Yet another view of neoliberalism

If you’re at all interested in the debate on “neoliberalism”, which we’ve looked at a few times recently (see here, here and here), don’t miss a piece from the weekend by New York magazine’s Jon Chait.

Chait’s thesis – which I think is basically correct – is that “neoliberal” is now being used as an insult by the hard left in a way that simply erases the whole category of liberal-centrist or moderate-social-democratic thought, effectively forcing people to choose between authoritarianism and socialism.

I should say first that my understanding of “liberalism” is rather different from Chait’s. His is very much that of modern American “liberals”: not actually socialist, but sceptical about the free market and supportive of a powerful interventionist government. Mine is more the European usage (or “classical liberal”, although that term has its own problems), in which support for the free market is central.

But unlike many partisans on both sides of that linguistic debate, I acknowledge that the two are related: they share a common pedigree and a large area of common ground. In the actual political situation of today, where authoritarianism of right and left is on the march, the differences within the liberal family seem relatively unimportant. We need to stress the values that unite us rather than the specific policy questions that divide us.

With that background, Chait’s history of liberalism in the United States is instructive. He argues that it has always represented a middle ground between socialism on the left and a reactionary capitalism on the right, and that although somewhat amorphous (a “broad church”, as we might say) it has retained a degree of ideological consistency down to the present day.

On the left, however, where critics would once have unashamedly attacked liberalism, the rhetorical strategy has changed. In explaining this, Chait makes a point that I was dimly aware of but have never seen made explicit:

[T]he widely publicized influence of neoconservatives within the Bush administration changed the connotation of “neo.” Whereas the prefix had once softened the term it modified — the neoconservatives were once seen as the intellectually evolved wing of the right, in contrast to the Buchananite knuckle-draggers — by the end of Bush’s term, it became an intensifier. A neoconservative was a conservative, but an even scarier one.

So “neoliberal” went the same way, being used by people who were actually opposed to liberalism to move the debate onto more favorable terrain. (In Australia, lacking direct awareness of the American intellectual origins of the terms,  this trend was even more pronounced: “neoconservative”, for example, got applied to topics that had nothing whatever to do with the original differences between conservatives and neoconservatives.)

“Neoliberalism” therefore “frames the political debate in a way that perfectly suits the messaging needs of left-wing critics of liberalism.” Liberalism itself simply drops out as a category. The options are reduced to authoritarian nativism à la Donald Trump, an only slightly less authoritarian “neoliberalism” or crony capitalism, and the left’s preferred model of unreconstructed socialism.

That’s the choice offered by Bhaskar Sunkara last month in the New York Times. As Chait puts it:

Sunkara omits from his choices any liberal mixed economy of the kind that exists in Western Europe and Scandinavia and that American liberals would like to build here. … He excludes the more moderate brand of social democracy from the menu because he believes too many people would choose it. The whole trick is to bracket the center-left together with the right as “neoliberal,” and then force progressives to choose between that and socialism.

The three-way choice is somewhat reminiscent of that outlined last year by John Quiggin, which I commented on here. But Quiggin’s leftism seems more liberal in its aspirations than anything we’re likely to get from, say, Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

I do think Chait goes too far when he denies that American liberals underwent any significant shift in the 1980s and ’90s (Mike Conczal pulls him up on that point). Although it doesn’t show up in his Poole-Rosenthal scores, I think there was a real movement there away from the reflexive distrust of the market that was common in the 1960s and towards a readiness to embrace such options as deregulation and privatisation. Jimmy Carter’s deregulation of the airline market in 1978 was an obvious milestone.

But to my mind that shift was less of a philosophical revolution and more of a pragmatic awakening to some aspects of economic reality. And no doubt it also brought with it some of the cronyism and plutocracy that critics of “neoliberalism” have seized on. But Chait is surely right to say that most of the blame for the latter should attach to the forces of the right, acting from their own illiberal motives.

As I said last year, “It’s time for leftists and liberals, ‘neo’ or not, to stop fighting each other and draw the wagons in a circle.”

2 thoughts on “Yet another view of neoliberalism

  1. Chait’s thesis – which I think is basically correct – is that “neoliberal” is now being used as an insult by the hard left in a way that simply erases the whole category of liberal-centrist or moderate-social-democratic thought, effectively forcing people to choose between authoritarianism and socialism.

