On how I learned to stop worrying and love the market.
It is predominantly the story of an entrepreneurial self equipped with promiscuous notions of identity and selfhood, surrounded by simulacra of other such selves. […] Everyone strove to assume a persona that someone else would be willing to invest in, all in the name of personal improvement.
Philip Mirowski, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown (2014)
Freedom is the ability to buy what you want to fit what you need.
Paul Ryan, Twitter (21 Feb 2017)
“Neoliberalism” was a word I had not heard until I entered graduate school, and then it was everywhere – in the theory texts I was reading, in the conversations between graduate students, and in the leftist discourse on Twitter, podcasts, and journalism that I became more attuned to over the last couple years. Often the word is wielded as a weapon of accusation: we can’t support a certain politician because he or she is a “neoliberal”; “neoliberalism” is killing education and healthcare; or it’s “neoliberal” oppression that I have to pay $25 to Graduate Studies so that they can host my thesis on their server, something they required in order for me to graduate despite the work already having been accomplished (this last one may be a little specific to my own case). It seems that many of the classic leftist/radical critiques of the political system have shifted in recent decades from decrying “capitalism” writ large to the perhaps more specific program termed “neoliberalism.” What is often unclear, based on how the term gets used, is whether this popular bugbear refers to some specific policy doctrine or some more general condition of culture or society. The answer, as I’ve come to understand, is both.
According to the tale Michel Foucault tells in his lectures from the late 70’s, American neoliberalism emerged as a reaction against the Keynesian economic reforms put forward by the Roosevelt Administration in the 30’s as a response to the Great Depression. Where Roosevelt’s programs focused on increasing government intervention in the economic crisis by developing social programs and aid, thereby increasing the federal deficit, neoliberalism called for laissez faire deregulation of the economy on the basis of the idea, from Adam Smith, that the “invisible hand” of the uninhibited market would work out its own solutions and create prosperity. The neoliberal program was codified into theory by thinkers such as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, particularly through the development of the Mont Pelerin Society, which was founded in the late 1940’s.
Foucault explains that, in the more radical version of neoliberalism that took hold in America, more and more functions of government would be handed over to the market. This can mean a couple things. On the one hand, conservative calls for a “smaller government” lead to hyper-privatizing of various public goods, such as healthcare, education, prisons, even the military. This form of neoliberal privatization of goods does not put these things back in the hands of the people but rather in the control of the mythical “market,” which really means the wealthy financiers and bankers with ties to the government who can turn public goods into objects for making a profit, usually to the injury of the general public and particularly of the poor.
On the other hand, the functions of government are handed to the market not through privatization but by using market standards of efficiency and growth as the guiding values behind governmental action. In this way, economic productivity is the primary value driving policy, rather than other potential metrics, such as the health and welfare of citizens or the humanistic empowerment of the public. This leads to the thinking that the cause of most political problems comes from too much interference in market fluctuation, thereby inhibiting the natural efficiency of the order of things. If you hear the phrase “market-based solutions” this is neoliberalism providing neoliberal market-driven solutions to problems caused by the neoliberal worship of the mythical rationality of the “Market.” For instance, the individual mandate to purchase private health insurance as a part of the Affordable Care Act was a neoliberal solution to a problem produced by neoliberalism’s refusal to make healthcare public and universal, as would be the case with a single-payer system. It kept healthcare private, thereby protecting the profiteering healthcare insurance and pharmaceutical industries, while making it slightly more accessible to just a few more people. When these sorts of strange market-based solutions inevitably prove themselves to be a less efficient way to address a problem, neoliberalism turns up again to say we should have just let the market do its work in the first place without undue guidance, giving us even more craven “solutions” like the slim and stupid, hyper-privatized American Health Care Act.
Philip Mirowksi, in his fantastic book Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown (seriously, I love this book), makes the case that neoliberalism was a particular sect of economic theory that gradually, against all odds and results, became the ruling ideology of the American system and continues to exert an absurd amount of influence over economic theory and governance in our country despite its many failures, particularly its big one of being entirely wrong about (as well as partly the cause of) the financial crisis of 2008. Where Foucault seems to say that neoliberalism is just the way things are now – that it’s the condition of our times, this general economization of all human things – Mirowski wants to make clear that it comes from a particular community of thought that has gained undue power through a particular series of events. Nevertheless, Mirowski also shows the many ways this sectarian economic theory has gone on to inform much of daily life and the self-perception of people today.
