This column is supported by the journalism nonprofit the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
Neoliberalism is a sprawling, contentious, difficult economic and political concept that can be hard to pin down because it shapes our lives in so many ways. Sometimes it can seem to describe everything, so it often appears not to mean anything. Despite that, here's my best effort: Neoliberalism is an economic philosophy and a political system devoted to enforcing economic competition, protecting the power of businesses, and celebrating the “free market” — that is, the capitalist market — as the wisest and best judge of people, institutions, and ideas.
Quinn Slobodian, a history professor at Wellesley College, is one of the leading historians on neoliberalism. He describes it for Teen Vogue as “the ongoing effort to protect capitalism from democracy,” which is helpful, but now we have to explain what he means by that.
First of all, “capitalism”: the economic system we live under that organizes the production and distribution of goods and services around private ownership and profit. Under this system, a comparatively small group of owners purchases the labor of the majority. (Think of your time and energy as a resource that belongs to you. When you work for someone, you are selling that labor to them, and when a boss hires you, they are buying it.) Secondly, “democracy”: from the Greek, meaning “the rule of the people.” The word speaks to a political system in which power is meant to be vested in the people.
Capitalism, which relies on the productive power of hierarchy — many people working under the authority of a smaller group of bosses — has always come into conflict with political systems based on freedom and equality. Neoliberalism, Slobodian argues, is a response by politicians and capitalists to protect the market from interference by democratic representatives of the people. So, for example, when international free-trade agreements, like NAFTA, require national governments to privatize public utilities and adjust their labor laws to encourage economic growth, they allow corporations and private businesses to overrule government demands for social justice.
Other critics tend to think about neoliberalism as a way of life, a “subjectivity” that is a way of thinking and behaving that we’re all sucked into. If capitalism celebrates competition, in neoliberalism we can see how economic competition takes over more and more of our lives.
Wendy Brown, a professor of politics at UC-Berkeley, describes neoliberalism in terms of the pressure on all of us to “hustle,” to always be working, striving, branding, investing. We encounter this intense competition in all sorts of ways. Think of a Lyft driver, picking up passengers after work to help pay down her student debt and cover her sky-high rent. Or the high school student in Detroit, rising at dawn to attend a charter school across town that his parents chose after sorting through myriad options. That same student makes a TikTok in the hallway at lunch, laughing and dancing for the brief amusement of someone halfway across the world, and the profit of advertisers on the app. Or consider the Cambodian farmer who takes out a microloan with a development bank to make improvements on his house.
What do they all share? Neoliberals might say they have abundant choices — they are free to patronize the employers, media, banks, car dealers, or schools of their choice. They are competitive, clawing to make their way in a dynamic marketplace; they are individuals, making their way with minimal interference from large government institutions, like a public health system or a centralized school district. For those who defend our economic system, these people are above all free — to compete with one another, to get ahead (or fail to get ahead), and ultimately to choose their destiny with relatively little government interference.