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neoLiberalism and The rise of Populist Nationalism

5 min read


Hipster Demigods

Two Good looking men discuss their sexual exploits

Photo credit: Ralph Alswang, Office of the President – Clinton Presidential Library, Public Domain,

People today are feeling very "dis-empowered". On the local level popular will is overturned behind closed doors by politicians and capitalist oligarchs. Be it in Seattle  Washington Athens Greece or Brixton England. In response to these feelings of inadequacy and lack of agency, people turn to politicians that promise to turn the tables, making america great or by bargaining with corporate overlords.

Understanding the current political / economic environment helps bring clarity to our situation. Neoliberalism is the water we swim in it is the air we breath. We are so accustomed to it we do not notice.


Points of Reference:

TINA or there is no alternative

Rules and democracy therefore don’t mix well. Rules are used to back up the insistence that there is no alternative (TINA). There is no value in even discussing alternatives because we have rules to follow. Tumlir also explained that international rules could help save national politicians from internal pressures: ‘The international economic order [could act] as an additional means of entrenchment protecting national sovereignty against internal erosion.’ In this Orwellian formulation ‘protecting national sovereignty’ implies its opposite. It instead means protecting the national political establishment from the wishes of a nation’s people....... From The Truth About Neoliberalism

Who is neoliberal?

I would invert the question to ask who is not a neoliberal today. A governing rationality like neoliberalism organizes and constructs a great deal of conduct and a great many values without appearing to do so. It produces “reality principles” by which we live without thinking about them. Thus, almost everyone in workplaces, social media presentations, educational institutions, non-profits, the arts, and more is governed by neoliberal norms. It’s quite hard to escape neoliberal rationality, including for those who imagine that they are radically critical of it. Consider, for example, how many left intellectuals use their social media profiles—Twitter, Facebook, etc.—not to build the Revolution, but to promote their books, speaking gigs, and ideas in order to boost their market value. This has become so ubiquitous that we hardly notice it.

Of course you are right that very few people acting in neoliberal fashion—that is, constantly attending to their human capital portfolio—call themselves neoliberals. Nor do economists and behavioral social scientists and policy makers, almost all of whom are working in a neoliberal framework today, use the appellation very often. It’s a loose and adaptable term, but I don’t think this means we should abandon it, any more than we should abandon the terms “capitalism,” “socialism,” or “liberalism” just because they are open and contestable in meaning. Neoliberalism is semiotically loose, but designates something very specific. It represents a distinctive kind of valorization and liberation of capital. It makes economics the model of everything, which is why in Undoing the Demos I spoke of its economization of democracy in particular and politics more generally. It has brought a libertarian inflection of freedom to every sphere, even, strangely, the sphere of morality.   ... From Who is not Neoliberal


On the one hand, I would argue that only when democracies have already been devalued, weakened, and diminished in meaning—as they have been under neoliberalism—could a full-scale assault on democracy from the right take place as we see today. So this authoritarian—I’m wary of using the term “populist”—contempt for liberal democratic institutions and values we see sweeping across the Euro-Atlantic world has a lot to do with three decades of devaluing and diminishing democracy. But on the other hand, many of these assaults on democracy take place in democracy’s name. Their claims are made in the name of freedom and patriotism, which in turn are equated with democracy. These claims are continuous with the neoliberal notion of democracy. They come from the insistence that markets and morals are what ought to be governing us, and that statism ought to be used to promote that.


So this is not a radical break from neoliberalism. You’re right that it’s no longer the “hollowed-out” neoliberal democracy we saw under Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, but it was made possible by it and extends important aspects of it. Trump was certainly not able to mobilize conservatives and Evangelicals to vote for him because we’ve suddenly become “overrun” with immigrants from the South. The ground for Trump’s rise was tilled not just by neoliberalism’s destruction of viable lives and futures for working and middle-class populations through the global outsourcing of jobs, the race to the bottom in wages and taxes, and the destruction of public goods, including education. This ground was also tilled by neoliberalism’s valorization of markets and morals and its devaluation of democracy and politics, Constitutionalism and social justice.  ....... From Who is not Neoliberal