NEOLIBERALISM is wreaking havoc on our planet. While its proponents might say otherwise, Noam Chomsky, whom the New York Times calls the world’s most important public thinker, has forcefully argued that the underlying assumptions beneath neoliberalism have the potential to undermine the survival of human beings.
There are two existential threats that are manmade. First, human mastery of science and technology has reached a critical level whereby it has the potential to terminate our existence.
The invention of nuclear weapons and its proliferation, for example, are among the dangers that humanity has had to face ever since its indiscriminate use in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Second, on the environmental front, humanity is entering a new geological epoch called anthropocene, in which humans have a severe impact on the environment.
Beginning around the 1970s, the West created a new social philosophy that was aimed at ameliorating the negative externalities of nuclear power and environmental degradation. It’s called neoliberalism.
Neoliberalism, understood as a set of ideas and practices centred on an increased role for the free market, flexibility in labour markets and a reconfiguration of state welfare activities, has become increasingly predominant across the globe.
Under neoliberalism, the institutions of governance and associational life are systematically weakened. Neoliberalism is essentially a response to the perceived inadequacies of state socialist projects, and it has led to the neoliberalisation of ever-increasing aspects of life in the global North, global South and former communist East.
Neoliberalism is wedded to the belief that the market should be the organising principle for all political, social and economic decisions, and it wages an incessant attack on democracy, public goods and non-commodified values.
The ascendancy of neoliberalism has brought with it important implications for social justice, as the “privatisation of everything” created a social landscape of winners and losers, and gave rise to a range of social justice movements contesting and coping with the rise of neoliberalism.
It is important to recognise that while it is not a coherent or homogenous ideology which unleashes predictable economic havoc, neoliberalism and neoliberalisation practices have very real and often violent material outcomes.
Neoliberalisation is often represented as being associated with the promotion of new forms of identity and subject formation, with a shift from collective forms of identity to more individualised subjectivities.
Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher had put it succinctly in her aphorism about “there is no society, only individuals”.
Such individualised subjectivities rest on the notions of autonomy and choice, which have spread to all spheres of life, from employment to welfare provision, and generated new forms of governmentality.
The underlying premise is that when individuals are given choice within a free market, they are empowered. Explanations for inequalities are then transferred from embedded unequal societal structures to individual recklessness.
Under neoliberalism, individual freedom is redefined as the capacity for self-realisation and freedom from bureaucracy rather than freedom from want, with human behaviour reconceptualised along economic lines.
Such interpretations of individualisation do, however, need to recognise the context-specific nature of these processes, both in spatial and in social terms.
In the Chinese and Indian cases, the move towards neoliberal subjectivities is taking place within particular political formations. As a result, only a very small percentage of the population in both countries, for example, the highly skilled IT workers in Bangalore, are encouraged or permitted to develop such identity formations.
This is very different from the more ubiquitous process of individualisation as highlighted in the global North. In some cases, individuals can benefit from such processes, being able to participate in new forms of consumption activities and enjoy the freedom that comes with economic success.
Neoliberal policies, by lifting the constraints on the exercise of unequal power, increase injustice and trigger a downward economic and social spiral.
A good example is the role of International Monetary Fund-
led structural adjustment programmes in exacerbating
existing conditions for many
communities in the global South and the former state socialist East that have resulted in protests and other forms of resistance.
The resistance to neo-liberal policies and practices highlights the ways in which neo-liberalism has been associated
with perceived threats to social justice and growing inequalities.
Communities across the globe are faced with multiple challenges in the wake of neo-liberalisation.
The articulation of neo-liberalism with so many spheres of economic, social and political life suggests its extension into myriad spaces — the home, the workplace, the community and the state, and its impact on the renegotiation of relationships between the local, national and global.
Equally, these multiple spaces have real effects on the form and dimensions that neo-liberalisation takes.
Socio-economic policies that are inspired by neo-liberalism have generated a wave of stormy protest in the United Kingdom in the form of Brexit, rise of Hindu nationalism in India and Trumpism in the United States.
These protests, according to Chomsky, have been mislabelled as populism. Growing uneasiness among the global poor and the marginalised at social and economic inequality is surely turning into a perfect storm.
With neo-liberalism, however, the voices of the global poor and marginalised are being drowned by the much louder and rowdier corporate lobbyists.
Countervailing forces from social institutions, such as trade unions and non-governmental organisations, have lost their influence in a neo-liberal epoch that idolises the market.
The misplaced faith in the market requires the taming of the masses. This has been successfully achieved in mature and emerging democracies, in which schools and higher learning institutions are indoctrinating the young with values that valorise the virtues of unbridled consumption. What is truly required from the masses is not a form of Socratic citizenship, but passivity.
A passive citizenry, according to the neo-liberal establishment, is what is required to make democracy work better. This will spell gloom and doom for humanity, and be our third existential threat.
The writer is director, Centre for Policy Research and International Studies, Universiti Sains Malaysia