The ideology that dare not speak its name

by John Q on April 22, 2009

The set of ideas that has dominated public policy around the world for the last thirty years has been given a variety of names – neoliberalism[1], economic rationalism, the Washington Consensus, Reaganism and Thatcherism being the most prominent. Broadly speaking, this set of ideas combines support for free market (or freer market) economic policies with agnosticism[2] about both political liberalism and the relative merits of democracy and autocracy. Since demands for definition are inevitable, I’ll point to mine here.

A striking feature of all of these terms is that they are currently used almost exclusively by opponents of the viewpoint being described, to the point where any use of such terms invariably provokes protests about unfair labelling (this is true even of the most neutral term I can find, “economic liberalism”). Even more striking is the fact that these terms were originally used in a broadly positive sense by supporters of the ideas concerned. I’ve done the story on economic rationalism, Don Arthur covers neoliberalism (with links to more from Taylor Boas and Jordan Gans-Morse (pdf) and you can check Wikipedia for the others.

Why is it that neoliberalism seems to be subject to a political version of the euphemism treadmill? A look at the history will help a bit.

For each of the sets of ideas in question, two things happened. First, the ideas described by the terms evolved in the direction of a more tightly defined and hardline free-market ideology – this happened both because (positive) users of the term became more consistent in their ideology over time and because some with more moderate views ceased to identify with the term.

Second, advocates of neoliberalism gained political power without, in general, convincing the majority of the public. In Australia and New Zealand, there was a bipartisan elite consensus in support of economic rationalism during the 1980s and early 1990s. In the UK, Thatcher won a series of elections with minority support thanks to a weak and divided Opposition. In Latin America, neoliberal policies were implemented by dictators like Pinochet, and quasi-dictatorial strongment like Fujimori.

Finally, as this process took place, the term was taken up by critics, who needed a descriptive label for the set of ideas they were criticising, and, soon afterwards, abandoned by its original advocates. In Australia, the crucial event was Michael Pusey’s book Economic Rationalism in Canberra. In the case of neoliberalism, the change occurred after the Pinochet coup.

This analysis gives two reasons for the euphemism treadmill. First, there is the obvious one. Unpopular ideas require euphemisms, and these euphemisms wear out over time.

The second is more subtle. From the inside, ideology usually looks like common sense. Hence, politically dominant elites don’t see themselves as acting ideologically and react with hostility when ideological labels are pinned on them. Ideology is only useful for an insurgent group of outsiders, seeking a coherent basis for a claim to displace the existing elite. Because neoliberalism typically enjoyed rapid triumphs, it never needed to express itself as a formal ideology, and the initial users of the term rapidly dropped it, once they got into power.

fn1. Confusingly, and reflecting the different meaning of “liberal”, in the US, “neoliberal” there has a different history and application, referring initially to Clinton-era DLC-oriented Democrats. The US neoliberals share some views, such as support for free trade, with neoliberals in the (originally) Latin American sense, but the global term is more applicable to the free-market right, represented by the business wing of the Republican party than to these centrist Democrats. As noted, Reaganism is sometimes used for this idea, but it’s not an exact match.

fn2. That is, the neoliberal ideology itself has little to say about these questions. Neoliberals may regard democracy and ordinary notions of political liberalism with outright hostility (Lee Kuan Yew, the Mises Institute). Or, they may like Hayek, regard democracy and free speech as second-order goals, desirable only if they don’t get in the way of free markets. Mises (unlike the institute that bears his name) offers a more appealing view, arguing that, in the long run, democracy is more favorable to free markets than autocracy, whatever the initial position of the autocrat. Finally, many neoliberals are, in political terms, orthodox liberal democrats, who advocate neoliberal policy while accepting that they need to convince the majority of voters of the validity of their position. Even among the last of these groups, most are willing to make political alliances with anti-democratic neoliberals, in much the same way as many (but not all) democratic socialists felt the need to work with the communist left in the trade union movement and elsewhere.

Update In comments at my blog, Terje Petersen points to what amounts to a dysphemism treadmill on the other side of politics, which is now using “neo-socialist” as a term of abuse, presumably having found “socialist” unsatisfactory as a replacement for “liberal”, which has lost its power to sting. Unlike “neoliberal” and “neoconservative”, this term has never had any currency among those it is meant to describe.



Cryptic Ned 04.22.09 at 9:22 pm

“It Hence”?


