The Incompatibility of Neoliberal Rational and Climate Action

Alexi Barnstone - Politics & Economics


“Neoliberalism— the ideas, the institutions, the policies, the political rationality— has, along with its spawn, financialization, likely shaped recent world history as profoundly as any other nameable phenomenon in the same period” 

- Wendy Brown


Like other word-altering formations such as socialism, capitalism, Christianity, or liberalism, neoliberalism has no settled definition. But, as Wendy Brown notes, this fact does not vitiate its world changing power. In her recent book In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The rise of Anti-Democratic Politics in the West Wendy Brown outlines two general understandings of neoliberalism, each of which speaks to the striking power of the phenomenon as well as its incompatibility with climate change’s need for collectivised, decisive action. 


The first thing people think of when they think of neoliberalism is the neo-Marxist approach, which views neoliberalism as “an opportunistic attack by capitalists and their political lackeys on Keynesian welfare states, social democracies and state socialism.” This is neoliberalism as market fundamentalism, the unwavering trust that what is best for society is a free-market, untarnished by the forces of government regulation. This conception places trust in the power of the free-market at the bedrock of neoliberal thought, and from this stem all the political and social consequences: the deregulation of capital, the breaking up of organized labor, the privatization of public goods and services, the reduction of progressive taxation, and the shrinking of the social state. 


The neo-Marxist understanding, perhaps somewhat ironically, is what we commonly flock to when considering neoliberalism. It takes the concept as an economic theory, dismantling barriers to capital flows and creating a race for cheap labor, resources and tax havens. The ramifications of such romantic market fundamentalism are felt in every corner of the economic mechanism.  Inevitably, the race to cheap labor and free flowing capital have led to poorer living standards for the working-class and middle-class populations in the Global North and uneven development in the Global South, as companies flock to whichever country can provide the cheapest workers to exploit. What is the result? Eight men now hold as much money as the poorer half of the world’s population: 3.6 billion people. 


Neoliberalism is especially ill-equipped to deal with the threat of climate change, which demands decisive action now. Blind faith in the markets is reactionary by its very nature, waiting for the demand side of neoclassical economic charts to change, then shifting the output of corporations. But, when a crisis demands decisive action, waiting for consumer demand to shift is illogical. For the systemic changes to occur necessary to affect meaningful change at a national and global level government intervention is necessary: subsidize green energy, invest in renewable infrastructure, ban fossil fuels. The planet cannot afford to wait. 


But this isn’t the only way neoliberalism, as a broad encompassing force, impacts our ability to address climate change. Another understanding of it, which comes from Foucault, also has a profound impact on our ability to address the crisis head on.  Foucault offers a different conceptualization of neoliberalism: the ‘reprogramming of liberalism.’ For Foucault, neoliberalism is a kind of novel political rationality, which extends far beyond economic policy and capital. Rather, market principles as a rationality permeate throughout political and social institutions and entities such as schools and workplaces. These principles affect more than the economic; they govern every sphere of existence. It guides our mores, social interactions and our political understanding. On this account, neoliberalism is not merely economic policy, but the essence behind a new kind of governing political reason, which produces a new kind of political and social subject. In other words, neoliberalism impacts the self, producing a subject centrally defined by its tenets.  Competition and capital enhancement become the characteristics of the political agent, a kind of financialization of the individual occurs. This is intensely different from the individual of classical liberalism, which centres on exchange and the satisfaction of needs.


What is the significance of the neoliberal rationality, and the kind of political subject it produces, for climate change? It means a failure to collectively address systemic challenges in our contemporary. The neoliberal subject, competitive and self-serving, is defined by a radical form of individualism - concerned primarily with self enrichment, self promotion and self achievement. This political subject is not inclined toward the collective plight, nor do they pursue what is in the common interest.  They treat climate change at the individual level first. How could such an individual be compatible with the challenges of climate change? Which disproportionately affects different groups and threatens us in unique and systemic ways?


In her recent book Wendy Brown suggests that these two conceptions of neoliberalism, the neo-Marxist account of neoliberalism as economic theory and the Foucaultian account of neoliberalism as a political rationality, are not incompatible, but rather two sides to the same broad coin – underpinned by free-market principles. I am inclined to agree. In our treatment of neoliberalism we must view it as both the Foucaultian and neo-Marxist conceptions, we must see these two conceptions “as featuring different dimensions of the neoliberal transformations taking place around the world in the past four decades.”


And crucially, we must remain cognizant of the threat to meaningful action that both sides of this coin carries. In the future, we must move past neoliberalism, not just as an economic theory, but as a political rationality, for the sake of the planet.


Written by Alexi Barnstone

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