Peter Gibilisco. Neoliberalism and its Perceptions

Feb 22, 2016

Politics has changed so much over the years; our political climate is unstable, since 2007 we have had five different prime ministers. A person in my position would ask how does this affect people with severe physical disabilities?

Neoliberalism has its aim to put into question all collective structures capable of obstructing the logic of the pure market. Such a belief allows one to question the ideology behind the welfare state, progressive taxation and other social policies that can lead to an egalitarian society. Their ideology harvests the sentiment that many welfare recipients are lazy and should do more to help grow the economy. But rather neoliberals are persistently oriented towards supporting a society in which self interest prevails and that is why they give all their energy to policies that claim to further the individual pursuit of wealth. That is, the individual pursuits that are deemed worthy of government support are those that are beyond those living on the “other side” of the great divide between the rich and the poor.

I am lucky enough to live in Australia but even with my poor eyesight I am still able to witness the degradation of impoverishment upon ordinary people whenever I visit my local community, Noble Park.

Individual pursuits, whether of the rich or the poor are always, at least to some extent, justified in terms of one’s self-interest. And this goes a long way to explaining the powerful and dogmatic reasoning behind the powerful ideology as it is supported by those who are very rich. And that is confirmed by the equally dogmatic phrase: ‘power is money’.

Liberal political and economic policies are dominated by this ideological viewpoint. Such policies have been integral to political economies all over the world, in both developed and developing countries. The re-birth of Liberalism as Neoliberalism was seen as the answer to the western world problem of stagflation, which reared its head in mid 1970s. Hugh Stretton put it well:

Alternative strategies for dealing with the offending stagflation would advantage different classes, parties, industries. Economic reform was as usual a political task. Other interests saw opportunities to change the direction of development to improve the mixed economies’ efficiency by means which would incidentally make the rich richer, business freer, welfare cheaper and the poor more self reliant. Those means were described as de-regulating, privatising, restoring competition, cutting welfare, “rolling back the boundaries of government” (Stretton, 1986:7).

Neoliberalism is a political economic theory and practice that has emerged with greater and greater appeal since the 1960s, and since the 1980s it has increased in prominence at the level of public policy formulation. The neoliberal approach rejects social democratic doctrines. Neoliberalism focuses politically on the establishment of a stable medium of exchange, the reduction of localised rules, regulations and barriers to free-ranging commerce, and the privatisation of state-run enterprises. This contemporary and dominant economic ideology of most western countries is referred to with a “neo-“ prefix because it is a latter-day version of the classical liberalism that initially arose in the 18th century. Moreover, neoliberalism claims to be a political system designed to highlight both the political limitations of the market economy in the nation-state, and the economic efficiency and effectiveness of the market economy when it is freed to operate on a global scale.

Classical liberal economics was developed by Adam Smith, and we can sense its appeal at what we now say was the beginning of the industrial revolution. Smith argued that government intervention disrupted the natural order of society. According to Smith, the natural order of society can be defined as a society left to its own devices. Smith based his economic beliefs on the argument that most economic self-interest is altruistic. This can be noted in his famous quote from The Wealth of Nations:

‘It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves. Not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.’

Now, after thinking about this for some years, I come to the view that something like this principle is working itself out in my own relationship with what is now referred to as the “disability sector”.

As it is commonly understood altruism is about selflessness, it is a principle or practice of concern for the welfare of others. But my situation seems to be endorsed by Smith in the above quote. In the social service delivery to which I am a recipient, involving a personal care attendant, the “altruistic effects” that actually work themselves out in the workplace becomes a friendship circle – workers and clients are mates. This workplace is actually our home in which the residents are actively welcoming the visitors to their “space”, under their private “roof”. It is not only those paid for their work in this workplace who have an interest, a general self-interest, in forming what takes place. After all it is also a place sustained by the friendships that are generated.

According to Smith, this classical liberal system would provide for an economic infrastructure that could not only provide economic benefits, but also help promote a proud, virtuous and motivated society (Gibilisco). Amartya Sen portrays the mixed emotions of self-interest:

‘Can you direct me to the Railway Station?’ asks the stranger. ‘Certainly,’ says the local, pointing in the opposite direction to the post office, ‘and would you post this letter for me on your way?’ ‘Certainly,’ says the stranger, resolving to open it to see if it contains anything worth stealing (Sen, cited in Stretton and Orchard, 1994:51).

During an interview with me, Hugh Stretton explained his dissent from this ideological interpretation of Adam Smith. He pointed out that Smith never said that the interests which prompted people’s economic decisions and behaviour were all selfish. Smith’s first book The Theory of Moral Sentiments was about our feelings, and concerns about other people’s needs, safety and happiness, as well as our own. When he said, in The Wealth of Nations, that he owed his breakfast to his baker’s self-interest, there is good reason to think that Smith meant the baker’s joy in his skills and work, and pride in the quality of his bread and the pleasure it could give his bread’s consumers, as well as the money it earned him.

Smith certainly believed that people’s generous feelings, and concern for others’ safety and prosperity, as well as their own, could join in determining their market choices and their social and political values and behaviour. Because it comes from the neoliberal ‘bible’ (i.e. Smith’s The Wealth of Nations) I think this observation must play a vital part of any effective attack on the neoliberals’ assumption that material self-interest is the sufficient cause of market efficiency, which in turn, they then suggest, is a necessary condition – many even think of it as a sufficient condition – of a good society.


Meritocracy is defined by government policies promoting the principles of merit. The actions pursued by advocates of meritocracy are fundamental to the belief that people get out of the system what they put into it based on what they deserve according to market based principles – i.e. what they produce and how what they produce performs in the market. It is a political vision for the future based on merit, and opposed to the traditionally conservative theories of the aristocracy. However, Michael Young a well-known writer on the subject has argued that “meritocracy is even worse than aristocracy because it attempts to acquire plus points because it connotes power and privilege as merited rather than born with”. He further argues that meritocracy is detrimental to those with disabilities. Young in his 1998 article titled: “Meritocracy revisited: assessing the social implications of meritocracy” puts it like this:

… showing how sad, and fragile, a meritocratic society could be. If the rich and powerful were encouraged by the general culture to believe that they fully deserved all they had, how arrogant they could become, and, if they were convinced it was all for the common good, how ruthless in pursuing their own advantage.

As a result, today we may have the worst of both worlds. Social reality, as portrayed by today’s media, tells us that the rich are getting richer, while the poor are getting poorer. In the case of people with disabilities, their capacities, under such a system, are rarely deemed meritorious or worthy of reward.

Moreover, this brings into question, possible deplorable links between meritocracy and equal opportunity.

However, we need to keep in mind that the concept of individual merit had been introduced as far back as Michael Young’s 1956 book The Rise of Meritocracy. In a more recent article, he has suggested that:

[a] line of argument that is also made much of in the book is that a meritocracy can only exist in a full form if there is such a narrowing down of values that people can be put into rank order of their worth.

This connects with a political insistence on the rise of a new form of meritocracy, which can also be prejudicial and ultimately discriminatory against those with socially defined lesser abilities or different abilities. Young argues that what one is born with, or without, is not of one’s own doing. To put it in a more crude form of discourse, being a member of the “lucky sperm club” confers no moral right to advantage. But such a view of “luck” does seem to align with the political-economic doctrines of some advocates of neoliberalism

This article is dedicated to the memory of my friend and mentor, Hugh Stretton.

I would like to thank Bruce Wearne and Christina Irugalbandara.

I would like to promote this worthy new organisation

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