Neoliberalism: pernicious ideology or vacuous insult?

For left-leaning economists such as David Harvey, the term “neoliberalism” perfectly sums up the mix of laissez-faire economics, centrist politics and market supremacy that has held sway in the west for 40 years. While in 2016, the IMF said neoliberalism could be of enormous benefit where it conferred “financial openness”, but acknowledged some of its elements were overplayed and potential causes of instability.

Yet is it anything more than a vacuous insult? It never appeared in the FT’s old Lexicon and other commentators, including our very own Martin Wolf, continue to doubt its usefulness. “I have never been clear what it means, except that it is a term of abuse,” he says. “To me, the correct description is ‘classical liberal’ — a belief in personal liberty, with a strong emphasis on economic liberty.”

Aiming to get to the bottom of the term, Darren Cullen and Gavin Grindon have launched a show in southeast London to explain how it has shaped our lives.

© Murray Withers

The exhibition starts with neoliberalism’s origins, joining the dots between Friedrich August von Hayek, Milton Friedman and the policies carried out by Chicago Boys economists in Chile, the Latin American country undergoing its latest reaction to free-market policies under Sebastián Piñera. Economic and political trends such as Reaganism, Thatcherism, the Washington Consensus, Socialism with Chinese Characteristics and Market Fundamentalism are placed under its aegis.

© Curators’ image. 

A mixture of art prank and provocative statement, this little exhibition’s charm lies not so much in the visual explainers of the trends that helped to bury the postwar Keynesian Consensus, as in the pieces on show. They include a recent Delta Airlines campaign urging staff to deunionise and spend the money saved on video games; a model of an Amazon Fulfilment Centre, including the big-brother handset that dictated the heavy workload and a bottle of urine from a sacked worker who had precious little time for bodily functions; and a Hornby Virgin Pendolino train — in a nod to Richard Branson’s now defunct West Coast Mainline franchise, which ran its final services last weekend. The show’s “national asset departures” mock timetable makes the broader point about the great sell-off of rail franchises (often to operators owned by the states of other countries).

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© Curators’ image
© Curators’ image

Visitors may wonder whether one or two items are real; Cullen assured me they are. These include Scout badges sponsored by big business. Expertise in foresting comes backed by Esso, for example (so upset I missed out on that era of corporate scouting).

The curators have a good eye for spotting trends which they see as symptoms of neoliberal society. Take Teen Boss, a short-lived Bauer Media magazine for young female entrepreneurs. These overworked child influencers link well with the notorious advert for the Fiverr website for precarious freelancers (“sleep deprivation is your drug of choice”) and clever curated social media feeds featuring the advert for tours of Amazon’s warehouses, a prospect that may not please some workers. Light-touch regulation is singled out for enabling both poor conditions in gig economy workplaces and the risky materials used on buildings, illustrated by a mock-up of the cladding structure used on the destroyed Grenfell Tower in west London.

With the idea of neoliberalism under sustained pressure since the financial crisis, and the FT’s New Agenda advocating measured “reform of corporate capitalism”, the show is likely to attract both enthusiastic supporters of substantial change as well as critics who deride the show for peddling Adam Curtis-style messages about the capitalist system. Though the liner notes are generally thorough, a little more on aspects such as how companies fuel consumer desires, or the mechanics of globalisation, or how increasing inequality has bred populism, might have been useful.

The curators plastered posters on bus shelters warning against the messages peddled by billionaire media barons and bemoaning the effects of a decade of Tory austerity. As the UK’s general election nears, it is clear on which side of the ideological divide they lie. Third-way reform won’t cut it for them. Cullen says the neoliberal mode of thinking is not up to the job of tackling climate change: “Our ability to imagine the state taking on large, important tasks has become so atrophied by decades of politicians telling us there is no alternative to a shrinking and increasingly cruel state.”

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Exiting via the gift shop, there’s a bounty of satirical art in the form of t-shirts, posters, stickers and other curios such as Cullen’s Action Man: Battlefield Casualty figurines. Perfect for the anti-capitalist in your life.

The Museum of Neoliberalism, on Eltham Road in Lee SE12, remains open in December and into the New Year. Murray Withers is the FT’s assistant analysis editor.

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