Neoliberalism tells us we're selfish souls – how can we promote other identities?
Public support for co-operation, collective ownership and mutual care have persisted, despite the popularity of some of the neoliberal agenda. What policies could the left pursue to build from where we are now?
“Economics is the method: the object is to change the soul.” Understanding why Thatcher said this is central to understanding the neoliberal project, and how we might move beyond it. Carys Hughes and Jim Cranshaw’s opening article poses a crucial challenge to the left in this respect. It is too easy to tell ourselves a story about the long reign of neoliberalism that is peopled solely with all-powerful elites imposing their will on the oppressed masses. It is much harder to confront seriously the ways in which neoliberalism has manufactured popular consent for its policies.
The left needs to acknowledge that aspects of the neoliberal agenda have been overwhelmingly popular: it has successfully tapped into people’s instincts about the kind of life they want to lead, and wrapped these instincts up in a compelling narrative about how we should see ourselves and other people. We need a coherent strategy for replacing this narrative with one that actively reconstructs our collective self-image – turning us into empowered citizens participating in communities of mutual care, rather than selfish property-owning individuals competing in markets.
As the Gramscian theorists Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau observed, our political identities are not a ‘given’ – something that emerges directly from the objective facts of our situation. We all occupy a series of overlapping identities in our day-to-day lives – as workers or bosses, renters or home-owners, debtors or creditors. Which of these define our politics depends on political struggles for meaning and power.
Part of the job of politics – whether within political parties or social movements – is to show how our individual problems are rooted in systemic issues that can be confronted collectively if we organise around these identities. Thus, debt becomes not a source of shame but an injustice that debtors can organise against. Struggles with childcare are not a source of individual parental guilt but a shared societal problem that we have a shared responsibility to tackle. Podemos were deeply influenced by this thinking when they sought to redefine Spanish politics as ‘La Casta’ (‘the elite’) versus the people, cutting across many of the traditional boundaries between right and left.
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The architects of neoliberalism understood this process of identity creation. By treating people as selfish, rational utility maximisers, they actively encouraged them to become selfish, rational utility maximisers. As the opening article points out, this is not a side effect of neoliberal policy, but a central part of its intention. As Michael Sandel pointed out in his 2012 book ‘What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets’, it squeezes out competing values that previously governed non-market spheres of life, such as ethics of public service in the public sector, or mutual care within local communities. But these values remain latent: neoliberalism does not have the power to erase them completely. This is where the hope for the left lies, the crack of light through the doorway that needs to be prised open.
The limits of neoliberal consciousness
In thinking about how we do this, it’s instructive to look at the ways in which neoliberal attempts to reshape our identities have succeeded – and the ways they have failed. While Right to Buy might have been successful in identifying people as home-owners and stigmatising social housing, this has not bled through into wider support for private ownership. Although public ownership did become taboo among the political classes for a generation – far outside the political ‘common sense’ – polls consistently showed that this was not matched by a fall in public support for the idea. On some level – perhaps because of the poor performance of privatised entities – people continued to identify as citizens with a right to public services, rather than as consumers of privatised services. The continued overwhelming attachment to a public NHS is the epitome of this tendency. This is partly what made it possible for Corbyn’s Labour to rehabilitate the concept of public ownership, as the 2017 Labour manifesto’s proposals for public ownership of railways and water – dismissed as ludicrous by the political establishment – proved overwhelmingly popular.
More generally, there is some evidence that neoliberalism didn’t really succeed in making us see ourselves as selfish rational maximisers – just in making us believe that everybody else was. For example, a 2016 survey found that UK citizens are on average more oriented towards compassionate values than selfish values, but that they perceive others to be significantly more selfish (both than themselves and the actual UK average). Strikingly, those with a high ‘self-society gap’ were found to be less likely to vote and engage in civic activity, and highly likely to experience feelings of cultural estrangement.
This finding points towards both the great conjuring trick of neoliberal subjectivity and its Achilles heel: it has successfully popularised an idea of what human beings are like that most of us don’t actually identify with ourselves. This research suggests that our political crisis is caused not only by people’s material conditions of disempowerment, but by four decades of being told that we can’t trust our fellow citizens. But it also suggests that deep down, we know this pessimistic account of human nature just isn’t who we really are – or who we aspire to be.
An example of how this plays out can be seen in academic studies showing that, in game scenarios presenting the opportunity to free-ride on the efforts of others, only economics students behaved as economic models predicted: all other groups were much more likely to pool their resources. Having been trained to believe that others are likely to be selfish, economists believe that their best course of action is to be selfish as well. The rest of us still have the instinct to cooperate. Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising: after all, as George Monbiot argues in ‘Out of the Wreckage’, cooperation is our species’ main survival strategy.
