Sunday 12 January 2020

A eulogy to neoliberalism

Alasdair Dow
MA Sociology
The title screams heresy, and I may add it is meant to suggest that the dominant philosophy in our lives, the one the majority of academics either praise as a wonder, or curse as a monstrosity, is now dead and buried. It will not be a comforting thought to many who have devoted much time and energy to studying its effect on society. The screams of ‘It cannot be true’ may ring loud, resonating from a belief that neoliberalism has somehow faked its demise and merely undergone an identity change. However, I would like to very shyly and politely suggest that neoliberalism is dead, and it is time to write its eulogy. The eulogy provided here will not speak ill of the dead, but neither will it glorify the passing of the neoliberal world view. I aim to not focus on trivialities. The tone set is provocative and I hope will invite some dialogue, even passionate discussion. I will apologise for my unashamed dismissal of the academic consensus that neoliberalism is alive and well: it is dead and we should indulge in a respectful silence, even mourn it.


It is with some joy that we recall the first moment neoliberalism walked into our lives in the late 1970s, entering a world that was decidedly not working. Well, yes, that is a matter of opinion, but in a society faced by high inflation and the challenges of increasing costs of living, was it wrong for neoliberalism to ride to the rescue as a knight in shining armour, with its promises that through market forces and our free will we could take control of our own lives? I know neoliberalism was overly optimistic about human nature, believing if everyone thought of themselves first it made them naturally inclined to give to others, with this epitomised in phrases such as ‘trickle-down’ and ‘the richer I am the richer you will be too’. This psycho- economic view saw the whole of life as an economic exchange, promising a simpler way of living via these mottos. If individuals still fell by the wayside, left behind with empty stomachs, this approach placed the blame on them and their own laziness. After all, giving never helped anyone.
This was the life of neoliberalism: simply put, a dream that human selfishness would bring general human betterment. In spite of this, neoliberalism called in its name for men and women to judge their fellow beings purely on how they could benefit from one another. Gone was race, gender and religion, and instead the ‘great calculation’ would be run. Borders would vanish as people must move to the place which best allowed them to gain and profit. If they were static and immobile then neoliberalism would screech ‘lazy’, and remind them that it had lifted motivated people from the cold streets and nurtured their ambitions by enabling them to reach thrones of high majesty. It was this mentality which incidentally killed neoliberalism, as it had forgotten in its haste that not all men and women were as selfish as it predicted. It would be the great lovers of neoliberalism who would in the end kill it, since they had conjured up a force they could not contain – one that allowed them to pursue their goals at the cost of other people sacrificing theirs. In the end there were higher loyalties than merely the ‘great calculation’ involved in creating a sense of a nation.
 Neoliberalism would look on in astonishment at the knives being plunged into it from left, right and, in the end, the centre. It would look on as its ‘finest’ children would ask for harder borders, simultaneously imploring individuals to put their national interest above their personal interest. Into this moment stepped in many other ideas and ideologies, hoping to take the spotlight they so desired. In the deserts of the Middle East many asked why life should not follow the religious ruling of the Qur’an; in the cold of Russia, one man felt he could resolve through his pure will all problems facing his country and the wider world; in China a dragon bides its time to spread its wings. As for the western world, the old wounds are open, the red flag is flying again, but so are the flags of the angry who insist that their loyalty is to those who look and think like them. Neoliberalism, helpless on its death bed, would witness the rise of those who would seek to replace it. Neoliberalism’s last breath cursed us, as it looked to the sky and smiled: it would have the final say, be it the pollution in the Ganges river or smog in Shanghai. It had left its mark, even if it had also witnessed a failure of the human spirit.
I have described the death of neoliberalism: we have gathered here today to mourn or check it is dead. I will say to those in the back, fearful that it may jump from the coffin, that it has truly departed. As for those in the front rows, please do let your tears flow as you have lost a dear friend. I can only suggest, ironically, that you find consolation in each other. Outside the doors the four great armies gather: one hopes to bring life under the nation, one dreams of binding all together under a familiar red flag, the other desires to unite us all in love of laws which claim ascension from heaven. The fourth looks bright eyed and smiles: its soldiers do not have guns in their hands, but come with a dream that men and women can be both individual and have higher loyalties. It has waited a long time. Once or twice in the past it has nearly claimed the spotlight before being shoved rudely aside. I will not name this last idea, it awaits your discovery.
I now leave you, I admit, indifferently. I am neither filled with joy nor sadness. I wish neoliberalism a polite goodbye, albeit a cold one. I, like many, respected it but never liked it. After all it was never loveable and never asked to be loved. It merely counted the coins and sat passively looking on as more treasure came to hand. It is hard to cry for something which would never cry for you. I applaud the large hearts of those seated in the front.
Best wishes to all.

Why write a eulogy?

The tone taken is done so on purpose, and is not as arrogant as it may seem: there is a need to proactively make this case if it is to be debated at all. I confess overstatements and even, what I dare call optimistically, poetic licenses. I did not mean to offend, but it seems that without some grand, if not controversial statement on neoliberalism, our lives may be wasted, for some of us seek a ghost which may not be real. I will suggest that I look forward to the brave and courageous academic who will answer this call and may even, with certainty and greater knowledge, successfully refute this claim. I, however, am doubtful in a world of national boundaries, where the freedom of movement and goods is no longer a reality, that the neoliberal dream is done and dusted. Maybe relics of it can be found, but they will become few and far between. In the end it is already gone from us. The question of what may take its place is one I have speculatively sketched out and needs refining. I admit it is more a product of poetic licence than anything else. I will not deny, after all I have said, that neoliberalism, cunning as it is, may be playing dead, but I doubt it. I thank you for taking the time to read this short article.

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