Friday, 20 May 2016

There is no such thing as neoliberalism. It's just the left's favourite straw bogeyman.


There is no such thing as neoliberalism. At least not as an ideology that determines the policies of governments across the globe. Trust me on this - there really isn't a thing called neoliberalism. Except in the febrile minds of people who think sociology is a science, go on marches against capitalism and join organisations with names like 'Cuba Solidarity'.

I know you don't believe me - after all there's all this guffle on Wikipedia to turn to:

Neoliberalism (or sometimes neo-liberalism)[1] is a term which has been used since the 1950s,[2] but became more prevalent in its current meaning in the 1970s and 80s by scholars in a wide variety of social sciences[3] and critics[4] primarily in reference to the resurgence of 19th century ideas associated with laissez-faire economic liberalism.[5] Its advocates support extensive economic liberalization policies such as privatization, fiscal austerity, deregulation, free trade, and reductions in government spending in order to enhance the role of the private sector in the economy.[6][7][8][9][10][11][12] Neoliberalism is famously associated with the economic policies introduced by Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom and Ronald Reagan in the United States.[7] The implementation of neoliberal policies and the acceptance of neoliberal economic theories in the 1970s are seen by some academics as the root of financialization, with the financial crisis of 2007–08 one of the ultimate results.[13][14][15][16][17]

That's a reference dense chunk of the on-line encyclopedia. But trust me folks, there simply isn't an ideology out there called 'neoliberalism' - it's just a tag applied by people, typically but not exclusively socialists, who oppose free markets, free trade and globalisation. The whole and enormous body of academic 'knowledge' around neoliberalism is, in essence, a colossal straw man constructed from the prejudices of left-wing academics with its framework filled in by the echo chamber of socialist punditry. It is the bogeyman that left-wing mums and dads use to scare their children. It is the scary monster that keeps young socialists from straying. It is a myth.

You still don't believe me? Let's look a little further. If I search on-line a little I can find a bewildering array of socialist organisations - socialist doctors, socialist lawyers, socialist economists (an oxymoron if ever one existed), socialist christians, socialist scientists. People place themselves in a spectrum of socialism - my geography lecturer at university proudly described himself as a 'radical Marxist geographer (whatever that may actually mean). As an ideology, socialism is very well embedded in our culture. Indeed, in academic humanities and social sciences (HSS), socialism in its various guises is the dominant orthodoxy - being anything other than left wing in these HSS disciplines is almost unheard of.

Apply the same test to neoliberalism - supposedly the dominant ideology of our times - and there is nothing. There aren't any Neoliberal Societies at universities, there is no Neoliberal Lawyers Association, no neoliberal doctors groups, not even any neoliberal economist clubs. As ideologies go neoliberalism is spectacularly unsuccessful - no-one identifies with the belief, there is no body of writing promoting the creed, and there are no organisations basing their political message around neoliberalism. There is no such thing as neoliberalism - it's simply a collation of things left wing people dislike or disagree with, a convenient set of 'attitudes' as one tweeter proclaimed.

Here's an example of how the users of the term neoliberalism are confused:

So the gist of this argument - it's from Alex Andreou - is that climate change deniers and opponents of the European Union are neoliberals. And that the essence of neoliberalism is opposed to taxation, to international co-operation and state intervention. Indeed that neoliberals are ideologically wedded to greed and short-termism. OK I've got that - neoliberalism is about rent-seeking and protectionism.

Or is it? Here's some more neoliberals:

They are single-minded about the irreversible transformation of society, ruthless about the means, and in denial about the fallout. Osborne – smirking, clever, cynical, "the smiler with the knife" – wields the chopper with zeal. Cameron – relaxed, plausible, charming, confident, a silver-spooned patrician, "a smooth man" – fronts the coalition TV show.

Neither of these men are opposed to the EU or deniers of climate change and the need for action. Yet they are neoliberals - they support international co-operation, oppose protectionism and support free trade (more-or-less). Yet despite this they are neoliberals. And the only reason they are described as such is because they are also opposed to the ideas of the regressive left - economic stasis, state direction of the economy, isolationism and an over-powerful government.

There is no such thing as neoliberalism. Not once it's definition is so vague that it can encompass radical libertarians like the Koch brothers as well as populist protectionists like Nigel Farage. If Don Boudreaux, doyen of academic libertarians, is a neoliberal there is no way in which Hillary Clinton can be a neo-liberal. This is the core of the problem - neoliberalism is not a recognisable ideology:

What Boas and Gans-Morse found, based on a content analysis of 148 journal articles published from 1990 to 2004, was that the term is often undefined. It is employed unevenly across ideological divides; it is used to characterise an excessively broad variety of phenomena.

That is academic speak for neoliberalism is an empty slogan.

So next time you read some cheerful left-wing pundit and, about half way through their measured and considered analysis of some or other issue, the word 'neoliberal' crops up - maybe something like: "this is a result of neoliberal economics..." - remember that there is no such thing as neoliberalism, nobody self-identifies as a neoliberal, it is just a convenient way to describe something that the left-wing pundit dislikes. A convenient set of "attitudes" those left wing folk attribute to entrepreneurs, to conservative politicians, to directors of international institutions and to bankers.

There is no such thing as neoliberalism. It is just the left's favourite straw bogeyman.



Unknown said...

Here's a nice article on Neoliberalism to give you a better understanding of the topic

Zsuzsa said...

The term neo-liberalism is an affront to liberals everywhere and frankly, the term infuriates me. Neo-liberalism is a construct that doesn’t exist and yet it has become a whipping boy of everyone in opposition to something, anything. It is brandied about like mind candy to confuse all left wing thinkers and to pin them in opposition of themselves rather than against our new bosses, global capitalism. Surely, a better description of neo-liberalism is neo-feudalism.