What is this thing called neoliberalism? (With apologies, and gratitude, to Cole Porter)

In 2015, my colleague Clare Bambra and I published a book subtitled neoliberal epidemics. Since then, the destructive consequences of ‘austerity’ in the United Kingdom, where I live and work, have underscored the value of this critical perspective.  So, too has the extent to which austerity and tropes like ‘scarce resources’ have become normalised in the official and professional discourses of public health.  I put the terms in quotation marks to emphasise that the scarcities in question are highly selective; resources are abundant for the priorities of the powerful – think HS2, which is  at least in part a welfare programme for propertied money launderers along the planned route – among many other examples.  Yet at the same time, many public health researchers and practitioners are reluctant to engage with neoliberalism as a political phenomenon.  I recently participated in a workshop in which some accomplished researchers simply refused to talk about it.   Precarious employment status is one reason, but in various contexts I have observed a lack of familiarity with the term itself, and its core propositions.

Unlike some academic colleagues, I have argued that there is a set of core propositions that are relatively easy to identify, especially once we recognise that history matters and a trajectory can be observed leading (at least) from the establishment of the Mont-Pèlerin society in 1947, through the installation of the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile in 1973 and the election of Thatcher and Reagan at the end of that decade, to the current context of homicidal austerity in the UK and elsewhere.

Anyone who questions the use of the adjective ‘homicidal’ just has not been paying attention.  I will address this issue in more detail in a future posting.

There follows a list of sources for those interested in exploring neoliberalism further, building on a list developed for a doctoral candidate I advise.  Many of these sources have nothing directly to do with health.  Answering the ‘what’s all this got to do with health’ question relies on a much larger literature on social determinants of health,  Some of the sources draw on this literature, and WHO’s training manual on Health in All Policies is a valuable starting point.

Comments and suggestions for additions to the list are welcome!


Birch, K. (2015). Neoliberalism: The Whys and Wherefores – and Future Directions. Sociology Compass, 9, 571-584.

Brodie, J. (2015). Income Inequality and the Future of Global Governance. In S. Gill (Ed.), Critical Perspectives on the Crisis of Global Governance: Reimagining the Future (pp. 45-68). London: Palgrave Macmillan UK.

Evans, P. B. & Sewell, W. H. (2013). Neoliberalism: Policy Regimes, International Regimes, and Social Effects. In P. A. Hall & M. Lamont (Eds.), Social Resilience in the Neoliberal Era (pp. 35-68). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Farnsworth, K. & Irving, Z. (2018). Austerity: Neoliberal dreams come true? Critical Social Policy, 38, 461-481.

Fraser, N. (2017). From Progressive Neoliberalism to Trump—and Beyond. American Affairs, 1, 46-64.

Fudge, J. & Cossman, B. (2002). Introduction: Privatization, Law, and the Challenge to Feminism. In B. Cossman & J. Fudge (Eds.), Privatization, Law, and the Challenge to Feminism (pp. 3-40). Toronto: University of Toronto Press (important source on the multiple dimensions of ‘privatisation’).

Goodman, P.S. (2018, May 28). In Britain, Austerity Is Changing Everything. New York Times.  Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/28/world/europe/uk-austerity-poverty.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=first-column-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news.

Harvey, D. (2006). Neo-liberalism and the restoration of class power. In his Spaces of Global Capitalism (pp. 9-68). London: Verso.  (This is the most succinct and least over-theorised of Harvey’s several works on this topic.)

Horton, R. (2017). Offline: Not one day more. The Lancet, 390, 110 (eloquent must-read critique by the editor of The Lancet).

Jones, D.S. (2012).  Masters of the Universe: Hayek, Friedman, and the Birth of Neoliberal Politics.  Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Kentikelenis, A. E. (2017). Structural adjustment and health: A conceptual framework and evidence on pathways. Social Science & Medicine, 187, 296-305.

MacLean, N. (2017). Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America. New York: Viking.

Marchak, P. (1991). The Integrated Circus: The New Right and the Restructuring of Global Markets. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press (indispensable historical source on the early policy initiatives that advanced neoliberal globalisation).

Metcalf, S. (2017, August 18). Neoliberalism: the idea that changed the world. Guardian.  Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2017/aug/18/neoliberalism-the-idea-that-changed-the-world.

Phillips-Fein, K. (2009). Business Conservativees and the Mont Pèlerin Society. In P. Mirowski & D. Plehwe (Eds.), The Road from Mont Pèlerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective (pp. 280-304). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Powell, L. F. (1971). Attack on American Free Enterprise System. Washington, DC: US Chamber of Commerce. Retrieved from: http://law.wlu.edu/deptimages/Powell%20Archives/PowellMemorandumPrinted.pdf (a key historical turning point; Powell was later appointed to the US Supreme Court by Richard Nixon).

Schmidt, V. A. (1995). The New World Order, Incorporated: The Rise of Business and the Decline of the Nation State. Daedalus, 124, 75-106.

Schmidt, V. A. & Thatcher, M. (2014). Why are neoliberal ideas so resilient in Europe’s political economy? Critical Policy Studies, 8, 340-347.

Schrecker, T. (2016). ‘Neoliberal epidemics’ and public health: sometimes the world is less complicated than it appears. Critical Public Health, 26, 477-480.

Spooner, M. (2018). Qualitative Research and the Global Audit Culture. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research (5th ed.). Los Angeles: Sage.

Springer, S. (2013). Neoliberalism.   In K. Dodds, M. Juus & J. Sharp (Eds.) The Ashgate Research Companion to Critical Geopolitics.  Farnham: Ashgate.

Steger, M.B., & Roy, R.K. (2010). Neoliberalism: A Very Short Introduction.  Oxford: Oxford University Press (very useful road map).

Stuckler, D., & Basu, S. (2013).  The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills.  London: Allen Lane (now a classic).

Stuckler, D., Reeves, A., Loopstra, R., Karanikolos, M., & McKee, M. (2017). Austerity and health: the impact in the UK and Europe. European Journal of Public Health, 27, 18-21.

Wacquant, L. (2010). Crafting the Neoliberal State: Workfare, Prisonfare, and Social Insecurity. Sociological Forum, 25, 197-220.

Wacquant, L. (2012). Three steps to a historical anthropology of actually existing neoliberalism. Social Anthropology, 20, 66-79.

Ward, K. & England, K. (2007). Introduction: Reading Neoliberalization. In K. England & K. Ward (Eds.), Neoliberalization: States, Networks, People (pp. 1-22). Oxford: Blackwell.  Online: https://download.e-bookshelf.de/download/0000/5793/44/L-G-0000579344-0015233877.pdf.  


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