What, if anything, is neoliberalism? (crosspost from Crooked Timber, repost from this blog 2002)

The comments thread on my WTO post raises the much-argued question of whether the term “neoliberalism” has any useful content, or whether it is simply an all-purpose pejorative to be applied to anything rightwing. O

In this 2002 post from the pre-Cambrian era of blogging, at a time when I aspired to write a book along the lines of Raymond Williams’ Keywords, I claim that neoliberalism is a meaningful and useful term, which isn’t to deny that it’s often used sloppily, like all political terms.

Some thoughts seventeen years later

First, this definition refers to the standard international use of the term, what I’ve susequently called “hard neoliberalism”, represented in the US by the Republican Party. I subsequently drew a distinction with “soft neoliberalism”, which corresponds to US usage where the term is typically applied to centrist Democrats like the Clintons. I’d also apply this to Blair’s New Labour, although, as stated in the post, there were points at which Blair and Brown drifted back in the direction of traditional social democracy.

Second, the discussion of how the right (in Europe and Australia) is shifting away from neoliberalism towards “the older and more fertile ground of law and order and xenophobia” seems as if it could have been written today. These processes take a long time to work themselves through.

As a corollary, the idea of Trump as a radical break with the past is unsustainable. There’s been a qualitative change with Trump and the various mini-Trumps, but the process was well underway before this new stage.

Finally, my characteristic overoptimism shows up in various places.

Neoliberalism and Failure: Some definitions

One obvious problem with my claim that neoliberalism has failed is that I haven’t provided a definition of either ‘neoliberalism’ or ‘failure’. Taking the second point first, there are several ways in which a political ideology may be a failure.

First, it may never attract sufficient support to have a serious influence on political outcomes. In this sense, ideologies like libertarianism and guild socialism may be regarded as failures.

Second, an ideology may be adopted and implemented, then discredited and discarded, or superseded by some new idea. This is the eventual fate of most political ideologies. Communism is the most recent example of a failure of this kind.

Third, an ideology may fail to deliver the promised outcomes. This is much more a matter of judgement, since promises are never delivered in full and failures are rarely complete.

It is important to remember that failure is never final. Democracy, for example, seemed like a failure until at least 1800. Although many democratic governments arose before that time, all had either collapsed in anarchy, given rise to demagogues who made themselves tyrants or decayed into oligarchy. The United States was the first country to establish a sustainable democracy, and there were plenty who opposed it there. Abraham Lincoln was not engaging in hyperbole when he said at Gettysburg that the outcome of the Civil War would determine whether government ‘of the people, by the people for the people’ could be sustained.

Now for a definition of neoliberalism. As the name implies, neoliberalism is a descendant of classical liberalism, defined by the fact that it is a reaction against social democracy, which also draws heavily on the liberal tradition. The US use of ‘liberal’ to mean ‘social democrat’ reflects the latter point.

Because it is primarily based on a critique of social democracy, neoliberalism places much more weight on economic freedom than on personal freedom or civil liberties, reversing the emphasis of classical liberalism. Indeed, it is fair to say that on matters of personal freedom, neoliberalism is basically agnostic, encompassing a range of views from repressive traditionalism to libertarianism.

In terms of economic policy, neoliberalism is constrained by the need to compete with the achievements of social democracy. Hence, it is inconsistent with the kind of dogmatic libertarianism that would leave the poor to starvation or private charity, and would leave education to parents. Neoliberalism seeks to cut back the role of the state as much as possible while maintaining public guarantees of access to basic health, education and income security.
The core of the neoliberal program is
(i) to remove the state altogether from ‘non-core’ functions such as the provision of infrastructure services
(ii) to minimise the state role in core functions (health, education, income security) through contracting out, voucher schemes and so on
(iii) to reject redistribution of income except insofar as it is implied by the provision of a basic ‘safety net’.

