Neoliberalism: origins, theory, definition
Since the 1990’s activists use the word ‘neoliberalism’ for global market-liberalism (‘capitalism’) and for free-trade policies. In this sense, it is widely used in South America. ‘Neoliberalism’ is often used interchangeably with ‘globalisation’. But free markets and global free trade are not new, and this use of the word ignores developments in the advanced economies. The analysis here compares neoliberalism with its historical predecessors. Neoliberalism is not just economics: it is a social and moral philosophy, in some aspects qualitatively different from liberalism. Last changes 02 December 2005.
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Neoliberalism inadequately defined?
The definition of neoliberalism presented here is more abstract than usual - but it also suggests that neoliberalism has been underestimated. A widely quoted example of those ‘usual definitions’ is What is “Neo-Liberalism”? by Elizabeth Martinez and Arnoldo García:
Neo-liberalism is a set of economic policies that have become widespread during the last 25 years or so. Although the word is rarely heard in the United States, you can clearly see the effects of neo-liberalism here as the rich grow richer and the poor grow poorer….Around the world, neo-liberalism has been imposed by powerful financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the Inter- American Development Bank….the capitalist crisis over the last 25 years, with its shrinking profit rates, inspired the corporate elite to revive economic liberalism. That’s what makes it ‘neo’ or new.
This sense of the word ‘neoliberalism’ is widely used in Latin America. However, neoliberalism is more a phenomenon of the rich western market democracies, than of poor regions. That is why I emphasise the historical development of liberalism, in those western market democracies. The IMF and the World Bank are not the right places to look, to see the essence of neoliberalism. And the WTO ideology - free trade and ‘competitive advantage’ - is 200 years old. There is nothing ‘neo’ in their liberalism.
Seattle and Genoa?
The image of ‘neoliberalism’ has been heavily influenced by the protests against it: people think of the violent protests at Seattle and Genoa, and the associated social movements. If you only thought about that, then neoliberalism would be an ideology of the riot police, and that’s not accurate.
It’s true that the Genoa G8 summit was intended as a show of force. The organisers knew that violent demonstrations were probable in an Italian city, but chose to confront them. Democratically elected leaders “should not run from demonstrators”, said Tony Blair. (However, when it was Britain’s turn to organise the G8 summit, the hypocrite choose the isolated Gleneagles hotel in Scotland). 20 000 police and soldiers were deployed at the Genoa G8 summit - NATO used 42 500 troops to occupy Kosovo. This show of force was out of all proportion to the political strength of anti-market forces, but it emphasised the legitimacy of the market-democratic states.
It is possible for ‘the state’ to suppress ‘the market’, but also to promote it. In fact, the free market emerged in Europe under the protection of the state, and the market needs the state, more than the other way around. The market needs internal regulation, in order to function: the state, in the form of the legal system, ensures contracts are enforced. In the form of the police, it prevents theft and fraud. It establishes uniform systems of weights and measures, and a uniform currency. Without these things there would be no free market, no market forces, and no resulting market society. Bill Gates disputes the US Government’s authority over his business - but if there was no government at all, the poor would soon steal his wealth. The attack on the World Trade Center provided some images of this dependency - the reopening of the New York Stock Exchange by police and firefighters, for instance. (In turn, at least in the United States, the market is integrated in the national identity: the NYSE reopening was seen as an act of national defiance).
The free market is itself a form of social organisation: it is neither spontaneous nor endemic to humans. If no-one ever promoted or enforced it, there would be no free market on this planet. For thousands of years, there was none. The modern free market came into existence primarily because liberalism demanded its existence. This demand was a a political demand, and it was enforced through the state.
The general functionalist starting premise is only modified to the extent that the “system” is comprehended as capitalist, in a specific way “form-determined”. The state and the political system function as a form of an ‘ideal all-around capitalist’, who must uphold not just the society as such, but the ‘capitalist element’. The different forms of state interventionism are explained both as an expression of functional needs of the accumulation and reproduction process of capital. The general requirements of capital accumulation such as basic infrastructure, functioning law systems and legitimization mechanisms are tasks that cannot be carried out by individual capitalists due to the competition relations, but instead systemically require a “fictive all-around-capitalist”. This “capitalist referee” must guarantee the fulfilment of these tasks in the interest of maintaining the system of capitalist society..
Business and the State: Mapping the Theoretical Landscape
Volker Schneider and Marc Tenbuecken, 2002.
If everyone on this planet was a liberal, an enthusiastic supporter of the free market, then that would be the end of the matter. But of course some people oppose the market, and its effects - especially the resulting inequality. The market is a political and social regime, and like any other regime, it must be enforced against opposition. That is true even of democracies: democrats overthrow dictators, and dictators overthrow democracies. If either side wants to avoid their own overthrow, they must use force. Democrats do use democratic force, and do fight democratic wars, as they know in Iraq.
The relationship between supporters and opponents of the free market, is similar to that between democrats and anti-democrats. They are enemies, inherently. On the very existence of the market, no compromise is possible. The free market either exists, or it does not exist. It can disappear by consent - which is absurdly unlikely - or without consent. Any attempt to end the free market is, by definition, an attempt to overthrow a fundamental social structure. Certainly, in the long-established western market democracies, it would mean a collapse of the existing social structures. The effect would be dramatic - comparable to occupation by a foreign power.
