What is Neoliberalism and Why Early Retirement May Be an Individual’s Best Response
Neoliberalism, broadly speaking in the modern sense of the word, is a concept of comodification of the components of our world – natural environmental services, human life, social exchanges, etc. In a nutshell, a neoliberal worldview values an act, object, or interaction only if they have an economic value of exchange. Thus, a clean public aquifer has zero value, but 10 million cases of bottled water of the same volume has a value of several million dollars; or, an individual caring for a child or elderly relative has zero economic value, but paid day care or elder home care is worth several hundred dollars a per week. Taken a step further, some blame the growing problem of mass incarceration as a consequence of neoliberalism: if surplus labor has no market value in a productive capacity, the economic system has created economic value by placing those poor bodies in prison systems and charging states tens of thousands of dollars per year.
When we take a 10,000 foot view of our society, I think it is pretty clear that this is the tectonic shift that we have been living through for the past several decades, which is just an exagerated version of the capitalist system that has existed for several hundred years, and that we will likely to continue to live through for years and decades to come. If that is the case, it is worth asking what are the social and personal implications of these trends. What are the interests of powerful institutions, and what does this mean for the individual living in these systems?
For the for-profit corporation, collectively the most powerful economic force in our society, there is a clear desire to capture value from all facets of the natural and human world. I have been reading David Bollier’s work on “The Commons” lately, and his explanation of “enclosure” is a good way of describing the interests of the corporation, or financial entities. The goal for these institutions is to “enclose,” or convert, some natural object or “commons” (previously a public resource or non-market object like air, water, or humans) into a comodity that can be sold for a higher price. For example, if a company can tap an aquifer for free, bottle the water, and sell it for $1 per bottle, that is a profititable endevor. Likewise, if a company can fire one employee and pay their peer 50% more to do twice the work, that is a profit maximizing activity. Of course, the worker working 50% more will have to outsource domestic tasks like childcare, cleaning, cooking, home repair and shopping to outside services. However, the former co-worker may now join the precariate of unemployed labor who will gladly work these gigs for lower pay.
For the state actor, all of these commodified exchanges likewise create revenue because previously personal acts become comodified exchanges that can be taxed at the going tax rate. In this sense, tax collecting governments are aligned with the corporate or financial system in commodifying as many aspects of personal life as possible, because they share in the monitization of, well, life.
This leaves the individual – or the typical middle class American at least – in an interesting situation historically. Compared to the ancestors from the early 20th century, a tremendous amount of direct autonomy and connection with the necessities of life have been outsourced. The modern corporate or institutional worker may be highly paid, but they are also time poor. While the ancestor from 50 to 100 years ago knew how to maintain one’s home, had time to clean, was a skilled cook, and had time to parent; the modern family has two harried parents working more than full time. The very core aspects of living life have been outsourced to handymen, frozen meals, takeout meals, cleaning services, day cares, and now even shopping delivery services, private ride-hailing apps, and ad-hoc personal task assistants. What does this mean for life? While income is high, yes, that income is also taxed, and nearly all that is left (or perhaps more than is left) is spent to close the “task gap” left by the fact that paid, specialized work takes up every waking hour of the neoliberal workers life.
What is left of the traditional human experience? Caring for one’s family and home, cooking, and even building one’s home (but who does that anymore?!) are human activities that have been practices for hundreds of thousands of years. We are still the same anatomic and intellectual creatures, and those acts still hold intrinsic value that cannot be satisfied with more money. If the neoliberal’s view of “rational self interest” is reduced to the narrow idea of maximizing paid income, that can hardly be called true rational self interest.
True rational self interest views paid work at a means to meet the comodity needs of life for oneself and one’s family. Beyond a certain point, more income becomes superfluous. Social research has found that this point in the US is at about $70,000 dollars, though it varies by city. Most interestingly, we’ve seen in the past several years the very early retirments of CFOs of major technology companies. If the CFOs are voting on the true meaning of rational self interest with their feet and quiting their jobs, maybe the rest of us should pay attention!
In fact, I personally think that a plan for rationalizing and simplifying one’s own life is the best survival method in our increasingly neoliberal world. If one is fortunate to be plugged into the well-paid markets of labor for major corporate, governmental, and associated institutions, I think it is imperative to maintain ties to the core self-care activities of life. However, In an all-or-nothing labor market of long hours, the only choice left may be to enter the labor market for 10-15 years, live frugally, invest a very large portion of earnings, and then retire at an early age and live a simplified life on the proceeds and some more reasonable, or meaningful, part-time work.
I believe that the most outspoken critics of this idea of “early retirement” are thoroughly steeped in a neoliberal worldview. If one has been raised or conditioned to believe that the purpose of life is to earn more income and consume more goods, then a less comodified life may certainly be problematic. However, for the “woke” individual who is on a path to try to realize their fullest human potential, there is no shortage of non-market activities to engage in outside of the economic system. Besides the very engaging self-care DIY activities that are very meaningful and fulfilling, there is a host of artistic, volunteer, civic, and social activities that are arguably much more meaningful than paid (i.e., coerced) labor.
The real question is: for those who have the very fortunate potential to be free from paid labor, as the Greek citizen was, what is the alternative to paid work? In fact, the “commons” movement, which I’ve been reading about quite a bit lately, is a non-market means of engaging and working with communities of collaborators in big projects in voluntary, non-commodified ways (think open software development, creative commons licensing, and creating open community wifi networks). As we look forward to a future in which labor and income are very different – either individually through retirement or early retirement, or socially through something like a guaranteed income – there is incredible potential in humans working collaboratively and voluntarily, on projects that serve their interests and community needs. The new open-source book “Patterns of Commons” explores these ideas and includes many examples that currently exist today throughout the world [the book is available to read free on the website, of course].