Yes, Neoliberalism Is a Thing. Don’t Let Economists Tell You Otherwise

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By Christine Berry. Originally published at openDemocracy

The really fascinating battles in intellectual history tend to occur when some group or movement goes on the offensive and asserts that Something Big really doesn’t actually exist.”

So says Philip Morowski in his book ‘Never Let a Serious Crisis Go To Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown’. As Mirowski argues, neoliberalism is a particularly fascinating case in point. Just as Thatcher asserted there was ‘no such thing as society’, it’s common to find economics commentators asserting that there is ‘no such thing as neoliberalism’ – that it’s simply a meaningless insult bandied about by the left, devoid of analytical content.

But on the list of ‘ten tell-tale signs you’re a neoliberal’, insisting that Neoliberalism Is Not A Thing must surely be number one. The latest commentator to add his voice to the chorus is Sky Economics Editor Ed Conway. On the Sky blog, he gives four reasons why Neoliberalism Is Not A Thing. Let’s look at each of them in turn:

1. It’s only used by its detractors, not by its supporters

This one is pretty easy to deal with, because it’s flat-out not true. As Mirowski documents, “the people associated with the doctrine did call themselves ‘neo-liberals’ for a brief period lasting from the 1930s to the early 1950s, but then they abruptly stopped the practice” – deciding it would serve their political project better if they claimed to be the heirs of Adam Smith than if they consciously distanced themselves from classical liberalism. Here’s just one example, from Milton Friedman in 1951:

“a new ideology… must give high priority to real and efficient limitation of the state’s ability to, in detail, intervene in the activities of the individual. At the same time, it is absolutely clear that there are positive functions allotted to the state. The doctrine that, one and off, has been called neoliberalism and that has developed, more or less simultaneously in many parts of the world… is precisely such a doctrine… But instead of the 19thcentury understanding that laissez-faire is the means to achieve this goal, neoliberalism proposes that competition will lead the way”.

You might notice that as well as the word ‘neoliberalism’, this also includes the word ‘ideology’. Remember that one for later.

It’s true that the word ‘neoliberalism’ did go underground for a long time, with its proponents preferring to position their politics simply as sound economics than to admit it was a radical ideological programme. But that didn’t stop them from knowing what they stood for, or from acting collectively – through a well-funded network of think tanks and research institutes – to spread those ideas.

It’s worth noting that one of those think tanks, the Adam Smith Institute, has in the last couple of years consciously reclaimed the mantle. Affiliated intellectuals like Madsen Pirieand Sam Bowmanhave explicitly sought to define and defend neoliberalism. It’s no accident that this happened around the time that neoliberalism began to be seriously challenged in the UK, with the rise of Corbyn and the shock of the Brexit vote, after a post-crisis period where the status quo seemed untouchable.

2. Nobody can agree on what it means

Well, this one at least is half-true. Like literally every concept that has ever mattered, the concept of ‘neoliberalism’ is messy, it’s deeply contested, it has evolved over time and it differs in theory and practice. From the start, there has been debate within the neoliberal movement itself about how it should define itself and what its programme should be. And, yes, it’s often used lazily on the left as a generic term for anything vaguely establishment. None of this means that it is Not A Thing. This is something sociologists and historians instinctively understand, but which many economists seem to have trouble with.

Having said this, it is possible to define some generally accepted core features of neoliberalism. Essentially, it privileges markets as the best way to organise the economy and society, but unlike classical liberalism, it sees a strong role for the state in creating and maintaining these markets. Outside of this role, the state should do as little as possible, and above all it must not interfere with the ‘natural’ operation of the market. But it has always been part of the neoliberal project to take over the state and transform it for its own ends, rather than to dismantle or disable it.

Of course, there’s clearly a tension between neoliberals’ professed ideals of freedom and their need for a strong state to push through policies that often don’t have democratic consent. We see this in the actions of the Bretton Woods institutions in the era of ‘structural adjustment’, or the Troika’s behaviour towards Greece during the Eurozone crisis. We see it most starkly in Pinochet’s Chile, the original neoliberal experiment. This perhaps helps to explain the fact that neoliberalism is sometimes equated with libertarianism and the ‘small state’, while others reject this characterisation. I’ll say it again: none of this means that neoliberalism doesn’t exist.

3. Neoliberalism is just good economics

Neoliberalism may not exist, says Conway, but what do exist are “conventional economic models – the ones established by Adam Smith all those centuries ago”, and the principles they entail. That they may have been “overzealously implemented and sometimes misapplied” since the end of the Cold War is “unfortunate”, but “hardly equals an ideology”. I’m sure he’ll hate me for saying this, but Ed – this is the oldest neoliberal trick in the book.

The way Conway defines these principles (fiscal conservatism, property rights and leaving businesses to make their own decisions) is hardly a model of analytical rigour, but we’ll let that slide. Instead, let’s note that the entire reason neoliberal ideology developed was that the older classical “economic models” manifestly failed during the Great Depression of the 1930s, leading them to be replaced by Keynesian demand-management models as the dominant framework for understanding the economy.

Neoliberals had to update these models in order to restore their credibility: this is why they poured so much effort into the development of neoclassical economics and the capture of academic economics by the Chicago School. One of the great achievements of neoliberalism has been to induce such a level of collective amnesia that it’s now once again possible to claim that these tenets are simply “fundamental economic rules” handed down directly from Adam Smith on tablets of stone, unchallenged and unchallengeable in the history of economic thought.

In any case, even some people that ascribe to neoclassical economics – like Joseph Stiglitz – are well enough able to distinguish this intellectual framework from the political application of it by neoliberals. It is perfectly possible to agree with the former but not the latter.

4. Yes, ‘neoliberal’ policies have been implemented in recent decades, but this has been largely a matter of accident rather than design

Privatisation, bank deregulation, the dismantling of capital and currency controls: according to Conway, these are all developments that came about by happenstance. “Anyone who has studied economic history” will tell you they are “hardly the result of a guiding ideology.” This will no doubt be news to the large number of eminent economic historians who have documented the shift from Keynesianism to neoliberalism, from Mirowski and Daniel Stedman-Jones to Robert Skidelsky and Robert Van Horn (for a good reading list, see this bibliographic review by Will Davies.)

It would also be news to Margaret Thatcher, the woman who reportedly slammed down Hayek’s ‘Constitution of Liberty’ on the table at one of her first cabinet meetings and declared “Gentlemen, this is our programme”; and who famously said “Economics is the method; the object is to change the soul”. And it would be news to those around her who strategized for a Conservative government with carefully laid-out battleplans for dismantling the key institutions of the post-war settlement, such as the Ridley Reporton privatising state-run entities.

