by Regina Queiroz
Although ‘neoliberalism’ means different things to different people, I follow those, who, like Michael Freeden, view neoliberalism as an ideology, i.e., ‘a wide-ranging structural arrangement that attributes decontested meaning to a range of mutually defining political concepts’. In this approach, neoliberalism relies on a libertarian conception of both the individual and liberty. Even if not all decontestations of what “libertarian” is meant to denote have made it into neoliberalism (e.g., libertarian socialisms, or even a fair number of anarcho-libertarianisms), libertarian views on individuals and liberty provide a particular interpretation of its core values: individualism, liberty, law, laissez-faire governance, and market states.
In general, libertarianism views individuals as free, separate persons—self-contained and self-sufficient maximisers of their exclusively private ends. As Robert Nozick writes: “there are only individual people, different individual people, with their own individual lives”. Libertarianism assigns a pivotal role to one’s liberty. Under an exclusively negative conception of liberty, the fundamental notion of non-constraint involves the individual having a claim to non-constraint by another's will when pursuing the maximisation of his or her wellbeing. Except for their own private will, individuals who pursue their ends are free of all external human limits, whether individual or collective.
Furthermore, despite its association with more Anglo-American and 20th-century conservatism, neoliberalism is grounded in a conservative understanding of the extra-social source of political laws. Accordingly, instead of locating the source of common law in the people or a populus, neoliberalism locates it in spontaneous processes. For instance, as an ‘assemblage of some size associated with one another through agreement on law and community of interest’, the people as a political concept points to the question of whether, as a collection of distinct individuals or a collective undifferentiated person, individuals associate to establish governing laws that serve a common interest (e.g. peace). The concept of the people also requires that individuals be united in a common entity, capable of collective action.
However, when understood as a collective person or political body whose members are united in a common human entity, the notion of a human source of law clashes with the neoliberal conception of liberty. When a collection of individuals who share a common end attain it through collective action, both the end and collective action clash with the atomistic conception of the individual. Insofar as this collective picture undermines both the atomistic conception of the individual and freedom from human interference in the individual pursuit of well-being, the categories of the individual and the people are mutually exclusive under neoliberalism. There is either a law of the people and individuals lack freedom; or, individuals are free and there is neither the people nor the law of the people. Due to this conundrum, neoliberalism removes the concept of ‘the people’ from its ideological corpus and prioritises individual personal interests via the unrestricted enjoyment of individual liberty.
Neoliberals have a need, however, for legislation and centralised state structure that protect individuals’ unrestricted liberty. Neoliberalism creates an analogy between states and economic markets: i.e., mechanisms for coordinating production, distribution, and exchange, and activities carried out by private individuals or corporate bodies under the guidance of spontaneous forces. In states-as-markets, the wellbeing of all individuals is only attainable through the state’s coercive and intentionally laissez-faire command over the individual’s unlimited pursuit of private wellbeing. For example, neoliberals acknowledge that citizens can fail to acquire certain goods. Nonetheless, neoliberalism maintains that individual misfortune or success, even if undeserved, is and ought to remain a private affair. When such matters are treated as affairs of state (or the public), the state apparatus, such as the welfare state, illegitimately uses the coercive power of law to impose a personal duty on individuals to contribute to others’ well-being.
Besides leading to collective impoverishment, the pursuit of collective welfare under coercive state power deprives individuals of the private and unlimited liberty usufruct. Thus, the neo-libertarian state departs from the welfare state, excluding all forms of concrete state practices configured as public policies (e.g., increased social services, pensions), and instead imposes specific policies expressed in the ‘D–L–P-Formula’: ‘(1) deregulation (of the economy); (2) liberalisation (of trade and industry); (3) and privatisation (of state-owned enterprises)’.  Only these policies allow for the usufruct of neoliberal citizenship, viewed as the equal unlimited right to a private domain beyond state (and peoples’) borders. Notice that in the market analogy, the state is a borderless, open-ended, cosmopolitan entity—a notion that does away with the idea of state control over physical territory, that goes beyond the family, the tribe, and the nation-state. Individual well-being is and must be pursued beyond national (and ethnic) borders. Otherwise, any political limitation of individuals’ private property, based on national-ethnic claims, entails global collective impoverishment.
