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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 9/27/19

Neoliberalism Paved the Way for Authoritarian Right-Wing Populism

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Talk of a looming recession is heating up as the global economy slows and President Trump's tiff with China unsettles financial markets. As world trade contracts, stock markets drop, the manufacturing sector in the United States is in decline for the first time in a decade, and farmers and steel workers continue losing their income and jobs.

Rumors of a coming recession accentuate fears about the further deterioration of conditions faced by workers and the poor, who are already suffering from precarious employment, poverty, lack of meaningful work and dwindling pensions. A global economic slump would make living standards for the poor even worse. As Ashley Smith points out, levels of impoverishment in the United States are already shocking, with "four out of every ten families [struggling] to meet the costs of food, housing, health care, and utilities every month."

Just as the 2008 global economic crisis revealed the failures of liberal democracy and the scourge of neoliberalism, a new economic recession in 2019 could also reveal how institutions meant to serve the public interest and offer support for a progressive politics now serve authoritarian ideologies and a ruling elite that views democracy as the enemy of market-based freedoms and white nationalism.

What has not been learned from the 2008 crisis is that an economic crisis neither unites those most affected in favor of a progressive politics nor does it offer any political guarantees regarding the direction of social change. Instead, the emotions that fueled massive public anger toward elites and globalization gave rise to the celebration of populist demagogues and a right-wing tsunami of misdirected anger, hate and violence toward undocumented immigrants, refugees, Muslims and people of color.

The 2008 financial crisis wreaked havoc in multiple ways. Yet there was another crisis that received little attention: a crisis of agency. This crisis centered around matters of identity, self-determination and collective resistance, which were undermined in profound ways, giving rise to and legitimating the emergence of authoritarian populist movements in many parts of the world, such as United States, Hungary, Poland and Brazil.

At the heart of this shift was the declining belief in the legitimacy of both liberal democracy and its pledges about trickle-down wealth, economic security and broadening equal opportunities preached by the apostles of neoliberalism. In many ways, public faith in the welfare state, quality employment opportunities, institutional possibilities and a secure future for each generation collapsed. In part, this was a consequence of the post-war economic boom giving way to massive degrees of inequality, the off-shoring of wealth and power, the enactment of cruel austerity measures, an expanding regime of precarity, and a cut-throat economic and social environment in which individual interests and needs prevailed over any consideration of the common good. As liberalism aligned itself with corporate and political power, both the Democratic and Republican Parties embraced financial reforms that increased the wealth of the bankers and corporate elite while doing nothing to prevent people from losing their homes, being strapped with chronic debt, seeing their pensions disappear, and facing a future of uncertainty and no long-term prospects or guarantees.

In an age of economic anxiety, existential insecurity and a growing culture of fear, liberalism's overheated emphasis on individual liberties "made human beings subordinate to the market, replacing social bonds with market relations and sanctifying greed," as noted by Pankaj Mishra. In this instance, neoliberalism became an incubator for a growing authoritarian populism fed largely by economic inequality. The latter was the outcome of a growing cultural and political polarization that made "it possible for haters to come out from the margins, form larger groups and make political trouble." This toxic polarization and surge of right-wing populism produced by casino capitalism was accentuated with the growth of fascist groups that shared a skepticism of international organizations, supported a militant right-wing nationalism, and championed a surge of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-democratic values.

This apocalyptic populism was rooted in a profound discontent for the empty promises of a neoliberal ideology that made capitalism and democracy synonymous, and markets the model for all social relations. In addition, the Democratic proponents of neoliberalism, such as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, participated in the dismantling of the social contract, widening economic inequality, and burgeoning landscapes of joblessness, misery, anger and despair.

At the same time, they enacted policies that dismantled civic culture and undermined a wide range of democratic institutions that extended from the media to public goods such as public and higher education. Under such circumstances, democratic narratives, values and modes of solidarity, which traded in shared responsibilities and shared hopes, were replaced by a market-based focus on a regressive notion of hyper-individualism, ego-centered values and a view of individual responsibility that eviscerated any broader notion of social, systemic, and corporate problems and accountability.

Ways of imagining society through a collective ethos became fractured, and a comprehensive understanding of politics as inclusive and participatory morphed into an anti-politics marked by an investment in the language of individual rights, individual choice and the power of rights-bearing individuals.

Under the reign of neoliberalism, language became thinner and more individualistic, detached from history and more self-oriented, all the while undermining viable democratic social spheres as spaces where politics bring people together as collective agents and critically engaged citizens. Neoliberal language is written in the discourse of economics and market values, not ethics. Under such circumstances, shallowness becomes an asset rather than a liability. Increasingly, the watered-down language of liberal democracy, with its over-emphasis on individual rights and its neoliberal coddling of the financial elite, gave way to a regressive notion of the social marked by rising authoritarian tendencies, unchecked nativism, unapologetic expressions of bigotry, misdirected anger and the language of resentment-filled revolt. Liberal democracies across the globe appeared out of touch with not only the misery and suffering caused by neoliberal policies, they also produced an insular and arrogant group of politicians who regarded themselves as an enlightened political formation that worked "on behalf of an ignorant public." The ultimate consequence was to produce later what Wolfgang Merkel describes as "a rebellion of the disenfranchised." A series of political uprisings made it clear that neoliberalism was suffering from a crisis of legitimacy further accentuated by the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, the election of Donald Trump, support for the National Rally (formerly known as the National Front) in France, and the emergence of powerful right-wing populist movements across the globe.

As a regime of affective management, neoliberalism created a culture in which everyone was trapped in his or her own feelings, emotions and orbits of privatization. One consequence was that legitimate political claims could only be pursued by individuals and families rather than social groups. In this instance, power was removed from the social sphere and placed almost entirely in the hands of corporate and political demagogues who used it to enrich themselves for their own personal gain. Power was now used to produce muscular authority in order "to secure order, boundaries, and to divert the growing anger of a declining middle and working-class," Wendy Brown observes. Both classes increasingly came to blame their economic and political conditions that produced their misery and ravaged ways of life on "'others': immigrants, minority races, 'external' predators and attackers ranging from terrorists to refugees." Liberal-individualistic views lost their legitimacy as they refused to indict the underlying structures of capitalism and its winner-take-all ethos.

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Henry A. Giroux currently holds the McMaster University Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest in the English and Cultural Studies Department and dis the Paulo Freire Distinguished Scholar in Critical Pedagogy. His most recent books are America's Addiction to Terrorism (Monthly Review Press, 2016), and America at War with Itself (City Lights, 2017). He is also a contributing editor to a number of journals, includingTikkun, (more...)

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