What exactly do we mean by neoliberalism? Where does “neo” come from and what does it have to do with liberalism and liberals? Although the term “neoliberalism“ is used rather frequently, there’s a great amount of misconception surrounding it. The reason this concept is so important is that even if you cannot explain what neoliberalism stands for, you have sure experienced its far reaching effects in all areas of your life. It’s crucial we nail it down in order to understand that neoliberalism is everywhere, it’s unescapable, and it affects our entire society, be it the so-called western, developing or BRICS countries.

deray mckesson activist


What is neoliberalism?


According to Robert Van Krieken of the University of Sydney, neoliberalism is both an economic theory and a policy model. It emerged in the 1970s as a more radical form of classical liberal philosophy which is most commonly associated with the 18th century enlightenment thinkers John Locke and Adam Smith.

The classical liberalism is the belief that people are free to live their lives without a great deal of interference from the government. It values “the freedom of individuals — including the freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and markets — as well as limited government.” Classic liberal thinkers also advocated for private property and separation of economics and politics.

So neoliberalism isn’t a new idea, but rather a new take on classical liberalism. Neoliberalism has a lot in common with classical liberalism, but “its scope is global and much wider that classical liberalism”, says Robert Van Krieken. 


The main points of neoliberalism

thatcher reagan

Former US Ronald Reagan and former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher are knows as the proponents of the neoliberalism

Elizabeth Martinez, a longtime civil rights activist, distinguishes four main points that define neoliberalism:

  1. The rule of the market. Liberating corporations from any bonds imposed by the government, as well as decreasing taxes for private enterprises.
  2. Cutting public expenditures on social services like education and health care, or even eliminating social services altogether.
  3. Deregulation. Reducing government regulation of everything that could diminish profits, including protecting the environment and safety on the job.
  4. Privatization. Selling state-owned enterprises, goods and services to private investors. This includes banks, key industries, railroads, toll highways, electricity, schools, hospitals and even fresh water.
  5. Eliminating the concept of “public good” or “community”.  As Margaret Thatcher, who implemented some of the key neoliberal ideas, famously said, “there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.”

education is not for sale

As The Guardia writes, “neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations.” If for some reason you failed to brand yourself – you are unprofessional. If for some reason you failed to sell yourself to the employer, you are not competitive. If for some reason you failed to get a well-paid job and ended up living below the poverty level, you are just lazy. But not everyone is okey with that. There is a strong movement against neoliberal globalization which includes writers, researchers, professors, trade unions, grassroots organizations, international forums, labor unions, to name a few. Both individuals and organizations are vigorously opposing the idea that we, citizens of the world, are just pieces of human capital whose only purpose in life is to respond to market demands.

Here’s just a tiny part of the anti-globalization resistance:


Noam Chomsky

noam chomsky

Neoliberal democracy. Instead of citizens, it produces consumers. Instead of communities, it produces shopping malls. The net result is an atomized society of disengaged individuals who feel demoralized and socially powerless. In sum, neoliberalism is the immediate and foremost enemy of genuine participatory democracy, not just in the United States but across the planet, and will be for the foreseeable future.” Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky is a famed scholar and activist, “known for both his groundbreaking contributions to linguistics and his penetrating critiques of political system.” Born in Philadelphia on December 7, 1928, Chomsky earned his PhD in linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania and became an MIT professor when he was only 27.

Early in his life Chomsky developed a dislike of capitalism, consumerism and materialism. He describes his often radical political views as “libertarian socialist,” His views were significantly influenced by the works of anarcho-syndicalist Rudolf Rocker and democratic socialist and novelist George Orwell. Chomsky argues that Western capitalist nations are not really democratic, because, in his view, a truly democratic society is one in which all persons have a say in public economic policy. He also believes that change is possible through the organized co-operation of large numbers of people who understand the problem and know how they want to re-organize the economy in a more equitable way.

Christopher Lyndon of the Radio Open Source said that “the New York Times calls him [Noam Chomsky] ‘arguably’ the most important public thinker alive, though the paper seldom quotes him, or argues with him, and giant pop media stars on network television almost never do. And yet the man is universally famous and revered in his 89th year: he’s the scientist who taught us to think of human language as something embedded in our biology, not a social acquisition; he’s the humanist who railed against the Vietnam war and other projections of American power, on moral grounds first, ahead of practical considerations. ”


2. Wendy Brown

Wedney Brown

“The popular contemporary wisdom that a liberal arts education is outmoded is true only to the extent that social equality, liberty, and worldly development of mind and character are outmoded and have been displaced by another set of metrics: income streams, profitability, technological innovation.” Wendy Brown

Wendy Brown is a political theorist and a professor of Political Science at the University of California, Berkley. Wendy Brown received her BA in both Economics and Political Science from UC Santa Cruz, and her M.A and Ph.D in political philosophy from Princeton University. Prior to coming to Berkeley, she taught at the University of California, Santa Cruz and at Williams College.