Neoliberalism and social divides
Despite a libertarian understanding of the individual and liberty, neoliberal conservatism situates individuals in concrete groups and attributes differential value to them or the true social divide à la neoliberalism. It views society as divided into two main groups: paternalistically regulated people (the poor, the losers, the dependent, the debtors, and the receivers) versus successful entrepreneurs (the winners, the ‘rich’, the creditors, the givers, those who are self-sufficient and independent). More specifically, state dependents and paternalistically-regulated people ask the state to use coercive laws to intervene on their behalf. Conversely, as ‘successful winners’, the rich are conceived as having succeeded in self-sufficiently attaining wellbeing, relying exclusively on themselves. As givers, they freely transfer and spread their wealth and wellbeing in society as a whole. These qualities, following Friedrich von Hayek, allow them ‘to prevail over others’, to ‘displace […] others’, and to give them ‘superior strength’.
Since under spontaneous laws, undeserved disappointment cannot be avoided, the disappointed ‘losers’ and the poor request intentional state intervention (i.e., public policies) to prevent or compensate for their losses. Nevertheless, since both interventive prevention and compensation (welfare) states allow for certain people (the poor) to be given that which belongs to others (the rich), market-states’ support of “poor claims” are illegitimate. On the other hand, when the power and superiority of the rich are challenged by the effects of the spontaneous forces of the market mechanism itself, neoliberal market-states change the rules under which the ‘rich’ lose part of their property and are prevented from increasing it, although it still includes the transfer of property from the poor to the rich. In reality, under the paternalistic conservative supposition that, as debtors, the poor acquire property solely as a result of the rich choosing to lend them property (e.g., through salaries, taxes), the (re)transfer of property from the former to the latter not only restores to the rich what, as creditors, always belonged to them but also ensures the wellbeing of the poor. Accordingly, when arguing for the unlimited and unquestionable individual right to private property, individuals use state coercive power to impose indisputable state policies on all citizens. Therefore, the neoliberal conceptual framework does not prevent neoliberalism from fostering a minoritarian tyranny over the majority, and the single individual over the many at the local, national, and global level.
Insofar as ‘the people’ is populism’s main ideological concept, alongside the concept of ‘popular sovereignty’ and the idea of the antagonistic relationship between the over-esteemed people and the denigrated elite one might infer that populism is incompatible with neoliberal individualism, with its stress on liberty, law, laissez-faire governance, and market states.
Nevertheless, the literature has already stressed the ‘unexpected affinities’ between populism and neoliberalism, such as: (a) an anti-elite discourse, wherein populism aims to protect the unity of the people against politicking factions and selfish elites, whereas neoliberalism attacks established elites (political class and rent-seeking mercantilist entrepreneurs, replacing the old elites with new (foreign and domestic investors); (b) strengthening the executive branch and weakening rival institutions such as parliament; and (c) their top-down approach to decision-making.
Neoliberal affinity with populism is, however, not merely a matter of a top-down decision-making approach and strengthening or weakening of rival institutions. Rather, neoliberal affinities with populism are a more specific unfolding of the internal logic of neoliberalism and the framework of neoliberal globalisation. For instance, even if individual well-being is and must be pursued beyond national (and ethnic) borders, people in nation-states still claim territorial sovereignty and ethnonational identity characteristics (e.g., language and culture). This occurs even though the neoliberal conception of globalisation precludes any political limitation (e.g., national borders or ethnonational claims) on individuals’ private property. Consequently, per the internal metamorphosis of ideologies, neoliberal populism can be viewed as an adaptation of neoliberal ideology to a complex world in general, and to the 2008 financial crisis in particular. This points to the global attempt to impose: (a) the meaning of the concept of the people as a collection of separate individuals pursuing their unlimited right to private well-being; and (b) the conservative criterion of individuals as applied to the people themselves.
Populism does not have a systematically-articulated political ideology that grounds practices, nor does it contain conceptual fundamentals pertaining to political decision-making on issues of redistribution and the status and goods conferred by political membership. These practices and fundamentals are provided by neoliberalism, which, as a fuller and broader host ideology, allows the association of the populist core concept of ‘the people’ to the neoliberal conception of the individual and the neoliberal conservative distinction between groups. Additionally, there is a tendency to present anyone who questions the fundamentally individuated character of the people/society as “not part of the people”, including everyone from “the elite” to “the left” to those with supposedly anti-individualistic foreign cultural backgrounds. Therefore, neoliberal populism situates the unrestricted pursuit of individual and entrepreneurial wellbeing as the domain of the will of the people and as a criterion for distinguishing between us and them.
