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Containing Neoliberalism

America's Future Depends on Containing Neoliberalism—Frank Fear

The noise about Bernie Sanders possibly turning America into Denmark or Sweden pales in comparison to the silence about Neoliberalism. Neoliberalism has already arrived—and has been around—for decades.

You’d never know it, though. Neoliberalism gets virtually no mainstream press coverage. And it almost never comes up in everyday conversation. Those are mindboggling outcomes, indeed, given the damage it causes. Consider these outcomes: the financial meltdown of 2008 and Great Recession, income inequality, an at-risk public infrastructure, U.S. wealth deposited overseas, skyrocketing public college costs, and urban decay, among other things.

Those outcomes are connected. But the public “responds…as if…/these problems/…emerge in isolation,” George Monbriot wrote recently, “apparently unaware that they have been either catalyzed or exacerbated by the same thing.” The problem with Neoliberalism, Martinez, et al. observe, is that “market dynamics are lauded as a virtue, often to the exclusion of distributional equity and other public good considerations.” The commonwealth erodes.

Just how and why did America come under Neoliberalism’s grip?

The Rise and Evolution of Neoliberalism

The concept was born in 1930s Europe in reaction to The New Deal in America and The Nazi Movement in Germany. Both expressions were seen as totalitarian, squelching individual freedom and initiative. Over time, Neoliberalism morphed, becoming especially attractive to those who favored reducing regulatory oversight, downsizing government, and accentuating capitalism as the coin of the realm.

“The market” would take care of things—literally all things—and the market metaphor expanded to embrace a variety of domains associated with social and economic life. In Monbiot’s view, “Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations…. The market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve.”

It wasn’t until the early 1980s—with Margaret Thatcher in power in Great Britain and Ronald Reagan in the U.S.—that a neoliberal philosophy became a guiding force for national and international affairs. In famously declaring, “There is no alternative,” Thatcher showed how dedicated she was to free markets, free trade, and global capitalism. The American analogue, “Reaganomics” (aka supply-side economics), focused on redressing “an undue tax burden, excessive government regulation, and massive public spending programs that hampered growth.”

“Call it Reaganism or Thatcherism, economism, or market fundamentalism,” William Deresiewicz writes, “neoliberalism is an ideology that reduces all values to money values. The worth of a thing is the price of the thing. The worth of a person is the wealth of the person. Neoliberalism tells you that you are valuable exclusively in terms of your activity in the marketplace — or, in Wordsworth’s phrase, your ‘getting and spending’.”

Neoliberalism was no short-term political fancy, either. It persisted and expanded, promulgated by powerful advocates, to the point that it changed the way America does business. Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz believes that Neoliberalism has “rewritten the rules” of the U.S. economy by privileging elites. It did so by deregulating business affairs, privatizing public and human services, cutting social services, lowering taxes, and reducing government size and scope. In exchange, elites promised “trickle down benefits” and declared “A Thousand Points of Light” would take care of human and social needs.

Impacts of Neoliberalism

Neoliberalism proceeded, undeterred, without a counterweight. In so doing, though, it created a stink in social affairs. Today, America is something different from what it was before. The unimaginable now happens. Consider three examples.

  • Flint, Michigan. There was a time when what happened to Flint wouldn’t have happened in this country. Today it does, in part, because of lower taxes, corporate dependency, limited regulations, and cost-savings for public services. But “Flint,” the city, isn’t just one place. Metaphorically it’s everywhere: a racially concentrated population in socioeconomic distress with an affluent population living comfortably distant.
  • Infant mortality. It’s mindboggling to conceive that 21st Century America would struggle in this domain, but it does. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported recently that about 25 industrialized countries are doing better than the U.S. in keeping children alive. A recent New York Timesheadline was harsh and direct: The U.S. Is Failing in Infant Mortality, Starting at One Month Old.
  • Income.According to a new report released by The Congressional Budget Office, American incomes increased differentially across income categories from 1975-2013. Incomes for the Top 1% increased nearly 200% during that 35-year period, but rose only 18% for those in the bottom four income quintiles. (Note: According The Economic Policy Institute, family income of about $400k per year is required in the U.S. to get into the 1% category; and the average income in that bracket is $1.2 million dollars. The average family income for everybody else is about $46k per annum). “Increased inequality is prominent,” conclude researchers at The World Bank. Stiglitz confirms that conclusion with this finding: “91% of all increases in income from 2009 to 2012 in the U.S. went to the wealthiest 1% of Americans.”

