Neoliberalism is now the dominant political economic philosophy which has seeped into our psyche and has merged with our basic intuitions about the world. When we think of freedom, entrepreneurship, creativity, the market and responsibility – we think within the prism of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism has become synonymous with common sense and our experience of the world, blocking our political imagination.
Neoliberalism has influenced us so that we believe that the market impartially and objectively decides our ability as individuals. Neoliberalism has also influenced us to believe that the struggle for decent working conditions is a claim not a right, and that our earnings are a matter of our individual choice – that it is ultimately up to us to decide whether we want to work for a paltry wage on a rubbish contract or prosper as entrepreneurs. We are familiar with this way of thinking and whether we agree with this attitude or not we often find it pointless to challenge it. We have accepted it as fact and now adopt it as our own.
Entrepreneurship is in our blood
The liberal parties proclaim that ‘Entrepreneurship is in our blood. All we have to do is not interfere’. The liberals would have us believe that entrepreneurship is in us, it is an individual characteristic of each person. Therefore, all the state should do is remove itself to the shadows and allow the brightest and most hardworking individuals to become entrepreneurs.
It is not often the case that high taxes or extensive bureaucracy discourage people from becoming entrepreneurs. A far more important factor is the fear of bankruptcy, which leads to long-term problems in life. Mitigating the costs of failure may be more effective in encouraging new business creation than cutting tax rates. One argument, for example, is the findings of a recent Canadian report on guaranteed income (UBI), which indicated that people who received UBI increased their self-confidence. Thus, the state can assist entrepreneurs not by retreating but by actively helping; as in the Scandinavian countries where various social programmes make the spectre of failure less frightening for the citizens.
Society too easily forgets that entrepreneurship is a ‘collective effort’; no one achieves success purely by the work of their own hands and without the participation of the state. There is a scientific infrastructure for acquiring knowledge and experimenting within it, company law and other commercial legislation on the basis of which companies can be built, an education system that has ensured a supply of well-educated scientists, engineers, managers – the employees of companies, a financial system that has made it possible to acquire large amounts of capital for the development of companies, patent and intellectual property rights that protect inventions, an easily accessible market for products, and so on.
Entrepreneurship should not be reduced to an individual trait inherent in our bodies. It is amazing how firmly entrenched in our minds the opposition between entrepreneurship and the state is. How deeply we are attached to an individualistic vision of success. How seldom we show the obvious links between entrepreneurship and state institutions.
Why are we stuck in this narrative?
Colin Crouch wrote a book a few years ago called The Strange Non-Death of Neoliberalism. In the book, he wondered why the doctrine is still doing relatively well despite its increasingly visible flaws – not even the financial crisis of 2008 led to its collapse. The simplest answer, which Crouch himself gives, comes down to the fact that the neoliberal system favours powerful people who have enough power to stop major changes.
Neoliberalism has pierced our minds, merging with our basic intuitions about the world. When we think of freedom, entrepreneurship, creativity, the market, responsibility – we think in terms of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism has become identified as the common-sense view of our realities. The ability to shape what is considered common sense in society is one of the most effective tools of power.
One of the effects of neoliberalism is to block our political imagination. We are still stuck within the same patterns, the same ideas about the market, freedom or entrepreneurship, and we do not believe in real change. We do not believe that we have the freedom to shape the future of our planet and our societies. If we want to change this, we need to unleash our political imagination. This will be extremely important as we emerge from the post-pandemic crisis.