What will be the legacy of neoliberalism? │ Jake Scott
Neoliberalism is the defining socio-economic ideology of our world. For many, it is nothing but a success: it has lifted millions across the world out of absolute poverty, relative poverty and, for some, into the realm of the super-rich; for others, it is the ideology of greed, selfishness and the worship of money. Indeed, some claim we are now living in the age of “zombie neoliberalism”, or at least a post-neoliberal age where we are struggling to find an alternative. But what will the legacy of neoliberalism be?
If neoliberalism is an ideology, then globalisation is its practice. Neoliberalism places, at its heart, economic rationality: Thomas Lemke’s article, ‘the birth of biopolitics’, argued that it was the reduction of all moral choices to a cold utilitarian cost-benefit calculation, realised in the material calculus of money, that exemplified the neoliberal mindset – or ‘governmentality’. In other words, all choices were reduced to a simple question: will this make me richer?
Now, all good people have a multitude of motivations in their lives: some spiritual, some rational, some just simply emotional. So, it’s not as if we are neoliberals every time we make a decision based on what it costs us. Instead, Lemke’s warning was of the danger when all decisions, especially moral ones, are made in this manner.
This sanctification of money is perhaps forgivable, if it were tied to a philosophy of community, where enrichment was understood in terms of longevity, defined by Burke’s community of the dead, the living and the unborn. Such an example is the paternalist capitalism of the 19th century in Britain, where magnates such as John Cadbury, who founded the unmistakable chocolate brand and, to house the factory workers and their families, built the village of Bourneville. Such a philosophy would make the enrichment of the nation its goal, but in an enduring and sustainable way; not this constant mortgaging of the present against the future that we have now.
Instead, the liberalism of neoliberalism has made the worship of money into the worship of the self. Liberalism has always trod carefully the line between the individual and the community, but it was in rebellion against the authoritarian socialism of the mid-20th century that liberalism pushed in the direction of individualism, perhaps most clear in the philosophies of American liberals such as John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin and Robert Nozick. This idea of putting the individual as prior to society made liberalism into the atomising project conservatives had always feared it would be: no authority held sway anymore, no institution went without question. As John Milbank wrote in 2015:
“economic liberalism has also eroded the social bonds and civic ties on which vibrant democracies and market economies ultimately depend for trust and cooperation. Meanwhile, cultural liberalism, including some modes of middle-class feminism, has carelessly underwritten the new cult of market choice in default of its supposedly radical commitments. And, paradoxically, the two liberalisms have engendered a society that is not just more atomised but also more interdependent in the wrong way – too tied to global financial processes that leave far less scope for individual initiative and the ability to shape one’s own life.”
I’ll come on to the “global financial process” soon, but here it suffices to say that liberalism places the individual’s desires above the concerns of the society, in what Michael Oakeshott referred to as the “government of the felt-need”: “rationalist politics, I have said, are the politics of the felt need, the felt need not qualified by a genuine, concrete knowledge of the permanent interests and direction of movement of a society, but interpreted by ‘reason’ and satisfied according to the technique of an ideology: they are the politics of the book.” This liberalism, fused with economic rationality, means that neoliberalism makes decisions for the here and now only, and justifies them on economic grounds. Do we legalise marijuana? Well of course: it’s another source of revenue, never mind the social costs. Do we decriminalise prostitution? Why not: after all, it’s the individual’s decision, just don’t mention the physical, mental, spiritual or social implications.
The gutting of society is only one half of neoliberalism’s legacy, though. The other lies in the globalisation process, so often characterised as the inevitable march of history (in a strange parallel of Marxism). While neoliberalism erodes the bonds of community on the social level, it works (as indicated by Milbank above) to erode the sovereignty and identity of the state on the national level, by demanding greater and greater levels of integration justified by economic rationality alone. All too often in Europe, for instance, the traditional markings of communities and nations have been quashed in pursuit of a ‘levelling-out’ of economic differences, a sort of ironing out of the creases, never mind the human cost.
This is also the justification for accepting immigration’s constantly rising levels – it benefits the economy, so it can only be a good thing. But pushed out of the debate are issues still valid, such as social cohesion, integration and the myth of multiculturalism. And as so many social philosophers are now waking up to, pushing these concerns out of the conversation leads only to disaffection, disillusion and dissent.
The physical face of the nation seems to be ironed out by globalisation also. Architectural traditionalists bewail the ‘nowhere-ness’ of contemporary architecture that seems to be only made of steel, glass curtains and harsh lines. Most significantly, these buildings reflect the neoliberal mindset all too well, as they are built for now, by being subject to a particular purpose in their construction, which means when that purpose inevitably falls away, the building will be left derelict, a grim reminder of the uglification of our once beautiful cities sacrificed to the deity of consumerism.
It seems to me that the legacy of neoliberalism will be to make the nation (or what’s left of it) a vacuous shell, filled and emptied again by the demands of the moment, leaving the poor individuals who are tied to it, unable or unwilling to leave, cast adrift from one another, their governments and (perhaps most sadly) their descendants and ancestors.
Let us hope the alternative to neoliberalism will be found soon.
 See Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin’s National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy