Saved You A Google: A brief guide to neoliberalism

Saved You A Google: A brief guide to neoliberalism

We can’t talk about today’s political situation without talking about ideology.

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What a year. More Filipinos are poor, more Filipinos have been killed, farmers still don’t own their lands, laborers in all industries have gone on strike, and all throughout you saw the same 13-letter word on Twitter: neoliberalism.

But you’ve not only passed over it in some mindless scroll — you were born screaming into a world where its ideology seeped into every material thing and conditioned every thought. It permeates your every action: that wild, unrelenting force that measures your worth against how much you have.

There is a whole body of literature dedicated to the subject of neoliberalism — to its theory and application, but also to criticisms against it, and the alternatives. Take this for what it is: a point of entry into a discussion that may have been too intimidating for you to enter online.

What is neoliberalism?

Neoliberalism is the economic regime that has seized the world since the 1970s. In its intellectual lineage, it follows liberalism. The two share a precept: the supremacy of the free market above all else, period. They believe that a free market driven by competition is the best and most efficient way to allocate resources, and the best means for individuals to live their best lives.

Because of this, they also advocate for a blackout on government interference with the economy: no controlling prices, rents, or wages. The state’s role would be limited to enforcing contracts and guarding property. Instead, liberals and neoliberals believe competition and the “invisible hand” will enable things to fall into place.

The two differ in that neoliberalism is an elaboration, or a “modern take,” on classical liberalism. Its rhetoric elevates the free market to the global scale, which was essential for the US project of spreading democracy and capitalism to Communist nations in the third world. Neoliberalism also provides quite the elegant landscape for globalization to take place.


It’s quite against the idea of publicly funded things private individuals can use, because it believes an individual should work to earn and buy what they can afford, or else, work harder.


Neoliberal systems are marked by the free flow of capital, goods, and services across transnational borders, an emphasis on foreign investment, calls for the deregulation of capital markets, and privatization of public goods. It’s quite against the idea of publicly funded things private individuals can use, because it believes an individual should work to earn and buy what they can afford, or else, work harder. (Does the public outcry on universal healthcare in the US make sense now?)

Now, neoliberalism and capitalism are two distinct concepts, and they don’t actually go together by default. The easiest way to think about the difference is: neoliberalism is an ideology or a set of beliefs about human nature and economics; capitalism is a mode of production. Capitalists want to accumulate capital. Neoliberals believe that maximizing human potential has a lot to do with accumulating capital, and the capitalist mode of production lends itself well to that goal.

How do we see neoliberalism in our economy?

The Philippines is a developing nation trying to (1) keep its own economy afloat, and (2) participate in the global economy. We have international economic partnerships like the Japan-Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement, and we value foreign investment, like the recent China-Philippines trade deals.

Our largest and most lucrative export is care (packaged as “services”) through our OFWs, many of whom are underemployed as domestic workers because employers won’t give Filipinos better jobs, but still pay higher than the better jobs in the Philippines. We see markets integrating — e-commerce, free trade agreements, the brick-and-mortar presence of international brands (and its consequences on smaller local counterparts). We have laws that safeguard competition in industries, and made private some public goods like water and electricity.


So is neoliberalism just an arrangement of economic affairs?

No. Like any other ideology, it provides a framework of looking at the world, and like any other economic regime, it conditions our experience of the world. It has direct, dramatic, and inevitable influence on our politics, institutions, and social relations, because it shapes the principles of our society. We have come to prioritize economic prosperity despite its consequent inequalities.

How do we see neoliberalism in our politics and governance today?

Neoliberalism’s set of beliefs is gospel. It acts as rules that all countries in the world have to abide by if they want economic development. There are many rules, but one of the major ones is that the government should not try to constrain, limit, or disincentivize the free market and free trade in any way. Another is that private companies should be able to handle utilities like water and energy, allowing competition to improve these public services.

Following these rules has inadvertently become a requirement under neoliberalism, because the fulfillment of these rules signals to international institutions (like the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the United Nations, and so on) that a state can be trusted with capital (through loans or grants) or that a state can be a reliable ally. Thomas Friedman calls this set of rules a “golden straitjacket,” because, while these rules are mere suggestions, countries don’t get much wiggle room in creating their economic policies — countries that don’t follow these rules will be perceived as hostile, backwards, or not trustworthy. Which means: no capital, no allies, no economic development.


At the end of the day, neoliberal policies are adopted to advance the economy (especially on the world stage), but it does this at the expense of the masses, who don’t have the means to compete with multinational corporations.


Often, neoliberal ideals conflict with the economic policies that developing nations might need. This is a simple example that deserves much more nuance, but for our purposes of understanding this point: Remember what your Twitter feed looked like when Ikea announced that it would open its largest store here? A major apprehension was that its presence would kill the Philippine furniture industry, which is largely composed of small to medium enterprises, which may be true, because these SMEs won’t be able to compete with them.

At the end of the day, neoliberal policies are adopted to advance the economy (especially on the world stage), but it does this at the expense of the masses, who don’t have the means to compete with multinational corporations. Worse, they struggle to even have the resources to get the opportunities to try to compete with them, like good public education, food, decent housing, and public healthcare.

Ideally, a government that genuinely represents their constituents should address this. We even have a partylist system to ensure that the concerns of marginalized sectors are truly heard and acted on. But policymakers disproportionately represent their corporate backers, and they get to decide what bills to pass, what trade agreements to sign. The political arena is full of competing interests, but you already know who wins.

