U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Bleg: Help Me Learn About Late Twentieth-Century American Neoliberalism

I beg your assistance and advice in helping me learn more about late twentieth-century Neoliberalism in the United States. I’m trying to get up-to-speed in two ways. First, I want to find the most authoritative voice or voices in specifically defining Neoliberalism. Second, I want to know something more about the most thoughtful, contemporary critics of Neoliberalism (I’m sure they trace their thinking back to C. Wright Mills somehow).

I make these requests because my graduate and undergraduate educations were deficient, by choice mostly, in terms of thinking about contemporary politics and economic practice. I suppose this isn’t a surprising omission in terms of training for cultural and intellectual history, plus the history of education. With my specialties and weaknesses in mind, I need to learn something about the idea of Neoliberalism for a top-secret article on which I am presently working. I say “top secret” in jest, but all I want to say about it at this point is this: it is related to the history of education in late twentieth-century America. My problem with the already drafted article, and a problem seconded by early reviewers, is that it uses too many full-frontal terms like “greed” and hypocrisy in its analysis. It was suggested that Neoliberalism was the idea I was talking around. But to incorporate some more nuanced terminology related to Neoliberalism and its critics into my text, I need some books and names for my footnotes.

What do I know already? Well, not much aside from Mills, but here is what I have gathered so far:

(a) Neoliberalism is a market-oriented line of thinking with regard to the traditional projects of liberalism (welfare, health care, education, infrastructure, etc.). It seems to be a conciliatory political variation, safe for Democrats, of Milton Friedman’s thinking.
(b) Bill Clinton and his community of discourse were highly influenced by Neoliberalism. This includes people like Robert Rubin [corrected from first post—see comment below].
(c) Thanks to an earlier post by fellow USIH contributor Andrew Hartman, I know that Eve Chiapello and Luc Boltanski’s The New Spirit of Capitalism is a related theoretical text. I don’t know whether their bias is critical?
(d) This Wikipedia entry on Neoliberalism looks helpful. What are its weaknesses? From the entry it looks like John Williamson’s 10 policy points might be a nice starting point for a definition of Neoliberalism.

Thanks in advance for your help. – TL

20 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Who Put the Neo in the Neoliberalism


    There’s so many ways to approach the concept of neoliberalism, but for intro US history students I take this simplified approach. Tell me what you think:

    In the 18th and 19th centuries, liberalism stuck to its Lockean and Adam Smith focus on maximizing individual liberty (hence the name). This meant searching for ways to protect the individual from encroachment by the government. Whether through contract (Locke) or through capitalism (as opposed to mercantilism for Smith), a liberal defended the individual against government.

    Of course, now that sounds like the exact opposite of what we call a liberal in the U.S. Now a liberal is, supposedly, someone who wants “big government.” What happened?

    Short answer: the Great Depression. Long answer: progressivism and the Great Depression.

    What many in America and Europe began to grasp after the market meltdowns of the late 19th century and early to mid 20th century, as well as a particularly nasty Great War, was that government might actually be needed, not to limit liberty, but rather to maximize liberty. In industrial capitalism, without the mediation of government individuals wound up impoverished and immiserated. Hence modern liberalism.

    Now, Matrix-like, enters our fine prefix “Neo.” Neoliberals are old-school. They seek to return to the older form of liberalism, that of Locke and Smith (in doing so, many have pointed out, they misinterpret certain aspects of Locke and Smith, but never mind that). That is, they come back to the idea that the problem, the threat of tyranny against liberty, is with government. They reject modern liberalism for an older, classical liberalism, which they view as still relevant in the post-industrialized world.

    That’s my neoliberalism explanation for undergraduates in US history. Of course, it’s all more complex and perplexing than that, and many may want to tweak my narrative above, but I think it’s useful for students because it explains why the neo is in neoliberalism.

    Now, what about neoconservatism?!

  2. Michael,

    It’s ~always~ good to remind oneself of the survey-level version of events. Do you put a slide of Keanu Reeves behind you when you reach the end of the explanation? 😉

    Part of the reason I haven’t developed an internal narrative on this, even briefly like yours, is that heretofore I’ve never let myself discuss the Clinton administration in my post-Civil War survey. I hadn’t reached the point of trusting myself to look past my youthful assumptions, misinformation, prejudices, etc. and give a fair accounting of the 1990s to students. I’m not sure I’m there yet, but I think I’m getting closer.

    On my current project, what sources lurk behind your undergrad narrative? Feel free to cite less-than-rigorous stuff. My goal, per the post, is to consider some books/articles authoritatively as I contemplate integrating the term neoliberalism into my article.

