U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Is “Neoliberalism” a Pejorative?

Over on Crooked Timber, the philosopher Ingrid Robeyns has a post up about what makes a popular philosophy book a good book. In comments, the historian Rachel Stone (of Magistra et Mater) adds an additional criterion to the list given by Robeyns: a popular book should be nonpartisan:

I need to feel comfortable that the author is not ignoring evidence that doesn’t suit their argument, and I often find that that can stem as much from ideological viewpoints as from purely financial motivations. It’s obviously impossible to avoid some ideological bias, but I think you need to have some secure sense that the author is adjusting their argument to fit the evidence and not the other way round.

The economist and author of Zombie Economics, John Quiggin (also of Crooked Timber), agrees with Stone, adding an example that should be of interest to readers of this blog:

The big problem is loading the dice for ideological reasons. I tried hard to avoid this in Zombie Economics for example by using the neutral term “market liberalism” rather than pejoratives like “neoliberalism” to describe the ideas I was criticising. The reviews I got from presumptively hostile sources suggested that I was at least partially successful in that.

The term “neoliberalism,” its origin and appropriate uses, has been a frequent topic on this blog.  A few weeks ago, in a post about Jeffrey Williams review of Neil Gross’s Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care?, I raised concerns about Williams’s use of the term “neoliberalism.”  While I shared Williams’s view that neoliberalism has remade U.S. higher education, I disagreed with Williams’s suggestion that the category of neoliberalism might entirely replace, in our analyses of the university, the political categories actually used by professors and others in the American academy to describe themselves.

Quiggin raises a similar concern, but takes it a step farther.  The case that “neoliberalism” is a pejorative would, I’d imagine, proceed from a fact that I’ve also noted: virtually nobody (at least in this country today) describes him or herself as a neoliberal.

The reason that I don’t go so far as to consider neoliberalism a pejorative is that I think it nonetheless has analytical value.  Though, as I argued in that earlier post, I think we need to treat analytic terms that historical actors themselves don’t use differently from the way we treat terms that they do use (and that we should never entirely lose sight of the latter).

But Quiggin’s comment raises an interesting issue…or really two issues. First, some apparently analytic terms do become mere pejoratives.  A fine example would be the word “totalitarian.”  Like “neoliberal,” “totalitarian” has virtually never been used as a self-description, at least since the mid-1930s, when its analytic use began to grow in importance in the English-speaking world. And, more often than not, “totalitarian” and “totalitarianism” have been employed because of their epithetic power rather than their analytic precision.  It’s this latter point that (may still) be different from the term “neoliberalism,” though the balance between epithet and analysis can of course shift. “Fascism,” for example, certainly has precise uses, but too often these days, at least in popular talk, it is used as a mere epithet.

The second issue raised by Quiggin is more subtle, but no less important.  If a large number of readers will read a term as a pejorative, and thus assume that it has no analytic merit, should we avoid using that term?  Quiggin’s choice of “market liberalism” seems to have been dictated, in part, by the sense that market liberals among his readers would be less likely to dismiss his argument out of hand if he didn’t refer to them as “neoliberals.”

One other things bears emphasizing in this discussion:  Quiggin is an economist. And, for a variety of reasons, “neoliberalism” might be a pejorative (or at least read as a pejorative) in the context of the discourse of economics, but not in the context of the discourse of history.

So what do USIH readers think?  Does Quiggin have a point here?  Should we worry that “neoliberalism” has become a pejorative? And should such concerns affect our willingness to use the term?

18 Thoughts on this Post

  1. In many quarters, “socialism” is used pejoratively and I know not a few on the Left who refuse to use the word, which I think is profoundly mistaken. Same holds for “neoliberalism” which, I agree, has analytic value and while it certainly holds pejorative implications, so be it. The social sciences cannot put up absolute boundaries between the descriptive and the normative, between the factual and value-laden, between empirical theories and moral and ethical judgments and assessments. At least some of our rock-bottom beliefs involves moral and other commitments that affect what we decide to study, what we are passionate about as academic intellectuals. Amartya Sen, Hilary Putnam, Daniel M. Hausman, Martha Nussbaum, Jerome Kagan, Dale Jamieson, Mary Midlgley, among others, have written about this. Of late, see Andrew Sayer’s Why Things Matter to People: Social Science, Values and Ethical Life (2011). Of course this does not mean we eschew distinctions or abandon all boundaries between description and judgment, fact and value. In some disciplines, psychology, for instance, the lines are finer and fuzzier than others, especially, for instance, if we endeavor to entertain psychoanalytic psychology a “science of subjectivity.” Consider:

    All scientific facts, be they from the natural or social sciences are “contextual,” and thus entail the intertwining of both “theoretical” and “subjective” features. One way of putting this is to refer, with Hilary Putnam, to the “entanglement of fact and value,” in this case with an invocation of four principles from A.E. Singer, Jr.:

    1. Knowledge of facts presupposes knowledge of theories.
    2. Knowledge of theories presupposes knowledge of facts.
    3. Knowledge of facts presupposes knowledge of values.
    4. Knowledge of values presupposes knowledge of facts.

    The relation between these four propositions raises the possibility that our terms may attract connotations we find congenial or repulsive, that we agree or disagree with yet are unable to do anything about (apart, say, from acknowledging or lamenting them). This does suggest more transparency and self-reflection about the nature of our research and writing, about our rhetoric, about our use of facts, logics, metaphors, and stories that enable us, as the economist Deirdre McCloskey reminds us, to make our inquiries more reasonable and rational. And yet we’re not in control of the ideological environment that may distort, add to, or detract from the meaning of our analytical concepts and categories. If we believe in their analytical and scientific or descriptive utility, that is sufficient warrant for their employment, for to choose otherwise under the sort of pressure Quiggin acknowledges, is to loose something in precision, to shrink back a bit from the truth as we see it. I posted on related matters here (not addressing the specific concerns of this post): http://ratiojuris.blogspot.com/2012/12/empirical-or-scientific-description.html

  2. I’m glad you’ve brought up this subject Ben. I think it will help to more closely define neoliberalism’s meaning for me. I tend to think of it as a subcategory to historical liberalism and that it, as you suggest, defines the ongoing evolution of liberalism as society tweeks and modifies not only the economy but also social legalities affecting race, class and gender. My question is does neoliberalism really represent a particular turn, if so what turn exactly and how is it different from New Deal liberalism or progressivism or for that matter Jacksonian liberalism? Aren’t these in some sense all points of demarcation representing significant social/economic change but in fact are really just relabeling? In other words, couldn’t we justifiably call New Deal liberalism neoliberal or does neoliberal only refer to very specific time? In some sense I think of neoliberalism as only a pejorative because it doesn’t carry a historical marker, e.g. Great Society liberalism. Sorry for the stream of consciousness style of comment.

  3. Great questions. But isn’t “Zombie Economics” more pejorative (or more immediately legible as pejorative) than “neoliberalism?” My guess is that Quiggin actually does mean “partisan” rather than “pejorative.” He may think (and he’s not entirely wrong) that neoliberalism is part of a specific political bloc’s vocabulary, and that the danger is signaling to his readers that he belongs to that bloc, not signaling that he has a negative opinion about “market liberalism.” With a title like “Zombie Economics,” I doubt anyone is going to assume that he is undecided about its merits. File this, perhaps, under “objectivity is not neutrality?”

  4. Doesn’t any political term that has been around for some time accrue a pejorative connotation for some people? Neoliberalism – like “liberal”, “conservative”, “socialist”, etc. – undoubtedly has a negative connotation for some (particularly in economics?) but I don’t see this as an exceptional case of political language. As we saw in the early 2000s with liberalism, part of contemporary politics is an attempt to discredit/defame the political language of the opposition. The Republican Party was particularly successful in tarnishing “liberalism” to the point that Kerry avoided using it when running against GWB. Those on the left have tried, with some success, of tarnishing neoliberalism in the same way. Political language carries political baggage. Quiggin avoids the pejorative by avoiding the political for the jargon of professional economics. This enhances his ability to reach his professional peers – who may otherwise be turned off by the term neoliberalism – but may also confuse his lay readers.

  5. Andrew Seal: I assume Quiggin does mean “pejorative.” The word seems to me to be used mostly as a pejorative (though not necessarily as having no analytical content). The only exception I can think of is the pages of n+1 (which iirc Ben Alpers has mentioned on the subject of “neoliberal” in the past).