The challenge is clear: America won’t be America much longer—at least how we many of us perceive America to be—if circumstances and trends like these continue. But it won’t be easy to shift into a different gear. Neoliberalism is embedded in American psyche and culture. Around for such a long time, it has become “the way things are”—what’s “normal.”

Neoliberalism Everywhere

Neoliberalism is so pervasive that prominent interpretations of what it means “to be a good leader,” “to exercise good leadership,” and “to be a success” are defined in neoliberal terms.

Organizations of all kinds—across sectors and levels (national, state, and local)—require people to be comfortable and productive in neoliberal systems. That means students who matriculate, workers who succeed, executives who manage, and trustees who govern in neoliberal schemes. Neoliberalism is so pervasive that prominent interpretations of what it means “to be a good leader,” “to exercise good leadership,” and “to be a success” are defined in neoliberal terms.

Here’s an example of what I mean. When I began my higher education career nearly 40 years ago, academic achievement was the avenue by which to advance one’s career. If you wanted to be an academic administrator then, first, you had to establish yourself as an outstanding academic. Not so today. Many business leaders and politicians ascend to collegiate presidencies. The coin of the realm changed with the advent of the “entrepreneurial university.” By the late ‘80s-early ‘90s academic management became mostly about raising money, rising in the rankings, and beating the competition—neoliberal filters all. Slowly, but surely, higher education became a neoliberal enterprise, making the transition from social institution to industry. Higher education became corporatized. or, specifically the corporate world.

What happened in higher education happened to other sectors, too, most notably the nonprofit sector. Corporate-like trappings have proliferated, including corporate language, structures, systems, and approaches. “For the public good” work, which used to be undertaken in America primarily as work of the community undertaken by citizens as civic responsibility, is professionalized today—undertaken in organizational settings that are governed mostly by social and economic elites. The nonprofit sector has become corporatized, save for citizen-based enterprises that are authentically rooted in local communities.

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Ironies of Neoliberalism.

The evolution of America’s Neoliberalism narrative includes two head-shaking ironies.

The first irony is associated with who advanced Neoliberalism in this country. Even though Baby Boomers inherited a Progressive America from parents, Boomers were active in dismantling it. Some Boomers were seduced by Neoliberalism, while others were trapped in it. Career opportunities—with benefits unimaginable just a generation before—offered sizable inducement. And people were too busy—and sometimes afraid—to ask: “What are we really doing here?”

Today a generational flip is underway. Millions of younger Americans (Millennials, in particular) question what they consider to be unjust or otherwise problematic enterprises. And they’re impatient, too, not waiting to “get to a new place.” That approach may have been fine decades ago, when the Neoliberal project was young, but it has progressed too far for incremental change to be effective. Many younger people (a number of whom are political Independents) want a society that changes sooner, not later.

Are they naïve? In some ways they are, but in other ways they’re not. They represent hope, pushing America in a new direction—a needed direction—for the public good.

That brings us to a second irony. The vision for which they are pushing—often labeled by naysayers as “pie in the sky”—is anything but. That’s because the vision already exists. Noted Columbia University economist, Jeffery Sachs, observes: “/There’s/… overwhelming evidence from high-income countries that long ago adopted “policies of decency” (italics added) in the domains of health care, economic growth, and income inequality.”

Those policies include “establishing a single-payer health system, modernizing and upgrading public infrastructure, strengthening unions, setting a minimum living wage, supporting families and children, instituting tuition-free public higher education, and cracking down on financial crimes.” Sachs points to Canada as case in point. “Canada has lower-cost health care,” compared to the U.S., Sachs observes, with “a life expectancy two years higher, much lower college tuition, and far lower poverty rates.”

“But we can’t afford it!”—a common response—is actually Neoliberal-speak. Neoliberals don’t want to invest in the commonwealth. But, ironically, centrist Democrats aid the Neoliberal cause when they mouth the very same thing.

Next Steps

Progressive activists have fought Neoliberalism for a very long time, often without fanfare—until the Sanders campaign brought Progressive values and ideas to mainstream attention. Thousands of those activists gathered in Chicago earlier this month to participate in “The People’s Summit.” Organized by National Nurses United, the Summit’s purpose was “to push groups to work together on issues like racial justice, income inequality, and electoral changes.”

Activists are needed to counter Neoliberalism’s continuing assault on American life. For example, private equity firms—one of the culprits of The Great Recession—are running municipal public emergency systems, including 911, with nightmarish results.

But containing Neoliberalism will require more that activism. We also need to infuse mainstream systems with Progressive values and approaches. How might we do that? Here are five ways.

Create Public Awareness

People need to know about Neoliberalism—by name and by the disruption it causes. Even with awareness, some folks won’t care and others won’t see it as a problem. But some will respond. Reading Drew Seres’ excellent primer, Comprehensive Activists Guide to Dismantling Neoliberalism, taught me that different people will act for different reasons. Some will be appalled by Neoliberalism’s impacts (e.g., inequality has grown in every U.S. state since 1970). Others will be motivated by a vision of a better world. Either way, we need all hands on deck to create public awareness. Toward that end, my colleagues and I maintain a website, Neoliberalism in Higher Education, to inform those in the sector about the deleterious implications of higher education’s neoliberal transition.

Reform the Democratic Party

In the two-party system that dominates American politics the only hope for Progressives is the Democratic Party. But a broad-scale attack to transform the Democratic Party is doomed to fail. For one thing, there’s too much underbrush to be cleared in any political party to hope for major change from within. And with millions of independents supporting an unregistered Democrat (Sanders) it’s hopeless to expect the Democratic nominee to run on a Sanders-defined platform. Targeted reform makes more sense. Two reforms seem worth pursuing:

Elect more Progressives

We need more Progressive Democrats in office, people who are like Tulsi Gabbard (HI), Seth Moulton (MA), and Michelle Wu (MA). The good news is that we’re witnessing positive movement, especially with women who are running for Congress. Notable examples include Zephyr Teachout (NY), Pramila Jayapal (WA), and Lucy Flores (NV). Candidates like these will attract many left-of-center independent voters.

Bring Progressive values to your community and workplace

The battle to contain Neoliberalism won’t be waged just by elected officials in Congress, state legislatures, and city hall. It will be fought by everyone and everywhere—in executive offices and board rooms—and in cities and organizations across the country. We need young Americans, in particular, serving on boards, moving into executive positions, and doing everything they can to influence the public good. They’ll need to be smart about it, too. Otherwise they’ll undo their careers.

Squeeze Neoliberalism by surrounding it

Because Neoliberalism is here, there, and everywhere, multiple efforts—not just one—are necessary to contain it. That includes initiatives that don’t always lead with an anti-Neoliberalism foot, but offer demonstrable alternatives to Neoliberal thought and practice. Examples include the local foods movement, the environmental/sustainability movement, and The Voluntary Simplicity movement. There’s power to be had by joining together for change.

The biggest problem facing this country isn’t terrorism, the deficit, Trump, college costs, income inequality—or any of the other single issues that demand public attention. The overarching problem is Neoliberalism because it enables all of those problems.


Contain it and the Commonwealth will thrive again. Don’t and America will be lost.

Frank Fear