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Posing a Corrective to the Ill Effects of Neoliberalism for Self-Governance



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Today’s dominant contemporary social construction or philosophic frame, known as neoliberalism, gauges social value in largely economic terms. That orientation ultimately serves capitalism foremost as it assumes that the market should serve as the primary arbiter for as large a share of social decision-making as possible. This is to say that this construction of reality is a profoundly limited one that assumes that social value is and ought to be principally economic in character and focus. This perspective ultimately truncates the human experience and limits a citizenry’s vision of how its shared interests may be advanced.  

Harvey has succinctly defined neo-liberalism:

A theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets and free trade. The role of the state is to create and preserve an institutional framework appropriate to such practices. The state has to guarantee, for example, the quality and integrity of money.  ...if markets do not exist (in areas such as land, water, education, health care, social security, or environmental pollution) then they must be created, by state action if necessary. But beyond these tasks the state should not venture. State interventions in markets (once created) must be kept to a bare minimum because, according to the theory, that state cannot possibly possess enough information to second-guess market signals (prices) and because powerful interest groups will inevitably distort and bias state interventions (particularly in democracies for their own benefit (Harvey 2005, p. 2).

Neoliberalism assumes that individuals are economic animals who both reflect and should embrace individualism, competition and self-reliance. This organizing principle discourages and may stifle the development of alternative narratives of value and worth beyond the simply utilitarian. Durkheim has argued that individuals working in pursuit of human ideals ultimately gave rise to Scholasticism, the Reformation and Renaissance, the revolutionary era and the Socialist upheavals of the nineteenth century (Durkheim, 1974). That is, history has witnessed the development of a host of alternative forms of social organization and valuations of meaning and justice that did not simply reify the economic. In stark contrast, neoliberalism has produced both sharply circumscribed and instrumental values that are actively antagonistic to any common or core structure of social aims or ideals beyond the utilitarian. Durkheim posited a dichotomous relationship between Real and Ideal forms, For Durkheim, the Real connoted existing conditions broadly understood, while the Ideal concerned the “ought” of collective consciousness and individual imagination, a shared striving for a common vision of the good society (Miller, 1996). In Durkheim’s terms, the neoliberal model is best conceived as today’s dominant Real and its tenets now serve as the touchstone on which leaders and citizens alike routinely envision, evaluate and reify ideal forms.

The Real Problem

Widespread social acceptance and adoption of neoliberal assumptions has created a Real that now pervades the consciousness of the populations of most developed and many developing countries. If this is so, it is likewise clear that in the developed countries that have pursued it, including the United States especially, neoliberalism has benefitted a narrow portion of the nation’s population immensely, while failing to assist, marginally aiding or actively undermining the interests of a majority of residents. For evidence, one may point to the huge and growing inequality of income and wealth in the United States that has arisen under the sway of neoliberal ideology. This unacceptable outcome in a democratic society suggests that no guiding social philosophy should be sacrosanct. Instead, democratic citizens should engage in a continuous vigorous conversation regarding their national ideals. At its best, such an ongoing clash of ideas helps to ensure that a descriptively narrow Real form, to use Durkheim’s term, does not, as now, create a meta-level monopoly of social possibility that effectively prevents or hobbles governance attempts to advance the human condition. Neoliberalism has done so by encouraging widespread adoption of norms and values that serve the interests of few and enshrine the economic as architectonic.

This raises the question of how to kindle a civic conversation of sufficient power and breadth to change the dominant neoliberal social frame now creating profound social and income inequality. Hall and Lamont (2013) have contended that today’s regnant ideology constructs, organizes and evaluates the reality in which it exists and has thus far proven impervious to criticisms calling for adoption of alternative ideal forms. Shahrier, et al. have suggested further that neoliberalism has actually undermined moral dispositions that support a “social value orientation” (2016, p.1).  Instead, as a guiding perspective, the ideology actively promotes less prosocial behavior and encourages individuals to view others principally as competitors for a fixed array of material goods.

An Alternative Ideal

John Dewey’s theory of creative democracy provides an alternative organizing principle for society that addresses the principal individual and societal-scale limitations of neoliberalism. Dewey saw creative democracy as, “a moral practice of radical equality in the pragmatic, [a] collective project of hammering out answers to the questions of how we should live” (Lake, 2016, p. 479). Ultimately, this ideal, in practice, attempts to advance the human condition by encouraging the values of cooperation, community, participation and openness. Notably, these beliefs align uniformly with Durkheim’s aim of developing social ideals. These values accord greater consideration and authority to conceptions of equity, justice, equality and lived experience in social decision making, as compared to neoliberalism’s singular focus on utility maximization and efficiency as cardinal tenets.