Rich Puchalsky 04.22.09 at 9:49 pm

I think that you missed a source of the pushback against the term within the U.S.: the existence of “liberal” to define most of the left half of the spectrum. At the same time as “neoliberal” was being coined by the left, “liberal” was under attack by the right. Existing liberals who were not neoliberals felt squeezed; they saw the appropriation of their rhetorical ground from both sides, especially since the left likes to define any liberal as a neoliberal and the right likes to define any liberal as a socialist. Being defined as a socialist / communist / “fascist” (c.f. Jonah G.) was at least a familiar craziness, being defined as a neoliberal was appropriation of the word itself. Libertarians also sometimes try to claim “classical liberal”, but they are few enough so that they can be ignored.

Most U.S. liberals seem to have retreated to the (vapid, imo) “progressive”, and most of the rest seem resigned to “left-liberal”. I personally don’t like left-liberal because I think that any political word with a dash in it is indicating its marginality, but whatever. It’s probably time to just go with “social democrat”, since I don’t really understand the differences between that and left-liberal anyways.


Nick 04.22.09 at 9:52 pm

It is a fascinating trend in ideologies. From my libertarian perspective, neo-liberalism appears to accept the basic premises of the welfare state, but believes in using a different set of regulatory and disciplinary procedures to generate goods for society. These include an individualist rational account of the bureaucrat (hence the need to use efficiency targets and other managerial techniques to make state agencies “efficient”) and a preference for private actors working in markets regulated by experts, instead of democratic control. Of course, I don’t think social democrats are necessarily that interested in democratic controls over an administration either: there is just so much TO DO in a welfare state that it tends to hand power to some sort of unelected agent, whether legitimised by a bureaucracy or a corporation. Together social democrats and neo-liberals represent a single establishment of competing ideologies. They tend to cross parties quite easily (especially in the UK), but they have remarkably different rhetoric.


Christopher Aqurette 04.22.09 at 10:01 pm

“Thatcher won a series of elections with minority support thanks to a weak and divided Opposition.”

The same could be said for most politicians who win a democratic election in Europe.


Colin Danby 04.22.09 at 10:09 pm

Thanks for the links. At the bottom of the Club Troppo page there’s a link to a more recent published version of the Boas and Gans-Morse paper. Boas and Gans-Morse do really helpful work on the 60s connections. Also relevant are Foucault’s recently-published lectures on the Ordos in _The Birth of Biopolitics_ (Palgrave-Macmillan 2008). The lectures were in 78-79 so it’s also interesting to see in them the range of contemporary reference for the term neoliberal.

My memory is that the term came into increasing use in and around Latin America after the 1982 debt crisis because that marked a policy break. Another distinction, calling for the a more highly-marked “neo,” may have been efforts to extend the logic of classical liberalism to financial markets, domestic and international.


Ben Alpers 04.22.09 at 10:37 pm

in the US, “neoliberal” there has a different history and application, referring initially to Clinton-era DLC-oriented Democrats.

This is not quite right. Use of the term in the U.S. began in the early-to-mid 1980s and referred to people who were, in some ways, predecessors of the DLC: politicians like Gary Hart and Al Gore (in his ’80s version) and public intellectuals clustered around The New Republic in its pre-Andrew Sullivan days.

Although these people were in effect replaced by the DLC, I think the term “neo-liberal” was used less–by the DLC and others–in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the move to the center was more explicitly embraced. Rather than referring to themselves as neoliberals, DLC Democrats tended to drop the “L” word entirely. They were centrists or supporters of a “Third Way” (a term with an interesting history of its own: originally it referred to a position between capitalism and state socialism, but it came to refer to something just a hair to the left of Thatcherism).

A quick search of the NYT archives yielded 24 uses of the term “neoliberal” between 1/1/1981 and 12/31/1987 but only 7 uses of the term between 1/1/1988 and 12/31/1993.


John Quiggin 04.22.09 at 10:44 pm

I don’t want to derail the thread onto this side point, Christopher, but as I understand it, a coalition government in a (standard European) PR system usually requires the agreement of parties which secured the support of a majority of voters.

And, coming back to the main point, explicitly ideological politics seems more likely to be an asset in systems like this, provided it can contribute to a majority coalition. The South American neoliberals described in the links drew their initial inspiration from German ordoliberals/social market advocates who didn’t AFAIK see the need to walk away from this label.


