U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Neoliberalism (Slight Return)

This is a too-long delayed reply to Andrew’s long and thoughtful rejoinder to my most recent comments on neoliberalism (us), neoliberalism (e), and neoliberalism (unmodified).*

(I hope that at least some of our readership is thinking “finally Ben is responding to that post.” I fear most of you are thinking “oh no…not this discussion again.”  If you’re in the former group–or are a glutton for punishment in the latter one–follow me below the fold….)

Let me start by agreeing with one thing Andrew wrote:

The neoliberalism (us) that Ben dug up for us—the neoliberalism of 1980s Democrats like Gary Hart—is a relatively important aspect of recent political history, but is not all that important in most larger contexts. 

I think this is correct.  Neoliberalism (us) is a more local phenomenon than neoliberalism (e), and in that sense it is less important.  This is not to say that it is unrelated to similar phenomena in other countries.  Certainly the ascent of the “New Democrats”–very much the successors of the neoliberals (us)–during the late 1980s and 1990s was paralleled by the ascent of New Labour in the UK and similar, roughly rightward movements among many of the social democratic parties of continental Europe.

“A-ha,” I can hear Andrew saying, “isn’t that your neoliberalism (e)?  I told you neoliberalism (e) = neoliberalism (us)!”

Not so fast.  Let me reiterate my problem with equating neoliberalism (us) (and its European cousins) with neoliberalism (e).  As I outlined in my original post, neoliberalism (us) was designed by its founders to be an alternative both to what they called “paleoliberalism” (really the dominant strain of post-New Politics liberalism of the 1970s) and to the various American conservatism as embodied in the presidency of Ronald Reagan.  But those conservatives, to whom the neoliberals (us) hoped to be the principal alternative, were, in turn, the defining example of neoliberalism (e) to those thinking about neoliberalism in that sense.

So while, in the 1980s, self-described US neoliberals were certainly neoliberals in the European (or global) sense, all US neoliberals in the European (or global) sense were not neoliberals in the US sense.  Indeed, neoliberalism (us) was to a great extent created to engage in a battle within neoliberalism (e), though virtually nobody in this country would have called neoliberalism (e) “neoliberalism” at the time.

Equating neoliberalism (us) with neoliberalism (e) makes a hash out of 1980s American politics, much of which took place within the horizon of neoliberalism (e).  Indeed, for all the explanatory power of neoliberalism (e) in the world today, one of my problems with it as an all-purpose explanation (as it occasionally rather crudely becomes) is that neoliberals often disagree with each other about important things….in part because of the internal contradictions of neoliberalism (e).  In countries like the US and the UK, most mainstream politics for the last three decades has consisted of arguments within neoliberalism (e).  And while it’s meaningful and important to point this out, we should avoid the Vulgar Naderism** of declaring that there are no differences whatsoever between the (neoliberal (e)) Republicans and the (neoliberal (e)) Democrats.


So onto Andrew’s second apparent disagreement with me, which concerns the relationship between neoliberalism (e) and neoconservatism.***

Again, let me start by noting a substantial area of agreement.  I certainly agree that neoconservatives have something to do with neoliberalism.   Like virtually every other political ideology in the world today, neoconservative thought is marked by its taking place in the context of a national and global economy largely dominated by neoliberalism.  And like most other successful recent US political movements, neoconservatives are neoliberals (e).****

The neoconservative take on neoliberalism (e) is distinctive, in ways that Andrew explores very productively in his post.*****


“Neoliberalism” (us) was coined, in part, as both a parallel and a contrast to “neoconservatism.” But “neoconservatism,” though it appeared on the scene well after neoliberalism (e) was born, was not coined in relationship to “neoliberalism” at all.  And as a species of neoliberalism (e), neoconservatism does not contrast with it.

All of which brings me back to where this overly long and rambling post (sorry folks!) more or less began: American politics, at least for most of the last half century or so, has often been organized around the words “liberal” and “conservative,” and a variety of variations of them. Among these have been “neoconservative” and “neoliberal” (us).  Both US liberalism and US conservatism are protean; each shifts to a great extent in relation to the other. In contrast, the referent of “neoliberalism” in the global sense is much more stable.

Most, though not all, US liberals and US conservatives in recent decades have also been neoliberals (e).  And the neoliberals have been dominant on both the American right and left (two more terms with different meanings elsewhere that are often used interchangeably with “conservative” and “liberal” in US political discourse).

As historians, we want to be able both to see American political thought in a global context and to understand and account for political arguments within the US, even when those arguments are taking place in a fairly narrow political space.  To do the former, we need to be able to think about neoliberalism (e).  To do the latter we need, among many other things, to think a little about neoliberalism (us)…at least when we’re thinking about the 1980s.  And we need to understand that neoliberalism (e) and neoliberalism (us) are not the same thing.

One final thought, a bit further afield: does anyone else find it peculiar how infrequently capitalism has been mentioned in these various posts on neoliberalism?

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* For those who haven’t been following this discussion and for some reason feel moved to do so, it more or less starts here and continues here. Then read Andrew’s post referenced above and you’re up to speed.

** I use this term with (some) apologies to Ralph Nader, who is perhaps more responsible for Vulgar Naderism than Marx is responsible for Vulgar Marxism, but who nevertheless deserves at least somewhat better than to be reduced to it.

*** Believing that he has erased the distinction between neoliberalism (e) and neoliberalism (us), Andrew writes

I think the history of neoliberalism (e-us-g, from hereon just plain old neoliberalism) cannot so easily be separated from the history of neoconservatism. I will use as my example the postwar U.S. intellectual history of education. 

But, in fact, nothing in what follows has anything whatsoever to do with self-described, 1980s US neoliberals (i.e. neoliberalism (us)).

**** Not to beat a dead horse, but this is, yet again, evidence that we cannot simply equate neoliberalism (us) with neoliberalism (e).  The self-described US “neoliberals” of the 1980s defined themselves in part against neoconservatism, which was in a period of enormous growth in influence.

***** On the particularities of the neoconservative brand of neoliberalism (e), see also David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 81-85.

One Thought on this Post

  1. I confess that I am a member of reader group #1. But these posts do raise an interesting question: where does intellectual history end and political science begin? (Which is a much nicer question than, “When the hell are these guys going to stop arguing about this?”) And I’m not asking to be snarky — I’m genuinely interested in how/where the people on this blog would draw the disciplinary margins of intellectual history. I want to know when I’m transgressing. 🙂

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