A Primer on Neoliberalism


I’m obsessed with neoliberalism. I’m fascinated by it as an ideology, and I’m fascinated by how successful it’s been in such a short time. Mostly, I’m fascinated by how pervasive it is–infecting every corner of life in the Western world–and yet how successfully it has remained invisible.

Like it’s brother capitalism, it’s become an ideology that just is. Ask most people what neoliberalism is and they’ll shrug. But ask them their views on government’s role in society, on privatization, on healthcare or welfare or trade and they’ll be either espousing or critiquing neoliberalism.

Because it’s become the toxic water we swim in–that is, invisible yet fundamental to shaping how we live–I thought it might be useful to offer a little primer on neoliberalism as well as some of the ways we see its impacts. Especially because a lot of writing on neoliberalism is far from accessible, and that is one of the ways we remain unable to fight it. When we don’t have language for what we’re fighting, nor the full scope of the problem, it’s hard–if not impossible–to mount an effective and broad opposition.

So first, what is neoliberalism? It’s a political ideology (that is, a way of understanding, organizing, and governing the world) that emphasizes and prizes individualism over collectivism and encourages consumption as a source of identity and the primary way that we engage with society.

So rather than having a federal government charged with the care and health of its citizens (think schooling and healthcare and a minimum livable wage and social services), we have a push toward privatizing these basic needs and making it the responsibility of each person or family unit to provide for their basic needs–while at the same time allowing (and, indeed, encouraging) the private actors that have taken over these services to maximize their profits by slashing costs and ratcheting up prices.

That is, paying as little as possible to the workers while charging more for the same service. The way this is often done is by firing everyone who was making a decent wage as a government employee and then hiring a new batch of workers to do the same job but for minimum wage.

So that woman who was making $25/hour at the hospital is now out of a job and can either return to her job but at $11/hour or try to find a job in an economy that is increasingly slashing wages and creating only opportunities for precarious employment (i.e., casual, part-time, on-call; poorly paid; insecure; and utterly incapable of supporting a household).

And so when this woman, who is now making $11 an hour for doing the same work, is unable to, say, afford to go to the dentist, or contribute to a college fund for her kids, or find housing that is safe and affordable, she is not granted the grace and understanding that she is living and working in a system designed to do exactly this, she is criticized for making poor choices.

Because the over-riding public face of neoliberalism is all about “personal responsibility” and the freedom to choose. So if you are personally responsible for the choices you make and you find yourself in an untenable situation–or just a socially frowned upon situation, like being fat–you are the sole bearer of responsibility. Because you have obviously made poor choices. Never mind that your choices were severely constrained by factors like low wages, stagnant social assistance, the shuttering of social services, outsourcing of jobs, and lack of affordable housing.

Neoliberalism is founded upon the myth of the “rational, self-managing citizen” who will, it’s said, act in their own rational self-interest at all times. And so, there is no need for government interference, because we’re all working in our own rational self-interest. In fact, government interference would be wrong–a “nanny state” that treats us like children, if you will.

But, of course, anyone who has ever eaten a bag of potato chips for dinner (I’m assuming that’s all of us) knows we don’t always act in our own rational self-interest at all times. And that’s before we add on the stress of poverty and racism and climate change and your cat puking under your bed and having to care for relatives with chronic illnesses and all of the very many other things that constrain our choices and impact our mental and physical health.

But fear not! Neoliberalism has a fix for that. It’s called voluntary self-governance and it will solve all of our problems. Essentially, as long as we monitor every single thing we ever do and never step out of line we’ll be just fine!

Which would be hilariously out of touch but at least a coherent worldview if we all started on the same playing field. But as Braedley and Luxton (2007) describe, human rights and equality in the neoliberal paradigm are essentially “the rights and equality to compete, but not the rights to start from the same starting line, with the same equipment, or at the sound of the same gun.”

And so when we fail to reach the finish line, having started 3 kilometres further back, wearing too-small platform sandals, and having the starting gun go off twelve minutes later, we are criticized for having failed to reach the same point, while the winner is lauded, without the 3 kilometre and 12 minute head start and proper running shoes ever being pointed out.

Okay, so neoliberalism is all about personal responsibility without ever addressing why some of us face much fewer and tighter choices, right? Right. But there are several other aspects that must be understood in order to have a full-ish picture of neoliberalism.

Going back to the privatization of services, we find the rotten nugget at the centre of neoliberalism (and its most obvious collusion with its brother capitalism): the privileging of markets and market logics over human needs and human rights. Neoliberalism says, “If it works in the business sector it’ll work everywhere else!” This has been enacted in multiple ways. We can see it in the way that the basic care of humans–especially vulnerable humans–has been pushed from a government responsibility to the non-profit and charity sector. For example, mental healthcare used to be entirely the domain of the government. In the late ’80s/early ’90s there was a big push toward deinstutionalization–that is, the closing of mental health facilities, with the patients being put into the community. In theory this sounds nice, doesn’t it? Community is important, and we’ve all heard the horrors of “mental hospitals.” But the reality is that there wasn’t a concomitant increase in services in the community, nor affordable housing, a minimum livable income, or any of the other things we would need for these folks to have been successfully integrated into the community. Instead, folks with extreme mental health issues were essentially thrown out on their own, with underfunded community services now charged with their care.

When I used to work in victim services I saw the direct result of the government offloading mental healthcare to community organizations, as I was tasked with supporting women with severe mental health issues far outside my purview or abilities. And while it didn’t seem ethical for me to be their main support person–as I was deeply under-qualified, underpaid, and under-supported–it would have been even less ethical to leave them without any supports. With each passing month my caseload of women with severe untreated mental health diagnoses increased, as did my inability to get them appropriate mental healthcare.

