The Side Effects of Neo-liberalism

Experiment: Explain a few of the problems with current thought

I recently saw this advertisement on Facebook for an event in Bristol.


I have a little bit of trouble deciding if they are 100% serious or if it is supposed to be kind of funny. Maybe I just want to find a bit of humor in my pain. The link with capitalism is a bit tenuous, but this list is highly indicative of the side effects of neo-liberal thinking.  The difference between the two is that neo-liberalism is like capitalism plus individualism with a dose of depoliticization. It is not just a type of exchange or a form of government, but the guiding principle that capital is a good measure of every aspect of our lives — public, private and social. This advertisement is correct that what follows are feelings of powerlessness, loss of identity, and extreme self-consciousness. When our self-worth is based on our net worth, the effects can be devastating.

The feelings of powerlessness often come from how work is structured. If a job is approached with a passion for and interest in the work, the focus on outputs robs us of our own personal investment in the work and shifts the reward of a job well done to a measurement outside of our own achievement. It is not the product that gives people a sense of pride in their work, but the process. In a study of the causes of alienation at work, they found that “in this large-scale, capitalist economy, the type of control that is most important for alienation, though, is control, not over the product, but over the process, of one’s work. Ownership, hierarchical position, and division of labor have less effect on workers’ feelings than do closeness of supervision, routinization, and substantive complexity” (Kohn, 1976, pp. 126-127). Amazingly, in large scale studies, people were not dissatisfied with jobs where they only played a small role in the product as long as they had significant control over their own process. In a world of Total Quality Management, workers are alienated from the process and, therefore, from feelings of achievement and power in their work.

The feeling of a loss of identity or loss of community is a side effect of humanity being rebranded as a set of consumers. When everything becomes a consumer choice, from lipstick to the emergency room, garbage companies to art museums, we lose a sense of community. “The individual is seldom described in political terms of civic relations or citizenship, rather the individual is an economic being who fulfills social roles through consumption and pursuing economic well-being” (Stitzlein, 2013, pp. 258-259). Rather than living in a neighborhood where all of the nearby kids go to the same school, we are scattered. Instead of a city park, we choose a play area to patronize. (Personally, I’m also alarmed when I try to donate money and I always have to choose a gift! What if I just want to donate and not consume?!?) When our personal identity is changed to a consumer, we become defined by what we purchase, rather than who we are. The community of “we” dissolves because everything becomes an individual choice rather than a group effort.

Extreme self-consciousness erupts from the individualization of people, the intense focus on personal choice, and when we dismiss external influences and make every problem personal. The best discussions of this are around education. Teachers work with an incredible varied group of students, sometimes under debilitating demands, but take on personal blame when reality doesn’t meet expectation. “This happens when the boundless self of the teacher is invested with unlimited power for personal change, and unrealistic moral obligations for professional improvement that are untampered by any practical and political awareness of the contexts and conditions which current limit what any one teacher can reasonably achieve; and which teachers must confront together if more than trivial gains are to be made. . . [This occurs] when personal change is constantly frustrated by organizational constraints, to intolerable guilt. (If only I worked harder, or was a better person, my students could learn more!)” (Hargreaves, 1994, p. 74). For teachers, even external factors increase self-consciousness. Schools are constantly adding teacher goal setting, reflections, and increasing observation schedules.

So, with all of these side effects, why are we do we remain devoted to a society based on the principles of neo-liberalism? Why do I still want some of the things that neo-liberalism offers? Why don’t I work harder to resist my own consumer choice or personal monetary gain? Even with these questions, I am biased toward thinking it is an individual choice! Although I want resist at my individual level, the neo-liberal message of power and personal growth is too enticing. Contesting and resisting regimes of power thus becomes even more difficult when we link them to our own sense of freedom and well-being, both emotional and physical” (D’Aoust, 2014, p. 273). We are stuck in a cycle of positive effects and negative side-effects. Time will tell how we break out. 

D’Aoust, A.-M. (2014). Ties that Bind? Engaging Emotions, Governmentality and Neoliberalism: Introduction to the Special Issue. Global Society, 28(3), 267-276. doi:10.1080/13600826.2014.900743

Hargreaves, A. (1994). Changing Teacher, Changing Times. New York, NY: Teachers College Press, Columbia University.

Kohn, M. L. (1976). Occupational Structure and Alienation. American Journal of Sociology, 82(1), 111-130.

Stitzlein, S. M. (2013). Education for citizenship in for-profit charter schools? Journal of Curriculum Studies, 45(2), 251-276. doi:10.1080/00220272.2012.713996

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s