The Contemporary: Neoliberalism


Neoliberalism: Quotes and Fragments

NL: “a theory of political economic practice that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within the institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade” (A Brief History of Neoliberalism, David Harvey).

“The unequal distribution of property is not a distortion of the formal equality of the market, but is its presupposition and its inevitable consequence” (“The Neoliberal Theory of Society”, Simon Clarke).

“In 1945 or 1950, if you had seriously proposed any of the ideas and policies in today’s standard neo-liberal toolkit, you would have been laughed off the stage at or sent off to the insane asylum. At least in the Western countries, at that time, everyone was a Keynesian, a social democrat or a social-Christian democrat or some shade of Marxist. The idea that the market should be allowed to make major social and political decisions; the idea that the State should voluntarily reduce its role in the economy, or that corporations should be given total freedom, that trade unions should be curbed and citizens given much less rather than more social protection — such ideas were utterly foreign to the spirit of the time. Even if someone actually agreed with these ideas, he or she would have hesitated to take such a position in public and would have had a hard time finding an audience” (A Short History of Neoliberalism, Susan George []).

“In this way, a Darwinian world emerges – it is the struggle of all against all at all levels of the hierarchy, which finds support through everyone clinging to their job and organisation under conditions of insecurity, suffering, and stress. Without a doubt, the practical establishment of this world of struggle would not succeed so completely without the complicity of all of the precarious arrangements that produce insecurity and of the existence of a reserve army of employees rendered docile by these social processes that make their situations precarious, as well as by the permanent threat of unemployment. This reserve army exists at all levels of the hierarchy, even at the higher levels, especially among managers. The ultimate foundation of this entire economic order placed under the sign of freedom is in effect the structural violence of unemployment, of the insecurity of job tenure and the menace of layoff that it implies. The condition of the ‘harmonious’ functioning of the individualist micro-economic model is a mass phenomenon, the existence of a reserve army of the unemployed” (“The Essence of Neoliberalism”, Pierre Bourdieu []).

“The current world situation is thus characterized by a remarkable interdependence, though this is a highly asymmetric interdependence in which the influence of the US and other countries of the North is preponderant. It is an interdependence which makes itself felt through repeated shock waves and counter-shock waves, where reduction as well as amplification of effects are possible. This is an interdependence whose effects spread out further and further into the world, leaving no person and no place untouched. Workers in the mines and straggling villages at the end of the world, fishermen on distant islands, peasants in the most remote villages: all have become dependent on world events.

“This is an interdependence which the most powerful actors work into their strategies, in order to come out on top. Those on the bottom, without resources, most often must simply submit to such interdependence and suffer whatever effects it brings” (A History of Capitalism– 1500-2000, Michel Beaud).

“The extension of economic rationality to formerly non-economic domains and institutions extends to individual conduct, or more precisely, prescribes citizen-subject conduct in a neo-liberal order. Whereas classical liberalism articulated a distinction, and at times even a tension, among the criteria for individual moral, associational, and economic actions… neo-liberalism normatively constructs and interpellates individuals as entrepreneurial actors in every sphere of life. It figures individuals as rational, calculating creatures whose moral autonomy is measured by their capacity for “self-care” — the ability to provide for their own needs and service their own ambitions. In making the individual fully responsible for her/himself, neo-liberalism equates moral responsibility with rational action; it relieves the discrepancy between economic and moral behavior by configuring morality entirely as a matter of rational deliberation about costs, benefits, and consequences. In so doing, it also carries responsibility for the self to new heights: the rationally calculating individual bears full responsibility for the consequences of his or her action no matter how severe the constraints on this action, e.g., lack of skills, education, and childcare in a period of high unemployment and limited welfare benefits. Correspondingly, a “mismanaged life” becomes a new mode of depoliticizing social and economic powers and at the same time reduces political citizenship to an unprecedented degree of passivity and political complacency. The model neo-liberal citizen is one who strategizes for her/ himself among various social, political and economic options, not one who strives with others to alter or organize these options. A fully realized neo-liberal citizenry would be the opposite of public-minded, indeed it would barely exist as a public. The body politic ceases to be a body but is, rather, a group of individual entrepreneurs and consumers . . . which is, of course, exactly the way voters are addressed in most American campaign discourse.8 Other evidence for progress in the development of such a citizenry is not far from hand: consider the market rationality permeating universities today, from admissions and recruiting to the relentless consumer mentality of students in relationship to university brand names, courses, and services, from faculty raiding and pay scales to promotion criteria.9 Or consider the way in which consequential moral lapses (of a sexual or criminal nature) by politicians, business executives, or church and university administrators are so often apologized for as “mistakes in judgement,” implying that it was the calculation that was wrong, not the act, actor, or rationale” (“Neoliberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy,” Wendy Brown])

An interview with Wendy Brown for Chicago Public Radio.

“Modern democracies have been around for long enough for neo-liberal capitalists to learn how to subvert them. They have mastered the technique of inflitrating the instruments of democracy– the ‘independent’ judiciary, the ‘free’ press, the parliament– and molding them to their purpose. The project of corporate globalization has cracked the code. Free elections, a free press, and an independent judiciary mean little when the free market has reduced them to commoditiies on sale to the highest bidder” (An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire, Arundhati Roy).

photo: Dispute between Serra Pelada gold mine worker and military police, Brazil 1986. © Sebastião Salgado.