Taking ideology seriously in the time of plague: insights versus distractions


  • Rafal Soborski The American International University in London




COVID-19, ideology, populism, neoliberalism


This article argues that insights from ideology theory shed valuable light on the political aspects of COVID-19 and help understand and categorise policy responses to it. Much of the debate on the politics of COVID-19 has been dominated by questions concerning populism, but this article contends that this is not a fruitful direction for understanding current developments. The argument advanced here is that populism is a hollow and incoherent ideological category and so does not provide a suitable departure point to explore the ideological dimension of the pandemic. On the other hand, a critical engagement with the dominant ideology of neoliberalism goes a long way to explain different kinds of political fallout from COVID-19. While neoliberalism is unfit for the challenge posed by the virus, identifying the ideological underpinnings of the neoliberal approach may help to grasp its implications and formulate urgently needed alternatives.


Download data is not yet available.


Aron H and Holland E. 2020. The Covid-19 crisis shows the failure of populist leadership in the face of real threats. LSE US Centre Daily Blog on American Politics and Policy. 24 March. Available at: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/usappblog/2020/03/24/the-covid-19-crisis-shows-the-failure-of-populist-leadership-in-the-face-of-real-threats/ [accessed on 31 August 2020].

Bayerlein M and Gyöngyösi G. 2020. The impact of Covid-19 on populism: will it be weakened? Kieler Beiträge Zur Wirtschaftspolitik 26: 90-96.

Bieber F. 2020. Global nationalism in times of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nationalities Papers 2020: 1-1.

Brooks R. 2020. The failure of test and trace shows the folly of handing huge contracts to private giants. The Guardian. 13 October. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/oct/13/failure-test-trace-folly-huge-contracts-private-giants-uk [accessed on 9 January 2021].

Cable V. 2020. America is rekindling the dangerous myth of the ‘Yellow Peril’ to wage a new war with China. The Independent. 5 May. Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/china-coronavirus-trump-us-yellow-peril-cold-war-a9499221.html [accessed on 31 August 2020].

Cliffe J. 2020. How populist leaders exploit pandemics. New Statesman. 18 March. Available at: https://www.newstatesman.com/world/2020/03/how-populist-leaders-exploit-pandemics [accessed on 31 August 2020].

Cohen R. 2018. It’s time to depopularize ‘Populist’. New York Times. 13 July. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/13/opinion/populism-language-meaning.html?auth=login-facebook [accessed on 31 August 2020].

Cooper L. 2020. The end of neoliberalism? Why the current crisis is different to 1989, 2001 and 2008. LSE COVID-19 blog. 24 June. Available at: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/covid19/2020/06/24/the-end-of-neoliberalism-why-the-current-crisis-is-different-to-1989-2001-and-2008/ [accessed on 31 August 2020].

K England and K Ward (eds). 2007. Neoliberalization: states, networks, peoples. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Freeden M. 1996. Ideologies and political theory. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Freeden M. 2003. Editorial: ideological boundaries and ideological systems. Journal of Political Ideologies 8(1): 3-12.

Freeden M. 2005. Confronting the chimera of a ‘post-ideological’ age. Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 8(2): 247-262.

Freeden M. 2017. After the Brexit referendum: revisiting populism as an ideology. Journal of Political Ideologies 22(1): 1-11.

Fukuyama F. 1989. Have we reached the end of history? Santa Monica: Rand Corporation.

Glover RE and Maani N. 2021. Have we reached “peak neoliberalism” in the UK’s covid-19 response? BMJ Opinion. 27 January. Available at: https://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2021/01/27/have-we-reached-peak-neoliberalism-in-the-uks-covid-19-response/ [accessed on 27 February 2021].

Hale T et al. 2020. Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker. Blavatnik School of Government. Available at: https://www.bsg.ox.ac.uk/research/research-projects/coronavirus-government-response-tracker [accessed on 31 August 2020].

Halikiopoulou D. 2020. The pandemic is exposing the weaknesses of populism, but also fuelling authoritarianism. LSE Brexit. 1 April. Available at: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/brexit/2020/04/01/covid-19-is-exposing-the-weaknesses-of-populism/ [accessed on 31 August 2020].

Hardt M and Negri A. 2012. Declaration. New York: Argo-Navis.

Harvey NF. 2020. Partisan public health: how does political ideology influence support for COVID 19 related misinformation? Journal of Computational Social Science. November 2: 1-24.

Hern A. 2020. ‘Eat out to help out’ may have caused sixth of Covid clusters over summer. The Guardian. 30 October. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/oct/30/treasury-rejects-theory-eat-out-to-help-out-caused-rise-in-covid [accessed on 10 January 2021].

Heywood A. 2017. Political ideologies: an introduction (sixth edition). London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Humphrey-Jenner M. 2020. What we know suggests the economic impact of Wuhan coronavirus will be limited. The Conversation. 28 January. Available at: https://theconversation.com/what-we-know-suggests-the-economic-impact-of-wuhan-coronavirus-will-be-limited-130598 [accessed on 31 August 2020].

Inman P. 2020a. How the UK furlough scheme compares with other countries. The Guardian. 12 May. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/money/2020/may/12/how-the-uk-furlough-scheme-compares-with-other-countries [accessed on 31 August 2020].

Inman P. 2020b. Rightwing thinktanks call time on age of austerity. The Guardian. 16 May. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/may/16/thatcherite-thinktanks-back-increase-public-spending-in-lockdown [accessed on 31 August 2020].