So it is not surprising that force is used in the face of a threat, and it is not surprising that it is the force of the state. That is after all, a typical task of the state - the preservation of the regime itself, the preservation of the nature of the state. Anarchist propaganda speaks of “the State”, as if all states were interchangeable, but they are not. A market democracy is not interchangeable with a Bolshevik regime, simply because they both have a government, an army, and a police force. A market democracy will use force, state force, against an attempt to overthrow either democracy or the market. That is what the riot police did: defend the state, and defend the market - without contradiction between them.
In historical perspective ‘Genoa’ was an absurd over-reaction. The western market democracies are the most stable and successful societies in history. The principle of the free market is accepted by well over 90% of their population, probably closer to 99% in western Europe. The tensions can be explained by the underlying sense of threat, but they are not specifically related to neoliberalism, and they certainly do not explain it. For that, a long-term and ideological perspective is necessary.
Liberalism as a coherent social philosophy dates from the late 18th century. At first there was no distinction between political and economic liberalism (economics was not considered a separate discipline until about 1850). Classic liberal political philosophy has continued to develop - after 1900 as a purely conservative philosophy. The basic principles of all liberal philosophy are:
- Liberals believe that the form of society should be the outcome of processes. These processes should be interactive and involve all members of society. The market is an example, probably the best example, of what liberals mean by process. Liberals are generally hostile to any ‘interference with process’. Specifically, liberals claim that the distribution of wealth as a result of the market is, in itself, just. Liberals reject the idea of redistribution of wealth as a goal in itself.
- Liberals therefore reject any design or plan for society - religious, utopian, or ethical. Liberals feel that society and state should not have fixed goals, but that ‘process should determine outcome’. This anti-utopianism became increasingly important in liberal philosophy, in reaction to the Communist centrally-planned economies: it anticipated the extreme deregulation-ism of later neoliberalism.
- Liberalism is therefore inherently hostile to competing non-liberal societies - which it sees not simply as different, but as wrong. In the last 10 years, Islamic society has replaced the Communist state, as the perceived ‘opposite’ to a liberal society.
- Nevertheless liberalism has compromised with one specific form of non-liberal ideology: nationalism, in the ethno-national form which underlies most present nation states. A political community based on common origin, history and language is not liberal, but liberals never tried to form the voluntarist, contractual, non-historical state - which liberalism would logically imply. The nation state was simply taken for granted, as the political and economic arena for liberal process.
- Liberals define liberalism itself as ‘freedom’, so they rarely think consent is required for the imposition of a liberal society. In fact, most would say it can not be imposed, inherently. After the Cold War this belief has acquired a geostrategic significance: many western liberal-democrats now believe, that a war to impose a liberal-democratic society is inherently just. This belief influences interventionist policy, but as yet no war for the sole purpose of liberalisation has been fought.
- Classic political liberals reject the idea that there are any external moral values: they say that there are only opinions. They feel that these opinions should be ‘expressed’ in public, and that in some way this ‘market of opinions’ will favour the truth. (The idea that truth can be revealed by discourse is much older than liberalism).
- The liberal rejection of external moral values is formally expressed in the liberal idea of human rights: both good and evil humans have equal rights, which apply equally when they facilitate good or evil actions. Classic liberal philosophy advocated ‘liberty’ as a value, even if they did not call it a value. In effect it places liberty as a value above good (and evil).
- Liberals believe in formal equality among participants in a liberal society, but almost all liberals also believe in inequality of talent. Many liberals were therefore sympathetic to biological theories of inequality. (Theories of hereditary racial differences in intelligence are now popular among US neoliberals).
Liberalism is a universal ideology, and in principle liberals seek to apply it to the entire planet, and the entire human population. Most liberals have supported the expansion of liberal society, although in the 19th century that meant among the ‘civilised nations’. For a long time the free market was considered the only cross-cultural and ‘exportable’ element of liberalism. Only recently have liberals advocated, that African and Asian societies should become 100% liberal-democratic societies. ‘Liberal missionaries’, such as George Soros, were unknown or marginal in the 19th century.
The free market is not simply ‘exchange’ or ‘trade’. Two people who exchange products can not form a free market in the liberal sense, even if their transactions are monetarised. The element of competition is missing in this two-person society.
A minimal liberal free market needs at least three parties, with two of them in competition - for instance, two competing sellers and one buyer. The resultant pressure on the two sellers to lower prices, is the simplest type of ‘market force’. Such a force comes into existence without any conscious action on the part of the three parties. In modern markets there are millions of parties, and complex market forces. Market-liberals value this characteristic of the market. Their belief in the moral necessity of market forces in the economy, is probably the first defining feature of market liberalism. The second is the belief in entrepreneurs themselves, as a good and necessary social group. To summarise:
- For all liberals, interactive process legitimises outcome: in market liberalism, the market is the primary process, and market transactions are the interaction.
