Neoliberalism (Pirie, 2017). There is no final explanation,

            Neoliberalism can be defined as an ideology and policy
model which has an emphasis on the value of free-market competition. Nevertheless,
what the essential features of neoliberal thought and practice are is much
debated, but it is ‘most commonly associated with laissez-faire economics’ (Smith,
 According to Pirie (2017), neoliberalism
is ‘based on learning the lessons of the world and using them to propose
policies that can change it for the better, that can make it correspond more to
the world we would like it to be. It is a continuous process (Pirie, 2017).
There is no final explanation, no fixed set of principles that constitute it
(Pirie, 2017). It is more of a process than the description of a status quo’
(Pirie, 2017: 8). The term ‘”neoliberalism” is not simply a name for pro-market
policies, or for the compromises with finance capitalism made by failing social
democratic parties. It is a name for a premise that, quietly, has come to
regulate all we practise and believe: that competition is the only legitimate
organising principle for human activity’ (Metcalf, 2017). Although neoliberalism
is not a single coherent entity with a simple origin point, (Anderson, 2015),
there are a variety of observable themes, characteristics and features that identify
it, for example: precarity, optimism, disaffection and resentment, which can be
observed in neoliberal life today.

            Using the example of public and
media reactions to strikes by public sector workers, it is possible to identify
and discuss a key defining feature of neoliberal life: resentment, which, in
this case, is the anger and displeasure at those who maintain and desire basic
rights when many do not. One example which clearly shows resentment is the
reaction to BART workers taking strike action in California (Onishi, 2013).
Many members of the public in that state were angered at news of strike action,
with some highlighting their own misfortune and lack of employment rights in
comparison to BART workers: ‘there are a lot of workers out there who don’t
even have a union or a pension or health care benefits’ (Onishi, 2013). An “aggressively
enraged sense of injustice, committed to the idea that, because I must endure
increasingly austere working conditions (wage freezes, loss of benefits,etc.)
then everyone else must too” is evidenced (Srnicek and Williams, 2015: 21). A
similar mood towards striking rail workers can be observed in the UK, when some
commuters have been reported as being ‘sick of strikes’ (Gayle & Obordo, 2016).
Their anger is targeted often upon London Underground workers who take up
strike action; with tube strikers being described as ‘selfish’ (Gillett, 2016).
Indeed, this has even become known in popular culture in the UK with songs such
as ‘London Underground’ attacking tube strikers (Amateur Transplants, 2005).

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Furthermore, some people even framed the BART strikes as
“the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer” (Onishi, 2013). In this
context, a lack of pension or lack of healthcare becomes an argument to be used
against those who have and who are able to maintain such basic standards of
living; the only way society can collectively move is thus down. These examples
clearly show a sense of negative solidarity; which pits ‘orienting isolated and
competitive individuals against those who are failing to work or bear their
share of austerity’ (Read, 2014). From this we can see how the falsehood of
David Cameron’s and the Conservative government’s notion of ‘we’re all in this
together.’ Austerity is used in the UK to legitimise and excuse the conditions
of those suffering as a result, despite a neoliberal elite maintaining their
lavish lifestyles (Wacquant, 2009). Indeed, the ‘burden of solving this crisis
has been disproportionately off-loaded onto working people’ (Coleman, 2016:

