Challenging the Neoliberal Onslaught
By Richard House
I recently interviewed tireless childhood campaigner Sue Palmer for the Morning Star on her campaigning work for children’s well-being.1 Sue founded and runs the excellent Upstart! organisation in Scotland,2 is the author of a number of children-related books, including her international best-seller Toxic Childhood,3 and with Sue I co-organised a number of influential press open letters on children’s well-being.4
In our Star interview, we touched on a range of themes, including what Sue sees as the most important factors that are threatening children’s well-being in today’s world; and why the core need for love and play is being compromised for young children, including the phenomenon of ‘too much, too soon’ (on which, see later). What Sue described so well is termed ‘the neoliberal psyche’ in some quarters – referring to the ways in which children are inculcated into, and ‘prepared’ for, the economic system that currently prevails, with individualisation, peer competition, and an Audit Culture obsessed with grading, testing and ever-narrower definitions of learning that increasingly treat children’s education as a commodity. In such a system, children then become ‘buckets’ to be filled with ‘facts’, rather than their living imaginations being inspired by their schooling experiences. And Sue also referred to ‘too much competitive consumerism, with marketing aimed directly at young children, so they’re pressurised by marketers to obsess about stuff like fashion, physical appearance and the latest screen-based gadgets at an increasingly early age’.
Palmer also described how excessive materialism (along with increasing urbanisation) means that young children’s lives are increasingly institutionalised from an early age, with ‘play’ generally being indoors, sedentary and often screen-based. And though society’s value system is consequently so skewed that this toxicity affects all socio-economic groups, it’s clearly worse for children raised in poverty – with the evidence suggesting that it’s contributing to a substantially widening poverty gap.
In the present article, I want to make the case for reversing this toxic process of making children ready to slot into a materialistic, hierarchical capitalist society, so that we proactively and deliberately strive to create a society that is fit for children. Sue Palmer has a lot to say that’s relevant to this, too. Sue is surely right that we need to change deeply ingrained cultural assumptions about education, starting with the age that formal schooling should begin. ‘Most countries wouldn’t dream of sending kids to school till they’re six or seven’, Sue points out. Indeed, all the great pioneers of early-childhood learning – Friedrich Froebel, Rudolf Steiner, Maria Montessori and Loris Malaguzzi – believed that seven was the best age to start formal education. So did the Greeks and the Romans, and so did Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky, the two great developmental psychologists of the 20th century. The United Nations certainly errs on the side of caution when it defines early childhood as being from birth to age 8. Yet for 150 years, in Britain we’ve been putting our children into compulsory schooling – and expecting them to crack on with the three Rs the year they turn five. ‘Our children have always been expected to achieve too much too soon’, says Sue.
I take it that childcare and early education cannot be considered without factoring into the discussion the wider societal context of social and educational policy-making, fiscal (taxation) policy, and the quality of family life. In our interview, when I asked Sue what her main priorities would be if she were to find herself in government, she said, ‘We need a home care allowance like they have in Finland, so one parent can stay at home for the first three years, and a really high-quality kindergarten stage for three- to seven-year-olds’. But there’s a problem: ‘no one is prepared to pay for it. Yet a homecare allowance for children’s first three years would give families time to care for their own wee ones and so lay sound foundations for education’.
This can be a tricky one for people on the progressive left, as a ‘politically correct’ view often prevails that women and mothers should have career opportunities that are equal to those of men. But if such an equalitarian view is imposed uncritically, and without any thought for unintended consequences, at worst it can lead to a situation in which young children (even babies) are hived off into institutionalised childcare settings so mum can get back to work as soon as possible after giving birth. This latter is a classic example of children being made to fit into ‘the needs of the economy’, rather than the other way around; and in my view, the progressive (feminist) left really needs to take this issue head-on, and come up with policy proposals that pay at least as much attention to the developmental needs of young children as they do to gender equality issues. Both are vitally important – and one certainly shouldn’t be allowed to effectively sideline the other. And I hope it goes without saying that gender equality should be at least as important in the realm of childcare as it is in world of career progression and fulflment.
It is emphatically not anti-feminist, or somehow ‘anti-women’, to advocate the importance of family life and its stability for the well-being of young children. The quality of early attachment relationships is how children learn about love (both loving, and allowing oneself to be loved), about human relationships, and about life itself. If we believe this to be so, then presumably we also believe that it should be our task to maximise the quality of those early relationships – and the question then arises as to the best way of bringing this about. And with ‘hypermodern’ society ever speeding up (certainly before coronavirus came on the scene) and with time-poverty these days being a major issue in the lives of most adults and parents, we arguably need to make conscious and informed decisions about how we can organise society so that young children’s well-being is not sacrificed on the altar of slavish unthinking adherence to market- and technologically driven imperatives and cultures.