What Conway appears to be denying here is the whole idea that policymaking takes place within a shared set of assumptions (or paradigm), that dominant paradigms tend to shift over time, and that these shifts are usually accompanied by political crises and resulting transfers of political power – making them at least partly a matter of ideology rather than simply facts.

Whether it’s even meaningful to claim that ideology-free facts exist on matters so inherently political as how to run the economy is a whole debate in the sociology of knowledge which we don’t have time to go into here, and which Ed Conway doesn’t seem to have much awareness of.

But he shows his hand when he says that utilities were privatised because “governments realised they were mostly a bit rubbish at running them”. This is a strong – and highly contentious – political claim disguised as a statement of fact – again, a classic neoliberal gambit. It’s a particularly bizarre one for an economist to make at a time when 70% of UK rail routes are owned by foreign stateswho won the franchises through competitive tender. Just this week, we learned that the East Coast main line is to be temporarily renationalisedbecause Virgin and Stagecoach turned out to be, erm, a bit rubbish at running it.

* * *

It may be a terrible cliché, but the old adage “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win” seems appropriate here. Neoliberalism successfully hid in plain sight for decades, with highly ideological agendas being implemented amidst claims we lived in a post-ideological world. Now that it is coming under ideological challenge, it is all of a sudden stood naked in the middle of the room, having to explain why it’s there (to borrow a phrase from a very brilliant colleague).

There are a number of strategies neoliberals can adopt in response to this. The Adam Smith Institute response is to go on the offensive and defend it. The Theresa May response is to pay lip service to the need for systemic change whilst quietly continuing with the same old policies. Those, like Ed Conway, who persist in claiming neoliberalism doesn’t even exist, may soon find themselves left behind by history.

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  1. diptherio

    Neoliberalism may not exist, says Conway, but what do exist are “conventional economic models – the ones established by Adam Smith all those centuries ago”,

    Um…please name one “conventional economic model” established by Adam Smith. I mean, really, who would actually write such nonsense?

    1. bruce wilder

      In fairness, I expect Conway is referring to the “invisible hand” of market competition, wherein the competitive market qua an institution supposedly transforms the private pursuit of self-interest into a public benefit. From the OP, Milton Friedman saying, “instead of . . . laissez-faire . . . neoliberalism proposes . . . competition”.

      A pedant can rightly claim that the actual Adam Smith had a more nuanced and realistic view, but that does not help to understand, let alone defeat, the intellectual smoke and mirrors of neoliberalism. And, in spirit, the neoliberals are more right than wrong in claiming Adam Smith: on the economics, he was a champion of market competition against the then degenerate corporate state and an advocate of a modified laissez faire against mercantilism, not to mention feudalism.

      My personal view is that you have lost the argument if you agree to the key element of neoclassical economics: that the economy is organized around and by (metaphoric) markets and policy is justified (sic!) by remedying market failure. If you concede “the market economy” even as a mere convention of political speech, you are lost, because you have entered into the Alice-in-Wonderland neoliberal model, and you can no longer base your arguments on socially-constructed references to the real, institutional world.

      Adam Smith was systematically interpreting his observed world, he kept himself honest by being descriptively accurate. It was Ricardo who re-invented classical economics as an abstract theory deductible from first principles and still later thinkers, who re-invented that abstract, deductive theory as a neoclassical economics in open defiance of observed reality. And, still later thinkers, many of them critics (Hayek being a prime example) of neoclassical economics as it existed circa 1930, who founded neoliberalism as we know it. We really should not blame Adam Smith.

      1. Jeremy Grimm

        You comment is confusing to me — not quite sure what you are arguing. You close asserting “We really should not blame Adam Smith.” Was he blamed in this post?

        1. JBird

          I think it’s the very selective reading, and quoting, of Adam Smith’s writings to give neoliberal economics more legitimacy; the parts where he mentions the supremacy of the common good and the need to prevent too much accumulation of money in too few hands is ignored. Restated, the free market with its invisible hand is best so long as the whole community benefits. However, wealth and the power it brings tends to become monopolized into a very few hands. That needs to be prevented and if needed by government.

          I think I need to go back over the Wealth of Nations to be sure I am not being too selective myself. That said, what the neoliberals are doing is like some people’s very selective reading of the New Testament to support their interests. (Like the vile Prosperity Gospel)

    2. Liberal AND Proud

      Exactly. Bravo.

      There is so much claptrap in this article, on all sides of what is supposedly being debated. Yet, the one underlying historical fact that is being completely overlooked is pure Keynesian demand driven economics.

      An economics that not only has a basis in fact, but also has an actual history of success.

      Keynesian economics did not fail. It was undermined by a movement back toward neo-liberal Adam Smith “invisible hand of the free market” nonsense that has done nothing throughout history except proven itself to be greed disguised as an economic theory to give the powerful an opportunity to fleece the poor and the government treasury.

  2. anon y'mouse

    On the other side of the bedsheet, I have long been wondering what this so-called “cultural marxism” is that we on the lefties side is constantly being accused of, and whether it exists as well.

    My suspicion is that it doesn’t.

    1. Bugs Bunny

      I think it refers to Identity Politics. The Marxist interpretation of race/gender relations that came out of American adoption of Continental Philosophy (i.e. postmodernism) as the predominant philosophy in academia.

      1. Massinissa

        It doesnt. Its a right wing conspiracy theory relating to Frankfurt School marxism (which hasnt even been popular among Marxists since the 70s…) that far predates modern discussion of Identity Politics.

        The idea of the conspiracy theory is that theres some kind of cabal of marxists trying to destroy western culture by supporting everything from feminists and homosexuals to radical islamists. Anything and everything that might threaten western civilization, apparently.

        1. fds

          I thought it was just the usual atavistic hatred of the goyim. They are in power now through networking in the context of meritocratic minded and individual centered 11th hour Anglo elites.

    2. PKMKII

      Actual, proper cultural marxism is the study of how corporate messaging replace natural, organic cultural works. Think, fast food jingle becoming a #1 hit on the charts instead of songs written to be songs.

      As reactionaries use it, it’s just a way of saying they don’t like diversity and multiculturalism, but realize they can’t actually say that without looking like bigots so they construct this boogieman of marxists using diversity as a trojan horse for gulags.

      1. animalogic

        “Cultural Marxism” is a favorite of the “alt right” (sic). They find its use both “sexy” & clever. Often applied to every academic in existence, it can also be (unbelievably) applied to those on the reactionary right (ie even the vaguest support for immigration or homosexuality are sufficient)
        Its users can be spotted by their staggering ignorance of Marxism and culture.
        The “Unz Review” is a fertile habitat for the “cult’ Marx” moles & ostriches.

    3. Plenue

      It doesn’t exist. It’s literally a revived and expanded Nazi propaganda term:

      The people who use it imagine there’s something called ‘post-modernism’, that has infected all levels of academia and is the source of anything they don’t like, such as feminism and social acceptance of gays.

