24 March 2023

Neoliberalism (n.)

I finally got around to indexing a bunch of commentaries on this useful and necessary term of art.

I consider economist Brad DeLong’s Principles Of Neoliberalism an ideal introduction to the subject. It provides a sympathetic, lucid description of what neoliberalism is and why its supporters support it. (Yes, that’s me DeLong credits for cleaning up the formatting of his old archive; you can find that effort in an earlier post.) It starts with a tidy summary:

Neoliberalism is many things. It is:
  • a counsel of despair with respect to the possibility of social democracy today (outside of the global economy’s industrial core).
  • a counsel of hope with respect to the prospects for rapid market-generated economic development outside the global economy’s industrial core — if governments adopt market-conforming policies.
  • a bet that improvements in transportation and communication — the shrinking world — “globalization” — gives us today an extraordinary opportunity to rapidly reduce global inequality by incorporating more and more people and more and more more regions into the global economy.
  • the only live utopian program in the world today.

That said, I am a lefty who bitterly opposes neoliberalism. My comrades on the left are often vague in naming what we mean when we talk about it, so the point of this post is to index some good critiques, especially rescuing some of them from the potential implosion of Twitter.

A few key articles:

Neoliberalism – the ideology at the root of all our problems

Imagine if the people of the Soviet Union had never heard of communism. The ideology that dominates our lives has, for most of us, no name. Mention it in conversation and you’ll be rewarded with a shrug. Even if your listeners have heard the term before, they will struggle to define it. Neoliberalism: do you know what it is?

Its anonymity is both a symptom and cause of its power.

Neoliberalism: the idea that swallowed the world

The word has become a rhetorical weapon, but it properly names the reigning ideology of our era – one that venerates the logic of the market and strips away the things that make us human

“Neoliberalism” isn’t an empty epithet. It’s a real, powerful set of ideas.

In economic circles, however, “neoliberalism” is most identified with an elite response to the economic crises of the 1970s: stagflation, the energy crisis, the near bankruptcy of New York. The response to these crises was conservative in nature, pushing back against the economic management of the midcentury period. It is sometimes known as the “Washington Consensus,” a set of 10 policies that became the new economic common sense.

The Collapse of Neoliberalism

Although neoliberalism had little to offer, in the absence of a new ideological framework, it hung over the Obama presidency—but now in a new form. Many on the center-left adopted what we might call the “technocratic ideology,” a rebranded version of the policy minimalism of the 1990s that replaced minimalism’s tactical and pragmatic foundations with scientific ones. The term itself is somewhat oxymoronic, as technocrats seem like the opposite of ideologues. But an ideology is simply a system of ideas and beliefs, like liberalism, neoliberalism, or socialism, that shapes how people view their role in the world, society, and politics. As an ideology, technocracy holds that the problems in the world are technical problems that require technical solutions. It is worth pointing out what this implies: First, it means that the structure of the current system isn’t broken or flawed; it thus follows that most problems are relatively minor and can be fixed by making small tweaks in the system. Second, the problems are not a function of deep moral conflicts that require persuading people on a religious, emotional, or moral level. Instead, they are problems of science and fact, in which we can know “right” answers and figure out what works because there is consensus about what the end goals are. Together, the result is that the technocratic ideology largely accepts the status quo as acceptable.

When Neoliberalism Was Young: A Lookback on Clintonism before Clinton

Now, neoliberalism, of course, can mean a great many things, many of them associated with the right. But one of its meanings—arguably, in the United States, the most historically accurate—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.

A Quick Follow-up on the previous article

It’s important to distinguish neoliberalism in this sense—that is, neoliberalism as a political program—from neoliberalism as a system of political economy. Scholars and activists on the left disagree, fundamentally, about the latter, with some claiming that what we call neoliberalism as a form of political economy is merely capitalism. I’m deliberately side-stepping that debate in order to focus on neoliberalism as a political and ideological program.

The Market Can't Solve a Massacre

Neoliberalism is at once a subspecies of capitalism and a model of governance, a vision of what politics can and should be. It sees political and social life almost exclusively through the lens of the free market, and asks us to consider ourselves and our fellow citizens primarily in terms of our economic activities: as consumers, as workers, as competitors, as human resources. Under neoliberalism, in other words, the individual is less a human subject with rights that entail obligations from the government, but rather a variable in a broader calculus of efficiency, a site for maximizing revenue and minimizing expenditure. Simply put, neoliberalism is about the withdrawal of government responsibility for political problems in favor of market-based “solutions” and individual “choices.”

Wendy Brown’s In the Ruins of Neoliberalism (a review)

In Brown’s account, the novel attack on democracy that we see today is largely the unanticipated consequence of neoliberal economic theory, which she primarily interprets through analysis of the writings of the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek. Neoliberalism refers to a nebulous branch of social and economic thought associated with economists such as Hayek and Milton Friedman, and exemplified in the political arena by the anti-regulatory regimes of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. The movement is also associated with reduced government and laissez-faire economic policies, and, to a slightly lesser degree, with globalist policies intended to reduce international barriers to trade.