If we believe that the first ‘mark of maturity’ of any society is the way in which it treats and cares for its young and elderly citizens, then there are some phenomena in society that need to transcend free-market relations and the ‘law of value’ – areas where the market and all that goes with it should have no place. So-called collective ‘public goods’ constitute one such market-free space; and how a society cares for its young children and old people should be another.
British society is extremely unequal, according to just about any conceivable measure –and this structural inequality has a massive impact on the life-chances and experiences of children, who have no choice in the families into which they’re born. If we believe that such structural inequalities matter (as most left-progressives do), then the next question is, what is society going to do about it?
The near blanket advocacy from left, right and centre of childcare availability at younger and younger ages means that there now exist hardly any organisations and individuals who would dare to question this childcare ideology. In England at least, policy-making for young children is driven far more by the flawed individual psychologies of our policy-makers and by the needs of the neoliberal economy, than it is by children’s, parents’ or families well-being – an issue I return to below.
Around a decade ago, the Global Women’s Strike (GWS) movement issued a petition, in which they demanded that:
1 Caring be recognised as vital work for the whole of society; and
2 All carers, including mothers, be paid a living wage for this indispensable work, including paid time off.
This latter proposal has some resonance with Sue Palmer’s advocacy of a universal family allowance for all young children, and it could scarcely be further away from the main political parties’ unseemly ‘Dutch auction’ on introducing ever-earlier and ever-more universal childcare. In Global Women’s Strike’s petition preamble, we read that ‘Mothers are the primary carers everywhere in the world’, and that ‘Carers are impoverished. Income Support is being abolished. Child Benefit, society’s commitment to children, is no longer universal. Carer’s Allowance is insultingly low and most carers don’t even qualify.’ Moreover, ‘Mothers are told they are “workless”, with earning being more important than caring. Clients are pushed into jobs regardless of hours, pay or childcare provision.’ And we read further that ‘Having to fit caring around jobs results in overwork, exhaustion and ill-health’.
In her important book The Selfish Society,5 Sue Gerhardt points out that ‘Historically, employers have never acknowledged that the working conditions they offered have affected the family, and they have never taken any responsibility for their impact on the family’ (p. 327). Gerhardt adds further that ‘we could demand that employers must now use some of their profits to contribute to the social costs of employing parents of young children’ (ibid.) Put somewhat differently, we can say that demanding time and resources for caring has the intention of making economic and social policies serve the needs of people, thus heralding a move away from what is seen as ‘the uncaring market’ in the sphere of the family.
Sue Palmer and I share another passion, about the issue of children growing up too quickly in modern society6 – indeed, this can be seen as a direct consequence of the way in which the culturally embedded lives of families are subject to the vicissitudes of the free market system. Sue Gerhardt again: ‘there seems to be an urgency about growing up fast – so as to be as little trouble to your carers as possible’ (op. cit.). Gerhardt then makes the even bolder claim that ‘The drive for everyone to be economically self-sufficient has pushed us into an expectation that everyone should be emotionally self-sufficient – even babies’ (op. cit., p. 203, her italics). In other words, the claim Gerhardt is making here is that the ideological neoliberal imperative that demands economic self-sufficiency and independence generates a similar dynamic in the emotional development of young children, with time at a premium and children’s early lives being cast in the image of the market – or the ‘neoliberal psyche’ that I referred to earlier.
We can also ask why it might be that neoliberal policy-makers seem incapable of fashioning policies that place children’s well-being at the forefront. Sue Gerhardt again: ‘…politicians are limited by their own emotional and moral development… [because of which] it becomes difficult to entrust them with “parenting” the nation-state on our behalf’ (p. 253). What Gerhardt is referring to here is that our largely public-school educated policy-making elite tend to have disturbed attachment issues from early childhood, which at the time typically provoked premature development and an intellectual precocity that render them unable to make emotionally intelligent and developmentally appropriate policy-making decisions about children and family life.7
This kind of attitude also becomes entrenched in modern (political) culture, such that policy-makers become incapable of thinking outside of the mainstream ‘regime of truth’. Sue Palmer and I had a chastening experience some years ago, when we arranged to meet with the then (Labour) early-years shadow minister at Westminster – Sue having travelled all the way down from Edinburgh just for this meeting. We naively turned up expecting that under a hopefully radically minded Corbyn-led opposition, their ministers would be open to the kinds of arguments put forward in this article. But the glazed eyes, and the immediate closing down of any discussion about questioning England’s formal school starting age, woke us up all too painfully to the extent to which neoliberal ideology has colonised even those who are putatively on the political left.