    I didn’t know Rachel Stone was Magistra et Mater.

  6. me: exception . . . n+1

    And some frequent commenters at your own blog (and I assume, probably jumping to conclusions, those whose actions, or non-actions, caused my own blog stats to take a steep dive when I made it clear I wouldn’t be reading Dave Harvey any time soon).

  7. “Neoliberal” has a specific connotation, at least for me, when used in discussions of economics and/or political economy: there it refers to a general skepticism of or opposition to govt regulation/intervention in the economy, support of privatization, belief in the virtues of the “free market,” etc. Reaganism and Thatcherism as ideologies are species of neoliberalism in this sense. It is possible to take this core meaning and expand it somewhat, as P. Hall and M. Lamont apparently do in their recent edited vol. Social Resilience in the Neoliberal Era. Quiggin is probably right that, in this context, “market liberalism” was a more ‘neutral’ term than “neoliberalism,” though whether that affected lots of readers of his book and persuaded them he was less ‘partisan’ is perhaps doubtful, given the title Zombie Economics, as a commenter points out above.

    There is also, in a specifically U.S. context, a mushier, harder-to-pin-down meaning of “neoliberalism,” as suggested by Paul’s comment above. This is related to the fact that “liberalism” in contemporary U.S. politics means something very different from “liberalism” in the contemporary European context. These various complications and distinctions have to be kept in mind in discussions of “neoliberalism.” Perhaps Ben A. has made some of these points before; I’m not sure as I didn’t read the earlier post he links to.

  8. @LFC
    It seems to me very difficult, in a US context, to find applications for several aspects of “neoliberalism” in the accepted, Harvey sense of an economic theory: privatization (of what?), acceptance of market values by left parties (what left parties?), loss of support for the cradle-to-grave welfare state (the what?), bourgeoisification of labour parties (again, what parties?). So, probably in part because of that initial difference in usage in the US, “neoliberal” seems to me to have more to do with a transformation in the understanding of what might be called “the administered state” (which is similarly seen by US liberals as less fully implemented than in Europe, but is evolving even beyond that). And differences between the US and Europe in the meaning of words like “economy” and “state” probably have an effect too.

    • @bianca steele
      The David Harvey definition of “neoliberalism” you’re referring to does seem more geared to the European/global than the U.S. context. Nonetheless, despite the differences in what the word “neoliberalism” means in the U.S. versus the rest of the world, the fact is that neoliberalism in its ‘global’ meaning *did* occur to some extent in the U.S. with Reaganism (and perhaps certain aspects of Clintonism (i.e. abolition of AFDC, a/k/a ‘welfare reform’)). Reagan didn’t succeed, iirc, in actually shrinking the absolute size of govt (on the contrary), but he did break PATCO, emphasize privatization (eg ‘private’ inroads into public education took off then, iirc, as one example), etc. Reagan’s cutting of tax rates esp for the wealthy can also be seen as ‘neoliberal’ (in the more dominant meaning of the word).

      Your ref. to changes in understandings of ‘the administered state’ remains a bit vague for me (tho i think i know what you’re getting at). Ditto your ref to differences in how Americans and Europeans use the words “state” and “economy.” There may be subtle differences in how these words are used in U.S. and European contexts — but I’m not entirely sure.

      The history of the word “state” is sort of interesting in itself and various scholars have written on it. But that wd take us too far afield here.

  9. This quoted comment bothers me quite a bit: “I need to feel comfortable that the author is not ignoring evidence that doesn’t suit their argument, and I often find that that can stem as much from ideological viewpoints as from purely financial motivations. It’s obviously impossible to avoid some ideological bias, but I think you need to have some secure sense that the author is adjusting their argument to fit the evidence and not the other way round.”

    Talk about a hermeneutics of suspicion!

  10. I was gping to make the same point as [email protected] I think the speciificallly US use of “neoliberal” to mean DLC-style Democrat or something similar has now been overwhelmed by the global use, but confusion still remains.

