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What Do You Mean When You Use the Term Neoliberalism?

A Question to My American Friends, Colleagues, Students and Comrades on the Academic Left

The term “neoliberalism” drives me crazy, specifically when used in the U.S.. It explains too much with too little, concealing crucial distinctions, as it frustrates crucial coalitions against the clear and present danger of the new authoritarianism of Trump, Le Pen, Orban, Kaczynski, et al.. Further, it’s meaningless for much of the American citizenry beyond academic and leftist circles. It’s “elite — speak,” confusing at best, destructive, at worst.

I, of course, know, that many of my friends, colleagues, students and comrades, whom I respect, use the term. While I understand and often appreciate what they are getting at, I worry about the consequences, intended and unintended, of using the term.

I have to this point expressed my reservations only in informal conversations and in discussions in the classroom. I suspect my students think I am a little odd when I insist that I don’t know what neoliberalism means. The ramblings of their cranky professor? Indeed, I am now writing here at the insistence of students in my Media and Publics seminar, but I am sure students in my other recent classes will also appreciate my coming out on this.

The center of my bewilderment is with the “liberalism” that the “neo” is intended to specify. Is it the liberalism of the United States or liberalism as the term is used in much of the rest of the world? If it is the global definition of liberalism, “neoliberalism” refers to the radical application of market logic and practices to broader and broader previously nonmarket activities: from family life, to the arts and sciences, and education, and even to geopolitics (Trump’s transactional approach to foreign policy). It further, centrally, refers to the radical commitment to let the market run wild without political interference. If the referent is to the distinctively American approach to liberalism, “neoliberalism” is manifested in the political innovations in the tradition of The New Deal to work on the relationship between state and market mechanism to accomplish what the rest of the world understands as social democratic ends. These two definitions clearly are not the same.

Without recognizing the distinction between these meanings, you cannot tell the difference between a realistic project of the left and a destructive utopian project of the right. Without recognizing the distinction between the meanings, in the U.S., you cannot tell the difference between the positions of the Democratic and Republican parties, while differences among progressives are exaggerated.

Then there is the problem that the term neoliberalism is next to meaningless beyond academic circles. For most Americans, the term liberalism refers to a set of policies that involve government in their lives in the pursuit of public goods: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Environmental Protection Agency, public education, Amtrak, food stamps, gun controls, and the like. Following this commonsense, Obamacare is judged as an extension of liberal policies, (neoliberal?) as it involves the government more actively in healthcare. Also following this logic, Obamacare could be judged, then, wanting on new (neo?) liberal grounds, because it does not go far enough, i.e. toward a single payer plan, or “Medicare for all.” The rejection of these policies, because they involve state encroachment into the lives of individual citizens, because they compromise their liberty, is the conservative position in the United States.

Naming what is understood by Americans as conservative, as neoliberal, is only meaningful for people who have their heads in different times or different places, who know something about the history of 19th century liberalism and who know quite a lot about political discourse around the world. I am tempted to call people who do this  rootless cosmopolitans (with my tongue embed in my cheek). Intellectuals is my less sarcastic name for them, as I defined the term in my book Civility and Subversion: The Intellectual in Democratic Society. But to be a democratic intellectual, you must not only draw upon your experience and knowledge  from other times and places, but also connect with your compatriots.

In the U.S., when you use the term neoliberalism as a name for the prevailing order of things, and as the source of just about every major problem, you create a chasm between yourself and other Americans. This fundamentally undermines the democratic task, to engage in mutually meaningful public debate and action that moves people to support progressive policies, foreign and domestic, to address the problems of social injustice, concerning economic inequalities, issues of race, gender and sexuality. Your criticism of neoliberalism may work, despite its imprecision, in the lecture halls of universities, as you present brilliant speeches carefully de-constructing the limits of liberal feminism and the like, and on Facebook, as you exchange smart critical observations on your page to the approval of all your “friends.” But you’re preaching to the already convinced, and making sure that those who are not convinced stay away.

With these concerns in mind, I wrote this piece to ask the question in the title, wanting an answer or set of answers, which might convince me that I am mistaken. Just to be clear, I use my preferred term “market fundamentalism” as a sensible alternative for neoliberalism. I too am worried by those who think that the free market is the answer to all problems, those who believe in market magic. I ask my critical readers: am I missing something? Where am I going wrong in my understanding? This is an honest question, I would happy to be convinced.

But as you are trying to convince me, keep in mind my political concerns. I think that using the term neoliberalism to identify both those who would utilize the market to extend the New Deal tradition and those who turn to the market as the answer to all social, political and cultural problems, in the American context, the Clintons and Obama, on the one hand, with Reagan, the Bushes and Ryan-Trump, on the other, is a major problem. This identification covers up the major political conflicts of our times, as it divides the left so that it can be conquered.

