What is neoliberalism?

Vox.com Dec 2017

It’s hard to think of a term that causes more confusion, yet is more frequently used in political debate, than “neoliberalism.” It’s one thing to argue that the term should be discouraged or retired from public discussions, because it generates heat instead of light, but it is another to say that it doesn’t have any meaning or use. Jonathan Chait makes the second case in New York magazine.

Whenever I find myself reaching for “neoliberalism,” I look for a different phrase, simply because it will better communicate what I’m trying to convey. But if we throw away the term entirely, or ignore what it’s describing, we lose out on an important way of understanding where we are right now, economically speaking.

Neoliberalism, at its core, describes the stage of capitalism that has existed over the past 30 years, one that evolved out of the economic crises of the 1970s. The underpinnings of this stage are buckling under the weight of our own crises, perhaps even collapsing, all of it in ways we don’t yet understand. A careful consideration of the term can help us grasp a lot of what is going on in the world, especially as the Democratic Party looks to change.

Jonathan Chait’s sweeping condemnation of the word “neoliberal”

For Chait, the term neoliberal “now refers to liberals generally” and indiscriminately, regardless of what views they hold. The “basic claim is that, from the New Deal through the Great Society, the Democratic Party espoused a set of values defined by, or at the very least consistent with, social democracy,” but then, starting in the 1970s, “neoliberal elites hijacked the party.” However, the efforts at hijacking that the critics identify “never really took off,” in Chait’s view. As such, to use the term is simply to try “to win [an argument] with an epithet.”

Chait correctly points out that the left has historically been disappointed with the New Deal and Great Society, viewing them as lost opportunities. But he oversteps when he goes further to say that “neoliberal” is not only devoid of meaning, but that there was no essential shift in Democratic identity toward the end of the last century.

The difficulty of the term is that it’s used to described three overlapping but very distinct intellectual developments. In political circles, it’s most commonly used to refer to a successful attempt to move the Democratic Party to the center in the aftermath of conservative victories in the 1980s. Once can look to Bill Galston and Elaine Kamarck’s influential 1989 The Politics of Evasion, in which the authors argued that Democratic “programs must be shaped and defended within an inhospitable ideological climate, and they cannot by themselves remedy the electorate’s broader antipathy to contemporary liberalism.”

Galston and Kamarck were calling for a New Deal liberalism that was updated to be made more palatable to a right-leaning public, after Reagan and the ascendancy of conservatism. You might also say that they were calling for “triangulation” between Reaganism and New Deal liberalism — or, at worst, abandoning the FDR-style approach.

In economic circles, however, “neoliberalism” is most identified with an elite response to the economic crises of the 1970s: stagflation, the energy crisis, the near bankruptcy of New York. The response to these crises was conservative in nature, pushing back against the economic management of the midcentury period. It is sometimes known as the “Washington Consensus,” a set of 10 policies that became the new economic common sense.

These policies included reduction of top marginal tax rates, the liberalization of trade, privatization of government services, and deregulation. These became the sensible things for generic people in Washington and other global headquarters to embrace and promote, and the policies were pushed on other countries via global institutions like the International Monetary Fund. This had significant consequences for the power of capital, as the geographer David Harvey writes in his useful Brief Introduction to Neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism – the doctrine that market exchange is an ethic in itself, capable of acting as a guide for all human action – has become dominant in both thought and practice throughout much of the world since 1970 or so. Its spread has depended upon a reconstitution of state powers such that privatization, finance, and market processes are emphasized. State interventions in the economy are minimized, while the obligations of the state to provide for the welfare of its citizens are diminished. David Harvey, author of ‘The New Imperialism’ and ‘The Condition of Postmodernity’, here tells the political-economic story of where neoliberalization came from and how it proliferated on the world stage. While Thatcher and Reagan are often cited as primary authors of this neoliberal turn, Harvey shows how a complex of forces, from Chile to China and from New York City to Mexico City, have also played their part. In addition he explores the continuities and contrasts between neoliberalism of the Clinton sort and the recent turn towards neoconservative imperialism of George W. Bush. Finally, through critical engagement with this history, Harvey constructs a framework not only for analyzing the political and economic dangers that now surround us, but also for assessing the prospects for the more socially just alternatives being advocated by many oppositional movements.

The upshot of such policies, as the historical sociologist Greta Krippner notes, was to shift many aspects of managing the economy from government to Wall Street, and to financiers generally.

Chait summarizes this sense of the term in the following way: It simply “means capitalist, as distinguished from socialist.” But what kind of capitalism? The Washington Consensus represents a particularly laissez-faire approach that changed life in many countries profoundly: To sample its effects, just check out a book like Joseph Stiglitz’s Globalization and its Discontents. The shock therapy of mass privatization applied to Russia after the Soviet collapsed, for example, reduced life expectancy in that country by five years and ensured that Russia was taken over by strongmen and oligarchs.

International pressure forced East Asian countries to liberalize their capital flows, which led to a financial crisis that the IMF subsequently made use of to demand even more painful austerity. The European Union was created to facilitate the austerity that is destroying a generation in such countries as Greece, Portugal, and Spain. (The IMF itself is reexamining its actions over the past several decades; titles it has published, including Neoliberalism, Oversold?, demonstrate the broad usefulness of the term.)

