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Neo- and post-

June 7th, 2011

At afternoon tea yesterday, one of my colleagues raised the point that, particularly in Europe, the prefix neo- is automatically taken to be pejorative, with neo-liberal as the obvious illustration. It struck us that the corresponding, positively weighted prefix is post- , as in post-Keynesian, post-Communist and so on. [1]

My thought on this is it reflects an underlying progressivist assumption, shared even by many people who would reject explicit claims about historical progress. Given this assumption “post-X” is good, since it represents an advance on X, while “neo-X” is bad since it represents a reversion to X, implying the existence of some Y which must be post-X.

Feel free to provide counterexamples, contrary explanations and so on.

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  1. Ikonoclast
    June 7th, 2011 at 08:28 | #1

    I am wading in murky waters here, at least for me. I find it hard to accept that any worthwhile English language philosophy has been written since Hume and Mills.

    As terms, Postmodernism and Neomodernism might seem to support your point. Postmodernism emphasises social relativity and pluralism which are positive anti-authoritarian developments. Where postmodernism “goes off the rails” is when and if it starts to assert that scientific theories are arrived at by consensus rather than empirical experiments.

    Neomodernism seems to be a reaction to social-relativist views and to have an agenda that reasserts the superiority of some cultures over others. This latter takes the form that human rights are absolute not relative. In practice, such views tend to coalesce into the same old self-rightous assumption of cultural superiority. The US lecturing China about human rights is a case in point.

  2. Paul Norton
    June 7th, 2011 at 09:04 | #2

    Then, there’s neo-marxism:
    and post-marxism:

    I’m personally closer to post-marxism than neo-marxism but I’m not sure that a neo=bad/post=good sentiment exists in relation to these schools of thought.

  3. James Haughton
    June 7th, 2011 at 11:49 | #3

    Are New Keynesians Neo-Keynesians?
    Most post-Keynesians that I am aware of see themselves as more faithful to Keynes’ original message than the Hicks -> Samuelson -> Krugman New/Neo Keynesians are. So in that sense the post-Keynesians are the reversionists. and the Neos and News are the ones advancing (in the wrong direction, according to the post-Keynesians).

  4. Peter T
    June 7th, 2011 at 11:51 | #4

    I think you are right – contrast “neo” with “re-” (as in renaissance, revival…). The latter is positive. Part of the 18th century change from seeing the world as degenerating to to seeing it as progressing. I wonder sometimes if a change is again under way (reflected often in views of the environment).

  5. June 7th, 2011 at 12:22 | #5

    I can’t be the only one–the slightly-misspelled-but-still-tastefully-named-James above clearly thinks the same way–who knows that the “neo” prefix in Economics is intended to signal “has no more to do with the original than Uggs do with Australian Uggs” (neoclassical and neoKeynesian are clear examples).

    Presumably, after The Matrix was made that everyone else realized that “Precious Things” Greg Mankiw and Ned Prescott both think of themselves as Jesus (and not the HIV-positive one from TX, either).

  6. Freelander
    June 7th, 2011 at 13:11 | #6

    Neo-liberals practise neo-Luddite economics – that is, they want to turn back the clock, and the practice of economics, to some imagined 18th century era of economic purity. Notice how they like to sprinkle imagines of various wigged 18th century figures on their websites.

    Given that, lets just call them neo-Luddites.

    They may not know much about economics, or arithmetic for that matter, but they know what they like.

  7. Marginal Notes
    June 7th, 2011 at 15:02 | #7

    I struggled with this in a presentation a few weeks ago in which I wanted to praise an earlier generation of anthropologists who thought it was important to “count potatoes” so to speak. In the absence of an obvious alternative I dubbed them “pre-post-modernist anthropologists” – a neologism that probably won’t catch on!

  8. Fran Barlow
    June 7th, 2011 at 15:47 | #8

    A more precise rendering of “neo” would be “a new iteration of a previously popular concept, taking into account new knowledge, techniques, contexts not available in the original/previous iteration”.

    Thus terms such as neo-platonism, neoclassical, neo-Keynesian, neo-Marxist, [email protected] etc … That someone has reworked an older paradigm to press into service for some end tells us little about its worthiness.

    Although for a variety of reasons I don’t self-describe as a neo-Marxist, it’s probably a not unreasonable shorthand for my approach to social theory.

  9. Donald Oats
    June 7th, 2011 at 16:04 | #9

    The reworking of the concept, ideology, etc probably is what is being captured by the prefix “neo”, as Fran states. The use of “re-” on the other hand, or words with it embedded (renaissance), seems to me to be aimed at the rediscovery of something valuable that has been lost for a time. The “neo-” prefix, due to its most neo-modern appendages, has the disadvantage that it tags concepts once thought of as gold but now tarnished in some way, and in need of a makeover. Digging deeper, I guess when people hear yet another term with “neo-” as the prefix, they automatically assume that the object of Neo’s affectation is an tarnished entity made superficially appealing by a bright new shiny “neo-” adjoined.

    To be new is to be really great, but “neo-” is just so second rate.

  10. Marginal Notes
    June 7th, 2011 at 16:18 | #10

    Come to think of it, it is somewhat ironic to regard post-modernism as reflecting progressivist assumptions (as per original post), given that it is explicitly rejecting the progressivist assumptions of modernism. Yet somehow the “post-” bit implies, as you say, a vantage point from which to see through the pretensions of modernist thought, accounting for the implicit sense of superiority in much post-modernist writing that gets up my nose.

