The Covid-19-Induced Crisis and Three Inversions of Neoliberalism

The Covid-19-Induced Crisis and Three Inversions of Neoliberalism

Roderick Condon

The host on which the parasite feeds has contracted a virus. The parasite must attack the virus to preserve the host. But, can the host save itself from both?

With the Covid-19 pandemic, society is in crisis. By extension, neoliberal capitalism is also in crisis. Some deeper sociological insights can be gleaned when we consider this dynamic.

The rapid and violent ravages currently being inflicted by the unfolding Covid-19 pandemic can be understood as the acceleration and temporal compression of the equally violent ravages being administered by neoliberal capitalism, should its organizational principles otherwise have proceeded into the foreseeable future. Prior to the contemporary crisis, such business-as-usual was the anticipated and enforced historical trajectory. This is now changing.

The problem for neoliberalism today is that the virus is foreclosing the future on this already future-foreclosing ideology. Furthermore, it is doing so at a rate at which neoliberalism cannot cash-out in time to profit from its own self-destructive consequences (as it by all indications intended to do onto societal collapse in the case of the ecological-environmental-climate crisis: profit onto death!). This has forced the neoliberal economy to slow down and withdraw from its position of societal pacemaker. In the daily practices reproducing the social order, Covid-19 temporality has therefore displaced neoliberal temporality, giving our perception of time a contorted sense of economic deceleration entwined with existential acceleration.

This spiral of temporally de-synchronized crises has political significance in opening a window for radical social change. The slowed pace of neoliberalism – which utilizes speed, among other things, for its continued quasi-legitimation – has paradoxically set the principles of the social order against themselves. The crux lies in the burden of liability. Whereas in the longer-term future foreclosure of neoliberal temporality it is society, or labour, which will bear the burden of destruction, in the shorter-term future foreclosure of Covid-19 temporality, it is the (financialized) economy, or capital, which bears it. Furthermore, and yet more significantly, capital bears this burden on its own financial-monetary terms, as all economic activity is disrupted just short of a full halt.

The Covid-19 crisis is, therefore, also a crisis of neoliberal capitalism. This is important for how we understand the utopian shoots of another possible future, which are springing from contemporary catastrophe.

The since-2008 awaited but conspicuously absent Polanyian counter-movement – the pendulum swing from market liberalization back towards market embeddedness – has notably emerged in the face of Covid-19 tragedy, hastened by its accelerated and compressed temporality. It finds expression in calls for rolling out universal basic income, as well as in ideas about socializing parts of the private sector economy so that they may be directed towards the common good. To be sure, the ground had already been paved for this in recent years by the radical politics of both Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. However, these threats to the system had been effectively contained in the longer-term political struggle. There is something noticeably different about radical policy proposals at the contemporary conjuncture: they seem to carry more immanent possibility through increased discursive validity.

This shift in the balance is in no small part because the survival of neoliberal capitalism itself is now at stake. We should be naïve not to suspect that behind the present-particular return to use-values, to an economy for society, lurks the self-preservation of exchange-values, of an economy for itself. Of significance with regard to the call for private sector socialization is its unlikely source of advocacy in President Donald Trump, the commander-in-chief of an increasingly capital-authoritarian neoliberal state. But, does this suspect association of neoliberal continuity via radical policy undermine any genuinely transformative potentials emerging from the contemporary conjuncture? Not necessarily.

The neoliberal state, acting ostensibly on behalf of labour but surreptitiously on behalf of capital, may in the end act earnestly on behalf of labour, despite its better (worse) intentions. This Gordian knot of contradictory interests emerges from the deep contradictions of neoliberalism itself, the core of which are unfolding before us. As well as its appearance as a response to contemporary conditions, the Covid-19 crisis-laden political discourse of the present reveals to us the essence of neoliberalism as a social order founded on a series of inversions. At least three of these are suddenly identifiable in their re-inversion presently.

  1. There is no such thing as individuals, there are collectivities and there is society.

Against Margaret Thatcher’s assertion of a social order comprised of self-responsible private individuals, Covid-19 lays bare the essential social character of neoliberal individualism. Governmental calls for ‘social distancing’ are only valid in a collectivity fitting the category of ‘society’; that is, an associational order, both materially and symbolically constituted, that rests as the foundation of private individuals. A social order based only on individual interests is, therefore, only a partial aspect of this greater social intercourse, on which it always rests and, furthermore, upon which it may become parasitic.