The book by Nick Duffell, Wounded Leaders,8 makes the same essential point about the pathological early lives of our ruling elite. Duffell radically questions the impact of the public schooling system on children’s character development, highlighting the effect of an emotionally deprived background on Britain’s current political leaders. The British public school elite are typically severed from normal family life at a young age, and as institutionalised children they learn a harsh lesson – viz. that their very survival depends on the ruthless repression of their own feelings.
When in positions of political power, this elite then looks after its own class, and it rationalises the impact on the rest of us, unawarely seeing the world through lenses that are clouded by their own early traumatising experience – i.e. Deprivation is good for you! Sue Gerhardt agrees: ‘the people who lead the banks, governments or corporations bring their psychological attitudes and values to their public tasks. They shape the culture in their own image, often demonstrating the same problems in facing difficult realities as do narcissistic individuals.’ (p. 45).
So what are the implications of all this? One key implication is that both the political left and the political right have a lot to answer for: in the case of the latter, what is promoted is free-market capitalism, materialism, acquisitiveness, individualism, narcissism, the commodification of caring, and an anti-dependency mentality… – which, in extremis, can lead to the view that ‘There is no such thing as society’. And – at the risk of upsetting some readers – on the political left, we arguably see tendencies towards anti-religious atheism and secularism, and an associated ‘political correctness’ about rights and equality unthinkingly trumping everything else, with versions of philosophical realism and materialism, the creeping ‘nationalisation’ of childhood/family life, and in extremis, the associated demise of the family as an institution for ‘holding’ the well-being and healthy development of the next generation (I’m thinking here about how often the political left denigrates the ‘traditional’ family configuration). So in terms of the quality of family life in modern Britain, both Right and Left surely have searching questions to answer.
It was Chistopher Lasch who, in 1979, first coined the now iconic phrase ‘the culture of narcissism’ in his book of the same title.9 Psychologists Wallach and Wallach then picked up the torch soon afterwards with their little known but important book Psychology’s Sanction for Selfishness;10 and an increasing number of commentators have been picking up on this theme, including Sue Gerhardt, Twenge and Campbell’s The Narcissism Epidemic,11 and a number of psychoanalytic theorists. Sue Gerhardt’s key point is that many of the problems in present-day society stem from our child-rearing practices. One can also argue that going hand in hand with the rise of narcissistic materialism and consumerism has gone the demise of any spiritual (as distinct from religious) dimension in relation to early childhood experience, with materialism, ICT-driven lifestyles and acquisitiveness increasingly trumping, and even obliterating, love and caring.
So what options do we possess for responding to the current malaise of family life and early childhood experience? There exist a number of possibilities. First, we could address head-on the grossly unequal distribution of income and wealth, and the power differentials in society. The only problem here is that political leaders of every main political party have shown no appetite whatsoever for addressing this issue. It seems that the neoliberal economic system has (until very recently, anyway) been sacrosanct, with its highly perverse distributional outcomes being out of political bounds. And when any political party threatens this cosy neoliberal consensus, they will be destroyed by the establishment forces reigned against them (cf. the recent fate of Labour under Jeremy Corbyn).
Secondly, we could focus massive resources on helping build local communities (as they say, ‘It takes a village to raise a child’) – but with over perhaps a thousand Sure Start centres having been closed since 2010 and another five years of Tory ideology in political charge, this also seems a remote possibility.
Thirdly – and this does seem to be the current policy of the neoliberal consensus – we can focus massive resources on early education, in an attempt to load all responsibility for addressing the huge inequalities in early life-chances on to the ‘nappy curriculum’ (aka the Early Years Foundation Stage), and make ‘social mobility’ the sole responsibility of the schooling system.
However, not only can early education not begin to address what are structurally generated inequalities, but the accompanying ‘schoolifying’ agenda has all manner of well-documented toxic sequelae (see earlier). And when we add to this the elephant in the room that is England’s unconscionably early school-starting age, then we can really see how the ‘schoolification’ of early childhood, with its age-inappropriate early learning, might well map very elegantly (or do I mean tragically) on to the ‘wounded healer’ histories of our policy-makers, referred to above.
Another elephant in the room here might be whether those who are in a privileged economic position really want the life-chances of children from lower stations in life to improve – because if one answers ‘yes’ to this question, it will almost certainly mean that one’s own children will end up being worse off in a ‘zero-sum’ world. Are those who currently possess disproportionate economic and political power and resources genuinely prepared to countenance this equalising possibility? – because if they aren’t (and all the evidence suggests they aren’t), then I submit that any superficial, rhetorical claims to support the enhancing of the life-chances of more deprived children is little more than meaningless, strategically expedient froth.
