Gaius Publius: Defining Neoliberalism

By Gaius Publius, a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States and frequent contributor to DownWithTyranny, digby, Truthout, and Naked Capitalism. Follow him on Twitter @Gaius_Publius, Tumblr and Facebook. GP article archive  here. Originally published at DownWithTyranny

The saints of neoliberalism. Bill Clinton just put a Democratic Party face on it (source).

For years I’ve been using the term “neoliberalism” (or sometimes neo-liberalism*) and I’m always uncomfortable, since it sounds so academic. So I usually add one-phrase definitions and move on. For example, this from a recent piece on Puerto Rico:

If neoliberalism is the belief that the proper role of government is to enrich the rich — in Democratic circles they call it “wealth creation” to hide the recipients; Republicans are much more blatant — then the “shock doctrine” is its action plan.

That’s sounds pretty blunt, but it’s a true statement, even among academics. See this great interview (start at about 6:15) with Professor Philip Miroski of the University of Notre Dame on how modern neoliberals have come to see the role of government in society. It’s weedy but excellent.

I want to offer our readers a better description of neoliberalism though, yet not get into too many weeds. So consider these exceprts from a longer Guardian essay by the British writer George Monbiot. (My thanks to Naked Capitalism commenter nonclassical for the link and the idea for this piece.)

Neoliberalism — The Invisible Water the West Is Swimming In

We’ll start with Monbiot’s brief intro, just to set the scope of the problem:

Imagine if the people of the Soviet Union had never heard of communism. The ideology that dominates our lives has, for most of us, no name. Mention it in conversation and you’ll be rewarded with a shrug. Even if your listeners have heard the term before, they will struggle to define it. Neoliberalism: do you know what it is?

Ask people to define “neoliberalism,” even if they’ve heard of it, and almost no one can. Yet the comparison of our governing ideology to that of the Soviet Union’s is a good one — like “communism,” or the Soviet Union’s version of it, neoliberalism defines and controls almost everything our government does, no matter which party is in office.

The Birth of Neoliberalism

What is neoliberalism and where did it come from? Monbiot writes:

The term neoliberalism was coined at a meeting in Paris in 1938. Among the delegates were two men who came to define the ideology, Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. Both exiles from Austria, they saw social democracy, exemplified by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and the gradual development of Britain’s welfare state, as manifestations of a collectivism that occupied the same spectrum as nazism and communism.

Neoliberalism is an explicit reaction to Franklin Roosevelt and the welfare state, which by a quirk of history was called “liberalism” at the time, even though, in the nineteenth century, “liberalism” had roughly the same meaning that “neoliberalism” has today. In other words, “FDR liberalism” is in many ways the opposite of classical “liberalism,” which meant “liberty (freedom) from government,” and a quirk of history has confused these terms.

Back to Monbiot and Hayek:

In The Road to Serfdom, published in 1944, Hayek argued that government planning, by crushing individualism, would lead inexorably to totalitarian control. Like Mises’s book Bureaucracy, The Road to Serfdom was widely read. It came to the attention of some very wealthy people, who saw in the philosophy an opportunity to free themselves from regulation and tax. When, in 1947, Hayek founded the first organisation that would spread the doctrine of neoliberalism – the Mont Pelerin Society – it was supported financially by millionaires and their foundations.

With their help, he began to create what Daniel Stedman Jones describes in Masters of the Universe as “a kind of neoliberal international” [a term modeled on “the Communist International]: a transatlantic network of academics, businessmen, journalists and activists. The movement’s rich backers funded a series of thinktanks which would refine and promote the ideology. Among them were the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Centre for Policy Studies and the Adam Smith Institute. They also financed academic positions and departments, particularly at the universities of Chicago and Virginia.

As it evolved, neoliberalism became more strident. Hayek’s view that governments should regulate competition to prevent monopolies from forming gave way – among American apostles such as Milton Friedman – to the belief that monopoly power could be seen as a reward for efficiency.

Note the mention of Milton Friedman above. Neoliberalism is a bipartisan ideology, not just a Clintonist-Obamist one.

Democrats, Republicans and Neoliberalism

As Monbiot explains, for a while neoliberalism “lost its name” and was more or less a fringe ideology in a world still dominated by the ideas of John Maynard Keynes and Keynesian economics. When neoliberalism later came back strong in the Republican Party, it wasn’t called “neoliberalism” but “Milton Friedman free market conservativism,” or something similar.

Only when Bill Clinton and his Democratic Party allies adopted it in the 1980s did the term “neoliberal” re-emerge in public discourse.

[I]n the 1970s, when Keynesian policies began to fall apart and economic crises struck on both sides of the Atlantic, neoliberal ideas began to enter the mainstream. As Friedman remarked, “when the time came that you had to change … there was an alternative ready there to be picked up”. With the help of sympathetic journalists and political advisers, elements of neoliberalism, especially its prescriptions for monetary policy, were adopted by Jimmy Carter’s administration in the US and Jim Callaghan’s government in Britain.

After Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan took power, the rest of the package soon followed: massive tax cuts for the rich, the crushing of trade unions, deregulation, privatisation, outsourcing and competition in public services. Through the IMF, the World Bank, the Maastricht treaty and the World Trade Organisation, neoliberal policies were imposed – often without democratic consent – on much of the world. Most remarkable was its adoption among parties that once belonged to the left: Labour and the Democrats, for example. [emphasis added]

Note the role of Jimmy Carter and start of deregulation in the late 1970s. For that reason, many consider Jimmy Carter to be the “proto-neoliberal,” both for the nation and the Democratic Party.

Neoliberalism — “Just Deserts” for Predators and Prey

What makes “neoliberalism” or “free market conservatism” such a radical — and destructive — ideology? It reduces all human activity to economic competition. It creates and glorifies, in other words, a world of predators and prey, a world like the one we live in as today:

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.

In a world where competition is right and good, a world in which the “market” is the defining metaphor for human activity, all social ties are broken, the individual is an atom left to survive as an individual only, the strongest relentlessly consume the weakest — and that’s as it should be. (It’s easy to imagine how the apex predators of our social order would be attracted to this, and insist on it with force.

Thus the bipartisan world we live in today. Under a neoliberal regime, everyone gets what they deserve. Big fish deserve their meal. Little fish deserve their death. And government sets the table for the feast.

The Role of Government in a Neoliberal World

Since for neoliberals, the “market” is the source of all that is good in human interaction, non-interference in “the market” is rule one for government.

Over time that has changed, however, as winners have grown more successful and their control of government more absolute. The proper role of government in today’s neoliberal regime is not merely to allowthe market to operate for the benefit of wealth-holders; it’s to make sure the market operates for the benefit of wealth-holders.

In other words, the role of government is to intervene in the market on behalf of wealth-holders, or, as I put it more colloquially, to proactively enrich the rich. The interview with Professor Mirowski, as I noted above, makes that same point, but from an academic standpoint.

From this it should be also clear that until we free ourselves of rule by neoliberals and the pain and misery they create, we’ll always be victims to the predatory giants — the very very wealthy and the corporations they use as power-extenders — those, in other words, who want merely to own everything else in the world.

This means we need to free ourselves from neoliberals in both parties, not just the ones in current seats of power. But that idea seems to have been excised from most discussions these days. Fair warning though. If the Age of Trump ends with the Restoration of Mainstream Democrats, we’ll have won almost nothing at all.

* I sometimes spell “neo-liberalism” with the hyphen to suggest the following connection: Neo-liberalism is “new liberalism,” and has the same relationship to FDR liberalism as New Labour has to Labour — the two are exactly opposite.

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  1. RabidGandhi

    The burning question I have is how to deploy the terminology in discussion/debate. Here at NC and other similar sites, practically everyone knows what neoliberalism is and is solidly against it[1]. But outside of our own bubble, the term generally conveys no meaning whatsoever, for the following reasons:

    (1) if I am speaking to policy-wonk types reared on “conventional wisdom”, they tend to hear being anti-neoliberal as being anti-Copernican. The challenge to basic assumptions is outside of their window of acceptable ideas, so I am dismissed as a conspiracy wacko; all communication ends.

    (2) If I am speaking to a Fox/Daily Mail/Clarín type, in my experience if they have even heard the term before, they generally draw no distinction between “Neoliberal” and “Liberal”, so I can rail against the neoliberal capture of government regulatory powers, and I get nods of agreement “yes the hippies are taking over our public universities”. Again, no real communication there.

