era.
This period has largely been marked by escalations in economic liberalism (e.g. Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of the Nations,” Reaganomics, Thatcherism, The WTO, etc.) and structural adjustment policies (e.g. The Bretton Woods System, Washington Consensus, World Bank, IMF, etc.), along with a rise in pro-capitalist socio-political theories promoting austerity, privatization, deregulation, and a purported ‘opening up’ of markets and borders. Neoliberalism’s economic and philosophical influences are thus founded upon the convergence of two principal cultural beliefs:
1) That the ‘individual,’ and competition, be granted supremacy over all else.
2) That ‘work,’ ‘production,’ nature, and even time, be measured in monetary terms.
The ideology of neoliberalism also refutes the existence of structural injustices in favour of placing the culpability for widespread social problems upon individuals. Accordingly, the past few decades have seen dramatic increases in neoliberal policies all across the globe, which are now privatizing social services, overturning hard-won civil rights, and leading to more acute forms of dislocation, destitution, and environmental destruction.
More recent critical voices are arguing that in addition to being a sophisticated set of highly managed economic policies, neoliberalism is also a discourse. These perspectives consider neoliberalism to be an emergent mode of governmentality and suggest it is re-shaping cultural norms and establishing new ‘truths’ through the imposition of responsiblization, entrepreneurialism, and fragmentation. Responsiblization involves framing the social conditions that individuals or groups occupy as the accumulative result of individual choices. Entrepreneurialism comprises the pressures people face to monetize their capabilities, passions, and desires for the goal of financial self-capitalization and the attainment of individual recognition. Fragmentation is the process of branding oneself as an economic asset, which also involves withholdings of one’s thoughts, time, and presence for the purpose of eventually selling those aspects of their life in a given market. In this way, neoliberalism is theorized as a relationship that produces assemblages of people who are iteratively being compromised by both capitalist economies and cultures, whilst also reconstructing them. Consequently, people are often forced to navigate capitalist social relations in precarity and isolation, while also being subjected to cutbacks in healthcare, social services, and denials of their humanity.
Ultimately, neoliberalism acts as a veil that obscures systemic social relations of power in its quest to crown each person as master of their own fate. It thereby becomes an overwhelmingly influential, yet cloaked and diffuse, discourse that persuades people to deny their interdependence with each other, as well as with the environment. In accomplishing this, neoliberal ideology also obliges people to believe that competition, as well as the anguish of poverty, are natural and necessary. In sum, neoliberalism is a configuration of discursive and material practices globalizing extreme individualism in order to transform the world into a market.
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Harvey, D. (2005). A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford University Press.
McRuer, R. (2006). Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability. NYU Press.
La Via Campesina, (2013). Women of La Via Campesina International Manifesto. Women’s Assembly, Jarkata, Indonesia.
What are some of the things neoliberalism has produced across the globe? What has it produced in terms of getting an education?
How does neoliberalism affect people in relation to their race, class, gender, ability, sexuality, citizenship, religion, nationality, ethnicity, etc.?
Are there any examples of resistance to neoliberalism throughout the world? If so, what do they look like, and how can they translate to local issues?
Neoliberalism has been theorized in a myriad of contrasting, and conflicting, ways – after reading about neoliberalism, which definition(s) seems most fitting to you? Why?
Submitted by Levi Gahman and Elise Hjalmarson