The term “neo-liberalism” is probably the trendiest scapegoat in intellectual circles at the moment. It refers to a purported ideological movement that bears blame for a variety of progressive grievances about the world today: inequality, poverty, climate change, deregulation, globalisation and the proliferation of money in politics.
It has become the dominant ideology of the times and has established itself as a central feature of global politics. Not only does it define itself as a political and economic system whose aim is to consolidate power in the hands of a corporate and financial elite, it also wages a war over ideas. In this instance, it has defined itself as a form of common sense and functions as a mode of public pedagogy that produces a template for structuring not just markets but all of social life. In this sense, it has and continues to function not only through public and higher education to produce and distribute market-based values, identities, and modes of agency, but also in wider cultural apparatuses and platforms to privatise, deregulate, economise, and subject all of the commanding institutions and relations of everyday life to the dictates of privatisation, efficiency, deregulation, and commodification.
Since the 1970s as more and more of the commanding institutions of society came under the control of neo-liberal ideology, its notions of common sense centred on an unchecked individualism, harsh competition, an aggressive attack on trade unions and the welfare state, the evisceration of public goods, and its attack on all models of sociality at odds with market values, have become the reigning hegemony of capitalist societies. What many on the left and mainstream political ideologies have failed to realise is that neo-liberalism is about more than economic structures, it is also a powerful pedagogical force, especially in the era of social media that engages in full-spectrum dominance at every level of civil society. Its reach extends not only into education but also among an array of digital platforms as well as in the broader sphere of popular culture.
Under neo-liberal modes of governance, regardless of the institution, every social relation is reduced to an act of commerce. With its dream worlds of power, commercialisation, and profit making, neo-liberalism has ushered in new Gilded Age in which the logic of the market now governs every aspect of media, culture, and social life-from schooling to health care to old age. As the social contract becomes a distant memory, the new "corporate state" in almost all parts of the world distances itself from the working class and minority groups, who become more disposable in a new age of uncertainty and manufactured fear. We now live at a time in which institutions that were meant to limit human suffering and misfortune and protect the public from the excesses of the market have been either weakened or abolished.
The consequences can be seen clearly in the ongoing and ruthless assault on the social state, workers, unions, higher education, students, poor minorities and any vestige of the social contract.
Free market policies, values, and practices with their emphasis on the privatisation of public wealth, the elimination of social protections, and the deregulation of economic activity now shape practically every commanding political and economic institution in almost every corner of this planet. Public spheres that once offered at least the glimmer of progressive ideas, enlightened social policies, non-commodified values, and critical dialogue and exchange have been increasingly commercialised or replaced by private spaces and corporate settings whose ultimate fidelity is to increasing profit margins. It is perhaps its assault on working class and trade unions where neo-liberalism has demonstrated its brutality with apocalyptic impunity. From the mid-1930s through the 1960s, trade-union participation in economic and industrial regulation policies, along with their political importance and membership, increased constantly in the Western and other parts of the world. Whether in the United States, Britain, or Switzerland, trade unions became key actors in the pursuit of a concerted national income policy.
In countries such as West Germany, trade unions became associated with the economic and political reconstruction of the country; to a lesser extent, the same thing occurred in France, in Belgium or in Italy. Everywhere in Western countries, the wage-bargaining process was recast as a fundamental element in a compromise between employees and employers, even in several cases under the supervision of the state. Trade unions have been one of the most effective social movements for the advancement of democracy and social justice in capitalist societies. Unions have been the first means by which workers, who to earn their living have only their labour to sell, struggle to equalise the advantages that the owners of capital assets have in bargaining over wages and the distribution of new value-added activities in workplaces.
Unions have also continually campaigned, in conjunction with left leaning or socialist parties, for the extension of democracy through advocacy of universal participation in politics, civil rights such as freedoms of association, assembly and dissent, and the universalisation of social programmes to meet the basic social needs of all. However, the post war generation of neo-liberals gazed on this phenomenon with some alarm. In their opinion, arrangements between organised labour and capital paved the way to the institutionalisation of a quasi-corporatist regime, which implied a terrible threat to the market economy. In fact, these struggles for social justice were opposed historically by the capitalist classes, and the advent of neo-liberalism as the policy response of employers and conservative parties renewed their anti-democratic efforts.
It is against this background that neo-liberalism sought to roll back the gains of trade unions and workers in the workplace, and put an end to the push by unions and Left-wing political parties for greater worker control in enterprises and democratic determination of economic priorities at the level of the state. Their policy response was measures to weaken trade unions in workplace representation, deregulation of labour markets, increased corporate property rights and free trade in capital and goods. After a long period after the war in which expansionary state policies and high employment strengthened the bargaining power of union, this was the first challenge unions faced.
Since then neo-liberal politicians all over the world have continued to make a big play in their quest for the maximum regulation of trade unions, particularly restricting their right to strike. Successive governments in many parts of the world have imposed increasingly draconian restrictions on the normal functioning of trade unions, in particular making it increasingly difficult to hold a legal strike. All in all, the era of neo-liberalism has created tremendous challenges for workers throughout the world, both in the developing countries and in the most affluent capitalist democracies. The past couple decades have witnessed conspicuous levels of trade union decline, even in labour strongholds such as Germany and Sweden.
These declines have corresponded with a growing trend toward the decentralisation of wage bargaining, the ongoing globalisation of national economies, and a shift of traditionally left political parties to more centrist positions regarding markets and the welfare state.