U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Defending My Title

Yesterday I signed a contract with UNC press for a book based on my dissertation.  The working title of the project, which differs slightly from the title of my dissertation, goes like this:

Canon Wars:
The 1980s Western Civ Debates at Stanford and
the Triumph of Neoliberalism in Higher Education

As I’ve mentioned on the blog before, I’m a little skittish about the “wars” part of the title, and I’m hoping I can come up with something better when it’s time to worry about such things.

But I’m not skittish about the use of the term “neoliberalism” — though plenty of my historian friends think I should be!

I am working under the assumption that “neoliberalism” is a useful umbrella term to describe the interconnected and (generally) explicitly articulated ideas, principles, political views and ideological commitments that have ended up running the table in higher education and much else besides.

Without getting too far into the devilish details of my project or plunging right away into the twists and turns of my argument/analysis — that’s what the book is for, after all — I will simply say that “neoliberalism” as an abstract term describes a school of thought privileging the “free market” not as a neutral mechanism for the efficient allocation of resources within a very broad (but still, in the end, limited) sphere, but rather as a positive moral force for determining social values in every sphere of human life.

Historically, the term “neoliberalism” is older than many people assume — it dates to the 1930s, not the 1970s or 1980s — and it is not (necessarily) a pejorative.  As both Angus Burgin and Daniel Stedman Jones have demonstrated, “neoliberalism” (or “neo-liberalism” with a hyphen) was a term that participants in the Colloque Walter Lippman and the Mont Pelerin Society used to describe the economic/political philosophy championed by the likes of Friedrich Hayek and (later) Milton Friedman.  Indeed, Friedman himself used the term to describe his own economic thinking in articles published in the 1950s.

Stedman Jones reports that Friedman and other like-minded thinkers eventually moved away from the term “neoliberalism” because they wanted to de-emphasize the notion that their ideas represented anything “new” or would introduce anything new.  They wanted to claim for their philosophy of political economy the (at that point still esteemed) mantle of (classical) liberalism, and represent themselves as conservatives in the sense that they were (they claimed) conserving or safeguarding the classical foundations of a free society.

But there is nothing conservative about radical free-market ideology.  What has been conserved by the near-total (I say near-total if I’m being hopeful) subjection of higher education to the liquidating logic of the market?  This is precisely why I wish to avoid using such oxymoronic terms as “free-market conservatism” to describe the regnant philosophy of political economy that is currently setting the agenda for higher education.

The working title of this work in progress is not a hill I plan to die on.  But I am of the opinion that “neoliberalism” is a term that, properly historicized (and I’m not pretending that I’ve done all that work here in this quick blog post) can be analytically useful —because it suggests ways in which radical free-market philosophy was not only a departure from, but also a development of, classical liberalism.   (In brief, I would argue that neoliberalism emerged not by adding something to the classical liberal tradition, but by subtracting something from it.  But I’ll have to argue that elsewhere — or at least elsewhen.)

Still, while I’m not planning to die on this hill, I’m content enough to stand on it for now — though I’m interested in hearing arguments as to why I shouldn’t.

17 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Congrats on the contract! Re the title: I have no particular problem with use of the word ‘neoliberalism’; the title as a whole is perhaps a bit long, but I’m not sure that matters much. The title also does not indicate exactly what is the connection between the two phenomena in the subtitle — but that’s perhaps not something any title could do, or needs to do.

    • p.s. If not happy with “wars” in the main part of the title, you could switch to something like:

      Debating the Canon:
      The 1980s Western-Civ Fight [or Struggle/Wars/etc] at Stanford and the Triumph etc.

  2. Thanks Louis. Yes, the title is ponderous — from what I understand, it’s just a placeholder description of the project. When it comes time to decide, I think I’ll be far more likely to ditch “wars” than to ditch “neoliberalism,” but that’s a problem for another day. In the meantime, I re-read the fine print of my contract, and apparently I am now legally obligated to actually write a book. Heaven help.

  3. As a layman a lot of your points go a bit over my head, but I think you’re really on to something by talking about “neoliberalism” meaning the idea of markets being morally good in and of themselves. I guess my major contention would be that your definition (while quite useful!) seems pretty alien to how the word “neoliberal” and “neoliberalism” is used in most writing online, even by pretty serious people. Normally it’s used as a pejorative against a liberal of Democratic politician who is as seen by more lefty types as being fundamentally corrupted in some way. Hillary Clinton is often called a “neoliberal” for example for various sins from the 90’s, even if her focus on the water crisis in Flint is very opposite of markets being the highest moral good. Of course academics like yourself shouldn’t be held to the standard of “what people say on the internet”, but I would say that you are sort of pushing against the grain here. Maybe that’s your point, but the use of the term does cause confusion among some of us out here in the great beyond.

  4. LWDL, thanks for this comment — it’s very valuable. I am trying to write for both “academics” and “the great beyond,” and must be mindful of the tradeoffs that come with using broadly familiar words in a narrowly particular/specific sense. Truly, this is a helpful caution.

    On the notion of neoliberalism viewing the market as a moral good — I’m getting that from Angus Burgin’s fine reading of Milton Friedman’s arguments (in The Great Persuasion). And I think that’s a key difference between laissez-faire liberalism and neoliberalism. Where, if anywhere, does virtue inhere?

