Many people are critical of capitalism and neoliberalism.
There are multiple other things they may be critical of, but for the sake of convenience, it can be interesting to stop here.
“This is pure neoliberalism”. “This is so capitalistic”. It’s like the words “neoliberalism” and “capital” became synonyms for the word “evil
There is no doubt that these two regimes can be evil. However, using them in such a broad sense in the context of criticizing their outcomes will only erode the potential of the critique itself.
Big concepts obfuscate the nuance and hide the important mechanisms that are at play behind every complex process.
For example, to say that something is “capitalistic” is not to say anything. Because what is not? Is there an area of human activity where no “capital” is involved? And if we question capitalism, what is it specifically that we question then?
A standard critique of capitalism is that it neglects the “inherent value” of human beings in favor of capital. But isn’t “inherent value” the same sort of capital? It may be expressed through a different mode of quantification, but the value judgment is still there. And the more “inherent value” somebody has, the more desired they are to society. Human capital.
Following a similar thread we can also see capital accumulation as an inherent part of any activity that wants to sustain itself, the best example of which is life itself. For example, a body of an animal accumulates fat and nutrients (its own capital) in order to be able to go through difficult times. It is a necessary part of any process that exists in an environment that is not homogeneous in time.
To critique the concept of “capitalism” in this case is to critique a very natural and ubiquitous process that is not inherently destructive in itself.
What makes it destructive and detrimental is the dynamics of unabridged and unsustainable growth that may emerge within. This dynamic, like cancer, has the potential to suck out all the nutrients from the environment and damage the surrounding to the point of total annihilation of everything else, including itself. But it has not as much to do with capitalism as with positive self-reinforcing feedback loops driven by craving and greed, reward and desire. These are all very human qualities that give rise to behaviors that, in turn, may pose problems and have detrimental effects.
Hiding these very concrete self-destructive (and re-constructive) patterns behind the notion of “capitalism” not only obfuscates the problem behind reactionary critique but also — absolves “anti-capitalists” from any responsibility because it externalizes the cause of suffering into some abstract realm that concerns everything and nothing at the same time.
A change can and should be initialized on the personal and collective levels and it involves keeping a check on those tendencies and establishing mechanisms that can modulate their spinning out of control. It is also important not to dismiss the idea that sometimes uncontrollable motion can bring us to new frontiers and versions of reality. Extreme states often give rise to change, therefore it’s not only about establishing inhibitory mechanisms but also — excitatory and stimulatory ones.
A similar logic applies to neoliberalism. It is an interesting word that is a close relative of the much-coveted “freedom”. Not a bad thing, in itself, as soon as it’s not proclaiming a very specific type of freedom at the expense of everything else. Just like any other ideology, neoliberalism becomes dangerous when it becomes totalitarian.
Therefore, the real problem of neoliberalism is neither “neo” nor “liberal”, it’s the totalitarian virus contained in any ideology that has unlimited propagation as its objective. However, this point is lost if we limit ourselves to the critique of neoliberalism and not the underlying dynamics, which is also very much present in any other ideology: from communism to fashism.
How to keep them in check? There is a tendency in capitalism to put a monetary value on things, individuals, groups, and relationships. While we cannot escape this process of (e)valuation, we can, however, encourage multiple value systems to coexist. Something may be valuable because it can be exchanged for money, but it may also be valuable because it promotes environmental sustainability or makes somebody feel good. As long as none of the value systems at play overtakes the rest, there is no danger in it running away on an exponential power-hungry drive. The same strategy can be applied to the incessant drive toward the commodification of the self. Multiplication of possible interpretations and the ability to switch between roles, behaviors, and representations can be used to avoid belonging to a certain category or getting stuck in a codependent relationship with an external gaze.