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When We Talk About Neoliberalism

The current debates over neoliberalism’s possible futures risk losing sight of what’s most important: understanding a changing capitalist system in order to resist it.

Margaret Thatcher shares a joke with Ronald Reagan at 10 Downing Street. (Keystone / Getty Images)

Do certain features of contemporary capitalism, such as authoritarian nationalism, the rise of China, or the extraordinary power of the tech corporations signal the end, or the beginning of the end, of neoliberalism? This question has been the subject of some interesting recent debate among scholars and left intellectuals.

On the question of what is usually called the ‘populist right’, historian Quinn Slobodian has demonstrated considerable ideological congruity between neoliberalism and contemporary forms of political reaction. In response, economist and political commentator James Meadway has argued against a focus on ideology. For Meadway, neoliberalism should be understood not as an ideology but as a set of practices in the institutions of the global economy—practices that are now being superseded. Other notable contributors to this debate include the economic historian Adam Tooze, who is particularly concerned with the impact of China and the pandemic, and sociologist Paolo Gerbaudo, who sees in neostatism a new logic of capitalism at odds with the core tenets of neoliberalism.

This recent spate of articles builds on longstanding debates about the nature and the future of neoliberalism which go back at least to the global financial crisis of 2008. Political scientist Colin Crouch wrote of The Strange Non-death of Neo-liberalism a decade ago, and several neologisms emerged around that time as analysts attempted to capture the complexities and contradictions: authoritarian neoliberalism, zombie neoliberalism, mutant neoliberalism, etc.

What’s at stake here, as Will Davies has noted in a recent special issue on ‘post-neoliberalism’, is not just the analysis of the history of the present, but the identification of significant emergent trends in politics and the economy. The crucial political question is where capitalist societies are headed, and therefore how we can best intervene to avert social and ecological disaster. Focusing too much on the concept of neoliberalism risks obscuring these questions.

This is not another article obtusely rejecting neoliberalism as a concept. In fact, I think it’s crucial to any serious political analysis. But I also think we should acknowledge not only that neoliberalism is an ‘essentially contested concept’, as the academic cliché has it, but that it is a term that can quite legitimately be used to refer to a very broad range of ideas, events, structures, and practices.

In many cases, debates about the ontology of neoliberalism (i.e. arguments around what it is or isn’t, was or wasn’t) are rooted in analyses of quite different aspects or facets, and reflect theoretical differences between intellectual traditions and disciplines. For a political economist, neoliberalism might be understood as a stage in the development of capitalism; for an intellectual historian, a set of ideas associated with particular writers; for a Foucauldian social theorist, a form of governmentality producing certain types of subjects. Different theoretical and methodological approaches use very different definitions, and naturally this can lead to confusion and to less effective synthesis of knowledge.

The natural impulse therefore is to seek to consolidate different approaches under a single agreeable definition, but I think it’s a mistake to hope to adequately capture a multifaceted sociohistorical phenomenon like neoliberalism under a single definition. Nevertheless, I do think we can bring the many different perspectives on neoliberalism into something like a coherent synthesis, or at least a more productive dialogue.

The way I think about this is sequential. Like other political movements (e.g. socialism/social democracy, feminism, fascism, Christian Evangelicalism), neoliberalism began as a network of intellectuals and activists linked to particular class and social groups who developed distinct ideas and practices, and built networks and institutions. At the heart of this endeavour in the case of neoliberalism was the Mont Pelerin Society, the main organisation through which the pioneers developed their worldview and project, and the hub from which they built other institutions, and won support in civil society, business, and the formal political sphere. (This process has been studied by scholars from a range of disciplines, but particularly by intellectual historians.)

Politicians influenced by this network (or movement) of intellectuals and ideologues looked to operationalise these ideas politically, and in doing so sought to broaden their natural support base. In most cases they did this by building alliances with reactionary elites and socially conservative groups and movements, and in many cases they did so by leveraging an actual or perceived social crisis (as Naomi Klein makes central to her account). In the US and UK this process was electoral. In Chile it was brutally authoritarian. It produced different outcomes in different societies and political systems as an already diverse set of ideas was adapted and developed through different political coalitions and in different circumstances. (This has been a particular focus of political scientists and historians.)

With the movement into the state, either by force or electoral process, we reach a new phase. Policies are developed to restructure markets and social institutions (including the state) according to neoliberal precepts. While macroeconomic policy tended to be the initial focus, the attention of neoliberal intellectuals, politicians, and policymakers soon turned to any social institutions embodying public or non-market values, e.g. health, education, public service media, art and culture, the professions. The process of policy development and implementation was long, messy, and path dependent, and was shaped by the structure of particular states, and the nexus of (largely but not solely capitalist) interests that shape policymaking. It saw advances and retreats, negotiations, compromises, and experimentation. Again, in different settings it produced very different outcomes. (This has been a particular focus for economists, political scientists and sociologists, and scholars of social policy and international relations, etc.)

As policies begin to bed down in national and global power structures and markets, and in the fabric of everyday life, and as ideas increasingly circulate in popular culture, we begin to see the sort of structures and effects associated in academic writing with neoliberal governance and with what Veronica Gago has termed ‘neoliberalism from below’. Reforms empower particular institutions, agents, and practices. Marketised bureaucracies incentivise and reward certain behaviours. This inculcates certain ways of acting and thinking about the world, ourselves, and our relationship with each other. (This has been a particular focus for scholars in political philosophy, critical theory, cultural studies, etc.)

This is all rather schematic of course, and it is worth emphasising that each stage continues to shape the others. So the ‘upstream’ intellectuals, for example, don’t cease to be significant as their ideas are picked up by politicians in the 1970s. They produce new policy ideas and respond to new political and economic events and conditions, and along with policy actors they work to develop and ‘translate’ neoliberal ideas in different times and places. Meanwhile, politicians continually work to build and renew political coalitions. The key point is that we are not dealing here with a discreet and bounded social phenomenon, but rather a highly complex process of social change. A degree of theoretical and methodological heterogeneity and a diversity of definitions in writing on neoliberalism is therefore entirely appropriate.

In such a situation, there will clearly never be a definitive answer to the simple question of whether neoliberalism is dead or dying, or the related question of whether certain trends should be seen as a break from it. For those who think of neoliberalism as a certain set of beliefs about the world that legitimise and obscure underlying social relations, then it made sense to claim, as many did, that the global financial crisis of 2008 sounded its death knell. With the bailing out of the banks, and essentially the entire economic system, the myth of the free market was exposed for all to see. However, for those who see neoliberalism as a system of governance producing certain forms of political subjectivity, only a much more profound political and cultural shift could ever break its hold.

The danger in debates around the nature and future of neoliberalism is that different disciplinary, theoretical, and methodological approaches, each of which may capture different aspects of the same phenomenon, become elevated to a conceptual level that makes productive dialogue more difficult. This means everyone just talks past each other. Litigating around a preferred definition is unlikely to advance our understanding or insight. What matters is the underlying political and strategic questions at stake.