U.S. Intellectual History Blog


In Leo Ribuffo’s smart essay, Studying the American Right, Left, and Center–All at the Same Time!–not to mention hilarious (“American normality is normally less normal than ostensibly normal people normally think”)–he makes this claim: “the pervasive adoption of the term “neoliberalism” has made matters worse by obscuring differences on the Right (not to mention being unintelligible to most non-academic Americans, probably one reason for the term’s academic esteem).”

By the fact that we at the USIH blog have been discussing, parsing, debating, and analyzing the term, concept, and history of neoliberalism for a few years now, it would seem that many of us disagree. (Check it out–especially the posts in late 2010 and early 2011, when we had what amounted to a months-long debate about neoliberalism: Neoliberalism at the USIH blog.) What say you, dear reader?

11 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I think it’s worth the semantic effort to convince many right-wingers that they’re actually liberals and to convince many on the left that they are not in fact liberal. It’s wishful thinking to wanna undo a characteristic US misapprehension of another continent’s thought, but it’s at least as worthy a work of rehabilitation as any similar yen for screaming at Alanis Morrisette about what is or ain’t “ironic.” (‘Specially in this century wherein either everything or nothing is meant to be understood as ironic, irony being the new septic tank through which we must root for our personal and collective histories, aspirations, etc.)

    I think the term “neoliberalism” is as effective as any at summarizing an alternately drunken and/or zealous identification with an “invented tradition” of market rule. But what still needs elaboration was whatever economistic (or vulgar marxist) reductionism emerged from the basic recognition that nation-states liked to see themselves as about the business of privatizing, financializing and de-socializing everything. (This project was never realized, was probably never meant to be realized, and always rested on the absurd belief that markets could exist without statist, culturalist and moralist enforcers and effects.) Neoliberalism resides in the political gap between this stated aim and its failed (false) promises. The rest of us reside their too. What’s new about neoliberalism isn’t the unspeakable realization that markets are bad governing machines and continue to require guns, fucked-up social imaginaries, state bailouts and mass incarceration. If anything, what’s new is the defiance and farce tied up in pressing on with market-centered governance as a political platform despite explicit spectacular market crises and resultant socialized suffering.
    We’ve passed through a “first as tragedy, then as farce” situation into a “then, for the 47th time, in the form of a tragicomic reality show about farce” situation. The doomiest of Debordian or Adornoid proclamations about our ongoing assimilation now seem self-evident. Cataloging them is a lite and lively release, an unexpected treat like a sunny afternoon playing Wiffle Ball. If only “authenticity,” “bad faith” or “commodification” were our biggest dilemmas, or if only we could find a way to face them head-on without “impossible and necessary” hand-wringing over relations of identity production! I would certainly like to unionize the glass-slabbing comrades behind this house of mirrors, but I don’t want them to have to listen to me talk about empty signifiers OR derivatives markets. Neoliberalism replaces questions as to where one begins to resist with incredulous sighing over the unapologetic idiocy of its bogus advocates. It reduces criticism, if not critique, to mere snark. And it massages counter-ideological exercises into ironic outbursts. These are extra-economic political and cultural effects, but they too are constitutive of the neoliberal order as well as being themselves market-driven. Jameson’s early pomo-navigations still loom to the extent that they foreshadow commodified culture’s colonization not just of places and people but also attitudes, feelings, atmospheres, vibes. Yes, there are still openings. But we are confused as to where and how to find them because we expect even ecstasy, fantasy and discipline to take the shape – and to count the time – of capital’s forms and rhythms. It’s awful to try to manufacture or to mine resistance when it never seems to appear in the same place twice. Perhaps this has always been true but for many of us the absence of BOTH revolution AND reformism as vibrant political postures is crucial to constituting a cultural now spanning sexuality, politics and art.

    • Responding only to the beginning of this long (and interesting comment): the cultural work currently being done by “neoliberalism” in the contemporary United States is not, so far as I can tell, undoing the unusual American meaning of “liberal” that’s been in use here since the time of the New Deal. “Liberal” in the U.S. continues to mean what it has for the last three quarters of a century or so, even as “neoliberal” has entered (well, re-entered…but that’s another story) American vocabulary as a borrowing from Europe, with the older, European usage of “liberal” at its heart.

      Indeed, it seems to me that, in popular American progressive discourse, the “neo” in “neoliberalism” has taken on a sense of corruption and deceit. Rather than being liberals (still a good thing), the story goes, today’s Democrats are often actually neoliberals (a very bad thing). This connotation of “neoliberalism” is, of course, exclusively American. In the European context, “neoliberalism” is the latest version of “liberalism.” What’s wrong with it is not its abandonment of a still valued liberalism.

      • I think the difficulty has less to do with the “neo” in neoliberalism than with the lack of an agreed upon definition of liberalism. With the exception of a brief period in the early 2000s where “liberalism” was a conservative scare word, liberalism as a term has been used widely by the left and right.

        I find Leo Ribuffo’s essay interesting because it seems that the same difficulty in parsing liberalism has carried into neoliberalism. Whereas liberalism in the 1950s came to connote a political worldview that accounted for both the individual and her place in society (a platform New Dealers, Republicans, and even some radical leftists could hop aboard), neoliberalism has become a philosophy of which praises the individual and her relationship to the free market.