- Market liberals believe that economic transactions should take place in a framework which maximises the effect of each transaction on every other transaction. (That is an abstract definition of the free market, but it makes the later transition from liberalism to neoliberalism easier to understand).
- Liberals see the market as good, and often as semi-sacred. They want the market to be as large as possible, involving all of society. In modern liberal-democratic states almost all adults participate in the market. A private club in a Communist state, where members can hold a closed free market, would satisfy no liberal.
- Liberals are hostile to economic self-sufficiency - so strongly, that they believed in war to ‘open up markets’. The most famous example is the Opium War, when Britain forced the Chinese Empire to allow the import of opium. This liberal belief in market expansionism has revived after the end of the Cold War.
- Market liberals are hostile to trade barriers: “free trade” is a classic slogan of market liberalism. That meant traditionally, the free flow of goods and capital: neoliberalism later developed a more diffuse version, where ‘flow’ and ‘interaction’ are treated as quasi-ethical values.
- Market liberals believe that important aspects of society should be determined by the market, certainly the distribution of income and wealth. Neoliberalism later extended this belief, claiming that all social life should be determined by the market.
- All market liberals are hostile to interference in the market, by church, state or others - although since the 19th century only the state has sufficient power to interfere. Market liberals are clearly anti-utopian, in the sense of opposing economic planning, especially centralised state control of the entire economy. They believe that the market produces the best ‘design for society’, and that is is wrong to substitute any other design.
- However, market liberalism is itself a utopia, despite its anti-utopianism. In the ‘ideal world’ of market liberalism, no goods or services exist which are not the product of market forces, but all goods or services which are market-responsive do exist. This is in itself a utopian project, implying a total structuring of society. Neoliberalism goes even further - extending the market principle beyond the production of goods and services.
- The social institution of the entrepreneur is central to market liberalism. An entrepreneur is a person whose profession is, to respond to market forces. In the 19th century most entrepreneurs were still private individuals, later the business firm took over this function. The enterprise/firm is a permanent organisation, structured to respond to market forces. An entrepreneur is not a farmer, or a manufacturer, or a consultant: in theory an entrepreneur changes activities in accordance with the market. In reality most entrepreneurs retained a specialisation for some specific products or services: but neoliberalism now demands, that the theoretical flexibility should become standard practice.
- Without the entrepreneur there is no free market, therefore market liberals demand a privileged social status for the entrepreneur. The early liberal theorists were hostile to the urban guild economy of mediaeval Europe: they saw it, in effect, as a conspiracy not to compete. In their historical vision, the entrepreneur rescued Europe from the poverty of the Middle Ages. (This vision was shared by Karl Marx, who admired the cultural dynamism of the free market). Not just mediaeval Europe, but all societies without an entrepreneurial caste, were seen as failures.
A central but rarely explicit political demand of market liberals is therefore, that entrepreneurs should have control of the economy. This has not only been accepted, but has become so incorporated into the culture of western liberal-democratic societies, that few people ever think about it. But it would not be any less logical, to hand the economy to engineers, or priests - or not to privilege any one group. The choice depends on underlying values, and liberals value the entrepreneur. This value preference of liberals, and its widespread acceptance, has created what in the US is called ‘the business community’. That is a real and identifiable social elite - with specific cultural preferences, specific clothing, and often a specific form of language (sociolect). It does in fact control the economy, in liberal-democratic states. Although this was probably not foreseen by early liberals, market liberalism has become an ideology in support of this elite. Their culture, attitudes, and ethics have greatly influenced neoliberalism.
If Adam Smith returned and saw the more extreme aspects of neoliberalism, he would probably find them bizarre. Nevertheless, they derive from the ideas of early liberalism. The belief in the market, in market forces, has separated from the factual production of goods and services. It has become an end in itself, and this is one reason to speak of neoliberalism and not of liberalism.
A general characteristic of neoliberalism is the desire to intensify and expand the market, by increasing the number, frequency, repeatability, and formalisation of transactions. The ultimate (unreachable) goal of neoliberalism is a universe where every action of every being is a market transaction, conducted in competition with every other being and influencing every other transaction, with transactions occurring in an infinitely short time, and repeated at an infinitely fast rate. It is no surprise that extreme forms of neoliberalism, and especially cyberliberalism, overlap with semi-religious beliefs in the interconnectedness of the cosmos.
Some specific aspects of neoliberalism are:
- A new expansion in time and space of the market: although there has been a global-scale market economy for centuries, neoliberals find new areas of marketisation. This illustrates how neoliberalism differs from classic market liberalism. Adam Smith would not have believed that a free market was less of a free market, because the shops are closed in the middle of the night: expansion of trading hours is a typically neoliberal policy. For neoliberals a 23-hours economy is already unjustifiable: nothing less than 24-hours economy will satisfy them. They constantly expand the market at its margins.
- The emphasis on property, in classic and market liberalism, has been replaced by an emphasis on contract. In the time of Adam Smith, property conferred status in itself: he would find it strange that entrepreneurs sometimes own no fixed assets, and lease the means of production.
