If Adam Smith returned and saw the more extreme aspects of neoliberalism, he would probably find them bizarre. Nevertheless, they derive from the ideas of early liberalism. The belief in the market, in market forces, has separated from the factual production of goods and services. It has become an end in itself, and this is one reason to speak of neoliberalism and not of liberalism.
A general characteristic of neoliberalism is the desire to intensify and expand the market, by increasing the number, frequency, repeatability, and formalization of transactions. The ultimate (unreachable) goal of neoliberalism is a universe where every action of every being is a market transaction, conducted in competition with every other being and influencing every other transaction, with transactions occurring in an infinitely short time, and repeated at an infinitely fast rate. It is no surprise that extreme forms of neoliberalism, and especially cyber liberalism, overlap with semi-religious beliefs in the interconnectedness of the cosmos.
Some specific aspects of neoliberalism are:
1- A new expansion in time and space of the market: although there has been a global-scale market economy for centuries, neoliberals find new areas of marketization. This illustrates how neoliberalism differs from classic market liberalism. Adam Smith would not have believed that a free market was less of a free market, because the shops are closed in the middle of the night: expansion of trading hours is a typically neoliberal policy. For neoliberals a 23-hours economy is already unjustifiable: nothing less than 24-hours economy will satisfy them. They constantly expand the market at its margins.
2- The emphasis on property, in classic and market liberalism, has been replaced by an emphasis on contract. In the time of Adam Smith, property conferred status in itself: he would find it strange that entrepreneurs sometimes own no fixed assets, and lease the means of production.
3- Contract maximalization is typically neoliberal: the privatization of the British railway network, formerly run by one state-owned company, led to 30 000 new contracts. Most of these were probably generated by splitting services, which could have been included in block contracts. (A fanatic neoliberal would prefer not to buy a cup of coffee, but negotiate separately for each microliter).
4- The contract period is reduced, especially on the labor market, and so the frequency of contract is increased. A service contract, for instance for office cleaning, might be reduced from a one-year to a three-month contract, then to a one-month contract. Contracts of employment are shorter and shorter, in effect forcing the employee to re-apply for the job. This flexibilization means a qualitatively different working life: many more job applications spread throughout the working life. This was historically the norm in agriculture – day labor – but long-term labor contracts became standard after industrialization.
5- Market forces are also intensified by intensifying assessment, a development especially visible on the labor market. Even within a contract period, an employee will be subject to continuous assessment. The use of specialized software in call centers has provided some extreme examples: the time employees spend at the toilet is measured in seconds: this information is used to pressure the employee to spend less time away from the terminal. Firms with contracts are also increasingly subject to continuous assessment procedures, made possible by information technology. For instance, courier services use tracking software and GPS technology, to allow customers to locate their packages in transit. This is a typical example of the new hyper-provision of business information, in neoliberal economies.
6- New transaction-intensive markets are created on the model of the stock exchanges – electricity exchanges, telephone-minute exchanges. Typical for neoliberalism: there is no relationship between the growth in the number of transactions, and the underlying production.
7- New forms of auction are another method of creating transaction-intensive markets. Radio frequency auctions, such as those for UMTS frequencies, are an example. They replaced previous methods of allocation, especially licensing – a traditional method of allocating access to scarce goods with no clear private owner. The complex forms of frequency spectrum auctions have only been developed in the last few years. Neoliberals now see them as the only valid method of making such allocations: they dismiss all other methods as ‘beauty contests’.
8- Artificial transactions are created, to increase the number and intensity of transactions. Large-scale derivative trading is a typically neoliberal phenomenon, although financial derivatives have existed for centuries. It is possible to trade options on shares: but it is also possible to create options on these options. This accumulation of transaction on transaction is characteristic of neoliberalism. New derivatives are created, to be traded on the new exchanges – such as ‘electricity futures’. There is no limit to this expansion, except computer power, which grows rapidly anyway.
9- Automated trading, and the creation of virtual market-like structures, are neoliberal in the sense that they are an intensification of “transaction for transaction’s sake”. However, a world in which all entrepreneurial activity was automated would not be neoliberal, or liberal.
10- This expansion of interactivity means that neoliberal societies are network societies, rather than the ‘open societies’, of classic liberals. Formal equality and ‘access’ are not enough for neoliberals: they must be used to create links to other members of the society. This attitude has been accurately labeled ‘connectionist’.
11- Because of contract expansionism, transaction costs play an increasing role in the neoliberal economy. All those 30 000 contracts at British Rail had to be drafted by lawyers, all the assessments have to be done by assessors. There is always some cost of competition, which increases as the intensity of transactions increases. Neoliberalism has reached the point where these costs threaten to overwhelm the existing economy, destroying any economic gains from technological change.
12- The growth of the financial services sector is related to these neoliberal characteristics, rather than to any inherent shift to service economies. The entire sector is itself a transaction cost: it was almost non-existent in the centrally planned economies. In turn, it has created a huge demand for office space in the world’s financial centers. The expansion of the sector and its office employment are in direct contradiction of propaganda about ‘more efficiency and less bureaucracy’ in the free market.