Jones O. 2020. Never mind Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak is central to the UK’s Covid mess. The Guardian. 22 December. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/dec/22/rishi-sunak-private-sector-lockdown-covid [accessed on 9 January 2021].

Kollewe J. 2021. NHS GP practice operator with 500 000 patients passes into hands of US health insurer. The Guardian. 26 February. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/feb/26/nhs-gp-practice-operator-with-500000-patients-passes-into-hands-of-us-health-insurer [accessed on 27 February 2021].

Laterza V and Romer LP. 2020. Coronavirus, herd immunity and the eugenics of the market. Al Jazeera. 14 April. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/coronavirus-herd-immunity-eugenics-market-200414104531234.html [accessed on 31 August 2020].

Linkser D. 2020. COVID-19 and the challenge of populism. Forbes. 2 April. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/riskmap/2020/04/02/covid-19-and-the-failure-of-populism/#1dc2db8f4f99 [accessed on 31 August 2020].

Mannheim K. 1952. Essays in the sociology of knowledge. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Mason R. 2020. UK failure to lock down earlier cost many lives, top scientist says. The Guardian. 7 June. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/07/uk-failure-to-lock-down-earlier-cost-many-uk-lives-top-scientist-says [accessed on 31 August 2020].

Mead WR. 2020. Will coronavirus kill populism? Wall Street Journal. 23 March. Available at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/will-coronavirus-kill-populism-11585004780 [accessed on 31 August 2020].

Moffitt B. 2016. The global rise of populism: performance, political style, and representation. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Mudde C. 2004. The populist zeitgeist. Government and Opposition 39(4): 542-563.

Mudde C. 2020. Will the coronavirus ‘kill populism’? Don’t count on it. The Guardian. 27 March. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/mar/27/coronavirus-populism-trump-politics-response [accessed on 31 August 2020].

Mudde C and Kaltwasser CR. 2013. Exclusionary vs. inclusionary populism: comparing contemporary Europe and Latin America. Government and Opposition 48(2): 147-174.

Nederveen Pieterse J. 2018. Populism is a distraction. New Global Studies 12(3): 377-386.

Nederveen Pieterse J. 2019. Populism What Do People Want? Unscrambling Populism. Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal 102(2-3): 111-127.

Oliver B. 2020. Covid-19 pandemic: an opportunity to press the reset button on capitalism? The Mail and Guardian. 27 April. Available at: https://mg.co.za/article/2020-04-27-covid-19-pandemic-an-opportunity-to-press-the-reset-button-on-capitalism/ [accessed on 31 August 2020].

Peck J and Tickell A. 2007. Conceptualizing neoliberalism: thinking Thatcherism. In: Leitner H, Peck J, Sheppard E (eds). Contesting neoliberalism: urban frontiers. London: Guilford Press.

Ryan JM. 2021. The blessings of Covid-19 for neoliberalism, nationalism and neoconservative ideologies. In: Ryan JM (ed). COVID-19: Volume I: global pandemic, societal responses, ideological solutions. Oxon and New York: Routledge.

Saad-Filho A. 2020. From Covid-19 to the end of neoliberalism. Critical Sociology 46(4-5): 477-485.

Sanders C and K Burnett. 2019. The neoliberal roots of modern vaccine hesitancy. Journal of Health and Social Sciences 4(2): 149-56.

Soborski R. 2012. Globalization and ideology: a critical review of the debate. The Journal of Political Ideologies 17(3): 323-46.

Soborski R. 2013. Ideology in a global age: continuity and change. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Soborski R. 2018. Ideology and the future of progressive social movements. London: Rowman & Littlefield.

Soborski R. 2019. Prefigurative politics in anti-neoliberal activism: a critique. Perspectives on Global Development and Technology 18(1-2): 79-92.

Stavrakakis Y and Katsambekis G. 2014. Left-wing populism in the European periphery: the case of SYRIZA. Journal of Political Ideologies 19(2): 119-142.

Šumonja M. 2021. Neoliberalism is not dead – on political implications of Covid-19. Capital & Class 45(2): 215-27.

Tooze A. 2020. Is the coronavirus crash worse than the 2008 financial crisis? Foreign Policy. 8 March. Available at: https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/18/coronavirus-economic-crash-2008-financial-crisis-worse/ [accessed on 31 August 2020].

Walker P. 2020. No 10 denies claim Dominic Cummings argued to ‘let old people die’. The Guardian. 22 March. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/mar/22/no-10-denies-claim-dominic-cummings-argued-to-let-old-people-die [accessed on 31 August 2020].

Williams B. 2020. Why it matters that Boris Johnson thinks ‘there is such a thing as society’. The Conversation. 30 March. Available at: https://theconversation.com/why-it-matters-that-boris-johnson-thinks-there-is-such-a-thing-as-society-135103 [accessed on 31 August 2020].

Wolff RD. 2020. Why the neoliberal agenda is a failure at fighting coronavirus. Counterpunch. 1 June. Available at: https://www.counterpunch.org/2020/06/01/why-the-neoliberal-agenda-is-a-failure-at-fighting-coronavirus/ [accessed on 31 August 2020].

Wondreys J and Mudde C. 2020. Victims of the pandemic? European far-right parties and COVID-19. Nationalities Papers: 1-18.