Neoliberalism Is New Liberalism In Name Only

It’s possible neoliberalism would be easier to fight if more people knew what it is. As things are now, only academics and certain print journalists use the term. It’s not a word you’ll hear on television. Instead, we hear of conservatism (which is a misnomer, since modern “conservatives” have become so radical) and free-market capitalism (which sounds redundant, but isn’t what Adam Smith favored). 

The term was invented in the 1930s in response to government efforts to combat the Great Depression. Certain European thinkers feared that liberal policies like Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal would eventually lead to a collectivist, authoritarian form of socialism that would trample on everyone’s freedom (except the freedom of politicians and bureaucrats to interfere with other people’s lives). Hence, they saw a need for a new kind of liberalism, one that would take liberty more seriously, especially when it came to economics.

These critics of liberalism saw this need despite the fact that liberalism got its name because liberals were champions of individual liberty (for example, as propounded in the Bill of Rights), as well as a vibrant market economy (albeit an economy that was properly regulated). The neoliberals held that liberals were much too eager to apply governmental solutions to the world’s problems.  

Jump ahead forty years and we get Ronald Reagan announcing:

The economic ills we suffer have come upon us over several decades…. we, as Americans, have the capacity now, as we have had in the past, to do whatever needs to be done to preserve this last and greatest bastion of freedom. In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.

And Margaret Thatcher explaining: 

I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!” … and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first… There is no such thing as society. There is a living tapestry of men and women and … the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us is prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.

In other words, government is inherently bad, except for the military and the police, which, unfortunately, are necessary to keep the world safe and profitable for free enterprise. Furthermore, if you can’t succeed in a highly competitive marketplace, you might possibly get assistance from your family or a private charity. If you’re weak or desperate enough to need help from the government, you’re a loser. 

The Guardian has an article by George Monbiot that does a good job explaining neoliberalism and its ill effects. His summary: 

Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. It maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning.

Attempts to limit competition are treated as inimical to liberty. Tax and regulation should be minimised, public services should be privatised. The organisation of labour and collective bargaining by trade unions are portrayed as market distortions that impede the formation of a natural hierarchy of winners and losers. Inequality is recast as virtuous: a reward for utility and a generator of wealth, which trickles down to enrich everyone. Efforts to create a more equal society are both counterproductive and morally corrosive. The market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve.

Monbiot concludes that the left and the center need a new “framework of economic thought”, but one that recognizes the effect of continuous growth on the environment:

… it’s not enough to oppose a broken system. A coherent alternative has to be proposed. For Labour, the Democrats and the wider left, the central task should be to develop an economic Apollo programme, a conscious attempt to design a new system, tailored to the demands of the 21st century.

Perhaps being clear about what neoliberalism is and how it’s changed our lives is the first step toward developing that alternative.

Meanwhile, Michael Lind argues in the New York Times that “Trumpism and Clintonism are the future”. He thinks Trump’s success is further evidence that the Republican Party will become more populist and less friendly to the rich and powerful (less “country club” and more “country and western”), although he doesn’t explain how right-wing billionaires and corporate executives will react if the Republican Party became less supportive of their interests.

On the Democratic side, Lind thinks Hillary Clinton will govern further to the left than Bill Clinton did. That seems obvious, given her own tendencies and the fact that the Democratic Party as a whole has become more liberal in the last twenty years. But Lind doesn’t see a wave of support for democratic socialism, even the socialism lite that Sanders claims to represent:

… notwithstanding the enthusiasm of the young for Bernie Sanders, the major tension [for the Democrats] is not between Mr. Sanders and Hillary Clinton. It is between Hillary Clinton and the legacy of Bill Clinton…. it is likely that the future of the Democrats will be Clintonism — Hillary Clintonism, that is, a slightly more progressive version of neoliberalism freed of the strategic concessions to white working-class voters associated with Bill Clintonism.

Lind’s view is that the white working-class, especially the men, will be quite at home in the new Republican Party, so the Democrats won’t even try to appeal to those voters. If that happens, it’s not clear how far left the Democrats will go. But calling Hillary Clintonism “a slightly more progressive version of neoliberalism” than what Bill Clinton practiced is a big mistake. Bill Clinton didn’t govern as a neoliberal. It’s true he said “the era of Big Government is over”, but he didn’t govern like Reagan or Thatcher. Labeling Hillary Clinton as a neoliberal makes even less sense.

If you think Hillary Clinton is just another neoliberal who thinks like Reagan did that government is the problem, not the solution, read the interview she gave to the New York Daily News editorial board this month (unlike the corresponding interview Bernie Sanders, it isn’t short on details, which is one reason the Daily News endorsed her for President last week).

Not many neoliberals would use the word “excited” when referring to plans to invest more in the nation’s infrastructure, upgrade the nation’s electrical grid, create a National Infrastructure Bank and use federal money to help make college debt-free for low-income and middle-class students. Clinton comes out strongly for government policies that will reduce the prison population and help prevent another financial crisis, among other worthy, liberal goals.

The domestic policy agenda she presents in that interview is not a neoliberal one by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a progressive agenda consistent with the ideals of today’s Democratic Party. It’s the agenda of someone who believes government can do a great deal to make ordinary people’s lives better. If anything, Clinton is too optimistic about what government can accomplish, given how many real neoliberals she’ll have to deal with.

1 thought on “Neoliberalism Is New Liberalism In Name Only

  1. (Hope you’re okay with a comment here. You don’t leave them open often and when you do, I often wonder if it’s by oversight.)

    Neoliberalism is one of those words that show that for social tags, you often can’t get its meaning by decomposing its terms or looking at its etymology, at least if you’re using the American version of words like “liberal.” In this way, it’s like the word “neocon”, a term often used to refer to someone favoring an aggressive foreign policy (and is often paired with neoliberalism).

    I agree calling Clinton a neoliberal is silly when just about everything her career goes in the other direction. The sentiment seems to be that anything other than absolute vitriol toward business, much less ever working with them on anything, is equivalent to being in their pocket, a fairly childish notion.

    It’s a stretch to call her a neocon, but at least there I could see where someone was coming from. (Although I still wouldn’t agree with them.)

Comments are closed.