Neo-Liberalism and the New Social Darwinism

Identifying the way our society thinks

People live according to narratives. By narrative, I mean something very close to ideology, in the widest sense of the word. Your ideology is, in a phrase, the way you think what you think about the world you live in, about society, ethics, politics, justice, poverty, wealth, education, health, welfare, crime, punishment, human rights, race, religion, ethnicity, unemployment, the minimum wage, sexuality, gender, the environment, ecosystems, global warming, war, revolution, oppression and freedom. Every opinion you have on each of these things is one constituent part of your overruling ideology.

It may not surprise you to learn that societies tend to have dominant ideologies at particular times in their history. For example, Britain in the 19th Century largely conducted itself according to what we now call Classical Liberalism. The central tenets of this were a separation between the state and society (i.e. a limited government), and the sovereign liberty of individuals, including such tropes as freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly and free markets. Another far more austere example would be the totalitarian ideologies of Fascism and Communism in several European countries from around 1922 – 1945, in which all individual freedom was subordinated in the interests of an omnipresent state. Typically these states would have a Realpolitik justification for their existence, which is to say that they would claim to be after a specific goal (in the case of Nazi Germany this was Aryan conquest, in the case of the Stalinist states this was Communism), and everyone would have to be doing their bit to help achieve this.

So any given society at any given time is inclined to a certain narrative however absolute or vague. At any point in history one particular society will think that x is good and y is bad, when at any other time it may think that y is good and x is bad. Narratives change, and with every change of narrative comes new ideas of what the individual should be working for, and who or what is desirable and who or what is not desirable.

What I am going to try and do in this essay is explain as succinctly and non-academically as possible what the governing narrative of our age is and what it is doing to us. My aim is to make people understand the way they think. The governing ideology of our age is called Neo-Liberalism, and I am going to make the case that it is not only a flawed ideology, but one that is destroying us.

Let me explain in brief what Neo-Liberalism is about. It is a Right-wing libertarian ideology that values the individual competing for economic superiority over other individuals. It takes what’s known as the homo economicus view of mankind – that people are rational (i.e. they are not governed by emotion) and are innately selfish, and therefore make calculated conclusions about how to maximise their own personal profit. Paul Verhaeghe sums up the Neo-Liberal view of the world beautifully:

“People are competitive beings focussed on their own profit. This benefits society as a whole because competition entails everyone doing their best to come out on top. As a result, we get better and cheaper products and more efficient services within a single free market, unhampered by government intervention. This is ethically right because success or failure in that competition depends entirely on individual effort. So everyone is responsible for their own success or failure. Hence the importance of education, because we live in a rapidly evolving knowledge economy that requires highly trained individuals with flexible competencies. A single higher-education qualification is good, two is better, and lifelong learning a must. Everyone must continue to grow because competition is fierce. That’s what lies behind the current compulsion for performance interviews and constant evaluations, all steered by an invisible hand from central management.”

The underpinning ideas behind Neo-Liberalism are clear: you are an individual, and you must compete with all other individuals in order to survive. The emphasis is on production; you must be as productive as possible, and you will be evaluated constantly. You cannot expect help from either the government or other people. If you fail, it is your own personal fault. This has been the way our society has been run for the last 35 years, and since the end of the Cold War in 1991 it has been the way almost each and every single one of us has been trained to think.

The thing that makes Neo-Liberalism ideologically unparalleled is its attitude to religion, ethics and society. Throughout history, economies have been located in these three basic structures of human existence. Neo-Liberalism, however, dismisses all three of them. Now, religion, ethics and society are subservient to the market. Nowadays, anyone religious is associated with sexually deviant priests and terrorism, politicians are ideologically homogenous and powerless to the power of the stock market, and the arts, though often considered interesting, are ultimately an irrelevant distraction. For the last 35 years our society has been trained to believe that the only thing that is truly important in this world is money. Forget religion, art and politics; it’s all irrelevant. The idea of contributing to society is hopelessly old-fashioned. All you need to think about is working hard and earning money.

