Endnote: Last Rites?

Is neoliberalism finished – or just transitioning?

Is it time to call for the priest? Is the end nigh? For decades enemies have wished it, friends have feared it. But now, a swelling chorus proclaims that neoliberalism, once so robust, is at long last on its deathbed. It is “dying,” says one writer; losing the last shreds of its legitimacy, argues another; entering a “comprehensive crisis,” proclaims a third; has “had its day,” declares a fourth; or has already died and assumed a “zombie form,” in the mind of a fifth.[1] “As a hegemonic project, neoliberalism is finished; it may retain its capacity to dominate, but it has lost its ability to persuade” – philosopher Nancy Fraser’s verdict, in a book that came out year before the pandemic, might have seemed contentious then, and seems almost a commonplace today.[2]

A close up shot of a cardboard sign saying capitalism is incompatible with human survival, as environmental activists stage a rally on a city street.
A sign from a rally for the environment.

And it is surely a sign of a death foretold when people start coming forth with obituaries. Many have been unflattering. Administrations swayed by neoliberal precepts failed to fulfil “the most basic functions of governance: to protect lives and secure livelihoods.”[3] What’s the difference between a failed state and a successful state in a time of a global pandemic? The failed one hollowed out its core functions, whittled down its institutions, outsourced production, relied on global supply chains, and tried to reshape itself as a business – i.e., followed a century’s worth of neoliberal prescriptions. The successful one, not so much.[4] Even Pope Francis, were he called upon to perform the last rites, might do so through clenched teeth. Here, he has pontificated, is a “neoliberal economy… with no real objective other than growth.” It promised individual liberty and delivered enslavement to mammon.[5]   

Communitarian Catholics, cantankerous Keynesians, hyperventilating radicals: obituaries from these sorts might plausibly be accused of self-interested spin. But what of the uber-neoliberal Emanuel Macron, President of France, warmly endorsing a new “common ground” encompassing “education, health, climate, biodiversity?”[6] Or the once-staunch Financial Times, which startled the world in April 2020 with its call for a “new social contract,” adding, as if to put a knife into poor neoliberalism’s ailing body: “Governments will have to accept a more active role in the economy. They must see public services as investments rather than liabilities… Redistribution will again be on the agenda?”[7] Even economists with the International Monetary Fund warned in 2016 that “neoliberalism” – and they were breaking ranks by conceding such an “ism” even existed – might well have been “oversold.”[8] Perhaps historian Adam Tooze pronounced the harshest verdict imaginable in a twenty-first-century world: “It’s a bad brand at this point.”[9]

Over 900,000 Covid-19 victims in the US, 157,000 in the UK – plainly the rich and powerful countries within neoliberalism’s North Atlantic epicentre did not distinguish themselves over the pandemic’s first two years. Nor did countries in the Global South with leaders following neoliberal precepts: as 2021 wound down, about 600,000 had died in Brazil, 500,000 in India, 300,000 in Mexico, 200,000 in Peru – and all such descriptive statistics will turn out to be underestimates of Covid-19’s total carnage.[10] Close to the bottom of the table, conversely, one finds a heterogeneous grab-bag of states – China, Cuba, Laos, New Zealand, Singapore, Taiwan, Vietnam – where governments felt not only obliged to act decisively to defend public health but had the capacity to persuade (or coerce) their citizens to join the struggle.

Much may change as the pandemic proceeds and such descriptive statistics are estimates, not certainties.  Still, this two-year-old pattern of aggregate death counts seems likely to endure. It seems, writes historian Nicholas Christakis, that when it came to crafting an effective response to Covid-19, what mattered most in deflecting the trajectory of the virus was achieving “some overall level of response. No matter the specific combination of non-pharmaceutical interventions, as long as a certain threshold is reached, the pandemic can be brought to heel.”[11] And to achieve that level of response, a sufficient number of people had to respect (or fear) the state sufficiently to adhere to its guidelines. In countries where, for four decades, leather-lunged opinion leaders have disparaged the state’s planning capabilities, that was a high bar to cross.


Néolibéralisme, which had a brief nineteenth-century career, was selected out of a crowd of other terms in 1938 by a cadre of diverse thinkers determined to defend “the priority of the price mechanism, free enterprise, the system of competition, and a strong and impartial state.”[12] You needed that state to fend off the collectivizing hordes – trade unionists, socialists, communists, even middle-of-the-road welfare-state supporters – conniving to force humanity to trudge along the long ‘road to serfdom,’ the title of F.A. Hayek’s 1944 blockbuster, an accessible Reader’s Digest popularization of his often highly abstract thought.[13] Discreetly channelling Herbert Spencer, in whose Victorian liberal mind every property-holding citizen should have the right to resign from the state, Hayek saw in the free market an almost sublimely efficient communication device, a message deeply appealing to the proponents of “Free Enterprise,” a Madison Avenue slogan they used to rebrand capitalism in the most flattering way.[14]

Even at its inception, then, there was a range of opinions within the consolidating neoliberal school – from apostles of ‘natural law’ inclined to see free-market capitalism as an expression of God-given human nature to those who considered it the signature achievement of European civilization. Yet all were agreed they wanted to defend what they judged to be the individualistic verities of nineteenth-century liberalism to a post-Victorian world. The “liberal” in “neoliberal” was no mere adornment: in a European context, it meant standing up for a tradition of freestanding individualism, for markets exquisitely capable of attuning self-interested pursuits into public benefits, for the rights of private property.