In  a future post, I hope to explore more fully the advantage of focusing critical attention upon the dangerous combination of market fundamentalism, nationalism, xenophobia and the new authoritarianism, the very peculiar threat of the Trump regime. My last question: is there an understanding of neoliberalism that can help with this?


Jeffrey Goldfarb

  • Julia

    Liberalism = markets
    Neoliberalism = financial markets

    • Straight forward and does illuminate changes, but is this generally agreed upon by academics and theorists? Does it make sense to ordinary people? Also all that people invest in the term neoliberalism that make Obama, Clinton, along with Reagan and Thatcher, and the Bushes neoliberals doesn’t seem to be covered by your neat distinction, Julia.

      • Julia

        1) in so far as it is *not* agreed upon generally, I don’t find the disagreements all that interesting or useful. but in general, i don’t find splitting conceptual hairs all that interesting or useful. probably because I’m a historian and we’re dirty little empiricists at heart 😉
        2) holds more potential to make sense to ordinary people than other conceptualization I’ve come across, IMHO
        3) yes, because people use the term too broadly to mean ‘everything that is bad in the world’ or at least ‘everything that is wrong with contemporary capitalism’

        • My political concern, Julia: there is a need for a broad popular front against the forces of market fundamentalism and the new authoritarianism. The term neo-liberal seems to convince people on the left that people of the center left are the worst enemies.

          • Julia

            I think they were and will remain convinced of that whether we jettison ‘neoliberalism’ or we keep it, and maybe the center-left deserves some blame for this?

  • 오상진

    You got paid for this kvetching and then don’t post a focking link to Murowski? Some people have thought about this before you, man. Done a good job of it too. A comrade references them.

    • michael

      Did you actually read Mirowski? Everything he writes confirms that the term “neoliberalism” is worse than useless. Take the screed to which you link. Here he argues explicitly that the Neoliberal Thought Collective is fundamentally incompatible with each and every form of liberalism that has ever existed. This is enough to show that including “liberalism” in the moniker is ill-advised, if not outright deceptive. But that is not all. Despite the elaborate Rube Goldberg apparatus he devises to explain how the NTC has gained sway, he offers precious little evidence that the actual policies pursued by governments around the world at the behest of NTC display any consistency with neoliberal doctrine. And the reason for this is not hard to see. First, policymaking is an endogenous enterprise; translating doctrine into policy commonly produces contrary outcomes. Second, the actual doctrine is internally incoherent, as Mirowski’s own explanation attests: the insiders themselves rule out the possibility that they can rig up an ideal Market, since they lack the necessary knowledge to do so. Third, the list of doctrinal positions is missing a unifying aim: why would the rich construct a perfect market if the signature feature of markets is to drive down profits by setting capitalists against each other in competition? The only way out of this predicament is to concede that the market in question is itself but a pretext for old-fashioned oligarchy. And if this is the case, then there is nothing either liberal *or* neo– about NTC. The reference to Strauss only confirms it. Rule by an economic elite by the application of market principles to the ruled may be a genuine project, but calling it neoliberalism and attributing to it outsized influence impervious to the sausage grinder of the political process is, to say the least, counterproductive.

  • Pait

    No, there is no possible understanding of the term neoliberalism that can help distinguish between mainstream liberal or conservative positions, on the one side, and authoritarian governments, on the other.

    If fact, the term neoliberalism was invented and is deployed to create a false convergence between mainstream positions and authoritarianism, with the goal of constructing a discourse that justifies authoritarian positions of a different set of interest groups.

    The term is hopeless. One should stick with plain vanilla “liberalism;” or, if that is not specific enough, “paleoliberalism” perhaps. Which is the defense of common sense freedom, without radicalism.

