Neoliberalism under Threat: Coronavirus and the Return of the Social

Neoliberalism under Threat: Coronavirus and the Return of the Social

Neil Vallelly

Neoliberalism is under threat. This much is clear by the huge government interventions in national economies across the globe in recent weeks. However, it is not the shifting economic landscape that threatens neoliberalism’s existence. After all, these interventions will be temporary. The free market will likely resume its position, albeit significantly weakened position, as the overlord of human life in the aftermath of the pandemic (or perhaps during the pandemic, as Donald Trump has implied). No, neoliberalism is under threat because of something much more powerful than the economy: the social. Battered and bruised by decades of assault by neoliberalism, the social has suddenly returned to the centre of political and everyday discourse. It has returned in a deeply perverted way, followed by nouns such as “distancing,” “isolating,” and “panic.” But it has returned nonetheless, and it represents the gravest threat to neoliberalism yet.

Neoliberalism is often conceived primarily as an economic project, with the purpose of getting the government out of the economy and the individual citizen into the free market. Citizens are re-imagined as customers, and everything from healthcare to education is subjected to ferocious competition, with the state making way for private corporations. But, from its outset, neoliberalism also aimed to dismantle the entire social fabric of human life.

The godfather of neoliberal theory, Friedrich Hayek, was deeply suspicious of the notion of society. He wrote in The Road to Serfdom in 1944 that “what are called ‘social ends’ are … merely identical ends of many individuals—or ends to the achievement of which individuals are willing to contribute in return for the assistance they receive in the satisfaction of their own desires” (63). For Hayek, society was an aggregation of individual desires, which occasionally, but not necessarily, satisfied the needs of the many. In volume two of Law, Legislation and Liberty, he claimed there was “no value” to society and it had become “the new deity to which we complain and clamour for redress if it does not fulfil the expectations it has created” (69). He called social justice “the gravest threat to most other values of a free civilisation” (66–7). In other words, society was an illusion, a framework placed over endeavours that were fundamentally self-centred and individualised, and a pretext for governments to intervene both in the lives of its citizens and, more importantly, in the market.

The neoliberal view of the social carried little weight in the mid-twentieth century. The Great Depression and World Wars demanded social solidarity, and the legacy of these experiences situated the social at the heart of governmental policies in the West in this period. These policies were inspired by the theories of the English economist John Maynard Keynes, who had a radically different view of society to Hayek and the neoliberals. Where Hayek saw society as a collection of individual ends, Keynes viewed the individual as constitutive of its community. Instead of allowing the market to order human behaviour and society, Keynes insisted that ridding the economic burden on individuals freed them to create healthy communities that ensured the wellbeing of each individual. High employment and wealth redistribution, he suggested, was a much better indicator of a healthy economy than profits and stock prices. Keynes was still unashamedly a capitalist, but he believed that capitalism could work in tandem with the social.

The wisdom of Keynesian economic policy was seriously questioned during the economic recessions of the 1970s. Neoliberals lay in wait. Alongside Hayek, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, and his cabal at the Chicago School of Economics, chewed the ear of politicians in the US, UK, and beyond. They tempted these politicians not only with an economic solution to the current crisis and a means to redefine the global order, but also with a grandiose philosophical project of completely reordering the nature of human behaviour within the economy.

The social had to be eliminated, they proposed; it had no business being associated with words like democracy, welfare, or security. It certainly had no right to be involved in shaping the economy or business interests. In a letter titled “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits,” published in New York Times Magazine in 1970, Friedman wrote that businesspeople who “declaim that business is not concerned ‘merely’ with profits but also with promoting desirable ‘social ends’ … are unwitting puppets of the intellectual forces that have been undermining the basis of a free society these past decades.” A free society, he implied, was a society free from the shackles of the social.

By the end of the 1980s, a whole host of governments across the West, from New Zealand to Mexico, had been tempted by the neoliberal project. A new political rationality thus emerged, driven in the US and UK by the New Right of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, and then adapted by the Left through the New Democrats/Labour of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair in the 1990s. The social largely disappeared from political lexicon (or at least took on a new meaning), superseded by words like competition, freedom, opportunity, individuality, and personal responsibility. As the social disappeared, a series of anxieties that were once placated by government intervention—from welfare to job security—were abruptly forced onto the shoulders of individuals. Citizens were told that government intervention stymied their entrepreneurial spirit, that other people would get in the way of their advancement, that the social was merely a source of restraint and conformity.

This atomistic vision of social life, filled with suspicion of others, was celebrated as liberation under neoliberal political rationality. But the coronavirus pandemic has revealed the dark underbelly of this rationality: the social was the very thing keeping us from complete disintegration. When Margaret Thatcher told us that “there is no such thing as society; there are individual men and women and there are families,” she purposely invoked Hayekian language, for Hayek was a continual source of inspiration for her politics. Well, society certainly exists right now. Even Boris Johnson, a devoted Thatcherite, has admitted in the wake of the pandemic that “there is such a thing as society.” Coronavirus reveals to us, in a very disastrous way, the reality of our social bonds. We affect others and others affect us. We cannot disavow this fundamental relationality. As the philosopher Judith Butler reminds us, “we’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something” (2004, 23). Neoliberalism has managed to convince many of us that this is not true, that we are all self-sufficient, responsible only for ourselves and our families, that we can secure our individual wellbeing by screwing others over. It is only now that we realise we have been missing something for decades.

When society is left to rot—as it has been under neoliberalism—it can be the very thing that undoes us, exposes us to others in infectious and catastrophic ways. If we are to learn anything from the coronavirus pandemic it is that the free market will not save us, nor will our self-sufficiency. It has taken a cataclysmic global event to remind us that only other human beings, robust democratic institutions, and strong social structures can provide us with the feeling of security that we all require. There is no doubt irony in the fact that we have made this realisation precisely at the moment when we must retreat from all social interaction.

Neoliberalism is under threat; it might even be dead. But it died once already, during the 2008 financial crisis. It returned from the dead as a zombified economic model, with governments across the globe continuing to cut taxes for the rich, privatise public services, and enforce cruel austerity measures even when it was clear that these policies were detrimental to the vast majority of global citizens. These policies have left much of the world completely unprepared for the social realities of the coronavirus pandemic. We desperately need society, but its institutions and services are in ruins. And given the current global political landscape, there will certainly be a brand of politics that attempts to renew the post-2008 neoliberal consensus in the aftermath of this pandemic. I agree with George Monbiot when he writes that “the worst possible people are in charge at the worst possible time.”

However, coronavirus is not 2008. Quantitative easing and further financialisation will not stop the virus mutating. Coronavirus is a biosocial phenomenon, and it will keep demanding biological (e.g. development of a vaccine and anti-viral drugs) and social (e.g. wage subsidies, health care funding, distancing, quarantine) solutions. In doing so, it will continue to open the space for the social to reconnect with the political, a connection that has been well and truly severed in the neoliberal decades. Neoliberalism might find, therefore, that in detaching the social from the political, it simultaneously laid the foundations for a stronger and more indispensable version of the social to return and kill it off once and for all.

Butler, Judith, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, London: Verso, 2004.
Hayek, Friedrich A., Law, Legislation and Liberty: A New Statement of the Liberal Principles of Justice and Political Economy, London: Routledge, 1982.
Hayek, Friedrich A. The Road to Serfdom, London: Routledge, 2001.


Neil Vallelly is an Irish political theorist and philosopher who teaches in the School of Arts at University of Otago, New Zealand, where he is also a member of the Centre for Global Migrations. This article overlaps with his forthcoming book on the relationship between neoliberalism and futility.  

Photo Credit: Tim Dennell