Pance 04.23.09 at 12:02 am

I think you’re correct about the role of “free-er markets” in neoliberalism, but you completly missed the role of the state in accomplishing this. Who can forget that bold move by Reagan when he de-certified the striking air traffic controllers union. Perfect example of the power of the state to crush any oppostion to big-business. Great definition of neoliberalism by Mike Lebowitz:

“neoliberalism: policies which remove all restrictions on the movement of capital, remove all laws that protect workers, consumers, and citizens against capital, and reduce the power of the state to check capital (while increasing the power of the state to act on behalf of capital).”

Also – David Harvey:
“Does this crisis signal the end of neoliberalism? My answer is that it depends what you mean by neoliberalism. My interpretation is that it’s a class project, now masked by a lot of rhetoric about individual freedom, liberty, personal responsibility, privatisation and the free market. That rhetoric was a means towards the restoration and consolidation of class power, and that neoliberal project has been fairly successful.
One of its basic principles that was set up in the 1970s was that state power should protect financial institutions at all costs. ”


P O'Neill 04.23.09 at 12:41 am

I think macroeconomic policy is critical to understanding the treadmill. When the movement was capable of delivering short-term macroeconomic stabilization ( lower inflation and budget deficits), it had popular appeal, if only on the “no pain, no gain” basis. But when the broader aspects of the agenda emerged (deunionisation, deregulation, cuts in public services) emerged, there was an important portion of the electorate who got cold feet. At that point, the treadmill becomes more frenetic, as various options are tried to win people over.


Dr. Strangelove 04.23.09 at 5:23 am

As far as definitions go I’m more curious to know how you think political liberalism should be defined. I thought the key idea that marked off the newer liberalism from the older republicanism was the idea (as found in Locke for example) that the whole point of government was to protect private rights, and that democracy was merely the most reliable means to ensure that government continued to serve this function.

The description you give of “neoliberalism, economic rationalism, the Washington Consensus, Reaganism and Thatcherism” makes them all sound like versions of political liberalism. What they have in common is a primary concern with preserving private rights. They all take democracy to be a good thing in so far as democracy tends to preserve private rights, but in those instances where democracy conflicts with private rights, they all side with private rights.


Tom T. 04.23.09 at 5:29 am

“Thatcher won a series of elections with minority support thanks to a weak and divided Opposition.”

Presumably this would be testable by reference to the extent to which Blair then repudiated neoliberal policies. I don’t know enough to make that evaluation myself, but someone here probably can.


Anders Widebrant 04.23.09 at 5:44 am

The idea of political agnosticism is pretty fascinating — “we can neither prove nor disprove the existence of democracy”.


Martin Wisse 04.23.09 at 6:27 am

7: it does in the Netherlands, which inevitably means a coalition government: the current one has the christian democratic, the radical but nice with it christian and the watered down social democratic parties.


Henri Vieuxtemps 04.23.09 at 8:19 am

It’s difficult to analyze neoliberalism at a national level, and I think it’s a mistake; this is how you come to the wrong (imo) conclusion about its “agnosticism about … the relative merits of democracy”.

Neoliberalism manifests itself more readily via its international institutions, and here it becomes crystal clear that its MO is exactly to suppress the will of populations (and their national governments) for the benefit of international capital.

And it’s the same on the national level – except, naturally, much messier, not in such an obvious manifestation, which causes you to misinterpret its fundamentally anti-democratic nature (which is also one of its main characteristics) as agnosticism about democracy.


JoB 04.23.09 at 9:12 am


Or, they may like Hayek, regard democracy and free speech as second-order goals, desirable only if they don’t get in the way of free markets.

Aren’t you a little bit harsh here? I am no expert on Hayek but it seems to me that those claimed in intellectual support of political neoliberalism were politically very liberal. They just thought, erroneously as it turns out, that more free market would, in the end, automatically increase this political liberty. This error is not unlike the errors of Marx in thinking that by concentrating the capital in the hands of the state, the exploitation of individuals by a happy few would cease. One should resist demonizing Marx for an intellectual error (if one cannot make intellectual errors – one can’t possible hope to make intellectual progress), and so one should resist it for Hayek.