    – TL

  3. Michael: I forgot to say that I substantially agree with your short narrative. I might say, however, in the last paragraph that neoliberals represent at attempt to return to a modified version of old school Smith and Lockean liberalism. The “modified” qualifier refers to the fact that neoliberals won’t accept a full rollback (i.e. no Social Security, etc.). But neoliberals want to return to market-based structures whenever politically possible. – TL

  4. this is maybe not helpful, but it seems to me that indeed neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism are of a piece, at least over the past few decades, and that the reasons for this have to do with something like the ‘re-purposing’ of the problematic associated with cold war liberalism. that is to say, what we see now is the ideological synthesis of market economics (neoliberal dating from the 1930s) with an interventionist and apostolic ideal of democracy (that is, a perversion of cold war anti-totalitarianism).

    david harvey wrote about a book about neoliberalism (which i now see cited on the wikipedia page). i vaguely remember seeing in panned somewhere…but david harvey is one of the leading marxist/marxian thinkers of ‘our day’ (very odd thing to say), so his book is perhaps worth taking as a point of reference.

  5. Andrew & Eric,

    Thanks! It helps to have these 2 reference points, at least. I’d like to have 2 each, however, in relation to both definition and criticism.

    As for the boundaries between Neoliberalism and Neoconservatism, well, in my limited exploration of the topics the differences do seem slight at times. The main point of departure seems to be (a) dates and (b) the names of the promoters. Someone should do a side-by-side comparison of Irving Kristol and either Reich or Summers. …But I might be getting in over my head with these specific references.

    – TL

  6. I thin you mean Robert Rubin, not Robert Reich. Reich is considered a pretty strong advocate of social democratic policies.

  7. Paul Krugman’s recent article in the NYT Magazine has some good stuff on the neoliberalism in economic scholarship and policy: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/06/magazine/06Economic-t.html?_r=1&em=&pagewanted=print. As I read the article, he calls it neoclassicism.

    I wonder in my comments above if it’s fair to bring Locke in to the picture. Sort of. But it’s really Adam Smith and economic policy that I think about when I read about neoliberalism.

    And yes, that David Harvey book is really good!

    The relationship between neoliberalism and neoconservatism always intrigues me. Maybe the problem is the University of Chicago, since they both seem to have come from there! I kid.

    It seems to me that neoliberalism is by and large an economic theory, or, er, neo-theory, or maybe better said, a pseudo-theory. While neoconservatism is much more of a political theory, concerned with whether the rulers should practice democracy, or make decisions that are not particularly grounded in democratic procedure, or even in truth, if it is justified. Milton Friedman = neoliberal. Leo Strauss = neoconservative. Free market economic faith = neoliberal. The political propaganda used in the buildup to the Iraq War = neoconservatism. Of course, it all gets more interesting in the U.S., where you have such strong libertarian and millennial streaks. Neoconservatives get in bed with what amount to religious radicals. Meanwhile neoliberals actually wind up in bed with people who use enlarged government to encourage monopolies and limit free market activity.

    But I start to rant. Thanks Tim for bringing up this topic. And I’m eager to hear from others who might want to critique, revise, or reject my US survey narrative of neoliberalism.


  8. Tim –

    Oops I just see now that none other than you yourself and you mentioned the Krugman article in an earlier post. Though I’m not sure he uses the term, I think one could substitute neo-liberal for neo-classical in his account with reasonable accuracy.

    I like Eric’s response above on the intriguing overlaps between neoliberalism and neoconservatism. The odd combination of laissez-faire economics and interventionist foreign policy (weak state vs. strong state, just in different sectors) is what I find so strange and fascinating.

    So if, as Irving Kristol claimed, a neo-conservative is a “liberal mugged by reality,” what does that make a neo-liberal?

  9. Michael–I really like your synthesis of neoliberalism. I would add that neoliberals think that the market is the best way not only to maximize freedom, but to maximize equality. This puts the “neo” in that brand of liberalism. It’s on this notion that critics like Harvey have had a field day.

    As for neoconservatism, it might converge with neoliberalism in that early adherents to both thought they were bringing their political ideologies up to date by incorporating some elements of the opposing ideology. Neoliberals took on pro-market ideals, neo-conservatives fancied themselves pro-civil rights and anti-racist, unlike an older brand of conservatism.

  10. Anon 7:48 pm: You’re correct. My bad. Rubin and not Reich.

    Bill Harshaw: Perhaps. He certainly wrote the manifesto!

    Michael: I suppose, per Krugman’s piece, there exists a taxonomy of traditional, moderate, and lefty neoliberals. I suppose the right side (traditional, 19th-century inspired) are neoclassical economic types. And those who favor the ~occasional~ state intervention are on the left side—Keynesians who have accommodated some of Friedman’s thinking (per the Krugman article). I think you might be on to something with the Neocon/Neolib split between politics and economics, respectively. Somehow I have a Neocon-libertarian association in my head. I’ll ponder that. On puns, perhaps neoliberals are “Friedmanites mugged by their consciences,” or “conservatives who’ve experienced bankruptcy”? But that only explains the rightward neoliberal taxonomy. Going to the left-side, my impulse was to pun that neoliberals are “lefties who’ve read Friedman.” I fear none of my attempts at humor really pass muster.