In conclusion, just as we should make schools ready for children in all their rich diversity, rather than making children ready for school, using same logic, I propose that we should be making the economy ready for children and families (whatever this takes), rather than making families fit into the demands of the neoliberal economic system (whatever the cost). And in order to bring this about, top-down political change seems the least likely approach that will bear fruit. What we therefore need is a genuinely grass-roots, bottom-up social movement, mobilising in every possible way to halt and reverse the economic imperatives that are making it ever-more difficult for parents to live unhurried, high-quality lives in their young children’s early years.
I have forayed into the controversial question of the ‘mass psychology’ of government policy makers, and why it might be that family and childcare policy-making seems to be so thoroughly ideological in nature, and seems to cut across class and party-political divides to create a particularly toxic kind of consensus. On this view, perhaps we also need to begin to look at the individual psychological histories of policy-makers,12 seeking out what it might be about those early histories that might be contributing to such objectionable yet unquestioned policy-making outcomes.
I’ve also touched on the English public school system, the way in which early attachment experiences are typically disrupted in that system, and the way in which this can influence the belief systems and behaviour of those subjected to it. While this explanation may well successfully account for some of the observed variance in policy-makers’ attitudes to these issues, it is almost certainly not enough, and we will need complementary structural-level explanations as well, which focus on the compelling logic of the neoliberal economic system, and how it coerces certain attitudes and beliefs (and silences other, more beneficent possibilities), that seem to cut right across the normal party-political divides. Though hopefully suggestive and persuasive, the overall argument developed here clearly needs far more filling out than I’ve been able to achieve in this short article.
I’ll finish by returning to some quotations from the admirable Global Women’s Strike. Asking for ‘a living wage for mothers and other carers’, they argue that ‘Having to fit caring around jobs results in overwork, exhaustion and ill-health… When caring work is devalued, people, relationships and life itself are devalued. The result is inequity and social neglect.’ We urgently need to understand just how it is that the current neoliberal system seems to be so wilfully blind to these crucial questions.
1 ‘Challenging the neoliberal onslaught on our children’, Morning Star, 2 June 2020; available at
2 See www.upstart.scot; Sue also tweets as @Upstart.Scot.
3 Sue Palmer, Toxic Childhood: How The Modern World Is Damaging Our Children and what We Can Do about It, 2nd edn, Orion, London, 2015.
4 The four letters we have co-organised (the fourth with Dr Sharie Coombes) are as follows: (1) Sue Palmer, Richard House & 110 others, ‘Modern life leads to more depression among children’, Daily Telegraph, 12 September 2006 – retrievable at goo.gl/6aX6te; (2) Richard House, Sue Palmer & 270 others, ‘Let our children play’, Daily Telegraph, 10 September, 2007 – retrievable at goo.gl/cSduF5; (3) Richard House, Sue Palmer and 225 others, ‘Erosion of Childhood’, Daily Telegraph, 23 September 2011 – retrievable at goo.gl/KdgUVS; and (4) Sue Palmer, Richard House, Sharie Coombes & 37 others, ‘Screen-based lifestyle harms children’s health’, The Guardian, 26 December 2016 – retrievable at goo.gl/PCYJnS.
5 Sue Gerhardt, The Selfish Society: How We All Forgot To Love One Another and Made Money Instead, Simon & Schuster, 2010; the first edition of Gerhardt’s classic book Why Love Matters was published six years earlier by Routledge.
6 See, for example, Richard House (ed.), Too Much, Too Soon? Early Learning and the Erosion of Childhood, Hawthorn Press, Stroud, 2011.
7 The tragically little-known book, The Mind Object: Precocity and Pathology of Self-Sufficiency, edited by E.G Corrigan and P.-E. Gordon (Jason Aronson, Northvale, NJ, 1995), is a terrifyingly graphic clinical and theoretical anthology on the immense life-long damage wrought by premature, developmentally inappropriate and unnecessary early child development.
8 See Nick Duffell, Wounded Leaders: British Elitism and the Entitlement Illusion – a Psychohistory, Lone Arrow Press, London, 2014; see also N. Duffell and T. Basset, Trauma, Abandonment and Privilege: A Guide to Therapeutic Work with Boarding School Survivors, Routledge, Abingdon, Oxon, 2016.
9 Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, Norton, New York, 1979.
10 M.A. Wallach and L. Wallach, Psychology’s Sanction for Selfishness: The Error of Egotism in Theory and Therapy, W. H. Freeman, San Francisco, 1983.
11 J.K. Twenge and W.K. Campbell, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, Atria Books, New York, 2009.
12 See, for example, former Labour MP turned-psychoanalyst Leo Abse’s dissection of the formative traumata in Tony Blair’s early life – see Tony Blair: The Man Who Lost His Smile, Robson Books, 2003.
Richard House is a chartered psychologist, an educational campaigner, a writer (14 non-fiction books to date) and a left-green activist and Labour Party member in the Corbyn tradition in Stroud, Gloucestershire.