What seems to have happened is that authoritarian politicans have used the term liberal to gain traction by avoiding to be overtly authoritarian (or elitist). If anything we should, socialists and all, welcome the fact that nobody wants to be neoliberal anymore because that allows all of us to be liberal again. The notion that all liberal-minded people should be in 1 party with 1 opinion, as expressed by some (not you), is very undemocratic.


Tracy W 04.23.09 at 9:42 am

On the other hand, the NZ Labour Government in 1987 was returned to power with the same share of seats and a small increase in its share of the vote relative to 1984. Now admittedly figuring out causuality is difficult, for example the nuclear-free policy was very popular. And Roger Douglas’s political thinking was (and, for all I know, is) very different to Ruth Richardson’s – Roger Douglas was firmly “use markets to make money, then redistribute”, Ruth Richardson took the self-reliance, cutting the welfare state, whether you therefore define Rogernomics as neoliberalism is up to you. But the voters did fail to reject Rogernomics by a majority after 3 years’ experience of it, which as democratic support for policies goes isn’t appalling. Electorate rejection of Ruth Richardson’s reforms strikes me as far clearer (given caveats around causality), and I think this was driven mostly by the cuts in government spending and the introduction of user-fees, plus the recession, rather than by continuation of Rogernomic’s floating exchange rates and other such reforms.

Furthermore, the Labour government in 1999 kept many of the reforms of the previous decades – eg floating exchange rates, a broad-based tax system, the Employment Relations Act was not a return to the old style unionism, GST, low tariffs, central bank independence, and it won the 2002 election handily.


John Quiggin 04.23.09 at 11:32 am

JoB, the errors you point out aren’t comparable. Marx made analytical errors and great crimes were committed in his name, but I don’t think either of these justify moral opprobrium directed at him. On the other hand, Hayek explicitly and repeatedly supported the Pinochet regime. And I argue in the linked post, this wasn’t an aberration but was consistent with his general theoretical analysis. So I stand by what I wrote.

Tom T, Blair’s “Third Way” was presented as an alternative to Thatcherism. To what extent Blair actually moved away from Thatcher is a complex question, but I don’t think that’s very relevant to my post.

Tracy, I think your point reaffirms my observation that “In Australia and New Zealand, there was a bipartisan elite consensus in support of economic rationalism during the 1980s and early 1990s.” As I don’t think you mentioned, the Nationals ran to the left of Labour (that is, a moderately centre-right position in standard terms) to gain office, but then swung hard to the right with Richardson and Shipley. It wasn’t until the upheaval of MMP that NZ voters got any kind of choice, and even then, as you say, a limited one.


Tracy W 04.23.09 at 12:46 pm

John Quiggin, in NZ there is nearly universal suffrage for adult NZ citizens. According to the NZ Ministry for Social Development, voter turnout in the 1987 general election was over 80% and well over 40% of those voters voted for Labour. I don’t know how many of those voted for Labour for reasons other than Labour’s economic policy, as I said the nuclear-free policy was very popular, but this makes for a fairly big-sized elite, especially given that many rural NZ voters would vote National even if National stood a sheep in their electorate (and there is also a certain segment set for Labour).

I don’t recall National’s campaign promises 1987 election, but Ruth Richardson’s power within the National Party was driven by the state of the Government’s finances revealed after the election, so I doubt that National was campaigning on a neoliberal platform in 1987 any more than it did in 1990. And it certainly hadn’t been ruling on one back in 1984 before it lost that election. If voters had really wanted to get away from the Labour government in 1987 I see no reason why they wouldn’t have voted for National (I was too young then to vote).

As for the upheaveal of MMPM giving NZ voters a choice – you do realise that the very next election the government was decided by a backroom deal between National and NZ First? MMP giving voters a choice? Yeah, right.


JoB 04.23.09 at 2:41 pm


You refer a.o. indirectly to a newspaper article in El Mercurio, 1981 by Renée Sallas. I couldn’t find an on-line version but did find a Dutch translation of the excerpt directly ‘supporting’ your interpretation of Hayek’s involvement with Pinochet (see below).

Now, I don’t expect you to be able to read Dutch but I understand from other google’d items by you that you’re interested in this source so maybe you can hunt it out with this info. This Dutch site does say there is a translation in English on-line but I could not find that.

