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  • Print publication year: 2013
  • Online publication date: June 2014

8 - Neo-liberalism and the working-class hero: From organized to flexible labour markets



Liberalism in Jane Austin's day was the great path for escape from the strictures of the British class system and for reward for individual effort and merit. Jane Austin's Persuasion is the ultimate ode to neo-liberalism: the wealthy heroine and the poor but ambitious hero are forced by her family to abort a youthful engagement. Yet, his later bourgeois success as a sea captain and consequent wealth permit love to triumph at last. Liberalism in this context is a revolutionary concept that empowers bourgeois strivers to challenge aristocratic prerogatives and to achieve by individual merit those goals denied to them by class constraints. More recently, liberalism as a political philosophy – dubbed ‘neo-liberalism’ – has had very different implications for social class: policies inspired by neo-liberal goals are frequently viewed as mechanisms to release individuals from the constrictions imposed by government rather than by class structure. These recent neo-liberal reforms often advantage actors in the marketplace who – by virtue of their class position or inherent capabilities – hold superior resources in exchange transactions. Whereas liberalism was once celebrated as a vehicle for levelling class inequities, policies of a neo-liberal hue (at least in some countries) have now become a driver of inequality.

This chapter reflects on the flexibility and ambiguity embedded in the neo-liberal ideal, and it comments on two questions and related lines of explanation raised in the first chapter of this volume. First, I ponder the utility of neo-liberalism as an independent variable and query whether the flexible, multifaceted nature of liberal political ideology contributes to its resilience or whether this inherent flexibility constrains its capacity for causal impact. Second, I reflect on neo-liberalism as a dependent variable by probing the factors that shape the diverse manifestations of this set of ideas across time and national settings.

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