Neo-liberals believe that the free market is the best way to organise society. They claim that the government should be just an administrator, not a supervisor or a player in the market, even to the point that private companies should provide services such as hospitals, schools and prisons. This is a common misconception, or a slight of hand, as under neo-liberal control the state often is used for the benefit for capital, rather than against it. It does this by creating new markets, initially by selling of the state’s companies/shares, or by invading or coercing other countries to exploit their natural resources and economies. All whilst reducing what it did for citizens, often monetising services or cutting them. (For more on this, read or watch The Shock Doctrine)
To justify their support for markets with minimal restrictions, they claim that the main interactions between people are ‘economic’ (homo economicus), or better put that people always act in their own interests to increase their capital (whether that be economic, social or cultural capital). It believes that this is the principal force behind human progress, and the individual drive for capital gain furthers progress in society. If this were true, then things such as Wikipedia would not exist. The internet may not have been given away by Tim Berners-Lee, and you might consider not having children.
Of course, this is opposed to the view that it is groups of people, or collectives, that fuel the engine of history. By stating this view, they argue that any barriers stopping individual progress are stopping humanity reaching its potential. This is where the great myth of trickle-down economics starts.
Neoliberalism encourages competition between people. It states that individuals will always act in their own interests, therefore if we allow competition, individuals will push further, thus increasing capital, improving standards and making progress. You might think this is common sense, and it works in certain circumstances, but does it work in places such as hospitals? schools? Competition like most things is okay within moderation. Whilst it may work with encouraging people to work harder, teams to work faster or in certain markets to improve standards, it does not work everywhere. Should it work to the extent children get anxious over exam marks? Where students are refused by schools because of their low grades? or to the extent you take work home with you because you want your team to preform well or risk losing your job?
An example I have seen whilst working as a nurse. By allowing separate companies to bid for the contract to run the service, the NHS had to compete with outside companies. Each company put forward a proposal. We can treat X number of patients for Y amount of money. Now the NHS never had to make money, only balance the books, whilst outside companies had shareholders who expected profits. The companies with better bids, often seen as more efficient, got the contracts. So now the service had the money from the health service but they also had shareholders. Standards lowered as the service was treated more like a company than a clinic. Nurses left because of the tick box nature of seeing patients and the watering down of their conditions. Visits and treatments were limited to some of the most vulnerable and at-risk patients in the community. It became a production line instead of a health service. The effects spread throughout the other services, with the voluntary sector, the police, the hospital and mental health services filling in. Hardly efficient.
The same could be said for the privatisation of the UK’s trains, standards lowered, and prices increased. Between 1994 and 1997 British railways were privatised, since then the average price has gone up 23%, and they have risen twice as fast as wages since 2009. It is estimated that the average UK citizen pays 5 times more in proportion to their salary when compared to the average European. Britain may have left the EU but its train lines are all owned by European countries that make a profit out of it. A similar model is about to be rolled out all over the EU.
Furthermore, neoliberalism encourages the privatisation of public services as it believes that the market is more effective at managing them, which given the amount of bureaucracy in working out who will provide what, this is easily contestable. I remember trying to get a light bulb replaced on a ward once. It took several phone calls, form filling and in the end it took 3 days to change the light bulb. Just think how many people that took. The person answering the phone, the electrician, the nurse to call and sign the paperwork, the person taking the paperwork to bill the NHS for changing the lightbulb and someone in the NHS to over see the payment. And they say the USSR was bureaucratic! (Bullshit Jobs is a great book on this)
PFI wasn’t just hospitals either, most towns have a PFI legacy building in them whether that is a school, library, town hall, sports centre or theatre. It is reported that one hospital was charged 5,500 pounds for a sink, a schools was charged 25,000 pounds for 3 parasols and a police force was charged nearly 900 pounds for a chair. Some PFI contracts won’t finish until 2040.
Privatisation is the state working for capital, creating new markets, and not for the citizens that elect it. These actions have increased private wealth but decreased public resources and has curbed governments’ abilities to deal with inequalities. It has led to companies getting so much money that they are no longer bothered by the state. They own so much that they can threaten to leave a country should a government want to do something that it does not agree with, like raising taxes or putting limits on pollution. Most of the time they push governments to water down policies that may affect their shareholders, such as fracking or health initiatives, and after all that the politicians get a job with them once they have left office.