13- The speed of trading is increased. Online market data is expensive, yet it is now available free with a 15-minute delay. The markets move so fast, that the data is worthless after 15 minutes: the companies can then give it away, as a form of advertising. Day-traders buy and sell shares in minutes. Automated trading programs, where the computer is linked direct to the stock exchange system, do it in seconds, or less. It is this increased speed which has led to the huge nominal trading volumes on the international currency markets, many times the Gross World Product on a yearly basis.
14- Certain functions arise which only exist inside a neoliberal free market – ‘derivative professions’. A good example is the profession of psychological-test coach. The intensity of assessment has increased, and firms now regularly use psychological tests to select candidates, even for intermediate level jobs. So, ambitious candidates pay for training, in how to pass these psychological tests. Competition in the neoliberal labor market itself creates the market for this service.
15- The creation of sub-markets, typically within an enterprise. Sub-contracting is itself an old market practice, but was usually outside the firm. It is now standard practice for large companies to create competition among their constituent units. This practice is also capable of quasi-infinite extension, and its promotion is characteristic of neoliberalism. A few companies even required each individual employee to register as a business, and to compete with each other at the place of work. A large company can form literally millions of holdings, alliances and joint ventures, using such one-person firms as building blocks.
16- Supplier maximalization: this extends the range of enterprises that compete for each contract. The ideal would be that every enterprise competes for every contract offered, maximizing competition and market forces. In the case of the labor market, the neoliberal ideal is the absolutely flexible and employable employee, who can (and does apply) for every vacancy. In reality, an individual cannot perform every kind of work – but there is a real development towards non-specialized enterprises, especially in the producer services sector. In neoliberalism, instead of the traditional ‘steel tycoon’ or ‘newspaper baron’ there are enterprises which “globally link people and knowledge, and cultures” or “advise and implement solutions to management issues”. (In fact these are quotes from the accountants Price Waterhouse, but you cannot guess this from the descriptions).
Neoliberalism is not simply an economic structure, it is a philosophy. This is most visible in attitudes to society, the individual and employment. Neo-liberals tend to see the world in term of market metaphors. Referring to nations as companies is typically neoliberal, rather than liberal. In such a view Deutschland GmbH competes with Great Britain Ltd, BV Nederland, and USA Inc. However, when this is a view of nation states, it is as much a form of neo-nationalism as neoliberalism. It also looks back to the pre-liberal economic theory – mercantilism – which saw the countries of Europe as competing units. The mercantilists treated those kingdoms as large-scale versions of a private household, rather than as firms. Nevertheless, their view of world trade as a competition between nation-sized units would be acceptable to modern neoliberals.
Competition for inward investment, on the other hand, was generally unknown until the late 19th century. This competition is often seen by activists as the core doctrine of neoliberalism, especially since the neo-mercantilist policies are easy to understand and very unpopular: wage cuts, less money for public services, less tax on the rich. The neo-mercantilist nation, in other words, behaves like a caricature mean and nasty capitalist. It is not relevant either for these policies, or for opposition to them, whether they have any effect at all. Perhaps investment decisions are not made on this basis, perhaps there is no real mobility of capital, and perhaps no investor is interested in Argentina, for instance. But so long as the Argentine government believes that it should pursue certain polices to attract investors, then it will do so. So long as it believes that the ‘SA Argentina’ is a business firm, then it will run Argentina accordingly.
The market metaphor is not only applied among nations, but among cities and regions as well. In neoliberal regional policy, cities are selling themselves in a national and global marketplace of cities. They are considered equivalent to an entrepreneur selling a product, but the product is the city (or region) as a location for entrepreneurs. The successful ‘sale’ of the product is the decision of an entrepreneur to locate there, not simply the sale of land or factories. This view of cities as sub-firms within the fictive ‘national firm’ parallels the creation of sub-markets within real firms. The difference is, that those sub-markets really exist – neoliberal city governments, on the other hand, act primarily on a belief in a metaphor. Again, there is no hard evidence that the global marketplace of cities exists: for most economic sectors complete mobility of plant and labor is an illusion. Most firms cannot simply move from city to city, across continents and ignoring language and cultural barriers, in pursuit of locational advantage. Here too, the neoliberalism is a philosophy, an attitude – rather than an economic reality. It has influenced European politics – the fear of this neoliberalism dominated the French campaign against the European Constitution. There is certainly a neoliberal lobby within the EU, represented by the Lisbon Council, although it sees the world in terms of competing trade blocks rather than competing cities or regions. However, it is not clear how a continent could be run as a business firm – even its inhabitants wanted that. (More on neoliberal economic geography is below).
A good example of the underlying attitudes is the basic policy document of the city of Düsseldorf – the Leitbild, equivalent to a ‘mission statement’ in English. It was adopted in 1997, and is no longer online at the city website, but parts are quoted at: St@ttbuch Düsseldorf…
[Düsseldorf is committed to the principle of competition. The success of cities is decided by competition, internal and external. Düsseldorf wants to be better. Competition is the driving force of our social system. In a Europe which is becoming more integrated, this applies increasingly to the relations between regions. They compete with each other as investment location, as residential choice for the citizens, and in cultural activity. Our commitment means that we will actively and structurally enter into this competition. In a competitive world, only the good can survive. Düsseldorf wants to compete! In the name of the millions of people in our economic and residential region: Düsseldorf wants to be the best!]