    The thing is that surely the “insult” is true and one can hardly exaggerate how the neoliberal takeover is impacting our world? Though perhaps your point is that it has produced such a backlash that the anti forces label almost anything that retains any form of capitalism or globalism as evil neoliberalism (thus Macron is savagely attacked at every opportunity on this basis). One might even imagine this conflict is part of the neoconservative, Libertarian game-plan: that middle-road pragmatism is not an option, just an outright war against two extremes (pure socialism versus authoritarian capitalism); for which the dice is loaded in favour of the latter who after all control most remaining levers of power.

    Monbiot, yesterday in the G, reviewed Nancy MacLean’s book “Democracy in Chains” which is an examination of Buchanan’s gameplan as being enacted by the Koch Bros. The attacks against MacLean (or on those like Monbiot) appear to this tyro to be equivalent to the People’s Judea Movement versus the Judean People’s Movement; all doctrinal pissing in the wind with perhaps the intentional outcome of the realworld events being secondary? Many of those attacking MacLean (and being endlessly mimed and linked by bloggers everywhere including Monbiot and the Amazon reviews page–which keeps getting redacted/reinstalled!) are self-confessed followers of Buchanan, some having being taught by him, and members of the Cato Institute (originally created at the Charles Koch Foundation). The current era shows (again I suppose) how easy it is to divide the enemy (look at all the nonsense re the new Home Office) with the last man standing being the usual suspects because they began the game with all the advantages. (Despite everything it looks certain that Murdoch will gain total control of BSkyB and Sky in Australia!)

    The mystery to me is how mainstream politicians and prominent policy-makers manage to convince themselves of the superiority of this kind of totalitarian capitalism. Of course they don’t admit that is what it is, even as the evidence is now overwhelming. For example I don’t think this is the way Maggie Thatcher viewed her revolution; she genuinely thought it would be for the betterment of the UK (some deluded disciples still think it was). Of course you gets idiots like Bush, Trump, Abbott et al. who don’t even know what they are facilitating. But plenty of ostensibly sensible policy wonks who keep on proposing the same failed “solutions”; take Alan Tudge (an econo-rationalist robot if ever there was one in this government) who today is still proposing the hard crackdown on welfarism (I find it too tedious to analyse but it seems little different to the 2014 budget nonsense, and I presume like that, it will be drowned at birth or more likely early termination). We spend less, and spend it more efficiently/effectively, on welfare than almost any other first-world nation yet these people still want to shrink (along with punishment like mandatory drug testing and draconian debt recovery and Kafka-ish procedures to make them go away and die in a corner somewhere), while simultaneously giving ever more tax breaks to the rich and powerful.

    But it is widespread. Take your fellow Crikey blog-editor, who shall go nameless, but who continues to pound away–all on a sterile econo-rationalist basis–against HSR, against a rail connection to airports and instead of rail-Metro for our big cities he wants buses (which no first-worlder ever wants to use, even if a fancy BRT). It is unfathomable how such people become so transfixed by an ideology or at least a narrow-spectrum part of Buchanan’s universe. But that is part of the reason: an extremely narrow view that deliberately (for “clarity”?) excludes outcomes they don’t really want to consider.

    In other words, we’re doomed.

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  2. Incidentally the constant ratcheting up of the security state, and people like Dutton to run them (have you seen his equivalents appointed by Trump!), is a big part of the plan. I mention this because of the overnight news that Macron sacked (or he resigned) his top Armed Forces guy, and we get hysterical headlines in the Rightwing press of “Macron in crisis”. We are yet to see how this bold action by Macron pans out but my first reaction was that he was merely exerting civilian and elected power over these army generals who are never satisfied with the budgets or toys they have; or of course the power. I thought it was good, too, that Macron cancelled Hollande’s semi-permanent “state of emergency”.

    I’m probably setting myself up for an crushing disapointment but so far, so good with Macron being the genuine “middle way” (rather than the fake ones of Blair’s Nu-Labour, perhaps Obama too). (Of course he could well be simply stripping power from the generals to sequester exclusively for himself …)

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