“Neoliberalism” Has Two Meanings

The word “neoliberalism” comes up frequently in discussions on and of digital media and politics. Use of the term is frequently derided by actors across the political spectrum, especially but not only by those at whom the term has been directed. (Nobody wants to be called a neoliberal and everyone always denies it, much as everyone denies being a racist or a misogynist: it is today an analytical term applied by those who disagree with it, although it has been used for self-identification in the past.) Sometimes the derision indicates genuine disagreement, but even more frequently it is part of an outright denial that there is any such thing as “neoliberalism,” or that the meaning of the term is so fuzzy as to make its application pointless.

There are many causes for this, but one that can be identified and addressed is fairly straightforward once it’s identified: neoliberalism has two meanings. Of course it has many more than two meanings, but it has two important, current, distinct, somewhat related meanings, and they get invoked in close enough proximity to each other so as to sometimes cause serious confusion. (The correct title for this post should really be “‘Neoliberalism’ Has (at Least) Two Meanings,” but the simpler version sounds better.) The existence of these two meanings may even explain some of the denials that the term means anything at all.

Meaning 1: “Neoliberal” as a modifier of “liberal” in the largely recent political sense of US/UK party politics, where the opposite is “conservative.” In this sense, the term is typically applied to people even more than political programs or dogma. Examples of “neoliberals” in this sense: Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, (arguably) Barack Obama, (arguably) Hillary Clinton.

This version of “neoliberal” is meant to identify a tendency among the political left to accommodate policies, especially economic policies, associated with the right, while publicly proclaiming identification with the left. Sometimes this is called “left neoliberalism.”

The best recent piece I know on this version of neoliberalism is Corey Robin’s “The First Neoliberals,” Jacobin (April 28, 2016), which includes pointers at the (brief) time when the term was introduced by those who described themselves that way:

[Neoliberalism is] the name that a small group of journalists, intellectuals, and politicians on the Left gave to themselves in the late 1970s in order to register their distance from the traditional liberalism of the New Deal and the Great Society.

The original neoliberals included, among others, Michael Kinsley, Charles Peters, James Fallows, Nicholas Lemann, Bill Bradley, Bruce Babbitt, Gary Hart, and Paul Tsongas. Sometimes called “Atari Democrats,” these were the men — and they were almost all men — who helped to remake American liberalism into neoliberalism, culminating in the election of Bill Clinton in 1992.

These were the men who made Jonathan Chait what he is today. Chait, after all, would recoil in horror at the policies and programs of mid-century liberals like Walter Reuther or John Kenneth Galbraith or even Arthur Schlesinger, who claimed that “class conflict is essential if freedom is to be preserved, because it is the only barrier against class domination.” We know this because he so resolutely opposes the more tepid versions of that liberalism that we see in the Sanders campaign.

It’s precisely the distance between that lost world of twentieth century American labor-liberalism and contemporary liberals like Chait that the phrase “neoliberalism” is meant, in part, to register.

We can see that distance first declared, and declared most clearly, in Charles Peters’s famous “A Neoliberal’s Manifesto,” which Tim Barker reminded me of last night. Peters was the founder and editor of the Washington Monthly, and in many ways the eminence grise of the neoliberal movement.

It’s important to say that, while this usage of the term may well be the one that is frequently applied in social media, and it’s certainly the one that gets mentioned most often in the context of electoral politics (see, for example, Nina Illingworth’s hilarious “Neoliberal Wall of Shame”), it isn’t really the one that scholars tend to use.

This usage came up recently in the controversy surrounding the #WeAreTheLeft publicity campaign, in which critics from the left, with whom I generally agree in this regard, criticized the organizers of that campaign as neoliberals: see Jeff Kunzler, “Dear #WeAreTheLeft, You Are Not the Left: The Rot of Liberal White Supremacy,” Medium (July 13, 2016) and Meghan Murphy, “#WeAreTheLeft: The Day Identity Politics Killed Identity Politics,” Feminist Current (July 14, 2016). Not surprisingly, this critique was met with the characteristic denial that the word means anything:

Meaning 2: “Neoliberal” as a modifier of “liberal” in the economic sense of the word “liberal,” as used for example in “liberal trade policies.” Also understood as a modifier of the liberalism associated with philosophers like Locke and Mill, which is itself frequently taken to be largely economic in nature. (The source I like best on the relationship between economic liberalism and rightist political programs is Ishay Landa’s The Apprentice’s Sorcerer: Liberal Tradition and Fascism, Studies in Critical Social Science, 2012.)

