The Death of Neoliberalism Has Been Greatly Exaggerated
Despite predictions of its demise, the neoliberal power bloc of think tanks and lobby groups is still deeply entrenched and pushing into new territory, from health care to space exploration. Neoliberalism won’t be over until the Left can challenge that power.
It is unnerving to realize we live in an era when everyone seems to be relieved that the COVID-19 pandemic is done and dusted when, in fact, all that is really over are the concerted public health measures to control its spread and propagation. “Wishing makes it so” is hardly a sound policy upon which to build political movements, yet that threatens to be the default stance toward most of the current crises we face, be it global warming, loss of biodiversity, Trumpism, economic inequality, the pandemic, or even the war in Ukraine.
One instance of such “termination fascination” that seems glaringly apparent on the Left is the widespread conviction that somehow the era of neoliberalism is likewise past, or at least on its way out. One can’t help but suspect that this particular hankering for a terminus is a consequence of feelings of helplessness combined with the tiresome refrain that neoliberalism can’t be satisfactorily defined. To clarify the debate, we first need to discuss the different ways in which people on the Left have used the term “neoliberal.”
First off, a wide range of people use “neoliberal” to designate a subset of either national or global history. This may simply be a convenient shorthand or may gesture toward something more — a historian’s attempt to periodize epochs, as in the “age of enterprise” or the “New Deal era.”
In this sense, it is rarely taken seriously as anything other than a convenient rhetorical device, or a series of headings for a syllabus. We cannot say whether such a notion has a beginning or an end, since it possesses no quiddity worth disputing. Endless attempts to stretch or truncate the Enlightenment or the New Deal era only demonstrate how little is at political stake in such historical periodizations.
A somewhat more consequential usage tends to equate “neoliberalism” with a specific package of policies or political practices. One example is the term “Washington Consensus,” coined by economist John Williamson in 1989 to summarize in bullet-point form the shared orientation of economists at the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in that era. However, Williamson himself later insisted that his list was not equivalent to what he himself termed neoliberalism, maintaining that any conflation of the latter with market-promotion policies had “damaged the brand.”
Williamson’s objection had some limited merit, given that many of his bullet points were simple extrapolations of neoclassical economics back then, and twentieth-century neoclassical theory profoundly diverged from much of the neoliberal framework. Outsiders may be forgiven for overlooking this fact, since it was roundly misrepresented by Milton Friedman and the popularizations of other figures of the Chicago School.
The deeper point is that while neoliberalism was first and foremost a political project, it is demonstrably not reducible to any canonical set of state policies. Famous individual neoliberal theorists may have laid down some specific markers, but the movement as a whole has proven to be very flexible in taking advantage of particular historical conjunctures to bend and revise many supposedly cherished policy targets. Indeed, their ambitions to bring about what they have conceived as an ideal market society have changed over time, as one school came to dominate the neoliberal thought collective, to be displaced by another and then another, from German ordoliberals to the Chicago School and the disciples of Murray Rothbard.
The main reservation concerning the notion that we can reduce neoliberalism to a package of policies is that it is virtually impossible to discern a simple and unique neoliberal inspiration merely from external observation of a specific policy. People on the Left frequently cite the loose coupling of doctrines to practical outcomes in support of the argument that ideas and ideologies don’t really matter for politics; only material conditions count. Yet the neoliberals themselves have nothing but contempt for such notions; they have often explicitly enlisted in a war of ideas.
From Foucault to the Federalist Society
There is a third usage of the term “neoliberal” that is rooted in the cultural formatting of a peculiar construct of subjective individual experience, often found in cultural studies, histories of education, and the humanities in general. This definition derives from the lectures of Michel Foucault — in particular, his depiction of neoliberalism as an injunction to become an entrepreneur of the self.
There is now an extensive literature arguing over the extent of Foucault’s sympathy for neoliberals like Gary Becker. Nevertheless, he popularized the template of the neoliberal self as a product to be sold, a walking advertisement, a jumble of assets to be invested, managed, and developed, but equally an inventory of liabilities to be pruned, outsourced, hedged against, and minimized.
This vision has inspired some impressive work on the role of social media as tutor and exemplar of neoliberal personal identities, as well as the transformation of educational institutions into neoliberal echo chambers. Clearly, this definition promotes a timeline of neoliberalism that has reasonably identifiable origins, at least when it comes to the spread of a personal morality and modality of presentation that is subservient to market dictates. Whether it could be said to have a distinct end point is far more debatable, however.