    Andrew: Good point about freedom ~and~ equality.

    On Harvey, I went to check it out of UIC’s library but found this message in the system for UIC’s one copy: “Overdue, assumed lost as of 07-10-09.” So I had to make do for my top secret essay.

    As for the essay in general, I had keep my in-text references definitions to neoliberalism succinct. And discursive footnotes are not allowed in the piece. But, the upside is that the story of the entity under consideration provides an example of neoliberal ideals. I eventually decided, in the introduction, to set up traditional mid-century (U.S.) liberalism against neoliberalism. I shortened (by necessity) my definition of the latter to the following:

    “[___X___] acquiesced to a market-friendly, corporate mentality (as opposed to doggedly holding onto its trusted non-profit status). The corresponding result is that growth, by itself, would seem to prove the necessity and overall success of [___X___]. “

    And here was my all-to-brief endnote (following the rules):

    “For more on neoliberalism, see David Harvey’s *A Brief History of Neoliberalism* (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005). For more on neoliberalism’s critics, see Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello’s *The New Spirit of Capitalism*, translated by Gregory Elliott (New York: Verso, 2005).”

    That’s it. I felt the participants in this comment thread deserved to know something of my end product.

    Thanks for your help! – TL

  11. And of course my reading in Harvey, as well as Boltanski and Chiapello, was sadly brief—just enough to get the gist and confirm the good word of the recommendations here. – TL

  12. I found two more reflections on neoliberalism. Both are quite recent. This one relates to neoliberalism and higher education in a transnational sense. The Decasia weblog is run by Eli Thorkelson, a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Chicago. This other one, written by Kevin Karpiak, links neoliberalism to Foucault’s “What is Critique?” essay. Here’s more on Karpiak.

  13. A couple more things to add to the mix:

    The term “neoliberalism” was used in a very different way in American politics in the 1980s. Then it was claimed by Democrats like Gary Hart, who represented a more centrist and technocratic politics than more traditional liberals. If memory serves the term was a particular favorite of The New Republic during the mid-1980s. By the end of the 1980s, it had largely been replaced by “New Democrat” or “Third Way,” which are the terms that the Clinton administration tended to use.

    Also economic neoclassicism and neoliberalism are not the same thing. Neoclassical economics began at the turn of the last century. The term “neoclassical” was coined by Thorstein Veblen to describe economics after the marginalist revolution. Today it’s used broadly to describe mainstream economic thought. Neoliberalism, at least according to David Harvey, is a product of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

    What’s called “new classical” economics (associated with the rational expectations school) is a little closer to neoliberalism temporally but is still not quite the same thing.

  14. I’d second Ben’s comments. The New Republic under Michael Kinsley of the mid-80s was the home of serious neo-liberalism. Mickey Kaus and much of the original Slate staff came out of the neo-liberal movement. I’d say that many neo-liberals were folks who moved right after Carter but never left the Democratic Party fold, whereas the neo-conservatives (not @ a philosophical level but rather day-to-day political level) moved into the Republican/broader conservative movement.

  15. Ben, David (and everyone else too!) –

    Okay, point taken about the differences between neoclassicism and neoliberalism, particularly their historical contexts of origin, and also, as I take your comments to emphasize, one is a term about economic theory and the other a term about political practice. But, that said, aren’t both terms, broadly speaking, part of a shared ideological position? Both the neoclassicists critiqued by Veblen and the New Republic, New Democrat crowd of the 80s/90s worshipped free markets and rational-choice theory; and both share a kind of nostalgia to get back to some lost, pure way of abstractly imagining the complex, modern world? Whereas modern liberalism (Keynes, FDR) thought markets could go haywire, were deeply imperfect, thought people were irrational, and therefore believed that markets and society needed to be regulated by the state in order to maximize freedom and equality?

    Or do you think there are fundamental ideological differences between neoclassical economists and neoliberals other than their different points of origin and their different fields of pertinence?

    I welcome your thoughts.

    Speaking of labels, cool EJ Dionne article about Irving Kristol and the origins of the term neoconservative: http://voices.washingtonpost.com/postpartisan/2009/09/learning_from_irving_kristol.html.

  16. I would say some neo-liberals were also neo-classicists but not all. Some were seemed to argue that the answers of 60s liberalism had failed so new technocratic methods should be tried – though I would agree they had probably imbibed more Hayek than Keynes even if they didn’t admit it. A guy like James Q. Wilson straddled the line between neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism.

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