Two recent works of political theory evocatively capture the origins of the state of perverse unfreedom in which we live today. French philosopher Grégoire Chamayou’s The Ungovernable Society: A Genealogy of Authoritarian Liberalism (originally published in 2018 and translated by Wiley in 2021) and British writer Stuart Jeffries’ Everything, All The Time, Everywhere: How We Became Postmodern (Verso, 2021) help readers understand the origins of the shift to neoliberalism from the 1970s to now, the repercussions of this move and how we can shift away from it.
In their influential 1980 documentary and accompanying book Free to Choose, neoliberal economists Milton and Rose Friedman argued that an unrestrained free market was the solution to social problems. They claimed that governments and unions were holding back human progress and innovation. Milton Friedman, who won the 1976 Nobel Prize for economics, also believed that democracy was the enemy of freedom and that individuals were primarily consumers who could better express their preferences with their wallets than with their vote.
Friedman supported the 1973 coup in Chile, where popular democratic socialist Salvador Allende was overthrown by right-wing authoritarian Augusto Pinochet. Despite the junta unleashing police terror on civilians, including the execution of hundreds of leftists in football stadiums, Friedman endorsed the state that adopted his favoured free-market policies. He believed capitalism was synonymous with freedom, making a military dictatorship preferable to a reformist, moderate Left government that respected civil liberties.
In the following decades, many of Freidman’s and other right-wing libertarian ideas were applied by governments from Beijing to Pretoria. But far from creating a free-market utopia, we live in a world that provides fewer opportunities for the majority than in the 1970s. A World Inequality Database report released in 2021 conclusively showed that rising incomes for the super-rich have been directly accompanied by lowered social mobility for the impoverished and middle classes.
As inequality and impoverishment reach new heights, even the former middle classes are finding themselves both overworked and less socially mobile, which can be seen in rising levels of depression and anxiety. Rather than a world of open borders and free minds, we are increasingly encircled by what political theorist William I Robinson called the “global police state” of surveillance and growing walls.
Friedman believed that Homo economicus – a person motivated entirely by profit with no interest beyond accumulation – was the glorious end point of all historical endeavour. But, despite marketers and media influencers claiming we have more choice than ever, the grim social conditions of the 2020s feel like a cage surrounded by blaring video billboards that pacify us with false images of unattainable luxury and autonomy.
How we got here
Chamayou began his book in the early 1970s. Across both the Global North and South, radical reforms and social interventions to regulate capitalism had resulted in rising living standards. This increased pressure on social power structures brought on calls for more radical, direct democracy. From decolonial movements to feminism’s refusal of male despostism over women, the era was defined by a new sense of emerging human freedom, and of shared collective and individual emancipation.
But from the perspective of corporate managers and politicians, it was seen as an attack on the entire socioeconomic order. Marshalling a huge web of documentation, from the reports of conservative think tanks to the internal memos of business people who felt their staff was becoming too unruly, Chamayou makes the compelling argument that the neoliberal shift was fuelled by a sense of crisis among elites.
Their tactical response was two-pronged. It entailed pushing for new “monetarist” policies to restore the power of capital, through lowering taxes, undermining unions and chipping away at social safety networks. By making life harder for working people, it was believed, they would be dissuaded from the popular radicalism that the social revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s had brought about. Ideological indoctrination sustained this new direction. Anti-corporate campaigners had given big business a bad name, by exposing its complicity in the crimes of the Vietnam War, support for the apartheid government in South Africa and many other explotative practices. In response, corporate marketers and politicians such as Margaret Thatcher presented capitalism as a radical force opposed to the cold bureaucracy and ossified forms of state control. They took the popular ideals of freedom and hollowed them out, reducing them to the limited scope of economic choice.
This idea of freedom was a pretext for growing authoritarianism. Chamayou demonstrates that workers have consistently seen the disappearance of workplace democracy and must now endure extended working hours, reduced salaries and intensified surveillance in factories and offices.
In his book, Jeffries explores how this ideological shift was accompanied by postmodernism. The term is often seen as a boogeyman – the Right claims it means a nihilistic rejection of traditional values, and many leftists have interpreted it as an attack on the values of social progress.
Jeffries demystifies both these approaches. He shows that postmodernism emerged in the 1970s as a suspicion of “grand narratives”, with a focus rather on flippancy, change and play. For example, the architecture of public housing schemes was seen as cold and inhumane, leading to calls for developers to learn from the colour and energy of commercial advertising in cities like Las Vegas. Pop icon David Bowie showed that identity and personality were fluid by changing appearance in each album. Hip-hop, which emerged from the decaying urban conditions of New York in the late 1970s, used the technique of sampling old songs to create the future sound of music.
But these benign experiments disguised how the Right and capital benefitted from postmodernism because it also brought about the sense that innovation is no longer possible, that there is nothing beyond the consumer economies of today. This has allowed the Right to normalise neoliberalism as the only viable way to organise society. Even if we feel nothing works and that we live in an ever-worsening corporate dystopia, we are constantly reminded that there is no alternative.
But as both these engaging and richly detailed works show, neoliberalism is a historical and political project that is only a few decades old. It is not an unassailable fortress, but a flimsy ideological construction that, as the recent rejection of the Pinochet-era Constitution in Chile shows, can be contested.
The revolts of the 1960s showed that rather than creating an opposition between personal freedom and social justice, improved conditions increased the scope of individual liberty. The Left needs to reclaim the concept of freedom from the Right and advance a vision of human emancipation that shows neoliberalism to be the authoritarian mirage it is.