Can We Re-Imagine a Good Society after Neoliberalism?

By Barns, Ian | Arena Journal, January 1, 2018 | Go to article overview

Can We Re-Imagine a Good Society after Neoliberalism?


Barns, Ian, Arena Journal


In the conversations that led to this volume, there was a common agreement that the challenge of navigating beyond 'neoliberalism' is central to dealing with the present daunting civilisation crisis - of which disruptive climate change is the most prominent (albeit not the only) symptom. Like many on the Left, we have been perplexed by the resilience of the neoliberal regime even after the global financial crisis. We have also been intrigued by the complex association between the process of neoliberalisation and the resurgence of religion in public life. This resurgence seems to bring into question the dominant narrative of secularisation in which 'religion' was supposed to fade away under the conditions of modernity. Was this resurgence simply a form of rearguard reaction, or did it signify the enduring importance of some sort of religiosity as constitutive of human societies?

The focus of many of our conversations was on the interpretation of secularisation developed by Charles Taylor in A Secular Age. In particular, we focused on his central concept of 'the immanent frame', the taken-for-granted 'condition of belief' within which the question of God (or transcendental meaning beyond worldly life) has come to seem of ever-diminishing concern. Taylor's argument is that god questions don't go away and indeed have become more pressing as the disenchanting acids of late (or liquid) modernity undermine many of the taken-for-granted verities of what Taylor calls an 'exclusive humanism'.

My particular interest in this essay is the views of writers such as Wendy Brown, who recognise that neoliberalism needs to be understood not only in terms of a specific economic-policy paradigm but as a broader form of 'governing rationality'. Overcoming its malign legacy will involve forging a more explicit vision of a good society. I will argue, contrary to the view of many on the Left about the irrelevance of religion, that in fact the corrosive effects of neoliberalism bring to the surface the deeper religious questions explored by Taylor and others. In the latter part of the essay, I will discuss Taylor's own religious vision and the contribution it might make to this 'post-secular' task.

Neoliberal Capitalism and its Discontents

There is now an extensive literature characterising and critiquing neoliberalism.1 In the views of some, the term has been used so broadly as to have lost much of its analytical usefulness.2 In the light of this, Neil Brenner, Jamie Peck and Nik Theodore stress the need to avoid over-blown generalisations and be mindful of the diverse ways in which neoliberalism is being implemented in terms of economic policies and the social, political and cultural transformations associated with such policies.3

In most discussions, 'neoliberalism' refers to the set of economic ideas4 and policies adopted around the world since the late 1970s that have been aimed at facilitating and extending free-market processes through financial and industry deregulation, privatisation of government-owned agencies, tariff reductions, tax reform, labour-market reform and so on.5 Such reforms were justified as being the necessary response to the accumulating failures of the social-democratic, managed-economy, welfare-state framework that had shaped government economic policy in much of the Western world since the Second World War. The free-market reforms, it was argued, were necessary for regional and national economies to respond to and take advantage of the opportunities and challenges opened by the new technologies of an increasingly globalised world economy.

Freeing up the market from the restrictive hand of government would foster innovation, increase efficiency and improve competitiveness, open up new markets, increase employment, and produce sustained prosperity for all, not through government intervention but through the dynamic of a flexible, self-regulating market. Moreover, under the neoliberal paradigm, the dynamism and discipline of the free market needed to be extended to areas of social life that had been hitherto more or less sheltered from 'the economy' by the social-democratic welfare state: most importantly, education and health and welfare provision. …

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