    (3) Lastly there is the case here in Argentina, where the word has not only been healthily peppered into the public discourse since at least 2000, but it was even a major rhetorical enemy of three successive governments. In this case, after so much experience and rhetoric, everyone knows that “neoliberalism” is bad and evil, but (since it is the assumed framework of interpretation, as GP notes) the consensus of what this neoliberalism we’re fighting against really is becomes blurry. The evil any politician wants to inveigh against inevitably gets called “neoliberal”, regardless of what the facts may actually be. All politicians here– even notably those most implicated in forcing neoliberalism on us in the 90s– now rail against evil “neoliberalism” and the evils of privatisation, even when nevertheless working to strengthen neoliberalism’s actual tenets and re-entrench privatisation. In sum, the term has been co-opted beyond all meaning.

    With all this mess in mind, I have to admit that I really only use the word amongst allies who I know share my understanding of the term. To do otherwise does not further the debate. Furthermore, in debates against stalwart neolibs, deploying the term and calling a privatised deregulated spade a neoliberal spade only has the effect of an ad-hominem; it may be technically spot-on, but it does nothing to convince the unswayed.


    [1] Except our token deficit hawk, PBUH.

    1. UserFriendly

      When in doubt I just define neoliberalism as putting markets first and trying to insert markets where they have no business being (e.g. obamacare). And of course send them here.

      1. RabidGandhi

        Yes I agree with you and with Strategist below: another (yet to be debased) term stressing an irrational religious fetish for markets would indeed be much more effective. Then again, as much as I love Lambert’s post (and quote it here often myself), I do not see saying “go read this 2500 word article from some lefty site you’ve never heard of” as an argument that is going to win over most of my interlocutors.

        1. Nell

          If your desire is to persuade then you might want to try a different approach. Try giving a person the space to persuade themselves they have got it wrong. This is quite different from the academic approach – persuade by the logic of the presented argument. Instead be sympathetic and interested. Ask pertinent questions, don’t preach, don’t undermine with your superior knowledge. Still don’t expect agreement at the time. People rarely change their minds at the drop of a hat. If they are genuine, then they will come around in their own time.
          By the way, this is really hard to do and I am completely useless at it, but I have seen the effects of this approach first hand, and I have seen people change their mind.

          1. HotFlash

            Well, ya know, you have to meet them where they are. Richard Wolff has a parable about a family dinner, after which the mother does not charge the family members, and the son does not offer to do the dishes for a fee. Some things we just give one another. Mostly people understand about social obligations at the family level.

            I have used a similar argument with a libertarian friend. He is very generous with his family and friends and looks after their wellbeing in many ways. I tell him that I *totally* agree, it is just that, as a socialist, I have a broader definition of ‘family and friends’. I think this helps us to understand one another.

            I also describe the govt as a ‘big buying club’ (he is a Costco member, Sam’s, etc. and clubs in with friends to buy bags of green coffee). As group buyers we can get really good deals on stuff we all need such as schools, roads, police, garbage removal and health care through group (I don’t say ‘collective’) buying power *plus* we have input through our MP’s and other elected representatives. Whereas, with private biz, we have to take whatever they want to give us, they skim as much off the top as they can, and if we don’t like it we can call Customer Care in the Philippines. He hasn’t come around totally to my viewpoint, but we are still on speaking terms.

            Oh, he had refused to sign up for that socialized medicine OHIP card back when we had to pay premiums (all govt-pd now, no premiums anymore). He made good health choices, ate healthily, watched hi weight, exercised and proudly paid his doctor cash for checkups, by golly. Yeah, proud and free! Until he found an odd protrusion in his belly one day whilst showering, and found out how much a hernia repair cost. Went and got him that health card right away…

            I later bought him a Guinness and permitted myself to ask him how he was finding that socialized medicine.

          2. Optic

            That’s interesting, and seems reasonable. I would love to learn more about this approach. Since you’ve seen it used successfully first hand, perhaps you could write an article, and perhaps even get a guest post here or some other similarly-oriented site? Perhaps interview the person who successfully deployed it?

        2. Allegorio

          The term “market fundamentalism” comes to mind and conveys more meaning than neo-liberalism, since the term liberalism has come to be associated with “sociallly liberal” as opposed to “economically liberal”. The phrase also implies dogmatic orthodoxy and cultism.

          1. Optic

            I like that that term is descriptive and seems very clear. I’m generally afraid that any term that is picked to name any large or broad concepts at least in politics/economics soon becomes distorted beyond recognition. See “communism”, “socialism”, “capitalism”, “liberalism”, “conservatism”, etc. However, perhaps “market fundamentalism” may resist that trend better than others.

    2. Strategist

      Rabid, have you tried the term “market fundamentalists” or “market ideologues” with your three target audiences? Amongst both think tankers and regular folkz, (and possibly in Argentina too!) it is not usual to be happy to be considered a fundamentalist and ideologue, or to be associated too closely with such people.

      Just a thought.

      1. jsn

        “Market Utopians”, what sets NeoLiberalism apart is the faith that markets solve all problems. For markets to exist there must first be “money”, a social institution, and “property “, another social institution and an enforcement mechanism mediating between the two. At this point the lack of primacy of markets, their necessary dependence on the prior existence of government leads to the question, “what is good government.” This leads to the question of who’s freedom good government should be concerned with.

      2. HotFlash

        I widen my eyes and say, “Do you *really* want your life to be run by *ROGERS*?” Sub Comcast, PG&E, Bell, or whatever your local Big Biz that features arbitrary policies, high prices, poor service, pointless ‘packages’, surly customer service, long lines, circular voicemail and excellent shareholder value.

    3. Katz

      One type I seem to regularly encounter (on the internet, mostly) is the Democrat who’s decided the term has no substantive meaning–they perceive it to be a slur. Wrong as they are, the useful term is reduced to a shibboleth in their midst.

      1. RabidGandhi

        I totally agree. Bringing up the word “neoliberal” in such a conversation generally does more harm than good.

      2. Big River Bandido

        This has been my experience, as well. Often the Democrat is a Clinton apologist who can only perceive the term as somehow a slur against their Dear Leader, though they don’t understand why. These people are hopeless. They will simply follow any politician with a (D) after their name who can win an election. Win over the rest of the people and such useless tools will just follow, regardless of ideology.

        The people to actually use this as a line of argument with are those not yet assimilated by The Borg.
        Working class people are especially amenable to this logic. This article has a lot of helpful rhetoric and metaphor for that purpose. I have actually had considerable luck explaining the ideology as “rule by the markets” or “public good sold off for private purposes”; by showing a few examples — such as the constant attempts to destroy Social Security and Medicare; the cessation of Pell Grants and the commodification of education and health care; all the way down to the “privatization” (note the 5-syllable word) of Chicago’s street parking and its deleterious effects on quality of life and the environment.

        1. JBird

          So some posit that the word “neoliberal” is not a real word, but was invented just used to attack the Democratic Party, and often as a slur against its leadership in general, and the Clintons in particular; that reasoning reminds me of the extremist Republican partisans who argue that Nixon’s Southern Strategy is a myth, and/or the modern Democratic Party is the same as the old Jim Crow Democratic Party, and that Lincoln’s Republican Party was much the same as the current one.

          Okay, but that is like not using the term “socialist” as in Socialism because some insist that the National Socialism in the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. Words do have specific meanings, and the decision to discard neoliberal because some choose wilful ignorance is the same as discarding “liberal” because the Republican Party has used propaganda, more accurately said lies, to distort its meaning from the original American, or European, meanings. There has been a century long effort to smear, distort, change the meanings of words so that having an honest conversation becomes impossible and people’s thoughts run along the approved mental paths.

          Communism is Socialism is not Nazism. The Democratic Party is not synonymous with Neoliberalism, and certainly not Liberalism, or Leftist. Just as the Republican Party is not synonymous with Conservatism, or Libertarianism, or Rightist.

          Working Class is not synonymous with the White Working Class. Being an American Nationalist is not the same as being a White Nationalist. The Alt-Right is not some new conservative movement. It’s the old racist White Nationalists dressed up with a cutesy new label.

          Conservative does not equal Racist. Liberal does not equal anti-racist, or equality. Just as the old Progressive Movement did not equal either.

          The American Nation is not the same as the White Nation which is not the same as the Federal Government, let alone the American Government, which is not the same as the American Constitution, which is not the same as Human Rights.

          Justice does not equal legal; legal does not equal fairness.

          Free Market does not mean Capitalism, which does not mean Democracy. Those are three different things.

          Words have meaning, and we either use them as they are meant in conversation, or we do not have a conversation. Maybe a shouting match, but not a conversation. If some Democrats want to deliberately be ignorant of the the etymology of neoliberalism, to heck with them.

      3. nonclassical

        …remembering that Socratic Method is issue by issue, perpetrator by perpetrator, we need be specific in our historical documentations of events and perceived political polemics…

        For example, clinton has been blamed for NAFTA, which he endorsed and expanded after adding labor and environmental regulation, but it was not his program – truth told here, by ABC News, as George HW Bush is on record signing NAFTA with Canada and Mexico, prior clinton-hw bush-perot election:

        1. redleg

          Clinton signed the law enacting it. He could have stopped it if he wanted to.

