To read the full version of this content please select one of the options below:

Neoliberalism, ambiguity and the rise of populist movements

Aisling O’Donnell (Faculty of Arts and Education, Australian Catholic University, Fitzroy, Australia)

International Journal of Social Economics

ISSN: 0306-8293

Article publication date: 9 July 2018



The purpose of this paper is to highlight the relative absence of a theoretical underpinning to modern neoliberalism. Tracing the history of the term, it becomes clear that modern economics has only a tenuous relationship to the type of economics the term “neoliberalism” originally described. Furthermore, modern neoliberalism appears to be strengthened by the crisis it creates. Particular qualities of the orthodoxy make it at the same time both vague and omnipresent, allowing it to operate to exacerbate a pattern of crisis, resulting in profound socio-political consequences, such as the election of Donald Trump and in the rise of populist movements generally.


Critical analysis rejects the premise that prevailing knowledge is ultimately true, but rather seeks to trace the basis of knowledge to structural inequalities at significant junctions in history. The premise of interpretative research is that social phenomena have mutually impacting relationships with social contexts and human activities. Using a critical interpretive research methodology, this paper contends that there are critical social and theoretical issues which have contributed to the resilience of modern neoliberalism, even where it has manifest crisis. Furthermore, unique qualities of the orthodoxy have operated to oppress and manipulate social processes that would challenge or curtail its reach.


This paper contends that, first, modern neoliberalism has an inverted relationship to crisis in that it is ultimately able to leverage the crisis it creates to its advantage. Second, this is partly a result of the theoretical ambiguity associated with the orthodoxy, and finally, the rise of the populist right in various political forums and contexts is connected in some way to the failure of the left and to respond effectively to it.

Research limitations/implications

The subject of the paper helps to explain and analyse the way that the neoliberal orthodoxy is able to leverage crisis to its advantage, and why, therefore, it continues to thrive even though it creates economic upheaval, environmental destruction, social and cultural division and increased inequality. After economic crisis, the orthodoxy presents not as the cause of it, but rather the appropriate policy response to it. The failure of the left to effectively challenge the neoliberal policy programme post-crisis is argued to be an important link in a causal chain which connects neoliberalism to the rise of the populist right.

Practical implications

This paper brings emphasis to the ways in which modern economics has subverted the constraints of a theoretical foundation, and ultimately has become a policy practice that exacerbates inequality and leverages crises that it has created to its advantage. It also highlights the linkages between economic crisis, the persistence of the neoliberal paradigm and the rise of right-wing populism in recent years.


The paper combines descriptive and normative accounts of the origins and evolution of neoliberalism as it has been accounted for by major economists and scholars, adding to this the understanding that in breeching from theoretical foundations, the policy programme has become vague and malleable, which curtails the possibility for the left to respond to it effectively, and contributes to the rise of the populist right in various contexts.



O’Donnell, A. (2018), "Neoliberalism, ambiguity and the rise of populist movements", International Journal of Social Economics, Vol. 45 No. 7, pp. 1030-1041.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2018, Emerald Publishing Limited