Some brought impressive CVs from academia, many others track records in the far right. Yet over time, and especially after its nucleus relocated to the Anglosphere, there emerged a neoliberal mainstream that did have something like a coherent and stable philosophy. “Neoliberalism is in the first instance a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade,” writes geographer David Harvey. There is a place for a strong state in this conceptual framework – you need one to defend the realm, uphold the rights of private property, guarantee “the quality and integrity of money,” and even create markets from scratch. But beyond such market-friendly obligations, the state must not venture. “The state cannot possibly possess enough information to second-guess market signals (prices) and because powerful interest groups will inevitably distort and bias state interventions (particularly in democracies) for their own benefit.”[15]

A view of empty shelves at a department store during the Coronavirus pandemic of 2020.
A grocery store shelf during the 2020 Covid-19 shutdown.

In the words of political economists Ben Fine and Alfredo Saad-Filho, neoliberals argue, “albeit in sharply dissimilar and logically incompatible ways, that differently endowed property-owning individuals exchanging goods, services and information in minimally regulated markets constitute the most desirable form for allocating resources and should prevail over an interventionist role of the state.”[16] Adapting a witty précis by China scholar Donald M. Nonini, the staunch neoliberal affirms that markets are excellent, state control over markets is horrible, globalization is grand, and “rational, self-interested individuals” are best, because as “consumers, investors, bondholders, taxpayers,” they generate a spontaneous order that optimizes the use of capital and goods.[17]

These ideas were, none of them, really all that original: there was much in neoliberalism that was just classical Victorian liberalism with some new bells and whistles. Yet many neoliberals knew, in a way that only some of their Victorian forebears suspected, that the market did not emerge naturally – it was an artificial, civilizational achievement. And if both Victorian liberals and twentieth-century neoliberals distrusted democracy and the collectivism it portended, the latter had before them interwar experiments in socialist state-building that lent special force to their reflections. If fascism might seem odd as an object of affection for such professed liberty-lovers as Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek – well, better a dictator who for a time might stand up for property rights and the free market than a leftist committed to subverting them.[18] Hayek was merely recapitulating a time-honoured liberal precept when he warned in The Road to Serfdom (1944) against making a “fetish of democracy,” an insight followed in 1978 by his declaration that personal freedom in Chile was “much greater under Pinochet than it had been under Allende.”[19] Ellen Meiksins Wood notes that neoliberalism’s partisans voiced reservations about substantive democracy, and worked consistently to “thwart the majority in one way or another” or to “empty democracy of as much social content as possible.”[20] Feminist theorist Susan Watkins agrees: one useful rule-of-thumb characterization of neoliberalism’s central principle is “that the regulation of the market should be insulated as far as possible from any popular-democratic pressures, which will only distort its operations.”[21]

In its second, post-1945, more Anglo-centric phase, neoliberalism, although still a minority persuasion in a Keynesian age, developed a committed following. The transnational product of intellectuals based in Vienna, Geneva, London, Chicago, and Virginia, disseminated through academic networks generously funded by the corporate sector, neoliberalism won its first substantive victories within particular nation-states, often by appealing to longstanding classical liberal themes – the defence of private property rights, the humbling of collectivism, the subordination of the state to the imperatives of possessive individualism, the centrality of businessmen as privileged power brokers. It encompassed everything from an abstruse thesis by Hayek to the bog-libertarianism of Ayn Rand’s over-written novels, from the Economist magazine fulminating against state interferences with the natural order of world trade to the self-help maxims promulgated by down-market successors of Horatio Alger and Samuel Smiles. The American anti-statism that had so warmly embraced Herbert Spencer in the nineteenth century turned with equal enthusiasm to the relocated European rightists in the twentieth, in both cases reducing holistic and complicated evolutionary theories to straightforward ‘up-with-business’ arguments in favour of the unfettered rights of property.[22] Sociologist Loïc Wacquant speaks of the United States as neoliberalism’s “historical crucible and… planetary spearhead.”[23]

In the hands of Milton Friedman, Hayek’s often abstruse and subtle evolutionary reflections on the superiority of the market as a generator of knowledge were transformed into a more straightforward apologia for capitalism. As economic historian Rutger Bregman says of Milton Friedman’s evangelism on behalf of free markets: “He believed in the primacy of self-interest. Whatever the problem, his solution was simple: out with government; long live business. Or rather, government should turn every sector into a marketplace, from healthcare to education. By force, if necessary.”[24] From Friedman’s perspective, activists who criticized corporations for lacking a social conscience were barking up the wrong tree: a company should be interested only in its bottom-line, and to ask more of it was to confess one’s abject moral and intellectual confusion.

Until the 1970s, outside select academic citadels (with the University of Chicago achieving special status among them), these ideas were regarded as distinctly passé. Yet declining rates of profit, the rise of strong competitors in Japan and Western Europe, rising oil prices, and a puzzling combination of inflation and unemployment meant they began to draw new attention. And arguably the key reason anti-statist neoliberalism crossed the membrane of the state was the rise of left-wing and working-class movements that seemingly threatened the very foundations of the global liberal order. It became a matter of faith – one of the “central pillars of the neoliberal age” – that inflation must be checked, by almost any means necessary, with unemployment kept high to hobble the power of unions and leftists.[25]