            Precarity and the living of a
precarious life is another signature of neoliberal life, widely observed with
regards to, for example, workers on zero-hour contracts and migrant workers in
the UK. Neoliberalism has a ‘commonly felt and identifiable mood’ described as
a life ‘lived precariously’ (Anderson, 2015: 4). This neoliberal feature is
used generally to highlight a shared but varied sense of insecurity prevalent in
the experience of life in neoliberal societies today. Workers at Sports Direct
on zero-hour contracts are one clear example of those in a position of
precarity (Bence, 2015). ‘Kirsty’ is one example of a staff member who is employed
on a part-time basis. She was reprimanded by the company for having to make
emergency hospital visits from work and was given reduced hours (Bence, 2015).
It is a common fear amongst workers that ‘if they are sick, or seen as a
‘problem’ because of circumstances outside of their control, then their hours,
and therefore their pay, will be reduced’ (Bence, 2015). Furthermore, ‘today’s
economy is increasingly characterised by insecure, exploitative forms of work
… with no better example of this tendency than recent disclosures of Sports
Direct’ (Prosser, 2013). Precarity can be described as transcending society,
being ‘the dominant structure and experience of the present moment, cutting
across class and locality’ (Berlant, 2011:192). Moreover, a group of people who
have a collective similar experience of an insecure life have been dubbed the
‘precariat’ (Berlant, 2011). Additionally, what is common for all people in
this designation is that ‘there are no guarantees that the life one intends can
or will be built’ (Berlant, 2011: 192). The living of a precarious life links
into resentments, with those in a position of precarity such as those angry at
the BART strike who themselves lack basic standards of living directing anger
at those deemed to be trying to alleviate their own precarity.

            There is considerable debate as to
whether the experience of precarity is similar across neoliberal societies, and,
if it is not, the extent to which it differs. Some groups of people have been
described as ‘hyper precarious’ and one such group ‘centrally implicated’ in a
hyper precarious life are migrants who are at the ‘bottom end of labour markets
in Global North countries’ (Lewis et al, 2014: 580). Migrants in the UK, in particular
those who are ‘illegal’, can be regarded as a clear example of migrants in this
predicament. Migrants often suffer from both economic and social disadvantages,
such as Salih, who, after initially claiming asylum in the UK was not allowed
to work and fell victim to ‘institutional and social discrimination’ (Salih,
2017). Many migrants like Salih have fallen victim to ‘tougher immigration
systems … resulting in reduced rights to work and welfare’ (Lewis et al,
2014: 583). For illegal migrants in the UK, a host of compounding issues that
serve to make their lives hyper precarious are identifiable. One such problem
is ‘forced labour’ (Lewis et al, 2014: 581). Hyper precarity can be said to be
‘further magnified’ (Lewis et al, 2014: 593) when migrants are involved in jobs
that ‘involve greater risk of injury or death… such as construction,
agriculture and catering’ (Lewis et al, 2014: 593). In this instance, illegal
workers are not only subjected to unfair forced labour, they are subjected to
forced labour that entails dangerous work. Furthermore, the inability to
contact authorities about their sufferings compounds the risks of dangerous
forced labour; with no possibility of official compensation or recourse in the
event of a workplace injury for example. These examples show how precarity can
be said to be a spectrum rather than a single definable existence (Lewis et al,
2014). In addition, despite neoliberalism’s supposed individualising
philosophy, it often leads to people utilising cooperation and interdependency
to alleviate their precarious positions (Worth, 2016) This is exemplified by
millennial women in Canada, such as ‘Ella’ (Worth, 2016); who’s ‘mutual
reliance and connection’ with family and friends contrasts with supposed
‘individualising’ neoliberal logic (Worth, 2016: 601).

Whilst some groups of people can be said to be in
precarious work, it could be argued that many migrants live out precarious
lives. Clement et al. (2009) highlight how systems that exclude migrants from
access to work or benefits serve to make them at risk not only to precarious
employment but to precarious unemployment. Another factor which makes the lives
of illegal migrant workers hyper precarious is the inability to seek help from
the authorities due to their forced labour conditions, because of fears over
immigration enforcement and deportation. Deportability is an aspect of
precarity that can be differentiated. There is a ‘different risk for migrants
who fear not only the loss of face and changes in family relationships
confronted by many migrants returning without the status or income expected
from migration but also the risks of persecution, torture and other threats to
themselves in states known for human rights abuse’ (Bloch et al., 2009). For
this group the threat of deportation is compounded by the threat of deportation
to a country where migrants’ safety and wellbeing is at risk from tyrannical

