Why neoliberals hate being called neoliberals

I use the labels neoliberal and neoconservative quite frequently. In comments in response to a previous post, there was some discussion of what those labels really represent and whether there existed any meaningful distinctions between people categorized by those labels and those who are called simply liberals and conservatives respectively. Neoliberal seemed to be considered less helpful than neoconservative in identifying political inclinations.

I think that these terms do serve a useful purpose and Sam Kriss says that the term neoliberal is not a recent one but dates back at least as far as to the 1950s and has a well-established pedigree. People who hate the term neoliberal the most are those who are themselves neoliberals, and he uses writer Jonathan Chait of the New York Magazine as a prime example. He says that anti-socialists like Chait have responded by saying that ‘the left’ uses the term neoliberal as a form of insult against people like him.

A ruling class, dizzying itself with the simultaneous beliefs that most people are fundamentally stupid and don’t know what’s good for them, and that one can exert influence by appealing to the vague cultural markers ordinary people like, has decided to become vigorously, monumentally stupid. You can see this process play out whenever one of its leading journalists is forced to reckon with the word “neoliberalism.”

The same people who love to dream up strange and senseless new conceptual systems, who pore over the minor details of insurance law with a philatelist’s perverse giddiness, who think that “innovation” or “aspiration” are good and worthwhile concepts, will suddenly slacken their jaws and cross their eyes, and insist that one of the most studied and documented concepts in modern sociology simply has no meaning. Do you really expect ordinary people to know what you mean if you start talking about something as dry and academic as neoliberalism? Do you really think you could use it to “to strike up a conversation with some strangers in a bowling alley in Toledo”?

That line belongs to New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait, who recently penned a diatribe titled “How ‘Neoliberalism’ Became the Left’s Favorite Insult of Liberals.” He claims that “neoliberal” has become a term of abuse, by which socialists try to distinguish themselves from good moderate liberals. It’s a meaningless term, he claims, entirely useless “as an analytic tool.” But by using this epithet, the left can pretend that the Democratic Party was once the home of a robust New Deal social democracy, but has been hijacked by right-leaning forces. Exactly how all this happened is never actually discussed.

Instead of “neoliberalism” denoting a specific set of economic and social practices that affect everyone, Chait uses it as a signifier for the strange, nameless feeling of hurt and frustration he experiences whenever someone lobs the descriptor at him.

Here is how Chait defines neoliberalism. He notes, at one point, that “the widely publicized influence of neoconservatives within the Bush administration changed the connotation of ‘neo'” and that “by the end of Bush’s term, it became an intensifier.” “Neo” means bad, and liberalism means liberalism. A neoliberal, then, is a liberal who is more right-wing. But it also refers to capitalism as such. Chait writes:

“‘Neoliberal’ means capitalist, as distinguished from socialist. That meaning has rarely had much application in American politics, because liberals and conservatives both believe (to starkly differing degrees) in capitalism. If ‘neoliberal’ simply describes a belief in some role for market forces, then it is literally true that liberals and conservatives are both ‘neoliberal.'”

He adds, “It is strange, though, to apply a single term to opposing combatants in America’s increasingly bitter partisan struggle.”

Except that it’s not.

Neoliberalism is not particularly hard to define. It’s not only an ideology or a set of principles; it’s a system of practices, and an era, the one we’re living in now. What it means, over and above everything, is untrammeled ruling-class power, an end to the class-collaborationism of the post-war years and a vicious assault of the rich against the poor. This is achieved through market mechanisms, fiscal austerity and the penetration of capitalist relations into every possible facet of human life. It doesn’t mean that the role of the state vanishes—an essential precondition for neoliberalism is the destruction of working-class power and collective bargaining, and this has to be achieved, often brutally, through laws and their enforcement.

Without a concept that points out the grim sameness that seeps through a corroding politics, you end up like Jonathan Chait: obsessing over the differences between two parties, as one gives the rich their foot-bath and the other gently nuzzles at their scalps; being confronted with a well-developed theory of political and social conditions, and deciding that it must somehow exist only as an insult against you.

The Democratic party establishment is neoliberal and that is why it is unable to mount a vigorous alternative to the Republicans even when the latter’s standard bearer Donald Trump is creating a manifestly nepotistic and kleptocratic nation.


  1. Kreator says

    Sam Kriss says that the term neoliberal is not a recent one but dates back at least as far as to the 1950s and has a well-established pedigree

    Indeed. As I said at Pharyngula a short while ago, the neoliberal model is something I was taught about in high school around 20 years ago, and I see it alive and well today.

  2. Dunc says

    The problem that people like Chait have with understanding neoliberalism is rather like the problem fish have (or would have, anyway) with understanding water.

  3. says

    I have a problem with using labels like “neoliberal” because it helps them hide detailed policies -- much the same way “conservative” does. If I am talking about someone’s interventionist foreign policy, I call it that. Or if they favor corporate rights, etc. Labels are used to deflect or demonize; they don’t add information.

    When you call someone a “neoliberal” you set them up to easily distance from a particular agenda by saying “no that’s not me!” It’s better to drill in on and hold them to the beliefs they claim. I did a whole argument clinic on this reasoning.

  4. Dunc says

    Marcus: Well, I would agree that calling someone a “neoliberal” is not useful in winning an argument with that person, but that’s not the only use of labels. It’s handy to have these sorts of labels so that we can discuss the concepts they represent without constantly having to restate the basics. It’s just shorthand.

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