  11. Freelander
    June 7th, 2011 at 17:04 | #11

    I thought neo- was a prefix meaning regurgitated (but not yet digested)?

  12. silkworm
    June 8th, 2011 at 01:02 | #12

    I read recently that the modern right-wing movement is an alliance of three forces. The first is the conservatives who are Christians fighting the culture wars mainly against gay marriage and abortion. The second is the libertarians, who could also be called neoliberals, whose main concern is the destruction of government and the promotion of privatization in the service of the large corporations. The third is the neoconservatives, who want government to spend more money on the military, so they can fight their ideological wars and make profits at the same time. By these definitions, there doesn’t appear to be any real relation in a linguistic sense between conservativism and neoconservativism. They are just words. I would also add that there is no real relation between liberalism and neoliberalism. Liberalism is a cultural movement, standing in opposition to conservatism, while neoliberalism is an economic movement.

  13. Freelander
    June 8th, 2011 at 01:30 | #13


    Each, in their own ways, are strong believers in freedom – the freedom for them and those who agree with them and share their desires to do what they like, and the freedom to have everyone else bow to their will. That’s the sort of freedom anyone can agree with.

    Neocons are certainly not conservative in the traditional meaning and neither are neoliberals, liberal int he traditional meaning either. However, any neoliberal will be quick to tell you that they are the real ‘classical’ liberals, and those they disparagingly call liberals, are not liberals at all. To believe the sorts of things these people believe seems to require the intricate mental gymnastics, that prodded, they only to readily put on display.

  14. Donald Oats
    June 8th, 2011 at 07:01 | #14

    As a counter example to “post-” implying a progression, how about “postrational”? As Exhibit A I quote from [1], where the context is motivational speaking put on for the benefit of shell-shocked survivors of a post-downsized [fn1] enterprise, to wit:

    Team building is, in other words, another form of motivation, with the difference being that, in the desolate environment of the downsized corporation, this motivation was supposed to be generated from within the work group or “team.” One group offering both motivational and team-building services makes this clear on its Web site—though not too clear, given the garbled English that is another characteristic of the postrational corporate world: “In this team building workshop, you will learn both the team building skills and motivation skills guaranteed to make your team more cohesive, increase employee morale, and motivated. You’ll learn how to build a team that grumbles less and works more, discipline less and reward more, create more focused and productive meetings and get recognized by the organization.”

    fn1: “post-downsized” is a word I made up, and contend is “Exhibit B.”

    1: “Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America & The World”, Barbara Ehrenreich, Granta, 2009.

  15. Donald Oats
    June 8th, 2011 at 07:02 | #15

    @Donald Oats

    Oops…[1], specifically from page 121.

  16. James Haughton
    June 8th, 2011 at 10:16 | #16

    Neo-classical economics always struck me as a bizarre name for the field given that the Classical economists (Quesnay, Turgot, Smith, Ricardo, Mill, Torrens – Malthus being the exception) almost all subscribed to an objective determination of value (usually but not always identified with labour content) which determined prices, a class-based theory of society and political economy, a recognition that rent, particularly land-rent, was parasitic, a division between productive and unproductive labour, and a disdain for the idea that trading in money was a useful thing to do. All of which the “neo”classicals completely reversed.
    It would probably make more sense to call Walras, Marshall et al post-classical, and Marx neo-classical, but somehow I doubt that will catch on.

  17. Freelander
    June 8th, 2011 at 11:11 | #17

    @Donald Oats

    In the email dominated society we live in a post-Post world.

  18. Jim Birch
    June 8th, 2011 at 12:13 | #18

    Norman Mailer used the term “flag conservative” as an alternative to neoconservative. As he saw it, Neocons believed in America but they didn’t actually have conservative values. They saw the icons of conservatism as as a useful political enabler. There was a great interview where Mailer discusses this which appears to have disappeared behind a paywall but you can read this bit:


  19. June 8th, 2011 at 17:45 | #19

    Good that James Haughton added that contextualising comment. We are post 2007-8 and post, in this sernse only speaks of disillusion at a lost opportunity, one of those occasions when the system’s contradictions became so egregious and overt that even Blind Freddy could spot the flaws.
    People looked to figures framed as reformers, like Obama and Rudd to instigate change, but the usual road blocks were up, centrist politicians were (too easily) captured by the Big End and we are in the process of sinking into the mire of neo feudalism, after the T party, Abbott or Cameron, altho these are only the Dorian Grey portrait or representation of a system run by cosmetically acceptable Camerons/Dorian Greys , in the form of people like Gillard and Obama.
    And perhaps ourselves, therefore.

  20. Donald Oats
    June 8th, 2011 at 20:12 | #20

    lol. And in a wired world, we are also post-office, so to speak.

  21. plaasmatron
    June 9th, 2011 at 05:24 | #21

    Miranda Devine once wrote a piece about the “neo-pacifists” (which she dubbed the neo-pacs) objecting to the Iraq invasion.

    I found the piece here


    It really stuck in my mind since I can’t imagine anyone re-inventing the eternal concept of pacifism.

  22. Ian Milliss
    June 9th, 2011 at 10:28 | #22

    The French neo-impressionist painters of the 1880s (Seurat, Signac, Cross, Luce, and others) were considerably more radical than the impressionists of twenty years earlier.

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