Neoliberalism and Democracy

The planet earth swimming in an unreal sea of money

This is a guest post by Alex Afouxenidis, Professor at the National Centre for Social Research, Athens, Greece. It is based on his chapter in, Political Inequality in an Age of Democracy (Routledge).

What is neoliberalism and how does it impact democracy?

Neoliberalism is based on the idea of ignoring fundamental human needs.

The success of neoliberal political strategies rests on a mixture of rhetoric and control of democracy’s major local and global institutions. It is also based on the erosion of the key actors and institutions that are the main underpinnings of contemporary democracies, such as pressure groups, civic organizations, and educational institutes.

In neoliberalism’s economic sphere, economic growth does not need to translate into growth of equality. Considering rising social, economic, and political inequalities, we are looking at abuse being taken for granted.

Table of Contents

  1. What is neoliberalism and how does it impact democracy?
    1. Understanding Democracies’ Political Shift toward Neoliberalism
      1. Market idealization is not working: it has generated profound constraints on people’s liberty and self-determination.
    2. Neoliberalism and Four Dimensions of Democratic Organization
      1. Neoliberalism and Democracy: The Economic Sphere
      2. Neoliberalism and Democracy: The Social and Political Spheres
      3. Neoliberalism and Democracy: The Cultural Sphere
        1. In global terms ‘neoliberalism’ itself has become part of popular culture packed with iconic figure heads such as Thatcher or Reagan and reactionary representational references to anti-statism, individuality, and consumerism.
    3. Neoliberalism, Democracy, and Crisis

Understanding Democracies’ Political Shift toward Neoliberalism

The pervasive counter-democratic ideological force of neoliberalism has had a deep impact on people’s lives, identities and beliefs despite its obvious failure to sustain any meaningful sense of ‘economic growth’. This is evident in many regions across the world where economies are being re-structured and reformed generating greater forms of inequality and limiting political freedom. Political crises have become everyday occurrence for many nations. Governments are in a continuous state of instability and many turn to (semi?) authoritarian rule in order to retain power.

Market idealization is not working: it has generated profound constraints on people’s liberty and self-determination.

As one reflects upon the countless analyses and informed criticisms on the impact of neoliberal ideology and strategy, it becomes increasingly clear that the main constitutive element of this sort of ‘philosophy’ is related to the idea of ignoring fundamental human needs. This conceptualization has generated a rupture with respect to western classical liberal discourses such as those, for example, put forward by J. Locke, J.S. Mill or J. Rawls. For, even though they strongly suggested personal autonomy, they equally forcefully reflected upon the idea that if the needs of individuals are not adequately met then liberty will be limited.

This radical shift in the liberal ideological agenda that emerged during the early 1980s used the language of freedom and individuality to promote a basically dehumanizing and oppressive status quo. Humanity thus was re-defined vertically and horizontally along and across the usual bi-polarities: poor/wealthy, in/out of work, males/females, gay/straight, western/non-western, north/south, black/white, moral/immoral, productive/un-productive, private/public and so forth. The question, in this respect, is not so much whether these categories actually exist or not, but rather how and in which ways they are used to generate and reproduce a vocabulary and a subsequent series of political practices and agendas.

In fact these are populist images of societal structures based on rather simplistic belief systems. In cultural terms, they advocate exclusivity of the ‘West’ over all others, intentionally promoting ideas which view the ‘West’ as a single all embracing cultural unit. In political terms, the market and economic ‘freedom’ are dissociated from the inner workings of democracy. Hence, if democratic procedures and/or processes contradict neoliberal thinking, then they may be overlooked.

Success of neoliberal political strategies rests on a mixture of rhetoric, force and, more importantly, control of the major local and global institutions such as the state and/or international financial organizations. In addition, it is also very much based on the slow or rapid fragmentation and, ultimately, severe erosion if not destruction of diverse agents such as public actors, pressure groups, civic organizations, think tanks, educational institutes and a variety of other structures which have formed the main underpinnings of contemporary democracies.

Neoliberalism and Four Dimensions of Democratic Organization

Over the past 35 years, a very powerful fable has been used to legitimize economic and social intervention operating across the four major areas of democratic organization, namely the economic, political, social and cultural spheres.

Neoliberalism and Democracy: The Economic Sphere

In the economic sphere, the main neoliberal idea is that societies and countries have to shift away from policies related to integration and replace them with policies – and the corresponding ideologies – of divergence. Economic growth therefore does not need to translate into growth of equality.

Neoliberalism and Democracy: The Social and Political Spheres

Divergence and accompanying growing gaps in political inequality and social inequality have become accepted as systemic norms.

Accordingly, the nature of political systems has to be altered to accommodate for increased inequality, inequity and exploitation coupled by a reduced public sphere and an enlarged, dominating private sector through the diminution of all sorts of political participation and a reduction of the state’s capacity to organize civil life.

Neoliberalism and Democracy: The Cultural Sphere

In simpler terms, in an enforced alteration of political culture, the façade of a well organized democracy is only required to counter-balance the harsh re-constitution of society: to make it somewhat more respectable to the eyes of people. In total, neoliberal strategies have played a significant role in the realignment of the cultural sphere and cultural politics.

DALL-E “Gustav Klimt painting of democracy and money”

Neoliberalism, Democracy, and Crisis

Although some writers seem to be rather optimistic on the reversal of the neoliberal political project, mostly because of the effects of the current crisis, we should be more cautious.