          But even if we give Wild Bill a pass on NAFTA, there’s still (for example) the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and Financial Services Act of 1999 that are his fault.

          The Telecommunications Act is directly responsible for the current state of media consolidation that is a huge part of today’s political situation.

    4. Big River Bandido

      I think we ought to be creative and devise our own new terms of debate. We ought to avoid overly-academic words. To avoid confusion, I think we should side-step the terms “liberal” and “neo-liberal” at least until the public imagination has been engaged.

      The metaphor about “predator” and “prey” is excellent. So is the idea that when you idolize “markets”, you are reducing human relations to a single dynamic: competition. We should incorporate these into our daily conversations with others. These two concepts can be powerful motivators for everyday Americans, and they are simple ideas that can be used to appeal to almost anyone regardless of literacy or prior political engagement/commitment.

      1. marym

        We also need a language for the alternative: a concept of the commons. What should belong to (the public, the community, the workers…) and be administered for the common good? What do we want for ourselves that can best be provided if we provide it for everyone (healthcare by now being the most obvious)?

    5. jrs

      honestly what does it even matter if people don’t identify the water they are swimming in as neoliberalism and call it say capitalism instead? Most leftists do so, but so will many ordinary people (and so the young want socialism). Of course the term capitalism is broad enough to only add minimal clarity (except that it does add one real piece of clarity in identifying WHOM the system is run for the benefit of, although it excludes rentiers who of course play no small part). And so with ever evolving capitalism the Marxists may call it finance capitalism etc.

      Market fundamentalism would indeed be a more useful term if that is what is being critiqued.

    6. beth

      RabidGhandi: This is an important discussion. I agree that “neoliberal” is a stumbling block and not a word we can use to explain ourselves outside this community. I hope we revisit this problem regularly.

      Maybe one way is to try a whole other direction outlined in Game of Mates written by two Australian economists, Cameron Murray and Paul Frijters.

      Murray and Frijters explain how current Australian laws create a system that hurts Bruce while enriching James. AND IN THE SAME BOOK, they offer suggestions of how this could be changed. They use “James” to represent the few land developers who purchase the land and are granted rezoning permission or “grey gifts” while the “Bruces” do not benefit from the rezoning.

      The authors do not present James as avaricious since the way the current rules and regulations are written anyone of us would do the same.

      Since Australian regulatons parallel our own laws, I wish someone would “translate” the book for U.S. situations. Maybe NC geeks can do this but most people would not. Great book.

    7. nonclassical

      …”neoliberal terminology” did not arise from-during clinton administration; it was reaction to U.S. imperialism-militarism and Friedman economic exploitation (“Chicago Boys”), early 70’s (September 11, 1973), South and Central America, taken-conflated by libertarian think tank propagandists, from Spanish language terminology.

      Naomi Klein’s work (“Shock Doctrine-Rise of Disaster Capitalism”, without mention of “neoliberal”) is instrumental in this understanding, Perhaps even more succinct is John Perkins’, “Confessions of An Economic Hit Man”, here:

    8. Vatch

      “Neo-liberalism” is almost guaranteed to cause confusion in conversation, so I avoid it. Allegorio, Strategist, and jrs all suggested “market fundamentalism”, and I think that’s an excellent alternative. If one wants to avoid the religious connotations inherent in the word “fundamentalism”, perhaps “economic conservatism” or “free market conservatism” could be tried. Heck, “monopolism” is valid, too, since that’s where such a system ends up, but I suspect that would provoke unnecessary arguments.

    9. Paul Frijters

      For the reasons you state (and a few others), I advocate using the term ‘Corruption’. When people ask you what you mean, you can elaborate and use terms like rent-seeking, capture, lobbying, special interests, privilege, market distortions, etc. I studiously stay away from getting dragged into criticizing ‘markets’, ‘capitalism’, etc. because the reality is that we live in a mixed system and will keep living in a mixed system so you don’t want to muddy the waters by suggesting we can do without one half of our mixed system (state or private-ownership).
      Of course you need courage to call it corruption because it suddenly does become clear what you mean.

  2. Sound of the Suburbs

    Neoclassical economics came into existence to hide the discoveries of the Classical Economists and the difference between “wealth creation” (earned income) and “wealth extraction” (unearned income).

    The aristocracy were economic parasites living off “unearned” income; they couldn’t miss it as it was a fundamental problem in the early days of capitalism. These parasites were always extracting rents from the productive capitalists and their workers, and the worker’s rents had to be covered in wages. The capitalist’s profits were being taken by these parasitic rentiers.

    To hide rentier activity you need to move the focus away from the cost of living.

    Didn’t they do a good job?

    The cost of living should be the same in West and East to allow a level playing field in a globalised world with free trade and the free movement of capital.

    Disposable income = wages – (taxes + the cost of living)

    The cost of living = housing costs + healthcare costs + student loan costs + other interest payments + food + other costs of living

    Do the maths for generation rent.

    Do the maths for countries like China that we have to compete with.

    Housing booms pass gains to one generation at the expense of all future generations.

    They raise wage levels for all future generations.

    Its omissions benefit very powerful groups:

    1) Landowners and real estate interests benefit from it hiding the work of the Classical Economists and their differentiation between earned and unearned income. It also conflated “land” and “capital” to complete the job.

    2) It doesn’t look at private debt which is very handy if you are a banker looking to shift your debt products. The world is now saturated in debt.

    How do we get our mickey mouse neoclassical economics accepted again?

    1) Hide the fact that’s its old 1920s economics that led to the great depression
    2) Add complex maths for a scientific label
    3) Invent fake Nobel Prize and award it to neoclassical economists.

    It was this that bought the ideas to prominence.

    In 1997, Robert Merton and Myron Scholes, won the “Nobel” prize for their derivative risk models that minimised risk. They formed a company Long Term Capital Management using these ideas that blew up a year later posing a systemic risk to the global financial system.

    It’s that good!

  3. Sound of the Suburbs

    What does Liberal mean?

    It has two meanings and it is usually impossible to tell in which way it is being used.

    1) Liberal as it was used in the 1950s – 1970s.
    2) Liberal – neo-liberal / economically liberal

    The early neo-liberals didn’t like its 1950s -1970s connotations, later on they realised the benefits of obfuscating what they were up to.

    A very right wing neo-liberalism is deliberately confused with a left wing liberalism to hide what they are up to.

    Francis Fukuyama talked of liberal democracy, which sounded good.
    What he meant was neo-liberal democracy, which isn’t.

    How does identity politics work for neo-liberals?

    Imagine inequality plotted on two axes.

    Inequality between genders, races and cultures is what liberals have been concentrating on.

    This is the x-axis and the focus of identity politics and the liberal left.

    On the y-axis we have inequality from top to bottom.

    2014 – “85 richest people as wealthy as poorest half of the world”
    2016 – “Richest 62 people as wealthy as half of world’s population”
    2017 – Richest 8 people as wealthy as half of world’s population

    This is what the traditional left normally concentrate on, but as they have switched to identity politics this inequality has gone through the roof.

    Labour (traditional left) – y-axis inequality
    Liberal (liberal left) – x-axis inequality

    George Soros is a liberal, can you work out why?

    A liberal left leave neoliberals free to pursue an economically right wing agenda and push y-axis inequality to new extremes.

  4. Enrique Bermudez

    “Just deserts for predators and prey” – yes, very much this. I remember talking with my father about a year ago in a quasi-philosophical sense about where I felt western society had gone wrong. I could not quite adequately express the essence of my thoughts beyond “a fundamental devaluation of people as individuals.”

    I think it applies to foreign policy as well – however you want to put things. The ghouls/neocons/neolibs decide to start some regime change war somewhere. Hundreds of thousands/millions of the wrong people die. But the pipeline (or whatever) gets built on the correct parts of the map. No harm no foul and it’s on to the next part of the giant “Risk” board.

    Come to think, I actually quite like “ghoul” as a catch-all term for all these evil bastards. Can’t remember where I first saw that – might have been here – but it fits.

  5. David May

    A good article on the neoliberal links to fascism:
    Why libertarians apologize for autocracy
    The experience of every modern democratic nation-state proves that libertarianism is incompatible with democracy by Michael Lind.

    Libertarianism is the version of neoliberalism used to get teenagers hooked on markets.

  6. David May

    What is neoliberalism?
    A market-based ideology willing to employ fascism to impose the conditions necessary to establish the market state. (ie, throwing people out of helicopters.)
    The state is co-opted to ensure rule of the Market.
    The value of everything, human life-included, is to be decided by the Market. (Except when the outcome is not favorable to the elite. Hence the need to takeover the state.)