      This is entirely separate from actually valid critiques of identity politics, which as far as I can see come entirely from the (real) left.

      1. Code Name D

        That’s a risky argument, given the root artical is about confrunting the “non-existence” of neoliberalism. Even more extrodinary that we are talking about definitions here.

        1. Is the definition coherent?
        2. Dose the definition refer to plausable phinomina?
        3. Can said phinomina be observed in the real world.

        If those three conditions are met, then it exists. But a great deal dose depend on one’s definition. Distroy the definition, and you go a long way in concealing the phinomina at work.

        That is why one of the first things to happen with any ideoligy is to distroy lanquage.

        And the first step to figting back – is to restore the power of lanquage in dialog.

        1. Massinissa

          There is no coherent meaning of ‘cultural marxism’ when used by Rightists, though. It literally means whatever they want it to mean the moment they use it.

        2. Yves Smith Post author

          “Free markets” is incoherent, yet it is a very well accepted and unquestioned notion, to the degree it is regularly depicted as virtuous and achieving it, a worthy policy goal.

          1. Paul O

            The serious application of the nonsensical term continues to amaze me. I have to work hard to stop it invalidating any other ideas in pieces where it is used.

            More a term of propaganda than a useful referent.

    4. Amfortas the Hippie

      aye. that came out of the sort of illegitimate hedgerow children of the John Birch Society. Trying to make the Frankfurt School(Horkheimer, Adorno, W. Benjamin, Marcuse and Habermas, et al) into some nefarious conspiracy of European intellectuals to put salt in our sugar, make everybody gay, and mandate atheism and group marriage.
      “I only drink rainwater and grain alcohol”

      as an “American Liberal”(yes, problematic,lol. “democratic socialist with strong jeffersonian tendencies”?), I find that I rather like the Frankfurt School, and wonder what all the fuss is about.

    5. ape

      Herbert Marcuse and such. They exist, just not in the paranoid, fever delusions form that the right has nightmares of, but as a critical analysis school, mostly driven by the sociology/philosophy from the Frankfurt school. Some good parts, some bad parts, like most intellectual schools.

    6. Cat Burglar

      When I’ve read it recently, “cultural marxism” has usually been used by alt-right analysts as a kind of ideological label for any left thinking that justifies any social and economic equality. I remember a video talk by right-winger William Lind attacking the Civil Rights Act and equal opportunity policies as forms of expropriation advanced by “cultural marxism” — not a lot of analytic power in the idea. I’ve read some essays that are a little more careful.

      But the label had academic cred on the left back in the 70s for a group of usually european marxist thinkers that were always anti-stalinist, usually anti-marxist-leninist, often on the revolutionary left, sometimes just supporters of representative government. Lukacs’s History And Class Consciousness was the mothership text; Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man is another.

      They were hated by both Leninists and liberals, to say nothing of the cold warriors, and by having the right enemies, they were very attractive to the New Left of the 60s. They weren’t economists; most of their work was about how attitudes toward society and popular revolutionary action were diverted by the propagation of fatalism (often by very sophisticated pseudoscience; hint, hint), and the use of bureaucracy and policy to cover over the tendency of capitalism to produce social crisis. They tended to support direct action by workers organized in federated small councils to take over society and manage it themselves. You can see why some of these ideas might still have enemies.

    7. Jeremy Grimm

      “On the other side of the bedsheet … ” A blip like “cultural marxism” hardly seems like the other side of the bedsheet. I might agree that it amounts to a stain in the corner of the bedsheet. The left has neither organization, nor ideology, nor funding to match the other side of the bedsheet. And the way “cultural marxism” is used in conjunction with Identity Politics, I have more than a little heartburn classing “cultural marxism” as a leftist thrust. Identity Politics may have started in a corner of leftist thought but its realization as a political device seems far removed from leftist goals.

  3. DanB

    I have written about how the East Germans were absorbed by Germany as neoliberalism was ascendant in 1990, with such shibboleths as TINA and The End of History taken as cosmological verities by the West German government. Now I’m doing research on Detroit, where neoliberalism remains powerful and the source of a meretricious “renaissance” taking place there even as it is increasingly found to be a generator of and rationalization for all manner of class-based exploitation. Mirowski’s checklist of the attributes of neoliberalism is on display in state and local government there as they serve corporations, such as the city “selling” the Little Ceasar’s empire 39 acres of downtown land for $1 upon which was built the new hockey arena. Detroit is a bellwether city, and despite the depredations of corporations and government there is much organized opposition to neoliberal rule in the city.

    1. Eustache De Saint Pierre

      I believe there was an article here recently by Mirowski – The something or other that dare not speak it’s name ? I have spent quite a few hours in the past listening to his podcasts & videos, which tend to repeat themselves, although something new slips in from time to time, especially from Q & A’s.

      His assertion that economics is merely one part of a whole in the Neoliberal assault woke me up, & indeed then appeared very obvious.

      I believe I have seen an example of the Detroit devastation used as film sets in two films: ” Only Lovers Left alive ” & ” Don’t Breathe “, which suit the darkness of them very well.

      Good to know that there is resistance & I wish you the very best outcome for your & or their endeavours.

      1. Jeremy Grimm

        I too have watched many hours of Phillip Mirowski’s videos, several of them more than once. I have a little trouble with your assertion they “tend to repeat themselves, although something new slips in from time to time”. He does repeatedly emphasize points which are hard to believe on first hearing but grow evident upon further reflection. For example his emphasis on the concept of the Market as the Neoliberal epistemology — an ultimate tool for discovering Truth. A little recall of some recent and surprisingly commonplace constructs like a “market of ideas”, or various ways of suggesting we are each a commodity we need to package, promote, and sell as exemplified by Facebook “likes” and “networking” as a way to get ahead. Looking at the whole of the videos, and excluding obvious repetitions like multiple versions of book promotion interviews at different venues I think the range of ideas Mirowski explores is remarkable — from the Neoliberal thought collective to climate change to the Market applied to direct the truth science can discover.

        [Where do you find podcasts of Mirowski? I recall collecting a few but most of what I find are videos. He has numerous of his papers posted at which can be downloaded for free by signing up for the website.]

        1. Kevin Carhart

          There are just a few. You may already have heard some of these: Search for Symptomatic Redness, and search for This Is Hell. Search for [PPE Polanyi Hayek]. He talked to Doug Henwood. He talked to Will Davies and that is audio only I believe. There’s the Science Mart talk that he gave in Australia. If you look in and soundcloud as well as youtube and vimeo, you will find most of them. I think all four of those sites have a few recordings that are exclusive from the others. has a couple of his appearances on community radio. A few are also linked from the media page for a given book on the publishers’ sites, like go to the links on the book page for Science Mart, for an appearance on I think Boston radio.

