'Neoliberalism': what's in a word?

Is the analytical bite weaker than the rhetorical bark?
Daniel Rodgers

Neoliberalism is the linguistic omnivore of our times, a neologism that threatens to swallow up all the other words around it. Twenty years ago, the term ‘neoliberalism’ barely registered in English-language debates. Now it is virtually inescapable, applied to everything from architecture, film, and feminism to the politics of both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Search the ProQuest database for uses of ‘neoliberalism’ between 1989 and 1999, and you turn up fewer than 2,000 hits. From the crash of 2008–9 to the present, that figure already exceeds 33,000.

On the left, the term ‘neoliberalism’ is used to describe the resurgence of laissez-faire ideas in what is still called, in most quarters, ‘conservative’ economic thought; to wage battle against the anti-tax, anti-government, and anti-labor union agenda that has swept from the Reagan and Thatcher projects into the Tea Party revolt and the Freedom Caucus; to describe the global market economy whose imperatives now dominate the world; to castigate the policies of Bill and Hillary Clinton’s centrist Democratic Party; and to name the very culture and sensibilities that saturate our minds and actions.

Vital material issues are at stake in all these debates. But the politics of words are in play as well. Naming matters. It focuses agendas and attention. It identifies causation and strategies of action. It collects (or rebuffs) allies. Is the overnight ubiquity of the term ‘neoliberalism’ the sign of a new acuteness about the way the world operates? Or is it a caution that a word, accelerating through too many meanings, employed in too many debates, gluing too many phenomena together, and cannibalizing too many other words around it, may make it harder to see both the forces at loose in our times and where viable resistance can be found?

‘Neoliberalism’ came into its current usage on the American left through a much messier past than is usually acknowledged. Its whirlwind growth threatens to obscure a set of already existing terms whose analytical and political bite is sharper than the cloud of meanings ‘neoliberalism’ embraces. At a time when social realism in language is needed as never before, ‘neoliberalism’ poses severe disadvantages were progressives to try to use it in the political sphere. Neoliberalism’s advantage is its verbal and conceptual bigness. But before it swallows the field of words around it, it is worth asking if what we gain is worth the potential liabilities.

‘Neoliberalism’ has no single origin or genealogy. It began its verbal life with a series of false starts. In the nineteenth century, the powerful term around which politics turned was ‘liberalism.’ Throughout Europe and Latin America, liberal political parties stood for the maximization of economic and personal liberty: free trade, laissez-faire economies, weak states, and extended freedom of thought and conscience. In the mid-nineteenth century liberalism was a fighting term, a banner under which to battle for the extension of liberty into more and more domains of the older mercantilist and monarchical social order. It needed no modifier.

The first persons to add the term ‘new’ to ‘liberal’ were rebels within the British Liberal Party who tried to sever commitment to liberty from the liberal project of laissez faire. Starting in the hard times of the 1880s, they began to argue that maximum freedom from the powers of the state did not maximize actual freedom. Against the self-interested actions of rapacious landlords, exploitative employers, and monopoly-seeking interests, liberty needed to be secured by the countervailing hand of government. The intellectual architecture of the mid-twentieth-century welfare states in Britain and the United States was to be largely the work of these new, socially conscious liberals. John Maynard Keynes and William Beveridge were ‘New Liberals’ of this sort. So was Franklin D. Roosevelt. Only in the 1940s did this sense of the term ‘new liberalism’ disappear—fading from political currency in Britain and becoming subsumed into the ‘New Deal liberalism’ label in the United States.