The fourth and final definition of neoliberalism consists of the most tangible manifestation of a set of thinkers and activists, associated with the Mont Pelerin Society (MPS) from 1947 onward. In the United States, a constellation of think tanks (Cato Institute, Manhattan Institute, Heritage Foundation, Competitive Enterprise Institute), academic units (Hoover Institution, Mercatus), shadow networks (Council for National Policy, Americans for Prosperity, American Legislative Exchange Council [ALEC], Federalist Society), and funding sources (the Kochs, the Bradleys, the Volker Fund, Liberty Fund, Rockbridge) took shape. There have been comparable structures in other nations.
The interlock between neoliberal theorists, activists, and funders from an early stage provides the motivation for regarding this as a coherent movement that can be traced through institutional records, biographical particulars, and the history of political formations. Those needing a concrete exemplar of what such analyses look like might consult the Koch Network Database at DeSmog. This last definition of neoliberalism is the most compact of the four, with the greatest degree of empirical content.
The Shadow of Mont Pelerin
Should this manifestation of neoliberalism be regarded as effectively over? The MPS still exists, and indeed is scheduled to have another general meeting in Oslo this October. However, there are reasons to suspect that its salad days are long past. The society recently had to loosen its rules for membership in order to attract new blood, and its pretentions of serving as a platform for avant-garde political thought on the Right have lost their luster, as it has instead come to resemble a gathering for the very rich to preen their political bona fides.
The neoliberal thought collective would have to concede that John Taylor is no Milton Friedman, Deirdre McCloskey is no George Stigler, and Tyler Cowen is no Friedrich Hayek. The presidency of the MPS is actually vacant at the moment. On the face of it, this does not strike the outsider as a vibrant, powerful movement.
Perhaps a diminution of imagination on the part of the MPS and its milieu is the consequence of a string of past victories. Quinn Slobodian, for one, has suggested recently that the MPS definition is no longer relevant for those seeking to understand modern politics, so maybe neoliberalism is dead after all.
I would like to argue that this lesson is premature, just as it is premature to declare that the pandemic is over. The contemporary MPS may display vital signs that are less than robust, but this overlooks the far more vigorous surrounding infrastructure of think tanks, media properties, activist institutes, astroturf consultants, trade associations, and academic units that also come under the umbrella of the fourth definition. This material manifestation of the thought collective has become so well entrenched in various countries that it has been gliding from one triumph to another, even during the pandemic.
Restricting our sample to the United States, there is the obvious coup of the Federalist Society capturing the majority of the Supreme Court. ALEC has spearheaded the political takeover of state legislatures and restrictions on voting rights. Cryptocurrencies have proliferated, driven by dreams of stateless money and promoted by the Center for American Progress, while the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have effectively been neutralized as arbiters of public health, with the American Institute for Economic Research leading the charge, and medicine itself is being reengineered according to the visions of the Manhattan Institute.
Medicare is well on its way to being privatized through a number of stealth policies (so much for “Medicare for All”). Space exploration is thoroughly commercialized as the plaything of billionaires, a development celebrated by the Cato Institute among others. We are witnessing the promotion of “open science” as a euphemism for the dismantling of academic scientific research. Plans for geoengineering as a fallback solution to global warming are chugging along zealously at the American Enterprise Institute and below the radar at Harvard, while recent wars serve as an excuse for blocking decarbonization of the energy infrastructure.
You need not search far to find the neoliberal organizations behind these triumphs, although sites like DeSmog and Think Tank Networks Research make the job a little easier. Neoliberal initiatives have molded so much of the contemporary landscape that we must ask why those on the Left who insist on neoliberalism’s demise overlook the bulk of this influence. This failure of perception might be attributed, at least in part, to a confusion of neoliberalism with libertarianism.
Just because neoliberals have a habit of rhetorically disparaging the state does not mean that they reject using it as a means to their ends. Their constant sneers at the big Leviathan, the nanny state, and the expert classes that are supposed to occupy them serve mainly as a preamble to their own plans to bend government to their own projects and desires.
This has happened so frequently in the history of political movements that it is astounding anyone is still willing to take libertarians and their exclusive dichotomy between state and market seriously. The rejiggering of state subsidies, from central bank interventions to Chinese bailouts, are merely betoken variations on a theme, not a repudiation of neoliberalism.
The Neoliberal Roots of Right-Wing Populism
A more likely rationale for many on the Left to expect the imminent demise of neoliberalism is the contemporary rise of authoritarian, illiberal, nationalist, anti-globalist, and antidemocratic tendencies on the Right. Since commentators have often described this phenomenon as “populism,” it will be difficult to avoid that muddled signifier altogether.
