The Usefulness of “Neoliberalism”

A concise, non-academic account of the origins and often contradictory uses of the word “neoliberalism” from someone as knowledgeable as historian Daniel Rodgers has been long overdue. Unfortunately, in his opener for a forum discussion in Dissent Magazine (“The Uses and Abuses of ‘Neoliberalism’ ”), he argues that the term is so broad and vague as to be nearly useless, even potentially harmful to our public discourse. The way Rodgers takes exception with this particular concept resembles conservative objections to the same. Unwittingly, his conclusion bolsters their favorite rhetorical low blow: pretending to be clever by playing dumb. “What is this ‘neoliberalism’ you speak of?”

In one of the responses to Rodgers’s essay, Professor Julia Ott makes the important point that the all-permeating, ameboid nature of the phenomenon itself makes neoliberalism a particularly useful name. I would add that, in discussing traditions, schools of thought, stylistic periods, or zeitgeist, similarly flexible monikers always emerge, out of necessity. How about “modernism”, “classical”, “principles of the Enlightenment”, or “tonal music”? Not only do they escape any neat definition, but can be used to describe things that are polar opposites, even mutually exclusive. “Enlightenment principles” can refer to the right of self-governance as well as to types of despotism. Despite the seeming internal contradictions, the family resemblances and shared roots of homonymous concepts often make it necessary to employ linguistic broad strokes.

How about plain old “liberalism”? It is even more elusive than “neoliberalism”, but hardly a term we can or should try to just drop. (As Tuomas Kaila concludes his essay on liberalism and imperialism: “The word is derived from ‘freedom’. Feel free to use it however you please.”) In the US, a bigger confusion is taking place in non-academic parlance, with the words “neoliberal” and “liberal” becoming more and more interchangeable. Addressing this development would have been a welcome addition to Rodgers’s essay. There is a definite logic to this usage, as well, though it creates another risk of people talking past each other.

Naming and discussing currents of political thought always poses this risk, though. The first time I heard an American describe my native Finland (approvingly) as a “socialist country”, it sounded confused and ignorant to me. Everybody knows that socialism is the phase before full-fledged communism, or at least refers to a system with such pretenses — right? But in the US, Bernie Sanders is a “socialist”; in Finland, we talk of “social democracy”. (And to make our terminology even more unruly, the latter gets easily confused with the agenda of the Social Democratic Party, which — you guessed it — has been the country’s preeminent neoliberal force.)

Countless similar differences abound. Writing and editing articles in Finnish that touch on American politics, and translating Matt Bruenig of the People’s Policy Project, I’ve had to wrestle with a few. For example, “rightwing libertarian” in Finland would best be described as a “rightwing liberal” — though this makes it a bit tricky to find an equivalent word for Chomsky’s left-libertarianism. And how does one even begin to discuss American libertarian thought in a European context, where its bizarre fixation on states’ rights doesn’t apply?

In an attempt to demonstrate how thin the concept has been spread, Rodgers lists four distinct phenomena that are all called neoliberal. But the family resemblances between them are clear, and in the process, Rodgers ends up providing a set of qualifiers that can be used for clarification wherever necessary: (1) the neoliberal economic regime, (2) neoliberal thought, (3) the neoliberal policy agenda, and (4) neoliberal culture. Presto!

Having suggested existing and preferable nomenclature for the above, Rodgers concludes with a paragraph that, as a result, becomes all the more difficult to square with the rest of his argument. “Political words that escape connections with ordinary speech may soar for a while,” Rodgers writes. “If progressives go into the 2018 election with the pitch that they are fighting against our era’s onrushing tide of ‘neoliberalism’ they may hope to expand the scope of public debate. But reinforcing the sense that elites don’t talk to anyone other than themselves any more [sic], they are never going to win outside of a handful of university departments.”

Are we talking about effective political sloganeering, though, or useful analytical concepts? Rodgers’s original argument seemed to be that the term is too popular, and has come to stand for nearly everything that is wrong with our capitalist society. Surely, declaring war against “neoliberalism” would resonate at least better than the existing terms Rodgers prefers. Down with market fundamentalism! Down with the commodification of the self! That doesn’t sound like academic talk?

Misleading rhetoric should be called out, and same goes for bullshit jargon and plain fluff — but it’s hard to buy into Rodgers’s claim that talk of neoliberalism is a fad. He bolsters his case by pointing out that the term’s occurrence in academic writing snowballed in the two decades leading up to the 2008 financial crisis. Considering that the global neoliberal project began to really gather steam in the 1980s, and has brought about radical societal transformations across the board, it is reasonable that a word would gradually emerge to tackle with the totality of what is going on.

If the term became ubiquitous “overnight”, as Rodgers writes, one reason is that existing wide-umbrella definitions wouldn’t jibe. “Conservative”, “rightwing”, and “libertarian” have their own connotations and historical baggage. We cannot shift, overnight, to calling nominally liberal or traditionally anti-authoritarian parties and political forces “the right”, no matter how much their outlook has changed in the late capitalist era. As historian David Harvey puts it, neoliberalism is first and foremost a political project, marked by the fervent class solidarity and determination among those who first set it in motion. Such a radical shift requires new vocabulary.

The meaning of a word is its use, as Wittgenstein would have it, and demanding ever more precise definitions is a cheap way to shoot down any argument. Declaring words meaningless is not the only semantic trick one can use to pooh-pooh substantive criticism, though. One recent example was the widely ridiculed comment by Bloomberg View columnist Noah Smith who tweeted: “Getting the sense that to some people, ‘neoliberal’ kinda-sorta-maybe means ‘black’, in the way that ‘neoconservative’ kinda-sorta-maybe meant ‘Jewish’ 10 years ago.” (Or, as Brandon Sutton put it: “ ‘Neoliberal’ is the real ‘N-word’, am I right?”)

Managing to combine a defense of centrist economic thought with the dishonest liberal weaponization of identity politics, Smith inadvertently demonstrates why “liberal” and “neoliberal” are increasingly mixed up in American political discourse. And here we come to a crucial point: “So-called neoliberals almost never use it to describe their projects or themselves,” Daniel Rodgers writes. And why would they? It has all but transformed into a slur, one which most politicians and opinion makers are uncomfortable being associated with. As Rodgers sums up, the description can be applied “to the politics of both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton” — and indeed, that is one of the things that makes it so useful.

Many descriptive categories in our cultural history started out as pejoratives. “Impressionist art”, “mysterianism”, “atonality”, and even “the Austrian School” were all terms of mockery before being reclaimed. With “neoliberalism”, the development has gone the opposite direction: as the capitalist juggernaut rolls along and continues to destroy lives around the world, the term gathers an ever thicker layer of negative associations.

We need to keep employing it in a way that gives the lie to its premises. The laissez-faire connotation of “neoliberalism” is a charade: as Rodgers describes finance capitalism, “it is fragile. It needs periodic state-managed rescue operations to save it from its recurrent crises of liquidity and overinvestment.” And while neoliberal policy “may sometimes wrap itself in a utopian language of choice and preference,” its values and priorities have nothing to do with individual liberty.

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