          I’m a nerd. Heh. But if you’ve come this far and listened to the videos (the one with Homer’s brain and markomata, the Boundary2 conference talk, the Leukana one, Prof Nik-Khah at the Whitlam center, Sam Seder, the one on climate, talking about Cowles in Brazil), you will enjoy the others. Hope these notes help you find a few.

          1. Jeremy Grimm

            Thanks! You mentioned several videos I haven’t watched yet. [I’ve watched the one on climate several times.]

        2. Dune Navigator

          I have found this book to be a masterpiece – A brief history of neoliberalism by David Harvey —>

          I have gifted copies of it to my mother- and father-in-law (who survived Operation Condor – the Argentine Dirty Wars) and my parents, among others.

    2. Ray Phenicie

      I wrote a web page back in April of 2016 about the neoliberal forces in Detroit. Let me know at my twitter page what you think. Feel free to use whatever you find helpful
      I found then that the City of Detroit and the State of Michigan had been hornswaggled by private enterprises nesting their own feathers.

  4. Robert G. Valiant

    Utilitarianism, expressed as the greatest aggregate well-being to humanity (economic production and growth) and preference for economic efficiency (monopolies, duopolies, cartels, etc.) over market competition, are two additional hallmarks of neoliberalism.

    Recognizing these two important values helps explain the growing economic and social inequality we’re witnessing around the western world.

    This is the best scholarly book I’ve read on neoliberalism: The Limits of Neoliberalism: Authority, Sovereignty and the Logic of Competition

    1. HotFlash

      Thank you, Mr. Valiant,

      I will checkout your recommendation and I hope that it will discuss, for instance, the assumption that *economic* production and growth and preference for economic efficiency is and should be the proper goal of human life.

      1. Robert G. Valiant

        The book is descriptive and critical, but not particularly prescriptive. But yes, one of the real strengths of Davies’ work is his documentation of the many economic, social, and political assumptions that provide the foundations of neoliberal thought. I was impressed by the many logical inconsistencies that advocates of neoliberalism are comfortable in accepting. I don’t believe that the bulk of neoliberal ideas could exist for long outside the philosophical context of postmodernism as the cognitive dissonance they (should) generate would find them quickly abandoned.

        The intersection of postmodernism, neoliberalism , and neoconservatism defines our current Western civilization, and I wish somebody would come up with a name for it. Whatever we have now is the successor to Modernism, in its broadest sense.

    2. PKMKII

      I saw one of those political compass memes recently that had at the “center”, “Everything is rent seeking, except for literal rent seeking, which is okay.”

  5. vlade

    Well, there is at least some labeling issue, as one of the first people to use term “neoliberalism” (for his proposed policy) was Germany’s Alexander Rustow, who hardlty anyone knows about these days, so they don’t know either that Rustow would likely sign off most of Corbyn’s proposed policies

    1. Grebo

      IIRC Rustow was one of the more ‘moderate’ founder members of the Mont Pelerin Society. His views did not prevail, though they initially adopted his term for their project. I wonder if, when he saw which way the wind was blowing, he demanded it back.

      The term was sometimes applied to the New Deal but didn’t really catch on.

      It was also used in the early ’80s for a movement trying to resurrect the New Deal in the face of Reagan but that didn’t catch on either.

      1. vlade

        I didn’t know about the New Deal connection, thanks!

        Goes to show that he who controls the language controls the communications. .

  6. The Rev Kev

    Hey, I just remembered something. When I was a kid growing up everybody knew all about the mafia but all those in the know denied that there was any such thing when questioned in a court of law. It got to be a running joke how these gang bosses and members were always denying that the mafia was an actual thing. Could it be that the neoliberals took a page out of their book and adopted the same tactic of denying the existence of neoliberalism while actively pushing it at every opportunity?

    1. johnnygl

      And like the line from ‘fight club’, the first rule of neoliberalism is that you don’t talk about it.

      To extend your analogy, much like the mafia, there’s a handful of shadowy law breakers who benefit from neoliberalism and a whole lot of people that suffer violence so that those benefits can flow up to that few.

      1. Amfortas the Hippie

        this is why I keep Mario Puzo next to Adam and Karl on the econ shelf in my library.
        It’s not so much Omerta, as gobbdeygook and wafer thin platitudes.
        Like the concurrent and related “Conservative revolution”(1973-), they stole the Cell Structure from the Comintern, and bought out the competition.
        I am inclined to believe that the Libertarian Party was a vehicle for this counterrevolution, too.
        and finally, with the DLC, they were able to buy the “opposition party” outright…and here we are.

  7. Di Modica's Dumb Steer

    “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain! He’s only here to direct you to a very robust curtain marketplace to suit all your needs, including our newest offering for consumers without a desire to invest in (or a steady home for) full curtain infrastructure: Curtains-as-a-Service! Ultimate mobility! Low(ish) monthly payments forever!”

  8. TG

    Well said!

    “Neoliberalism” is indeed a thing, but it is not in any way an economic model. “Neoliberalism” is simply the ethos of Sit Back and Let the Big Dog Eat, and it wraps itself in whatever words or models is most effective at distracting and camouflaging its rotten core. Neoliberalism is like a Caddis Fly larvae, that sticks random objects outside its cocoon to blend in.

    So the Neoliberals talk about free markets when it suits them – and when their wealthy patrons want to be bailed out with public funds, they talk about government responsibility. They harp about freedom – but demand that large corporations get to use de-jure slave labor to peel shrimp. They talk about how wonderful free trade is – and demand that private citizens not be able to import legal pharmaceuticals because this would destroy the freedom of big pharma to maximize profits by restricting trade and without this new drug development would stop and anyone who believes in free trade wants a free lunch. I could go on. It’s pointless to try and refute them, because there is nothing to refute, and they have no shame. Only brute power, but this they have in abundance.

    So of course they reject the label, because co-opting and corrupting and hiding behind legitimate philosophies is part of their modus operandi. Using the terminology of the enemy is always a mistake. Long may the vile practitioners of ‘neoliberalism’ be forced to be referred to by an accurate label!

    1. HotFlash

      Neoliberalism is like a Caddis Fly larvae, that sticks random objects outside its cocoon to blend in.

      Lovely metaphor, TG, thank you, and I am stealing it forthwith.

      1. Hunter

        It is. I wish he had gone on. Might we build on it? I think such examples clarify brilliantly exactly of whom we speak:

        “Neoliberals want minimal government regulation because such regulation makes the market inefficient. Except when making dubious student loans; then they want the government to guarantee those loans and serve as their muscle in collecting.”

