Neoliberalism – a Pervasive Framework. How might it be affecting Mental Health and Suicide?

Presenter: Barrie Webster

May, 2017

First, there was liberalism: as we move from the political right to the political left, we have classical liberalism, economic liberalism, liberal egalitarianism, and modern liberalism. Not to mention libertarianism further to the right. Neoliberalism is not simply liberalism reborn. It is more like classical liberalism. Many agree that neoliberalism is “the dominant ideology shaping our world today”.

Neo-liberalism is a set of economic policies that have become widespread during the last 25 years or so. Associated with neo-liberalism is the tendency for the rich to grow richer and the poor to grow poorer. Around the world, neo-liberalism has been imposed by powerful financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. The challenges facing capitalism over the last 25 years, particularly its shrinking profit rates, inspired the corporate elite to revive economic liberalism. That’s what makes it ‘neo’ or new. Hence,neoliberalism.

The important tenets of neoliberalism include such statements as “The Market” is a better processor of information than the state; “politics operates as if it were a market”; “corporations can do no wrong”; “competition always prevails”; the state should be “degovernmentalized” through “privatization of education, health, science and even portions of the military”; a good way to initiate privatization is to redefine property rights; “the nation­state should be subject to discipline and limitation through international initiatives”; “the Market . . . can always provide solutions to problems seemingly caused by markets in the first place”; “there is no such thing as a ‘public good’”; “freedom” means economic freedom within the Market (from Mirowski, 2011).

What do we mean by a neoliberal society? see “The Neoliberal Theory of Society”

Adam Smith’s ideal society was one of isolated individuals, each pursuing his own self- interest. As Margaret Thatcher notoriously proclaimed: ‘there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families’. Smith’s ‘romantic’ critics argued that this model ignores the most distinctive characteristics of human society – morality, religion, art and culture – that provide higher values than the individual and elevate humanity above the animal condition of seeking immediate gratification.

Experience showed that the benefits of free trade flowed overwhelmingly to the more economically advanced and/or politically powerful parties. Free trade brought prosperity to the most advanced producers, but it imposed destitution on those who were unable to compete, provoking periodic crises in which less advanced producers were bankrupted, masses of people were thrown out of work, and the trade of whole nations came to a standstill. Small producers saw the source of their difficulties in the power of the bankers, who denied them access to the credit they needed to sustain themselves, while capitalists of less advanced countries sought tariff protection for their national industries. For the liberal political economists, of course, periodic crises and bankruptcy were part of the healthy operation of the market, the stick that accompanied the carrots offered to the more enterprising producers. To them, the market was not just an economic, but also a moral force, penalizing the idle and incompetent and rewarding the enterprising and hard-working, for the greater good of society as a whole.

It is argued that the evils associated with capitalism cannot be directly ascribed to capitalism itself, but represent the failures of those who are unwilling or unable to live up to its standards. Liberalism is, therefore, not so much the science of capitalism as its theology. God cannot be blamed if sinners find themselves in hell; the way to avoid hell is to live a virtuous life. [How do Humanists relate to this argument?]

Neoliberalism represents a reassertion of the fundamental beliefs of the liberal political economy that was the dominant political ideology of the nineteenth century, above all in Britain and the United States. The arguments of political economy were based on intuition and assertion rather than on rigorous analysis, but their strength rested on their ideological appeal rather than on their analytical rigour.

Neoliberalism owes its strength to its ideological appeal, but neoliberalism is not merely an ideology; it purports to rest on the scientific foundations of modern liberal economics. Modern neoliberal economics is no less dogmatic than its nineteenth century predecessor in resting on a set of simplistic assertions about the character of the market and the behaviour of market actors.

The point for neoliberalism is not to make a model that is more adequate to the real world, but to make the real world more adequate to its model. This is not merely an intellectual fantasy, it is a very real political project, to realize which neoliberalism has conquered the commanding heights of global intellectual, political and economic power, all of which are mobilized to realize the neoliberal project of subjecting the whole world’s population to the judgement and morality of capital.

What is the Effect of Neoliberalism on mental health and suicide rates?

The World Health Organization (WHO) has published a report showing rates of depression increased 18 percent between 2005 and 2015. Depression is now estimated to afflict over 300 million people worldwide. Further, approximately 800,000 people commit suicide each year. According to the WHO, poverty and unemployment are leading causes.

WHO highlights poverty and unemployment as leading causes of depression, yet suggests exercise, school-based prevention programs, therapy and medication to solve it. If poverty and unemployment are major causes of depression, shouldn’t our remedies address economic drivers of poverty and unemployment, rather than narrowly focusing on school programs and exercise? Is expanding mental illness solely a health issue, or is it also a foreseeable response to expanding economic stress?

Neoliberalism advocates “freeing” the market from government constraints through tax cuts, deregulation, privatization, reduced government spending for social services and reduced protections for workers. Resulting economic growth is supposed to ensure that benefits “trickle down”

bringing everyone increased prosperity and the freedom to purchase whatever social services they desire. Except decades of robust data prove neoliberalism is not all it’s cracked up to be, even by economic standards. The IMF itself — a major proponent of the ideology — states neoliberalism has been oversold because it exacerbates inequality and unemployment.

That leaves the distinct impression that a causative association between neoliberalism and depression leading to suicide is a credible hypothesis.

Suicide – prevalence: epidemic?

There are multiple causes of suicide, but depression appears to be a major cause. Depression is being experienced not only by those demoralized by military experience but also by those affected by economic deprivation.

Global threats, from extremism to mental illness to humanitarian emergencies, can only be addressed if we take seriously the economic systems that foster them.

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