So began neoliberalism’s third phase, when, paradoxically, many acolytes elected to lead particular states simultaneously trash-talked the state in general. Neo-liberalism’s first triumph was the 1973 overthrow of Salvador Allende’s democratically-elected government in Chile, replaced by a regime beholden both to the CIA and a cadre of advisors from the Chicago School. This was followed by similar triumphs throughout Latin America, often in close alignment with military men aligning free-market anti-communism with dictatorial rule. In the North Atlantic world which, after the 1970s, became this ideological formation’s nucleus, fighting unions became a priority, sometimes in dramatic struggles (against American air traffic controllers in 1981 and British coal miners in 1984, for instance) but just as tellingly through anti-union legislation, wage-and-price controls, and high-interest monetary policies, sold to the public as anti-inflationary measures but driven as much by the goal of minimizing the labour movement. Reduced or removed tariffs among select countries, exemplified by the North American Free Trade Agreement (1994), conformed to age-old liberal precepts of relative advantage, but also offered a further means of humbling organized labour and giving businessmen new opportunities, especially pools of inexpensive labour-power and tracts of unexploited resources, at a time of declining profits.[26] As Anthony Barrett puts it, “corporations took advantage of the dramatic weakening of organised labour to use global production lines and supply chains to break the influence of unions.”[27] Yet it was intrinsic to neoliberalism as an ideology that these class processes, painfully obvious to those undergoing them, were never described as such. The global quest of states willing to enlist mistreated and ill-paid workers for capital was presented as an exercise in the logic of meeting consumer demands and balancing state budgets (although theorist Marco D’Eramo underscores financier Warren Buffet’s disarmingly candid admission that “it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”)[28] And the equally global privatization of public industries and social services was conventionally presented as their “rationalization” or “liberalization.” For some, negotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994 was presented as an opportunity to explore many an “unopened oyster,” i.e., a function offered as a public or charitable service in the past, now offering capitalists prospects of profits in the future.[29]  

NAFTA constituted the opening of a fourth phase in the history of neoliberalism: its ascent to a world-reshaping approach to global trade, accelerated by the integration of the former Eastern Bloc and China into its networks. It meant the “encasing” of markets from meddlesome regimes, since vastly expanded bodies of trade law rendered illegal many of the state interventions leftists had often contemplated. Nation-states could even be sued by corporations aggrieved that their property rights had been infringed upon. In 1995, the World Trade Organization joined such veteran outfits from the 1940s as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to “constitutionalize” free-market conventions, rendering states violating them subject to punitive sanctions. “The more capital became internationalized,” argue Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, “the more states became concerned to fashion regulatory regimes oriented to facilitating the rapid growth of international trade and foreign investment.”[30] Since the US dominated these bodies, and through the Federal Reserve and the Department of the Treasury manages both the world’s reserve currency and (until recently) its largest economy, many came to speak of the ‘Washington Consensus,’ among whose leading points were privatization of state enterprises, fiscal discipline and the avoidance of deficits, trade liberalization, deregulation, and enhanced protection of property rights. A country diverging from this script would be severely punished.

In this fourth phase, neoliberalism came to be closely associated with globalized finance capitalism. For one influential school of analysts, such financialization was always the decisive key to neoliberalism; certainly after the late 1990s, it has attained a paramount significance. For Ben Fine and Alfredo Saad-Filho, neoliberalism is “underpinned by, although not reducible to, financialization,” by which they mean “not just… financial or credit relations in general,” but the use of “finance as (interest-bearing) capital,” a departure from the past in that, after the advent of neoliberalism, what were once simple credit relations between borrowers and lenders are transformed into obligations” sold on as part of some other asset, which becomes routine only under neoliberalism.[31] Under neoliberal globalization, the opening of every economy to the global market, by persuasion if possible and through coercion if necessary, became something of a categorical imperative.[32] Such financialization entailed further cutbacks in social provision: “domestic regulations in health, environment, intellectual property and industry have come to be viewed as inefficient trade barriers,” notes Dani Rodrik.[33]

The mantra of global neoliberal capitalism became “just-in-time.” It denoted a theory and a practice. As historian Kim Moody explains, the idea can be traced back to the time-and-motion studies conducted at the behest of Henry Ford and a host of other industrialists in the early twentieth century. In the 1950s, an engineer at Toyota took this Fordist approach further by defining “waste” as all “stockpiles, extra workers, and unused movement” in the movement of goods and services. It has now become a central feature of our 24/7 online world, where “almost every time you order something online, it is transported via a network of factories, rails, roads, ships, warehouses and delivery drivers that together form the global economy’s circulatory system. This tightly calibrated infrastructure is designed for perpetual motion.”[34] As economist Robert Skidelsky remarks, “just-in-time” ordering systems meant no reserve supplies in a crisis. “Reserves, the argument goes, cost money. Efficient markets don’t require firms to have inventories, just to have enough ‘stock’ to satisfy the consumer at the point of demand. To hold financial reserves against a rainy day is also wasteful. In efficient markets there are no rainy days: so firms should be leveraged up to the hilt.” Such systems are particularly vulnerable to shocks, but since they are held to be an intrinsic part of efficient markets and key profit-making, they answer to the short-term needs of investors.[35] As political economist Udayan Das observes, neoliberal globalism has meant tightening networks of global capital, value chains, and people “are intrinsically connected and interdependent,” allowing for the extremely rapid transmission over vast spaces of ideas, goods – and viruses.[36]

It also meant a comprehensive revaluation of the state. Of the many public “oysters” tempting the neoliberal palate, healthcare was among the most tempting.[37] According to one study, in most states, investments in public health in the US dropped precipitately between 2010 and 2019.[38] Education, once regarded in post-Victorian liberal theory as a sphere in which the state lived up to its “social contract” with its citizens by endowing their progeny with the capacities required for meaningful participation in society, was another; and a multi-billion dollar Global Education Industry has transformed education into a commodity “owned by and benefitting the individual and her/his employer than a public good that benefits the society as a whole.”[39] And eldercare offered up a particularly delectable delicacy. A vast global “nursing home industry” became an amazing money-maker.[40] As was also true of healthcare and education, in this sphere too, private entrepreneurs were reaping profits from public subsidies.[41] Once again, neoliberalism does not mean (outside electioneering rhetoric) shrinking the state so much as repurposing it, in effect turning it into one business among many others.

