Neoliberalism? Never Heard of It

The latest liberal parlor game is pretending there’s no such thing as neoliberalism. The game’s very popularity highlights neoliberalism’s enduring hegemony.

Bill Clinton speaks to the Democratic Leadership Council on December 3, 1993. (Wally McNamee / Getty Images)

For the first time in decades, it has become possible to envision real alternatives to the prevailing political and economic order of the past forty years. In both Europe and the Americas, the neoliberal consensus is facing a crisis of moral, intellectual, and popular legitimacy: proving unable to deliver either the growth or the broad prosperity its ideologues once promised and facing robust electoral challenges from both the socialist left and the nationalist right.

Predictably enough, this turn of events has elicited a defensive response from neoliberalism’s greatest partisans and those otherwise invested in its political and cultural hegemony. “Reminder: Liberalism Is Working, and Marxism Has Always Failed,” asserts an anguished Jonathan Chait. “It’s Time for the Elites to Rise Up Against the Ignorant Masses,” bellows an indignant James Traub. “Not left, not right, but forward,” meanwhile, has once again become the median posture among those seeking the Democratic nomination for president — with most candidates channeling the spirit of Tony Blair’s famous 1998 call to neoliberal technocracy and making familiar appeals to moderation and tepid meliorism.

But the past several years have also given birth to another, more curious phenomenon: namely the repeated insistence of many prominent liberals and centrists that neoliberalism is either a phantom created by leftists or, alternatively, a term so ethereal it defies definition and therefore serves no useful purpose. In Britain and America especially (arguably neoliberalism’s most significant ideological beachheads in the 1980s and ’90s), some commentators can’t seem to help resist this strange line of argument, even as the contours of the neoliberal order become ever-more visible as its political prospects weaken and its economic fortunes decline.

The argument comes in several variations.

The first, and most plainly superficial, caustically insists that neoliberalism doesn’t exist or at any rate ceased to have a meaningful existence long ago. “Nobody has spotted a neoliberal in the wild since Gary Hart’s 1984 presidential campaign,” writes Politico’s Bill Scher, in his stunningly humorless review of The Chapo Guide to Revolution. Or, to take the petulant words of former Clinton sycophant Tom Watson: “There are no neoliberals in the US Congress — not one. Not one in any statehouses in the nation, either. Yet it’s constantly bandied about by the white academic left as a functioning and present ideology.”

A second, related version holds that the word primarily exists as a term of abuse: an epithet reductively deployed by leftist trolls looking to slander everyone in sight. This variation’s greatest scribe is undoubtedly the ever-aggrieved Chait who, in a July 2017 piece titled “How ‘Neoliberalism’ Became the Left’s Favorite Insult of Liberals,” insists that liberalism has remained largely consistent and unchanging (thus making “neo” an unnecessary and pejorative addendum). This argument hinges on the astoundingly ahistorical claim that liberal politicians had no hand in the generalized rightward shift that followed the 1970s and, furthermore, have not wavered in their basic commitments, particularly when it comes to economic policy, since the New Deal:

The Democratic Party has evolved over the last half-century, as any party does over a long period of time. But the basic ideological cast of its economic policy has not changed dramatically since the New Deal . . . Progressives are correct in their belief that something has changed for the worse in American politics. Larger forces in American life have stalled the seemingly unstoppable progressive momentum of the postwar period . . . All this forced Democrats more frequently into a defensive posture . . . Barack Obama’s far more sweeping reforms still could not win any support from a radicalized opposition. It is seductive to attribute these frustrations to the tactical mistakes or devious betrayals of party leaders. But it is the political climate that has grown more hostile to Democratic Party economic liberalism. The party’s ideological orientation has barely changed.

In this telling, liberal writers like Chait and Democratic politicians like Clinton and Obama have remained consistent with the liberalism of the midcentury. The “neoliberalism” charge is therefore an abusive tactic invented by socialists and designed primarily to “bracket,” as he puts it, “the center-left together with the right as ‘neoliberal’ and then force progressives to choose between that and socialism.”