Disaffection, stemming from a climate of ‘capitalist
realism’ (Fisher, 2009: 5) in which neoliberal capitalism is accepted as the
singular viable political system, is another key characteristic of neoliberal
society. The prevailing attitude towards neoliberalism can be summarised as: ‘a
profound dissatisfaction with both the consequences and ideological premises of
the neoliberal project’ (Gilbert, 2015: 29). On the other hand, ‘it involves an
acquiescence with that project, a degree of deference to its relative
legitimacy in the absence of any convincing alternative, and a belief it cannot
be effectively challenged’ (Gilbert, 2015: 29). In the US people on lower
incomes report levels of dissatisfaction with their democratic institutions
which are higher than the average (Lenard & Simeon, 2012:12).  Nevertheless, they remain politically engaged
because they retain the belief that they ‘can do better’ (Lenard & Simeon,
2012:12). However, disaffected citizens ‘have disengaged from political
activity … they no longer believe that they can influence the political
process in a meaningful way (Lenard & Simeon,

Rage and anger can be observed to follow on from a climate
of capitalist realism and clearly exemplified by populist political movements
across the globe, such as the Trump campaign in the USA and the Vote Leave
campaign in the UK. Indeed ‘the free market produces a tiny cadre of winners
and an enormous army of losers – and the losers, seeking revenge, have turned
to Brexit and Trump’ (Metcalf, 2017). Both campaigns often clearly took a
stance decrying neoliberalist policies and globalism. For example, both the
Vote Leave and Leave.EU campaign utilised anger at free-movement and fears over
immigration, especially amongst those ‘working class voters, particularly in
the north of England, who felt that they have been left behind in
socio-economic terms and are threatened by migration which they equate with the
forces of globalisation’ (Lloyd, 2016). Moreover, this can be seen in the
imagery of the Leave.EU campaign poster given below in Figure 1. In addition, these campaigns took
‘advantage of the widespread anger at these growing economic problems and
directed that rage at migrants, outsiders and multiculturalism, instead of at
the neoliberal policies that fuelled them’ (Norton, 2016). This links to
resentment and precarity; the angers of central targets of the Trump and Brexit
campaign (White Working class) were utilised and directed at migrants and
global elites. For example, the precarity in many people’s experiences, in
particular job security, was often blamed on migrants. This can be understood
from the UKIP poster from 2015 (Fig
2.). This climate of mistrust and anger has served to exacerbate further
the precarity of migrants. In the the period after the Brexit referendum the
highest ever level of hate crime was reported in England and Wales (John,

Another feature identified as neoliberalistic is a sense of
optimism provided by neoliberal aspirations of self-betterment which serves to
inspire people to accept their present material conditions in the hope of
achieving a better life in the future. Pirie states that neoliberals ‘take
human beings as they are, and try to produce circumstances in which they will
serve their fellow men and women even if they do so by serving their own
interests …They are optimistic enough to suppose that under the right
conditions people will behave decently towards each other (Pirie,
2017: 9-10). Wilson says that optimism is necessary in life and that we need to
be ‘affectively invested and attached to our social world to get out of bed in
the morning and to keep moving in our lives (Wilson, 2017). People cling on to
their hopes and they ‘can override the
determining powers of the inequalities experienced within this present’ (Hage, 2003: 12). The endurance
of these hopes binds people to structures and practices that are harmful, constituting
one of neoliberal’s cruel aspects. So, as Berlant says, optimism can
become fantasies beyond reach and optimism is therefore cruel. What Berlant
describes as ‘frayed fantasies’ include, in particular ‘upward mobility, job
security, political and social equality’ (Berlant, 2011:3). Cruel optimism can be
observed to have intensified in late capitalism (Berlant, 2008); for example, McGee (2013)
describes ‘self-help books that promise health, wealth, and happiness just as
long as the reader is willing to work at it, visualize it, believe it’ as one
of the abundant examples of cruel optimism. Furthermore,
cruel optimism can be observed when ‘something you desire is actually an
obstacle to your flourishing’ (Berlant, 2011: 1).

To conclude, although an exact definition of neoliberalism
seems to be problematic, precarity, disaffection, resentment and optimism are
all themes which characterise neoliberal life and society. ‘Neoliberalism
serves the interests and represents the ways of thinking and feeling of the
transnational capitalist class’ (McGuigan, 2016:20). Nevertheless, it has
permeated and dominates the lives of people in the global north; and despite
some support for different systems, clearly maintains its hegemony.


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