    2. animalogic

      Excellent comment.
      “It’s pointless to try and refute them, because there is nothing to refute, and they have no shame. Only brute power, but this they have in abundance.”
      Neoliberalism: an old fashioned expression of the seemingly eternal “all for me, none for thee”
      A million tonnes of economic speciousness, the thickness of a piece of plastic wrap, covering the bloated & putrifying zombie body of a small “elite”.

  9. Summer

    “Now that it is coming under ideological challenge, it is all of a sudden stood naked in the middle of the room, having to explain why it’s there (to borrow a phrase from a very brilliant colleague).”

    Perfect description and funny too!

  10. bruce wilder

    One gambit in denying neoliberalism is to pretend it must be a specific doctrine and then dispute about which that doctrine that is. Or that neoliberalism must be a specific programme and dispute whether that programme has been consistent thru time. But, the intellectual cum ideological history cum policy history here is that neoliberalism has been a dialectic. There’s Thatcher and then there’s Blair.

    It is the back-and-forth of that dialectic that has locked in “the shared set of assumptions” and paradigm of policy inventiveness that has given neoliberalism its remarkable ability to survive its own manifest policy-induced crises.

    Neoliberalism did not just adopt neoclassical economics, nor did it simply infest political parties of the right. Neoliberalism re-invented neoclassical economics in ways that defined not just the “right” of academic economics, but also defined the “left”. Keynesian economics was absorbed and transmogrified by first one neoclassical synthesis and then a second, leaving a New Keynesian macroeconomics to occupy the position of a nominal left within mainstream economics. If you are waiting for a Krugman or even a Stiglitz to oppose neoliberalism, you will be waiting a very long time, because they are effectively locked into the neoliberal dialectic.

    Something almost analogous happened with the political parties of the centre-left, as in the iconic cases of Blair vs Thatcher or Clinton vs Reagan (and then, of course, Obama vs Reagan/Bush II). In western Europe, grand coalitions figured in the process of eliminating the ability of centre-left parties to think outside the neoliberal policy frames or to represent their electoral bases rather than their donor bases.

    1. HotFlash

      Sitting here nodding my head. All the same criticisms could be made of, oh, say, Christianity. Wars have been fought, hundreds of thousands of Christians have been persecuted by other Christians, over the definition, but that certainly does not make it Not A Thing.

    2. Jeremy Grimm

      Neoliberal thought is very deliberately projected as a many-headed Hydra. The Neoliberal thought collective presents manifold statements and refinements of its principles. The value of agnotology is a belief of held in sufficient regard to be deemed a principle of belief. Just try dealing with an opponent that shifts and evaporates but never loses substance in working toward its goals.

  11. shinola

    If neoliberalism can be broken down to “Because markets” perhaps it could also be referred to as “Market Darwinism”.

    1. John Steinbach

      A fundamental difference between neoliberalism and classic economists like Ricardo & Smith is the latter’s adamant opposition to rent seeking and insistence on fighting it by taxation. Neoliberalism on the other hand not only accepts rent-seeking, but actively encourages it. Thus we see not only the ascendancy of of the FIRE sector, but the effective destruction of markets as mechanisms of price discovery.

      1. animalogic

        This is a key point. Michael Hudson has demonstrated this in the greatest depth & contrast.

    2. polecat

      ‘Neoliberalism’ is but a tick-et .. to the Grifter’$ Ball !

      .. and The Grifters now have no need for masks ..

  12. Di Modica's Dumb Steer

    Also, Yves, thanks a million for these enlightening neoliberalism articles. I’ve had quite a bit of trouble in the past putting my political beliefs in the appropriate context; a general feeling of malaise and overall mistrust of free-trade agreements and big corporations without anything to really back it up is usually a one-way ticket to losing an argument and being labelled an old crank. Being able to put a name on something you know doesn’t smell right, and finding a framework that allows others to spot it, is a hell of a leg up.

    It always reminds me of the index (or aside, or supplementary reading, whatever it was) that accompanied my copy of 1984. It basically said that controlling the common language and not allowing for terminology to define certain things (in this case, pulling the ‘first two rules of Fight Club’ thing – thanks, johnnygl!) was key to keeping those things essentially invisible, and those afflicted by the maladies off-balance and unable to organize against them. That bit of Orwell made sense then, but it has really been hitting home after reading some of these articles.

    For anyone who missed it, this one was also particularly great.

  13. Susan the other

    Neoliberalism is just another damn thing… that externalizes and socializes costs. It is a very costly thing. But I’m more inclined to think that no isms exist anywhere in the real world in any constructive way – they are all just mental reflexes useful for rationalizing irresponsibility and procrastination. And self interest. We might as well just say economicism. Interesting comment by the author about the sociology of knowledge. No doubt there is a sensible mantra somewhere chanting: Do what works. Because if evolution had been evolutionism we’d all be extinct. The only thing sticking in my dottering old head these days is Ann Pettifor’s last question: Please, please can you just tell us how the economy actually works?

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      Much as I regard your past comments, I must disagree with your assertion “Neoliberalism is just another damn thing… that externalizes and socializes costs”. Neoliberalism does indeed externalize and socialize costs but it is more than just another damn thing. Just the scale and scope of the think tank network assembled and well funded to promote the concepts of the Neoliberal thought collective should be adequate to convince you that it is much more than “just another damn thing”.

      Consider just the visible portion of the think tanks which are part of the Neoliberal thought collective. “Today, Atlas Network connects more than 450 think tanks in nearly 100 countries. Each is writing its own story of how principled work to affect public opinion, on behalf of the ideas of a free society, can better individuals’ lives.” Members of the network include: AMERICAN ENTERPRISE INSTITUTE, AMERICAN LEGISLATIVE EXCHANGE COUNCIL (ALEC), AYN RAND INSTITUTE, CATO INSTITUTE, GOLDWATER INSTITUTE, HEARTLAND INSTITUTE, HERITAGE FOUNDATION … selected members from the 177 think tanks in the U.S. which are a part of the 475 partners in 92 countries around the globe. []. This is not “just another damn thing.”

      Next consider the state of the economics profession. Neoliberalism has taken over many major schools of economics and a large number of the economics journals. In a publish or perish world there are few alternatives to an adherence to some flavor of Neoliberal ideology. This is not “just another damn thing.” Consider how many national politicians are spouting things like there is ‘no such thing as society’. This is not “just another damn thing” — it is something much much more scary.

      1. Carey

        Thank you for this post. It is the methodical destruction of any possible alternatives to this totalizing and dehumanizing system that is most frightening to me.

  14. Sound of the Suburbs

    Neoliberalism is quite fuzzy and difficult to attack.

    Neoliberalism intellectual framework comes from the underlying neoclassical economics that can easily be attacked.

    Here’s George Soros.

