Psychology and Neoliberalism
- Jennifer CleggJennifer CleggUniversity of Nottingham Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences
- and Richard Lansdall-WelfareRichard Lansdall-WelfareNottinghamshire Healthcare NHS Trust
Neoliberalism is a transatlantic free market ideology based on individual liberty and limited government, developed by Hayek and von Mises. In its third wave (1980–2008), commitment to deregulation, privatization, and individual freedom moved beyond the economy into politics and culture. The citizen was recast as a consumer, and public servants became required to satisfy consumer choice. This addressed 1970s social turmoil and improved economies, but the increased wealth went to elites while resources declined for the poor. Hayek had argued for social welfare safety nets initially, but these were rejected by peers in the Mont Pelerin Society. Business-funded transatlantic think tanks promulgated the neoliberal tenets that markets are wiser than any government and state interference makes things worse. Yet, despite these rhetorical claims, neoliberalism has actually been imposed, driven, and underwritten by governments that claim their policy is nonintervention. Neoliberalism soon influenced the political economies of most countries in the developed world, but the degree of separation engendered between rich and poor is a political choice: most extreme in the United States, with the United Kingdom a close second. Establishing neoliberal values like autonomy and choice as taken for granted occurred by “hollowing out” organizations and communities in ways that block dissent and drastically narrow the scope for debate.
Psychology is both an academic and applied discipline, with applied psychologists significantly outnumbering academics throughout the 20th century. Expansion was particularly marked during third-wave neoliberalism (1980–2008) in the United Kingdom, when the British Psychological Society grew more than fivefold to over 40,000 members. Two special editions of journals in 2018 and 2019 raised concerns about the relationship between psychology and neoliberalism. In sum, they argued that applied psychology’s self-presentation as a discipline that can solve the problems experienced by individuals glosses over the social origin of most human difficulties, and that modern psychology’s alienated and individualist epistemology makes it a potent neoliberal institution rather than a discipline that can generate alternatives.