Looking back on neoliberalism

Regular readers will be used to my occasional complaints about the strange term “neoliberalism”, and especially the way it seems to range across quite different and sometimes contradictory meanings. I’ve now read an excellent account of the whole phenomenon, by Jesse Walker in this month’s issue of Reason magazine.* It’s well worth your time.

Walker is basically a mainstream libertarian (as distinct from “libertarian”), but you don’t have to agree with his evaluations to appreciate his historical analysis. He takes us through the evolution of “neoliberalism” in the twentieth century, explaining how quite different streams of meaning – one (negative) from Latin American leftists and one (positive) from United States centrists – converged in the 1990s and then, as he puts it, “really took off in the early 21st century.”

Walker doesn’t footnote his claims, so I don’t know if he has any hard evidence that the Latin American usage derived from the German ordoliberals; I’ve previously described this idea as a red herring. But the key point is that by about the turn of the century, usage had consolidated into what seemed to be a single concept, but with a complete lack of agreement about what it actually meant.

Yet people still managed to mean something by the term, and Walker, while cheerfully pointing out the multiple contradictions involved, ends up by suggesting that it’s not entirely useless. He argues that while it “may not describe a coherent force or worldview, … it’s not a bad way to describe a distinct historical era.” He compares it in that respect with the progressive era of the early twentieth century, which retains a certain coherence despite the wide variety of “progressives”.

The idea of characterising “neoliberalism” by way of an era rather than a body of doctrine or individuals isn’t entirely novel; Guy Rundle, from an opposite philosophical position, tried a similar approach back in 2016. (You can read my debate with him about it in the comments.) But I think Walker’s is the best effort yet to get it to all make sense while giving full credit to its sheer diversity:

Almost every nation has adopted at least some degree of market reform in the last half-century, and that economic liberalization was often joined by advances in free expression, sexual liberty, women’s rights, and other forms of personal autonomy. When grumpy conservatives claim that libertarians run America, that’s the combination of trends they usually have in mind. But libertarians don’t run America …

A committed libertarian looking at the Neoliberal Era should feel a lot like a committed socialist looking at the Progressive Era: happy about many changes, unhappy about many others, and disturbed at some of the people adopting their rhetoric.

Walker suggests that the “neoliberal” era may now be ending, but that this “doesn’t necessarily mean the end of its signature ideas.” No doubt that’s true, all the more so because those ideas are such a divergent lot. But for some of them – and especially the rampant cronyism that has become so strongly associated with the term – we can only hope that they may indeed be on the way out.

For more background on the subject, I’ve collected links to my previous posts over the last six years. You can see how the story has developed along with my thinking on it:

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* Thanks to Nigel Ashford for drawing it to my attention.

2 thoughts on “Looking back on neoliberalism

    1. I have to say that doesn’t worry me; if we could one day replace all government relief programs with GoFundMe efforts I suspect there’d be a gain in both efficiency & equity. But I certainly don’t credit Peter Dutton with any such forward-thinking motivation.

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