Inside the Museum of Neoliberalism

How a new London space is seeking to define the economic doctrine of our age. 

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The magazine Teen Boss, styled as Teen Bo$$, launched in September 2017. Where Mizz, the tween magazine published between 1985 and 2013, proffered free keyrings and ran stories about teenage mothers, Teen Boss grooms its readers for a world where entrepreneurial ingenuity is considered an aspirational aesthetic.

Hot neon pink and yellow headlines – “Turn Your Piggy Bank Into Millions!” “How To Build Your Brand By Being You!” – are interspersed with perky photos of adolescent YouTubers. Its content reflects an obsession with cultivating profitable “side hustles” and personal branding aimed at turning selfhood into a commercial enterprise.

In Lee, south-east London, a copy of Teen Boss appears in the window of the Museum of Neoliberalism, a new space that curates the history and effects of its eponymous ideology. Appearing next to Teen Boss is an advertisement for the online freelancer marketplace Fiverr that celebrates the people who are “doers”: those who “eat coffee for lunch” and whose drug of choice is “sleep deprivation”. The ad, which went viral in 2017, ignored the lack of social security – freelance workers receive no sick pay, maternity leave or health insurance – that made the platform’s success possible.

The small museum began its life as a temporary installation at The World Transformed festival during the 2019 Labour party conference, and moved to its current location last November. It is the creation of artist Darren Cullen and curator Gavin Grindon, who first met in 2015 when working on Dismaland, Banksy’s temporary apocalyptic theme park in Weston-super-Mare.

Their true inspiration, however, was the Thatcher museum and library – a monument to the former prime minister that is yet to be built seven years after plans were announced by a Conservative pressure group in 2013.

“I thought – we should do a real Thatcher museum,” Cullen told me as we had tea and Jaffa Cakes among the piles of books in the crowded back room of his studio. The intention behind the Museum of Neoliberalism, he explains, is to “pull back the curtain on this ideology, call it by its name, and show that it’s not a natural state of affairs”.

Neoliberalism is a slippery concept with a contested history. Its intellectual origins date back to the aftermath of the First World War, when the break-up of central European empires and the emergence of democratic nation states put private property at the mercy of elected governments.

Faced with this political transformation, conservative neoliberals set out to insulate the market economy from democratic forces. In the mid-20th century, while John Maynard Keynes sketched out the postwar order and led the British delegation at the 1944 Breton Woods conference, the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek attacked technocratic planning and state intervention in The Road to Serfdom, which was published the same year.

But it wasn’t until the 1980s that neoliberalism became the ascendant doctrine of modern politics, when world leaders such as Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and Augusto Pinochet in Chile instigated a now-familiar programme of economic deregulation, financial privatisation and union-busting.

A major weakness of the term “neoliberalism” is its ubiquity – especially on the left, it has become a rhetorical insult so hackneyed it fails to capture anything in particular. The term “can mean whatever you want it to mean”, Ed Conway, the economics editor of Sky News, wrote in 2018. The Observer’s Will Hutton called it “a catch-all to indicate contempt for any policy or figure… the left considers to be departing from true ‘socialism’”.

Yet the effects of neoliberal reforms extend far beyond markets. Hayek’s key insight was that markets provide information about consumer preferences in real time through the rise and fall of prices. When you apply this logic to the rest of society, questions of value are reduced to questions of price that are resolvable through economic competition.

In a series of lectures at Paris’s Collège de France in the late 1970s, the philosopher Michel Foucault foresaw how this world-view could extend to the more personal aspects of social life. Platforms such as Teen Boss and Fiverr are living examples of its legacy, urging us to become self-reliant entrepreneurs readied for the competitive marketplace and who use language once reserved for the McKinsey boardroom.

The Museum of Neoliberalism curates this history with clever objects and acerbic commentary. A glittering blue cabinet displays “the PFI Game” in NHS typeface: four everyday objects, including a light bulb and hand sanitiser, show the prices that private contractors charge the NHS (changing a small padlock cost a ludicrous sum of £242). An anonymous bottle of urine from an Amazon worker foregrounds a diorama of an Amazon order fulfilment centre and illustrates the consequences of the company’s points-based system for measuring worker productivity. Elsewhere, a display of Scout badges shows a number of activities that now have corporate sponsors such as Heathrow Airport and Microsoft.

There’s an irony to founding a museum – an institution long associated with state power – to criticise the state’s own role in neoliberalism. In Britain’s crumbling cultural landscape, where many local and regional museums have been wiped out by economic austerity, it is now typical for museums to rely in part upon corporate sponsorship.

Some people, including Ian Blatchford, the director of the Science Museum in London, appear comfortable with this state of affairs. Blatchford wrote in a recent staff email, “even if the Science Museum were lavishly publicly funded I would still want sponsorship from the oil companies”, arguing it better serves the public by engaging with “the major players in society”.

“The companies that want to launder their image through museums are often suspect,” Cullen said. “There’s a culture of museums feeling they’re supposed to partner with corporations.” He pauses: “That’s probably a by-product of neoliberalism.”

Hettie O’Brien is assistant opinion editor of the Guardian and the New Statesman’s former online editor.

This article appears in the 17 January 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Why the left keeps losing

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