    The market state will impose Freedom™. Freedom™ means the law of the jungle and consequently many rebellious serfs, er, citizens unhappy with Freedom™. (Another reason the state will be needed – to reimpose Freedom™. That is, prison or maybe helicopter trips.)

  7. allan

    Whatever neoliberalism is, this is a perfect example of it:

    A Student Loan Nightmare: The Teacher in the Wrong Payment Plan [NYT]

    … In 2015, he discovered that he was enrolled in a particular type of ineligible payment plan and would need to start his decade of payments all over again, even though he had been paying more each month than he would have if he had been in an eligible plan. Because of his 8.25 percent interest rate, which he could not refinance due to loan rules, even those higher payments weren’t putting a dent in his principal. So the $70,000 or so that he did pay over the period amounted to nothing, and he’ll most likely pay at least that much going forward. …

    So this is who we are now. For all sorts of reasons that made perfect sense at the time, we built additional repayment programs onto existing complexity onto well-meaning forgiveness overseen by multiple layers of responsible parties. And once that was done, Mr. Shafer, teacher of shelter dwellers and street kids and others whom fellow educators failed to reach, wasted a small fortune and will now shovel another one into the federal coffers.

    Which leaves just one more question: If this is who we are, is it who we actually want to be?

    Apparently, yes.

    The only ray of hope is that neoliberalism seems, by stripping the vast majority of people of income and assets,
    to be wildly successful at suppressing aggregate demand and so contains the seeds of its own demise. Maybe.

    1. kurtismayfield

      The only ray of hope is that neoliberalism seems, by stripping the vast majority of people of income and assets, to be wildly successful at suppressing aggregate demand and so contains the seeds of its own demise. Maybe.

      Exactly.. once the majority are stripped of their assets and have to commit most of their income to rent, there *should* be no growth. Unless the entire system is running around asset inflation, which it is now. But that cannot last forever.

    2. HotFlash

      The only ray of hope is that neoliberalism seems, by stripping the vast majority of people of income and assets,
      to be wildly successful at suppressing aggregate demand and so contains the seeds of its own demise. Maybe.

      I don’t think that this is what They are thinking. The ‘make it up on volume’ is a retailer strategy, our MOTU are playing well above wholesale and actually are not in the goods-transferring biz at all. Finance, you know. Long before we are all gone, eaten alive or whatever, They will be turning their sights on where the real money is — each other. Perhaps a few corners of life will survive, and I am curious as to what the new life forms, if any, that emerge out of this sea of pesticides, herbicides, garbage, and too much CO2 will be. Academic question, of course. Perhaps this is why there is no evidence of other intelligent life in the universe? That’s too depressing, I’m gonna go make some cinnamon toast.

  8. Altandmain

    What is the real purpose of neoliberalism?

    To create a feudal aristocracy using pseudoscientific propaganda. The government uses a combination of tax policy, deregulation, the destruction of legal protections (ex: labour laws), privatization, free trade, mass immigration, propaganda, and frankly, blunt force where needed to slowly dismantle the middle class.

    The end result is a society that looks something like Russia in the 1990s or perhaps South Africa, with very high inequality along with high multiculturalism.

    Enforcement is not consistent. For example, low and middle class workers are expected to compete in terms of lowest wages and poorest job security with the developing world. Meanwhile, the very rich can do whatever they want and not pay much taxes. Intellectual property is another example of this inconsistency, and allows corporations to rent seek on their IP, itself often a product of taxpayer funded R&D or bought from a small company (witness how big pharmaceutical companies are guilty of both of these).

    It isn’t pretty, but that is the real goal.

    Always keep in mind the purpose of propaganda is to build a narrative.

    It is not meant to be easily repeated, no matter how easily disproven. Neoliberalism is perhaps the most visible example.

    1. Thuto

      Very true, speaking specifically of South Africa where I live, your analysis of the situation hits the mark. We have an openly neoliberal opposition party that fashions itself as a pro-poor party yet even a cursory glance at its policy stance reveals where the dictates it shouts regularly from its benches originate, and whose interests it represents (it’s certainly not the poor). It campaigns heavily for the gutting of labour laws while advocating for the destruction of local industries by coddling up to foreign investors and free trade cheerleaders. Yet nobody seems to see the contradiction, because, as Altandmain says above, it’s all about building a narrative through propaganda with the media as an echo chamber (if people think media ownership in the US is concentrated, they must try visiting SA). And the trickle down economics myth is very much the dominant narrative down here, with the rich being worshipped as demigods who hold the fate of the country in their hands, and as such, must have carte blanche to do as they please…

  9. Thuto

    Intellectual capture of the general populace by co-opting (read buying) academia and the msm to extol the virtues of neoliberalism is what allows its pernicious effects to spread like wildfire. Credentialism and the pretentious grounding of neoliberal discourse in pseudoscientific rigor discourages critique from ordinary, “non-expert” people and co-opts even these lemmings (queitly being marched to their demise) to defend its ideological soundness. The question i’ve always had is this: how do countries get grassroots movements against neoliberalism going when the precursor to success against it seems to be eliminating basic and functional illiteracy among the general population about its inner workings and the instruments it uses to legitimize its evils (e.g. propaganda)? Outside of niche communities like here at NC, most people seem to care more about the Kardashians than equipping themselves with the chops (financial, technical etc) to call BS on all this. And this seems to be a war that will require numbers to win, but how to get those numbers when so many people appear to be so enchanted by the supposed virtues of neoliberalism (“getting ahead”, ruthless competition etc).

    PS: Some of us here at NC live in developing countries and the tentacles of this ideology have proven to be no respector of borders, as such, imho said grassroots movements would necessarily have to be transnational by spreading beyond the heartlands of global capitalism (Western Europe & US/North America).

  10. Katz

    One of the most illuminating lines I’ve heard in recent years comes from Matt Stoller: “neoliberalism is statecraft.”

    That’s not an idea readily accommodated by the rhetoric/ideology of neoliberalism, but it’s extremely useful for seeing beyond of them.

  11. flora

    Great article. Now when I hear TV/Journalist commentators suggest the nation-state is useless and democracy is obsolete I will know their point of reference and unspoken arguments. I will also listen for what they do not report on or talk about. ‘The dog that did not bark in the night.’ Thanks for posting. Two things:

    “Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. Both exiles from Austria,…”

    Austria in 1938 had no deep-rooted democratic history. It was part of the aristocratic Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918, when that collapsed post WWI. Hayek and Mises grounded their philosophy in their post-empire/post-autocratic-rule chaotic national experiences – unstable newly imposed democratic societies which previously had a long history of autocratic rule and a bad or poorly done recent (post WWI) transition to democracy. E.g. Post WWI Weimar Germany was chaos, as reported by on-the-ground correspondent William Shirer.

    Mises and Hayek also applied their ideas to well-established older democratic nations. In context, their philosophy did not apply to the well-established democracies. If anything, Mises and Hayek assumed a strong central govt inevitably meant a ‘strong man’ govt and not a democratic govt, it seems.

    ” Through the IMF, the World Bank, the Maastricht treaty and the World Trade Organisation, neoliberal policies were imposed – often without democratic consent – on much of the world.”

    The IMF and WTO and neoliberalism itself have become a ‘strong man’ or ‘strong committee’ supra-govt rule, imo. Neoliberalism’s economic application has lead to the very conditions of weakening democracy and subjecting people to ‘strong man/committee rule’ Mises and Hayek tried to prevent by weakening the power of the nation-state, without regard to differences in nation-state governments and polity.

    1. flora

      shorter neolib args:
      All* strong govts lead to despotism. (*All? nope. false premise)

      Weakening the power of all govt’s will guard against despotism. (Really? nope. some forms of govt are a strong guard against despotism. false premise)

      Replacing govt functions with market functions has no risk. (nope. see astronomical price increases in privatized govt services and deregulated markets. epi-pen?)

      Therefore, weakening central govts and replacing their functions with private market solutions will be both risk free and guard against depotism. (False conclusion from false premises. And there are plenty of financially despotic markets.)

      Too bad Mises and Hayek didn’t live in the UK or France or US or Canada or other long established democracy; not perfect, always struggling to increase the franchise, but more accountable to citizens than markets.

