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?