The Demise of Neoliberalism

And What It Means to U.S. Communities

Word chart of neoliberalismThe election of Donald Trump and the Bernie Sanders campaign made it clear that people are rejecting “business as usual.” There are many reasons why Hillary Clinton lost the election, but her strong association with “the status quo” (business as usual) was a major factor.

Collectively, I agree that the status quo must change: We are on the wrong course as a society. We disagree on what comes next. For me, naming and addressing the invisible elephant in the room, neoliberalism, is a critical next step.

For the last 40 years neoliberal ideology has maintained hegemony, or dominance, over the western nations. And with the fall of the Soviet Union, it has been the dominant ideology internationally.

It is an ideology that has been so woven into our everyday existence that like air has become invisible. It has shaped our political institutions and our individual perceptions of the world around us. We have internalized the tenets of neoliberalism to the point that it is difficult imagining alternatives. Despite neoliberalism’s failure in the real world, it continues to dominate political and economic thinking.

Neoliberalism preaches an ideology of market supremacy, individualism and limited government. The common good is subordinate to or even sacrificed for private gain. Individualism is celebrated, while whole communities of people are marginalized. Human rights (health and education) are commodified. Access to housing, health care and education are determined by economics, not rights. Our built environment has been “developed” into a mall focused on consumer activity.

Winner-Take-All Model

It is axiomatic in neoliberal thought that competition leads to progress, and people are only motivated by self-interest. Government interference is contrary to liberty. Freedom means being free of government intervention in the pursuit of profit. Collectively bargained agreements with organized labor are considered “market distortions.”

Personal characteristics determine whether a person is a “winner” or a “loser.” Winners are marketable, and losers are not. The market determines the value of an individual and what rewards they deserve. Social safety nets are a waste of money. That money could be better spent reducing taxes on the rich and allowing the surplus wealth to trickle down to the “less privileged.”

Profits are privatized, while costs are socialized. Public investments in development are high risk while private investment follow as risk is lowered. Wealth is created by development and is extracted by private investors at the expense of the public. Neoliberalism is designed for the benefit of the 1%.

Neoliberalism, Demagogues and My Community

What does neoliberalism have to do with my hometown?

Opioid addiction, gentrification, income inequality and alienation are a few of the symptoms of this failed ideology. A winner/loser society comes with serious social costs. An individual’s well-being and sense of self are determined with in the limits of a neoliberal frame of reference that uses economic metrics as a sole measure of success.

women-high-income-walking-past-homeless-man-streetWhat happens when our expectations of a standard of living we are entitled to, exceed our reality? We marinate in a consumer ideology that incentivizes people to live beyond their means. Individuals are responsible for their own unemployment, inequality and lack of opportunity – not the structural constraints that systematically disadvantage the less privileged. Increasing incidents of depression, domestic violence, substance abuse, mental illness, homelessness and suicide are the result of an atomized society. Disillusionment, alienation, despair, and self-blame become a marketing opportunity for Big Pharma.

As hopelessness turns to cynicism, bitterness and blame become fertile ground for demagogic political leaders.

The most insidious impact of neoliberalism has been its sociopolitical effect. In a society that condones the commodification of political power the disenfranchised are disempowered. The values, norms and cognitive structures of neoliberalism have become part of our lives. If we are going to change this we have to identify, name and articulate solutions providing the foundation for an alternative vision of the world.

Empowerment Is the First Step

Change begins with the empowerment of the disenfranchised. With a goal of improving the quality of life for low-income and working-class resident of my community, Somerville, residents learn to organize themselves, to identify problems, formulate solutions, take action and speak to power. They are no longer alone in their struggle. Their issues are systemic and the solutions are systemic. The futility of individual action is replaced by the successes of collective action. What seemed insurmountable now seems manageable.

The most insidious impact of neoliberalism has been its sociopolitical effect. In a society that condones the commodification of political power the disenfranchised are disempowered.”

To survive in the present, we must learn how to mitigate the toxic effects of living in a neoliberal world as we create an infrastructure capable of articulating a transformative vision based on social and economic justice. As a community we can begin to establish, at the grassroots level, the foundation for a society built on inclusivity, participation and democracy.

If we have the will, we can prove another world is possible, a working model of an alternative vision to neoliberalism. A vision providing a strong practical and strategic foundation for how communities can develop as they address the ongoing economic, environmental, political and cultural challenges they will face as we transition to a post neoliberal future.

We can begin in our own communities. For me that place is Somerville Massachusetts. Isn’t this where revolutions begin?

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