Experiment: Explaining the rational, thoughtful allure of neoliberalism.
Neo-liberalism is not just a trend in government, it is a global cultural shift. Even though I would not consider myself a neo-liberal, it is still embedded into how I think about the world. And even though I think it is a destructive mentality, I can understand the appeal. Neo-liberalism encompasses an allure of freedom, control, and endless possibility that speaks clearly and simply to some of our basic desires as humans.
Neo-liberalism is fundamentally a belief that the market is the ideal way of governance and that individual, self-interested choices within a market will lead to the best outcomes for everyone. “Markets are understood to be a better way of organizing economic activity because they are associated with competition, economic efficiency and choice” (Larner, 2000 p. 5). Choice is seen as the ultimate way to express your freedom. The idea is that “voting with your feet” will create a system where the best products, services, and opportunities thrive. It is “the larger neo-liberalism discourse of consumption and choice, in which market deregulation and competition are seen as keys to freedom, fulfilment and prosperity, and economic judgements are treated as primary in relation to intellectual, aesthetic or democratic judgements” (Marginson, 1999, p. 233). The allure is that each and every individual has a say in how decisions are made. For example, coffee shops compete for your patronage so that great coffee with good service becomes widely available and continuously improving.
Self-interest is one of the guiding principles. Each person acting in their own best interest allows everyone to thrive. Businesses cannot survive with tunnel vision, they must consider the needs and wants of their consumers if they want to be profitable. “The individual is an economic being who fulfills social roles through consumption and pursuing economic well-being. Self-interested economic life need not be narrowly selfish living under this view, however, for producers of goods and services must often think of the desires and well-being of the consumers they serve in order to ensure their own economic viability” (Stitzlein, 2013, pp. 258-259). The other component of self-interest is personal responsibility. Each person is in control of their own decisions as well as their own potential. Self-interest guides “energy, initiative, ambition, calculation, and personal responsibility. The enterprising self will make an enterprise of its life, seek to maximize its own human capital, project itself a future, and seek to shape itself in order to become that which it wishes to be. The enterprising self is thus both an active self and a calculating self, a self that calculates about itself and that acts upon itself in order to better itself” (Rose, 1998, p. 154). The allure here is that each of us has ultimate control over our life, with endless opportunities to improve ourselves and a voice in how the world works.
Markets, choice, self-interest, and personal responsibility all blend together into a beautiful opportunity for each person. But, I think there is another allure that is a bit harder to explain. I think neo-liberalism allows people some peace of mind. The onslaught of media images of people suffering around the world, of natural disasters decimating communities, of refugees running for their lives, of children starving, and other horrors can be debilitating. I think it is too much for anyone to bear. Believing in choice, self-interest, and personal responsibility means that, as an individual, I don’t have to get emotionally involved. It is not my place. People who are suffering made their choices and my own suffering is because I chose poorly. We can ignore the larger societal ills and avoid difficult conversations about what causes suffering if the blame can aligned with choice. People will earn their help by improving themselves and I’ll work to improve myself – it sounds simple and elegant. Circumstances outside of individual control can be ignored. This is the easiest way to unburden ourselves of the pain of the world.
Perhaps the response to this requires another blog post, but it seems too important to leave out. A neo-liberal world is probably unlivable. The downsides of this sort of thinking are tragic. Not only do we lose our collective responsibility, our empathy and ability to work together, but we are put in competition with each other at every turn. Our freedom is defined by choice, as if consumerism was our primary purpose as a species. The lives of people and communities are taken out of context with no respect for how divisions between us are hurting all of us. And, perhaps scariest of all, the way that we define ourselves becomes based purely on our economic output, on money and our power to consume.
Although the allure of neo-liberalism seems to be power and freedom, it is only power or freedom within the smallest set of options. It is only beneficial to me because I judge it on my self-interest rather than the greater good. However alluring it may be, we cannot step back and treat the world like it is “out of our hands.”
Larner, W. (2000). Neo-liberalism: Policy, ideology, governmentality. Studies in political economy, 63.
Marginson, S. (1999). Introduction by Guest Editor: Education and the Trend to Markets. Australian Journal of Education, 43(3), 229-240. doi:10.1177/000494419904300302
Rose, N. (1998). Inventing Ourselves: Psychology, Power, and Personhood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Stitzlein, S. M. (2013). Education for citizenship in for-profit charter schools? Journal of Curriculum Studies, 45(2), 251-276. doi:10.1080/00220272.2012.713996