Against “Neoliberalism”

orrery Where and when did what passes for the left swallow “neoliberalism” as the preferred word for “capitalism”?

This linguistic transition is a major case of C. Wright Mills’ liberal practicality, a.k.a. dunder-headed chickening-out by would-be lefties.

It is also a major vector of conceptual error and misdirection.

Not the least of such errors is the presumption that the word “neoliberalism” is “very common, recognizable.”

Balderdash. The word is certainly rampant in the sphere of what remains of the left, but we all know, or at least ought to know, how isolated and ignored we are. In the wider world, to use the term “neoliberalism” is to speak a foreign tongue, as well as to suggest that one’s ideas and claims are so confusing as to need their own special introductions.

Everybody drawing breath knows what capitalism is. “Neoliberalism,” meanwhile, always requires at least a long, convoluted paragraph of explanation as a preface to its further usage.

So, one has to ask: Are we trying to stay moribund?

And while we’re at it, pray tell: When was it that capitalists ever favored or pursued anything but the package of things that supposedly define “neoliberalism”? There remains the powerful, long-running liberal myth of the post-WWII Golden Age of caipitalist acceptance of equality and welfare state programs. That, however, is simply false history. At the level of overclass motives and policy prescriptions, there was then and is now nothing “neo” going in the boardrooms and the private jets.

The Reagan Restoration was — and remains — a real thing (even though it started under Carter), but redoubling is not invention, and laissez faire/free trade (the liberalism of the concept, as distinct from the newer, wider modern meaning as a tag for those who think capitalism isn’t perfect and needs some public correction) has never been the only, or even the main, practical essence of capitalism. The state, despite the ideology and the fake history, has always been right in there, and massively so.

This whole “neoliberalism” thing is, to lift a phrase from E.P. Thompson, an orrery of errors. The sooner we drop it in favor of simplicity, clarity, and directness, the better. Kind of like “consumer.”

11 Replies to “Against “Neoliberalism””

  1. I think one possible distinction between ‘neoliberalism’ and ‘capitalism’ that might be worth noting, if not preserving, is that it serves to mark a point at which the Democratic Party (the ‘liberals’), under Bill Clinton in particular, embarked on a political strategy of seeking the continued political support of its traditional base (workers, minorities, etc.) while at the same time turning away completely from its traditional base for the bulk of its financial support (from unions and organized labor, for example) and towards the very same corporate cash cows and big business special interest groups formerly courted more exclusively by the Republican Party. The inevitable result of this turn is that a formerly covert alliance between the parties in the interests of capitalism has shown itself to be, more brazenly than ever, an overt alliance between the parties in the interests of capitalism. ‘Neoliberalism’ as policy I simply interpret as nakedly bi-partisan support for ‘US-sponsored military-corporate capitalist aggression on steroids’.

  2. Nerc, I agree with your analysis of this other meaning of the term, and I should have mentioned it. Indeed, you have to wonder if this isn’t the main meaning/explanation of the triumph of the term as the left euphemism for capitalism. It’s an implicit complaint that old-school liberals have become new-school, and a plea for them to go back to being old-school.

    But I say this is so much fake history: In the relevant time frame, the Dims immediately launched the Cold War/Red Scare II, and favored and went out of their way to help pass Taft-Hartley, which ended the one brief period of semi-free labor organizing in U.S. history. Kennedy? Humphrey? Please! Those fuckers were every bit as corporate as the Klintons and Obummer.

    My own view is that the overclass’s early-70s decision to redouble its efforts was a reaction to the popular movements and achievement of the 1960s, not the liberalism of the Democratic Party, or even any economic crisis in the narrow sense.

    In any event, even if your hope is for a return to Keynesian War/Depression liberalism, as my mentor David Milton always says, you don’t get such things by asking for them. You get them by demanding and fighting for the things you ought to be fighting for.

  3. “neoliberalism” is marginally useful to distinguish the era when any and all pretenses to ‘humanely tweak’ capitalism have been explicitly dropped (even in rhetoric), as nercules suggested. Its true usefulness, however, and of course, is in confusing the discourse, by implicitly suggesting that ‘capitalism’ could be allright if we could only reign in these ‘neoliberal hawks’. LOL

    Related, I am genuinely fascinated how we got to a point where just saying “capitalism”, even in some completely uncontroversial context is now risque. Just saying “capitalism”-the-word is basically edgy and radical!!! Oh may, has the bar being lowered or what.

  4. Interesting back-and-forth; if you two were hosting an economics roundtable, I’d be able to watch it without attempting to gouge out my white matter.

    Nercules’ identification of the Clintons’ open donor strategy is as sound a point as any to site the term’s linguistic history; of course, the Democratic Party has always been, since its inception, the war-capitalist hell party. Where, though, did it get its support? It lied–no surprises there–but the lying was done with the window-dressing of receiving money from (corrupt) organized labor and (corrupt) social welfare organizations of various types. The money has always been flowing to the Democrats from elites; the amazingly non-notorious George Soros, like his liberal predecessors, is as big on war and immiseration as the supposedly-uniquely-evil Koch brothers.

