Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

Neoliberalism, Public Policy and Public Opinion

Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

Neoliberalism, Public Policy and Public Opinion

Article excerpt


Many accounts of neoliberalism present it as a totalising discourse that has permeated modern attitudes, beliefs and policy settings. Neoliberalism is said, variously, to represent the 'common-sense of the times' (Peck & Tickell, 2002:381) and to consist in the subjective normalisation of core ideas around individual responsibility and boundless competition (Dardot & Laval, 2014). This claim - that neoliberal ideas, as expressed in language, policy settings and institutions, act as a mental straitjacket constraining people's capacity to apprehend competing values - is explored and problematised in Humpage's (2014, 2015) study of attitudinal changes since the 1990s. Her analysis of quantitative and qualitative data suggests that individual subjectivities remain multi-faceted and nuanced. While the public may have "rolled over" and accepted core neoliberal ideas in relation to some policy areas, there has been only limited acceptance of such values in relation to others.

Humpage's 2014 book, then, can be seen as a complicating work that resists grand statements and over-simplifications. If neoliberalism has colonised the ways in which people think about themselves and the world, then competing and conflicting beliefs and values appear able to co-exist, and to assume different degrees of salience at different times, in different places, and in relation to different issues. Humpage's book, looking at neoliberal policies and public attitudes, asks 'does neoliberalism matter?' In this article I consider how neoliberalism matters: in what ways does it act as a 'reality principle, remaking institutions and human beings' (Brown, 2015: 35), even as contrary opinions and attitudes remain available and salient? In doing so, I draw on new focus group data that explores how people think about and debate an issue that has not been well explored in extant survey data: the situation of low-wage workers. I consider, more specifically, the dynamic whereby a majority of focus group participants (when asked individually) agreed that low-paid workers should be paid more, but were easily persuaded that higher wages for the low-paid are simply impossible, given the constraining power of "market realities".

The experience of neo-liberalism

The idea and the impacts of neo-liberalism are central to Humpage's project: two articles (2008, 2011) reference the idea of 'neoliberal reform', and the subtitle of her (2014) book is 'does neoliberalism matter?' It is somewhat surprising, then (especially given the contested nature of the term) that her book does not offer an explicit, extended definition of neoliberalism. It is clear, however, that neoliberalism is understood as a negative: Humpage (2015: 87) seeks to rally support for the proposition - threatened by neoliberal values - that everyone has a right to 'a basic level of economic and social security'. Humpage accepts Peck and Tickell's (2002) 'périodisation' of neo-liberalism, which sees neoliberal reform as consisting of a roll-back phase (during which state activity is rolledback through such means such as welfare retrenchment, privatisation and deregulation) and a roll-out phase (where the changes wrought by the initial phase are embedded through a focus on 'social inclusion 'and 'strategic social investment' in human capital (Humpage, 2014: 26). Peck and Tickell's approach assumes that neoliberalism is, to use Brown's (2015: 21) words, 'globally ubiquitous, yet disunified and nonidentical with itself in space and over time.' Humpage seeks to extend this model in two directions. She insists that neoliberalisms vary not just across time and space, but also across policy areas. And she posits (2014: 34) a third "roll-over" phase in which the public comes to 'endorse neoliberal values or at least accept their inevitability.'

In the first instance, then, neoliberalism can be understood as a more-orless coherent bundle of policy prescriptions (since specific variations still relate to an archetypical ideal-type neoliberalism). …

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