The reasoning behind this way of thinking (all people being economic, individually competitive units) is based on the idea of meritocracy. Theoretically, in a meritocratic society all people are born equal, and they then compete with each other in order to get what they deserve. The idea is that if you work hard enough, you can achieve anything you want. You will earn exactly what you deserve for the amount you have worked. We have been trained to believe that anyone, regardless of socioeconomic background, regardless of being rich or poor, can achieve anything they want if they work hard enough. The bankers earning millions in the City of London? They deserve it because they’ve evidently worked the hardest of all of us. The ‘benefit scroungers’ squatting in a flat in some nameless town in the North? They haven’t worked at all, and they deserve to suffer.

The central flaw in the theory of meritocracy is evident: people are not born equal. Some people are rich and some people are poor. In theory, this means all obstacles, whether class, gender or race-related, must be swept away. Every child must be given the perfect, sterile environment in which to develop. This is, of course, a semi-utopian idea. In itself, meritocracy to most people appears admirable, for the reasons that it champions liberty and getting what you deserve. Unfortunately, however, it has been distorted. What we have now is better described as Neo-Liberal meritocracy rather than the genuine article.

There are two basic reasons why meritocracy does not work: one, because the notion that everyone starts off the ‘race of life’ with equal opportunities is illusory (is it so wrong to wonder if life should even be a ‘race’?), and, two, because after a while a meritocracy creates a new elite, who then shut themselves off from the rest of society. This elite (whom these days we tend to call ‘the 1%’) then proclaim themselves to be the most intelligent and industrious, and everyone else is punished for not working hard enough. This belief ties in with a phrase I’m sure we’re all familiar with in some way: ‘if you’re clever, why aren’t you rich?’

Thus far, I have explained that Neo-Liberalism involves individuals competing with each other for economic status, and each believing that they have an equal opportunity to do well. Who could possibly object to such an appealing idea? Equal opportunities for all, the greatest rewards for those who make the greatest effort? Well, it is nigh on impossible to guarantee economic and intellectual equality at birth for everyone. A wealthy background usually goes hand in hand with a good education. The philosopher Ad Verbrugge very accurately says that the idea of the ‘free’ individual who enjoys unlimited freedom of choice thanks to his or her own efforts is one of the greatest fallacies of our age.

And here I am brought to pointing out something I am deeply ashamed to say our society endorses, however unknowingly: Social Darwinism, or survival of the fittest. To put this in context, Social Darwinism was the belief from the mid-19th to mid-20th Centuries that the white, predominantly Christian race was superior to all other races, and it was the White Man’s Burden to raise the primitive races to their level whilst maintaining superiority (I am reminded of the character of Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby crying that “if we don’t look out the white race will be – will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.”). In order to maintain superiority, Western countries had to eradicate the weakest elements of their societies. Around the beginning of the 20th Century this belief acquired a ‘scientific’ justification in eugenic theory, which is the social philosophy that aims to improve the human race by preserving ‘desirable genes’ and eradicating undesirable ones. This was taken to previously untouched extremes by the Nazi party.

Now, when I say that our society endorses Social Darwinism I do not mean that we believe in the genetic superiority of the white race over all others (or, at least, not to the extent we used to when it was fashionable). Rather, we have kept the pseudo-scientific belief in eugenics, albeit implicitly, and transferred our prejudice to a new, equally defenceless target: the poor. The logic that leads to this prejudice goes something like this:

1. All people are born with innate characteristics and a certain set of genes, which are either good or bad.

2. This country is a meritocracy, and if you work hard enough you will receive exactly what you deserve.

3. Therefore, the people born with the best genes will have the best skills, and therefore will be able to work the hardest and receive the best reward.

It is not hard to see how dangerous this pattern of thought is. It leaves people believing that everyone beneath them on the social hierarchy does not work hard because they are innately incapable, and they deserve to suffer. This is why we are forever plagued by newspapers decrying ‘benefit cheats’, and why the Chancellor George Osborne has made us believe that the country consists of two kinds of people: “strivers and skivers”. Failure is a sign of intrinsic weakness and disease, and help should not be given to people who fail because it simply prolongs their useless existence.

And of course all this is becoming exacerbated by this age of immense and increasing inequality. At the moment, the 85 richest people in the world own the same amount of money as the bottom half of humanity (that’s 3.5 billion people). In Britain since 2008 there have been £80bn of cuts to public money – that’s money going towards things like benefits and public services – which, incidentally, is the same amount that bankers have made in bonuses in that time. The arguments people use to justify this kind of inequality stem from what I have thus far discussed; the enormous salaries these people are receiving is commensurate to their work rate. This is why we now have a bonus culture, in which hard work is supposedly repaid in commensurate bonuses. Witness the CEO of WPP, Sir Martin Sorrell, who on average earns 780 times the amount of WPP’s average employee. Supposedly he is working 780 times harder than his average employee.