  2. Sorry for the length. I am a frustrated dissertator and it’s easier to write 1,000 words on somebody else’s topic than it is to stick to the task at hand and write a half-clause on behalf of myself and my darned committee.

    I wish the neo- in neoliberal would convey an invention of tradition: a “market fundamentalism” Adam Smith or Ricardo would never have endorsed. Of course I also wish progressives were more persistent in questioning the original market rationales those prior liberals did endorse, but as I tried to make plain before giving way to dissertationist angst, that necessarily reflexive cultural work seems alternately impossible or unimportant to the major players on the sociopolitical field. That bums me out.

    But I appreciate the heck out of knowing that intellectual historians are working the terrain. I do hope there is related work afoot on when, where and how it was decided that liberals (in the US sense) should re-identify as progressives. I’ve always meant to settle that tick-tock in my own mind but alas there’s always that damned dissertation and my own silly discipline.

  3. During the postwar economic expansion, most of the capital accumulation came from the expansion of wage labor. The head of the household or both adults worked and received raises as time went on, bought more valuable houses, etc. When the rates of profitability fell in the 1970s, the elites disciplined the working classes, by decoupling wages from rising profitability, shredding the embedded liberalism’s welfare state, and began the process of distributing wealth upward by the dispossession of capital.

    If median household income had kept pace with productivity and inflation rates since the 1970, it would be $92,000 a year instead of the $50,000 it is currently. Look at higher education. When I was attending college and graduate school in the 1980s, knowledge workers were the next big wave. The labor market was insulated from, unlike manufacturing, from foreign competition, and due to the levels of education needed, from the rest of the domestic workforce. Instead of academia being a ticket to a respectable, middle class life, more than half of college instructors are contingent laborers struggling to stay above the poverty line.

    If you want your eyes opened to neoliberalism’s effects and its effectiveness in restoring class power, check out the Rich Kids of Instagram to see how effective “trickle down” economics has been. http://richkidsofinstagram.tumblr.com/

  4. Thx, Andrew. I shall read & learn. But there is a substantive difference between Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Neoliberalism was my guess, but if that’s not it, another must be advanced. “Capitalism is the greatest source of prosperity ever invented in man’s history” is the neoliberal creed [IMO]; I submit that Barack Obama does not believe this but Bill Clinton is comfortable with it.

    • Based on Obama’s economic policies, I have no conceivable idea how you might come to the conclusion that Obama’s beliefs about capitalism are substantially different from Clinton’s. Obama, in a few instances over the course of his life, has hinted at the structural inequalities in the US, but this is mere rhetoric compared to his actual policies while president.

      • Obama as centrist, a member of the DLC? I don’t buy it. What Barack Obama believes and what he’s been able to get away with are two different things. Van Jones was and is more Obama’s man than Tim Geithner.

        I have no problem with the way Ben Alpers laid all this out here


        but I mightily disagree with him and the New Republic piece that I linked above, that Clinton and the DLC “won” the Democratic Party for neo-liberalism in any way shape or form.

        They lost, their papers gathering mold in a box in Clinton’s basement somewhere.

        In the eyes of its critics, the Democratic Leadership Council, which announced Monday that it was closing shop, represented the “corporatist” wing of the Democratic Party. Ben Smith in Politico summarized the criticism as “a religion of compromise, lack of principle, and a willingness to sell out the poor and African-American voters at the party’s base.”

        “I wasn’t at war with the DLC,” Smith quotes DailyKos founder Markos Moulitsas as saying, “but with the corporatists who are ruining my party.” To The Washington Post’s more temperate Ezra Klein (also a Prospect alum), the DLC stood for a formula of “liberal ends through market means,” exemplified by the Affordable Care Act. To Klein and others, the DLC’s end could be seen as simply the achievement of its policy goals.


        Bill Clinton and neo-liberalism were a disaster for the Dem Party, ushering in the Gingrich and Dubya eras, 14 years in the wilderness.

        2006 brought Dubya fatigue, 2008 the rebirth of a liberal nation. But after Barack Obama fades from the scene–at this point more sooner than later–we’re looking at a whole new ballgame. Of the Obama-Reid-Pelosi regime, the latter 1/3 is gone, the middle 1/3 up for grabs in 2 years and the demographically unbeatable face of American liberalism is termed out.

        My own take on neo-liberalism is congenial to Ezra Klein’s above, achieving progressive ends through free market means. let capitalism run and hitch a communitarian wagon to it.

        But orthodox left-liberalism–and I argue Barack Obama is quite orthodox, if not more left like Van Jones–is just as much about ordering the means as producing the ends: We don’t just win wars, we win them with women in combat. We don’t just produce energy, it must be green. We don’t just feed our kids, we make them eat cabbage sandwiches. We can’t just provide health care with a patchwork of public and private providers, we must comprehensively provide a fair and equitable system of health insurance.


        To a gentleperson of the right [I don’t mind], at this point the whole “neo-liberalism” trope seems to be a creature of the left anyway, as likely to be wielded as a brickbat than presented as a bouquet.

        But I think Ezra Klein hit on the operative dynamic, that of ends and means, and why this gentleperson was OK with Bill Clinton and is very much not OK with Barack Obama.

        For the question is not whether the rich have too much, only that the poor have enough.

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