The first sentence translates: “I’m completely opposed to dictatorship as long term solutions.” I am not Hayekian (by any measure) but I do think that doing a Heidegger on Hayek, dissociating his thought from the general political liberal tree alltogether, does little service to liberalism. In current context it’s important not to throw the free market and efficient government away with the neoliberal bathwater (just as it was a neoliberal error to throw away social security & public goods with the communist bathwater).

(yes the sentence you think is in there, is also in there, but quoting it in isolation is not doing any justice to the thoughts (as erroneous as they may otherwise be) expressed in the article); what is being said is nothing very different from those claiming Cuba should not go to full capitalism in 1 fell swoop if that means all political liberties are there symbolically but 80% of the citizens are too poor or too uneducated to exercise them)

Ik ben compleet tegen dictaturen als lange-termijnoplossingen. Maar soms kan een dictatuur noodzakelijk zijn tijdens een overgangsperiode. Op bepaalde ogenblikken kan een land nood hebben aan een vorm van dictatoriaal bestuur. U begrijpt wellicht dat het mogelijk is dat een dictator kan regeren op een liberale manier, net zoals een democratie op een totaal onliberale manier kan regeren. Persoonlijk prefereer ik een liberale dictator boven een democratische regering zonder liberalisme. Mijn persoonlijke indruk – en dat is geldig voor Zuid-Amerika – is dat we bijvoorbeeld in Chili een overgang zullen zien van een dictatuur naar een liberale regering. Tijdens die overgang kan het nodig zijn om bepaalde dictatoriale machten aan te houden, als een tijdelijke maatregel. Cromwell speelde een dergelijke rol in Engeland tijdens een overgangsperiode van absolutistische koninklijke macht naar een constitutionele monarchie met beperkte bevoegdheden. […] In Duitsland na de tweede wereldoorlog hadden de kanseliers Adenauer en Erhardt aanvankelijk quasi dictatoriale bevoegdheden, die ze gebruikten om in korte tijd een liberale regering op te zetten. […] Het kan een contradictie lijken dat ik, dé persoon bij uitstek die voor beperkte regeringsmacht pleit en die stelt dat veel van onze problemen veroorzaakt worden door te veel overheidsmacht, pleit voor absolute macht en dictatuur. Maar als ik over dictatoriale machten spreek, heb ik het enkel over een overgangsperiode, met als bedoeling om een stabiele democratie en vrijheid tot stand te brengen, vrij van onzuiverheden. Dat is de enige manier waarop ik het kan rechtvaardigen, en het aanbeveel.


Russ Hicks 04.23.09 at 3:43 pm

I believe that “neo-liberal” in the domestic American sense was coined by Charles Peter of the Washington Monthly in response to Reagan’s election.


Russ Hicks 04.23.09 at 3:43 pm

Charles Peters.


Hubert Horan 04.23.09 at 3:53 pm

I think John’s described evolution from economic rationality to free market ideology begs, but doesn’t acknowledge a key step that is relevant to the current crisis. The original rationalist underpinnings of “Reaganist” economics were “free market” in that they were based on beliefs about society-wide optimization that was fundamentally empirical, not rationalist. That thinking (transportation deregulation, low tariff barriers, opposition to purely rent-seeking regulations) had wide support from what (in today’s world) we’d call Democratic or left-leaning economists. The “Republican” wing of this movement were more focused on the failures of New Deal/Great Society programs and more attentive to incentives at the individual level, but in the 70s and 80s these were matters of degree and perspective. (I believe there are strong parallels in the UK and Australia, but I’ll focus on the US here)

There wasn’t a shift to “a more tightly defined, hardline “free market” ideology” coincident with political ascendancy, but a fundamental abandonment of the original “economic optimization” thinking. Yes, the new ideology was heavily draped with “free market” slogans, but it was a radical shift from “what incentives drive the optimal results for society” to “what incentives drive the greatest wealth creation for the uber-capitalist class”. It was a fundamental abandonment of classic liberalism. All of the things that protect the integrity and efficient working of markets were being slowly but systematically gutted.

It wasn’t just that political power reduced the need for movement labels, but a need to mask the nature and magnitude of the ideological shift away from the “free market” arguments of the 70s and 80s.


Steve Roth 04.23.09 at 4:37 pm

Best line of the week:

“From the inside, ideology usually looks like common sense.”


John Quiggin 04.23.09 at 8:10 pm

JoB, the full quote as originally published in Spanish is here

and I agree with your qualifications on this one, but the additional quotes given by Don Arthur in the linked article are, in my view, more convincing support for the view that Hayek was an unqualified supporter of “authoritarian” free market governments, such as that of Pinochet.