Neoliberalism in its North Atlantic heartlands could be considered to have become a “governing rationality” by the early twenty-first century, a “normative form of reason that conditions our conduct, remakes society, remakes the subject and subjectivity, and remakes the state.” Core to this project, argues social theorist Wendy Brown, is a “distinctive kind of valorization and liberation of capital. It makes economics the model of everything,” not excepting democracy.[42] Neither the past (as a source of propaganda and entertainment) nor the future (ditto) weigh very heavily, in an outlook geared to the bottom-line. As Alex Doherty, host of the Politics Theory Other podcast, remarks,

neoliberalism is not merely a policy agenda but also a moral framework that teaches individuals to conceive of themselves not as, say, wage earners but rather as risk-taking entrepreneurs who should expect to shoulder the financial risks of their participation in higher education, the credit system and deregulated labour markets.[43]

Good subjects in a twenty-first-century neoliberal order are obliged to monitor their ‘brands’ 24/7.

The fifth phase of neoliberalism, opened by the financial crisis of 2007-8 – itself a symptom of unplanned and uncontrolled financialization – is the tumultuous one we are now attempting to survive. “In the 2010s,” writes Susan Watkins,

“Wall Street Sign” by Ramy Majouji (CC BY 2.5)/ desaturated.

a new regime of accumulation emerged from the solutions to the financial crisis: a form of globalized, financialized, debt-driven and now centrally monetized capitalism. Soaring stock markets, backed by trillions of [public] dollars… and an anaemic recovery, with weak domestic investment, drove wildly divergent class outcomes.

And though neoliberal policies continued undeterred into the 2010s, “the broader neoliberal ideology took a battering.”[44] As Adam Tooze remarks, the transformation from hubristic optimism to anxiety was rapid. A “series of deep crises – beginning in Asia in the late 90s and moving to the Atlantic financial system in 2008, the eurozone in 2010 and global commodity producers in 2014 – had shaken confidence in market economics. All those crises had been overcome, but by government spending and central bank interventions that drove a coach and horses through firmly held precepts about ‘small government’ and ‘independent’ central banks.”[45] As Jamie Peck and Nik Theodore observe, the financial crisis was “widely interpreted as both a comprehensive repudiation and a systemic failure of neoliberalism,” with even mainstream politicians declaring neoliberalism to be on the way out. Yet, what seems to have changed since 2008 is that, instead of promising its adherents a utopia of free markets, prosperity and individual liberty, neoliberals offer them instead increasingly ruthless repressions of dissidents and a hard-shell form of authoritarianism, bereft of any commanding vision of the future.[46] Remarkably, a crisis brought on by reckless trading in semi-fictional commodities on the part of financial houses and speculators was resolved, not by forcing the major delinquents into the dock, but by penalizing working-class producers and consumers, asked to foot the bill for trillion-dollar corporate bailouts. One careful study in 2017 “estimated the overall level of financial market support between 2009 and 2012 at $12.2 trillion, about 20 percent of GDP per year” – an underestimate because it left out the 2009 state rescues of General Motors, Chrysler, Goldman Sachs, and AIG. Neoliberal disparagement of the state was conjoined with “the actual practice of neoliberal champagne socialism.”[47]

On this interpretation, neoliberalism is an historically-evolving matrix of ideas and practices: first a relatively esoteric and eclectic school devoted to preserving nineteenth-century possessive individualism and focusing on questions of economic and political theory; then a more expansive, transnational and powerful current aligned with the Anglo-American interests in the Cold War; then a semi-official state ideology of privatization, anti-unionism, and competitiveness; then a regime triumphantly applied to the entire world through trade agreements and institutions; and finally one whose core assumptions have been unsettled by crises and assailed by critics. Yet, through all these transformations, these successive ‘neoliberalisms’ (to follow theorists Jamie Peck and Nik Theodore), a core – conceptual, practical, and political – is discernible. Here is an “always mutating project of state-facilitated market rule.”[48]

In North America especially, where the term “neoliberalism” achieved common currency only in this century (and where in the US a “liberal” often denotes anyone to the left of Newt Gingrich) some writers find the term covers too much territory. As historian Daniel Rodgers asked in 2018,

is the overnight ubiquity of the term ‘neoliberalism’ the sign of a new acuteness about the way the world operates? Or is it a caution that a word, accelerating through too many meanings, employed in too many debates, gluing too many phenomena together, and cannibalizing too many other words around it, may make it harder to see both the forces at loose in our times and where viable resistance can be found?[49]

“One often hears,” remark Damien Cahill and Maritjn Konings,

that it is a somewhat lazy way for left-wing critics to group together any number of heterogeneous things to which they happen to be opposed. Imprecision would seem to characterise its use, sometimes even among those for whom the concept is central to their analysis, and its overuse is seen to have resulted in loss of analytical value.[50]

Such critics are right to probe the concept and to complain that bullet-point distillations of neoliberal doctrine often glide over significant schisms. Any snapshot of an evolving body of theory and practice is likely to overlook how dynamically and creatively it is changing. For example, some writers erroneously attributed to neoliberalism a drive to reduce the size of the state, yet overall, OECD governments increased social expenditure from 17.2 to 19.7 percent of GDP between 1985 and 2005.[51] Four decades of neoliberalism, although often resounding to libertarian-sounding proclamations of anti-statism, have bequeathed larger, even more bureaucratic states, now operating as part of one global network. The state was re-imagined, not reduced.