When supposedly defending the people, in reality, neoliberal populists are speaking in the name of the limitless pursuit of individual ends; likewise, when invoking the prerogatives of us, the true people, against them, the false people, they are invoking the prerogatives of the entrepreneur against those characterised as being dependent on the state. For example, in a speech delivered from ‘the viewpoint of economic logic’, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán opposes the true citizens (us)—who under globalisation live in fear of losing their well-being and falling victim to downward social mobility, or who are already precariously employed and unemployed—to them (immigrants, refugees, and national minorities, such as the Roma). The former, viewed as the rich, who ‘do not want to see their level of welfare spending and standards of living fall’, while the latter are viewed as the ‘poor multitudes’ who want to appropriate the property rightly held by the true people (to ‘take […] what you have’).
Consequently, our approach to neoliberal populism from the perspective of the tyranny of the individual reveals that neoliberal populism’s illiberal content stems not only from its conception of the people but also from its commitment to unrestricted individual liberty. Since neoliberal populism retains the people as a core concept, some authors locate the source of populism’s political despotism in the collective conception of the people alone, which roughly and controversially associated with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s concept of the ‘general will’. Jan-Werner Müller, Cas Mudde, and Cristóbal Kaltwasser maintain, for example, that the populist understanding of the sovereignty of the people as a homogeneous collective body—whose members pursue the same undifferentiated end—undermines the individualistic and pluralistic nature of liberal democracy.
On the one hand, without dismissing the importance of pluralism as a criterion for distinguishing populism from liberalism (namely liberal democracy), the merging of the concept of the people with neoliberal individualism implies that neoliberal populism involves an element of pluralism (since unrestricted individual liberty is the criterion for a pluralistic society under neoliberalism). On the other hand, the emphasis on pluralism obscures the fact that not every appeal to pluralism and individual liberty is liberal and democratic (e.g., neo-libertarian conservatism, encapsulated in demarchy, or democracy without a people), nor is every populism incompatible with individualism and freedom from human coercion (e.g., neoliberal populism), nor indeed is every appeal to the people populist and anti-pluralist (e.g., liberalism). Liberalism shares neoliberalism’s suspicion of the collective understating of the people as a concept, its disdain for the tyranny of the majority, and the core values of liberty and individualism. However, liberalism does not exclude the concept of ‘the people’ from its ideological corpus, nor the prioritisation of individual personal interests via the unrestricted enjoyment of individual liberty.
Liberalism and neoliberalism share a concern for liberty, which includes the private domain, or to give John Stuart Mill’s classic definition, ‘a circle around every individual human being, which no government, be it of one, of a few, or of the many, ought to be permitted to overstep’. The liberal ideal of liberty does not reduce it to the negative conception of ‘freedom from’ restraints, since it still includes positive meaning. Focusing on enabling rather than constraining conditions, instead of leaving individuals alone to fulfil their aims, positive freedom requires empowering individuals to fulfil them. Moreover, the positive conception also includes having the active cultivation of valuable behaviour or growth processes and a positive capacity to do and enjoy something of worth, in common with others.
Similarly, liberalism and neoliberalism share the political value attributed to individuals, viewing them as individuals. ‘[E]ndowed with a qualitative uniqueness [and] [c]apable of self-expression and flourishing’, individuality is associated with development and indeterminate and open-ended self-realisation. Nevertheless, challenging the unilateral focus on people’s separateness, liberalism and ‘purist autonomy theories that regard individuals as capable of making their own life plans without benefiting from the nourishing support of others’ highlight ‘respect and affinity between people [and] beneficial mutual interdependence’. This ideological approach emphasises individuals’ sociability: individuals simultaneously benefit from the support of others and support for others.
Moreover, individuality in liberalism involves a public dimension, i.e., individual awareness of belonging to the ‘political community of human beings’, as Cicero called the ‘people’. Conceived according to the individualistic Anglo-American conception, ‘the people’ is both collective and individual, and a human political community of separate and free individuals. Viewing the people ‘as humanity’, and beyond the intricate theoretical issues related to the institutionalisation of the people in the Anglo-American liberal tradition, the ‘people-as-humanity’ establishes the rules of their political community. Entitled by their supreme and rational controlling sovereign power (since rationality is ‘a persistent core liberal concept’), peoples have the constituent power of establishing the common law of their political communities.