- Contract maximalisation is typically neoliberal: the privatisation of the British railway network, formerly run by one state-owned company, led to 30 000 new contracts. Most of these were probably generated by splitting services, which could have been included in block contracts. (A fanatic neoliberal would prefer not to buy a cup of coffee, but negotiate separately for each microlitre).
- The contract period is reduced, especially on the labour market, and so the frequency of contract is increased. A service contract, for instance for office cleaning, might be reduced from a one-year to a three-month contract, then to a one-month contract. Contracts of employment are shorter and shorter, in effect forcing the employee to re-apply for the job. This flexibilisation means a qualitatively different working life: many more job applications, spread throughout the working life. This was historically the norm in agriculture - day labour - but long-term labour contracts became standard after industrialisation.
- Market forces are also intensified by intensifying assessment, a development especially visible on the labour market. Even within a contract period, an employee will be subject to continuous assessment. The use of specialised software in call centres has provided some extreme examples: the time employees spend at the toilet is measured in seconds: this information is used to pressure the employee to spend less time away from the terminal. Firms with contracts are also increasingly subject to continuous assessment procedures, made possible by information technology. For instance, courier services use tracking software and GPS technology, to allow customers to locate their packages in transit. This is a typical example of the new hyper-provision of business information, in neoliberal economies.
- New transaction-intensive markets are created on the model of the stock exchanges - electricity exchanges, telephone-minute exchanges. Typical for neoliberalism: there is no relationship between the growth in the number of transactions, and the underlying production.
- New forms of auction are another method of creating transaction-intensive markets. Radio frequency auctions, such as those for UMTS frequencies, are an example. They replaced previous methods of allocation, especially licensing - a traditional method of allocating access to scarce goods with no clear private owner. The complex forms of frequency spectrum auctions have only been developed in the last few years. Neoliberals now see them as the only valid method of making such allocations: they dismiss all other methods as ‘beauty contests’.
- Artificial transactions are created, to increase the number and intensity of transactions. Large-scale derivative trading is a typically neoliberal phenomenon, although financial derivatives have existed for centuries. It is possible to trade options on shares: but it is also possible to create options on these options. This accumulation of transaction on transaction, is characteristic of neoliberalism. New derivatives are created, to be traded on the new exchanges - such as ‘electricity futures’. There is no limit to this expansion, except computer power, which grows rapidly anyway.
- Automated trading, and the creation of virtual market-like structures, are neoliberal in the sense that they are an intensification of “transaction for transaction’s sake”. However, a world in which allentrepreneurial activity was automated would not be neoliberal, or liberal.
- This expansion of interactivity means that neoliberal societies are network societies, rather than the ‘open societies’, of classic liberals. Formal equality and ‘access’ are not enough for neoliberals: they must be used to create links to other members of the society. This attitude has been accurately labelled ‘connectionist’.
- Because of contract expansionism, transaction costs play an increasing role in the neoliberal economy. All those 30 000 contracts at British Rail had to be drafted by lawyers, all the assessments have to be done by assessors. There is always some cost of competition, which increases as the intensity of transactions increases. Neoliberalism has reached the point where these costs threaten to overwhelm the existing economy, destroying any economic gains from technological change.
- The growth of the financial services sector is related to these neoliberal characteristics, rather than to any inherent shift to service economies. The entire sector is itself a transaction cost: it was almost non-existent in the centrally planned economies. In turn, it has created a huge demand for office space in the world’s financial centres. The expansion of the sector and its office employment are in direct contradiction of propaganda about ‘more efficiency and less bureaucracy’ in the free market.
- The speed of trading is increased. Online market data is expensive, yet it is now available free with a 15-minute delay. The markets move so fast, that the data is worthless after 15 minutes: the companies can then give it away, as a form of advertising. Day-traders buy and sell shares in minutes. Automated trading programmes, where the computer is linked direct to the stock exchange system, do it in seconds, or less. It is this increased speed which has led to the huge nominal trading volumes on the international currency markets, many times the Gross World Product on a yearly basis.
- Certain functions arise which only exist inside a neoliberal free market - ‘derivative professions’. A good example is the profession of psychological-test coach. The intensity of assessment has increased, and firms now regularly use psychological tests to select candidates, even for intermediate level jobs. So ambitious candidates pay for training, in how to pass these psychological tests. Competition in the neoliberal labour market itself creates the market for this service.
- The creation of sub-markets, typically within an enterprise. Sub-contracting is itself an old market practice, but was usually outside the firm. It is now standard practice for large companies to create competition among their constituent units. This practice is also capable of quasi-infinite extension, and its promotion is characteristic of neoliberalism. A few companies even required each individual employee to register as a business, and to compete with each other at the place of work. A large company can form literally millions of holdings, alliances and joint ventures, using such one-person firms as building blocks.
- Supplier maximalisation: this extends the range of enterprises that compete for each contract. The ideal would be that every enterprise competes for every contract offered, maximising competition and market forces. In the case of the labour market, the neoliberal ideal is the absolutely flexible and employable employee, who can (and does apply) for every vacancy. In reality, an individual can not perform every kind of work - but there is a real development towards non-specialised enterprises, especially in the producer services sector. In neoliberalism, instead of the traditional ‘steel tycoon’ or ‘newspaper baron’ there are enterprises which “globally link people and knowledge, and cultures” or “advise and implement solutions to management issues”. (In fact these are quotes from the accountants Price Waterhouse, but you can not guess this from the descriptions).