As is generally the case, there is rarely a strict correspondence of concept and reality: all our labels “represent abstractions, approximations and ideal-types,” and they cannot be relied upon to give us the full picture. Yet, as Cahill and Konings go on to remark, the question is whether they offer us a “useful entry point, a way of looking that can be subsequently be enriched with empirical detail.”[52] Or, to put that more strongly: something like neoliberalism can only be grasped as an historical phenomenon – and as a body of theory and practice that, like all others, subtly changed over time and coexists in a complex relationship with others. After all, in 2022, we should be reasonably comfortable with the idea that a given entity can mutate over time and develop a succession of ‘variants of concern,’ all the while possessing attributes that allow us to see it as an example of a more general phenomenon.      

Rather than speaking of one neoliberalism existing from the 1920s to the 2020s, one might want to follow Jamie Peck and Nik Theodore in invoking a process of neoliberalization, as in a myriad of contexts true believers wrestle with the crooked timber of humanity. Around the world today we find certified (in some cases certifiable) leaders combining stern neoliberal invocations of the imperatives of unfettered capitalist accumulation and entrepreneurial individualism with precepts drawn from very different traditions. Narendra Modi summons up Hindu deities alongside the spectres of Adam Smith and Herbert Spencer. Jair Bolsonaro, who cut his political teeth as a ‘Social Liberal,’ combines orthodox notions of unfettered resource development in Amazonia with retrograde appeals to family, church and the dictatorships of yesteryear. Donald Trump’s base, made up of the rich, the evangelical, and the disregarded workers in resource-dependent hinterland states, was fired by his rhetorical denunciations of neoliberal globalism, seemingly oblivious to their leader’s firm commitment to it in practice. Boris Johnson manages to combine medievalism with mendacity, Churchillian nationalism with a vision of a lean, mean, entrepreneurial British state taking on the world. Along with the other hybrids of the neoliberal age, his is a mind combining Stone Age sensibilities with the latest market lingo.[53]

Such leaders typically offer voters an entrepreneurial utopia they have no conceivable way of delivering. And disinvestment in services of direct benefit to the public has meant that much of that public is profoundly alienated from the system. Donald Trump’s rallies called to mind the frenzied professional wrestling matches described by Chris Hedges: “The narratives of emotional wreckage reflected in the wrestlers’ stage biographies mirror the emotional wreckage of the fans.”[54] Wendy Brown underscores the peculiarly intense pessimism of those who, “fashioned by neoliberal reason,” now walk the earth as “aggrieved, reactive” creatures. Now they embrace “freedom without the social contract, authority without democratic legitimacy, and vengeance without values or futurity.” Rather than the “calculating, entrepreneurial, moral and disciplined being imagined by Hayek,” these products of neoliberalism are “angry, amoral, and impetuous, spurred by… humiliation and thirst for revenge.” And they cannot easily be assuaged with policies geared to bettering their situation, for their intense energy “is fuelled mainly by rancor and unavowed nihilistic despair… Having nothing to lose, its nihilism does not simply negate but is festive and even apocalyptic.”[55]

“Covid-19 in New York” by Anthony Quintano (CC BY 2.0)/ cropped.

In such an atmosphere of cultural despair and cognitive chaos, the search for enemies intensifies, because many people understandably want some explanation for mass suffering. We want our experiences to have meant something other than the working-out of blind processes of natural selection or capitalist accumulation.[56] An enemy with a face gives us the delusive sense that, as individuals, we can fight it one-on-one. This hunt for clearly identifiable enemies can be likened to “homeowners shooting guns at the hurricane they know is rolling in to destroy their home.”[57] “The worse reality becomes, the less a beleaguered population wants to hear about it, and the more it distracts itself with squalid pseudo-events of celebrity breakdowns, gossip, and trivia,” argues Hedges. “These are the debauched revels of a dying civilization.”[58]


So – is it time to bid a dry-eyed farewell to neoliberalism? Many who reflect on the politics of the pandemic might say it is long past time. In one plausible interpretation put forward by an increasingly influential school of epidemiologists, global climate change, accelerated by the heightened CO2 emissions of capitalist industries reliant since the late eighteenth century on fossil fuels, is having a direct impact on zoonoses – i.e., human diseases originating among non-human animals or vice versa. There has been a “catastrophic entanglement of global capitalism and eco-colonialism,” which portends both global climate destruction and pandemics, argue Bram Ieven and Jan Overwijk.[59] Environmentalist Neil Faulkner points out that “carbon emissions have accelerated from 26 billion tonnes in 1995 to 37 billion tonnes in 2018… Half the increase in average global temperatures since the Industrial Revolution has occurred since 1995… The effects are all around us.”[60] And one of those effects is that animals carrying viruses are coming into closer and closer contact with dense human populations, as their natural habitats are disrupted through deforestation, corporate agriculture, the construction of infrastructure, and so on.[61]