This calls to mind a third, perhaps more emblematic variation on the form, which holds that the wide application of “neoliberal” renders the term too vague or imprecise for it to retain real value. In an editorial for the Independent, Ben Chu takes aim at the regular charge made by some on Labour’s Corbynite left that the EU is a neoliberal institution: a reflex he believes to be incoherent, conspiratorial, and even mildly sinister. Partly echoing Chait, Ed Conway (economics editor for Britain’s Sky News) asks: “What is neoliberalism and why is it an insult?” While socialists and others on the Left are fond of branding everything they dislike “neoliberal,” he writes, no one can actually agree on the word’s meaning:

You could pick any one of [Jeremy Corbyn’s] speeches over the past few years for . . . examples. The Grenfell Tower was a tragedy of neoliberalism . . . Austerity was a product of neoliberalism. The City is neoliberal, the government is neoliberal, the press is neoliberal . . . Despite the fact that neoliberalism is frequently referred to as an ideology, it is oddly difficult to pin down. For one thing, it is a word that tends to be used almost exclusively by those who are criticizing it — not by its advocates, such as they are (in stark contrast to almost every other ideology, nearly no one self-describes as a neoliberal). In other words, it is not an ideology but an insult.

A somewhat more earnest and coherent version of this argument is found in a recent essay by Vox’s Ezra Klein, which does at least grant the term neoliberalism some tangible meaning. “In its simplest form,” Klein writes, “neoliberalism refers to a general preference for market mechanisms over state interventions.” This, however, is where the problems begin for him:

Since almost everyone sometimes prefers market mechanisms to state interventions, and sometimes prefer state interventions to market mechanisms, the conversation quickly gets confusing. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were neoliberals. Bill Clinton is often seen as a neoliberal. Barack Obama is sometimes considered a neoliberal. Elizabeth Warren is occasionally called a neoliberal.

As such, Klein concludes, the label is often over-applied to the point of incoherence. “A label that can describe everyone,” he argues, “doesn’t usefully describe anyone.” To his credit, Klein doesn’t want us to abandon the term entirely. Nor does he pretend, as others do, that the phenomenon it describes is so nebulous it might as well not exist (to his earlier definition, he even adds: “Neoliberalism describes what happens when capitalism mutates from an economic system to a governing and even moral philosophy”).

His essay’s primary purpose, however, is to argue that the Obama presidency fell short of progressive expectations because of an intransigent Congress rather than an attachment to neoliberalism. This is where Klein, his more nuanced and inquisitive posture notwithstanding, begins to sound a bit like Chait:

In recent years, neoliberal has reemerged as political slander, meaning something like “corporatist sellout Democrat” . . . I’ve become more frustrated with the lazy ways the term is tossed around — and, particularly, how it becomes an all-purpose explanation for any political outcome someone doesn’t like.

While exhibiting variations and coming in numerous shades of good and bad faith, all of these arguments — and others in the same vein — share some common features.

The first is poor, or at any rate incomplete, history.

Far from being abstract or immaterial, neoliberalism was the consciously pursued project of an initially small group of intelligentsia who, thanks to decades of well-funded organizing and adept political maneuvering — particularly during the economic crises that afflicted Keynesian social democracy in the 1970s — gradually succeeded in taking their ideology to the heights of institutional and cultural power. First capturing the old right (in Britain’s Tory Party, the disappointments of the Heath era gave way to the more dynamic and confrontational ethos of Thatcherism, just as in America Nixon and Ford were succeeded by Reaganism), the neoliberal ascendency eventually secured a foothold in the center-left thanks to the agency of figures like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.

The new generation of ideologues who came to dominate Western liberalism in the 1990s were hardly dragged kicking and screaming into the embrace of its more market-zealous incarnation. On the contrary, New Labour acolytes and Atari Democrats were some of neoliberalism’s most enthusiastic converts and set out to realign their parties with the consensus already set in motion by the new right. Here’s how the Democratic Party’s shift away from postwar liberalism was described in 2013 by none other than Chait himself:

[Various] magazines once critiqued Democrats from the right, advocating a policy loosely called “neoliberalism,” and now stand in general ideological concord. Why? I’d say it’s because the neoliberal project succeeded in weaning the Democrats of the wrong turn they took during the 1960s and 1970s. The Democrats under Bill Clinton — and Obama, whose domestic policy is crafted almost entirely by Clinton veterans — has internalized the neoliberal critique.