Neoliberalism is not simply an economic structure, it is a philosophy. This is most visible in attitudes to society, the individual and employment. Neo-liberals tend to see the world in term of market metaphors. Referring to nations as companies is typically neoliberal, rather than liberal. In such a view Deutschland GmbH competes with Great Britain Ltd, BV Nederland, and USA Inc. However, when this is a view of nation states, it is as much a form of neo-nationalism as neoliberalism. It also looks back to the pre-liberal economic theory - mercantilism - which saw the countries of Europe as competing units. The mercantilists treated those kingdoms as large-scale versions of a private household, rather than as firms. Nevertheless, their view of world trade as a competition between nation-sized units, would be acceptable to modern neoliberals.
Competition for inward investment, on the other hand, was generally unknown until the late 19th century. This competition is often seen by activists as the core doctrine of neoliberalism, especially since the neo-mercantilist policies are easy to understand and very unpopular: wage cuts, less money for public services, less tax on the rich. The neo-mercantilist nation, in other words, behaves like a caricaturally mean and nasty capitalist. It is not relevant either for these policies, or for opposition to them, whether they have any effect at all. Perhaps investment decisions are not made on this basis, perhaps there is no real mobility of capital, perhaps no investor is interested in Argentina, for instance. But so long as the Argentine government believes that it should pursue certain polices to attract investors, then it will do so. So long as it believes that the ‘SA Argentina’ is a business firm, then it will run Argentina accordingly.
The market metaphor is not only applied among nations, but among cities and regions as well. In neoliberal regional policy, cities are selling themselves in a national and global marketplace of cities. They are considered equivalent to an entrepreneur selling a product, but the product is the city (or region) as a location for entrepreneurs. The successful ‘sale’ of the product is the decision of an entrepreneur to locate there, not simply the sale of land or factories. This view of cities as sub-firms within the fictive ‘national firm’ parallels the creation of sub-markets within real firms. The difference is, that those sub-markets really exist - neoliberal city governments, on the other hand, act primarily on a belief in a metaphor. Again, there is no hard evidence that the global marketplace of cities exists: for most economic sectors complete mobility of plant and labour is an illusion. Most firms can not simply move from city to city, across continents and ignoring language and cultural barriers, in pursuit of locational advantage. Here too, the neoliberalism is a philosophy, an attitude - rather than an economic reality. It has influenced European politics - the fear of this neoliberalism dominated the French campaign against the European Constitution. There is certainly a neoliberal lobby within the EU, represented by the Lisbon Council, although it sees the world in terms of competing trade blocks rather than competing cities or regions. However, it is not clear how a continent could be run as a business firm - even its inhabitants wanted that. (More on neoliberal economic geography below).
A good example of the underlying attitudes is the basic policy document of the city of Düsseldorf - the Leitbild, equivalent to a ‘mission statement’ in English. It was adopted in 1997, and is no longer online at the city website, but parts are quoted at St@ttbuch Düsseldorf…
Düsseldorf bekennt sich zum Prinzip des Wettbewerbs. Der Erfolg von Städten entscheidet sich im Wettbewerb nach innen und aussen. Düsseldorf will besser sein.
Wettbewerb ist treibende Kraft unseres gesellschaftlichen Systems. Im zusammenwachsenden Europa gilt dies in hohem Masse auch für die Beziehungen zwischen den Regionen, die als Wirtschaftsstandort, als Lebensraum für die Bürgerinnen und Bürger und als Kulturstandort miteinander konkurrieren. Sich hierzu bekennen heisst, den Wettbewerb aufnehmen und aktiv gestalten zu wollen.
Im Wettbewerb besteht nur, wer gut ist. Düsseldorf will Wettbewerb. Im Interesse der vielen Millionen Menschen des Lebens- und Wirtschaftsraums: Düsseldorf will besser sein.
Düsseldorf is committed to the principle of competition. The success of cities is decided by competition, internal and external. Düsseldorf wants to be better. Competition is the driving force of our social system. In a Europe which is becoming more integrated, this applies increasingly to the relations between regions. They compete with each other as investment location, as residential choice for the citizens, and in cultural activity. Our commitment means that we will actively and structurally enter into this competition. In a competitive world, only the good can survive. Düsseldorf wants to compete! In the name of the millions of people in our economic and residential region: Düsseldorf wants to be the best!
The neoliberal urban vision was adopted, without debate, by many city governments in the 1990’s. At some point, a belief in ‘competition by population structure’ was incorporated - the idea that a successful city is inhabited only by successful people. This belief, nonsensical or not, has had an effect in a negative sense: some cities now pursue active policies aimed at relocating low-income households outside the city. In the Netherlands, a new law allows large cities to legally ban poor people, from certain areas, or from the entire city..