A. Y. Mous 04.24.09 at 7:37 am

So much analyses for what is essentially an unsatisfied societal need for having x number of people kneel before y number of other people, for any values of x & y as long as y < x, is nauseating.

The U.S. is paying the price for not having indulged in feudalism. Labels are merely that. Labels. Suffer the ignomy of feudalism (under whatever label) for a few generations and just be done with it. Some time spent harking hail! hail! will flush this crap out of the system.


JoB 04.24.09 at 8:55 am

John, thx, I don’t see the evidence for “unqualified” support but won’t press the point as Hayek was quite wrong and deservedly gets a posthuous kicking for whatever support he gave.

Tracking back to the main point however (and if you want, track back to von Mises): there’s one root of liberalism – both the intellectual origins of neoliberalism and social democracry can best be seen as referring back to this common root of political liberalism.

Polarization between free market advocates and social security advocates is a divide & conquer strategy of the elite against political liberalism (and a very real threat). In fact the adoption of a term like neoliberalism by traditionally conservative/authoritarian politicians was a key move; one that Hayek naïvely bought into cfr. your quote.

Let me make myself vulnerable: being a rather radical socialist – there is a lot I sympathize with in Hayek. The solution cannot lie in more ‘control’, bigger power structures and personal moral obligations on labour or whatever – historically this is what Hayek/Mises learned from the now defunct communist states. Unfortunately, people like Cohen take the easy road and just go back to a proven bad solution disregarding the points of e.g. Hayek because they can be dismissed by personal issues with Hayek. That’s unfortunate: the binary left/right bickering within liberalism will just serve to promote a new era of elitism whether we go overboard on left authoritarianism or on right authoritarianism doesn’t matter too much: the few will exploit the many in both.

(PS: on the anecdote, for fun: I guess you could fault many sympathizers of Castro, Stalin, and Napoleon in the way you can fault Hayek – there won’t be a lot of left philosophers/economists left I guess)


stostosto 04.24.09 at 12:43 pm

But what ideologies on the left are there that dare speak their names? Isn’t it more or less typical of today’s climate that ideological labels is something you only pin on your opponent while presenting your own as “bipartisan”, or “pragmatic”, or “new”? Or even “third way” if that hadn’t by now been rendered useless by association with cynicism and, worse, failure.

Actually, and thinking about it, isn’t more or less the only ideology that does seem to be fairly willing to speak its name “conservative”? It’s apparently impossible to vilify anyone by calling them conservative.

To wit, some Obama-friendly commentators tend to ascribe “conservative” to him. (And not just Andrew Sullivan).


John Meredith 04.24.09 at 1:07 pm

I have to agree with JoB on Hayek’s support for dictatorship. It takes some effort to deny “…as an insitution over the long term I am totally opposed to dictatorship” is at very least a qualification of any expressed support for a particular dictaorship. I think most people would read it as an unabiguous ideological opposition to diuctatorship except in very specific ‘transitional’ circumstances. As JoB points out, this is indistinguisable from those who conditionally support the Castro government on the assumption that the country will liberalise in the future.


Lupita 04.24.09 at 11:14 pm

Neoliberalism manifests itself more readily via its international institutions, and here it becomes crystal clear that its MO is exactly to suppress the will of populations (and their national governments) for the benefit of international capital.

Indeed, this is why in Latin America neoliberalism = imperialism.


John Quiggin 04.24.09 at 11:29 pm

“But what ideologies on the left are there that dare speak their names? ”

Social democrats don’t seem to have any problems.


John Quiggin 04.24.09 at 11:31 pm

The Third Way and similar terms aren’t rebrandings of social democracy, but labels for one or other form of neoliberalism, presented as an entirely new direction, which tends if anything to support the point of the post.


john mcgowan 04.25.09 at 2:56 am

Since the folks in question (from Thatcher to Reagan on through to today) quite happily called themselves “conservatives,” I don’t see the problem. The “liberal” and “neo-liberal” stuff only comes from those who have an inconvenient sense of history and an unexplained reverence for a few 19th century British thinkers.


