Er… what is neoliberalism, exactly?

Economics
 Workers take to Greek streets against cutbacks
Workers take to Greek streets against cutbacks. Image by Flickr user http://underclassrising.net

When I’m not writing fan fiction about the heat-death of the universe, there are two things that play on my mind. The first is that almost every crisis currently facing humanity is caused by neoliberalism. The second? Almost no-one knows what neoliberalism is.

I mean, that’s weird, right? Neoliberalism is literally the system we live under – and yet, if you go into a cafe and ask random people what they think neoliberalism is, you’ll get thrown out. ‘Stop bothering my customers,’ Franco will say. ‘Why do you keep doing this to me?’

Even finding a consistent definition is hard. Of the people who know what it is (which I’m assuming includes you, because you read New Internationalist – unless, like me, you nod along to the articles, hoping no-one will actually challenge you on any of it) most agree on neoliberalism’s features. Free market, privatization, shrinking the state, lowering taxes, reducing regulation, replacing schools and hospitals with champagne bars, and so on.

But try asking people why someone would be a neoliberal, and you’ll get a thousand different answers. For example, critics might claim that under neoliberalism, things are only worthwhile if they make money. In that respect, my comedy is the least neoliberal thing that has ever existed.

Conversely, advocates might say ‘the free market is more efficient’, or ‘the state is a burden’. Anything other than admitting that they watch dystopian cyberpunk movies where the police have been privatized, and see it not as a warning, but a vision of a glorious future.

So, who to believe? It doesn’t help that neoliberalism’s meaning is almost impossible to guess. A friend of mine assumed it meant a ‘new kindness’. ‘Because, you know, liberal means open-minded.’ That noise you hear in the distance is our Australian readers thinking about Tony Abbott, and laughing hysterically.

But can you blame her? Even neoliberals avoid using the word, because they claim that nowadays it’s mainly used as an insult. I quite like that the word both describes a belief system, and simultaneously insults that same belief system. It’s the kind of efficiency that the free market can only dream of.

Related: 10 economic myths we need to junk

As it happens, it suits neoliberals not to use the word. When no-one knows what it is, it’s so much easier for our political class to act as if all our big crises – global tax avoidance, climate change, the 2008 financial crash, privatization of healthcare, jobs outsourced, communities abandoned, and the white nationalism that thrives in those conditions – are somehow blips, self-contained anomalies, rather than all rooted in neoliberalism. Not dissimilar to how I claim that my constant lateness is a unique one-off, rather than rooted in me smashing it hard on Mario Kart.

How happy, then, that the tide is turning. More than 12,800,000 people in Britain recently voted for an unashamedly leftwing manifesto – and while fewer than one per cent of them could tell you what neoliberalism is, they know that things are broken. A world where $32 trillion is stored in offshore tax havens, where our public services get sold to the highest bidder, and where deregulation leads to tragedies like Grenfell Tower – people feel, instinctively, that things needs to change. People might not know the technical words, but they know the answers. Neoliberalism is now facing its final years. My friends: it’s time to nationalize neoliberalism.

Chris Coltrane is a comedian and activist. Follow him on Twitter: @chris_coltrane. Download his podcast from TheLoliticsPodcast.com

New Internationalist issue 505 magazine cover This article is from the September 2017 issue of New Internationalist.
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