Other critics point to the unsuspected fragility of global supply chains, the unresolved crisis in eldercare, the manifold ways the pandemic has exposed the racial, gendered and sexual fault-lines of a neoliberal order, and perhaps above all, the return of class as a category of social analysis – and a focus of intensified labour organizing, even at Amazon, the epitome of global marketing in the neoliberal age. As no less a personage than Henry Kissinger intones, the pandemic seems destined to “alter the world order… The world will never be the same after the coronavirus.”[62] A pervasive slogan of 2020 was “Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.”[63] “All the struggles taking shape around the Covid-19 crisis show that women, migrants, workers are no longer willing to accept to pay the higher price of this crisis, and they won’t go back to normality because normality was the problem,” argues one manifesto.[64] Jaw-dropping levels of income inequality prompt sharp messages in the mouths of the young: “Eat the Rich!” has become a TikTok and Twitter meme, sometimes featuring “fresh-faced youngsters menacingly raising their forks at anyone with cars that have start buttons or fridges that have water and ice dispensers.”[65]

In short, the pandemic has been rich in political possibilities for a global left re-emerging from four decades of neoliberal pummelling. It might be the case that hybrid China, never wholly engulfed by the neoliberal system for which its labour-power was indispensable and emerging from the pandemic with a public health record dramatically different than those found in purely capitalist countries, has retained enough of its socialist tradition to offer a counterweight to the liberal capitalist order. There might be a twenty-first-century “feminism for the 99%.”[66] There might be a global resurgence of labour organizing – there has certainly been a remarkable resistance to returning to demeaning and sometimes dangerous jobs.[67] There might be a move to rehumanize education, healthcare, and eldercare. There might be something retained from the social security systems fleetingly in place at the pandemic’s height, oversold as “overnight socialism,” but potentially inspiring many people with a vision of what a comprehensive welfare state could accomplish.[68] We might hear at last the last rites for neoliberalism.

Yet many of the obituaries with which we began contained important caveats. Quinn Slobodian observes that people have been writing such obituaries for the past 30 years, and remarks: “The fantasy of neoliberalism’s demise may be pleasurable for some,… but the tangle of ideas and practices that perpetuate and accelerate economic inequality will not die of natural causes, superannuation, or the pushing of an imaginary ‘reset’ button.”[69] Adam Tooze, who pronounced neoliberalism a “bad brand,” added, “as a practice of government, neoliberalism is a far harder beast to kill… And then if you think about neoliberalism as a structure of social interests, as a class project, it marches on unambiguously.”[70] It does so, in large part, because the path before it has been well-trodden by centuries of thinkers and rulers, developing notions of the rights of propertied individuals unbeholden to society for their achievements, contributing to the framework C.B. Macpherson termed “possessive individualism.”[71] And once we have reformed the most egregious of the political failures the pandemic has brutally underscored – and that alone will be no walk in the park – we will then confront the thick matrix of assumptions and practices that make this individualism seem, not a choice, but an inevitability.

Unless we do that, we may well find that the next sentence that follows the glad cry, “Neoliberalism is dead!” is “And long live neoliberalism!”

[1] Adam Tooze, “The death of globalisation has been announced many times. But this is a perfect storm,” Guardian, 2 June 2020; Link to article; Samaddar Ranabir, “Introduction,” to Ranabir, ed., Borders of an Epidemic: Covid-19 and Migrant Workers (Kolkata: Calcutta Research Group, 2020); John Gray, “The struggle for America’s soul,” New Statesman, 11 November 2020; Link to article; Adam Tooze, “Has Covid ended the neoliberal era?,” Guardian, 2 September 2021; Link to article; Klaus Schwab, “We must move on from neoliberalism in the post-COVID era,” World Economic Forum, web-page, 12 October 2020; Link to article; Alfredo Saad-Filho, “Coronavirus, Crisis, and the End of Neoliberalism,” The Bullet, 17 April 2020; Link to article.

[2] Nancy Fraser and Rahel Jaeggi, Capitalism: A Conversation in Critical Theory, ed. Brian Milstein (Oxford: Polity, 2018), 222.

[3] Alfredo Saad-Filho, “Coronavirus, Crisis, and the End of Neoliberalism,” The Bullet, 17 April 2020; Link to article.

[4] Vijay Prashad and Manuel Bertoldi, “The Cost of This Pandemic Must Not Bankrupt the People,” Independent Media Institute, 22 March 2020; Link to article.

[5] Pope Francis with Austen Ivereigh, Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2020), 109; 113-4; 110.

[6] Dani Rodrik, “Globalisation after Covid-19: my plan for a rewired planet,” Prospect, 4 May 2020; Link to article.

[7] “Virus lays bare the frailty of the social contract” Financial Times, 3 April 2020; Link to article.

[8] Jonathan D. Ostry, Prakash Loungani, and Davide Furceri, “Neoliberalism oversold?”, Finance and Development 53, 2 (June 2016), 38-41; Link to article.

[9] Cited, George Eaton, “Is the neoliberal era finally over?,” New Statesman, 16 June 2021; Link to article.

[10] Numbers approximately based on the RCP Coronavirus Tracker, 5 December 2021; Link to article. As epidemiologists ponder the record of the pandemic, all these estimates are bound to rise. Assessments of countries with respect to deaths per million discloses a more complicated pattern, with Peru leading a grab-bag of countries in the top ten; the US, with 2,805, and the UK, with 2,372, far ahead of Cuba (751), Denmark (657) and Norway (276). All such descriptive statistics, some of them generated by states lacking the requisite infrastructure, will be refined over the next decade as epidemiologists wrestle with the pandemic’s lessons.