Markets are defining more and more aspects of our lives

The third meaning of “neoliberalism,” most often used in academic circles, encompasses market supremacy — or the extension of markets or market-like logic to more and more spheres of life. This, in turn, has a significant influence on our subjectivity: how we view ourselves, our society, and our roles in it. One insight here is that markets don’t occur naturally but are instead constructed through law and practices, and those practices can be extended into realms well beyond traditional markets.

Another insight is that market exchanges can create an ethos that ends up shaping more and more human behavior; we can increasingly view ourselves as little more than human capital maximizing our market values.

This is a little abstract, but it really does matter for our everyday lives. As the political theorist Wendy Brown notes in her book Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, the Supreme Court case overturning a century of campaign finance law, Citizens United, wasn’t just about viewing corporations as political citizens. Kennedy’s opinion was also about viewing all politics as a form of market activity. The question, as he saw it, was is how to preserve a “political marketplace.” In this market-centric view, democracy, access, voice, and other democratic values are flattened, replaced with a thin veneer of political activity as a type of capital right.

You may not believe in neoliberalism, but neoliberalism believes in you

Why does this matter if you couldn’t care less about either the IMF or subjectivity? The 2016 election brought forward real disagreements in the Democratic Party, disagreements that aren’t reducible to empirical arguments, or arguments about what an achievable political agenda might be. These disagreements will become more important as we move forward, and they can only be answered with an understanding of what the Democratic Party stands for.

One highly salient conflict was the fight over free college during the Democratic primary. It wasn’t about the price tag; it was about the role the government should play in helping to educate the citizenry. Clinton originally argued that a universal program would help people who didn’t need help — why pay for Donald Trump’s kids? This reflects the focus on means-tested programs that dominated Democratic policymaking over the past several decades. (Some of the original people who wanted to reinvent the Democratic Party, such as Charles Peters in his 1983 article “A Neoliberal’s Manifesto,” called for means-testing Social Security so it served only the very poor.)

Bernie Sanders argued instead that education was a right, and it should be guaranteed to all Americans regardless of wealth or income. The two rivals came to a smart compromise after the campaign, concluding that public tuition should be free for all families with income of less than $125,000 — a proposal that is already serving as a base from which activists can build.

This points to a disagreement as we move forward. Should the Democratic Party focus on the most vulnerable, in the language of access and need? Or should it focus on everyone, in the language of rights?

We’ll see a similar fight in health care. The horror movie villain of Republican health care reform has been killed and thrown into the summer camp lake, and we’re all sitting on the beach terrified that the undead body will simply walk right back out. In the meantime, Democrats have to think about whether their health care goals will build on the ACA framework or whether they should more aggressively extend Medicare for more people.

Chait argues that “[t]he Democratic Party has evolved over the last half-century, as any party does over a long period of time. But the basic ideological cast of its economic policy has not changed dramatically since the New Deal.” Whether you believe that’s true hinges on what you think of the relative merits of public and private provisioning of goods. For there was clearly some change in Democratic policymaking — and, arguably, in its “ideological cast” — sometime between 1976 and 1992. It became much more acceptable to let the private market drive outcomes, with government helping through tax credits and various nudges. One influential 1992 book, Reinventing Government, by David Osborne and Ted Gaebler, described a government that should “steer, not row.” (FDR believed government could and should row.)

Another place we can see a break in the Democratic Party is in its view of full employment. Between 1944 and 1988, the phrase “full employment” was found in every Democratic Party platform and was commonly mentioned in Democratic State of the Union addresses. As an excellent new report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a group called Fed Up, and the Center for Popular Democracy underscores, full employment was also a core demand of the civil rights movement. Then it disappeared, and was only put back in the platform for the 2016 election.

This reflects different views of how the economy works. If it generally works for everyday people, then the most important thing is focusing on education and access. There’s generally no role for government action, outside technocratic tweaks, in making sure we are at full employment. The side that views the economy as underperforming for everyone, no matter what their skill set looks like, would emphasize macroeconomic structural factors more, as Democrats did before 1989.

Or take the general stance toward the business community. Another policy concern that has entered, and departed, the Democratic platform over time is the antitrust agenda — worries about the concentration of big business. The 2016 Democratic platform said: “Large corporations have concentrated their control over markets to a greater degree than Americans have seen in decades” and that Democrats “will make competition policy and antitrust stronger and more responsive.” Again, that marked a return of language that was prevalent in the mid-century period but that disappeared after 1988.

Another change that “neoliberal” Democrats brought to the party was a less skeptical attitude toward the financial industry. Once in favor of keeping financiers in check, Democrats became much more deferential to the industry. An influential 1997 book by Bob Litan and Jonathan Rauch, American Finance for the 21st Century, argued that the New Deal approach was dated and that Congress should place “a greater reliance on more targeted interventions to achieve policy goals rather than broad measures, such as flat prohibitions on certain activities.” We still live with this battle.

We can leave it to the historians to piece together why and how Democrats made the decision to shift course in the 1980s, emphasizing means testing, privatization of key government services, education as a cure-all, and a trusting attitude toward large business. But they did, and we have to figure out what comes next. We need a full break with what happened before, both because the times are different and because the recent solutions — whatever word you use to describe them — aren’t cutting it anymore.

Mike Konczal, a Vox columnist, is a fellow with the Roosevelt Institute, where he works on financial reform, unemployment, inequality, and a progressive vision of the economy. He also blogs at Rortybomband his Twitter handle is @rortybomb.

The Big Idea is Vox’s home for smart discussion of the most important issues and ideas in politics, science, and culture — typically by outside contributors. If you have an idea for a piece, pitch us at thebigidea@vox.com.