Wendy Brown, “Neo-Liberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy.” Theory & Event 7:1 (2003)


In this essay, Brown argues that definitions of neoliberalism frequently obscure what is new or “neo” about this system and ignore the way neoliberalism undercuts and erodes democratic institutions in places like the US. She argues that neoliberalism has significant political implications precisely because it is bigger than a set of economic policies. According to Brown, the logic of neoliberalism extends market values to social practices, institutions, and public policies, essentially emphasizing a new set of values upon which governing decisions are made. Brown argues that this shift is politically significant because the values and logic of neoliberalism are incompatible with the values of liberal democracy, and the political Left needs to be thinking about what this incompatibility might mean for their political landscape.

Brown’s essay is primarily focused on analyzing the political implications of the rise and proliferation of the logic of neoliberalism. In the course of this analysis, she defines the features of neoliberal political rationale as follows:

  1. Applying a market logic to all decision making.
  2. In contrast to laissez faire ideology, neoliberalism assumes that the free market is a construction that requires the involvement of the state—not where the state regulates the market, but where the state functions in service of the market
  3. Neoliberalism prescribes activity for the individual subject, encouraging individuals to see themselves as personally responsible for “managing” their lives and working to discipline subjects by moralizing this “freedom”
  4.  Neoliberalism changes what constitutes “good” social policy by making market rationale the measure against which policy is measured


Key Quotes:

“[N]eo-liberalism is not simply a set of economic policies; it is not only about facilitating free trade, maximizing corporate profits, and challenging welfarism. Rather, neo-liberalism carries a social analysis which, when deployed as a form of governmentality, reaches from the soul of the citizen-subject to education policy to practices of empire. Neo-liberal rationality, while foregrounding the market, is not only or even primarily focused on the economy; rather it involves extending and disseminating market values to all institutions and social action, even as the market itself remains a distinctive player.” (emphasis in the original)

“Put simply, what liberal democracy has provided over the last two centuries is a modest ethical gap between economy and polity. Even as a liberal democracy converges with many capitalist values (property rights, individualism, Hobbesian assumptions underneath all contract, etc.) the formal distinction it establishes between moral and political principles on the one hand and the economic order on the other has also served as insulation against the ghastliness of life exhaustively ordered by the market and measured by market values. It is this gap that a neo-liberal political rationality closes as it submits every aspect of political and social life to economic calculation.”