Since Reagan and Thatcher, the first Neo-Liberal President and Prime Minister respectively, came to power between 1979 and 1980, Neo-Liberalism has changed the very fabric of thought in the West. Inequality has accelerated to unprecedented levels (which is bad for reasons I shall explain elsewhere), the poor are suffering from increasing poverty and wanton aggression, and almost all of us have lost our belief in everything apart from that emptiest of things: money. And with the idea that we are individually responsible for our own ‘success’ comes the crushing phenomenon of guilt and insecurity that my generation suffers from, without a doubt the most appalling scars that Neo-Liberalism will leave on our unprotected wrists.

I have just about managed to cover some of the central tenets of Neo-Liberalism here, but it would be impossible to explain the phenomenon in full in just this one article. There are other things that need to be explained – our need for productivity and evaluation, the loss of identity, the erosion of culture, the destruction of the family – which I cannot cover here. But the message should eventually be forthcoming, and people will understand.

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7 thoughts on “Neo-Liberalism and the New Social Darwinism

  1. Firstly, I thought this was a fantastic article, written extremely well and certainly one to get you thinking. Now for some more constructive comments …

    I would say that perhaps you slightly overplay the extent to which, in your opinion, our society has become amoral and individualistic. If you take your argument on this matter to its natural end, you are essentially arguing that the neoliberal ideology has caused our society to regress back into pre-societal days, where ‘man is wolf to man’ and all that… On the contrary, in our society there still exists many concepts of entitlement – look at the NHS, and the welfare state for the most obvious examples. The centrality of the former to political debate, and the manner in which that debate (over the necessity of the NHS) is framed should make it pretty clear that entitlement still exists in our society, and is not going to go away any time soon. Yes, these caveats of entitlement are arguably under attack as the furious debates over NHS privatisation show, but not to the extent where you are justified in portraying our society as entirely ‘meritocratic’. There’s more egalitarian elements than you give it credit for. So you imply that only economic interaction holds any sway in governing society. I don’t agree with that, but perhaps it is worth worrying that that is the way we’re going.

    Secondly, I also don’t think it is right to create a causal link between rationality and selfishness in ‘neo-liberal’ ideology, which you otherwise articulate extremely well. In a classically liberal perspective, which is where your discussion of rationality begins, it is THE WAY in which reason counter acts self interest that allows a society to function in the first place. John Adams, Adam Smith in the discourse, and many other enlightenment thinkers all articulated a belief the way in which rationality (and the education that makes man rational) is the manner by which focus can be taken off private interest in exchange for an emphasis on the public good. Reason is not synonymous with self-interest in a classically liberal ideology; rather, it is its counter measure.

    So I think perhaps you slightly fall victim to your own narrative – what you articulate as ‘neo-liberal’ ideology is far less multifaceted that what that ideology actually entails if you’re wanting to link it teleologically back to classical liberalism, rather than see it as a separate entity (which of course, you are perfectly entitled to do).

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    • Great analysis, I need to explain myself a bit more. I’m going to reply to your comment paragraph by paragraph:

      1. I think the problem here is that you’ve mistaken what I’m saying Neo-Liberalism advocates and what I’m saying society is currently like. This is completely my fault because I didn’t actually make that distinction at all in the article. I’m saying society is increasingly being led back to that dog-eat-dog mentality by the introduction of market principles into areas of life it should not exist in – eg. education and the NHS. At the moment we’re essentially crossing that threshold. NL wants society to be entirely ‘meritocratic’ and marketised, and currently our politicians are working towards that end.