As you would expect from a complete philosophy, neoliberalism has answers to stereotypical philosophical questions such as “Why are we here” and “What should I do?”. We are here for the market, and you should compete. Neo-liberals tend to believe that humans exist for the market, and not the other way around: certainly in the sense that it is good to participate in the market, and that those who do not participate have failed in some way. In personal ethics, the general neoliberal vision is that every human being is an entrepreneur managing their own life, and should act as such. Moral philosophers call this is a virtue ethic, where human beings compare their actions to the way an ideal type would act - in this case the ideal entrepreneur. Individuals who choose their friends, hobbies, sports, and partners, to maximise their status with future employers, are ethically neoliberal. This attitude - not unusual among ambitious students - is unknown in any pre-existing moral philosophy, and is absent from early liberalism. Such social actions are not necessarily monetarised, but they represent an extension of the market principle into non-economic area of life - again typical for neoliberalism.
The idea of employability is characteristically neoliberal. It means that neoliberals see it as a moral duty of human beings, to arrange their lives to maximise their advantage on the labour market. Paying for plastic surgery to improve employability (almost entirely by women) is a typical neoliberal phenomenon - one of those which would surprise Adam Smith.
Eileen Bradbury, a psychologist who advises surgeons at the Alexandra Hospital in Cheadle, Cheshire, said she was particularly worried that Jenna wanted the operation so that she could be successful. “That is a very disturbing belief for a 15-year-old girl to have, and also a false one,” she said. “I have seen women coming for surgery who work in television and they say they have to have it done or they won’t get the work. I usually go along with that because it is probably true”.
Guardian: Parents defend breast implants for girl, 15.
In practice many ‘workfare neoliberals’ also believe that there is a separate category of people, who can not participate fully in the market. Workfare ideologies condemn this underclass to a service function for those who are fully market-compatible. Note however, that by recognising a non-market underclass, neoliberals undermine their own claims about the universal applicability of market principles.
The general ethical precept of neoliberalism can be summarised approximately as:
- “act in conformity with market forces”
- “within this limit, act also to maximise the opportunity for others to conform to the market forces generated by your action”
- “hold no other goals”
If everyone lives by such entrepreneurial precepts, then a world will come into existence in which not just goods and services, but all human and social life, is the product of conformity to market forces. More than traditional market liberals, neoliberals therefore have a quasi-heroic attitude to the entrepreneur, and to engagement in the market. A 1998 speech by German entrepreneur Jost Stollmann is typical: his neoliberal ideas played a prominent role in the national elections in Germany in that year. Stollmann includes his personal moral philosophy, such as it is…
Ich möchte die Lust und Bewunderung unternehmerischen Erfolgs in den Augen der jungen Menschen sehen. Ich möchte den Stolz und den Zuspruch der Eltern spüren, wenn sich Sohn oder Tochter tatenvoll in das Abenteuer Selbständigkeit stürzen.
….so gut sein, wie wir nur können - getreu der bewährten Formel, die ich während meiner Zeit in Amerika verstehen gelernt habe: ‘BE THE BEST YOU CAN BE’
The idea that everyone should be an entrepreneur is distinctly neoliberal. Early liberals never expected the majority of the population to own property, let alone run a business. (The participation of the poor in the market was limited to accepting any work they were offered). The practices on the flexibilised labour market would seem strange to the early liberals. For instance, individuals set up a one-person employment agency with one person on the books, themselves - partly for tax reasons, but also to meet the ideal of the entrepreneur. Policy to increase the number of entrepreneurs is typically neoliberal, although ironically it must be implemented by the State. A classic market-liberal would not say that a free market is less of a free market, because only 10% of the population are entrepreneurs. For neoliberals it is not sufficient that there is a market: there must be nothing which is not market.
the neoliberalism jokeMarxist: ”The workers have nothing to sell but their labour power”
Neoliberal: ”I offer courses on How to Sell Your Labour Power Like A Shark”
There is therefore no distinction between a market economy and a market society in neoliberalism. With the attitudes and ethics set out above, there is only market: market society, market culture, market values, market persons marketing themselves to other market persons. In a sense neoliberalism has returned to the position of early liberalism - which also combined culture, values and ethics with economics. But neoliberalism brings a far more intensive ‘market’ - replacing not only traditional social forms, but also the concept of private life. At the same time this ‘market’ is increasingly remote from the necessity of production, which was so real for the early liberals - when there were still regular famines in Europe. In fact it is so remote from the existing cultural perception of a ‘market’, that it would perhaps be better to use some other word.
Finally, neoliberalism has become associated with specific cultures (especially US culture) and a specific language (English). This is not surprising: Anglo-American liberalism had the most influence on neoliberalism. Neoliberalism as ideology is not tied to any culture or language. It is true that a single global language would facilitate free trade - but that could be Esperanto, as well as English. In practice, the promotion of the English language, neoliberal policies, and pro-American foreign policy, usually go together: this was especially true in Central and Eastern Europe.
Globalisation and neoliberalism
Often the terms ‘globalisation’ and ‘neoliberalism’ are used as if they were interchangeable. That is only correct in a limited sense, for the neo-mercantilist aspects of the neoliberal ideology. I will try to clarify the perceived and actual relationship between the two - especially for the South American use of the term ‘neoliberalism’.
