Moment of complete honesty: there are plenty of words, phrases, and concepts that are dropped regularly in academic spaces that I totally know what they mean, but not really. This is particularly true in conversation involving American political theory. I’d like to think that I’m not alone in this. Here are a few examples that might trigger a head nod from you: laissez-faire, liberty, Keynesian economics, Marxist theory, Machiavellianism, secular, colonialism, and imperialism, to name a few.
When I say these words will trigger a head nod, I mean that maybe if we were sitting in a class, and someone used one of these words in context, most of us would nod along. The words are familiar, they probably make sense in context, and we can get the point being made, but if someone asked us to define these terms as stand-alone ideas, would we feel confident in our descriptions? My completely uninformed answer that lacks any data to backup my claim is no, no we would not.
I’m here to tell you about a word, one of my nod-along political terms, that had a recent resurrection in my life: neoliberalism.
For the sake of following along, I’m going to provide two definitions of neoliberalism, one formal dictionary definition, and the other will be my personal definition I can now confidently say to anyone if prompted without context (which I’m sure will happen regularly):
Dictionary definition of neoliberalism:
“A modified form of liberalism tending to favor free-market capitalism.”
Personal definition of neoliberalism:
An understanding of economic, political, and social constructions that approaches all institutions and dimensions of human life to be rationalized in terms of market value, cost-benefit analysis, and efficacy.
Mine is more dramatic, but I swear, I have a source. I’m currently taking a course called Racialization and American Law (shout out to my professor, Sherally Munshi at Georgetown Law, because this class has changed my life). A few weeks ago, we were assigned a reading titled “Neoliberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy,” to which I thought, “Cool, I know what all those words mean.” Little did I know that the article would shatter my world and make it obvious that I actually had no idea what neoliberalism actually meant. Not to be dramatic, but this piece attacked me, and for that I am eternally grateful. (If you’d also like to feel attacked, the piece was written by a brilliant woman named Wendy Brown. Full citation can be found in the footnotes).
Allow me to explain a little more in-depth what my definition of neoliberalism implies. Neoliberalism has very little to do with traditional political liberalism, or the modern definition of liberal that implies Democrat or the “left.” Neoliberalism is a construct that extends beyond simply economic and capitalist terms. While it sees everything as built in terms of economic benefit, it also argues that the regulative principles of capitalist economics are the most sound form of rationality that should be and is applied to all dimensions of human life. “Neoliberalism does not simply assume that all aspects of social, cultural, and political life can be reduced to such a calculus; rather, it develops institutional practices and rewards for enacting this vision.”
Layman’s terms: neoliberalism condones that all aspects of our lives be evaluated in terms of cost-benefit, efficiency, and profit. When you make a pro-and-con list about choosing a grad program, taking a job offer, contemplating moving, deciding to commit to your significant other, deciding what to make for dinner, you’re doing a cost-benefit analysis. When you decide to schedule your weekend and block off time to get your work done and then set aside time for happy hour with your friends, you’re approaching your schedule in terms of efficiency. When you decide to spend your Saturday morning volunteering or put on “Western Business Attire” for a networking event, you’re investing in an experience that will make you a more profitable candidate for a job.
Neoliberalism can be considered a construction of rationale: everything we do and the rationale behind our decision to do it is on the terms that the benefit outweighs the cost, the approach we have chosen is efficient, and we will gain virtue from the decisions we make. We have become accustomed to speaking in economic terms for our everyday lives because neoliberalism has produced normative behaviors that shroud in the construction of a free capitalist market.
Hopefully we’re all still on the same page. Neoliberal citizens are calculating. That is the essence of the tendency. What calculating can mean in political terms, however, is that neoliberals will be calculating before they will be law-abiding. This also adheres to the notion that a neoliberal citizen, or people who can responsibly approach life in efficient and calculating terms, become synonymous with “morally educated.” If neoliberals understand that everything is calculated in order to make a profit, whether its political, economic, institutional, etc., then they understand that not all laws and policies are just. The neoliberal approach is to understand that everything is constructed in terms of profitability. Instead of “following the rules,” a neoliberal would educate themselves in order to understand how markets are constructed, how decisions are made, and either join that industry to shift the balance of who benefits, or enter a space where you can educate others on how to understand this construction of power. Put simply: we cannot necessarily change the rules of the game, but we can learn how the game is played, and try to change it for the better. That is a Millennial form of civil disobedience: find an industry that has been corrupted by capitalist tendencies, learn the ins-and-outs, join the game, and then do the best we can to impact that balance of power so more people benefit (or at least the benefit goes to those who deserve it rather than those who gained it by privilege, nepotism, race, gender, etc.). While this is seen as a noble pursuit to get around the inequality of capitalism, it’s still inherently neoliberal because it reproduces different constructs of cost-beneficiaries and hopes to profit another group. The moral high ground for neoliberals does not necessarily come from an ability to create profit, but the privilege of understanding how the construct has been designed. Capitalism was never just about profit, it also embodies distribution of power that is efficient (and efficiency means there needs to be people that remain in each economic class). Even if the noble pursuit of civil disobedience means learning the rules of the game and benefiting those who deserve it, someone still has to lose. We can learn the rules of neoliberalism, but we cannot change them.
I don’t know if there is anything that we can do with this information besides feel confident about using the word “neoliberal” in a sentence. Many people may find it troublesome that capitalism has seeped into the deepest part of our lives to the point that it has produces normative behaviors and thought processes and ask, “Now what? What can we do? How can we fix it?” I’m not sure what the answer is, but I do know that our innate desire to have action items to fix constructs that are inefficient are pure examples of our own neoliberal tendencies. Once you see how embedded these normative behaviors are in all of us, you can’t unsee it. When I feel overwhelmed by the grips of capitalism, which I’m sure we all feel from time to time, I look for an escape. In the words of e.e. Cummings:
There’s a hell of a good universe next door; let’s go.”
1. “Neoliberalism” (2017). In Google Dictionary.
2. Wendy Brown, “Neoliberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy,” Theory and Event 7, no. 1 (Fall 2003), 40.
3. Wendy Brown, 43.
4. E.E. Cummings. “Pity this busy monster, manunkind” 1 x 1. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1944, 14. (Web).