      1. JTMcPhee

        I’d urge all to read, and maybe re-read, the series of 6 or so articles posted by NC under the heading “Journey Into A Libertarian Future.” The first article is here:

        Substitute “neoliberal” for “Libertarian” and note the operations of “government-like organizations” that already are systems of systems of predators and parasites that cooperate (while snarling and snapping and biting at each other) to kill and loot and drive the rest of us… I guess “libertarians,” whatever that term means any more, might be part of the Enabling Class that provides “policy cover” and arguments in support of the rapine that is in play…

        1. flora

          Thanks very much for this link. I just read the entire series.
          Normally I’d dismiss this sort of fevered certainty as lost-cause deadender writing.
          The series was written 6 years ago; before the Kansas Real Time Experiment; Obamacare ACA insurance-companies-will-sort-this-out; proposed TPP and TTIP and ISDS (arbitration and insurance companies will sort it all out). Now talk of sea-steading and “island” cities and organized voter suppression.
          Chilling developments when placed against libertarian, anti-democratic, rise-of-the-supermen manifestos.

      2. HotFlash

        My dear Flora, you have the outline of a book here. One I would be glad to read. How can I help?

        1. flora


          I’ve just listened to the Mirowski interview* linked in the main article. According to Mirowski it is the neo-classicals who want a weakened national govt, not the neo-liberals. So I’ve confused the two and need a rethink.

          Mirowski says (paraphrasing) the neo-liberals “…changed the idea of what a market is…” and believe that “…the market is a super information processor that knows more than any human ever could….” (My aside: This is irrational, but that doesn’t stop them.) Therefore…
          Mere humans should be subordinate to the market because the individual can never know as much as the market and cannot even know himself outside of his relation to the market. (This is also irrational and sounds despotic to me. Sounds like saying a person should be subordinate to computer programs.)
          Neo-liberals, therefore, want a strong national govt that they control to promote and expand markets and the market ideology/idolatry everywhere. (Where have I heard that sort of quazi-political/philosophical argument used before?)

          * starts at the 6 min mark. 18 min mark “super information processor”

          1. Jeremy Grimm

            You focused on Mirowski’s exposition of exactly the same aspect of Neoliberal doctrine I see as the most important point made in Mirowski’s interview. Without this dogma many of the Neoliberal actions make little sense from the standpoints of Neoclassical economics and Libertarianism.

      3. grebo

        Too bad Mises and Hayek didn’t live in the UK or France or US or Canada or other long established democracy;

        They did. von Hayek spent the 30s and 40s in the UK, the 50s in the US and retired to West Germany. von Mises went to Switzerland in 1934 then the US in 1940 and stayed there. They were, of course, esconced in academia (ie. in their own minds) the whole time.

        1. Jeff W

          Neo-liberals, therefore, want a strong national govt that they control to promote and expand markets and the market ideology/idolatry everywhere.

          That was the idea of Alexander Rüstow who coined the term and about whom I commented here. (The article “Neoliberalism: The Genesis of a Political Swearword” [PDF] referred to can be found here.)

          “…the market is a super information processor that knows more than any human ever could….”

          The market is “a super information processor” in the sense that it aggregates lots of individual decisions but it also aggregates some of the flaws and biases that those individual decisions are subject to—it doesn’t “smooth them out.” If people in the aggregate buy cars that are “unsafe at any speed,” burst into flames if struck from behind, or have faulty ignitions that cause 124 deaths because those issues are not apparent at the time of purchase, the “super information processor” of the market won’t account for those problems, either. The “super information processor” of the market doesn’t account for delayed consequences (delayed by decades or even centuries)—such as those caused by nuclear power or carbon-based fuels or deforestation—and can’t because individuals responding to the immediate circumstances won’t and don’t. We have regulations in part because the “super information processor” of the market doesn’t account for those things.

          Also, the “super information processor” of the market “processes” (ugh!) the information of people acting in a market. The behavior of “consumers” in a neoliberal health care “market” might be very different from—and, perhaps, more distorted than—that of patients who are just, well, getting health care.

  12. Rod

    here is a bit of the antidote–discussed 10/24 in NC regarding the efforts to restore Puerto Rico–

    Farmers’ groups are now calling for the proliferation of community-controlled agricultural cooperatives that would grow food for local consumption. Like the renewable energy micro-grids, it’s a model that is far less vulnerable to supply-chain shocks like hurricanes — and it has the additional benefit of generating local wealth and increasing self-sufficiency.
    As with the solar-powered generators, Puerto Rico’s farmers aren’t waiting for the emergency to subside before beginning this transition. On the contrary, groups like Boricuá Organization for Ecological Agriculture have “agroecology brigades” traveling from community to community to deliver seeds and soil so that residents can begin planting crops immediately. Katia Avilés-Vázquez, one of Boricuá’s farmers, said of a recent brigade: “Today I saw the Puerto Rico that I dream being born. This week I worked with those who are giving it birth.”

    The CoOperative movement emerged in the USA at the end of the 19th century to provide funding and resources where there was plenty of need but not too much profit to be made.

  13. concrete stuff, not ism

    Isn´t this one of the problems with -isms in general? Communism also has a thousand meanings depending on who you talk with. Could be everything between the theoretical Marx-Engels version and the practical realities of Soviet Union/China and other countries claiming to be “communists”.

    It seems to me that neoliberalism has been so efficient in establish itself thanks to:
    1) being implemented by military forces = the rest of the world outside Europe/US, and now being maintained through the thorough militarization of western societies: police, censorship etc.
    2) not focusing on being and -ism/ideology but on concrete advises/policies presented in numbers/graphs (the mathematification of economics)
    3) useful idiots in the form of the identity politicians: if they would have been focused and using their vast amount of energy on countering the maths of economics (before Steve Keen´s Debunking Economics), instead of counting how many oppressed minority identities can dance on the head of white middle-aged man, it would have been much more difficult to implement the neoliberal policies. Or it would have at least accelerated the militarization of western societies so that the clash between class interests will start, as they always do.

    Maybe better to focus on concrete stuff in arguments, like,
    – public ownership of energy and infrastructure in order to guarantee all citizens access. E.g. Sweden privatized energy production and distribution in the 90s. During one winter there wasn´t electricity enough to heat houses because the private companies had done away with excess capacity. Privatization/neoliberalism = not serving the society with electricity when the society needs it the most.
    – Public healthcare, education etc. Every % of profit a company requires for the owners, this means the same % less to the citizens
    and so on.

    All good for me, but not for you is a key part of neoliberalism

    Modern example, free health care for senators and senate, but not for the people.

    1. marym

      OK with most of this, but members of congress and staff don’t get free healthcare. Though members have access to some free services, they and some staff purchase insurance on an ACA exchange called. Other staff remain on the pre-ACA FEHB program in place for other federal employees. Both programs are employer (taxpayer) subsidized so they only pay a portion of their premiums, plus whatever their deductible is. For the ACA policies, to get the premium subsidy they need to choose a gold plan, so will have about 10% in copays.

  14. WorkerPleb

    Over time that has changed, however, as winners have grown more successful and their control of government more absolute. The proper role of government in today’s neoliberal regime is not merely to allow the market to operate for the benefit of wealth-holders; it’s to make sure the market operates for the benefit of wealth-holders.

    This is the essence of this ideology; it is one for running the State, and does run states.

    At the behest of Neoliberals, States are picking winners and losers and imposing those decisions. Are you in finance, FIRE, etc. You win. Have a bonus. All your losses will be covered by taxpayers. Are you a worker/young/outsider/taxpayer? You’re a loser. You lose your rights, security, opportunity, and you pay the costs of of making neoliberals the winners.

    Since 2008, the totalitarian aspect of this is beginning to emerge, openly. Something like Catalonia (State > Vote) is an extreme example, but the entire edifice of (Market > All (Terms and conditions apply)) is being forcibly imposed on societies, against public will, using debt (and IT control) as a weapon. Neoliberal cadres, with fingers on the financial buttons , are bigger threats than any communist movement.

  15. Eclair

    Nice exposition of the term, neoliberalism, Gaius. Thank you.

    I think I first began seeing the term about eight years ago, right after the financial meltdown. About five years ago, I proposed writing a series of pieces for a group that had arisen out of the Denver Occupy movement, kind of an “Ask a Neo-Liberal,” column, but most people had never even heard of the term and when I did a bit of research, I just could not pin down definitions or examples.

    So, how do we begin to counter the main tenets of neoliberalism: glorification of ‘the market’ as the arbiter of lives, with the resulting dominance of competition over cooperation and the atomization and breakdown of social ties; we live in a ‘dog eat dog’ world, only the strong survive, self-reliance got me where I am?

    Some days I think that this creed is the natural result of a Planet that has exceeded its carrying capacity of humans. When there were far fewer humans, cooperation and strong social bonds were the only means of survival. Really. The development of Neo-liberalism is Nature’s way of getting rid of us.

    But, Neo-liberalism decrees that the survivors will be, at best, rapacious, aggressive and materialistic. At worst, they will be socio-paths. It’s like the Planet if only jaguars, vultures and leeches, out of all our animal relatives, survived. Do we want that to happen? OK, I realize that some of us have just given up and are sitting back to watch the slow motion disaster unfold.

