Global Conversations Beyond Discipline

Neoliberalism: Theory or apologetics?

As a doctrine, neoliberalism stands for a sort of free market fundamentalism which envisions minimal involvement of the state in society and is opposed to all sorts of redistribution. However, the purpose of this post, while it does briefly outline and criticise neoliberal theory, is to challenge the manner in which its critics engages with it. For to engage with neoliberalism on a theoretical level is, not only, to miss the point, but to fail to adequately identify the ontology of the neoliberal propagators.

First, a major criticism must be forwarded of many critics of neoliberalism. As a term, neoliberalism is being floundered around far too frequently and inaccurately. It delegitimises all critics of the term when there is no working definition of it. Neoliberalism implies a free market fundamentalism. In theory, its propagators can best be described as right-libertarians. One must not forget that, while liberalism certainly itself has an affinity for markets, it arguably maintains a necessity for some redistributive measures. There may be plenty of criticism forwarded against classical liberal tenets, but referring to them as ‘neoliberal’ only confuses the matter and thus undermines the criticism itself.
Also, however, many seek to combat neoliberalism by referring to its ‘theoretical’ shortcomings. This is an easy task as it, naively (or am I being too kind?), completely neglects all forms of power. In a right-libertarian utopia, where the invisible hand of the market distributes goods and services with maximum efficiency while relying on the self-seeking nature of human beings as a rationale for this proposition, people don’t take advantage of each other: Indeed, while self-interestedness and greed can be harnessed to serve human prosperity (read hyper-consumerism), in some strange twist of logic, the roaming of said attributes comes at no cost to fellow human beings.
This is blatantly a paradox. As a ‘theory’ it is beyond ridiculous and I cannot imagine anyone actually, truthfully believing that unregulated, incentivised greed will not lead to disgraceful human behaviour. It may be claimed that economics and morals are separate entities, but if government is not to regulate the economy, then disgraceful human behaviour is what you will get. Unregulated, incentivised greed leads to the accumulation of capital in fewer and fewer hands, most generally in the hands of the most greedy and self-seeking. In the US, which is still highly regulated and maintains a certain amount of redistribution, the wealth divide is increasing exponentially. Were these measures to be compromised further, this divide would increase at an even greater rate.
There may be some talk about legal democracy and belief in the capability of laws to wheel in ‘anti-social’ behaviour. Yet, as unregulated incentivised greed leads to the accumulation of extreme wealth in very few hands, ‘rule by the people’ quickly becomes ‘rule by the wealthy people’, undermining the very meaning of democracy. A belief that the economic can be kept separate from the political, is not only extremely debatable – and clearly not the case in the US, but it also lacks an engagement with conceptions of thepolitical.
Additionally, as the trickle-down argument must now be considered somewhat debunked (see the Cayman Islands for an explanation for where much capital is actually invested) and as an increasing wealth divide is inherent to neoliberalism, another paradox in neoliberal ‘theory’ emerges. The people least able to, for whatever reason, organise their natural self-interestedness in a capital accumulative manner become disenfranchised from the ‘free’ market, thus limiting the supposed efficiency of it, as its promises are conditioned on vast participation in it to create demand. These people may be wage labourers who, due to cuts in minimum wage or lack of a minimum wage in general, receive such a measly pay that even their role as consumers become minimal.
No, neoliberal ‘theory’ is undeserving of the label, ‘theory’. It is apologetics for corporate power, nothing more and nothing less. Any talk about efficiency and consumer welfare is nulled by the complete disregard for the empowerment of corporate entities and the subsequent erosion of democratic ideals. It is time we stop treating neoliberalism as a serious contribution to economics and start calling it out for what it really is; corporate apologetics motivated by nothing but greed and a lust for power. By not consistently calling it by its real name, we inadvertently lend it the credibility that comes with the label, theory.


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