The neoliberal ideology sees the nation primarily as a business firm, as explained above. The nation-firm is selling itself as an investment location, rather than simply selling export goods. If no-one in government believes in this ideology, it will have no consequences. If however, a neoliberal government is in power, it will pursue policies designed to make the nation more attractive as an investment location. These policies are generally pro-business, and are perceived as such by the opponents of the policies.
But remember that the ideology is neo-mercantilist: the policies are national policies, directed ultimately at the welfare of the nation and not of the market. Paradoxically, they are a form of protectionism: if there is a global market of investment locations, then it is ‘unfair competition’ for governments to artificially increase the attractiveness of their own country. Such governments are, strictly speaking, not good market liberals. Hard-line classic market liberals would shrug their shoulders at the election of an anti-business government. “Business will go elsewhere, the country will become poor, that’s the way the global market works, leave the market alone”, they would say. They would not waste their time trying to get a pro-business government elected there. In reality few liberals are so consistent, neoliberals certainly are not. But their rhetoric of ‘national competitiveness’ is a form of economic nationalism: it is a modern version of the old nationalist insistence, that the whole nation should work together. It revitalises jingoism, chauvinism, flag-waving and foreigner-bashing: Tony Blair is probably the best example.
Don’t tell me that a country with our history and heritage, that today boasts six of the top ten businesses in the whole of Europe, with London the top business city in Europe, that is a world leader in technology and communication and the businesses of the future, that under us has overtaken France and Italy to become the fourth largest economy in the world, that has the language of the new economy, more brilliant artists, actors and directors than any comparable country in the world, some of the best scientists and inventors in the world, the best armed forces in the world, the best teachers and doctors and nurses, the best people any nation could wish for. Don’t tell me with all that going for us that we do not have the spirit to meet all the challenges before us.
Blair conference speech, 26 September 2000
Now, a neoliberal government will almost certainly appeal to ‘globalisation’ as a justification and legitimisation of its policies - Tony Blair certainly does. By globalisation they mean, more or less, that the global market of investment locations now exists, and that it is an inevitable historical development. The opponents of the neoliberal government will, in turn, oppose this ‘globalisation’. However, that does not mean that the global market of nations actually exists. The existence of neoliberal governments, pursuing neoliberal policies justified by an appeal to globalisation, does not mean that a new global order has superseded the order of nation states. The very fact, that it is still primarily the nation state which is being ‘marketed’ in this way, shows that the nation has not disappeared.
Before considering the reality of the global order, it is also necessary to consider the beliefs of the opponents of such a neoliberal government. Again paradoxically, many of them accept without question the neoliberal claim that there is a long-term historical process of ‘globalisation’, transforming the nation into a business firm on a global market of nation-firms. Worse, if the nation is a business then it is often clearly weak - everyone can see that Argentina is economically worse off than the United States. A neoliberal government will therefore try to convert a nation such as Argentina into a ‘strong player’, which means worsening the living conditions of much of the population. Now here is the next paradox: the response of the opponents is also an economic nationalism, this time with the emphasis on protectionism. The opposition perception of globalisation differs in one respect: for them it is a historical but not spontaneous development. For them it is a policy imposed by a non-national global elite, directed against the individual nations.
In their view, the international financial institutions are equivalent to an imperial power, which has de facto colonised countries such as Argentina. In caricatural form: they believe that a new and powerful empire has come into existence, the Empire of IMF-ia, at an indeterminate location. The neoliberal government, in this view, is a traitorous elite acting as a colonial Viceroy for the IMF-ian Empire. The opposition wants to replace it with a government which will ‘liberate’ the nation from the global market, from its colonial status. That ‘liberation’ is generally understood as: withdrawal of the nation-firm from the global market of nation-firms, protectionism, economic nationalism, and self-sufficiency instead of trade. Here too there is a paradox: the oppositional movements are not anti-business: they generally see national business as a victim of global business. (Local business in South America is in the comfortable position, that both neoliberals and anti-neoliberals want to help it, for different reasons).
The ‘IMF-ia model’ is partly correct: the global financial institutions are indeed a bastion of neoliberal ideology, and they can bully some poor countries into adopting neoliberal policies. But they can’t do that to the rich western powers, in fact they would not exist without the support of these powers. They are not a force outside nations, they are not an imperial power. The global financial institutions are, in the simplest terms, an instrument of US policy - and if there is a quasi-imperial power, it is the United States.
The point is, once again, that the truth of beliefs about globalisation is itself irrelevant. If the government and people all believe that a country is being attacked by fire-breathing dragons, then the government might distribute asbestos suits to the population, and the opposition might complain that there were not enough of them. Ideologies and politics can operate on a completely fictive basis. Millions of Europeans died to ‘resolve’ theological issues such as the Virgin Birth of Mary, Mother of God.