    What distinguishes neoliberalism from liberalism isn’t the salad, but the dressing. What we call the “Democratic Party” is a money laundering scheme more than a distinct political party such as we might see in Europe. The DLC is the umbrella organization that legitimizes tax write-offs for its subsidiaries, all the way from city council elections in rural Kansas to presidential television-commercial campaigns. Funneling elite money through fake grassroots organizations and corrupt workers’ unions is not substantively different than just writing the checks straight from General Dynamics or ConAgra.

    The use of the term “neoliberalism” more accurately denotes the American public’s acceptance of elite backing than it does an actual new source for the money.

    Lastly, Michael, I hate to be the one to defend the Kennedys, but despite the imaginary missile gap, John probably had a good heart in some sense–he told the Joint Chiefs to shove Northwoods up their asses, and was willing to take a bullet in the brain to postpone the modernization of the police state by another year or so. In the modern era, only Kennedy and Reagan had the balls to get on the deep government’s list for trying to occasionally believe in the things they said during speeches.

  5. You may be right that capitalism never changes. But I think that Philip Mirowski uses the term neo-Liberalism with, more or less, a straight face, and he’s not confused. (EG A summary of Mirowski that I read recently suggests that he sees neo-Liberalism as the attempt to change the way we think about ourselves. If I understood Marx correctly, the last time I dipped in, he thinks that capitalism does change the way we think of ourselves, but he didn’t say that the capitalist is specifically focused upon that goal. It’s more like a side-effect of everything else, and a side-effect of his profit urges. Now, you may say I’m crazy because what else is advertising. But, then I would ask whether advertising hasn’t increased since Marx’s day; so, then that’s a change in the way capitalism operates, even if the basic principles are the same.
    To be sure, I say all of this with some trepidation because there are no clear dividing lines between what one specifically intends and what someone half-intends. And I would have to reread Mirowski and Marx to have any confidence about what I am saying. But, what I recall is that Mirowski focuses on the historically specific project of the Mont Pelerin society. So, there’s a definite starting date. You may find within the MP nothing but the essence of capitalist maneuvering re-born, but at some point I begin to lose track of what the issue is. After all, my first reaction to what you’ve written was that Mirowski is not confused. Now, maybe I’m wrong about that. Or maybe I’ve missed something.
    I seem to be stupid. Or else I’ve posted multiply. Apologies.

  6. Michael,

    I fully take on board your remarks. It certainly wasn’t my intention to imply that Clinton’s Democratic predecessors were on the side of the angels–far from it. And I fully agree that civil rights legislation was the result of agitation from below, and not the other way around. And I would also have to agree that ‘neoliberalism’ is a term that liberals often use as kind of an end-around to avoid any vaguely uncomfortable association with krapitalismus.

    I guess I’m okay with the word if it’s being used in some context of mutual agreement on what it being discussed–as applying, say, to US imperial thrust of a more recent vintage (and with different branding techniques); but I would also agree with you that it’s also a term thrown around rather thoughtlessly, and thus tending to obfuscate rather than enlighten.

  7. Marla, I think you’re digging right where the body’s buried: Saying “capitalism” in connection with any type of complaint is radioactive. The irony, of course, is that the word is considered a glory-term when used in the WSJ, etc. The taboo is so strong, it seems to work quite well on even the most well-meaning critics. Hence, “neo-liberalism,” as if Walter Mondale would solve our problems.

  8. Arkie and Markie: I don’t dispute the existence of elite planning, though the existence and influence of Pelerin would be evidence in favor of my own view, which is that the supposed Golden Age of Liberal Capitalism was a mirage or even less than that. In the 1970s, we got the Powell memo and the Trilateral Commission, both very explicit manifestations of the overclass’s panic in the face of too much democracy. That’s all worth accounting for and it certainly led to the redoubled efforts we’ve lived under ever since. But, personally, I don’t see much of a contrast with 1947-1970’s Democratic Party.

  9. Michael: I want to reconstruct for myself what I think you’re saying: to talk about NL capitalism assumes a contrast with a GA of capitalism which was more egalitarian. But the GA wasn’t a period of greater equality. It wasn’t capitalism that was better, but rather forces outside of capitalism (forces other than the drive to accumulate) were successful in restricting capitalists. So, the change wasn’t in capitalism itself, but in the ability of non-capitalists to successfully struggle. I think that’s what you are saying; have I understood you?

  10. You understand and improve upon what I claim, Mark.

    The true history of 1947-1970 is that pent-up wartime savings plus popular memory of depression and fascism kept the wealth distribution from doing what it normally does, which is get progressively more unequal. But that doesn’t mean it was the age of equality and redistribution liberals claim it was. It was merely an age of treading water for the overclass, as the basic statistics show. How in the world anybody could assert that an epoch that started with Taft-Hartley was somehow different from “neoliberalism” is a rather interesting question. “Neoliberalism” is a euphemism and a distinction without a difference.

    It also adds, rather than reduces, confusion. The left cannot afford that.

  11. Emphasizing “liberalism” also diverts attention from all the statist aspects of the RR — the rise of the prison-industrial complex, revival of war and militarism, deepening dependence on military Keynesian stimulus. Those things are at least as central as NAFTA and the WTO, and the latter aren’t exactly straight out of Adam Smith, either, given the big share of “trade” that occurs within corporate empires.

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