“What is neoliberalism?” The young American student looks at me with faux innocence of the wide-eyed sort. She’s not sure what it is. “Can you explain?” Sniggers precede and succeed the question.

With that little question-and-snigger, neoliberal hegemony re-iterates its reach across the Atlantic Ocean to South Africa, by way of that island that formerly hosted the empire that wrought the world we live in today. Yes, the US student has an unlikely counterpart in a middle-aged Afrikaner male editor of a newspaper where I used to work.

The editor asked me the exact same question a decade ago: “What is neoliberalism?” It was after I’d used the word in a front-page article of the newspaper. “Our readers don’t know what it is, so we shouldn’t use the word. What does it mean, anyway.”

It was a rhetorical question in the spirit of the rising populism in the Afrikaans media. The question suggested that even if neoliberalism exists, it sounds complex and populism disallows complexity.

The resonance across the Atlantic Ocean comes via the island that left few territories in the world unscathed when it elaborated its toxic combination of railways and pillage, and the project of carving the world in the image of British, white, middle-class hetero-masculinity in the 19th and 20th centuries.

In an adjusted confluence of similar elements, the same island spawned Thatcherism a few decades later. In contrast to the recent cinematic hagiography on former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, she is known for a few things other than senility and daydreams about a dead husband. More particularly, she along with her dancing partner US president Ronald Reagan, inaugurated in policy what is called neoliberalism. And she added the oft-quoted (by leftist critics) phrase: “There is no alternative”, or TINA.

“There is no alternative” means this is it – “the end of history”, as Francis Fukuyama (recently fêted by Mbeki-ite Joel Netshitenzhe’s think tank) boasted. It means “stop questioning, stop resisting, stop thinking because this is it”. It is a normalising phrase, designed to engender compliance. It’s an injunction.

But we can’t call it that. We’re so well versed, so immersed in TINA, that even to name that to which there is no alternative cannot be tolerated. It’s like questioning God. Hence the question-with-snigger: “What is neoliberalism?” Because when you name it, it’s there, it’s an identifiable object that can be turned over and analysed. And that is an affront to the upholders of the injunction TINA.

So, I repeated the words that I’d said to my editor a decade ago: it’s an identifiable, discrete set of economic policies of, among others, privatisation and deregulation at its most basic level. Fortunately, in the past 10 years more people have thought the unthinkable. They have not been cowed by Thatcher’s injunction. So I could also recommend political scientist Wendy Brown to the student and critical race theorist David Theo Goldberg, by way of post-colonial thinker Achille Mbembe. We can now think of neoliberalism as a mode of rationality hegemonising the social sphere. It does not stop at economics but goes to what makes individuals.

This would explain why individuals would defend it so vehemently, because it is a way of understanding the world and themselves in it. It draws on liberalism for some of its building blocks, such as the notion of the individual as a rational, free and autonomous agent. But this agent specifically constructs itself through consumerism. You are what you buy. Which is why you are “free”, because “freedom” lies in consumerist choice.

Here we can already see ominous cracks appearing, because we know that not everybody can buy things. How can you make yourself and be free if you can’t buy? This is where the neoliberal snigger turns into a sneer. Individuals who can’t shop are redundant. Because if you are poor, you have to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” and aspire to middle-class consumption. If you cannot muster that, you are lazy, stupid, Godless and generally undeserving and by that token a member of the undesirables.

Thatcher comes in handy again: “there is no such thing as society”. If an individual cannot “make it”, that’s her/his problem. The contextual conditions producing the problem are erased. This is what lies behind the punitive measures accompanying the dismantling of social security in the US, Britain and western Europe. The latest Tory assault on sick and disabled people is an example. Thatcher’s party is pushing ahead with a policy that the Labour Party was flirting with before it was ousted: welfare reforms aimed at removing support from disabled people and which is specifically hitting people with long-term chronic illnesses and mental health conditions.

Despite the context of the highest unemployment rate in two decades, you have to prove your worth by working – otherwise you’ll be denied basic human rights of dignity, health and freedom of movement. To smuggle it through, the middle-class righteous express their disgust at the “idleness” of the ill who are “festering” on benefits. The objectives and real effects of the policy are obfuscated.

The same logic lies behind Democratic Alliance city councillor Dave Bryant’s recent attack on the derelict in Cape Town. He brought a motion to make the Company Gardens “vagrant”-free. According to the Cape Times, “It will no longer be possible to snooze on Cape Town’s Company Gardens benches because the city plans to remove ‘problematic’ benches used to sleep on and replace them with more ‘creative’ seating”. Bryant is quoted in the Cape Times as saying: ” … some of the benches did not have a bar in the middle and therefore encouraged people, mostly vagrants, to lie down and sleep rather than sit.” This is neoliberalism enacted: depoliticise and decontextualise the expulsion of unworthy others.

In other words, let’s not think about why some people are “vagrants” who sleep in parks (as opposed to a plush kingsize bed that some sleep on in their three-bedroom houses). Let’s rather think about the lack of a bar in the middle of the park bench. But let’s make it fun too, and dress it in the kinds of terms that legitimise the noble bourgeois pursuit. Bryant adds: “By utilising creative inspiration and inventive design, it is possible to create pieces of more functional art, which can also help to create a safer and more vibrant environment in a public space like the Company’s Garden.” Thus Bryant, with the help of the Cape Times reporter, positions sleeping “vagrants” as the opposite of safety and vibrancy.

Having thoroughly justified the exclusion of the redundant, the state deploys lethal force to render that exclusion final. This is, following the thinking of Mbembe and Goldberg, the final twist of the knife in the race-infused necropolitics of the neoliberal state. Its most recent incident was Marikana, where the necropolitics of neoliberal expulsion was taken to its logical conclusion.



Christi van der Westhuizen

Dr Christi van der Westhuizen is an award-winning political columnist and the author of the book Working Democracy: Perspectives on South Africa's Parliament at 20 Years, available for download...

Leave a comment