Living the Neoliberal Dream

From Adam Smith to Friedrich Hayek, a majority of political-economic discourse has indicated that our liberation through means of the economy has been a long time coming. Finally, we will be able to abandon our governments, our societies, our friends, our families, our children: to become the epitome of human civilization; Homo-Oeconomicus, as Michel Foucault called it. No longer will we be held back by our neighbors or fellow citizens. Instead, we can pursue profit at all cost, and to the benefit of all of humanity. A dream that would bring tears of joy to any Reaganomics enthusiast.

Except, of course, none of this is true. In fact, the neoliberalist dream probably died sometime near the 2008 financial crisis, potentially even earlier than that. Wendy Brown argues this claim in the context of today's socio-political landscape, which Brown describes as the remains left in the ruins of the neoliberal revolution. In this post, I hope to explore some of the tensions inherent in the American political system that facilitated this supposed 'revolution'. Moreover, with these tensions in mind, I will expand on Brown’s argument as to say where neoliberalism has left us today, and where we may be left to go from here.


Historically, we have been quite fond of our self-proclaimed labels of ‘liberal democracy’. Yet, the individual concepts of liberty and democracy are at odds with one another - and in quite a significant way. The former is defined as individual freedom, inferring a pursuit of self-interest unimpeded by the interests of others. The latter is a collective endeavor, characterized by a pursuit of a shared good, seemingly indifferent to individual interests against said pursuit. Over the course of human history, there probably have been plenty of instances where individual pursuits of self-interests and that of the collective are one and the same. More often than not, however, the democratically expressed collective good is determined by a majority, rather than an entirety, creating tension between the supposed ‘common interests’, and the potentially opposing interest of others. This tension between the two ideals is lost on most, creating an opportunity for exploitation and manipulation behind a smokescreen of uncertainty. One where the disoriented can easily be guided by the conductors of disorientation.

It is important to note that it is often argued whether or not there even is such a thing as a common good. This worry is a valid one, and unfortunately, I cannot do much to address it in this here. However, for the sake of this argument, it is not essential that there truly be a common good. What is important is that the idea of democracy is premised on such an ideal, and that is sufficient for understanding the tension. Likewise, it could be argued if there can never truly be liberty within collective humanity. Simply by existing, one imposes themselves on the lives of others and their unique endeavors. Yet, it does not matter if liberalism only exists outside of the bounds of society, when one finds themselves alone and unimpeded by others. We still operate on the ideals of liberty in our conception of our political state. Moreover, it is the uncertainty created by these ideals that is the driving force of politics. As such, they are relevant to the discussion, since the tension still exists - regardless of each ideal’s actual existence. 


Understanding this tension is paramount to unpacking the globalized hegemonic ideology of neoliberalism. Brown posits that, under the guise of individual self-interest, i.e. liberalism, there has been a deliberate undermining of the political, the societal, and potentially the cultural. Evident in the withdraw of the state that occurred under the global Reagen-Thatcher revolution, this attack on societal reliance was orchestrated by neoliberal intellectuals to propel their agenda of complete economization of everything. Brown describes this as the “entrepreneurializing and responsibilizing the subject, and re-tasking families with shouldering everything previously provided by the social state” (Brown, 9). Consider the rising cost of education which used to a responsibility fronted by the U.S Government. Today, however, with financial aid eligibility determinants such as the 'Expected Family Contribution' - we see a shift from government support to family reliance, which is often indicative of the rugged individualism expected in our culture. This new stress put on individuals and families within society created ever-growing friction between them, ultimately resulting in the disintegration societal and political ties within them.

Moreover, economic relations tend to take priority over other relations within human thought. This is clear in their portrayal, as economics is often presented as a science of systematic thought, imputing the variables of the environment that surrounds us, to create a supposedly rational response. Foucault calls this notion or theme of prevailing economic consideration: homo oeconmicus, the economic human (Birth of BioPolitics, 268,). Moreover, a system of social relation infers a division of agency between members of the society; the same can be said about systems of cultural or political relations. If a group of individuals collectively make a decision, the agency of the group overshadows that of the individual. By this I mean that if one member of a group disagrees with a decision made collectively, it becomes nearly irrelevant in face of the societal; political; cultural collectively made decision. This means you will not always get exactly what you want within a collective.

