Britain’s former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was a central figure in neoliberalism, which has dominated western capitalism for decades. Her death provides an opportunity to reflect on an economic doctrine that glorifies human greed and led directly to the current economic crisis.
Neoliberalism asserts that economic prosperity requires minimal government intervention. Its chief political proponents, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, both exhibited the dogmatic certainty which characterises its proponents. When Reagan proclaimed that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem”, Thatcher agreed and added ‘there is no alternative’.
Neoliberalism’s influential began just as the Berlin Wall fell and the communist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe crumbled. Neoliberals grasped this opportunity to portray the ‘victory’ of free-market capitalism over communism as the inevitable outcome of history. All countries must now adopt neoliberal policies, they insisted, and benefit from the new world of opportunity that neoliberal globalisation was creating. Any form of government – including democratically elected government – was presented as a threat to personal freedom. Freedom loving people everywhere, they cried, must demand that the role of government in their lives, and as regulator of big business, be reduced to create the freedom needed for individuals and businesses to thrive. Even better, this infallible route to wealth, democracy and freedom rested on what neoliberals considered to be the essence of human nature – greed. Neoliberal capitalism, they promised, would transform the basest human instincts – narcissism, greed and the ruthless pursuit of wealth and power – into wealth and freedom for all. It was a plausible argument.
There’s no such thing as society.
It hasn’t quite worked out that way. Thanks in no small part to Thatcher’s zealotry, neoliberalism became the dominant global economic paradigm for almost four decades up to the Financial Crash of 2008. During that time the nature of capitalism changed radically for the worse. Levels of inequality within and between countries soared and a global financial system was deliberately constructed to enable elites to pursue their own short-term interests, regardless of the consequences of their actions. The result of four decades of neoliberalism is the current economic crisis and the virtual moral bankruptcy of the western model of capitalism.
Neoliberalism took hold because we forgot the lessons of history. History shows that it was only by strengthening the power of governments – acting within the safeguards of representative democracy, the rule of law and protection for human rights – that humanity has managed to partially overcome oppression by pathological elites. By insisting on the subordination of governments to private interests, neoliberals undermined the primary defences which western societies have built over the last two centuries to protect themselves from people who can only relate to others on the basis of self-interest, dominance and greed.
Towards the end of the Second World War, social philosopher Karl Polanyi wrote: “To allow the market mechanism to be sole director of the fate of human beings and their natural environment…would result in the demolition of society.” Since Margaret Thatcher never believed there was any such thing as society to begin with, the demolition of society did not trouble her greatly.
 Manfred Steger, ‘Globalisation and Ideology’ in The Blackwell Companion to Globalisation, 2007
what is your take on ayn rand’s contribution to the neoliberal ideology?
Thanks for your question Margaret. I’m afraid I haven’t read Ayn Rand. Maybe others would like to comment?