The neoliberal urban vision was adopted, without debate, by many city governments in the 1990’s. At some point, a belief in ‘competition by population structure’ was incorporated – the idea that a successful city is inhabited only by successful people. This belief, nonsensical or not, has had an effect in a negative sense: some cities now pursue active policies aimed at relocating low-income households outside the city. In the Netherlands, a new law allows large cities to legally ban poor people, from certain areas, or from the entire city.
As you would expect from a complete philosophy, neoliberalism has answers to stereotypical philosophical questions such as “Why are we here” and “What should I do?”. We are here for the market, and you should compete. Neo-liberals tend to believe that humans exist for the market, and not the other way around: certainly in the sense that it is good to participate in the market and that those who do not participate have failed in some way. In personal ethics, the general neoliberal vision is that every human being is an entrepreneur managing their own life, and should act as such. Moral philosophers call this is a virtue ethic, where human beings compare their actions to the way an ideal type would act – in this case the ideal entrepreneur. Individuals who choose their friends, hobbies, sports, and partners, to maximize their status with future employers, are ethically neoliberal. This attitude – not unusual among ambitious students – is unknown in any pre-existing moral philosophy, and is absent from early liberalism. Such social actions are not necessarily monetarized, but they represent an extension of the market principle into non-economic area of life – again typical for neoliberalism.
The idea of employability is characteristically neoliberal. It means that neoliberals see it as a moral duty of human beings, to arrange their lives to maximize their advantage on the labor market. Paying for plastic surgery to improve employability (almost entirely by women) is a typical neoliberal phenomenon – one of those which would surprise Adam Smith.
Eileen Bradbury, a psychologist who advises surgeons at the Alexandra Hospital in Cheadle, Cheshire, said she was particularly worried that Jenna wanted the operation so that she could be successful. “That is a very disturbing belief for a 15-year-old girl to have, and also a false one,” she said. “I have seen women coming for surgery who work in television and they say they have to have it done or they won’t get the work. I usually go along with that because it is probably true”.
Guardian: Parents defend breast implants for girl, 15.
In practice many ‘workfare neoliberals’ also believe that there is a separate category of people, who can not participate fully in the market. Workfare ideologies condemn this underclass to a service function for those who are fully market-compatible. Note however, that by recognizing a non-market underclass, neoliberals undermine their own claims about the universal applicability of market principles.
The general ethical precept of neoliberalism can be summarized approximately as:
1- “Act in conformity with market forces”
2- “Within this limit, act also to maximize the opportunity for others to conform to the market forces generated by your action”
3- “Hold no other goals”
If everyone lives by such entrepreneurial precepts, then a world will come into existence in which not just goods and services, but all human and social life, is the product of conformity to market forces. More than traditional market liberals, neoliberals therefore have a quasi-heroic attitude to the entrepreneur and to engagement in the market. A 1998 speech by German entrepreneur Jost Stollmann is typical: his neoliberal ideas played a prominent role in the national elections in Germany in that year. Stollmann includes his personal moral philosophy, such as it is…
The idea that everyone should be an entrepreneur is distinctly neoliberal. Early liberals never expected the majority of the population to own property, let alone run a business. (The participation of the poor in the market was limited to accepting any work they were offered). The practices on the flexibilized labor market would seem strange to the early liberals. For instance, individuals set up a one-person employment agency with one person on the books, themselves – partly for tax reasons, but also to meet the ideal of the entrepreneur. Policy to increase the number of entrepreneurs is typically neoliberal, although ironically it must be implemented by the State. A classic market-liberal would not say that a free market is less of a free market, because only 10% of the population are entrepreneurs. For neoliberals it is not sufficient that there is a market: there must be nothing which is not market.
A Neoliberalism joke:
Marxist: “The workers have nothing to sell but their labor power”
Neoliberal: “I offer courses on How to Sell Your Labor Power like A Shark”
There is therefore no distinction between a market economy and a market society in neoliberalism. With the attitudes and ethics set out above, there is only market: market society, market culture, market values, market persons marketing themselves to other market persons. In a sense neoliberalism has returned to the position of early liberalism – which also combined culture, values and ethics with economics. But neoliberalism brings a far more intensive ‘market’ – replacing not only traditional social forms, but also the concept of private life. At the same time this ‘market’ is increasingly remote from the necessity of production, which was so real for the early liberals – when there were still regular famines in Europe. In fact it is so remote from the existing cultural perception of a ‘market’, that it would perhaps be better to use some other word.
Finally, neoliberalism has become associated with specific cultures (especially US culture) and a specific language (English). This is not surprising: Anglo-American liberalism had the most influence on neoliberalism. Neoliberalism as ideology is not tied to any culture or language. It is true that a single global language would facilitate free trade – but that could be Esperanto, as well as English. In practice, the promotion of the English language, neoliberal policies, and pro-American foreign policy, usually go together: this was especially true in Central and Eastern Europe.
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