Neoliberalism: A Concept Every Sociologist Should Understand
I have a confession: When I teach sociology I am often guilty of ignoring one of the most important concepts that every sociologist should understand. In fact, one of the main reasons for writing this post is to remind myself that I need to be more attentive to explaining this concept and discussing how it pervades our thoughts and actions. As you can tell from the title of this post, the concept to which I am referring is neoliberalism.
I know I am not the only sociology instructor who is guilty of leaving this important concept out of my curriculum. Over the years, the journal Teaching Sociology has published the results of a number of surveys that explore what topics sociology instructors deem to be most significant. In all of these cases, whether it is a study of the sociological core, of what students should understand after taking introduction to sociology, of which concepts, topics, and skills are most important, or even if there is a foundation of agreed on sociological knowledge, the concept of neoliberalism is usually left off the list.
If you have never heard of neoliberalism, you probably think it has something to do with being liberal versus conservative. You might even assume that neoliberalism is some sort of new version of being a liberal—much like the word implies. It is true that neoliberalism is a new form of liberalism. However, the liberalism that is being invoked is the economic version of liberalism and not the political philosophy of liberalism.
The economic version of liberalism from which neoliberalism has evolved emphasizes individual freedoms, competition, private property, and free markets. In contrast, the political philosophy of liberalism, from which our common use of the term “liberal” originates, focuses on promoting equality, valuing the collective good, and protecting civil liberties (such as speech, religion, press, and assembly).
According to David Harvey, whose book A Brief History of Neoliberalism is recognized as one of the definitive (and most critical) statements on this topic, neoliberalism is a “political economic practice” that promotes the total free will of individuals as economic actors. Neoliberals advocate for “strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade” with as little government intervention and regulation as possible. They seek to privatize institutions such as education, health care, and social services, and deregulate industries such as energy, communication, food, drugs, and finance.
Building on Harvey’s critique, the British writer George Monbiot argues that neoliberalism is the ideology at the root of all of our problems because it reduces human relations to cold competitive battles, it relegates individuals to being mere consumers, and it assumes that democracy is basically an exercise in the buying and selling of goods and services.
Most ominously, neoliberals suggest that the “market” is a natural and objective force that will solve all our problems if only we leave it up to its own devices. Unfortunately, this assumption fails to acknowledge that the market “is fraught with power relations” and “what ‘the market wants’ tends to mean what corporations and their bosses want.”
The end result of neoliberal ideology, Monbiot continues, is that we are led to believe in the myth of the self-made person:
The rich persuade themselves that they acquired their wealth through merit, ignoring the advantages – such as education, inheritance and class – that may have helped to secure it. The poor begin to blame themselves for their failures, even when they can do little to change their circumstances. Never mind structural unemployment: if you don’t have a job it’s because you are unenterprising. Never mind the impossible costs of housing: if your credit card is maxed out, you’re feckless and improvident. Never mind that your children no longer have a school playing field: if they get fat, it’s your fault. In a world governed by competition, those who fall behind become defined and self-defined as losers.
The analysis and critique of neoliberalism that Harvey and Monbiot make are illustrated clearly in sociologist Jennifer Silva’s book Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty. Based on 100 in-depth interviews with young adults in Massachusetts and Virginia, Silva examines how working-class individuals make sense of and explain their inabilities to find success in their jobs and families.
Instead of identifying external variables such as economic restructuring and downsizing (which affect job opportunities), cultural transformations of the meaning of love and marriage (which affect romantic relationships), and long-term stagnation of wealth and income for all Americans except for the top 1% (which affects financial stability), these individuals are more likely to adopt an individualistic perspective and place the blame for their shortcomings squarely on themselves. In other words, they embrace a neoliberal ideology to explain their failings even if they are unfamiliar with and never actually invoke the term.
For the respondents in Silva’s study, there is an overwhelming reluctance to admit that external and structural obstacles, such as economic injustice, might explain their personal failures. Even as they experience regular disappointments in seeking steady employment, making lasting familial connections, and gaining some degree of financial stability, “the cultural logic of neoliberalism resonates at the deepest level of the self” (p. 18). They have come to believe that their success is wholly dependent on two mutually affirming ideas: self-reliance and rugged individualism.
The “cultural logic of neoliberalism” may sound like a complex and jargon-filled phrase; however, it can be understood more simply by thinking of C. Wright Mills’s famous statement on personal troubles and public issues. In the Sociological Imagination, Mills points out that many people believe that their personal troubles are theirs and theirs alone. They fail to see that the troubles they are experiencing—unemployment, family dysfunction, financial debt—are things that millions of others are experiencing simultaneously.
If you are suffering from the same “personal” trouble as a large segment of the population then isn’t it more accurate to think of this trouble as a public issue? And if our personal troubles are better understood as outgrowths and manifestations of larger public issue then shouldn’t we be seeking social explanations and social solutions to these social problems?
When we embrace the cultural logic of neoliberalism we become blind to seeing this bigger picture. We have no understanding of the ways in which power is unevenly structured and distributed in society—particularly in the way it greatly enables some and severely constrains others. Instead, we come to believe that in a free market world of competitive individualism being a success or a failure is entirely a personal act.
In this sense, the so-called logic of neoliberalism is actually quite illogical. It is also exceedingly anti-sociological. But even though it is both illogical and anti-sociological, it is still the prevailing ideology in the United States to explain people’s socio-economic positions. And that’s why sociologists must understand neoliberalism. We need to have the intellectual acumen and analytical insights in order to reveal and repudiate this ideology.