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The social cost of neoliberalism


“As your grip on reality begins to slip” by Neil Moralee is licenced under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Thanks to Elinor Hurst for drawing our attention to an article by Lynn Parramore entitled “Our economic system is making us mentally ill”, which was published by the Institute for New Economic Thinking on 18 March 2022 [1]. Regular readers will recall a similar previous article by Prof Paul Verhaeghe [“Has neoliberalism turned us all into psychopaths?”, ERA Review v11 n4, 2019] which addresses the role of the success narrative in our life choices. The Parramore article complements the earlier article, and the following is an extract from it:


“The transition from the welfare state to neoliberalism has meant that you are responsible for everything, even what is clearly out of your control. You have to reinvent the wheel every time you try to solve a problem, like how to pay for a house, how to get an education, how to have surgery, how to retire. There are unpleasant surprises at every turn.

“Neoliberalism is not a happy philosophy, carrying a belief that human discontent is not only a natural but actually a desirable, state of affairs. It has had a huge impact on the culture of the U.S. and other countries where it holds sway and acts as a largely unrecognized drag on health and well-being. It’s no coincidence that the prevalence of mental health problems both nationally and globally is rising. Broken marriages, addictions, loneliness, and deadly despair are taking their toll.

“So what’s the alternative?

“Part of our recovery is remembering what truly makes us human. Researchers have found that a baby at six months already displays the instinct for empathy, illustrating that caring about what happens to our fellows is part of our DNA. On a collective level, anthropologists like David Graeber have shown that human societies have not always been organized along the lines of domination and inflexible hierarchies.

“Our common good is enhanced by political arrangements in which cooperative forms of participation and the needs of ordinary people are prioritized. This means pretty much doing the opposite of what neoliberals have championed. We acknowledge that governments can and must intervene in markets so that people are protected from abuse. We focus relentlessly on getting money out of politics and making voting something that everybody can do easily. We regulate business, enhance the power of working people, and ensure that the global economy is not just one big race to the bottom but a system in which the needs and rights of all inhabitants are considered.

“We focus on establishing and enhancing safety nets so that life is not just one arduous, Hobbesian slog, but a journey in which creativity and joyful pursuits are available to everyone. Instead of hyper-focusing on competition, we emphasize mutual succor, and we remember, as the denizens of Silicon Valley seek to drag us into an ever-more abstract metaverse, that we are embodied creatures who need real-life communion more than digital connectivity. We demand to be trained for jobs that are dignified, decently paid, and free from abuse.

“The remedies to the maladies stoked by neoliberalism involve doing what it takes to enhance our sense of trust and shared fate. We move from privatization to the public interest, from solo flying to sharing risks, from financialization to a fair economy, from the common denominator to the common good.

“At first, demands for economic equality, political rights, and social justice will sound radical and futile, and those who promote them will be called dreamers and lunatics. That’s just what happened to the neoliberals when they first demanded a transcendent promised land for capitalists free from democratic constraints. They took the hits and kept going.

“If we learn to play a long game, the future can be our world, not theirs.”

Lynn has highlighted for us the important social consequences and costs of neoliberalism. However we should not neglect neoliberalism’s impact on civil democracy and public debate as well. This has been discussed in a recent article by Anna Donath “Civil society’s shrinking space” [2].




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