Three flavors of neoliberal morality

I just read Sadia Abbas’s essay “Neoliberal moralism and the fiction of Europe: a postcolonial perspective” over on Open Democracy and wanted to put it in comparison with two other visions of morality and neoliberalism that I have encountered recently in my attempts to think through the “conscious capitalism” I see driving in Seattle’s urban redevelopment projects.

First, there is the version that David Harvey puts forward in his A Brief History of Neoliberalism:

“In so far as neoliberalism values market exchange as ‘an ethic in itself, capable of acting as a guide to all human action, and substituting for all previously held ethical beliefs,’ it emphasizes the significance of contractual relations in the marketplace. It holds that the social good will be maximized by maximizing the reach and frequency of market transactions, and it seeks to bring all human action into the domain of the market.”

This is technically an account of an ethic, rather than an explicit definition of morality (it gives no explicit formulation of what the “good” actually is, but it’s close enough for a comparison).  Paul Treanor, the author of the definition that Harvey uses, argues that neoliberalism is actually a form of virtue ethics, wherein the ideal type is the entrepreneur. The characteristics of the entrepreneur — primarily the fact that their profession is responding to market forces –are taken as good, and therefore the right (that is, the ethical) thing to do is to live like them. With this in mind, Treanor offers his definition of the neoliberal ethic:

  • “act in conformity with market forces”
  • “within this limit, act also to maximise the opportunity for others to conform to the market forces generated by your action”
  • “hold no other goals”

This is undoubtedly the prominent vision of a neoliberal ethic, but I have found it lacking for the purposes of my own work, which has most recently led me back to Morton Schoolman’s 1987 essay “The Moral Sentiments of Neoliberalism.” Although obviously penned in a different era, it provides a framework that is much more robust than this first mode. Above all, it argues that decentralized production necessitates decentralized governance, and therefor we end up with the familiar sort of “partnerships” or “stakeholder groups” that often participate in municipal governance: city government, institutions, private industry, and interest groups. Schoolman’s argument is that this new form of governance actually leads each group to adopt some of the concerns of others: city officials consider the effects that their decisions have on private profits more; private producers, now having more power in governance and more flexibility to adapt their production to current demands, ostensibly come to feel more responsible for the effects on their decisions; citizenship, too, is transformed such that one allegedly sees oneself as part of a broader community.

Although this seems a little “starry-eyed” from our present situation, I find it to have some merit. Above all, he is directly opposed to the idea that neoliberalism is a sort of prepackaged or coherent ideology that is cooked up ahead of time and consumed in full. Instead, belief systems, attitudes, practices, and understandings (moral sentiments) arise within the transforming system of production. So there is plenty of analytical space to think about beliefs that couple ideas of social good (environmental sustainability, housing and employment density, food-miles, etc.) to the global market. Without endorsing this as “good” or “radical,” we can at least see a more textured account of one of the moralities attached to neoliberalism than what Harvey gives us via Treanor.

Third, Abbas’s essay pushes us to think about belief in a different way altogether. In her reading, the current situation in Europe reflects at least two things: first, she writes:

“Moreover, the invocations of etiquette, codes, rules, and the repetition of cliches of fiscal rectitude and household thrift are part of the moral economy of a neoliberalism that manipulates people into thinking that nations can be run like households and life is a tea party, where all will be fine if one sticks out ones little finger while holding a teacup with delicate poise.”

In this version, if those two little rascals —  little Alexis and unruly Yannis —  would listen to mommy and daddy (Merkel and Schäuble?), then everything will work out. For Abbas, this amounts to pushing for a new, neoliberalized version of faith which, in my reading, is as much about putting on a tie as it is about making “appropriate” economic decisions. In other words, being “good” is not just being entrepreneurial here. It is looking at mommy when she is talking to you and washing your hands before dinner.

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2 Responses to Three flavors of neoliberal morality

  1. Mort Schoolman says:

    Thank you for your careful reading of my argument! Mort Schoolman

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