Are we all victims of neoliberalism?

From left: Dr Karim Bettache and Professor Chi-Yue ChiuNeoliberalism has been called, provocatively, an ideology at the root of all problems. Critics say it has played a major role in social and political crises such as the rise of Donald Trump. What is it, exactly?

Dr Karim Bettache, a lecturer at the Department of Psychology, Monash University Malaysia, and Professor Chi-Yue Chiu, Dean of Social Science at the Chinese University of Hong Kong explains its characteristics and its influence on society and psychology.

What is neoliberalism?

In one definition, neoliberalism is an ideology that favours free-market capitalism and laissez-faire economics. It believes that continued economic growth, driven by competitive markets, will lead to human progress.

There are generally three neoliberal assumptions:

  1. Humans universally desire freedom from interference, and that economic inequality inspires people to improve themselves.
  2. Free choice and self-governance are sacred values.
  3. Individual freedom should be preserved through competitive markets and minimal government interference.

These manifest themselves in policies that reduce state welfare and government intervention in economic affairs. Neoliberalism also promotes the privatisation of public sectors such as healthcare, public transport, and education.

Criticisms of neoliberalism

Neoliberalism has been criticised for justifying capitalist dominance, eroding governments’ commitments to protect their people through welfare policies, subsequently increasing social inequality.

In the US, for instance, although the economy and business have prospered, the income of the average American worker and family has remained largely stagnant. In contrast, the upper 1% of the rich have seen their wealth grow at tremendous rates. These issues, however, are not confined to the US. Instead, neoliberalism has spread throughout the world.

An invisible hand in psychology

Neoliberalism is an invisible hand at work in society, influencing even psychological practices and assumptions.

Neoliberal biases are present within the field of psychology—for example, in emphasising self-governance. Mental illness is seen as a biological condition curable by psychoactive drugs, and patients are expected to self-govern their drug consumption and lead independent, productive lives. Belief in self-governance requires citizens to be responsible for their own well-being and contribute to the market economy.

However, if citizens are solely responsible for their well-being, societal factors may be ignored—factors beyond the individual which contribute to problems such as poverty, gender or race. A recent study on rape counselling illustrates the point. It is not enough to focus on eliminating symptoms in a rape victim; we must understand the social factors contributing to rape in order to end sexual violence itself.

In other words, it is necessary to work toward social change, not just hold individuals responsible for fixing their own problems.