    In response to Andrew Seal: “Zombie economics” is obviously more negative than “neoliberalism”, but it’s a summary of the thesis of the book, for which I argue at length – ideas that should have been killed by evidence remain alive. Simillarly, there would be nothing wrong in using “neoliberalism” in an article showing how it is a distortion of the liberal tradition. The problem is when you use a pejorative as a persuasive definition

  11. Whether a term is viewed as pejorative (or ideological) is *often*—but not always—a matter of audience. What audience does the writer hope to reach? If Quiggin hoped to reach late-twentieth-century, American-style neoliberals, then he had to consider that when writing (i.e. not annoy them). If I’m a critic of soft-left market-oriented liberalism but writing for my left-leaning friends, then I would probably feel quite free to use neoliberalism as an epithet. Since historians are always writing for today’s reader, she/he has to be sensitive to what is a perjorative and otherwise. Once must always know what is going to turn on/off the audiences we hope to reach. Once that knowledge is obtained, the hard choices of writing ensue. – TL

  12. Thanks for writing this blog post. As a lay historian and political activist, I find myself struggling to reconcile judgement and understanding in what I write. It seems that often popular accounts of historical matters too easily strike the polemical tone at the expense of reasoned argument. However, I’m also wary of the use of “ideological” as a code word for left-leaning politics that thereby discredit the work of left academics. On this score, I appreciate the clarifying comment Patrick S. O’Donnell posted above. But I still wonder if the work of Carl Schmitt is any less rigorous because he wrote Nomos of the Earth with an explicit ideological purpose. Or conversely, is C.L.R. James’s The Black Jacobins any less rigorous because he wrote it mindful of the challenges of the radical left? It’s more interesting to read consciously ideological writers than writers who purport to stand above ideology. At least for me, it shows that they were fully engaged and committed to the controversies of their day. I’m inclined to find ideological works such as Leviathan as opposed to boilerplate propaganda far richer for the ideological circumstances that inform the writers’ decision to write them in the first place. To be clear, however, I think there’s a mark difference between an ideologue and person who espouses a certain ideology.

    On the question of neoliberalism, I think the work of a historian is not to pander to the predilections or biases of his or her readers. If the writer doesn’t agree with the specificity of a term or has misgivings about its analytical value, that is fine. But it is quite another matter to deploy a neutral term for the sole purpose of not turning potential readers away. That view strikes me as unbecoming of the responsibility of the historian as an analytical and involved record keeper of his or her times. I often think that historians write more for posterity than they do for the present. And that’s a good way to think about safeguarding a person’s intellectual integrity.

  13. Luis, thanks for this comment. I read it, then I had to read your blog. Your writing is stunning — the cry of an angel on the day of judgment. Stick around, would ya?

  14. People who twist the facts and mangle theory and history in an effort to marginalize and de-legitimize F. A. Hayek call Hayek a ‘neoliberal’ in their efforts to to this.

    No one else calls Hayek a neoliberal.

    No one.

    Hayek is the recognized leading classical liberal of the modern era.

    This example tells you all you need to know.

    • Things are not so simple. The term “neoliberalism” is usually said to have been created in 1938 at the Colloque Walter Lippmann, a gathering organized by Louis Rougier to celebrate Lippmann. Among the invited participants were Hayek and Ludwig von Mises. Participants chose the word “neoliberal” to describe their beliefs.

      Yet about this there appears to be some controversy. Some commentators insisted that there were, in fact, two distinct groups at the Colloque: “neoliberals” (including Rougier himself) who thought that liberalism had to be refined for the modern age and “old liberals,” who did not. The Austrians were seen as fitting into the latter group. At any rate, the term “neoliberalism” was applied by others at the time to the entire Colloque…and, about a decade later, to the Mont Pelerin Society, of which Hayek was one of the principal organizers.

      One can, of course, fairly argue that the term was misapplied to Hayek. But it is simply not the case that only those hostile to Hayek and/or neoliberalism ever called Hayek a neoliberal.

      On the issue of early uses of the term “neoliberalism,” see Mirowski and Plehwe (eds), The Road from Mont Pelerin, (esp. François Denord, “French Neoliberalism and Its Divisions”) and Daniel Stedman Jones, Masters of the Universe (esp. chapter 2).

      • I know this history.

        My remarks are about contemporary use — say over the last 35 years.

  15. Following LD’s lead, I went to Luis’s blog and read his most recent post (‘the Harlem Hellfighters’). Very good post — eloquent, and an instructive interweaving of past and present.

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