When we consider neoliberalism as a condition of contemporary culture and society, the simplest way to sum this up is to say that neoliberalism has instructed us to see ourselves as entrepreneurs of ourselves. Prominent social institutions – everything from the government itself to schools to churches and even to romantic relationships – are viewed as though they were businesses or financial investors. What we want is to be invested in, to put ourselves in situations that increase our own social capital and make us more successful, success being defined according to the principles of the market. This has a number of impacts on our daily life choices, especially those “big” ones: whether to go back to school, whether to start a business, to work on developing some personal skill or appearance, to gain “experience” whether or not it is justly compensated (unpaid internships for massive for-profit institutions are an evil unique to the neoliberal program for success).
By forcing us to constantly be on the move, developing our social capital portfolio, selling parts of ourselves, our time, and our lives to the various agencies or ideals handing out investments, neoliberal culture fragments our lives into the mesh of changing skills and start-ups we comprise. It takes from us a sense that our life belongs to us, because we hand over parts of our life to a market that might magically develop and improve it. Identity gains a monetary value, but not even a solid one. Rather, identity’s value shifts with the stock market, with the supply and demand of the job market, with the interests of those various investors we prostrate ourselves before. We are instructed to risk ourselves, not necessarily to trust the market but to enjoy the fact of its washing over us and absorbing all our attempts at making a life for ourselves. View each moment as a start-up, and don’t worry if you fail. Failure is a part of the rationality; just keep risking. The arrogant hypocrisy of such a culture is that, while the poor and the vulnerable are taught to enjoy the vulnerability that comes with risk, security exists for those who have greater control of the market. The housing crisis hurt a lot of people, but not the bankers who shorted the housing market. Doing away with public healthcare would hurt a lot of people, but not the people who profit from private insurance purchases or hiking drug prices, or the people who can already afford to buy health insurance because they’re the ones handing out the jobs and investments.
We see the success of neoliberalism’s hegemony of culture in our recourse to the sharing economy and the commercialization of organic materials. Things like Über or AirBnB are evidence that in neoliberal culture even private property does not belong entirely to us but belongs also to the market at large, to the flow of capital that courses through our lives and everyone else’s. If the market has left you in need of income to pay for the services no longer publicly provided for you, find a way to monetize more aspects of your life, such as your car or your house. Even more poignant are the ways we monetize our own bodies, submitting our blood plasma or wombs (as in surrogacy) to the market forces that are depriving us of what we need to live well. Moreover, what do we do when we learn of greater deprivations of life, human rights, or dignity at the hands of the market? We ask the market for help. So there’s slavery or labor violations in the coffee or berry farms? Buy fair trade. So animals are being treated terribly by meat producers? Buy free-range, antibiotic-free meat, or better yet, just buy more tofu and quinoa. So the patriarchy is depriving you of a just wage and equal access to a voice in political decision-making? Buy a “Nevertheless, she persisted” t-shirt.
As Mirowski shows in his incisive writing, neoliberalism makes us vulnerable while insidiously teaching us to enjoy our vulnerability. It guides us toward an erasure of the self while at the same time instructing us to be concerned only with ourselves, with our own little lives tossed in the sea of market dynamics. He writes, “The worse things get, you must not engage in rage, remonstration, or ‘stoicism,’ much less communal support; instead, the space spanned by your consciousness becomes the perimeter of the ‘economy,’ which is no longer about what you make, but consists exclusively of the stories you tell about yourself. Your vigilance must never waver from its focus upon the center of your own little universe.” We meditate on our little lives in order to find new stories about ourselves that open up a rational space for us to succeed according to the rationality of the uninhibited market, and we are told not to get in the way of ourselves. Public need is cast to the market, and we are taught to trust that everything happens for a reason, that God will take care of poverty and climate change, and that what we should be focused on is learning how to code or deregulating the kidney trade or shutting up and letting the businessmen do what they’re best at.