In summary, in liberalism ‘the people’ is understood neither as a homogeneous person aiming at undifferentiated common ends nor as a collection of separate individuals pursuing an unlimited right to their well-being. Individuals—belonging to ‘a people’ as humans—are a collection of separate and free individuals, who do not dissociate their wellbeing from the wellbeing of others pursued under freely and rational willed public laws.
These ideological distinctions between liberalism, libertarianism, and neoliberalism are subtle and far from irrelevant. In addition to the supposition that the people’s interests are better safeguarded by populists, and individual liberties by demarchy, the merging of neoliberalism and populism undermines any reasonable liberal defence of the compatibility of individual liberties with ‘the people’. Not only do neoliberals still present themselves as the ‘true’ liberals, but neoliberalism and its ideological metamorphosis does not dispense with the concept of the people, understood as a collection of individuals pursuing their unlimited liberty.
 M. Freeden, Ideology: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 54 (emphasis in the original).
 M. Steger and R. Ravi, Neoliberalism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2010), 47.
 J. Buchanan and G. Tullock, ‘The Calculus of Consent’ (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1962).
 Cicero, On the Commonwealth and On the Laws (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 39.
 M. Canovan, The People (Cambridge: Polity, 2005).
 M. Ostrowski, ‘Towards libertarian welfarism: protecting agency in the night-watchman state’, Journal of Political Ideologies 18(1) (2013), 107.
 F. Hayek, ‘Los principios de un orden social liberal’, Estudos Públicos (1982), pp. 179-198.
 Steger and Ravi, Neoliberalism, 14.
 J.W. Müller, ‘Comprehending conservatism: a new framework for analysis’, Journal of Political Ideologies 11 (2006), 363.
 F. Hayek, ‘Rules and Order’, in Law, Legislation and Liberty: A new statement of the liberal principles of justice and political economy (London, Routledge, 1982), 9.
 Ibid., 18.
 Ibid., 19.
 J. Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality (London: Penguin Books, 2013), 35–64.
 M. Canovan, ‘“People”, Politicians and Populism’, Government and Opposition 19 (1984), 312–27.
 B. Stanley, ‘The thin ideology of populism’, Journal of Political Ideologies 13 (2008), 102.
 K. Weyland, ‘Neopopulism and neoliberalism in Latin America: Unexpected affinities’, Studies in Comparative International Development 31 (1996).
 A. Fabry, ‘Neoliberalism, crisis and authoritarian-ethnicist reaction: The ascendency of the Orbán regime’, Competition and Change 22 (2018), 1–27; A. Knight, ‘Populism and Neo-Populism in Latin America, Especially Mexico’, Journal of Latin American Studies 30 (1998), 223–48.
 Weyland, ‘Neopopulism and neoliberalism’.
 Knight, ‘Populism and Neo-Populism in Latin America’.
 Weyland, ‘Neopopulism and neoliberalism’.
 Freeden, Ideology.
 Viktor Órban, 2014, available at www.kormany.hu/the-prime-minister/the-prime-minister-s-speeches/viktor-orban-s-speech-at-the-14th-k, accessed 15 March 2019.
 C. Mudde and C. Kaltwasser, Populism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 16–19.
 J-J. Rousseau, Du Contrat Social (Paris: Gallimard, 1762 ).
 J.W. Müller, ‘The People Must Be Extracted from Within the People: Reflections on Populism’, Constellations 21 (2014), 487, 490, emphasis in the original.
 Mudde and Kaltwasser, Populism, 16–19.
 B. Holden, Understanding Liberal Democracy (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993), 84, 86.
 See J.S. Mill, On Liberty. With Subjection of Woman and Chapter on Socialism (Cambridge University Press: Avon, 1859 ).
 M. Freeden, Liberalism. A Very Short of Introduction (Oxford: University Press, 2015).
 J.S. Mill, Principles of Political Economy: With Some Their Applications to Social Philosophy, Books III-V (Canada: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1848 ), 938.
 M. Freeden, Ideologies and Political Theory: A Conceptual Approach (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 146, 186.
 Freeden, Liberalism, 61.
 J.S. Mill, On Liberty, 57.
 M. Freeden, ‘European Liberalisms. An Essay in Comparative Political Thought’, European Journal of Political Theory 7 (2015), 22.
 Freeden, Liberalism, 62.
 Canovan, The People, 101.
 Ibid., 30–2.
 J. Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971), 195–201.
 Freeden, Liberalism, 60.