The Peculiar ‘Freedom’ of Neo-Liberalism

Neo-liberalism thrives off a reversal that seems to paradoxically eliminate the “liberties” of classical liberalism.

‘Freedom’, or more specifically personal development, is only encouraged in neo-liberalism if it fosters competition.  You are ‘free’ to enjoy hobbies like home-brewing or gardening but even those self-entrepreneurial activities come at a cost — they count against you in the event you lag behind (at your job, in school, or in the more amorphous area of social and cultural capital), marking your penchant for unnecessary luxuries that distract you from the more important aspects of competitive life — demonstrating that you’re not doing your share in upholding the common principles of pure competition.

Of course this isn’t new, but I think a succinct characterization of the “anti-freedom” of neo-liberalism.  If this adequately sums up neo-liberalism, would neo-liberals on principle oppose everything that is non-competitive?  Maybe the most stalwart defenders, but it seems to me that they still have many other commitments they’re beholden too, entitlements or ‘freedoms’ that should be held sacred and therefore free from pure market logic.  Or are there people who would ‘sell you the shirt off their back’ or ‘sell you the noose to hang them with’ as the attages go?

5 thoughts on “The Peculiar ‘Freedom’ of Neo-Liberalism

  1. hm, but isn’t that ‘freedom’ sort of just an ideological mystification? i suppose freedom for the bourgeois subject is real enough, but how seriously can we really take ‘freedom’? i mean, it gets transformed into its opposite so often (‘They hate our freedom, therefore we must destroy them’)

  2. i guess that’s the question. like you said — it does seem to be freedom, but a very limited form of freedom.

    if we unpack it more and more:
    1) subjects are blamed for engaging in non-competitive activity — they’re “taking on risk” and if it hurts them, “it’s their fault” for not seeking pure competition
    2) many (most?) forms of competitive activity, if they don’t lead to “pure competition” are actually ‘hurting competition’

    so – competition not only builds in a winner and a loser, but it creates a system where you’re obligated to help create losers but only rewarded with comparative advantage, not absolute advantage. it justifies itself on system-wide maximization of total advantage through an equilibrium of mutually-competitive behavior, but total advantage is completely independent of the distribution of that advantage (and is usually used to retroactively justify starting positions — see pareto optimality).

    maybe this is just simple non-cooperative game theory that any math-minded social scientist would tell me is idiotically too simple to be useful, but i find it a pretty elegant explanation for why neo-liberalism is – as you remark – ideological in the last instance (because it can never guarantee you absolute advantage and requires you to compete to not become a loser).

  3. i guess another way to state it is —

    within neo-liberalism, you’re only “free” to engage in less-than-purely competitive activity, as long as you’re willing to suffer the “cost”.

    or said in another way — there is a quantifiable cost to each exercise of “freedom” within neo-liberalism: the amount of value lost from an otherwise purely competitive field when one engages in a less-than-purely competitive activity.

    i feel like this is stupid, silly, and too simple. can anyone set me on the right path?

  4. I’m not convinced by your encapsulation of neo-liberalism. This dichotomy of competitive / less-than-purely competitive doesn’t feel right. a) Competition is more about the creation gradients than winners & losers. b) I would read hobbies as the discharge of excess, a produced desire for relaxation, and thus firmly within the competitive sphere. c) perhaps an interesting place to look are hobbies such as the roller-derby revival which on the one hand are competitive, and even monetized, but are also counter-cultural in their community grass-roots non-slickness.

  5. According to its own principles neo-liberalism is no more and no less than an attempt to maximize pure competition.

    But as Patrick pointed out – it seems to be for ideological justifications. Like I wrote in that neo-liberalism paper a few posts ago — neo-lib may be more important as an explanation/justification for poverty (you didn’t contribute to pure competition, it’s your own fault) or hyper-wealth (they were cut throat, they deserve it!). And really, its own rational choice models are probably terrible at actually modeling the system.

    As as your B — I think what i was trying to do was derive activity’s ‘competitiveness’ _from_ pure competition. Therefore, while things might seem like they’re competitive in nature, the only way to truly tell if they’re “purely competitive” it to determine system-wide pure competition (game theorists and economists, correct me if I’m wrong, I only studied this stuff in undergrad) and then examine each actors deviation from it. So in some cases, the most competitive activities when looked at individually in a vacuum might not be competitive at all. In others, activities that are competition-driven might not foster the type of competition that leads to pure competition among all the other actors, so they’re actually non-competitive (of a sort) — the easiest example being monopolistic competition.

    And it’s there in which I think our judgments about rollerderby, or any other counter-cultural activity might need to change significantly under neo-liberalism. *To tell if something “is neo-liberal” is not to look at first principles or even intentions!* Rather, it means to look at how well it contributes to the current system-wide drives to pure competition.

    Let’s look at the book/movie Fight Club, for instance. The mens pleasure clubs at first actually helped people work off the excess pressures left over from the work day. The internal competition of the club ultimately worked to foster a solidarity among fight club participants. The participants felt good about fight club, because despite their job or social capital, ‘the fight’ was the great leveler. But what Tyler eventually figured out was that letting off the steam from work might have just been making them more eager, productive, docile workers . So then, while not completely disbanding Fight Club, they construct a completely new world who directs the attention to mischief-making. But on an additional level, capitalism is characterized by structural over-production and under-employment. Therefore, as capitalism necessarily needs goods consumed (whether by fire or by use) and workers to not have jobs, even Project Mayhem seems to be the perfect place to temporarily house these dissident subjects to enroll them in ostensibly anti-capitalist projects while actually easing the structural limitations of the capitalist system. The only proper way to really figure out if various aspects of Fight Club are contributing or detracting from neo-liberalism would be to do a non-linear systems analysis! Self-identification, purpose, etc — all those attempts at a priori evaluations don’t suit that nature of neo-liberalism’s leading tendency.

    I think Deleuze’s Societies of Control ( ) and Tiqqun’s elaboration in cybernetic hypothesis ( ) are great in this regard.

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