Neoliberalism — Some Thoughts

As I begin writing this, I have little idea of how to put this together coherently, but thinking about neoliberalism has given me plenty of food for thought.

Recently, I came across this brilliant video about how the most recent season of South Park has been an incredible deconstruction and satire on neoliberalism. The video explains how South Park has broken down the PC culture, gentrification, and advertisements to show how neoliberalism really is when we pull back the curtain.

To be upfront, I have not watched the most recent season of South Park. In fact, it’s something I haven’t watched in a long time, but have been a great admirer in their work. In fact, I definitely feel that I will be adding this season to my watch list after watching this video. South Park has always been able to stay with the times (thanks to being able to produce episodes quickly) and be a great source of comedy and political and social commentary. While sometimes the commentary is better than others (the show has been accused of the past of being to on-the-nose), the most recent season seemed to hit the sweet spot, being both upfront and subtle at the same time. The message seems to be that despite being progressive, there are many things we tend to ignore as we become better consumers.

Yoga as a product is a good example of neoliberalism.

To be upfront as well, I love yoga. I love the physical benefits that it provides, with reducing pain while increasing strength and flexibility. I love the mental benefits that it provides, promoting a calmer and more still mind. The world would be a better place if we had more people take up yoga.

However, the yoga that we have in the west greatly differs from its origins and has turned into a multi-billion dollar business that was carefully marketed to specific consumers.

The yoga that originates from thousands of years ago from India has been warped. Overtime, the practice came to the west, and has been molded into a consumable product that differs greatly from the original practice. Of course, this has gone on throughout the history of civilization — we assimilate other ideas from other cultures and make them into something different from their points of origin.

Yoga is a perfect example of neoliberalism in action. A practice has been modified and turned into a commodity. While it promotes being open to everyone, yoga tends to draw the trendy and progressive crowd with high levels of disposable income. Instead of being affordable to everyone, yoga has a high price point at trendy studios in trendy and progressive locations. Along with the classes, companies like Lululemon have helped shape this modification of yoga into a consumable product, offering clothes and other accessories and has turned the company from just a clothing company for yoga into a lifestyle based company. Look around at a yoga class and you’ll predominantly see young (20–35), fit white women in their lululemon gear. Don’t be surprised if a number of these individuals are vegan or at least vegetarian, and this yogi image is a large part of their identity.

A yoga class in the modern age

Is there anything fundamentally wrong with this?

There is no cut and dry answer here. Yoga does promote living a balanced life, focusing on improving your mind and your body. I have received immense benefits from taking up yoga, and it’s something that everyone can do. And yet…

  • While yoga promotes being open-minded and open to everyone, the high price point keep out many people who would greatly benefit from it
  • The free market has taken an ancient practice and spun it into something that promotes a healthy lifestyle, and yet a consumer-minded lifestyle

Companies like Lululemon still promote a consumer-based lifestyle at the end of the day, a key concept of neoliberalism. While they promote it in a more forward-thinking, more progressive way, they’re still promoting consumerism when all is said and done. Their clothes and products are not cheap, and the same goes for your classes that are a steep price point that keeps out those without a high level of disposable income. To go along with the lifestyle companies like Lululemon have created, consumers are open to seeking out independent stores or places that promote healthy living and conscious capitalism for sources of food. Companies like Whole Foods fit perfectly under the neoliberalism mindset. By selling fresh products that are a form of conscious capitalism in a box store setting, they’ve been successful in capturing the progressive demographic with a high level of disposable income.

That sounds great, right? Selling a healthy lifestyle to progressive individuals?

Sure, that’s what neoliberalism promotes. Better that than Burger King right? However, neoliberalism, while beneficial to many, ignores the issue of the larger group that do not have the luxury of having disposable income. For these individuals, yoga classes and Lululemon gear is simply unaffordable for them. Going to Whole Foods does not work for their budget. While they have other options, such as watching YouTube videos for yoga or buying at cheap supermarkets, that still does not address the problem that is created. Neoliberalism does a great job of trying to sweep these drawbacks under the table.

“I live a great lifestyle so everyone else does to! Right?”

Not really.

The funny thing about writing about this is that I feel like a hypocrite. I have a high level of disposable income. In some ways, I take part in the progressive lifestyle that is promoted around me. If I go to the Farmer’s market on a weekend, I’m surrounded by others like me. Most are young, progressive, with high levels of disposable income. They try to eat consciously and like to know where their food comes from. They like to buy organic.

However, on the outer edges of these markets, you can see the downside of neoliberalism. Plenty of homeless will be on the outer edges looking for a bit of kindness from strangers. These individuals are quickly whisked away by police to go elsewhere. The clean image of progressiveness needs to be preserved.

