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Down with neoliberalism . . . as a concept

Down with neoliberalism . . . as a concept

Originally published: Marxist Sociology Blog by Bill Dunn (December 19, 2018)  

I think the left should stop talking about ‘neoliberalism’, as I argue in a recent journal article published in Capital & Class.

I should first acknowledge that others, not properly referenced here, have said similar things more eloquently than I am capable. But I hope I can make a few more people stop to think about what exactly they mean when they use the term and ask themselves whether they could do without it.

I should also stress that I’m saying it is the left who talk about neoliberalism and who should stop. Our opponents don’t use the concept so we are not engaging with them when we speak a different language. Sometimes it is perfectly reasonable to talk amongst ourselves and I’ll come back to this. But I do think that, particularly as an adjective, for ‘neoliberal’ we could often better substitute something like ‘horrid’ or ‘beastly’ to express our left-liberal, nostalgic disapproval.

Let’s start with the nostalgic disapproval. It seems to me that neoliberalism often invokes a yearning for a gentler, kinder capitalism of an age now lost. We recall the gentler, kinder capitalism of the 1950s and 1960s. Give us back women in the home, homosexuality in the closet, militants across much of the Third and Second Worlds in jail if they were lucky. Give us back India’s life expectancy of 41 as it was in 1960 not 68 as it is now. Give us back the gentler, kinder capitalism of Jim Crow, McCarthyism and World War II.

OK, I’m overdoing it for rhetorical effect. I agree that for the left the balance sheet of the last 40-odd years is negative. Union decline and rising inequality in most rich countries and in many poorer ones, outweigh the gains. But there should be a careful weighing-up, rather than the general opprobrium that neoliberalism too often invokes.

Of course, many accounts of neoliberalism are subtlety itself. The problem is they are subtle in all sorts of different ways. They stress ideas or structural change. They stress state retreat or how strong states discipline labour. They base themselves on Foucault or on Marx. They find neoliberalism in high politics and everyday life, in war and financial derivatives, in hospital privatisations and reality TV. As James Laidlaw says, the concept has become ‘so baggy and unclear that it means almost nothing’.

Let me turn to the left-liberal Britishness. I did an Internet search of some newspapers which produced this remarkable Table. The other terms, liberalism, socialism, capitalism are ‘controls’, as it were.

Table 1: Number of references in searches of leading newspapers
NeoliberalismLiberalismSocialismCapitalism
Guardian285,000214,000908,000864,000
New York Times11014,29734,19426,322
Daily Telegraph15541,63473,966358,824
Washington Post11939,506127,361114,672
Daily Mirror237,38235,80926,459
Daily Mail84651,2242,615
Terms searched on online sites, 16 February 2016

As expected, the right-wing newspapers, the Washington Post, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail hardly every mention neoliberalism. But nor does the left-liberal American New York Times or the populist British Daily Mirror. It’s a concept for Guardian readers. Now I plead guilty. And of course there are exceptions. I’m talking tendencies not absolutes. But neoliberalism as Guardian-speak is a worry.

Which brings me back to the left talking amongst ourselves.

This makes sense if concepts help us identify how the world works or what to do about it. We don’t ask our opponents’ permission to talk about exploitation or how to organise a strike. But I think that rather than helping to identify what is happening, or what should be done, neoliberalism tends just to shout a very general ‘Down with this sort of thing’.

At best, because the term has been used in so many different ways, we almost always need to re-trace our steps to establish what exactly we mean by neoliberalism, what exactly we are supposed to oppose and how we might do it. In which case, why not cut to the chase without bothering with the term?

Worse, the term lends itself to mirror-image inversions of the facile libertarian mantra that the market is good and the state bad. As ever, contradictory diversity reigns and many of neoliberalism’s advocates avoid any simplistic pro-state conclusion but it seems worth re-stating both that socialists often have to defend liberal principles, things like democracy, migration and free-speech from attacks by the state, and that the capitalism is not liberal and has not recently become more liberal.

So the term neoliberalism is misleading, as Clive Barnett has said, not a tool but an obstacle to working out how the world works and how it changes. Nor does it help us identify what we should do.


Bill Dunn works in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney.

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