U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Neo-Liberal America?

Count me among those not sold on the idea of a neoliberal America, mainly because I’m not sold on the idea of neoliberalism in the first place. Ben’s fascinating trans-Atlantic genealogy of neoliberalism seems to suggest the problems with the term. It is too intellectually fuzzy and, especially when its European meaning (to borrow from Ben’s analysis) is attached to the United States, it seems too often to presume a bad history. Let me explain. When the European meaning of neoliberalism–roughly, according to Ben, the revival of laissez-faire economics through the Austrian and then Chicago schools of economics–is applied to the United States in the age of Reagan, it seems to suggest Louis Hartz’s analysis of American political history by presuming that liberalism was the dominant tradition of the United States. The narrative seems to be that nineteenth-century liberalism, or classical liberalism, gradual gave way to liberal progressivism and then New Deal liberalism as the dominant political traditions in the United States, before being overcome by Reaganism, which is a return to nineteenth-century liberalism, now called neoliberalism.
Since I’m traveling today, I’ll keep this post brief, but I don’t think that liberalism is, or at least historically was, the dominant political tradition, so I’m not sure that neoliberalism can be a return to it. Hartz’s argument has been extensively critiqued, most notably in the work of Rogers Smith, who argues in his Civic Ideals that the United States has had multiple traditions vying for supremacy. Liberalism, civic republicanism, and what Smith calls ascriptive illiberalism were all present in American political debate and provided friction in the political battles of the ninteeenth century. Of the three, liberalism was rarely the dominant tradition–Smith sees liberalism as responsible for Reconstruction whose influence was as evanescent as the Radical Republicans’ commitment to equal rights. Instead, ascriptive illiberalism, which ascribes characteristics to a person’s race, class, or gender and then presumes that those characteristics make them unfit for participation in the body politic, was the dominant tradition, Smith argues, and constituted American civic ideals for much of the ninteenth century. By contrast, the discussion on this blog seems to presume that liberalism was responsible for nineteenth-century racism, sexism, and classism (usually with imperialism thrown in) as well as its twentieth century off-shoots.
In my own recent book, The Myth of American Religious Freedom, I argue instead that Smith was correct and that American religion often supported the ascriptive illiberalism that characterized the American past. Liberal progressives in the 1920s began challenging this illiberal order, which resulted in a liberal moment in American political history roughly from the 1936 to 1968, after which liberalism fractured and conservatism became ascendant. In my understanding of American political history, we are indeed in danger of going back in time not to some classically liberal past but to the ascriptive illiberalism that characterized the nineteenth century. But perhaps I have misunderstood the term neoliberalism and the historical vision that it conjures, in which case I look forward to being shown where I am wrong.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. You raise important and specific historical issues David. I take your point that liberalism has rarely been the dominant political strain in US history. Although I must say that my use of the term never implied as much. Rather “neo” is applied to a way of thinking that was once specifically European but then came to be quintessentially American in the Reagan years and is now global. Neoliberalism in this sense does not in any way qualify nineteenth century US history.

    I’m enjoying the discussion. I planned on getting away from neoliberalism in my Friday post but think I might need to return to it… again. Cheers.

  2. “Neoliberalism” in the way that term is tossed around in Germany’s public discourse (if that’s indicative of Europe’s) seems to be exclusively about economic policies.

    Here, neoliberalism means the liberalization of formerly state-owned industries (in Germany: the public rail system, postal service, telecommunications, etc.), public-private partnerships, deregulation of markets, trickle-down-tax-policy, the cutting down of welfare state etc.

    If you look at a party like Germany’s (most would say: neoliberal) FDP, there’s also a human rights tradition there and they also embrace liberal social policies but most people probably wouldn’t think of that when they hear “neoliberalism” which, in fact, has become something of a derogartory term for openly pro-business policies that don’t care about social costs. In France it’s pretty much the same, I suppose. “Liberal” doesn’t have that progressive/social-democrat connotation at all over here.