    George Soros realised the economics was wrong due to his experience with the markets.

    What the neoclassical economists said about markets and his experience just didn’t compare, and he knew it was so wrong he never even bothered to look into what the economics said.

    George Soros ”I am not well qualified to criticize those theories, because as a market participant, I considered them so unrealistic that I never bothered to study them”

    Here is George Soros on the bad economics we have used for globalisation.

    He had been complaining for years and at last in 2008 the bankruptcy of the economics proved itself. With more widespread support, he set up INET (The Institute for New Economic Thinking) to try and put things right.

    Globalisation’s technocrats, trained in bad economics, never stood a chance.

  15. John D.

    “Those, like Ed Conway, who persist in claiming neoliberalism doesn’t even exist, may soon find themselves left behind by history.”

    During the last election, when leftist types were criticizing Hillary Clinton for her neoliberal tendencies, the Ed Conway approach was favored by the online Dem Party shills as the go-to response at mainstream liberal websites. In the comments sections of these places, I read quite a lot of out-and-out bullsh*t about neoliberalism not being real, and how charges of it had as much substance as similarly empty schoolyard taunts. If you said someone was a neoliberal, it had no more meaning than if you’d called them “poopy pants” or ‘booger breath.” And all this delivered with the usual blistering abuse thrown at anyone not willing to get down on all fours & kiss St. Hillary’s blessed pants suit. It got to the point where I finally had to stop visiting places like Lawyers, Guns and Money altogether. They had become unbelievably nasty and unpleasant to progressives.

  16. Sound of the Suburbs

    “One of the great achievements of neoliberalism has been to induce such a level of collective amnesia that it’s now once again possible to claim that these tenets are simply “fundamental economic rules” handed down directly from Adam Smith on tablets of stone, unchallenged and unchallengeable in the history of economic thought.”

    To prove this wrong read Adam Smith.

    Adam Smith observed the reality of small state, unregulated capitalism in the world around him.

    Adam Smith on rent seeking:

    “The labour and time of the poor is in civilised countries sacrificed to the maintaining of the rich in ease and luxury. The Landlord is maintained in idleness and luxury by the labour of his tenants. The moneyed man is supported by his extractions from the industrious merchant and the needy who are obliged to support him in ease by a return for the use of his money. But every savage has the full fruits of his own labours; there are no landlords, no usurers and no tax gatherers.”

    So, landlords, usurers and taxes all raise the cost of living and minimum wage. They suck purchasing power out of the real economy.

    Western housing booms have raised the cost of living and priced Western labour out of international markets leading to the rise of the populists.

    Trickledown, no it trickles up.

    Adam Smith on price gouging:

    “The interest of the dealers, however, in any particular branch of trade or manufactures, is always in some respects different from, and even opposite to, that of the public. To widen the market and to narrow the competition, is always the interest of the dealers. To widen the market may frequently be agreeable enough to the interest of the public; but to narrow the competition must always be against it, and can serve only to enable the dealers, by raising their profits above what they naturally would be, to levy, for their own benefit, an absurd tax upon the rest of their fellow-citizens.”

    So this is why hedge funds look for monopoly suppliers of drugs.

    Big is not beautiful in capitalism, it needs competition and lots of it.

    The interests of business and the public are not aligned.

    Adam Smith on lobbyists:

    “The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce which comes from this order ought always to be listened to with great precaution, and ought never to be adopted till after having been long and carefully examined, not only with the most scrupulous, but with the most suspicious attention. It comes from an order of men whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it.”

    Not surprising TTIP and TPP didn’t go down well with the public.

    The interests of business and the public are not aligned.

    Adam Smith on the 1%:

    “All for ourselves, and nothing for other people seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.”

    2017 – Richest 8 people as wealthy as half of world’s population
    They haven’t changed a bit.

    Adam Smith on Profit:

    “But the rate of profit does not, like rent and wages, rise with the prosperity and fall with the declension of the society. On the contrary, it is naturally low in rich and high in poor countries, and it is always highest in the countries which are going fastest to ruin.”

    Exactly the opposite of today’s thinking, what does he mean?

    When rates of profit are high, capitalism is cannibalising itself by:
    1) Not engaging in long term investment for the future
    2) Paying insufficient wages to maintain demand for its products and services

    Today’s problems with growth and demand.

    Amazon didn’t suck its profits out as dividends and look how big it’s grown (not so good on the wages).

    1. ChrisPacific

      The problem with Adam Smith is the same as for Keynes: people quote what they imagine he said, or what they want him to have said, rather than what he actually did say.

      Adam Smith at least wrote more clearly than Keynes did, which makes claims like that easier to refute.

      1. skippy

        Yet the problem with Smith is contextualizing the time and space he wrote of vs. that of Keynes. Keynes was not addressing a burgeoning industrialist – agrarian economy that had yet to employ oil to its potential with huge amounts of untapped natural resources still waiting in the wings and nary any counter prevailing force to this periods philosophical views.

        Even if the whole anglophone experience had a touch of the Council of Nicea tinge to it e.g. making nice between troublesome tribes within the fold.

        Keynes at least looked at the data and attempted to reflect what he discern “at the time” against the prevailing winds of doctrinaires contrary to all the sycophants.

        This is was the lesson he attempted to forward, howls from the sycophants is a tell.

    2. Paul O

      A reading of Smith’s ‘The Theory of Moral Sentiments’ written before, but revised after, WoN is also worthwhile.

      As is, as ever, Karl Polyani’s opening salvo against Smith’s take on ‘human market nature’ (my term). Everyone should read ‘The Great Transformation’ at least once.

      The 18th century was an interesting time. My take, only partially thought out, is that Smith’s later work was part of that move away from grand theorizing towards practical improvement of the human condition seen in so many thinkers of the mid-century period. (With the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 acting as something of a catalyst)

  17. WheresOurTeddy

    It is impossible to get someone to understand something when his paycheck depends on his not understanding it. – Upton Sinclair

  18. Ignacio

    Mr. Conway must be a fan of Mr. Fukuyama and his exercises for brain stunting. IMO,Fukuyama’s success depended very much on neoliberalism becoming dominant.

  19. Scott1

    I am here as a barometer for all of my studies in economics & finance have been undertaken for what is to adopt for a nation being built from the bottom up on the territories of airports. Airports suffer from John Commons “Cultural Lag” like how the future is here but not everywhere here. Ports, as seaports, airports, & spaceports, are now & related on into the future.

    Natural law, the status quo, & at the basics there were Americans blamed for the philosophy of Pragmatism. Pragmatism is said to be the only American Philosophy. Pragmatism is as simple as Existentialism. Like how there is nothing about Engineering that is considered theoretical I see Economics as an engineered system, not correctly to be named a philosophy.