  • Frederico Menino

    I agree, only in part, with your claim, Jeff. The widespread use of the noun “neoliberalism” — and the correlate adjective “neoliberal” — may have spiraled out of control in some academic circles (NSSR maybe a case). But your question (“What Do You Mean When You Use the Term Neoliberalism?”) poses a even trickier problem. On the one hand, it obliges us to refute/abandon/ignore an important record debates, which have happened, NOT only within academia, for at least 40 years.
    On the other hand, your question imposes an encyclopedic logic of thinking. It obliges us to define “neoliberalism” a priori before we are “authorized” to talk about anything else. It imposes onto us (academics or not) the need to treat neoliberalism as our constant dependent variable; our main object of analysis and concerns. And this is silly.
    Your appeal to make “neoliberalism” something more palpable to the wider public may have the exact opposite effect. It may throw us deeper into pointless, abstract and ontological discussions about how to define “neoliberalism”. Of course neoliberalism — and neoliberal — means different things for different people, in different circumstances. Foucault’s genealogical analysis of ordoliberlism bears little resemblance to political economy investigations about the effects of Reaganomics on worker unionization or college student debt. That doesn’t mean we have to refute a whole universe of scholarship in order to search for well polished, cohesive and encyclopedic definitions of “neoliberalism”.
    Finally, instead of blaming neoliberalism for putting Trump, Reagan, Obama and the Clintons on the same boat, remember that neoliberalism is just an abstract noun. It doesn’t do anything on its own. Maybe it is time for you to start asking: how the hell did political elites in the West (and pretty much all over the world) come to love neoliberalism so much? Since when and why have the “realistic project of the left” embraced neoliberalism so a-critically? Maybe when you figure out why neoliberalism “makes you crazy” you will figure out why you ended up liking it so much as well. Maybe that is also what establishment democrats, European and Latin American labour parties, and “third-way people” should start doing if they ever want to win elections again…

    • Barbara Saunders

      “Maybe it is time for you to start asking: how the hell did political elites in the West (and pretty much all over the world) come to love neoliberalism so much?”

      I think an important meta-question is why does anyone have to use the term “neoliberalism” rather than describing the phenomenon. The use of the term becomes a cry of both tribal membership and intellectual superiority and not a word used to communicate meaning.

      • Frederico Menino

        True, Barbara. I simply disagree that people, in general, are doing a poor job describing whatever phenomena they want to describe (neoliberalism among them). There is a lot of good stuff written about neoliberalism. Even the wikipedia definition of the term is decent. What, in my view, is equivocate is to say that whoever wants to use the term “neoliberal”/”neoliberalism” must necessarily provide a precise and encompassing academic definition to it. From Wendy Brown to Bernie Sanders there are a bunch of people (in and outside academia) using the term freely in order to talk and think about realm life problems. I don’t see that as a problem.

    • I still don’t know with any clarity what you mean by neo=liberalism in your last paragraph. I don’t blame the term neo-liberalism for people not making crucial political distinctions. The use of their term makes it hard for people to make crucial distinctions, while they make false equivalences. I hope that we develop a way to effectively resist the new authoritarianism and the continuing threat of market authoritarianism, and am pretty sure that the term neo-liberalism doesn’t help, thought the answers to my question here and on Facebook have been illuminating.

  • Ken Cowan

    Perhaps those of us with a psychic attachment to our Liberal badge feel deeply betrayed by the appropriation of the word by the capitalist operatives within the body politic. It’s pretty widely understood that the political vocabularies in Europe and the USA are about as similar as football and soccer. Under the broad rubric of marketizing or privatizing public goods and social services as a “project” driven by the state and corporate interests, that’s neoliberalism. Provisionally?

  • Michael Corey

    If the real objective is to communicate with and persuade the most people, the most important thing might be to set aside concepts and jargon and speak directly and plainly to concerns, issues and alternatives. A piece of advice I got from a very important mentor to me was exactly that. Speak as though I was sitting and talking to someone with me having a beer at a bar. Points will come across more clearly, and more pursuaively. The finer points on concepts and theories are better left backstage in the public sphere, and onstage in academic discussions. It seems to mean that this is a better approach for getting things done. A little pragmatic, perhaps, but this may be what is necessary to reach the most people in a constructive way with a better chance of desired outcomes.

  • Chiara Bottici

    thanks jeff for writing this post and raising the question. for me, the puzzle begins with “liberalism” itself, a term which i found extremely confusing since i moved to the US, where it means precisely the opposite of what it means in europe. i guess there will be a point where some global compromise will have to emerge as to its usage…

  • Raphael Neves

    Great article, Jeffrey. I couldn’t agree more. This is a totally misleading “category.” In fact, it’s pure rhetoric.

  • T.Collins Logan

    Jeffrey you are only the third person in nearly two decades of my discussing and writing about this topic that has raised a question mark around the term “neoliberal.” Chomsky has employed it for decades…as have Palast, Klein, Picketty, Monbiot, Hedges, etc. – and these writers and speakers all share the same definition across international boundaries, and have definitely penetrated the mainstream. Further the same definition extends all the way back to Hayek and Mises – the Austrian School of the late 1930s used it to embody the same principles it champions today. And that definition has also evolved into a very specific thing; I’ve summarized many of its core elements here: So although I don’t want to invalidate your personal experience, I think your concerns may be a red herring within the larger discourse.

  • sockpanther109

    It might be strategic not to employ neoliberal in public discussion but this articles understanding/discussion of the concept is terrible.

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