      2. The relationship between rationality and selfishness is a really interesting one, and it’s intrinsic to Neo-Liberal thought. I definitely see Classical Liberalism and Neo-Liberalism as two relatively distinct ideologies here. In Classical Liberalism there is a separation between state and society, whereas in Neo-Liberalism there is the subjugation of everything, state and other elements of society, to the market. The question lies in how you use reason. In CL reason was more often used to justify selflessness and contribution to society in the realms of politics, religion and ethics. In NL, however, these elements of society have been subjugated to the market, and therefore the only way an individual can ‘contribute’ is by making money and contributing to the economy. Therefore it is seen as reasonable to be selfish and to make money because you’re performing an economic duty, the only duty seemingly worth performing. Advocators of NL constantly point to books like Dawkin’s ‘The Selfish Gene’ to justify this as being part of human nature.

      3. So for this reason CL and NL are two separate ideologies, which have people acting in different ways around the fundamental principle of a free market.

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  2. Sorry for the misinterpretation on my part, but you do state that it is the governing narrative of our age. Anyhow, if you actually meant that it is perhaps the direction in which we are trending, I still feel some note of caution is necessary. Before I carry on, bear in mind that all I know about ‘neoliberalism’ is what I have read in this article, and assumption.

    You define it as a right-wing ideology – that in itself is perhaps slightly misleading. It can hardly be compared to fascism, for example. It is an example of an ideology that doesn’t fit particularly well into standard conceptions of what is left wing and right wing. If it is right wing, that is merely because it aims to de-centralise government through handing economic impetus back to the individual. Yet it can hardly be equated with authoritarianism, fascism, an emphasis on nationalism, etc (on that last point, it is surely an ideology that fits the current global cosmopolitanism that is impossible for a developed state to avoid except through autocratic means).

    Secondly, even if, as you say, I’m still not convinced that our politicians are working towards those ends – a completely free market. Banks and bankers are regulated and taxed at a higher level than they were five years ago, and that is under a conservative government. Miliband has a good shout in winning this election, or at least preventing a conservative majority (and in reality, they have no coalition hopes as the lib dems will not win enough seats to make up the deficit), and he will no doubt bring with him the strongest state we have seen in Britain since the 1970s. Just see the support in the business sector for the Tory’s. That support is precisely because Miliband anything but works toward a meritocratic marketed society, to the extent that he has widely been labelled as anti-business.

    On the last point, agreed that it makes far more sense to see them as two separate ideologies – that only begs the question, why is it falsely labelled neoliberalism? Not that that matters… Once again, though, i don’t believe that we live in a society where value is purely determined by making money. This is an incredibly difficult issue to address, but I think it is cynical to say that all politicians care about is others performing their economic duty. On this note, what you say does stink of the current conservative party, but once again tarring all parties with the same brush is, perhaps, misleading. I don’t believe the current labour party are anywhere near as similar to the conservatives as many make them out to be. That they can be labelled as such is purely because they also believe we need to cut the national debt – on this point, the greens are economically incompetent.

    That brings me to my final point. It is all well and good to criticise the system, but the fact of the matter is that financial weight is essential in the modern world. Changing the system so that equality, both of opportunity, but also of livelihood (which you would have to do to break the neoliberal stronghold by your interpretation), is just not possible in a global society. Sadly, it is difficult to really buy into the idea that everyone could happily live on an equal footing, because some people do simply work harder than others. This is where it becomes difficult to find an alternative system than meritocracy. While I agree that our current meritocratic system unavoidably creates an elite class that consolidates its hold, it does still offer opportunity, occasionally, for some who start at the bottom. Obviously it is hardly idealistic, but in a global world it is also unavoidable. Look at France – a socialist party was elected, and economic disaster ensued, accompanied by the biggest brain drain of the 21st century.

    If one thing is unavoidable about neoliberalism, it is that reason and rationality, rightly or wrongly, mean that many pursue private gain over public gain. No system can combat the basic self-interest of human nature.

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  3. 1. There’s nothing misleading about defining it as a right-wing ideology. It is a libertarian right-wing ideology (extremely libertarian at that), whereas fascism is authoritarian. What makes both of them right-wing is a respect for hierarchy, competition and institutions. It is interested in nationalism in so far as it cares for international competition, and it does this by claiming to hand economic impetus back to the individual. Due to the pretty dismal situation we currently have with regard to wages, prices, employment and inequality, however, it has not actually achieved this. Agreed on your point on global cosmopolitanism; this is mainly happening through the domination of international markets. TTIP is a prime example of American business particularly becoming a part of us.