    First, admit that under the current system, the vast majority of us are Prey, and the .01% are Apex Predators, hunting us down, ripping, squeezing and sucking the life (and our livelihoods) out of us. How do our animal relatives who are not equipped with claws, sharp teeth and muscles built for speed, survive?

    We run even faster, we develop camouflage and hide, we grow armor, we refine cooperative social skills and live in enormous colonies, (preferably underground!) where our vast numbers and ability to mobilize for work and protection provide security, we develop symbiotic relationships with larger and stronger organisms (although some might label this as ‘vichy-ism,’) we become almost invisible, yet with a deadly sting or poisonous coating, and we realize that sometimes we have die so that other members of the group can survive.

    And, we realize that the area in which we live, our little eco-system, is crucial to our survival. We don’t mess it up.

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      Mirowski has argued that to fight Neoliberalism requires coming up with a direct attack on the main tenets of its doctrine. He identifies the doctrine of the Market as epistemology as the keystone tenet

  16. shinola

    “Under a neoliberal regime, everyone gets what they deserve. Big fish deserve their meal. Little fish deserve their death. And government sets the table for the feast.”

    Used to be called Social Darwinism.

  17. DJG

    How to talk about neoliberalism, which is indeed a mouthful? I was at a dinner last night of two generations of UofChicago products (as am I). We all agreed that the “Law & Economics” movement there should be dismissed out of hand as plain stupidity. I think that we spend too much time imagining that there is some Ideal Marketplace of Ideas in which the good ideas drive out the bad. And then we come up against Facebook and Twitter. So one way of talking about it is that the law has to govern markets: Neoliberalism is lawlessness. You can have law or you can have looting.

    And we’ve certainly seen plenty of lawlessness.

    Another way is to call it unconstitutional, if your interlocutor knows the U.S. Constitution. The U.S Constitution doesn’t have much to say about economics, and it doesn’t assume that laissez-faire is a-okay.

    Further on it being unconstitutional: The U.S. Constitution brilliantly foresaw the need for some kind of bureacracy to maintain the government, rather than a claque of courtiers. So it set up the Post Office–that bureaucratic agent of oppression, Uncle Mises! It called for a census and a Census Bureau–woe betide us Uncle Milton!

    You can either have the U.S. Constitution with its flaws, or you can have people eating bagels with gold foil and telling you that markets rule our lives? So which is it?

    Maybe we should just call neoliberalism Gold-Bagel-ism. The antidote, as mentioned above in the thread by commentes like marym, is to return to some discussion of our Commonwealth and what to do to maintain it.

    1. BillC

      Like water to the fish.

      For me, the most effective opener (both in the sense of opening discussion as well as the listener’s mind) is to state that neoliberalism is to nearly everyone in the “developed” world (and beyond) like water for fish: it’s the environment in which we live, and thus becomes invisible to us. Excellent elaboration from above: it’s as if citizens of the USSR had never heard of the word “communism;” instead it’s just how life works.

      If we can get this opening across, then the definitions and explanations discussed above in this thread may be much more effective.

      1. ex-PFC Chuck

        Thank you Gaius for a great post – and a thanks as well are due to the authors of the good comments. As I’ve been reading these it occurred to me that perhaps a good conversation starter would be to ask the person what they thought of Margaret Thatcher’s remark, “There’s no such thing as society. There are only individuals and families.” You’ll have to wing it from there depending on the responses you get.

    2. HotFlash

      I also wonder aloud to them, “Why it is that when individuals do whatever they want it is called lawlessnes or anarchy, Bad Things, but when corporations do whatever they want it is considered a Good Thing?”

  18. Barry

    The roots of neoliberalism in the Mont Pelerin Society is also well covered in MacLean’s Democracy in Chains.

    While I like this article, I disagree with the relationship of neoliberals to markets and to competition. Markets are held up to displace blame for decisions and policies made by men. The powerful use competition to explain why you deserve less and they deserve more, even when actual competition is not happening, and they actively work to prevent it.

    Predators and prey do not compete for resources. A system that enshrines predation among humans is not based on a buyer and a seller making a transaction at the efficient price that maximizes each’s utility and produces the best use of society’s resources.

    1. HotFlash

      Agree, but for most of the people I talk to, that argument comes second. First I try to demonstrate that NeoLiberalism doing what it *says* it does is bad for us. Once they have that then I can proceed to ‘NeoLiberalism doesn’t even do what it says it does’. Although, I think that your point is a good first argument with small business people, “You mean that you think that your 5-employee cabinet shop makes you buddies with Elon Musk? (sub whatever rich guy your would aspire to be)” If the time seems right I might add, “He would have you on *toast*.” If they think about that, they usually get it.

      1. Barry

        I seldom even get to the point of being able to argue about these issues at all, much less take people thru the layers of consideration I’ve gone through over the years to reach my current model of how the world works.

        I have been told that all of the books and weird websites that I read as I study a subject in depth are evidence that I lack objectivity about it and that people who know what they know from reading ordinary news have a clearer understanding than I.

        1. nonclassical

          …Socratic Method of reaching for truth is not without parody…Voltaire makes good use of said perspective…

      2. jrs

        it depends on the small business, but some of them are pretty cruel to their employees (although 5 employees is getting real small indeed), so a business with bad working conditions, regular bullying, breaking laws by underpaying employees and not paying overtime even when legally required, working employees very excessive hours is really NOT on the same side as employees and does not have the same interest, even if they also aren’t Elon Musk. Often things like illegal immigration is used for this end of getting the most vulnerable employees as well, but it’s not a crucial part as it can exist without it as well. The problem of small businesses seriously exploiting employees in every sense is actually not a new one but a very old one as well.

    2. cnchal

      . . . A system that enshrines predation among humans is not based on a buyer and a seller making a transaction at the efficient price that maximizes each’s utility . . .

      Hollywood proves otherwise.

      and produces the best use of society’s resources.

      I agree there. Some transactions between buyer and seller are net detrimental to society.

  19. TG

    “I suppose the neo-liberal philosophy could best be summed up by their rallying cry: the freedom to choose to own slaves.”

    “But that doesn’t make sense. Freedom to choose is logically incompatible with slavery. And they never said that.”

    “Indeed. They would claim to be all for freedom, and against slavery. But if someone was profiting from owning slaves, they would fight tooth and nail to protect them, because any attempt at restricting the profits of slavery was seen as an intolerable corruption of the sacred free market. It was how they operated. Depending on what their rich patrons wanted at the time, sometimes they were all for free trade between the old nation states, and sometimes they demanded that the wealthy have the ‘freedom’ to restrict trade. It did not matter that what they said made no sense, or was logically incoherent, or at variance with reality. They never apologized, never explained, but only acted with total arrogance and self-confidence.”

    From “Space Battleship Scharnhorst and the Library of Doom.”

    1. Barry

      It makes sense if you believe in freedom to choose how to spend your money. How much choice you have, and how much choice you deserve to have, is measured fine-grain in dollars and cents. Other forms of power are deemed illegitimate.

      it’s sliding-scale individualism, where everyone is on their own, and wealth determines how much of an individual one is. The more of an individual you are, the more liberty you have, and liberty should be protected by the state.

      1. HotFlash

        Yes. I argue that one as “one dollar, one vote”. People without a lot of dollars understand that on a gut level.

        1. Barry

          I tend to think of “one dollar, one vote” when considering elections and politics; while at the same time neoliberalism is about interpersonal power without direct regard to the functioning of the state.

          By this I mean that if, for example, Peter Thiel decides to spend his money to destroy you, and you don’t have enough money to prevent it, then you deserve destruction. That’s liberty. You’re free to choose to spend your money defending yourself. Or not.

          1. HotFlash

            Exactly. People in a democracy have been raised to think that they count as much as the next person, no matter how rich or poor — at least I hope that is till happening. Well, unless they are rich, who think they rightfully account for more. So when I say “one dollar, one vote” to poor/middle people (in an ironic sense, just so that is clear), they *feel* that it is not fair. If that catches, I point out that it goes against what they have been taught about how democracy works. I often bring this up in the context of campaign $$$ and Citizens United. It opposes the ‘if they have the money then it’s theirs’ argument, aka ‘the aristocratic’ and ‘it’s his bat and ball’.

      2. nonclassical

        ..most relevant definition, from Monbiot:

        “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.”