John Quiggin 04.25.09 at 3:09 am

John McG, in my recollection, supported by Google, the Thatcherites were and are far more likely to describe themselves as radicals (or radical Tories) than as conservatives. Of the first 100 Google hits for Thatcher+conservative, all but about 10 were for the Conservative party, and most of the rest were joint references to Reagan.

Of course, there is nothing conservative about neoliberalism.


Tracy W 04.25.09 at 5:26 am

I’ll add to my previous comment that NZers did have a choice in terms of economic policy. In first MMP election in 1996, the Alliance won 10.1% of the vote. The Alliance was a coalition of left-wing parties who most definitely were opposed to free-market ideology. Basic economic policy – more social spending on everything except defence and roads, paid for by taxes on the rich, oppose privatisation, local economic planning, collective bargaining, amend the Reserve Bank Act to make the central bank look not merely target inflation but also full employment and economic sustainability (and of course environmentalism and the other normal left-wing social goals). If they could be described as neoliberal then what economic policy could not be?

It’s wrong to say that NZ voters only had a limited choice in terms of economic policy: NZ voters did, it’s just that for whatever reason over 80% of NZ voters didn’t pick it.

Makes me wonder how reliable John Quiggin’s arguments are for the UK and Australia.


John Quiggin 04.25.09 at 6:30 am

By 1996, the main advocates of neoliberalism (most notably Roger Douglas) had left Labour to form ACT. The election therefore pitted a broadly social-democratic Labour-Alliance coalition against the incumbent Nationals who could count on the support of ACT. Neither got a majority, and NZ First, who campaigned as populists, put the Nationals in for another round of neoliberal reform. The Nationals were flung out next time around, and Labour was in for the best part of a decade.

I didn’t claim that neoliberals have never received a majority of the vote from electors given a reasonable alternative. But your failure to come up with an example suggests that maybe I should have.


Dan 04.25.09 at 10:59 am

From my (avowedly libertarian) point of view, I can’t seem make any sense of the notion of neoliberalism except as a kind of all-encompassing term used to describe anyone who believes in free markets who the left doesn’t like. I honestly don’t see what else lies in common between, say, the Mises Institute (who you pick out by name) – a bunch of paleo-libertarian, gold-bug borderline (if not outright) anarchists – and Reagan or Thatcher. Maybe I really am missing something here, but I can’t help but think that the term is rejected for precisely this reason.


Barry 04.25.09 at 2:07 pm

Dan, many Greens might express the same opinion. That could be because when one is in an extreme corner of the political arena, differences in the rest of the arena look smaller, or simply poor judgement. We’re at the end of a thirty-year to forty-year conservative political surge in the USA, and a thirty-year surge in the UK. There were a lot of people happy to participate in that surge, to whatever extent they could, who now disavow membership, which is to be expected. For example, how many right-wingers now disclaim Bush as a conservative, even while supporting him and claiming themselves as conservatives?


Lupita 04.25.09 at 6:38 pm

Maybe I really am missing something here, but I can’t help but think that the term is rejected for precisely this reason.

Perhaps you are missing the where, where is the term “neoliberalism” rejected? The only people I know who claim they simply cannot grasp its meaning, reside in rich countries, most particularly English-speaking countries, which are precisely the countries that benefited from the exploding pension funds, asset prices, wasteful consumption, and wars of choice granted to them by being on the right side of an unjust global system.

Neoliberalism is the system that enabled Bechtel to charge poor Bolivians for rainwater, US agribusiness to profit on the backs of a compliant, semi-literate, non-unionized, illegal workforce, and for capital to flow from poor countries to rich.

Rejecting the term the victims of this system give to it is to reject our voice and to reject injustice.


tofubo 04.26.09 at 7:13 pm

(gratuitous, self-referential post)

neo-conservative is more accurately neo-liberal,,so classical-liberal is more accurately blatantly-conservative ??

the above is the answer, link below is the question


Walt 04.26.09 at 7:51 pm

Uh, Lupita, the whole point is that the term is used in multiple senses. Some people use it in the way you do, and some people use it in a narrower sense. Some people use it as a laundry list of their every objection, some people use it to mean economic imperialism, some people use it to mean Reagan/Thatcher-type politics, and some people use it to mean Clinton-type Third Way politics. It’s almost as if naming something neo-something-else is a dumb idea.