Back to competition, it harbours teamwork and can spark creative thoughts. Yet, it can enlarge or deflate people’s egos, it increases aggression and pits people against one another despite them possibly being from unequal backgrounds. A student who has gone to the best schools and universities will have something over a person who got a job when leaving school or the student that never studied at school for various reasons outside of their control. It reinforces the view of meritocracy and keeps the system unequal for longer. Not only that, but does everything have to be a competition? No, but increasingly we are seeing life more as a competition. You only have to look at social media to see this.
Meritocracy: the friendly face of competition. This is the belief that humans advance through life depending upon their individual achievements. What you put in, you get out. Whilst this sounds like common sense, and mostly it is, this idea has been hijacked. In doing this, conservatives and neo-liberals have been able to keep alive old ideological values that had to be played down in the aftermath of the holocaust. By installing values of hyper-meritocracy, they feed the myth of Social Darwinism. The view that some people are more evolved, superior, and thus have more value than others. There is a difference, but one that has been played on.
Social Darwinism is the 19th century theory that says certain sections of society are more evolved than others, essentially a misapplication of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Herbert Spencer was the purveyor of this theory. He claimed that humans passed on poor qualities, such as how moral a person was, to their offspring. He argued that by regulating capitalism; we were slowing down the extinction of certain parts of the human race, the inferior parts. If we supported the poor, then they would continue to exist, as would their negative qualities that were undesirable.
This train of thought was hugely influential in the western world and was used to justify racism, slavery, capitalism and the British Empire. Eugenics, the pseudo-scientific term for this idea, was later embraced by the Nazis and was used as their justification for the holocaust. Following the war this form of science was all but abandoned by the scientific community. However, just because the exhibitions were removed, and it stopped being taught in universities, it does not mean that its influence has completely gone. Eugenics has been highly disproven but still remains active on the fringes of society in the form of the far-right. Its closely related narrative used to describe parts of society lingers in the media in tabloids, talk shows and people’s opinions. Katie Hopkins’s comment in The Sun, the UK’s biggest newspaper, comparing refugees to cockroaches, is just one example. Elements of this viewpoint, often phrased as cultural differences, work their way into all media and influence public perception.
These ideological double standards come up when we look at how the government deals with societal issues, often depending on which group of people are involved.
An example was pointed out by rapper and writer Akala on Good Morning Britain regarding the media’s reporting and the government’s management of knife crime in the UK. Both portraying it as an enormous problem in black London communities, whilst not highlighting the knife crime rates involving white people in the rest of the country.
Whilst rates in London were high, the media’s commentary focused more on the colour of their skin as if the community were barbaric. Often this is framed as part of their ‘culture’ rather than their race. Culture is more difficult to identify and has less of a Nazi ring to it.
When Glasgow had the highest murder rate in Europe in the early 2000’s, the fact that the people were white, or their culture, never become part of the conversation, it was treated as a wider problem in the society. Eventually it was treated as a public health issue. The Scottish government increased social support in the areas, this has lowered the stabbing rates since.
Whilst that approach worked in Glasgow, the Conservative Party’s approach in England was evidence of how they see problems from their own ideological perspective. They planned to put warnings on the side of fried chicken boxes to spread awareness. This was immediately highlighted as racial stereotyping that black men love fried chicken, and just goes to show how ingrained these beliefs are within the government.
David Lammy a black Labour MP responded “Is this some kind of joke?! Why have you chosen chicken shops? What’s next, #KnifeFree watermelons?”.
These viewpoints could also be extended to the image of working-class people being uneducated, dirty and culture-less, thus deserving to remain poor. The image of the Jeremy Kyle Show, Benefit Street, and Shameless. These are recycled images of reality, hyperreality. Sociologist Jean Baudrillard argues that the recycling of these images in the media led to a hyperreality where the audience failed to separate fiction from reality, thus giving the impression that all council estates were like Benefit Street or all people on benefits are scamming the system.
We can see here how the concept of freedom has been repurposed for the 21st century. Ignoring the idea that freedom is to be free of pain, poverty, persecution, free from worries about having a home or a job, or being free to say what you want, to protest and form unions. These freedoms, many of which feel natural, are being eroded, whilst we are sacrificing them for selective freedoms. Freedoms that only a few will benefit from.
These new freedoms are the freedom to say what you want to who you want without persecution. The freedom to not pay taxes and hire and fire people as you want. The freedom to employ people on zero hours contracts. The freedom to charge high rents but not maintain a house to liveable standards. These freedoms are given as to not hold people back, because if we hold them back then no one will benefit, when in reality the only ones that benefit are the bosses.
You are free to sell your labour, and if you freely choose not to. Then you are free to die.
To quote Rosa Luxembourg it is ‘socialism or barbarism’
(and we are no where near socialism)