Neoliberalism – the idea that the market is the most efficient and therefore best way to organise every aspect of our lives – has won. Education – both higher and basic – is being privatised. The NHS is being privatised. The police is being privatised. And if that’s not enough to convince you that neoliberalism has won, then let’s look at how we have started measuring the value of people.
When former Transport Secretary Philip Hammond said that increasing the motorway speed limit might cause more deaths but would also generate huge economic benefits and it was all about finding the right balance, that probably came as a shock to no one. (Though that the same man should only a few weeks later be found fit to be Defence Secretary was, I must admit, a surprise.) After all, you expect neoliberals to measure everything – including the value of human life – in economic terms. But when that same argument is made by every sandal-wearing, Guardian-reading leftie, we have a problem.
Let’s start with me. One of the topics I write passionately about is immigration. This is because I am an immigrant, and every time someone mutters about the foreigners stealing our jobs and our women it’s personal to me. Yet more often than not when someone attacks immigrants, the first words out of my mouth are “higher rate taxpayer”; as if that is the only way to justify my own existence and presence in this country. When Gillian Duffy cried “flocking Eastern Europeans”, I cried “I pay more into the tax system than I get out of it”. When David Cameron cried “good immigration, not mass immigration”, I cried “Look at the economic contribution immigrants make to British society!” It’s a compulsion: whenever somebody questions why I’m here, the first thing that comes to my mind is the economic argument.
I am, of course, far from alone in this. Look at Stonewall, the white, middle class face of LGB(T) rights campaigning. One of their biggest campaigns is convincing UK employers that being nice to LGB(T) people is okay because there’s a business case for it. Employees working in a supportive and inclusive environment where they can be themselves, the argument goes, are 30-40% more productive. The value of the “Pink Pound” – the disposable income of LGB people in the UK – is about £5-6 billion. Not only that, but LGB people tend to be better educated, have more disposable income than straight people, are very brand-aware and extremely brand-loyal to companies that specifically market to them. If you’re nice to LGB people, you too, dear company, can have a slice of that pie. Of course this argument works very well – you show someone where the free money is and they’ll go for it. One wonders, though, how one is supposed to campaign for the rights of people with lower-than-average disposable incomes.
My friend Rho, after describing in excruciating, harrowing detail the impact constant transphobic abuse has had on her life, then proceeded to explain the economic benefits of being nicer to transgender people. It’s a good, logically solid argument that even the most patriarchal of neoliberals should understand.
The disability rights campaigners behind the Spartacus Report on the proposed reform and cuts to Disiability Living Allowance felt compelled to point out the high cost of implementing the reforms.
Campaigners for women’s rights in developing countries point out how empowering women will lead to economic growth.
Our vocabulary for expressing the value of people has been reduced to three words: “consumers”, “workers”, “taxpayers”. This is indicative of a seismic social change that has crept in so slowly, so quietly, that none of us noticed before it was too late. Neoliberalism has not only won – it has redefined the game. We find ourselves in a world where respect, human life and human dignity count for nothing unless you can monetise them; where the only acceptable argument is the economic argument.
We need to take that world back. I am not a consumer. I am not a taxpayer. I am not a worker. I am a woman. I am bisexual. I am an immigrant. I am human. That is what entitles me to dignity and respect, not my higher-than-average disposable income or net contribution to HMRC. Repeat after me:
I am not a consumer.
I am not a taxpayer.
I am not a worker.
I am human.