In contrast, economic relations distinguish themselves as being promoted by and for individual agency. You earn economic value through your means of doing so, and as such you are entitled to use that economic value as you please. Your economic agency, as in the ability to use your earned income, can only be impeded by the laws of nature and the laws of the state. The laws of nature, because you cannot buy something that does not exist or goes against the rules of reality - such as life (you cannot buy life), or a square circle (there is no such thing). The laws of the state, because certain things that do exist can still be outlawed by your fellow citizens. Clearly, we have no say the laws of nature. The laws of the state, however, are up for debate.


Rallying for the obliteration of such laws is where we find the neoliberal intellectuals such as Hayek, an Austrian philosopher of the ordoliberal tradition. Within this tradition, we find the belief that the “markets and morals together are the foundation of freedom, order, and the development of civilization” (Brown, 6). Within this line of thought, it seems like humans - by nature - are economic animals, and markets are a naturally occurring phenomenon. That is to say, the very existence and future of humanity as we know it is contingent on our ability to economize. Thus, the only clear trajectory for the future of humanity is to replace all our social and political structures with economic ones. As rational economic agents (Homo-Oeconomicus), our continued reliance on economic relations can only lead to our own liberation . . . right?

Now we can say that we have, at least, peeked into the minds of some of the academically dominant neoliberal thinkers that precede us, and, in part, understand their agenda. Nonetheless, it is clear that we are not living the neoliberalist dream today (Brown, 15). The project of dismantling society did not create an economic system capable of addressing the needs previously met through social reliance. Instead, it created pitfalls of poverty and desperation, for millions to get trapped by those needs with little to no hope of escaping. The undoing of democratic structures did not create complete freedom from the political. Rather, it unleashed angry mobilizations of political power easily manipulated into nonsensical outrage, but too disoriented to know it. Left deprived of the robust notions of the societal and the political, the responsibility of nourishing political equality, the public good, and a citizenry has become ours alone to shoulder.


After writing a post like this, I cannot help but feel a sense of debt to you. Over the course of my academic experience, I have collected a number of anxieties about the world. Being critical of our current state allows me to express these anxieties. In a way, this has become a cathartic experience for me. However, I am aware that it may not feel this way to you; I doubt you find my soapbox ranting on paper to be a pleasant experience at all.

Thus, in light of this, I would like to conclude by entertaining a more positive outlook on the future of humanity, if just for a moment. While our minds cannot help but become enveloped by our economics, I like to believe that we can never truly abandon our systems of social relations. Rather, we just set them aside while we focus on paying the bills, making rent, maybe even to invest and think about retirement - and somewhere along the way we find that we enjoy chasing things more than having them; yet, everyday one of us wakes up in shock to the strange reality of our ways. When this happens, hopefully, they reach out to grip whatever is left of our social relations.

I like to believe that we can see this in the emerging popularity of ‘cultural consumerism’, which is not entirely free of its problems, but it demonstrates a willingness to change for an agreed upon common good. Cultural consumerism is when you buy a product more because of its cultural value, rather than its economic or social value - usually with some inferred moral implication. Examples of this include fair trade products; organic produce; second-hand/thrift shopping; and even the boycotting of problematic companies. By buying a product from your neighbor to support them, instead of Nike, regardless of the of its higher cost, you are engaging in cultural consumerism.

As I mentioned before, cultural consumerism is not free of all issues. Today, it is used quite often by major neoliberal benefactors to doop consumers into buying their products. Yet, that is not to say that it cannot be done right at all. I believe that if we continue to support the green; local; small; organic; fair-trade businesses - instead of the hegemonically powerful; globalized; problematic corporations - we may have a chance to reconcile our economy based lifestyle with the social relations that brought us this far.


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