Variations on the term ‘neoliberalism’ made a second, briefer start in continental Europe in the late 1940s. There a small group of economists and political philosophers with Friedrich von Hayek at its centre undertook to map a path between socialism and classical laissez-faire economic liberalism that would retain the pre-eminence of liberty but prove less vulnerable to the strains and instabilities that had torn through the 1920s. ‘Néolibéralisme’ was among the umbrella terms proposed. But the label did not stick long. Hayek disliked the term. The most influential German participants soon abandoned ‘neoliberal’ for ‘ordo-liberalism’ and eventually for ‘social-market economy,’ the mixed economy project that, through the Christian Democratic Party, came to dominate policy making in postwar Germany. Milton Friedman, the youngest and brashest American in this circle in the 1940s, described his thinking as ‘neoliberal’ in an essay in 1951. But there was nothing enduringly ‘neo’ about Friedman’s economic politics. A one-man factory of many of the unabashedly libertarian proposals that the Freedom Caucus now yearns to enact, Friedman soon cashed in the ‘neoliberal’ label for himself in favor of ‘radical’ liberal or just plain ‘liberal’ of the classic nineteenth-century sort.

A third and more wrenching meaning for the term ‘neoliberal’ spilled out of a much later event: the shock-therapy cure for runaway inflation that the military dictatorship, with counsel from its University of Chicago economics department advisers, imposed on Chile after forcibly deposing the nation’s socialist government in the 1970s. Most of those who oversaw the savagely abrupt dismantling of the Allende government’s economic policies and their replacement by austerity budgets, privatisation of state enterprises and the state pension system, abolition of price controls, abandonment of most foreign trade restrictions, and demobilization of the labor unions did not call themselves ‘neoliberals.’ Some Chilean economists had picked up the term from their German reading. But the overwhelming majority of Chilean users of the term ‘neoliberalismo’ were critics of the military regime, outraged at its reactionary project of imposing a new version of laissez-faire liberalism on a captive nation. ‘Neoliberalism,’ Chilean-style, meant to its critics nineteenth-century liberalism shorn of political liberty. The term hung on in Latin American debates and, from there, worked its way back into European debates over political economy.

Finally, a fourth invention of the term ‘neoliberal,’ independent of the first three, came with Charles Peters’s ‘A Neoliberal’s Manifesto’ in 1983. As Peters used the word, ‘neoliberalism’ was not a call to bring nineteenth-century economic liberalism back to life but, rather, to moderate the ambitions of New Deal social liberalism particularly with regard to labor union privileges and welfare entitlements. It had a powerful impact on the policies of Bill Clinton and his administration. But the term that stuck in political speech was political ‘triangulation,’ not ‘neoliberalism.’

In each of these ways, the term ‘neoliberal’ circled through various uses and occasions with no secure attachment to any of them. Run a straight genealogical line back to the term’s origin, and you find the trail strewn with inconsistencies and interruptions. ‘Neoliberalism’ was a term advanced by different groups for different purposes and at several times left orphaned. And then, suddenly, in the mid-1990s, it took off. On the academic left, it is now both the linguistic fad and hegemon of our times.Prying ‘neoliberalism’ apart

For some of those startled by this sudden turn in political language, the success of ‘neoliberalism’ is a measure of its substantive hollowness. After careful study, two political scientists labelled it a ‘conceptual trash-heap’ in 2009: a word into which almost any phenomenon can be tossed and any number of meanings piled up for composting. Others have called it a vacant, empty epithet.

But the problem with neoliberalism is neither that it has no meaning nor that it has an infinite number of them. It is that the term has been applied to four distinctly different phenomena. ‘Neoliberalism’ stands, first, for the late capitalist economy of our times; second, for a strand of ideas; third, for a globally circulating bundle of policy measures; and fourth, for the hegemonic force of the culture that surrounds and entraps us. These four neoliberalisms are intricately related, of course. But the very act of bundling them together, tucking their differences, loose ends, and a clear sense of their actually existing relations under the fabric of a single word, may, perversely, obscure what we need to see most clearly. What would each of these phenomena look like without the screen of common identity that the word ‘neoliberalism’ imparts to them?

Read the rest of this article, 'The uses and abuses of 'neoliberalism', at Dissent, along with further contributions to the debate over the term 'neoliberalism':

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