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?