Neoliberalism does not technically adhere to sacred texts, but it is devoted to certain arbitrary laws and alleged unyielding truths readily comparable to religious dogma. The ideology has attained genuine, even hegemonic adherence in Western society.
Neoliberalism has gradually undermined our fundamental democratic principles and spurred authoritarian rule, declaring what is ‘true’ and ‘good’ without any reference to factuality. It was, for instance, crucially instrumental in facilitating the justification for invading Iraq in 2003, when the otherwise illegal military operation became a struggle between good and evil, and the actual aggressors became the “bearers of liberty.”
Neoliberalism builds on Adam Smith’s free market principles those which, when accurately applied, will maximize everyone’s happiness. For Smith’s theory to cohere, it needs to rely on certain premises: that humans are rational economic actors, that private property rights are inalienable and that “consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production.” This is where the issue arises. With the blessing of modern neoliberal economists, these premises are no longer considered theory. Now, they are inescapable truths.
In reality, they were Smith’s presuppositions, and they are some quite arbitrary assumptions at that. Some would call them patently absurd, and they were exposed as such by Marx and Engels. Yet, when confronted with criticism that points out recurring economic crises and bankruptcies of economies, which have followed the neoliberal model, advocates of the theory blame the failures on individual actors’ incapacity to live up to market standards. It is the natural mechanism of the market, that those who work hard and present competent enterprises are rewarded, while those unwilling or incapable of performing must be penalised. Here, the ideology takes on the role of moral judge in addition to its economic function – dogma becomes obvious. Rather than the science of capitalism, neoliberalism is its theology: God cannot be blamed if sinners find themselves in hell, and to avoid hell you must live a virtuous life.
Furthermore, the forces behind neoliberalism have adamantly directed all resources into spreading its principles to all aspects of life, thus, the missionary aspect surfaces. Its emergence and gradual entrenchment in society can be traced back to key events during the latter half of the 20th century that were fuelled by wide-spread economic discontent and a fear of increasing appeal to socialism. There was, for example, the establishment of the Business Roundtable, the proliferation of corporate political action committees, and the Washington Consensus in 1990. Corporate and financial powers allied with the Republican Party, incorporated the leaders of the Christian Right, and merged vastly distinct ideas such as business, patriotism, and religion – like a natural trinity – which resulted in a significant portion of the white Christian middle-class being framed into voting for what they were convinced to believe were the morally superior policies, blinded to the fact that they were voting against their own material interests.
Fast-forwarding to today’s state of affairs, market-based policies have become a priority across the political spectrum: privatisation of education, media, health, infrastructure, financial institutions, and prisons is considered the most profitable and efficient way of running things. Countries have opened their borders in the name of free markets. The most powerful international financial institutions – IMF, WTO, World Bank – all adhere to neoliberal principles, and any country’s single transaction with any one of them equals a binding deal to conform to their neoliberal rules or face serious penalties. Even as the theory is regularly invalidated – mounting social inequality, corporate centralisation, internationalisation and extreme monopolization for every failure, the call goes out for more neoliberal reform the parasite is used as remedy.
With our current reality of historically high inequality, it is difficult to find an explanation for neoliberalism’s appeal, especially amongst those standing on the losing end. Some have identified the appeal in the idea of empowerment: with neoliberalism, we are not only responsible but also in charge of our destiny. Indeed, the qualities ascribed to neoliberalism bear a messianic resemblance with a gospel of salvation. It promises every true follower complete freedom to choose their destiny. For neoliberalism to have become a hegemonic mode of discourse, it necessarily needed to appeal to core values within our population, and it accomplished this through the articulation of political ideals like the very ones we looked to, when we divorced ourselves from religious dogma during the Enlightenment: individual liberty and freedom. Maybe it is time to revise our liberties.