    2. The drive towards privatisation and the market economy is evident since Thatcher began the privatisation of key utilities, and it’s continued to this day. The Royal Mail is one of the most recent ones. Yes, bankers are being taxed slightly more highly under a Tory government, but it is only really being done very slightly, due to public outrage following 2008. My stat about £80bn being the same figure that has been both cut to public services and paid out in banker’s bonuses shows pretty violently where the government wants the power to go.

    Agreed that Miliband is starting a fightback, but he is nowhere near radical enough against the status quo to give Britain the strongest state it’s had since the 1970s. I should add, by the way, that when I say Neo-Liberalism is the narrative that defines our age, I mean primarily amongst the elite of this country: politicians, businessmen and journalists. The current disillusionment with politics is because the majority of our politicians are significantly more right-wing than the public. It is great to see a leading politician begin to question the overlying free-market fundamentalism of the last 35 years, but, as you point out, the business community have labelled him ‘anti-business’ as a result. You have to understand that the ‘business community’ that appears in our (overwhelmingly right-wing) media is a group of incredibly rich businessmen who have been having a wonderful time under Conservative policies (and I include New Labour on that), and any kind of affront to their dynasty is going to be taken rather badly. Ed Miliband is not especially left wing next to some, but he is given a very tough time by the media simply because he is not a Tory. George Osborne has even claimed some of his policies are straight from the Communist Manifesto – need I say more.

    3. It is called Neo-Liberalism because, like Classical Liberalism, it operates on the fundamental idea of a free-market; the difference is in the holistic approach to how far the free-market goes with relation to politics, ethics, religion and other parts of society.

    I think my point about the economy being the most important issue in our society can be shown in how we now use the word ‘contribute’. ‘Contributing’ these days overwhelmingly refers to contributing to the economy. As much as schools say the most important thing is to be a decent human being, really we have been taught to be employees. That is why we have more exams than almost any other country in the world. Neo-Liberalism relies on scientism, or, in other words, producing things that can be measured. Exams can be measured; income can be measured; material productivity can be measured; emotions, art and happiness cannot be measured. An example close to home is the increasing use of concentration drugs like ritalin amongst students. These drugs are becoming more popular because they allow for higher levels of output and higher marks – the emphasis is on material productivity. After all, you need to get a 1st these days otherwise you’ve wasted your time!

    4. What you’ve outlined about the importance of financial weight is an extremely contentious issue. With regard to your point about the impossibility of equality in a global society, I must say that, as it stands, you’re quite right. The Right state the importance of competing in a global society, while the Left would rather not compete at all and promote things that cannot be measured for competition, such as personal wellbeing, security and community. What you personally believe is obviously your own undeniable opinion. On your point about some people working harder, you might find this is a more complex area than you first realise. It is more complicated because evidently into what kind of background you are born overwhelmingly determines your future career in this country, but also because those people who do work hard and are ‘rewarded’ for it are being rewarded for market traits; i.e. competition and, effectively entrepreneurship. And they enormously tend to suffer from self-attribution fallacy, in which they ignore the privilege they have been born into. We have a system that rewards greed, selfishness and division. CEO and banking are the two careers with the most psychopaths inhabiting them.

    My reasoning warns me about the danger of markets to human lives, because they promote division and create economic relationships rather than social ones. I disagree with your statement that no system can combat the basic self-interest of human nature; you yourself said in your last comment that reason can be what leads people to being selfless. I spent three months last year living with some of the poorest people in the world, and I’ve seen how real communities function and the effect real community has on people, and my devotion to it has hitherto been unwavering. Britain, and in a secondary way the rest of Europe, is a culture built on markets because we were the first in the world to develop capitalism. The question is not so much about abolishing markets, especially since they are so much a part of our culture, but about to what extent they exist in our lives, and I would like to see their influence significantly reduced.

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  4. […] From the 1960’s onwards – culturally-speaking – liberal values had won over. An acceptance of the rights and freedoms of others, an acceptance for the further clarion call for social justice, and the empowerment of the powerless was seen as mainstream common sense. Along with this, the inevitability that was globalisation carried with it one more component: liberal values were juxtaposed with economic policies that abide by a market-decides-all, winners-take-all and almost social Darwinist philosophy; whereby blame and shame is placed on the poor and the powerless of all backgrounds for their own cir…. […]

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