The Neoliberal Ideology
These days, it’s fashionable to use the term ‘ideology’ as a pejorative; to be ideological is to be unreasonable, rigid, caught in thrall to a belief system and untethered from rationality. Political opponents are ideological, we’re not. But that’s a sloppy use of language; ideology, within normal parameters, has no moral standing in itself; it is merely a term for the system of ideas and ideals we all must hold to operate in the world.
To suggest that being ideological undermines an otherwise inherent objectivity is to overplay the human ability to be objective in the first place. Slavoj Zizek1 is right when he says, ‘In everyday life, ideology is at work especially in the apparently innocent reference to pure utility’. It is always a background condition whether we recognise it in ourselves or not. So I have nothing against ideology.
What I do have something against, however, is the uniform dominance of one ideology over all others, and that is what we are now living under. The ideology in question has variously been called neoliberalism, the Washington Consensus, corporate capitalism, and ‘free market’ fundamentalism.
These terms all mean slightly different things but at heart they share three deep beliefs:
- That survival of the fittest through eternal competition between self-interested parties is, practically speaking, the only law upon which human society can realistically be ordered;
- That, in the moral hierarchy, financial wealth equates with life success which equates with virtue; and
- That man [sic] is, if not an island, then, at most, a part of an archipelago of islands of shared interests, answerable only to himself, his peers and, possibly, his God, in that order.
This is not the usual way neoliberalism (the term I will use as the umbrella) is described. Like its progenies, Thatcherism and Reaganism, it is usually defined in economic terms; a neoliberal believes in small government; low taxes; the sanctity of private property and private industries; and ‘free’ markets, particularly in labour, all of which feed the double headed hydra of profit and economic growth.
But to understand it only in economic terms and not connect it to the three underlying beliefs is to miss the point. Mrs. Thatcher herself put it well2 when she said, two years into her first term, “…it isn’t that I set out on economic policies; it’s that I set out really to change the approach, and changing the economics is the means of changing that approach. If you change the approach you really are after the heart and soul of the nation. Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.”
So, neoliberalism is moral philosophy first, economics second. It believes humanity is best understood through the lens of its three core beliefs and it gives them form and control through a strict economic doctrine.
To accept the doctrine is to accept the beliefs, which is to accept the definition of human purpose and identity. To question the doctrine is to question the beliefs and question our purpose and identity. This elegant, circular and hermetically sealed logic is one of its most potent weapons; it makes challenging the economic doctrine feel visceral, even insulting, a social taboo.