This is a movement of the political right, not of the left; its opposite would be something like “protectionism” or “planned economies” or even “socialism,” although in caricatured senses of those terms.  The lineage here begins with Hayek and von Mises, through the Mont Pelerin Society and Chicago School economics. Philip Mirowski is the go-to theorist of this movement. Examples: Hayek, Mises, self-identified right-wing “libertarians” like the Koch brothers, Murray Rothbard, Lew Rockwell, Ron and Rand Paul, and also hard-right politicians like Reagan and Thatcher, Scott Walker and Ted Cruz. These figures are better understood not with neoliberal as a term of personal identification (that is, “Ted Cruz is a neoliberal” doesn’t really mean much), but rather as advocating neoliberal policies or providing foundational theory for them. In contrast to the first meaning, this is sometimes referred to as “right neoliberalism.”

This is what scholars like David Harvey, Wendy Brown, Aihwa Ong, Will Davies, and Philip Mirowski mean when they talk about neoliberalism, even if the details of their usages of the term differ slightly. It’s the usage most often employed by scholars across the board. It’s the meaning the Wikipedia entry on neoliberalism currently invokes, barely mentioning the other.

When Daniel Allington, Sarah Brouillete and I wrote a piece called “Neoliberal Tools (and Archives): A Political History of the Digital Humanities,” in the Los Angeles Review of Books in May, it is this meaning we had in mind.

Neoliberalism in this sense is often understood, not entirely inaccurately, as free-market fundamentalism. But as Mirowski in particular explains it (Davies is also very good on this), neoliberalism has just as much to do with taking the reins of state power so as to favor commercial interests while publicly disparaging the idea of governmental power (or at least of democratic control of state power). Although this is most clearly explained in his book Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown (Verso, 2013), the summary he provides in “The Thirteen Commandments of NeoliberalismThe Utopian (June 19, 2013) explains a lot:

Although many secondhand purveyors of ideas on the right might wish to crow that “market freedom” promotes their own brand of religious righteousness, or maybe even the converse, it nonetheless debases comprehension to conflate the two by disparaging both as “fundamentalism”—a sneer unfortunately becoming commonplace on the left. It seems very neat and tidy to assert that neoliberals operate in a modus operandi on a par with religious fundamentalists: just slam The Road to Serfdom (or if you are really Low-to-No Church, Atlas Shrugged) on the table along with the King James Bible, and then profess to have unmediated personal access to the original true meaning of the only (two) book(s) you’ll ever need to read in your lifetime. Counterpoising morally confused evangelicals with the reality-based community may seem tempting to some; but it dulls serious thought. It may sometimes feel that a certain market-inflected personalized version of Salvation has become more prevalent in Western societies, but that turns out to be very far removed from the actual content of the neoliberal program.

Neoliberalism does not impart any dose of Old Time Religion. Not only is there no ur-text of neoliberalism; the neoliberals have not themselves opted to retreat into obscurantism, however much it may seem that some of their fellow travelers may have done so. You won’t often catch them wondering, “What Would Hayek Do?” Instead they developed an intricately linked set of overlapping propositions over time — from Ludwig Erhard’s “social market economy” to Herbert Giersch’s cosmopolitan individualism, from Milton Friedman’s “monetarism” to the rational-expectations hypothesis, from Hayek’s “spontaneous order” to James Buchanan’s constitutional order, from Gary Becker’s “human capital” to Steven Levitt’s “freakonomics,” from the Heartland Institute’s climate denialism to the American Enterprise Institute’s geo-engineering project, and, most appositely, from Hayek’s “socialist calculation controversy” to Chicago’s efficient-markets hypothesis. Along the way they have lightly sloughed off many prior classical liberal doctrines — for instance, opposition to corporate monopoly power as politically debilitating, or skepticism over strong intellectual property, or disparaging finance as an intrinsic source of macroeconomic disturbance — without coming clean on their reversals.