    This is just a spontaneous comment but may help with some of the confusion in European/American usage.

  3. Thanks, Anonymous.

    You’ve hit on a point I was going to make in my follow-up post on this topic: “neoliberalism” in the ’80s US usage was coined to describe a nascent movement/political tendency, which like any political movement was concerned with all sorts of things. “Neoliberalism” in the European/global sense describes a series of economic beliefs and policies.

    And the connotation of “liberal” in Germany (and throughout Continental Europe) is exactly what Arthur Schlesinger was thinking of when he wrote in the ’50s that American liberalism had virtually nothing to do with European liberalism.

    It’s probably also worth pointing out that while American liberalism is and always has been (stealing here from Gary Gerstle) protean, “liberalism” in the European context has been used to describe a remarkably consistent series of views over a very long time. Self-described European liberals in 1900 believed things very like what self-described European liberals in 2011 believe.

  4. Just because a term applies differently in European and U.S. contexts is no argument for eliminating a term’s use. Rather, it requires—as does all reading—an assessment of use in context.

    So when one wants to write a history of political happenings in America since the 1970s, and the term neoliberal is used the describe the application of market theory to formerly civil/state-run service areas (and furthermore a movement primarily among Democrat politicos), then we must simply understand the American context. We’ve been doing this, after all, with the term “liberal” since around 1900, yes?

    An this story of American neoliberalism need not imply that Reagan’s conservatism was neoliberalism—even if that accidentally fits the European use of the term. Rather, if we want to talk “liberalism” in any form and its relation to Reagan, we should say that his conservatism should be understood as within the bounds of Enlightenment liberalism—a longer term project that assumed individual (or corporate) autonomy protected from/by the state.

    In sum, I think I’m with Andrew and Ben here—as I understand their comments (and Andrew’s prior posts). Neoliberalism in America is something new, not a return to 19th century European economic liberalism. – TL

  5. i myself would emphasize the following passage from the Schlesinger essay cited earlier: “Such words in the American consensus tend to be counters in a game rather than symbols of impassable divisions of principle.”

  6. To my understanding, FDR’s brand of “liberal” combined Progressivism with the social justice policies of the Asquithian Liberal Party in England.

    By the 1960s, “liberal” had come to mean that PLUS a rejection of what you call ascriptive illiberalism. In short, King added that to FDR’s social justice aspect.

    To me, then, “neoliberalism” meant that social justice was no longer an express goal, but a hoped-for outcome of a “neutral” meritocratic system.

  7. The value of the term “neoliberalism,” it seems to me, is the way it internationalizes the rightward shift in the US, in other words, it shows that what we might parochially call Reaganism or Nixonland, in fact shared structural characteristics with a similar rightward shift in Great Britain under Thatcher and in the collapse of statist assumptions about the proper way to promote “development” in the global south.

    So, while I agree with your basic narrative about how “ascriptive illiberalism” of the first third of the twentieth century gave way to “New Deal Liberalism” which in turn gave way to Reaganite conservatism in the last third (as the dominant political cultures), I think that still leaves us in need of some term that can connect the Reaganite economic agenda to Thatcherism and the so-called Washington Consensus. Maybe “neoliberalism” is too freighted to serve that function, but that function needs to be met.

    I think it’s also important that this term focus specifically on the economic agenda, because in a very important sense this is a story of the late 1970s and 1980s, and is not a story that can be laid at Nixon’s door. Nixon way have created the political alignment that remains with us today, but in terms of his economic policies, Nixon despite his “conservatism” was basically operating within the New Deal-Keynesian paradigm established thirty years earlier — just as Clinton despite his “liberalism” was basically operating with a neoliberal-monetarist paradigm that got settled in the 1980s.

    So, if you’re going to reject the term “neoliberal” then I’d challenge you to propose an alternative term that can capture this global shift away from dirigisme and in favor of deregulation and monetarism.

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