    Anyway, thanks much for your thoughtful response.

    • I would think Bethany Moreton’s TO SERVE GOD AND WAL MART, especially the chapters on Christian colleges and free enterprise, would be helpful in defining neoliberalism in the way you do. Many 19th c. Christians who supported capitalist development (Horace Bushnell) were Whigs. They believed in the virtues of free markets but thought government had a responsibility to help create and regulate them. Bushnell would not recognize the anti-statist Christian free enterprise that Moreton writes about.

  5. At the S-USIH conference in Irvine a few years ago, David Hollinger called neoliberalism “a word that’s been looking for honest work for quite some time.” I very much agree with that assessment. In my view, nothing would be lost and much clarity would be gained if people just stopped using the term altogether.

    The philosophical Liberalism of John Locke and Adam Smith, as I’m sure you know, is not the same thing as the American political liberalism of Franklin Roosevelt (or, God forbid, George McGovern). It is unfortunate and confusing that they carry the same name. In calling themselves neoliberals, Friedman, Hayek and the Mont Pelerin crowd were emphasizing their *connection* to the former tradition (which they wished to restore to the position it held before the advance of creeping statism), while the American neoliberals such as Gary Hart, Charles Peters and Bill Clinton were underlining their *differences* from the latter one (which they blamed for Democratic political defeats). To say that they are basically the same thing because they emphasize the virtue of the market (which, as a side not, I also think is overstated in both cases) is to elide the differences between two largely unrelated intellectual developments.

  6. Mike, thanks for this comment. I assure you that I have never said, and never will say, that the neoliberalism of Hayek, Friedman, et. al. is “basically the same thing” as the (somewhat neologistic) neoliberalism of Hart, Clinton, et. al. Who is making that argument? Not I.

    I historicize my terminology as I go along, starting with 19th century American “liberalism” (following Leslie Butler’s understanding here), the liberalism of Jewett’s “scientific democrats,” New Deal liberalism, Vital Center liberalism, conservatism, neoliberalism, neoconservatism, etc., etc. It’s a little astonishing that people have already assumed they even know what my argument is, or have already decided (based on other comment threads) that they know exactly who was or wasn’t involved in “the canon wars” and what issues were at stake. But I guess I should be glad people are already suspicious of my argument based on my title alone — gives future reviewers something to get worked up about. Maybe I need to buy stock in Alka Seltzer, because whether it’s this author or her readers, somebody’s gonna have a headache.

  7. I like the ring of the title and even with my own reservations with the usage of “wars” it does coincide with the historically speciific culture wars. My only question would be about the choice of “triumph,” instead of, say, “rise”; the former frames the story to be told as a dichotomy of absolute losers and victors. But perhaps the articulation of a total rupture in the field of higher ed is what your book project is proposing?

    • Agreed. Some of the wording (and the overall length of the title) was an editorial addition (I think the point there was to make the project title differ from the dissertation title.) Since the entire phrasing is simply provisional at this point (“tentatively titled” is how the contract framed it), I didn’t worry too much about it. But I might be inclined to go with “rise” over “triumph” myself, not because I don’t think neoliberalism has triumphed for the moment, but because I’m not fatalistic about history itself, and there’s something a tad fatalistic in the word “triumph” (though if you take a long enough view, all triumphs are only temporary. sic transit gloria mundi)

      Anyway, one word in there that I did choose, and for which I have been catching (mostly good-natured) flak for from many quarters ever since I began discussing my dissertation back in the day, is “neoliberalism.” That one stays.

  8. I like the title, it’s a little long, but the wordplay more than makes up for it.

    Regarding using “neoliberalism” (BIG SCARE QUOTES) in the title, I do not believe using the word is a problem now. Ten or so years ago it was a nebulous catch-all term for an ill-defined set of ideas broadly concerning the deterioration of New Deal social institutions and penetration of markets and market-thinking into all spheres of life. Now, due to the smart work of Angus Burgin and Jefferson Cowie (among many others), the term is more carefully defined and historicized. If Burgin et al. have proven anything it’s that the anecdote for terminological opaqueness is careful definition and historicizing, two intellectual history skills which you possess in spades. I’m looking forward to your project not in spite of your use of neoliberalism, but because I anticipate that you will further clarify its meaning for coming generations of historians.

  9. Huzzah on the contract!
    Teetering on the edge of buying any history book, promises of “triumph” or “failure” often give me pause. And that would be a shame–because you’ll do a great service by (re)introducing readers to “neoliberalism” as a clear, organizing concept. A little suspense (taking out “triumph” for “rise” or somesuch) will keep’em turning pages. I look forward to reading it already.

  10. I know nothing whatever about the Stanford controversy, and reached this site through a link from a philosophy blog (Massimo Pigliucci’s). However, my college education included a 2-year required course, The History of Civilization, at Occidental College in the mid-1950s, and I am shocked that there would be any question about the value of such a general course on the sources of our ambient culture. The Civ course did not narrow it down to Western civilization, but that certainly predominated. I can see where that came from, on reading the article cited on the case for the requirement. I lived in Berkeley in the 70s, and am quite familiar with the arguments of the cultural Luddites, but that movement was much too ready to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

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