What are the issues that arose from neoliberalism?

Favoring economic development, social development is often pushed to the side. This is due in large part to how society has now become individuated to the extreme as a function of a neoliberal capitalist political economy. Its preferred pronoun is “I,” and it has very little consideration for a “you,” and least of all, an “us.” It puts a premium on agency, personal freedom, and personal gain. It puts the pressure on the individual to provide for themselves a better life, when better lives, on a planet we share with billions of other people with depleting resources, should be an goal we should all aspire to.

The “I”s that succeed under neoliberalism wear a similar golden straitjacket: privilege. Male, white, educated in top universities, affluent. One of the aspects of having privilege is that it lands you better jobs, grants you better pay and more respect. That’s because neoliberalism, which precipitated this kind of identity politics due to its preoccupation with the individual, decided that that’s the dominant narrative. Because neoliberalism put them in positions of power.


Neoliberalism has been the carrier of ideas that have historically marginalized those not in the dominant narrative.


And because neoliberalism is averse to anything that might result in an economic loss, it cannot be divorced from misogyny, sexism, racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, xenophobia, systemic poverty, and other social issues. Neoliberalism has been the carrier of ideas that have historically marginalized those not in the dominant narrative.

The worst part is all of this feeds into our politics and our policies. Politicians are people who act on their own prejudices and biases. Is it any wonder we’re seeing the rise of far-right, authoritarian figures throughout the world today?

What aren’t the issues that arose from neoliberalism?

Recall the issue on phasing out jeepneys. The government wants to do this to modernize public transport, but it plans on doing this at the expense, literally, of jeepney drivers.[READ: What you need to know about the public transport strike]

Recall TRAIN. This law on tax reform was done to increase government revenue to provide better public services (ostensibly to be competitive with the rest of the world), but it does this through increasing the taxes on everyday goods and giving tax cuts to corporations.

Recall contractualization. Employers practice this to cut costs and have higher profit margins, but contractual laborers who continue to earn only minimum wage no matter how many months they work, because their tenures go back to zero every six months.

Recall the extreme inequality we are seeing in the world today. We are seeing the worst wealth disparity in history, with the richest 1% of the world actually owning 50% of the world’s wealth.

Recall industrialization and how the world’s biggest companies are almost entirely responsible for global warming and climate change.

Name an issue — it definitely has a root in neoliberalism.

What’s wrong with neoliberalism?

First, there is no significant difference between what I’m describing when I talk of the neoliberal project of globalization and when I talk of Westernization.

Second, think about how we’re always told that we can be successful if we work hard and earn our keep. If we haven’t earned enough to afford a comfortable life, then we should work harder. But a farmer who toils all day will never have a bank account with the same number of digits as a trust fund kid who spends his days on a PS4. Their social locations are worlds apart. Neoliberalism doesn’t have a discourse for structures or power imbalance, and at worst, it denies their existence. It assumes all individuals start at the same place, with no recognition of the privileges the elite has, and the structures that constrain the masses.

Third, it imposes a set of prerequisite conditions one has to fulfill before one can fairly compete in a free market or have a real chance at living a good life, and then it forces everyone to play its game regardless. Sound fascist? There’s some merit to that accusation. Neoliberal policies can literally kill people who can’t keep up or who don’t fit the dominant narrative. Our own drug war. Syrians crossing the sea to seek refuge.

Fourth, it compels people to address structural problems through individual efforts. See: the campaign to use metal straws. Nothing wrong with metal straws, but the onus should be on companies to stop making plastic straws and for the state to start sanctioning the use of plastic straws. See: your BS Management batchmate who thinks an annual corporate tree planting activity offsets his company’s CO2 emissions. See: our belief that donating cosmetics and clothes justifies that the excess was bought (hell, even produced) in the first place. See: our penchant for feel-good stories of resilient people who rose from poverty by walking a half-marathon to school every day or doing some other extreme act of dedication just because there was no other choice.

But neoliberalism’s biggest fault is intimated by David Harvey, one of its staunchest critics: “Neoliberalization has not been very effective in revitalizing global capital accumulation, but it has succeeded remarkably well in restoring, or in some instances (as in Russia and China) creating, the power of an economic elite. The theoretical utopianism of neoliberal argument has, I conclude, primarily worked as a system of justification and legitimation for whatever needed to be done to achieve this goal.”

How do we address these issues?

The most important thing to do is to get organized and join social movements. Find one whose stances and praxis you agree with, and use your energy to support their mobilizations. The goal, at the end of the day, is a change in structure: an economic model that does not breed inequality.


The goal, at the end of the day, is a change in structure: an economic model that does not breed inequality.


There are things we can do in our individual capacities. We can be politically participative beyond voting in elections — we can attend rallies, write to our congressional representatives in support of better labor policies and the protection of ancestral lands and indigenous peoples’ rights, and so on. We can stop patronizing companies we know to employ contractual laborers or not to care for their carbon footprint. We can make more sustainable consumer decisions ourselves. We can use our privilege and our resources to amplify the voices of the marginalized.

But the most important thing is to get organized and present a better alternative. Structures are taken down one pillar at a time, and that takes a movement.



Further reading

#FYI #history #politics

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