So the perceptions have themselves generated a political reality: on the basis of a belief in ‘globalisation’ some governments pursue neoliberal policies, which are neo-mercantilist in their logic and aims. In such circumstances opposition to globalisation and neoliberalism coincides, rather than neoliberalism being identical or synonymous with globalisation. Both sides share a common fallacy: that trade and sovereignty are opposites, a zero-sum pair. The neoliberals believe that national success - “in today’s global market” - requires the abandonment of national economic autonomy and sovereignty. Their opponents believe that national welfare requires minimisation of trade and external links: they believe that trade and invasion are equivalent, although no-one will say that outright. Once again, the equivalences and perceptions on both sides are false. Most of the Gross Global Product is tied to individual nation states for technical, climatic, logistical, and cultural reasons. For most investment decisions, there is no global market of locations. And sovereignty is not necessarily inverse to trade volume and trade regime. A powerful country such as the United States can have a high trade volume relative to GNP. Many colonies - by definition not sovereign - had a low trade volume relative to GNP, because the bulk of ‘GNP’ consisted of peasant agriculture. But even a fallacious belief can apparently support not just one, but two competing forms of economic nationalism.
So what is the reality behind the perceived globalisation? One reality is that nation states still dominate global social and economic structures. However these nation states themselves form a specific arrangement of a specific type of state. Globalisation claims appear logical if you see nation states as isolated islands, but that is not the historical reality. The very existence of a world of nation states, indicates some form of globalorder of nation states. What these nation states do - trade or no trade, capital flows or no capital flows - is irrelevant to that issue. What is already global can not logically be globalised: therefore there is no globalisation, in the widely used sense. There is no transition underway, or recently completed, to a fundamentally different global structure. Because the existing order of nation states is already global, intensification of global flows, or global trade, or global communication does not undermine it, or fundamentally alter it. If some part of the world were to break with this global order - for instance a future autarkic caliphate - that would be a radical change. When nations trade with each other, that simply indicates that the global order of nations is functioning as expected.
The false premise in the globalisation thesis is in fact the standard nationalist claim, that each nation is a separate and particular entity. In reality nations collectively are a global and universalist structure: the functional equivalent of a nationalist world state. The world functions as if a nationalist world government had seized power in the 19th century, led by Mazzini and Garibaldi and friends. Most existing states were indeed established by nationalist groups. Nationalists co-operate to maintain one (nationalist) world order and exclude others. The nation state is not a particularity, existing by itself in isolation, but part of a global design. Supporters of the globalisation thesis claim, that a world of isolated nation states existed in the recent past - before 1989, or more approximately before 1950. They claim that these isolated nation states are now being eroded in a global process: it includes the formation of the neoliberals claimed ‘market of nations’.
Economic globalization represents a major transformation in the territorial organization of economic activity and politico-economic power….The sovereignty of the modern state was concentrated in mutually exclusive territories and the concentration of sovereignty in nations…economic globalization has contributed to a denationalizing of national territory…
Saskia Sassen. Losing Control: Sovereignty in an Age of globalization (1996).
But is the global order of nation states disappearing, anywhere? In reality, there is no collapse of the nation state to be seen. Nation states have not suffered anything comparable to the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian or Ottoman empires. All that remains of those empires are oversized palaces in Vienna and Istanbul. The rest of their institutions have completely disappeared: there is not a square metre of Habsburg or Ottoman territory left in Europe. There is no longer an Austro-Hungarian imperial army, or police, or courts, or parliament. The nation states succeeded the multi-ethnic empires, seized all their territory, and remodelled all society on that territory. The replacement was total. Where is the equivalent ‘collapse’ of the nation state? There are few places on earth without the institutions of a nation state - perhaps Somalia, but that is not the result of globalisation. If the world was truly ‘globalised’ then it would be full of disused national parliament buildings - and not a national army in sight. The world is not like that, and will not be like that in the immediate future.
In other words, ‘globalisation’ remains a belief rather than a reality. It is an instrumental belief with great political influence and effect. It is appealed to by both neo-mercantilist neoliberals and their economic-nationalist opponents. Nationalists have a tradition of appealing to external threats to enforce national unity. The nation must unite and work together, they said - to defeat the Hun, or the Bolshevik threat, or the Yellow Peril, or the enemy within the gates, or Osama bin Ladin. The instrumental use of ‘globalisation’ is in the same dishonourable category.
To conclude, here are summaries of neoliberalism in two forms. First a list of key points in neoliberalism:
- transaction maximalisation
- maximalisation of volume of transactions (‘global flows’)
- contract maximalisation
- supplier/contractor maximalisation
- conversion of most social acts into market transactions
- artificial maximalisation of competition and stress
- creation of quasi-markets
- reduction of inter-transaction interval
- maximalisation of parties to each transaction
- maximalisation of reach and effect of each transaction
- maximalisation of hire/fire transactions in the labour market (nominal turnover)
- maximalisation of assessment factors, by which compliance with a contract is measured
- reduction of the inter-assessment interval
- creation of exaggerated or artificial assessment norms (‘audit society’)
A final summary definition of neoliberalism as a philosophy is this:
Neoliberalism is a philosophy in which the existence and operation of a market are valued in themselves, separately from any previous relationship with the production of goods and services, and without any attempt to justify them in terms of their effect on the production of goods and services; and where the operation of a market or market-like structure is seen as an ethic in itself, capable of acting as a guide for all human action, and substituting for all previously existing ethical beliefs.