COVID-19 and the Failure of Neoliberalism in the Face of Crisis

We are firmly set in the middle of a global pandemic at the moment. As it currently stands, the World Health Organization (WHO) is reporting just under 300,000 confirmed cases and 13,000 deaths as of March 22 with no sign of slowing down. This pandemic has demonstrated severe flaws in the system in the United States of America. The broad recommendation is “social distancing” which is self-quarantine with avoiding contact or close proximity  to others when it is necessary to go out. To facilitate this in order to “flatten the curve“, non-essential businesses are closed and this means that many wage-laborers are not earning and thus cannot meet basic needs such as mortgage/rent payments, food, debt repayment, and other recurring financial pressures.

One way to analyze this consequence is to look at the history of capitalism and the centralization of the market in human life (see: Polanyi, 1944) and the transition to wage-labor (see: Roediger, 1991; Marx, 1867). However, this classical form of capitalism still allowed for the incorporation of social safety nets and collectivity. This is not to discount other issues intrinsic to capitalism such as exploitation and the need for constant expansion and thus various forms of colonization (see: Luxemburg, 1913; Marx, 1867). The particular iteration of capitalism that I am concerned with here is neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism is the extension of market logic to the everyday life, that is, ideology that holds that contemporary life should occur through a calculus of “utility,
benefit, or satisfaction against a microeconomic grid of scarcity, supply and demand, and moral value-neutrality” (Brown, 2003: p. 3). This paints neoliberalism as a kind of quasi-ethics. As a consequence of this ideology, there is an increase in individualization and self-interest with a decrease in collectivity and social solidarity. People are thus seen as rational agents who should be cultivating the own entrepreneurship through market logic (Caro, 2017).

I’ve discussed the consequences of individualization and lack of solidarity in relation to mass shootings in the USA using Durkheim’s concepts of anomie and egoism as outcomes of a lack of social solidarity and moral guidance. Here, I want to think about how neoliberal hegemonic ideology has doomed us to such a severe crisis in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since, with the adoption of neoliberal practices beginning in the 1970s and 1980s (see: Harvey, 2005), social welfare programs have been weakened or completely dissolved in favor of an appeal to individual responsibility.

The CDC, and federal and local governments are recommending “social distancing” which means that wage-laborers are unable to earn money and thus are experiencing a huge amount of stress with consequences that may reverberate for generations which may likely result in class shifts as the wealth of working class people is depleted. The dissolution of of social safety nets and social support that has been facilitated by the neoliberal project has put a huge swath of the populace in danger of economic collapse.

We also seen neoliberal ideology propagate through practice. Any visit to the grocery store demonstrates the self-interested entrepreneurship discussed by critics of neoliberalism. People are hoarding toilet paper, milk and bread are often depleted, meats, hand sanitizer, etc. At the same time we see corporations hoarding wealth (see: airlines buying back stocks) as a means of prevent losses. As Polanyi (1944) argues, society has become embedded in the market. Neoliberalism has further centralized the role of the market and moral decisions are made through notions of self-maximization and cost-benefit thinking (Brown, 2003). We no longer have the policy in place nor the social relationships to contend with crises of this nature which makes the most vulnerable among us even more so and more people become so.

It isn’t enough to think about how we got here but what this may do to us in the future. Naomi Klein (2008) argues that the neoliberal state uses crises such as the one we are currently experiencing to further the goals of privatization and the commodification of consequences of crises. As the cracks in our society become even more apparent in the face of disaster, private firms may make moves to fill the cracks with commodified solutions that offer some (but little) benefit to people while raking in huge profits. Lennin Caro (personal communication) mentioned an increase in home schooling software as the responsibility for education has shift to parents and at-home solutions.

Of course, we don’t have to double down on neoliberalism. It has made a terrible situation much worse. Instead, we could strive for real and meaningful change that could mitigate the consequences of future crises (assuming we recover from this one) on everyday folks. While a transition away from capitalism is likely unrealistic, a rejection of the quisi-morality of neoliberalism, refusal of hyper-individualism, the adoption of policy that works for all, and embracing a sociality that creates solidarity and hope with the knowledge that we are stronger together and all people’s futures are intertwined with others is something that is possible.

Neoliberalism requires a lot of work to keep its momentum. Brown (2003) argues that neoliberalism is not assumed to be a natural outgrowth but is instead actively cultivated; neoliberalism (market and rational economic behavior) are not natural outgrowths of human nature and instead must be organized and require “political intervention and orchestration” (p. 4). If neoliberalism requires an active process to maintain then so to can alternative approaches to society and organization.

A final word: I don’t expect this to be a conclusive castigation of neoliberalism as that would require space beyond that here. I see this a merely a jumping off point to think about how we can move forward with our past in mind and hope for the future. The next piece will likely engage with the ecological responses that have occurred in the wake of the pandemic.


Brown, W. (2005). Neoliberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy”. Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics.

Caro, L. (2017). Missional Subjectivity: Neoliberal Human Capital and Christian Campus Ministries (Doctoral dissertation, The University of North Carolina at Charlotte).

Harvey, D. (2007). A brief history of neoliberalism. Oxford University Press, USA.

Klein, N., & Peet, R. (2008). The shock doctrine: The rise of disaster capitalism. Human Geography1(2), 130-133.

Luxemburg, R. (1913). The accumulation of capital. Routledge.

Marx, K. (1867). Capital: volume one. Courier Dover Publications.

Polanyi, K. (1944). The great transformation. Boston: Beacon press.

Roediger, D. R. (1991). The wages of whiteness: Race and the making of the American working class. Verso.


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