U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Geographical (Or At Least Linguistic) Distribution of "Neoliberalism"; or Fun with NGrams!

This post is a follow-up to my post of a week ago, “The Strange, Transatlantic Career of ‘Neoliberalism.”  I wanted to think just a bit more about where the term “neoliberalism” has come from, what it’s doing in our discourse today, and how its use might help–and might not help–U.S. intellectual historians do the kinds of things we do.  I was going to do all these things in one post.  But in the interests of time and space (and of giving me something to blog about for the next several weeks as OU’s semester begins and I get more busy), I’m going to take things step-by-step.  So today, I’m going to add some ngrams to the mix and speculate a bit more about the geographical origins of the term…or at least its popular use.

(From here on out, for reasons of simplicity, I’m going to write “neoliberalism (e)” to designate what I’ve been calling the “European, now global” use of the term (though, as you’ll see, that might be a problematic description) and “neoliberalism (us)” to designate the distinctly U.S. American use of the term that flourished in the mid-1980s.*)


I realized after our discussion of “neoliberalism” last week that I had been operating in a profoundly Eurocentric frame.  After all, the term “neoliberalismo” has featured prominently in Latin American debates. Could it be that “neoberalism” (e)–or at least its popularity–is actually a product of the global South?

One clue might be found by consulting the almost addictive Google Books Ngram Viewer, which is either a great new tool for intellectual historians, the latest substitute for the Delphic Oracle, or some combination of the two.  As you probably know, the Ngram Viewer allows you to search a database of millions of books for the frequency with which a particular term or set of terms appears, and then presents is findings in a nice, graphical form.  You can search all the books in the Google database, or you can select one of a number of sub-corpuses.  So I decided to look at “neoliberal” in UK- and US-published, English language books, “neoberalismo” in Spanish language books (which, presumably, is heavily Latin American), and “Neoliberalismus” in German-language books. Here’s what I found.

Here is the ngram for neoliberalism in U.S. books, 1960-2008 (the last year of the dataset).  Here’s the one for UK books during the same period.  Now, at first glance, these two graphs look surprisingly similar, indeed almost identical: in both the US and the UK the term starts rising in prominence in the 1980s and then continues to take off in the 1990s and 2000s.  And presumably the US graph includes references to both neoliberalism (e) and neoliberalism (us).  My first thought, then, was that there was really very little difference between the term’s usage history in the US and the UK (suggesting, among other things, that “neoliberalism” (us) really wasn’t that significant a factor).   But then I noticed the y-axis of these two charts: they’re dramatically different. The top of the US chart represents 0.00009% of US publications; the top of the UK chart represents 0.0002% of British ones. Though the term’s use has increased very similarly in the two countries, the term “neoliberalism” was approximately twice as common in UK books at was in US books throughout this period.

It’s also worth noting the significance of the term’s take-off in 1980s Britain. At least in English, “neoliberalism” (e) has largely been a critics’ word (this distinguishes it from “neoliberalism” (us) which was a self-description). Anglophone neoliberals (e) rarely call themselves that.  Any history of neoliberalism (e) in the UK will have a lot of action in the 1970s, when the ideas of Keith Joseph and his protegee Margaret Thatcher rose to prominence in the Conservative Party.  But the term itself seems not to have been used much in that decade in the UK.

Let’s look at the Spanish-language ngram for “neoliberalismo.”  It has a similar general shape to the two English-language ngrams…with a few interesting differences.  First, the y-axis of this graph tops out at 0.0009%, which means that the top of this graph is a full order of magnitude higher than the US graph (and almost five times the top of the UK graph).  “Neoliberalismo” in Spanish is significantly more common than “neoliberalism” in English.  The take-off period of the term begins notably earlier, too, as the graph starts rising in the second half of the 1970s.  This suggests that a history of the term “neoliberalism” might need to  look closely at Latin American debates (perhaps about the Chicago boys in Chile?).  Finally, the term seems to decline in the last decade.

Finally, for comparison, let’s look at the German-language “Neoliberalismus” ngram.** To get scaling out of the way first: this graph is most similar to the British-English graph in scale, with a top y-axis value of 0.0003%, just slightly higher than the British English graph.  After the mid-1980s, this graph is pretty similar to the others in the late ’80s and ’90s, with the term increasing steadily during those years, and showing continued, but slowing, increases in the first decade of this century.  But look at the graph before 1988 or so.  Following a mini-peak in the early 1960s (when the term “Neoberalismus” appeared about as frequently in German books as it appears in US books today), the term slowly declined until the late 1980s.  So “Neoliberalismus” was apparently already a part of the German conversation during the 1960s and 1970s, though still less of one than in the Spanish-language conversation during those years once one adjusts for scale.***

So what did we learn through our little ngram adventure? These ngrams suggest that “neoliberalism”and its cognates were, indeed, more popular earlier in Spanish than in German, and in turn more popular in German (at least early on) than in the UK.  But even in the UK, the term is more frequent than in the US.  Its increasing usage since the mid-1980s has been global, but it’s still more common outside the US than in it.  And the origins of “neoliberalism” (e) may well be Latin American.