Henri Vieuxtemps 04.26.09 at 8:28 pm

Oh, I dunno. I read Stanley Fish’s column in the NYT and he wrote recently:

…What I’ve learned (and what some readers of this column no doubt already knew) is that neoliberalism is a pejorative way of referring to a set of economic/political policies based on a strong faith in the beneficent effects of free markets. Here is an often cited definition by Paul Treanor: “Neoliberalism is a philosophy in which the existence and operation of a market are valued in themselves, separately from any previous relationship with the production of goods and services . . . and where the operation of a market or market-like structure is seen as an ethic in itself, capable of acting as a guide for all human action, and substituting for all previously existing ethical beliefs.” (“Neoliberalism: Origins, Theory, Definition.”)

Sounds clear and concise enough.


Walt 04.26.09 at 9:06 pm

And yet it’s not the only definition in the air, particularly in the United States. I heard the “business-friendly Democrats” definition long before I heard the one described by Fish. They clearly shade together, but they are not the same.


Lupita 04.26.09 at 9:25 pm

And yet it’s not the only definition in the air, particularly in the United States.

The US is notorious for rejecting world-wide usage of political terms much as it rejects the metric system. Other political terms Americans understand in their unique way are “socialism”, “left”, and “imperialism”. I wonder why.


Henri Vieuxtemps 04.26.09 at 9:34 pm

Right, but I thought the ‘market structure having a value/ethic in itself’ would be a good enough basic concept to sort out all the different manifestations and degrees of this thing.


Walt 04.26.09 at 10:22 pm

Lupita: Other Americans do it out of ignorance, but I’m more motivated by spite.

Henri: True, but I don’t know if neoliberal is a good choice for that term. In the US political context, Reagan was anti-liberal, and the leader of a movement that turned “liberal” into a dirty word, so in that context, calling him “neoliberal” sounds odd.


Lupita 04.26.09 at 11:50 pm

I don’t know if neoliberal is a good choice for that term

That is like saying you do not think butterflies should be called butterflies because not all are yellow and they do not flutter around garbage cans. There is nothing you can do about it. People use and understand the term so butterfly it is.

Regarding “neoliberal”, Latin Americans have analyzed what has been happening to us since the Washington Consensus – the document, the IMF justifications, increased inequality, privatizations, raids by hedge funds, financial collapses, diminishing budgets for public education and health, increased poverty – and called it “neoliberalism”. Granted, we could have called it something else. However, it is too late to change the term since it has already spread, people all over the world use and understand the term. So “neoliberalism” it is.


Walt 04.27.09 at 12:52 am

Nice try, Lupita. That is certainly a novel form of the argument from authority.


Lupita 04.27.09 at 1:35 am

That is certainly a novel form of the argument from authority

In linguistics there is no argument from authority, either the word is commonly understood or it is not. In Latin America, “neoliberalism” is understood as “that which happened to us during the past two decades and has brought so much suffering”. Not even right-wingers want to be associated with it.

The problem I see with Americans’ approach to this new term (for them) is that it is etymological: what does “neo” mean, what does “liberalism” mean to me? Add the two and supposedly you get what “neoliberalism” actually means. I does not work that way.

In language, context is everything and the context of “neoliberalism” is Latin American reality and politics.


Tracy W 04.27.09 at 9:06 am

John Quiggin, in the 1996 election Labour, National and ACT totalled 68% of the vote.
I rather missed the further round of neoliberal reform after 1996 in NZ, which surprises me as I was living in the country at the time. There were tax cuts on the middle-income brackets, is that what you are referring to? I thought they were intended for no more ideological reasons than keeping National in power – a neoliberal agenda would rather have cut the top tax rate and company rate in tandem to reduce the possibilities for tax avoidance.

I didn’t claim that neoliberals have never received a majority of the vote from electors given a reasonable alternative. But your failure to come up with an example suggests that maybe I should have.

Quite possibly you may have been right to make that claim. What I was objecting to was your statement “It wasn’t until the upheaval of MMP that NZ voters got any kind of choice, and even then, as you say, a limited one.”
NZ voters did have a sharply different choice of economic policy because of The Alliance in 1996.
I also think it is relevant, in juding the electoral strength of neoliberalism, to mention that while the Labour government of 1987 did not get a majority of votes, it did get 48% of the vote, an increase from when it won power in 1984.


Tracy W 04.27.09 at 9:12 am

Oops, my mistake, I forgot about the asset sales under the National-NZ First coalition. Okay, we can count that government as neoliberal.

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