But if you look at the mainstream narratives around mental healthcare you see one of three things: 1) People making poor decisions/lack of personal responsibility (especially those who are street-entrenched and/or people who use drugs); 2) Hands thrown up in confusion and despair over the intractable nature of the problem; or 3) Self-care as a form of consumption, stripped of any context.

We are seeing, more and more, talk of self-care, which is great. What is not so great, however, is how stripped of context self-care is, how individualized it is, and how much of it relies on consuming.

For example, taking a bubble-bath because you’re stressed? Cool! But…what if you don’t have safe, clean water? Or adequate housing? And what if you can’t afford to go to Lush to buy a bubble bar? And what if the stress you’re trying to get away from is the stress of poverty and violence? How helpful can that bubble bath really be, even if you can overcome the need for safe water, for a house with a bathtub, and discretionary income for bubble bars?

Note that many of the self-care narratives we see are not about fighting against injustice and oppression or simply surviving amidst them, they’re about indulging in grooming and health rituals that coincidentally leave people closer to the aesthetic ideal we’re told to shoot for: manicures and haircuts and exercise and pretty smoothie bowls.

There is nothing wrong with the above, but if that’s the bulk of the conversation we’re having about self-care–and if this decontextualized, individualistic, and highly consumptive mode of self-care is how we’re being told to respond to depression and anxiety–there is something deeply wrong.

Gorgois is a perfect example of the neoliberalization of health and self-care. We see it in the $100 juice cleanses, the normalization of $35 spin classes, the ubiquity of young, thin white people celebrated as aspirational, and the utter lack of acknowledgement of the privilege and access that goes into these things. We see it in the unspoken assumption that you already have access to the basic social determinants of health that used to be ensured by government policies and the social safety net like safe housing, a livable wage, a safe environment, healthy child development, and social support networks. We see it in the way that consumption is used as a basis for identity–you are who you wear, what slimming tea you drink, where you do a yoga pose next to the shimmering sea of the Caribbean, and, more broadly, what you buy.

And if you’re unable to afford the $35 spin class, the yoga retreat in Mexico, the $40 water bottle (I will literally never get over the fact that people are paying $40+ for a fucking water bottle while millions of children don’t have access to safe water), it is because of your own personal failures, not the mountain of barriers that are stacked against you.

You see, neoliberalism is not about justice. Rather, it reinscribes existing inequalities and systems of discrimination while making suffering from them the fault of the individual. Because increasing scarcity (also called “austerity”, rarely called “punishing poor people and intentionally increasing income inequality” despite it’s lovely alliterative nature) means there are fewer resources for more people–and the people who are left out of the ever-shrinking pile are inevitably those with the least power. It just so happens that this runs directly along the lines of race and gender and class and ability.

In sum, the basics of neoliberalism:

-shifting responsibility from the government to the individual
-privatizing formerly public goods and services (healthcare, water, education)
-outsourcing formerly well-paying jobs and slashing the pay
-blaming the individual while invisibilizing social forces like income inequality, racism, and colonization
-identity and social participation through consumption
-pretending the market is the best way to meet people’s needs in the face of mountains of evidence to the contrary




9 thoughts on “A Primer on Neoliberalism

  1. The neoliberal concept that most sticks in my craw — close kin to the discourse of “self-care” — is that of “empowerment.” Far removed from any practical relationship to actual power, empowerment gets touted as an inner state of being, or attitude, achieved through consumption. And it’s become a potent marketing tool: I’m betting those gorgois $40 candles you talked about fit equally well with self-care bubblebaths or empowering dance anthems by the latest Disney-backed pop singer!

    Anyhoo. Thanks for writing this. Neoliberal ideology has seeped into so many cultural just-so stories, its effects can start to feel natural and inevitable (even to those who know better) unless regularly and explicitly called out.

    1. Indeed. Rather than building capacity to *do*, empowerment has become yet another tank-top we buy while carefully ignoring the utterly disempowered women and children who make it somewhere labour is even cheaper than it’s become here.

      1. Few years ago, I began a concerted effort to replace the term “empower” (when used by anyone, but especially anytime I started to reach for it myself) with some version of “X increases Y’s capacity to Z.” It’s been quite revealing of just how frequently the word slips in absolutely sans real substance, and good practice for removing mush from my own thinking.

  2. Really interesting from beginning to end. but here’s one of my favorite parts:

    “Note that many of the self-care narratives we see are not about fighting against injustice and oppression or simply surviving amidst them, they’re about indulging in grooming and health rituals that coincidentally leave people closer to the aesthetic ideal we’re told to shoot for: manicures and haircuts and exercise and pretty smoothie bowls.”

    1. Yes, I’m endlessly fascinated by how neoliberalism co-opts liberatory language and concepts (self-care, empowerment, feminism itself) in pursuit of selling shit and reifying its hold over us all.

  3. This is brilliant. Thank you for writing it. Here in Australia, neoliberalism rules the day. The government runs the country as if it we’re a business, with no regard whatsoever to the human costs, and their treatment of asylum seekers, the ill, the poor, women, children, Indigenous people… Basically anyone who’s not a wealthy man misses out. It’s long baffled me that my middle class friends so often blame the poor for their own problems, as if limited access to education, mental health resources, or an inheritance was within someone’s control. But neoliberalism is the answer to that, for sure.

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