Many neoliberals have themselves struggled with the phenomenon they call populism in the last few years: the websites of think tanks like Cato and Heritage have articles anguishing over populists, and the MPS felt impelled to devote a 2017 meeting in Stockholm to “The Populist Threats to a Free Society.” Many on the Left, having recently learned to identify one wing of the neoliberal cohort as “globalists,” are also inclined to regard populist movements as repudiations of the earlier neoliberal ascendancy.
However, there is an alternative way of looking at this situation, which sees contemporary right populism as an offshoot of the neoliberal thought collective itself. Historians now understand that many of the early MPS participants were themselves largely antidemocratic in orientation, and that the nationalist wing was never entirely suppressed. The enduring problem for neoliberals was how to square their authoritarian tendencies with a public image as opponents of totalitarianism and cosmopolitan standard-bearers of liberalism.
There was no magic way to escape this dilemma, and no one-size-fits-all prescription for every nation, which accounts for the fact there has been no simple one-to-one correspondence between ideology and policy. One could argue within this broad spectrum — the ordoliberals had one proposal, the Chicago School another, and the Geneva School a third.
Yet there was a rump group disaffected with any of these solutions, many of whom were drawn into the orbit around Murray Rothbard, who became, in Quinn Slobodian’s phrase, “Hayek’s bastards.” This tendency has become increasingly discontented with the orthodoxies of the MPS: in 2006, it split off into a “Property and Freedom Society.”
One might describe the xenophobic, racist, know-nothing turn of recent politics as a fury distilled from economic degradation and pandemic frustrations. But that would divert attention from the ways in which the breakaway neoliberal faction and their more orthodox fellow travelers anticipated this roiling discontent and put it to their own use.
Slobodian recognizes that there was a revanchist group of neoliberals, dissatisfied with the construction of the European Union and the World Trade Organization, which often opposed the school described in his work Globalists. Murray Rothbard’s 1992 manifesto, Right–Wing Populism, explicitly argued for “America First” and denounced affirmative action. There were distinct neoliberal protagonists behind Brexit in the UK, and such figures also occupied the early leadership of Germany’s Alternativ für Deutschland.
Of course, Donald Trump himself never embodied a consistent ideological stance. However, his administrative staff were heavily recruited from the Koch-organized think tank world. Their actions at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Interior, the Food and Drug Administration, the State Department, and elsewhere conformed closely to neoliberal policy prescriptions. It would be an error to regard anti-globalization trends on the Right as an obvious rejection of previous neoliberal strictures, or to gather the impression that a resurgent nationalism somehow inherently violates the creed.
What might it take for us to say that neoliberalism, in the fourth definition of the term, is actually coming to an end? An era of “post-neoliberalism” won’t be heralded by a bit of extra deficit spending, a few antitrust sallies against Big Tech, or some disingenuous crackdowns on tax havens. It will only become a serious proposition when opponents of neoliberalism on the Left come to appreciate what is indispensable to the neoliberal creed and what is expendable.
For neoliberals, the key theoretical lynchpin is their vision of the market and its capabilities, while the first commandment of their creed is opposition to socialism. All the factions and tendencies of the neoliberal thought collective share these tenets. Although they often treat the market as the ultimate Swiss Army knife, their specific innovation was to recast “the Market” as the greatest information processor known to mankind, That Which Must Be Obeyed.
In this catechism, since no planner could ever know enough to beat the market, socialism was necessarily impossible. The populist conviction that experts don’t know the truth, whereas a few minutes on YouTube allows them personal access to the hidden wisdom of the ages, is a corollary of this worldview.
However much those on the Left harbor their own set of beliefs, they find themselves persistently stymied and outmaneuvered by their opponents because they still rely upon neoliberal conceptions of the market in their political initiatives. References to glitches or market failures merely reveal how inept their political instincts are. The core tenet of socialism is epistemological: the proposition that some people, with effort and dedication, can come to know the current situation and change it for the better. Richard Seymour has called this the “Promethean impulse.”
The reason this is possible is that the market was never, contra Foucault, a monolithic, independent arbiter of a “regime of truth” but rather a set of diverse interpersonal contraptions, constructed through a series of interventions that produce certain calculable results. There is no way that we can credit congeries of markets with “knowing” anything. In this gestalt switch, markets do not produce freedom but rather social control. Neoliberalism will not be over until left-wing political movements regain confidence in their conscious mastery over the economic sphere.
Returning to the pandemic analogy, neoliberals will claim it is over by shutting down the state monitoring of infection and morbidity data, flooding the zone with noise and disinformation, and letting the market determine health outcomes. Socialists would declare the pandemic to be over when public health interventions have generated unified, standardized, transnational morbidity and mortality data that return to agreed baseline levels for a designated period of time. The latter situation would never be confused with the former.