        Problem with summation of article is injection of “Carter” administration by libertarian think tanks, who construe Carter deregulation of railroads as beginning of “neoliberalism”, when in reality, deregulation was response to recent, previous bailout of railroads…

        ..said scapegoating is parallel Soros as both “commie” and “nazi” propaganda…

        Carter was political D.C. “outsider”, elected in response to Ford (republican candidate) pardon of nixon…

  20. Scott

    For a long time now I have tried to reconstruct what it was in 1978 that convinced me it had become impossible to reform the United States.
    Gaius has gotten me closer to a reconstruction of why I determined the only real solution was to create another nation, and kicked off what I recognize now as my own modeling.
    My sense of what difference the goal is makes is a government that is just and fair for all citizens.
    This is not the case in the neoliberal world is it. The goal of the neo-liberal world is to advance a milder form of scientific socialism, meaning the good people, well spoken well dressed no matter either in business or academia get the money for lives depicted on TV shows.
    Working class people must become super humans to become educated and properly dressed to be accepted into a world of plenty and safety.
    One thing I appreciate about Russians is a unique love of beauty. It is depressing that American’s whole aesthetic sense revolves around cars and art is of no interest until it is ultra expensive.
    Len Deighton’s description of liberalism as developed in the 1840s which went on to mean the children of the newly enriched engineers who made hand built the Industrial Revolution making cotton underwear were given the money to for the schools of the old school rich people of Britain and all the rich people were in finance whether they came from old money or new money.
    So I don’t think of neoliberalism as about markets as much as I do think of it as the complete ascendancy of the parasites of Finance.
    Creditors do not write down or write off debts of the working classes. Finance now has been given the US Treasury. Listening to Minuchin saying on the TV, in fact even seeing a face saying, “We must let the States Go and they have to make it on their own.” Means there is simply no reason then to put any money by anyone into the US Treasury. The United States is just a huge military engaged in little and large wars all over the world anyway. Why ought anyone pay taxes to further the new owner of the Empire, Rome?
    Deighton writes that since all the sewing machines and looms were moved to India, by the time the 19th Century ended Finance had gambled away all of the wealth of the UK.
    “I like to play with debt, but it is tricky.” Says Trump.
    As long as you are the “Loss Payee” bankruptcy is as fine as any sort of success aye? “I don’t pay taxes, I’m smart.”
    The aim is to lose all the money, then have it all given to you by the Treasury.
    There is no citizenship of the World Citizen, or Jet Setter. They don’t need any real citizenship.
    For the majority, the nation matters. It may be the only thing they have of any value. The nation we are in love with it the nation that would go to defeat the Barbary Pirates over the capture of one US citizen, a stand in for you.
    The one we have makes heroes and a President of the parasitical pirates come from neofeudalism.
    In Texas even swords are coming back.

  21. Ep3

    Yves, great article, and loved the interview with Mirowski.

    Here’s the thing I see Neo-liberalism has done for society as a whole. If I asked you to “I present 2 humans before you and ask which one has more value to the world, which one, if there was only one hamburger left to eat, deserves to eat that sandwich, deserves to survive in a world with limited resources (which is what earth is), how would you go about choosing which one”? I am saying Neo-liberalism says “look at their wealth”. It judges people by how much money/wealth they have. The only way to judge whether one human should survive over another is by the amount of money they make.
    Jimmy Carter said in 1980 how we are moving as a society to how we rate a man is by the amount of money he has. If he was the proto-Neo-liberal, then it makes sense.

    1. Barry

      One of the conceits of neo-liberalism (and I guess capitalism in general) is that how much wealth one has indicates how much one is owed for one’s contribution to society (because markets allocate resources optimally). Thus the biggest takers are transformed into the biggest givers.

  22. Wukchumni

    Neo-liberalism doesn’t care or think all that much about it’s actions, as long as they are profitable.

    We have this ridiculous never ending series of wars and nobody’s marching in the streets or even making a fuss about it, as we’ve accepted the premise as business as usual.

    It has the feel of the Vietnam War still going in 1982, and nobody cared.

    Other countries look at prisons as a necessary evil, whereas we can’t have enough of them, so much so that we allow private companies the right to incarcerate our own citizens.

    1. HotFlash

      nobody’s marching in the streets or even making a fuss about it

      Lessee, last time I recall Big Street Protests was Occupy. They got shut down, brutally. NoDAPL, similar, even the Trump inauguration protests. Marches not reported — they might as well not have happened. But I believe they really, really did happen.

      1. Wukchumni

        An older friend was going to Cal State L.A. around 1970, when a good number of the student body decided to walk onto the nearby 10 freeway and shut it down, as a protest against the Vietnam War.

        …you seeing anything like that out there?

      2. nonclassical

        ..unfortunately, “Occupy” became “process” oriented, rather than issue oriented. In nearly 2 years, West Coast version, I never met anyone who could “follow the $$$$”…thereby perpetrate ability to press a press who stood in shadows, afraid of that potential, till “pinkertons” (and provocateurs) were able sling enough mud to dissemble issue…

        Fortunately for most here, Yves’ “ECONned” was on scene…as well as other works on “derivatives”, such as Satyajit Das…

        1. nonclassical

          (also revealing is “The Devil’s Derivatives”):

          “A compelling narrative on what went wrong with our financial system—and who’s to blame.

          From an award-winning journalist who has been covering the industry for more than a decade, The Devil’s Derivatives charts the untold story of modern financial innovation—how investment banks invented new financial products, how investors across the world were wooed into buying them, how regulators were seduced by the political rewards of easy credit, and how speculators made a killing from the near-meltdown of the financial system.”

      3. jrs

        There’s police oppression, however people have protested in murderous military dictatorships even (which I don’t doubt for a second the U.S. government has the power to become whenever it wants). But it’s almost like most Americans really aren’t inclined to protest in the face of serious oppression really ..

    2. JBird

      We incarcerate so many because it is profitable as jobs program for voters in poor counties, slave labor for manufacturing, and profitable for corporations/donors.

  23. Jeremy Grimm

    I believe discussion of Neoliberalism is very much like discussion of Global Warming. “Weedy” or not, “academic” or not both discussions require transit through some difficult concepts and technical depth. In the case of Global Warming discussions you either come to grips with some complicated climate science or you end up discussing matters of faith drawn from popular “simplifications”. In the case of Neoliberalism the discussion necessarily enters a region which requires attention to fine details which when followed to their end tend to have deep and broad implications.

    In the interview referenced by this post Phillip Mirowski asserts Neoliberals believe the Market is an information processor which “knows” more than you or I could ever know. He also introduces the concept of a Thought Collective — which he states he adapted from writings of Ludwig Fleck related to describing a method for study and explanation of the history of Science. I believe both these “weedy” “academic” distinctions are key to understanding Neoliberalism and distinguishing it from Neoclassical economics and Libertarianism. The concept of a Thought Collective greatly aids understanding the particularly slippery nature of Neoliberalism as a term for discussion. That slippery nature is no accident. The Market as a theory of knowledge — an epistemology — makes apparent the philosophical even “religious” extent of Neoliberal thinking.

    Two recent papers by Phillip Mirowski tackle the difficulties in defining and discussing Neoliberalism. They are both “weedy” and “academic” and unfortunately help little in addressing the issue RabidGhandhi raised at the root of the lengthy thread beginning the comments to this post.
    “The Political Movement that Dared not Speak its own Name: The Neoliberal Thought
    Collective Under Erasure” 2014
    “This is Water (or is it Neoliberalism?)” 2016 — this is a response to critics of the previous paper.

    There have been several oblique references to this story — so I’ll repeat it since I only recently ran across it.
    There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish
    swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And
    the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

    I am afraid that little story says volumes about the problem RabidGhandhi raised. I believe remaining “weedy” and “academic” is the very least service we might do to discussing Neoliberalism and when arguing topics related to Neoliberalism — and probably the least damage.

    1. likbez

      Phillip Mirowski approach is not the only approach and it has its flaws. IMHO he exaggerates differences between neoliberal doctrine and neo-classical economics.

      Some view neoliberalism as Trotskyism for rich and analogies look convincing, at least for me. See

      That might be a more fruitful research approach.

      Wendy Brown book is also very interesting and illuminating:

      1. Jeremy Grimm

        I went to the site you recommended and read through the very lengthy discussion of Neoliberalism as Trotskyism for the rich. I believe the title of that discussion makes a reasonable summary of the definition of Neoliberalism you prefer and propose: Neoliberalism is Trotskyism for the rich. While there may be some groups in which this definition might be a useful formula for continuing discussion I doubt it would be of much use in discussing Neoliberalism in general. Neoliberalism is slippery enough without bringing in a can-O-worms like Trotskyism — and as I am not a Soviet style Marxist nor a student of Marxism and only vaguely familiar with the Russian revolutions the metaphor is as meaningless to me as a metaphor based on the gang-of-four with references to Maoism.