    But here, it is. I mean here neoliberalism is a philosophy. (Comments here on Naked Capitalism amount to peer review.) Of particular recent merit has been the discussion of Guaranteed Income as compared to the Federal Jobs Guarantee. The FJG, is more pragmatic, during prime working years.

    When I was young I was never sold any philosophy as much as I went looking for things to believe, post Boy Scouts, like Rex & the rest of the militarized youth of America.

    What has to come first to make any great system is the goal. Just as in a Wright building or an airplane “Form follows Function”.

    A Civilization as the goal is a pragmatic statement of intent of the Governmental System, and all of them when exist to show for it International Law and the institutions created by the World Civilization in an all discovered world.

    Now all wars are Civil Wars & the argument, the conflict is as it ever has been: Civilization or Barbarism. “Civilized people work for what they have, & barbarians steal it.”
    or “Civilized people work for what they have & barbarians lie cheat & steal to get what they want.”

    It is not practical to aim, to have as the goal Utopia. Utopia turns into Dystopia.

    No, it is better to aim for Civilization.

    In so much as the current economic system in the West is engineered to create a Barbaric Power Class of Jet setters it ceases to be pragmatic.

    As an American I must attack philosophies & systems that legalize barbarism. Lately I am attacking Objectivism as Dystopian, and not an appropriate philosophy for such a powerful person as Paul Ryan.
    The Clinton destruction of a Pragmatic banking system is to be fought & reversed if civilization is to be saved.
    I do not see feudalism as civilized.

    I have been turned from a revolutionary into a counterrevolutionary when forced to fight for the FDR New Deal all over again.

      1. Massinissa

        I *think* its anti neoliberalism. But Its kinda hard to tell. Sort of word salad-y

        1. JBird

          It is word salady, but it’s not that bad, just seriously ADHD; the gist is that he uses this site as a guide to his study of economics and that neoliberalism is not a true economic philosophy but cover for the barbarian elites to pillage civilization.

    1. Norb

      In a way, this comment sums up the modern condition very well. Life is always about the struggle between the have and the have nots. “Civilization” is the human attempt to curb, or put a respectable face on the raw power struggle between the weak and the powerful. It is something worth fighting for if justice, equality under the law, and relief from human suffering is the goal. If greed and self-interest is the only goal, one can be considered a barbarian and resisted. In such a case, might makes right and the world is full of darkness and destruction.

      Short form- The elite are failing in their duty to humanity- and the rest of life on this planet. As a scapegoat, they call out anyone not with their agenda deplorables and double down on their barbarous ways. Greed, exploitation, and subjugation.

      Neoliberalism is the refinement of this basic human tendency for domination. It is a camouflaged form of oppression that is revealed through its ultimate effect, not what it does at the moment. A neoliberal is a disguised raider or conquerer.

  20. PKMKII

    This is an amateur take, but as I see it classical liberalism was pretty much wrecked by the combination of WWI, great depression, and WWII. The “everything laissez faire” ideology had simply taken too much damage from the reality of political economy. So it evolved, as it were, into three new ideologies: libertarianism, which faulted classical liberalism for not going far enough in reducing the state, which goes a long ways towards explaining why it’s not very popular; the liberal-left/FDR liberalism/SocDem position, which faulted classical liberalism for ignoring the social element, where there’s a heavy welfare state, enterprises are highly regulated, labor protections, but still private ownership and a capitalist class; and neoliberalism, which faulted classical liberalism for being ideologically unwilling to engage in the technocratic tinkering to right the ship, but still sees TIHOTFM as the center of the economy. The first is the religious orthodoxy response, the second is to put the market in the sandbox, and the third puts the state in the sandbox.

    1. Grebo

      My take, influenced by Polanyi, is that classical Liberalism collapsed with WWI. In Europe it was replaced with Socialism (of a sort), Social Democracy or Fascism. Sometimes switching around and taking a while to settle.
      In the US classical Liberalism had a glorious swansong in the 1920s but it finally died in 1929, giving way to Social Democracy in the New Deal.
      The Neoliberal project did not properly start until after WWII and did not take over until around 1980.

  21. EoH

    Nicely written and argued.

    Neoliberals prefer a strong state that promotes their ends, not one that opposes them, or has the ability to oppose the means and methods of private capital. That leaves the playing field with a single team.

    Neoliberals would have the state oppose the goals of others in society. To nurture that environment, neoliberals seek to redefine society and citizenship as consumerism. Woman’s only role is as one of the species Homo economicus. Neoliberals argue that since members of H. economicus exist in isolation, they have no need for the extensive mutual aid and support networks that neoliberals rely on to survive and prosper. Again, that leaves a single team on the playing field.

  22. Code Name D

    I would add tha neoliberlism is inharently about classisem. That the wealthy, because of their eduction, know more than poor people because of the lack of education. So when voters complain about the lack of jobs or the poor state of healthcare, the Clintionites wave it away because, well what do those poor people know anyway?

    One of the topics that pops up regulary, is the question “why can’t poor people tell how great the economey is doing?” -face palm- A question that took on fresh importants when Clintion lost the election.

    Ironicly, the converstion is now, why can’t poor people tell how shitty the economey is with Trump in charge. -dubble face palm-.

    1. JBird

      You only have to walk around San Francisco or Los Angeles to see that something is wrong with the current economic environment. This in the wealthy parts of California. There can be plenty of disagreement over the what, the why, and the solutions, but to demand that I ignore my lying eyes and believe their words’ truthiness is either insulting or insanity and maybe both.

  23. Jill

    Mirowski addressed this very issue in this paper –

    “The Political Movement that Dared not Speak its own Name: The Neoliberal Thought Collective Under Erasure” – In this paper I examine the disinclination to treat the Neoliberal political project as a serious intellectual project motivating a series of successes in the public sphere. Economists seem especially remiss in this regard.

  24. everydayjoe

    I disagree that neoliberalism is a thing. There are still only the conservative and liberal view points. My interpretation of them is as follows:
    -Conservative ideology stems from maintaining status quo, tradition, hierarchy and individual growth ( even at the cost of society). Religion dovetails this ideology as it is something passed on through generations.
    -Liberal ideology stems from growing the society( even at the cost of individual), challenging the status quo and breaking away from tradition.
    Neoliberalism to me is just a part of conservatism
    Here is the dictionary definition of conservatism;
    ” the holding of political views that favour free enterprise, private ownership, and socially conservative ideas.”
    A crude example would be to say that Libertarians are closet Republicans.

  25. Expat

    If I understand neoliberalism correctly it boils down to this:

    Whoever has money and power gets to make the rules within certain limits which are defined by:
    – Whether they get caught
    – Whether people understand what they are doing
    – How they market what they do
    – How much political power they have

    Success of the model is defined as success of the richest, most powerful actors. Anyone who does not succeed is labeled as having been inadequate, lazy, or socialist/communist/etc.