Given these observable shifts, it is simply ahistorical to argue that liberalism has been ideologically stagnant, or that its transformation into neoliberalism during the 1990s did not occur; equally so to suggest that liberal politicians like Clinton or Obama were simply the casualties of a generalized rightward drift, akin to an intense weather event, rather than the conscious practitioners of an ideology. If neoliberalism is sometimes invoked as a pejorative term for today’s liberal politicians, it’s because the Left opposes the consensus they seek to perpetuate and holds that a more humane alternative is both possible and desirable.

Setting aside the historical details, what about the second major component of the arguments at hand — that the moniker “neoliberalism” is either too widely applicable or too contested to be of any use?

This is the fulcrum of the reasoning offered in varying degrees by Klein, Conway, and Chu, and like many erroneous arguments, it contains a degree of truth. For one thing, there is indeed some ambiguity surrounding the term — but that’s only because what it refers to is so multifaceted. Taken at face value, neoliberalism describes a mixture of classical liberal philosophy and neoclassical economics amounting (on paper at least) to an ethic of governance that sees individual freedom as best actualized under a regime of limited state activity, favors private enterprise over public ownership, and is skeptical of state regulation.

But neoliberalism also variously describes: an existing set of interconnected economic and political institutions; a conscious ideological offensive that transformed global politics in the 1980s and ’90s and the frontiers of acceptable public policy since; a range of principles that guide elected leaders of both the Right and the liberal center whether they are conscious adherents to neoliberal philosophy or not; and the near-totalizing reality of life under the pressures and logics of late capitalism.

For some, this is reason enough to abandon, dismiss, or severely limit the application of the term — in some cases to the point that it ceases to be a recognized feature of contemporary life. If a set of political ideas can be applied too widely, so this thinking runs, then continuing to identify or isolate them as a causal force becomes basically pointless. How, after all, can a label applicable to politicians as distinct as Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama be of any real use?

But we might just as easily draw the opposite conclusion. The ubiquity of a particular phenomenon does not make discrete analysis of it useless; if anything, such omnipresence makes identifying it a more urgent and critical task. A phenomenon so diffuse that it seems manifest throughout politics, economics, and culture is hardly a chimera, and the apparent reticence of many commentators to recognize or even acknowledge its valence as a term can only be viewed as a symptom of neoliberalism’s continued stranglehold on our political, cultural, and intellectual life.

The longer something is a part of your reality, the more it tends to fade from your field of focus. Put another way: the more pervasive a particular object or phenomenon, the easier it can be to take its presence for granted. After its initially disruptive incursion in the 1980s, neoliberalism fast became a feature of our collective existence, so indelible many now seem unable to recall a time before it existed, let alone conceive a future that goes beyond it. An ideology secures hegemony at precisely the point it ceases to be considered an ideology: its claims transform into axioms; its theories harden into dogma; its abstruse vernacular becomes the lingua franca; its assumptions are subsumed under “common sense.”

That neoliberalism remains so poorly understood in the very political mainstream whose frontiers it now circumscribes is a testament to both the breathtaking scope of its counterrevolution, and the daunting task facing those of us who desire its overthrow. It is everywhere and therefore nowhere: at once so diaphanous it seems invisible; so internalized it appears inescapable. Then again, there may be something altogether more hopeful to be drawn from this strange and often narcotic diffusion. As the late Mark Fisher reminds us:

The long, dark night of the end of history has to be grasped as an enormous opportunity. The very oppressive pervasiveness of capitalist realism means that even glimmers of alternative political and economic possibilities can have a disproportionately great effect. The tiniest event can tear a hole in the grey curtain of reaction which has marked the horizons of possibility under capitalist realism. From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again.