        I disagree with your view that Mirowski exaggerates the differences between Neoliberal doctrine and Neoclassical economics. I don’t recall the source but I do recall one of Mirowski’s writings or videos did identify how Neoclassical economics is drifting toward Neoliberalism. Although both disciplines might advocate similar policies they differ in how they arrive at those policies. And I believe it Neolclassical economists think of economics at a tool for conducting policy while Neoliberals view their doctrines as guides for policy.

        Mirowski — at least as I read his paper — tends to avoid making a formulaic definition of Neoliberalism and instead emphasizes what he views as its key doctrines. Those doctrines are what distinguishes Neoliberalism.

        1. likbez


          While there may be some groups in which this definition might be a useful formula for continuing discussion I doubt it would be of much use in discussing Neoliberalism in general. Neoliberalism is slippery enough without bringing in a can-O-worms like Trotskyism — and as I am not a Soviet style Marxist nor a student of Marxism and only vaguely familiar with the Russian revolutions the metaphor is as meaningless to me as a metaphor based on the gang-of-four with references to Maoism.

          I feel your pain.

          Trotskyism is an elaborate cultural system based on Marxism. It might be easier for you to understand neoliberalism in terms of a sect, a “secular religion” instead (Wikipedia)

          “Religion is any cultural system of designated behaviors and practices, world views, texts, sanctified places, ethics, or organizations, that relate humanity to the supernatural or transcendental. Religions relate humanity to what anthropologist Clifford Geertz has referred to as a cosmic “order of existence”.[1]

          This is how Pope Francis views neoliberalism — he called it “idolatry of money”. Like any religion neoliberalism includes mythology ( “Invisible Hand Hypothesis”, “Rational expectations” “Shareholder value”, etc), as well as saints (Reagan, Thatcher, Hayek, Friedman), the system of recruiting, indoctrinating, and training of high priests (via economics departments and think tanks), etc.

          It is important to understand that “neoliberal religion” is eclectic and consists of three major parts:

          1. Philosophical justification: Mostly rehash of Friedrich Nietzsche, especially the Nietzschean concept of Ubermetsch in a form adopted by Ann Rand: as “Creative/Entrepreneurial class”. Also provides “the mantle of inevitability” borrowed from Marxism (Thatcher famous “there is no alternative” aka TINA). Like any religious zealots, neoliberals are inherently hostile to competing non-liberal societies — which they see not simply as different, but as wrong. Neoliberals see the market and competition as sacred elements of human civilization.

          2. Political economy (which pretends to be depoliticized, as a smokescreen to hide its class nature and attempt to restore the power of financial oligarchy). Uses mathiness as a smoke screen and total quantification as a major tool. Promote “Cult of GDP”: neoliberalism on the one hand this reduces individuals to statistics contained within aggregate economic performance on the other professes that GDP growth is the ultimate goal of any society.

          3. Neoliberal ethics (aka neoliberal rationality). Like Marxism before, neoliberalism provides its own ethics and its own rationality. It enforces a new encompassing “economic rationalism” (aka economism) , which should displace old, “outdated” and more humane rationality of New Deal capitalism. In this area neoliberalism is in direct opposition to Christianity. It advocates Social Darwinism, “greed is good” mentality, “homo homini lupus est.” ethics. Includes “the goal justifies the means”, “Weak should vanish” mentality. Justifies privileged position of the “masters of the universe” and the redistribution of wealth up. It rejects the idea of social solidarity (emphasizing “individual responsibility” for Undermensch, including “who does not work, should not eat” — BTW this was the official slogan of the Communist Party of the USSR ;-) As well as “above the law” status for the “Masters of the Universe”

  24. Temporarily Sane

    I prefer Wendy Brown’s definition of neoliberalism. It is not simply a commitment to capitalism or to markets, she argues, but an effort to transform all spheres of human life in ways that render them amendable to economic calculation.

      1. bob mcmanus

        But “economic calculation” still understates the post-modern condition and tends toward looking for an outside origin, like Hayek/Friedman. Neoliberalism is something we are doing to ourselves, and Foucault’s biopolitics makes this clear. You just don’t separate the economic from the social and political.

        Twitter and Facebooks “likes and dislikes” are a form of (social) capital accumulation. Financialization has become ascendant because labour productivity is no longer measurable, and they need “fictitious” numbers to maintain hierarchy.

        Jodi Dean calls this the era of “Communicative Capitalism” wherein value creation has been democratized and we are ruled by the “circulation of commodified affect.”

        This is brutal. We create value when we like something or someone. We commodify it when we attempt to justify our affections in social settings and produce discourse to do so. It circulates when other people agree and spread the episteme. Why is it “Capitalism?” Because Facebook extracts surplus from your affections and discourse. Sociality and sociability are now major profit centers.

        That’s like everything, folks. Everything. Late-capitalism or neoliberalism is at least fast becoming a global totality without an outside or margin.

  25. bob mcmanus

    I come at this from a Marxist perspective, and so am very skeptical of liberalism. Neo-liberalism is simply liberalism after the last vestiges of traditionalist communitarian have disappeared.

    I usually like Gaius Publius, but I don’t like this article. Recently the French union reaction to Macron’s labor reforms has the slogan to the effect that “We don’t want that liberalism.”

    To understand neo-liberalism, you have to a) use the European meaning of liberalism, especially since the founders were European, b) you also have to connect the word with the full spectrum of what is “liberalism” as developed in the Early modern period by Hume, Locke, Smith, the American founders, John Stuart Mills, etc. Remember, during their times, both Burke and John C Calhoun were considered exemplary liberals. (See Domenico Losurdo.)

    Neo-liberalism is no more limited to economics and markets than liberalism was. Neo-liberalism/liberalism, besides the right to property or the fruits of your labor (Locke also Marx) also includes the full panoply of rights and privileges (at least in theory) included in the Bill of Rights and the extension of those over time, and the right to property and market competition are inextricably connected to the other rights (free press, freedom to associate, gun rights, national self-determination, freedom from searches, etc). Inextricably, they cannot be separated.

    Including individualistic rights over your body, for instance. The right to an abortion, gay marriage, freedom of choice, even the popularization of tattoos developed at the same time as the ascension of economic neoliberalism, which is inextricably connected to the “liberalization” of the social spheres.

    Which is why it is the ocean we swim in and why it is so hard to fight and why Democrats and centrists and the identitarian “Left” dislike the word so much. Neoliberalism is just liberalism on steroids. Those who dislike the word want to de-liberalize (some of ) the markets and limit (some) property rights while retaining most of the individualism that liberalism allows. They don’t want to be socialists.

    Marxists understand that Hayek-Friedman neoliberalism is just another stage in the real subsumption of labor and completion of globalized capitalism. It is just liberalism after capitalism has finally destroyed traditionalism, nationalism, religion etc.

    1. nonclassical

      hmmmnnn…while this, from article can be so defined:

      “With their help, he began to create what Daniel Stedman Jones describes in Masters of the Universe as “a kind of neoliberal international” [a term modeled on “the Communist International]: a transatlantic network of academics, businessmen, journalists and activists. The movement’s rich backers funded a series of thinktanks which would refine and promote the ideology. Among them were the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Centre for Policy Studies and the Adam Smith Institute. They also financed academic positions and departments, particularly at the universities of Chicago and Virginia.”

      …FDR regulated capitalism, entirety of western “social democracies”, stand in contrast…(some might say, thankfully)

  26. Philipbn

    For one of the strongest early analyses of the development of neoliberalism, see Foucault’s 1978-79 Collège de France lectures, “The Birth of Biopolitics” (English translation 2008). The entire year is an extended review of and commentary on the the development of liberalism, or in Foucault’s terms “liberal governmentality,” and in particular of neo-liberalism.

  27. Craig H.

    A couple of months ago I was surfing the web on similar topics and came across a tidbit that shocked me. It is an anecdote which apparently used to be well known about Hayek and Thatcher’s first meeting.

    This was the first time they had met and they talked for less than 30 minutes. Harris would recall: “Although she is known as being a rather overpowering lady she sat down like a meek schoolgirl and listened.

    “And there was a period of unaccustomed silence from Margaret Thatcher. She said nothing for about ten minutes while he deployed his arguments”.

    The politician left and the economist was left in an “unusually pensive state” as the IEA staff gathered to see his reaction. “She’s so beautiful” he muttered.

  28. Gaius Gracchus

    Using the term “neoliberalism” really confuses people. Calling it “libertarianism” does not work, even though its principles are the same.

    Perhaps something like plutocratic market oriented crony capitalism, but that is a mouth full.

    As to attacking it, restarting the antimonopoly movement would seem to help. The decline of antitrust enforcement, linked directly to the Chicago school Law and Economics and pushed by the usual suspects and Robert Bork, really is the key issue.

    Oligarchy prevents democracy, captures government, and enslaves the people.

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