[11]Nicholas A. Christakis, Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live (New York, Boston and London: Little, Brown Spark, 2020), 136.

[12] Philip Mirowski and Dieter Plehwe, The Road from Mont Pèlerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 2009), 12-13.

[13] F.A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (1944; reissued, London: Institute of Economic Affairs, 2005); available free on-line at https://mises.org/library/road-serfdom-0.

[14] Wendy L. Wall, Inventing the ‘American Way’: The Politics of Consensus from the New Deal to the Civil Rights Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

[15] David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 2.

[16] Ben Fine and Alfredo Saad-Filho, “Thirteen Things You Need to Know About Neoliberalism,” Critical Sociology 43, 4-5 (2017), 688; Link to article.

[17] Donald M. Nonini, “Is China Becoming Neoliberal?” Critique of Anthropology 28, 2 (2008), 153-4; Link to article.

[18] “It cannot be denied that Fascism and similar movements aiming at the establishment of dictatorships are full of the best intentions and that their intervention has, for the moment, saved European civilization. The merit that Fascism has thereby won for itself will live on eternally in history.” Ludwig von Mises, Liberalism: A Socio-Economic Exposition, trans. Ralph Raico (Mission, Kansas: Sheed, Andrews and McMeel, Inc., 1978), 51. Wilhelm Röpke, one of the founders of the Geneva School, believed that defending western civilization and the liberal economic order meant defending their principles against what his fellow neoliberal William Hutt called “black imperialism.” Quinn Slobodian, Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 2018), 22.

[19] David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 82. 

[20] Ellen Meiksins Wood, “Democracy as an Ideology of Empire,” in The New Imperialists: Ideologies of Empire, ed. Colin Mooers (Oneworld, 2006), 21 (via Davidson).

[21] Susan Watkins, “Paradigm Shift,” New Left Review 128 (March-April 2021), 6; Link to article.

[22] One still influential neoliberal theme was the exaltation of “negative liberty” – the freedom from the state – as opposed to “positive liberty”— state-facilitated freedoms to food, education, and peace, for example. For a powerful critique of Berlin’s immensely influential if crudely dichotomous vision, see C.B. Macpherson, “Berlin’s Division of Liberty,” in Democratic Theory: Essays in Retrieval (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), 95-119.

[23] Loïc Wacquant, Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2009).

[24] Rutger Bregman, “The neoliberal era is ending. What comes next?,” The Correspondent, 14 May 2020; Link to article.

[25] Adam Tooze, “The world’s central banks are starting to experiment. But what comes next?,” Guardian, 9 September 2020; Link to article.

[26] Neil Davidson, “The neoliberal era in Britain: Historical developments and current perspectives,” International Socialism 139 (5 July 2013); Link to article.

[27] Anthony Barnett, “Out of the Belly of Hell,” openDemocracy, 21 May 2020; Link to article.

[28] Marco D’Eramo, “Populism and the New Oligarchy,” New Left Review 82 (July-August 2013), 27,

[29] Pat Armstrong and Hugh Armstrong, eds., The Privatization of Care: The Case of Nursing Homes (London: Routledge, 2020), 18, citing M. Peterson, “Introduction to health care in the next century,” Journal of Health Politics, Policy and the Law, 22 (2), 291-313.

[30] Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, The Making of Global Capitalism (London and New York: Verso, 2012), 223.

[31] Ben Fine and Alfredo Saad-Filho, “Thirteen Things You Need to Know About Neoliberalism,” Critical Sociology 43, 4-5 (2017), 691-2; Link to article.

[32] Henk Overbeek, and Kees van der Pijl. “Restructuring Capita land Restructuring Hegemony: Neoliberalism and the Unmaking of the Postwar Order,” in Hans Overbeek, ed., Restructuring Hegemony in the Global Political Economy (London: Routledge, 1993).

[33] Dani Rodrik, “Globalisation after Covid-19: my plan for a rewired planet,” Prospect, 4 May 2020; Link to article.

[34] Kim Moody, “Why it’s high time t o move on from ‘just-in-time’ supply chains,” Guardian, 11 October 2021; Link to article.

[35] Robert Skidelsky, “The coronavirus pandemic shows why the West must transform its economic logic,” New Statesman, 21 April 2020; Link to article.

[36] Udayan Das, “COVID-19 and Global Order: Issues for Global Cooperation.” NUJS Journal of Regulatory Studies, Governance and Public Policy, Special Issue on Covid-19 (April 2020), 46-52. Link to article; ISSN: 2456-4605 (O).

[37] The very notion of ‘public health’ is nonsensical from a neoliberal perspective: how can fictitious entity called ‘the public’ be said to have health? Only individuals, freely making choices about their bodies, can be considered healthy or sick; “society” or the “public” do not exist as entities, healthy or otherwise.

[38] Eagan Kemp and Kate Thomas, Unprepared for COVID-19: How the Pandemic Makes the Case for Medicare for All (Public Citizen, March 2021); Link to article. There were drastic variations from state to state: for example, in 2020 Mississippi and Pennsylvania spent $60 and $61 per person, respectively, on non-hospital health care, Hawaii and Massachusetts spent $205 and $144, respectively.