    Have I missed anything?

  26. eg

    The claim that neoliberalism does not exist reminds me of Baudelaire’s “la plus belle des ruses du Diable est de vous persuader qu’il n’existe pas!”

    (“the cleverest ruse of the Devil is to persuade you he does not exist!”)

    We frogs have been in the pot for so long now we’ve forgotten that there ever was a pond …

  27. Sound of the Suburbs

    “Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.” Irving Fisher 1929.

    The markets have a way of destroying everyone’s faith in the markets.

    I think they’ve forgotten now, let’s have another go.

    1920s/2000s – neoclassical economics, high inequality, high banker pay, low regulation, low taxes for the wealthy, robber barons (CEOs), reckless bankers, globalisation phase

    1929/2008 – Wall Street crash

    1930s/2010s – Global recession, currency wars, trade wars, rising nationalism and extremism

    Einstein’s definition of madness “Doing the same thing again and again and expecting to get a different result”

  28. brumel

    Neoliberalism is basically just liberalism in its contemporary form. The denial of its existence only confirms that.

  29. beachcomber

    A priori, what motivated Hayek’s, Mises’ and their associates’ programme from its conception in the ’30’s was that it was a *reaction* against the threat to freedom (as they defined it) which they considered to be posed by the onward march of what they termed “collectivism”, embodied not only by avowedly socialist governments (as in Austria) but also in that ostensible bulwark of capitalism the USA (whence Mises had emigrated), in the shape of the New Deal.

    Given that genesis, it baffles me that any historian can seriously question what was the true nature of the project which (led by Hayek) was conceived in response, which later became known as neoliberalism. It was conceived as a counter-offensive to what they identified as an insidious mortal threat to all the values they subscribed to – as in Hayek’s phrase “the road to serfdom”. How could any such counter-offensive be implemented other than through devising and putting into effect a plan of action? How could it ever *not* have been “a thing” (ie not possess objective reality) yet still achieve its specified objective – namely to defeat the chosen enemy? To assert that it was not is to fly in the face of logic and common sense.

    Doesn’t any serious historian need to deploy both of those faculties in good measure?

    1. EoH

      I agree that Hayek and others were engaged in a political movement that promoted intense opposition to social democratic experiments sweeping the West after WWII.

      Their chosen enemy seems to have been collective responses generally – governmental and social – except those that they approved of. Coincidentally, those seem to be approved of by their wealthy patrons. I don’t recall their vocal opposition to the trade associations, for example, that cooperated to promote the interests of the companies their patrons controlled.

      Hayek and others seem to have overreacted in their opposition to collective action, even while making exceptions for the social networking and persistent patron funding that promoted their own endeavours.

  30. The Prescription Was Clear

    From the article:

    “[…] Well, this one at least is half-true. Like literally every concept that has ever mattered, the concept of ‘neoliberalism’ is messy, it’s deeply contested […]”

    Way I see it, it happens to be extremely simple:

    Classical liberalism:

    “The state should leave us elites alone such that we may do what we must, it’s our plantations/factories/banks anyway!”

    And, when the former didn’t work (the conservative/aristocratic state didn’t leave them alone), came the neo-liberalism:

    We should take control of the state and insure that we are not molested by its services and that it disciplines the lower classes in our name!”

    Neo-liberalism is extremely old and the only exceptions to this “new” development were the so called “totalitarian” states (feared, by neo-libs, most of all things), which mainly disciplined the elites, with great success, I might add.

  31. The Prescription Was Clear

    Hmm, was my comment rejected or did the browser failed to post?


  32. bruce wilder

    In reply to several commenters, who have questioned why “neoliberalism” is not simply another name for the political expression/ambitions of the greed of the rich-and-powerful, aka conservatism.

    Although it serves the purposes of the rich-and-powerful rather well, I think “neoliberalism” as a rhetorical engine and set of ideas is the ideology of the 9.9%, the chattering classes of professionals and bureaucrats who need a cover story for their own participation in running the world for the benefit of the 0.1% These are the people who need to rationalize what they do and cooperate and coordinate among themselves and that’s a challenge because of their sheer numbers.

    If you try to examine neoliberalism as a set of aims or values or interests, I think you miss the great accomplishment of neoliberalism as a mechanism of social cooperation. Neoliberalism says it aims at freedom and social welfare and innovation and other good things. If neoliberalism said it aimed to make the richest 0.1% richer at the expense of everyone else, it would provoke political opposition from the 99% for obvious reasons. Including opposition from the 9.9% whom they need to run things, to run the state, run the corporations.

    Not being clear on what your true objectives are tends to be an obstacle to organizing large groups to accomplish those objectives. Being clear on the mission objective is a prerequisite for organizational effectiveness in most circumstances. The genius of neoliberalism is such that it is able to achieve a high degree of coordination in detail across large numbers of people, institutions, even countries while still professing aims and values to which few object. A high degree of coordination on implementing a political policy agenda that is variously parasitical or predatory on the 90%.

    You can say this is just hypocrisy of a type the rich have always engaged in, and that would be true. The predatory rich have always had to disguise their predatory or parasitical activity, and have often done so by embracing, for example, shows of piety or philanthropy. So, neoliberalism falls into a familiar albeit broad category.

    What distinguishes neoliberalism is how good it is at coordinating the activities of the 9.9% in delivering the goods for the 0.1%. For a post-industrial economy, neoliberalism is better for the mega-rich than Catholicism was for the feudalism of the High Middle Ages. I do not think most practicing neoliberals among the 9.9% even think of themselves as hypocrites.

    “Free markets” has been the key move, the fulcrum where anodyne aims and values to which no one can object meet the actual detailed policy implementation by the state. Creating a “market” removes power and authority from the state and transfers it to private actors able to apply financial wealth to managing things, and then, because an actual market cannot really do the job that’s been assigned, a state bureaucracy has to be created to manage the administrative details and financial flows — work for the 9.9%

    As a special bonus, the insistence on treating a political economy organized in fact by large public and private bureaucracies as if it is organized by and around “markets” introduces a high degree of economic agnatology into the conventional political rhetoric.

    [This comment sounded much clearer when I conceived of it in the shower this morning. I am sorry if the actual comment is too abstract or tone deaf. I will probably have to try again at a later date.]

    1. Carey

      Your last three paragraphs in particular were helpful to my understanding. Thank you.

  33. EoH

    Pierre Bourdieu, the great French sociologist, would say neoliberalism, like the devil, is one of those things that makes a priority of pretending it does not exist. (Bourdieu cited many others.) It makes it much harder for those whose interests it does not serve to fight it, like forcing someone to eat Jello with a single chopstick.

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