Neoliberalism does not do a good job of helping the less fortunate, and that’s a big problem.

It’s the elephant in the room that many progressives don’t like to discuss. They might put their headphones in and look straight forward and ignore them. They might be busy texting on their phone. They might say they don’t have change when they’re about to spend $30+ at the farmers market. They might read about it, retweet something or use a hashtag, but they don’t go much beyond that. Instead, they head off to their yoga class nearby their downtown condo. For them, it’s a great life to have, because it’s easy to ignore the less fortunate, but also easy to ignore that you’re still living the consumer lifestyle.

I’m not saying that being a consumer is a bad thing. You have to cover your basics, and you’re free to enjoy your hobbies. However, if you’re a consumer who falls under the conscious capitalism choice, you shouldn’t just spend money because something is “made local”. Is it something you really need, or are you just trying to make yourself feel better by helping local businesses?

Of course, behind the scenes, large companies have been begun taking advantage of this shift in consumerism. This New York Times article on Big Organic is an interesting look into the world of organic food and how the label gets thrown around with many consumers not truly understanding what they’re buying. With a few big buzzwords (like organic), it’s easy to get the attention of progressive consumers, whether the product is actually organic or not.

While it does promote many beneficial aspects to people, there is quite a bit of “ignorance is bliss” or “out of sight, out of mind” in neoliberalism.

Yes, your local farmer’s market or Whole Foods might say that the beef that you’re buying came from a cow that was grass fed. Do you know this for a fact? Could they simply be telling that to you in order to justify the higher price point, when that’s not really the case? By no means am I saying that they’re liars, but it’s best not to accept these things all at face value.

Getting back to a yoga, you’re likely still living a lifestyle that’s been created and marketed to you. While there isn’t exactly anything wrong with this, it’s not something that you should ignore, but be aware of. Going to your yoga class at a trendy studio with your Lululemon gear in tow? Going to a nearby cafe after to get a smoothie made from organic vegetables along with a vegan cookie? Thinking about taking that yoga retreat for several thousand dollars in a nice comfortable place on a warm island in the Caribbean? This has all been carefully marketed to you and has made you a loyal consumer.

Of course, this is better than going to the movie theatre, watching the newest hollywood superhero blockbuster while munching down milk duds, a big bag of popcorn, and a litre of Coca Cola, and then grabbing a Big Mac on the way home. That’s a less subtle form of marketing and consumerism that exists in the world. As well, it’s a far less healthy one than the example of a yoga class above.

Being that kind of consumer in a neoliberalism market that targets you is something to be aware of.

You could take the ignorance is bliss choice and simply see yourself as a good citizen living a healthy lifestyle. If you have the money for it and want to live that life, by all means go for it. However, be aware that many around you simply don’t have that luxury. The trendy condo space that you’re living in now? The area used to be for low income housing for those less fortunate than you. I’m sure the brochure didn’t mention that and I’m sure developers tried to keep that hush hush in order to earn your purchase.

Oh boy! Gentrification! Neoliberalism in action!

When you go to your yoga class, don’t be surprised if there’s many out there wishing they could, but simply can’t afford it. While you’re in your Lululemon gear and thinking about what you’ll be buying at Whole Foods afterwards, remember that you’ve been sold an image that you’re playing into. You’re playing the good conscious consumer, but a consumer nonetheless.

To iterate again, there’s nothing 100% wrong with this. As I’ve mentioned, Yoga is a great activity with many benefits, and Chip Wilson, founder of Lululemon was able to identify this and built a multi-billion dollar business as a result. Whole Foods was able to identify the conscious consumer and has been able to market and sell these products to this market, turning itself into a multi-billion dollar business. Developers of real estate were able to identify areas of low property value and were able to demolish or repurpose them into trendy living spaces where progressive individuals are willing to fork over large amounts of their dollars in order to live there and create an image of themselves. If they were able to identify this opportunity and create a product that others were willing to spend money on, more power to them.

Of course, this comes as a cost to the less fortunate. They get swept under the carpet and out of view. Out of sight, out of mind, right? As long as you don’t see them on your way to yoga class or Planet Organic, you won’t pay attention to it. You may think that you’re avoiding the consumerist lifestyle that gets promoted by fast food restaurants and luxury car companies, but are you aware of the that “anti-market” market that you’re currently in and being targeted? Yes, these companies want you to eat well and live well, and they play to your progressive means, but at the end of the day, they want your dollars.


Originally published at www.paul-lopushinsky.com on August 1, 2016.