[39] S.J. Ball and D. Youdell, Hidden privatisation in public education (Brussels: Education International, 2008), 10; Link to article.

[40] Marco D’Eramo, “The Biopolitics of Nursing Homes,” New Left Review, Sidecar, 15 February 2021; Link to article.

[41] Pat Armstrong and Hugh Armstrong, eds., The Privatization of Care: The Case of Nursing Homes (London: Routledge, 2020), 40, 58. 

[42] Cited, Jamie Peck and Nik Theodore, “Still Neoliberalism?” The South Atlantic Quarterly 118, 2 (April 2019), 251; Link to article.

[43] Alex Doherty, “Has the coronavirus killed neoliberalism? Don’t bet on it,” Guardian, 16 May 2020; Link to article.

[44] Susan Watkins, “Paradigm Shift,” New Left Review 128 (March-April 2021), 5-22; Link to article.

[45] Adam Tooze, “Has Covid ended the neoliberal era?,” Guardian, 2 September 2021; Link to article.

[46i] Jamie Peck and Nik Theodore, “Still Neoliberalism?”.

[47] Gerald Epstein and Robert Pollin, “Neoliberalism’s Bailout Problem,” Boston Review, 24 June 2021; Link to article.

[48] Jamie Peck and Nik Theodore, “Still Neoliberalism?”.

[49] Daniel Rodgers, “The Uses and Abuses of ‘Neoliberalism,” Dissent 65, 1 (2018), 78.

[50] Damien Cahill, and Maritjn Konings, “Neoliberalism: A Useful Concept?,” The Bullet, 1 December 2017; Link to article.

[51] Tad Tietze and Elizabeth Humphrys, “Anti-politics and the Illusions of Neoliberalism,” Oxford Left Review, February 2015; Link to article.

[52] Damien Cahill, and Maritjn Konings, “Neoliberalism: A Useful Concept?,” The Bullet, 1 December 2017; Link to article.

[53] Drawing on Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Howell-Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1971, 324 (Q11§12).

[54] Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literary and the Triumph of Spectacle (Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2010), 5.

[55] Wendy Brown, “Neoliberalism’s Frankenstein: Authoritarian Freedom in Twenty-First Century ‘Democracies,’ Critical Times 1, 1 (2018), 75. In Italy in 2018, the largest party was founded by a comedian; the president of Ukraine was formerly one; the US was headed by a reality TV star with a gift for stand-up comedy, notes William Davies, This Is Not Normal: The Collapse of Liberal Britain (London and New York: Verso, 2020), 31, 150, 227. Davies refers to the process of “Berlusconification,” after Silvio Berlusconi, the notorious Italian president who parlayed his media empire and over-sized personality into political prominence.  Donald Sassoon adduces further examples from Slovenia, Poland, Guatemala, Uganda and Poland. Donald Sassoon, Morbid Symptoms: Anatomy of a World in Crisis (London and New York: Verso, 2021), 137-8.

[56] John Gray, “The year of the Great Humbling,” New Statesman, 10 December 2020; Link to article.

[57] Adam Roberts, It’s The End of the World: But What Are We Really Afraid Of? (London: Elliot and Thompson, 2020), 86.

[58] Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2010), 190.

[59] Bram Ieven and Jan Overwijk, “We Created This Beast: The Political Ecology of Covid-19,” Eurozine, 22 March 2020; Link to article.

[60] Neil Faulkner, “Covid, climate, and ‘dual metabolic rupture,’” Ecologist, 1 February 2021; Link to article.

[61] Andreas Malm, Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency: War Communism in the Twenty-First Century (London and New York: Verso, 2020).

[62] In November 2021 there emerged from it a 250-page report on supply chains that was “frankly nationalist,” writes economist Robert Kuttner, who sees in it a “wholesale repudiation” of the “economic assumptions of the past several decades,” particularly the one that maintained that reducing barriers to trade is “all benefit and no cost.” Robert Kuttner, “Bringing the Supply Chain Back Home,” New York Review of Books, 18 November 2021; Link to article.; Cited, Niall Ferguson, Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe (New York: Penguin, 2021), 351.

[63] Arundhati Roy, “The pandemic is a portal,” Financial Times, 3 April 2020; Link to article.

[64] Transnational Social Strike Platform, “Struggles in social reproduction during COVID-19: from East to West and beyond,” Monthly Review online, 29 August 2020; Link to article..

[65] Owen Jones, “Eat the rich! Why millennials and generation Z have turned their backs on capitalism,” Guardian, 20 September 2021; Link to article. One Harvard University study found in 2016 that 50% of young people in the US reject capitalism; in 2018, a Gallup poll found only 45% of young Americans saw capitalism favourably, down from 68% in 2010.

[66] Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya, and Nancy Fraser, Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto (London and New York: Verso, 2019).

[67] In the US, it is thought that 4.4 million workers quit their jobs in September 2021 alone, roughly 3% of the US workforce; “resignations were highest in industries like hospitality and medicine, where employees are most at risk of Covid-19 exposure.” Rebecca Gordon, “Why Do We Need a 24/7 Economy”, TomDispatch, 30 November 2021; Link to article.

[68] John Keane, “Democracy and the Great Pestilence,” Institute for Human Science, 10 April 2020; Link to article.

[69] Quinn Slobodian, “Is neoliberalism really dead?,” New Statesman, 27 October 2020; Link to article.

[70] Cited, George Eaton, “Is the neoliberal era finally over?,” New Statesman, 16 June 2021; Link to article.

[71] C.B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962).