Does neoliberalism erode or reconstruct the boundaries of the 20th Century?

By Ali Yasin

Mass migration has influenced and often driven the politics post-Cold War Europe. With the collapse of communist regimes across the continent through the early 1990’s, there was a widespread belief that Europe was now inevitably on a path towards an integrated post-national future. In reality however, the neoliberal politics of contemporary Europe have largely failed to erode the social and cultural barriers associated with the nationalism of the 20th century, as well as the anxieties it was rooted in. Neoliberalism has instead redefined these boundaries, establishing both a new “model citizen” and “threatening Other” in the process.

The development of neoliberalism in the 1980’s can be seen as the political expression of the emerging globalized economy. The needs and challenges of a globally interconnect and interdependent marketplace require increasingly post-national forms of governance which pass over the protectionist tendencies of the nation-state. It also requires a new model of citizen, namely the cosmopolitan consumer, who likewise lacks the traditional attachments associated with both civic and ethnic citizenship and facilitates the ever increasing transnational flow of capital. This reconstructed model citizenship is most clearly visible when looking at the boundaries which neoliberalism has successfully diminished. Significant and even historic progress has been made by the EU in diminishing the social barriers faced by women and members of the queer community. Furthermore, this commitment to the protection of gender equality and the free expression of individual sexuality/gender orientation, have become integral aspects of a growing post-national European identity. Despite these progressive achievements, neoliberalism does not erase the need for a threatening Other which stands in inherent opposition to the model citizen, vital the nationalistic worldview it attempts to supplant. While cosmopolitan consumers whether they take the form of international investors or upper-middle class tourists, serve the needs of a global marketplace regardless of their gender or sexual orientation, the same cannot be said about impoverished migrants and refugees who lack capital and struggle to integrate into a service orientated post-industrial economy. As a result, immigrant populations (1st, 2nd and even 3rd generation) are increasingly confined both spatially and socially to the margins of the community.

Rather than addressing the underlying socio-economic causes for this isolation, both liberal and populist governments have chosen to focus their attention on the alleged cultural incompatibility of certain immigrant populations (often those with a Middle Eastern or North African background) with the norms and values of modern Europe. Immigrants are characterized as unwilling to shed their illiberal practices and beliefs, despite wanting to receive the benefits of a liberal European society, leading to their inability to integrate and concentration isolated communities. In addition to being portrayed as an unproductive burden on the social welfare state, the characterization of migrant communities as inherently unwilling to accept liberal values implies that they are intrinsically subversive and threatening elements present within, while remaining perpetually separate from, the European community. Given that poor non-European migrants fundamentally represent the same threatening Other to both cosmopolitan liberals and right wing populists, it’s doubtful whether neoliberalism will be able to address the growing political mobilization of the far-right around the issue of mass immigration.

Works Cited:

Fatima El-Tayeb, “”Gays Who Cannot Properly be Gay.’ Queer Muslims in the Neoliberal European City” European Journal of Women’s Studies 19/1, (2012): 79-95.

Dan Stone, “On Neighbours and Those Knocking at the Door: Holocaust Memory and Europe’s Refugee Crisis.” Patterns of Prejudice 52, no. 2/3 (May 2018): 231–43.

Ivan Kalmar, “Islamophobia and anti-semitism: the case of Hungary and the ‘Soros Plot” Patterns and Prejudice Vol. 54 (1-2) (2020): 182-98.

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