Neoliberalism, then, is not economically liberal, in the sense of advocating for state regulation of markets, it is politically liberal in the sense of aggressively seeking to curtail the reach of the state to intervene in individual choice.

I have several resources from explicitly leftist sources, and I fundamentally concur with their critiques as right on its consequences, but first I must note two key quibbles I have:

  • Leftists are right to see a devil’s alliance between fascists and capitalists who foolishly dread socialism more than fascism, but are wrong when they suggest that fascism is fundamentally an instrument of capitalism. Fascism emerges from its own driving impulses. Since fascism is an ideology about culture and governance, radically disinterested in policy questions, it is a different kind of thing from neoliberalism which is an ideology of economic policy.
  • Leftists often equate the policy ideology of neoliberalism with the governance ideology of liberalism-as-in-liberal-democracy. I have some hard questions for leftists who reject liberal democracy as an ideology defined by capitalism.

Ben King <@grimeandreason> offers a cornucopia of useful commentaries:

Ellie Baker <@Lashesxx> offers an outline of the drivers and history:

The neoliberal movement is probably the least understood and the most important-to-understand movement in the last century precisely because people believe so much of its BS without even knowing what it is and was - and how they came to believe this bullshit in the first place.

Neoliberalism can be traced to the 1920s.

During WW1,cooperation between government and industry conferred a new legitimacy on state regulation, supervision and planning. Neoliberalism arose not to rehabilitate free markets but to “inoculate capitalism against the threat of democracy”.

In the view of neoliberals

  • The state must enforce property and contract law and accommodate a bare minimum of working-class demands while expediting the movement of capital and commodities.
  • The state must not only refrain from regulating business; it must desist from providing social welfare, since the workers of the world must be united in submission to the fluctuations of the world economy.

Though ostensibly democratic, the neoliberal state must not be an instrument of popular will; it is more like a police station charged with managing and if need be, repressing any uppity rabble: unions, especially, but any form of popular mobilisation to tame/eradicate capitalism.

In the 1940s, a rising bloc of business leaders, intellectuals, and politicians began an eventually successful crusade to re-impose unfettered accumulation. For three decades the relative prosperity and tranquility of “the golden age of capitalism” stymied their efforts.

The global economic crisis of the early 1970’s created the perfect conditions for an assault on New Deal liberals and western European social democracy. The state’s main focus had been on maintaining a high level of demand, capital now began to insist on more attention to supply. The “supply-side” entailed a dramatic lowering of personal and corporate taxes, draconian cuts in social spending, deregulation of business activity, and the weakening if not crushing of unions.

Thatcher and Reagan centre stage: their argument was that the enterprise and innovation unleashed by these policies would increase aggregate wealth that would “trickle down” from capital to increasingly unorganised workers.

The Reality:

  • stagnation of real wages for four decades
  • increased worker productivity
  • Himalayan levels of personal debt to make up for wage stagnation
  • a shift in the trajectory of capital away from production to finance
  • a massive upward redistribution of wealth
  • lower growth rates

The 40 year assault on unions and the welfare state issued in a resounding victory for corporate business, brought to a head in the late 1990’s with Clinton and Blair. The parties traditionally considered the vehicles of working-class interests rapidly recast themselves. “New Labour,” as Blair anointed it, redefining their objectives, not as regulating or abolishing capitalism, but as making the transition to a fully marketise world less painful and disruptive than it might be.

Thus, when Thatcher was asked what her greatest achievement had been, she said without skipping a beat, “New Labour.” Neoliberalism has been “a political project to re-establish the conditions for capital accumulation and to restore the power of economic elites.” In 1994, David Rockafeller wrote:

The world is ready for a world government. The supranational sovereignty of an intellectual elite and world bankers is certainly preferrable to the national self-determination practiced in past centuries.
We are on the verge of a global transformation. All we need is the “right” global crisis and the nations will accept the New World Order.

Noam Chomsky says:

One of the most interesting reactions to come out of 1968 was in the first publication of the Trilateral Commission, which believed there was a “crisis of democracy” from too much participation of the masses.

Quoting Tiberius <@foo>:

There is no neoliberal left. Neoliberalism is a right-wing ideology.

The right: fascism, conservatism, liberalism (hierarchy-based)

The left: socialism, communism, anarchism (equality-based)

“Socially left, fiscally right” is oxymoronic drivel to make liberals feel good.

Case in point: liberals vocally support race/sexuality/gender/sex equality under law, but won’t challenge the fundamental economic systems that prevent true equality due to the White heteronormative patriarchy holding all the wealth/power.

Some key articles:

Why Neoliberalism Needs Neofascists

The neofascist assault on democracy is a last-ditch effort on the part of neoliberal capitalism to rescue itself from crisis. The only solution is a decisive retreat from globalized finance.

The Death Of The British Imperial State

The answer is that neo-liberalism has succeeded in destroying societal values, to the extent that anti-social and even sociopathic behaviour no longer appears peculiar.

Finance Capitalism’s Self-Destructive Nature

So basically, finance capitalism is a predatory international economic policy aimed at draining the rest of the world all to pay the leading one percent of wealth holders in the U.S. and their satellite oligarchy in England and a few European countries

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