For a long time the system has gone through various crises, and has nevertheless flourished despite massive reactions from a variety of people and organizations across the world. Neoliberal ideology has not been fundamentally challenged and if anything it seems that neoliberalism has gained, for example via the post-2008 crisis, influence and as a consequence a whole new range of economic, political, social and cultural strategies have been deployed.

The political process has been ‘de-legitimized’ to a large extent and liberal democracy appears deficient, and yet for the neoliberal political agenda this is probably good news. When one looks at the rising figures of social and political inequality, the widening gap between rich and poor and instances of extreme poverty within and across nations and regions, one looks at the same time at abuse being taken for granted. And much more research is required precisely on that last point.

Prof. Alex Afouxenidis is a Researcher at the National Centre for Social Research, Athens, Greece and specializes in Political Sociology. He is the editor of The Greek Review of Social Research, and recently edited a special issue on social media and politics. He can be reached at www.ekke.gr and afouxenidis@ekke.gr

This piece is based on the chapter “Neoliberalism and Democracy”, in Dubrow, J. (ed), Political Inequality in an Age of Democracy: Cross-national Perspectives, London: Routledge, pp. 40-48.

The Nationalist Retrenchment Hypothesis

As populist nationalists push back on neoliberal arguments on globalization, we see a diminished power of international bodies who attempt to solve global problems. Where once there was the hope of global governance, there is now Trumpism, John Birch-ism, Bolsanaro-ism, Orban-ism, and other societal ills.

A main cause of why nationalist retrenchment became so, well, entrenched, is that there was an inherent political inequality within nations and in the global governance institutions such as the United Nations.

This post asks, Is global governance inevitable? Is democratic global governance likely? The main thesis is that political inequality at home became political Inequality in global governance.

I wrote this in 2013. Unfortunately, the nationalist retrenchment thing happened. The nationalists are winning. Global governance is on the run. Democratic backsliding is real.

What is global governance?

Borrowing from Elke Krahmann, we can define global governance as regulation of international relations without centralized authority, meaning that collaborative efforts to address interdependent needs are voluntary. Because global governance challenges national sovereignty, nation-states resist centralizing too much power in a single global body.

Despite that global governance challenges national sovereignty, its institutionalization has accelerated; nations are aware that no one nation can solve global problems, and globalization has forced even the most nationalistic countries to collaborate across state lines.

Is global governance inevitable? Two Rival Hypotheses

In addressing the question of governance inevitability, there are two major hypotheses: the global governance hypothesis, and the nationalist retrenchment hypothesis.

Global Governance Hypothesis

The more problems are global in scope, the greater the chance that global governance will emerge and be enhanced.

An alternative hypothesis posits a world in which the opposite occurs: Despite growing global problems, countries will shrink from international commitments that they think will limit their ability to act in their parochial self-interest. This is the nationalist
retrenchment hypothesis.

Nationalist Retrenchment Hypothesis

The more problems are global in scope, the greater the nationalist retrenchment.

By nationalist, I mean a nation-centric view of world events, akin to unilateralism. By retrenchment, I mean a stop and backslide toward unilaterialism in which countries eschew global governance strategies.

Is Nationalist Retrenchment a Possibility? (I asked in 2013)

Nationalist retrenchment may be a mere theoretical counterfactual, something that at its fullest extent is not now possible.

What evidence do we have in the modern era of nationalist retrenchment? (I asked that in 2013. Josh in 2022 says, “Plenty“) The relationship between the United States and the UN is a useful case study. The “U.S. out of the UN!” movement has its roots in the ultra-right wing John Birch Society, and despite some occasional resurgence, it has never truly threatened to pull the United States from the UN or eject the UN from its New York City headquarters. Although the U.S. Congress has historically been skeptical of the UN, diehard members of the nationalist retrenchment club—anachronistic throwbacks to the pre- Wilsonian era (or the 1930s)—are a rare breed.

This possibility blossomed under Donald Trump’s surprise presidency in 2016, and culminated, thus far, in the insurrection (or “riot”) at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.

Political Inequality at Home leads to Political Inequality in Global Governance

If global governance is inevitable, we can now turn to the next question: Is democratic global governance likely?

Here is where the notion of political inequality is important.

There is plenty of evidence to support the view that global governance organizations are characterized by political inequality. Kofi Annan, former secretary general of the UN, said that “we cannot claim that there is perfect equality between member states.” Political inequality, according to Annan, can differ in extent: he says that the “small and powerless feel less unequal” at the UN than in other major international organizations.  Nevertheless, political inequality in terms of unequal voice and response continues to challenge the legitimacy of existing global governance institutions.

If international organizations, individual nations and social movements have thus far been relatively ineffective democratizers of global governance structures, it may be because political inequality at home translates into political inequality on the global stage.

Nationalists and internationalists—or, unilateralists and multilateralists— are battling for supremacy over foreign policy within their own nations and in global governance organizations. We can imagine a situation in which nationalists win policy battles more often than internationalists, and where the scope of the policies made by nationalists precludes or minimizes actions to internationalize.

In a world where few countries have a lot and most have little, nationalist retrenchment can also weaken democratic development of these structures by de-funding these organizations and neglecting the needs of the disadvantaged.

This post is based on the article, Dubrow, Joshua Kjerulf. 2013. “Democratic Global Governance, Political Inequality, and the Nationalist Retrenchment Hypothesis.” International Journal of Sociology 43(2): 55 – 69.

Further Reading

What Populists Do to Democracies – The Atlantic

US Congress investigates the January 6, 2021 attack