George Monbiot’s “Neoliberalism—The Ideology at the Root of All Our Problems,” The Guardian (April 15, 2016), offers an excellent if slightly less scholarly primer to the history of the term and the best-known instances of neoliberal policies, though he doesn’t include the crucial Mirowski/Davies insight about neoliberalism’s capture of state power:

As Naomi Klein documents in The Shock Doctrine, neoliberal theorists advocated the use of crises to impose unpopular policies while people were distracted: for example, in the aftermath of Pinochet’s coup, the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina, which Friedman described as “an opportunity to radically reform the educational system” in New Orleans.

Where neoliberal policies cannot be imposed domestically, they are imposed internationally, through trade treaties incorporating “investor-state dispute settlement”: offshore tribunals in which corporations can press for the removal of social and environmental protections. When parliaments have voted to restrict sales of cigarettes, protect water supplies from mining companies, freeze energy bills or prevent pharmaceutical firms from ripping off the state, corporations have sued, often successfully. Democracy is reduced to theatre.

Monbiot also points out that this usage too comes from the promoters of the doctrine themselves: “In 1951, Friedman was happy to describe himself as a neoliberal. But soon after that, the term began to disappear. Stranger still, even as the ideology became crisper and the movement more coherent, the lost name was not replaced by any common alternative.” Mirowski and his colleagues explain this history in much more detail.

It’s important to note that, as Monbiot suggests, but as Manuela Cadelli, President of the Magistrates’ Union of Belgium, says outright, “Neoliberalism Is a Form of Fascism” (French original). If one sees the corporate-State nexus as a critical component of Fascism as a political-economic system, it’s not at all hard to see the connection (Landa’s book is the key source on this).

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Is there a relationship between the two meanings? Arguably, the most obvious relationship is that the Mont Pelerin Society’s long-term plan to turn the entire country (and frankly the entire world) toward a rightist solidifying of corporate power can’t help but entail the capitulation of the left toward those goals. We certainly read and hear much less of the Clintons and Blair bashing democratic governance as an ideal, even though their actions have tended toward the Mont Pelerin program. No doubt, these are prongs of the same movement at some level, but they have very different profiles and effects in the world at large.

In a recent piece in Counterpunch, “The Time is Now: To Defeat Both Trump and Clintonian Neoliberalism” (July 19, 2016), Mark Lewis Taylor writes: “Trumpian authoritarianism and Clintonian neoliberalism are actually co-partners in a joint system of rule. Trump’s authoritarianism is often a hidden bitter fruit of Clintonian neoliberalism. Social movements for democracy must fight them both together.”

It is interesting to note that the term “neoconservative” as it is typically invoked (heavy reliance on military power to pursue what are largely economic objectives) is not properly speaking in opposition to either meaning of “neoliberal”; figures like GW Bush and Cheney easily fall under the second definition of neoliberal as well as the typical definition of neoconservative. Tony Blair looks a lot like a neoliberal in the first sense and also a neocon in the same Bush-Cheney sense, although perhaps slightly less self-starting (maybe).

Nothing I’m saying here is new. Most—though unfortunately not all—academic studies of neoliberalism note this issue, often using the right/left terminology. But critiques of the use of the word often appear to blur the two meanings, using the fact that some figures fall into one group or the other as a means of disqualifying use of the term altogether. And as Mirowski among others says, the argument that “neoliberalism does not exist” appears to do important work in solidifying the Mont Pelerin program.

When I write, I almost always intend the second meaning, but I recognize that I haven’t always been as clear about that as I might have been, even if I’ve been quoting Mirowski in the process. I plan to try to distinguish my uses of these meanings in the future and I can’t help thinking it would be useful if more people did.

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