Two inferences follow here. First, if society is dysfunctional, private interests will be debilitated and the realization of individual freedom thwarted. This is the threat to neoliberalism posed by Covid-19, forcing the re-inversion of individualism we see here. It is also, in a different way, the daily lived experience of the working classes under neoliberalism, for whom the realization of freedom is frustrated by a social order of vastly unequal opportunities, which, furthermore, denies all barriers to individual grit, merit, achievement and reward. Second, if individual interests and freedom from constraint are one-sidedly prioritized in the coordination of social life, society, as the wider associational order, will be debilitated and its deeper freedom-realizing capacities blocked. This is the threat to society posed and enacted by neoliberalism for some years now: parasitic individualism eroding the social contract. This threat is mirrored in and made directly recognizable by the corresponding threat to public health posed by unchecked individualism in the face of Covid-19.

  1. If neoliberals truly understood economics they wouldn’t be neoliberals.

Against Friedrich Hayek’s assertion that socialists don’t understand economics, Covid-19 exposes the neoliberal location of social value exclusively in the profit-making activities of private enterprise as misapprehending the essential basis of value creating activity in the reproduction of society itself. Suddenly, it is automatically and immediately apparent those services necessary for the continuity of society as a going concern as those, to appropriate a phrase from Louis Althusser, reproducing the conditions of production.

Two insights follow from this. First, the devaluation – in both material and symbolic terms – of use-values by exchange-values under neoliberalism. Financial activity, only barely distinguishable from compulsive gambling, has been elevated to the highest social importance while vital reproductive activity has been, in effect, beaten down, raped and systematically pillaged. Second, David Graeber’s aptly conceptualized ‘bullshit jobs’ are now exposed as the very foundation of a farcical social order in which all activity must constitute itself in exclusively economic terms and measure itself accordingly. The decelerated pace of economic life induced by Covid-19 directly reveals the superfluity of a great deal of what constitutes ‘productivity’ under neoliberalism as in reality socially unnecessary labour-time, to refashion Marx. Furthermore, the forced imposition of such activity by the social order is itself revealed as a type of hidden tax (something the neoliberal economists show a great deal of disdain for) on real, lived life-time; that is, the time available in each individuals’ lifespan for activities that truly matter.

  1. There is an alternative.

Against the neoliberal assertion of the factual order of present society as the only possible order of any potential future society – TINA – Covid-19 responses suggest the exact opposite to be the case: a future the inverse of the present. The increased validity attached to the call for universal basic income as a potential antidote to the economic crisis wrought by shutdown is directly related to the contemporary reality of universal basic precarity as the basis of profit-making activity. That so many would find themselves in so dire financial circumstances after so short a break in work exposes deep inequality as a defining structural feature of the neoliberal economy and bloodsucking as its primary metabolic activity. This system propels itself forward by draining the lifeblood of the contemporary working classes, of all stripes, and presenting itself as the great creator of their livelihoods.

Interestingly, the social order proceeds under the auspices of maintaining the best conditions for the realization of freedom as its higher-order goal. Milton Friedman is instructive here, stating (1): “A society that puts equality before freedom will get neither. A society that puts freedom before equality will get a high degree of both.” That the social order that follows this mantra produces neither is owing to the insight itself being wrong-side-up. Freedom before equality in the name of equality is nothing but the inverse of equality before freedom in the name of freedom. The latter is the basis of social freedom, made realizable through a social democracy with a tamed economy in which universalizations take a true rather than false form. While this is today a possible future it is not yet inevitable, nor perhaps even probable. It is, however – within the narrow and constrained temporal horizon opened by the Covid-19 pandemic – suddenly ringing out as a real potential alternative. The question is whether this ringing will grow to become a death knell.

For neoliberalism itself the crisis also opens a future, however: for further structural reforms, for ‘temporary’ extraordinary measures curtailing civil liberties, for profitteering from disaster, and, in this case, for culling an unproductive segment of the population in a literal conversion of dead labour to capital. Though at present this future remains the most probable, there is a promise of another world.

(1) This quote has its origins in Friedman’s (1980) book and accompanying television series Free to Choose.


Roderick Condon teaches sociology at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland. He is currently converting his PhD thesis into a book, which expands Jürgen Habermas’s thesis of the colonization of the lifeworld into a critical theory of neoliberalism.

Image: Wikimedia Commons