Then again, IANAC.****

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* Similarly, when talking about the term itself in these uses, I’ll write “‘neoliberalism’ (e)” and “‘neoliberalism’ (us).” The term in general will simply be referred to as “neoliberalism.” If you don’t know what I’m talking about at all, please read my first post on this topic.

** Ngrams are, unfortunately, always case-sensitive, which is a minor problem when dealing with terms other than proper nouns in English, but no problem at all when dealing with nouns in German.

*** This situation can be clarified a bit by focusing in on Spanish and German uses in a shorter, but earlier, time frame: 1960-1980. In these graphs, the term’s later explosion in the last two decades of the century doesn’t dwarf the earlier data. Here’s the Spanish-language graph for those years; here’s the German language graph.  In addition to the general decline in German-language books and the general increase in Spanish-language ones, note that the term is about twice as popular at its peak in Spanish language publications during this period as it is in German-language ones.   Here, incidentally are the British and US graphs for 1960-1980.  What’s most notable about both is their miniscule y-axes.

**** “I Am Not a Cliometrician”

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Very interesting research Ben! Nice use of the new Google tool. Thanks for pointing us away from our Eurocentrism. In an earlier conversation I noted that I first started reading about neoliberalism in the critical pedagogy literature, of which Paolo Freire is the godfather. So the term’s Latin American roots make sense to me. One small point: on the small decline of “neoliberalismo” in Latin America in the last few years, the explanation for that must be that it reached a crescendo with the Argentine economic crisis of 2001-02, which was largely blamed on the neoliberalismo of the Washington Consensus.

  2. Data point: Alejandro Foxley, who publishes more of less simultaneously in both languages, produced e.g. both _Hacia una economia de libre mercado_ and _Toward a free market economy_ in 1980. But in 1982, he published _Experimentos Neoliberales en America Latina_ (the first memory I have of “neoliberal” used that way) and in 1983 _Latin American Experiments in Neoconservative Economics_. So this suggests that Foxley and/or his publishers thought that “neoliberal” would not be understood properly in English at that time.

    pedantry moment: minuscule

  3. In the US, at least, the popular use of the word neoliberal dates to an article by Randall Rothenberg in Esquire Magazine in the early 1980s. Later expanded to a book, it described a group of dissident Democrats (elected officials, journalists, policy wonks) who felt that the Democratic Party had become wedded to policy approaches that were plainly ineffective. Although some of the people discussed in the book were interested in foreign and defense policy (Gary Hart, James Fallows), the overwhelming majority of the others were engaged solely with domestic policy questions (the big exception to this rule was trade policy — American neoliberals were all free traders).

  4. Thanks, Anonymous.

    I should have mentioned the Rothenberg article and book in my first post on this topic. Although Rothenberg was indeed the first to publish an article on neoliberalism (us), Charles Peters (who himself credited Rothenberg with that distinction) was more important in spreading the use of the term in the 1980s (as I indicated in that first post).

    For a terrific snapshot of the use of the term “neoliberalism” in the US in the mid-1980s, see the review essay on neoliberalism by Victor Ferkiss in the Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 1 (Mar., 1986), pp. 165-179 (http://www.jstor.org/stable/448422). This article is interesting in part because of its utter innocence of neoliberalism (e).

    And it’s fascinating to compare it to more recent essays like Wendy Brown’s “American Nightmare: Neoliberalism, Neoconservatism, and De-Democratization” (Political Theory, Vol. 34, No. 6 (Dec., 2006), pp. 690-714; http://www.jstor.org/stable/20452506), which is equally innocent of neoliberalism (us). Instead, Brown discusses “neoconservatism” and “neoliberalism” (e) as somehow parallel constructs, though the first is more exclusively American:

    The problematic of this essay is well-suited to the analytics of dreamwork. This is the problematic of thinking together American neoconservatism–a fierce moral-political rationality–and neoliberalism–a market-political rationality that exceeds its peculiarly American instantiation and that does not align exclusively with any political persuasion.

    Here’s the problem (or at least a problem) with all this: although neoliberalism (us) may be an instance of neoliberalism (e), they are not the same thing…and, in fact, neoliberalism (e) pretty much encompasses all “mainstream” US political positions of (at least) the last thirty years or so (it’s called the “Washington consensus” ’cause it’s a consensus, after all).

    So while “neoliberalism” (us) was, indeed, constructed as a parallel contrastive term to “neoconservatism,” “neoliberalism” (e) really doesn’t work as contrastive with “neoconservatism,” despite its linguistic similarity.

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