What’s our ‘Right to Buy?’
The challenge for the left is to find policies and stories that tap into this latent sense of what makes us human – what Gramsci called ‘good sense’ – and use it to overturn the neoliberal ‘common sense’. In doing so, we must be aware that we are competing not only with a neoliberal identity but also with a new far-right that seeks to promote a white British ethno-nationalist group identity, conflating ‘elites’ with outsiders. How we compete with this is the million dollar question, and it’s one we have not yet answered.
Thatcher’s use of flagship policies like the Right to Buy was a masterclass in this respect. Deceptively simple, tangible and easy to grasp, the Right to Buy also communicated a much deeper story about the kind of nation we wanted to be – one of private, property-owning individuals – cementing home-ownership as a cultural symbol of aspiration (the right to paint your own front door) whilst giving millions an immediate financial stake in her new order. So what might be the equivalent flagship policies for the left today?
Perhaps one of the strongest efforts to date has been the proposal for ‘Inclusive Ownership Funds’, first developed by Mathew Lawrence in a report for the New Economics Foundation, and announced as Labour policy by John McDonnell in 2018. This would require companies to transfer shares into a fund giving their workers a collective stake that rises over time and pays out employee dividends. Like the Right to Buy, as well as shifting the material distribution of wealth and power, this aims to build our identity as part of a community of workers taking more collective control over our working lives.
But this idea only takes us so far. While it may tap into people’s desire for more security and empowerment at work, more of a stake in what they do, it offers a fairly abstract benefit that only cashes out over time, as workers acquire enough of a stake to have a meaningful say over company strategy. It may not mean much to those at the sharpest end of our oppressive and precarious labour market, at least not unless we also tackle the more pressing concerns they face – such as the exploitative practices of behemoths like Amazon or the stress caused by zero-hours contracts. We have not yet hit on an idea that can compete with the transformative change to people’s lives offered by the Right to Buy.
So what else is on the table? Perhaps, when it comes to the cutting edge of new left thinking on these issues, the workplace isn’t really where the action is – at least not directly. Perhaps we need to be tapping into people’s desire to escape the ‘rat race’ altogether and have more freedom to pursue the things that really make us happy – time with our families, access to nature, the space to look after ourselves, connection with our communities. The four day working week (crucially with no loss of pay) has real potential as a flagship policy in this respect. The Conservatives and the right-wing press may be laughing it down with jokes about Labour being lazy and feckless, but perhaps this is because they are rattled. Ultimately, they can’t escape the fact that most people would like to spend less time at work.
Skilfully communicated, this has the potential to be a profoundly anti-neoliberal policy that conveys a new story about what we aspire to, individually and as a society. Where neoliberalism tapped into people’s desire for more personal freedom and hooked this to the acquisition of wealth, property and consumer choice, we can refocus on the freedom to live the lives we truly want. Instead of offering freedom through the market, we can offer freedom from the market.
Proponents of Universal Basic Income often argue that it fulfils a similar function of liberating people from work and detaching our ability to provide for ourselves from the marketplace for labour. But in material terms, it’s unlikely that a UBI could be set at a level that would genuinely offer people this freedom, at least in the short term. And in narrative terms, UBI is actually a highly malleable policy that is equally susceptible to being co-opted by a libertarian agenda. Even at its best, it is really a policy about redistribution of already existing wealth (albeit on a bigger scale than the welfare state as it stands). To truly overturn neoliberalism, we need to go beyond this and talk about collective ownership and creation of wealth.
Policies that focus on collective control of assets may do a better job of replacing a narrative about individual property ownership with one that highlights the actual concentration of property wealth in the hands of elites – and the need to reclaim these assets for the common good. As well as Inclusive Ownership Funds, another way of doing this is through Citizens’ Wealth Funds, which socialise profitable assets (be it natural resources or intangible ones such as data) and use the proceeds to pay dividends to individuals or communities. Universal Basic Services – for instance, policies such as free publicly owned buses – may be another.
Finally, I’d like to make a plea for care work as a critical area that merits further attention to develop convincing flagship policies – be it on universal childcare, elderly care or support for unpaid carers. The instinctive attachment that many of us feel to a public NHS needs to be widened to promote a broader right to care and be cared for, whilst firmly resisting the marketisation of care. Although care is often marginalised in political debate, as a new mum, I’m acutely aware that it is fundamental to millions of people’s ability to live the lives they want. In an ageing population, most people now have lived experience of the pressures of caring for someone – whether a parent or a child. By talking about these issues, we move the terrain of political contestation away from the work valued by the market and onto the work we all know really matters; away from the competition for scarce resources and onto our ability to look after each other. And surely, that’s exactly where the left wants it to be.
This article forms part of the “Left governmentality” mini series for openDemocracy.
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