In her recent book Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, “Brown warns that neoliberalism has created a form of reasoning in which human beings are reduced to their economic value and activity, and in which all fields of human activity are treated as markets and institutions, including the state, are increasingly run as if they were corporations.”

The argument of Undoing the Demons is “that neoliberalism is in the process of draining liberal democratic ideals – liberty, equality, legality, popular self-rule – of their distinctively political meanings,” says The Sociological Imagination. “Worse, it is filling these terms with new meanings that represent the political as subsumable, like everything else, within a totally ‘economised’ world, a world ordered entirely by the imperative to maximise capital in all its forms – including that which is supposedly embedded in human capacities and potentials.”


3. Naomi Klein

naomi klein

“The dirty secret of the neoliberal era is that these ideas were never defeated in a great battle of ideas, nor were they voted down in elections. They were shocked out of the way at key political junctures.” Naomi Klein

Naomi Klein is a Canadian author, social activist, and filmmaker. She is also is an award-winning journalist, syndicated columnist and author of the international bestsellers, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate (2014), The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007) and No Logo (2000).

Klein is known for her criticism of corporate globalization, capitalism and neoliberalism. 17 years ago, when Klein published her first book, No Logo, The New Yorker named her “the most visible and influential figure on the American left.”

Her book The Shock Doctrine, that was adapted into a short film of the same name, increased Klein’s prominence as an activist and an opponent of neoliberalism. According to The Guardian, the book argues that “neoliberal capitalism, the ideological love affair with free markets espoused by disciples of the late economist Milton Friedman, was so destructive of social bonds, and so beneficial to the 1% at the expense of the 99%, that a population would only countenance it when in a state of shock, following a crisis – a natural disaster, a terrorist attack, a war.”


4. World Social Forum

Social Forums are open, without discrimination, to all those who wish to change the world, respecting the people’s choices, culture and tempo, but rejecting violence as a means of achieving change.  Chico Whitaker is the Brazilian Justice and Peace Commission representative to the WSF Organization Committee and International Secretariat

world social forum

In January 2001 the idea that alternative economic and social future is possible brought together 12,000 people in Porto Alegre in Brazil. The meeting was called World Social Forum, but it is also known as “people’s Davos” or “anti-Davos”. No government organizations, no political parties – only civil society organizations looking for alternatives to neoliberal globalization.

Since then, it has been held annually in different parts of the world – in Latin America, in Asia, in Africa, and in 2016 for the first time in North America. World Social Forum is “the largest gathering of civil society to find solutions to the problems of our time” and the main antidote to the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland. The WSF has its roots in anti-globalization movement and “stands in opposition to a process of globalization commanded by the large multinational corporations and by the governments and international institutions.”

As its Charter of Principles states, the World Social Forum is “an open meeting place for reflective thinking” that “brings together only civil society organizations from all countries of the world. Unlike the World Economic Forum, it doesn’t intend to be a body representing world civil society in its entirety and therefore none of the participating organizations are authorized to express any ideas on behalf of the entire Forum. For the same reason no WSF ever ends producing any kind of documentation or report that summarizes the outcome of the gathering.


5. Peoples’ Global Action

Peoples' Global Action

The effects of economic globalisation spread through the fabric of societies and communities of the world, integrating their peoples into a single gigantic system aimed at the extraction profit and the control of peoples and nature. Words like “globalisation”, “liberalisation” and “deregulation” just disguise the growing disparities in living conditions between elites and masses in both privileged and “peripheral” countries. Peoples’ Global Action Manifesto

Peoples’ Global Action is a worldwide co-ordination of radical social movements, grassroots campaigns and direct actions in resistance to capitalism and for social and environmental justice. PGA is part of the anti-globalization movement.

In February of 1998, international grassroots movements gathered in Geneva to “launch a worldwide coordination network of resistance to the global market, a new alliance of struggle and solidarity called Peoples’ Global Action against ‘free’ trade and the WTO (PGA).” Its fundamental principles are expressed in five hallmarks: 

  1. A very clear rejection of capitalism, imperialism and feudalism; all trade agreements, institutions and governments that promote destructive globalisation;
  2. We reject all forms and systems of domination and discrimination including, but not limited to, patriarchy, racism and religious fundamentalism of all creeds. We embrace the full dignity of all human beings.
  3. A confrontational attitude, since we do not think that lobbying can have a major impact in such biased and undemocratic organisations, in which transnational capital is the only real policy-maker;
  4. A call to direct action and civil disobedience, support for social movements’ struggles, advocating forms of resistance which maximize respect for life and oppressed peoples’ rights, as well as the construction of local alternatives to global capitalism;
  5. An organisational philosophy based on decentralisation and autonomy.
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