John Dewey contended too that the path to social adoption of creative democracy had to occur via an educational process that prepared children and youth for pragmatic engagement with public citizenship. In Dewey’s view, such efforts served as the foundation that ensured and permitted possibilities for individuals to come together to work out how they ought to live individually and collectively in society. This emphasis on social acculturation intertwined with education and seen as vital to democratic citizenship and possibility contrasts sharply with the current neoliberal conception of society generally and of education, more particularly. Neoliberalism views education instead as existing principally to prepare individuals for capitalism’s perceived workforce requirements (Lake, 2016). Dewey, meanwhile, understood education as a central element of society’s development of its citizenry for democratic self-governance as well as for engagement in the marketplace. Indeed, he asked more broadly if, “a material, industrial civilization [can] be converted into a distinctive agency for liberating the minds and refining the emotions of all who take part in it?” (Lake, 2016; Dewey, 1929/1960, p.100; p.488) 

Still more deeply perhaps, Dewey envisioned education as integral to preparing citizens to be “democratically competent political agents empowered to engage in the collective performance” of “cooperative experimental intelligence” aimed at “creating a desired world” (Lake, 2016, p. 487). Traditionally, economists have assumed that consumers possess all of the information necessary to make buying choices that maximize their utility. Neoliberals have extended this simplifying assumption to a wide array of not only economic, but also social choices and to citizenship itself. However, as Rorty has argued, “the democratic community of Dewey’s dreams, [was] a community… in which everybody thinks that it is human solidarity, rather than knowledge of something … that really matters” (Rorty, 1999, p. 20).  Reimagining inquiry and citizenship as a nonhierarchical process in which self-and-social interests enjoy equal claim, rather than as a consumer maximizing perceived personal desires, is central to reclaiming democracy as the central organizing principle of society.


Neoliberalism has limited our polity’s view of human possibility to the simply economic and placed that yardstick as the arbiter and metric of virtually all social action. The social facts produced by neoliberalism’s focus on an atomizing individualism, fictional self-reliance and fierce social competition work actively prevent individuals from achieving a broader vision of their social and democratic roles. John Dewey’s vision of creative democracy offers an alternative to this narrow perspective or imaginary that envisions an expansion of individual and societal values and possibility through democratic practices of cooperation, participation and openness. Dewey argued that citizens could and should acquire a deeper understanding of these fundaments via education.  Put differently, Dewey saw that freedom and human advancement cannot be predicated on material satisfactions alone. As this nation’s prevailing social philosophy for some five decades, neoliberalism has surely advanced the economic positions of a minority of citizens even as widespread acceptance of its organizing assumptions has simultaneously degraded the capacities for self-governance of those populations that have adopted it. Dewey’s conception of education for democracy and robust citizenship provides a much needed and viable alternative to what has proven to be a socially corrosive public philosophy.


Thank you to Professor Max Stephenson and Professor Eric Malczewski for their valuable insight and thoughtful direction in helping to bring this paper to publication.


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Hall, P., and M. Lamont (Eds.). (2013). Social Resilience in the Neoliberal Era. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9781139542425

Harvey, David (2005): A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lake, Robert. W. (2017). “On poetry, pragmatism and the urban possibility of creative democracy,” Urban Geography,38(4), pp. 479-494. Retrieved November 9, 2018, from

Miller, W. W. (1996). Durkheim, Morals and Modernity. Montreal, Quebec: McGill-Queens University Press.

Rorty, Richard. (1999). Philosophy and Social Hope. London: Penguin Books.

Shahrier S, Kotani K and M. Kakinaka. (2016) “Social Value Orientation and Capitalism in Societies,” PLoS ONE 11(10): e0165067.

Thorson, D. E., and A. Lie, (n.d.). “What is Neoliberalism,” History Studies International Journal of History,10(7), pp. 1-21. Retrieved November 20, 2018.

Weiss, Raquel. “From Ideas to Ideals: Effervescence as the Key to Understanding Morality.” Durkheimian Studies / Études Durkheimiennes, 18, 2012, pp. 81–97. JSTOR, JSTOR,


Elliott Abbotts

Elliott Abbotts is originally from Milford, Connecticut where he completed his undergraduate degree in Human Services at the University of Bridgeport. He is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Public Administration in the School of Public and International Affairs here at Virginia Tech. Elliott presently serves as a Graduate Assistant for the Virginia Tech Student Success Center. His academic interests include local government, community development and K-12 public education. 

Publication Date

February 28, 2019