With this definition, a reasonably pure form of neoliberalism (except for some subsidies to favored businesses) is embodied in the program of the US Republican Party, and particularly the Contract with America proposed by Gingrich in 1994. The ACT Party in New Zealand also takes a fairly clear neoliberal stance, as do the more ideologically consistent elements of the British Conservative Party and the Australian Liberal Party.

My claim that neoliberalism has failed therefore uses several different meanings of the term ‘failure’. In Europe, apart from Britain, neoliberalism has mostly failed in sense (i). The EU is inherently social democratic in its structure and attempts by poltical groups in some Eastern European countries (notably the Czech Republic and Estonia) to pursue a free market line have failed in the light of the superior attractions of the EU. It is true that the European social democracies have given some ground, notably with respect to privatisation, but no genuinely neoliberal party has arisen or seems likely to. The political right has moved back to the older and more fertile ground of law and order and xenophobia.

In Britain, neoliberalism has failed in sense (ii). The Conservative party is hovering on the edge of extinction and, as I have arged previously, the ‘New Labour’ government has shifted steadily away from neoliberalism and towards a mildly modernised form of social democracy. The same is true in New Zealand, where the advocates of neoliberalism, once dominant, are now completely marginalised.

Although the Australian government started out with a clearly neoliberal framework it has gradually dropped it in favor of the kind of law and order/xenophobia/militarist position that characterises the traditional right. The repeated resort to ad hoc levies as fixes for industry-specific problems is indicative of a government that has lost its economic bearings. Moreover, the Liberals look like being in semi-permanent opposition in most of the states and the Howard government is unlikely to survive the end of the housing bubble (although given the quality of Federal Labor, anything could happen).

Finally, in the US, neoliberalism remains the dominant ideology but is increasingly failing in sense (iii). Three years ago, American pundits could seriously predict a never-ending economic boom. The combination of continued prosperity and ‘the end of welfare as we know it’ seemed to be on the verge of eliminating crime and unemployment. Now the most charitable assessment of US economic performance is ‘better than average’ and even this cannot be sustained of the current recession/stagnation drags on much longer. The basic problem is that, given high levels of inequality, very strong economic performance is required to match the levels of economic security and social services delivered under social democracy even with mediocre growth outcomes.

We need a new word for “reform”

Hardly anyone bothered to pay attention to the “National Reform Summit” put on by the Oz and the Fin the other day. The word “reform” tells us everything we need to know about this event: yet more invocations of the exhausted policy agenda of the 1980s, all with the implicit message that we need to work harder. Both Jeff Sparrow at Overland and Ben Eltham at New Matilda have pieces today making this point.

“Reform”, meaning “change for the better” was always a problematic concept, but it was a useful word, and we don’t have a good alternative. I don’t think a single replacement is feasible, but I’d like to try out some alternatives, and call for other suggestions

“Redesign” and “restructuring” are reasonably neutral and can be used to indicate a wide range of policy changes, without assuming anything specific. For example, “retirement income policy redesign”.

“Liberalisation” describes a wide range of things for which “reform” is commonly used, for example “drug law liberalisation” or “financial market liberalisation”. This gives a pretty clear indication of the general line of policy change, without the approval implicit in “reform” (except to the extent that support for liberalization in general is assumed).

What is lacking is a good single word term for what was the primary connotation of “reform” until the 1980s, namely, policy changes along social democratic lines. Any suggestions?

Word for Wednesday: Reform (repost)

Back in the early days of this blog, I was working on the idea of a new political dictionary, and made a start with a “Word for Wednesday” series. One of them is relevant to this comment from Megan, about whether we should put scare quotes around the word “reform”, to describe policies, advocated as beneficial reforms, but which we believe to be harmful. My general practice on this blog is not to use scare quotes, and I explain why.

As Raymond Williams points out in his excellent little book Keywords, from which I got the idea for this series, reform originally meant ‘restore the original form’ of something. In particular the Reformation was supposed to sweep away the abuses of the Papacy and restore the church to its original purity. As this example indicates, the worldview associated with this usage was one of decline rather than progress. The best one could hope for was to get back to things as they were in the good old days. This view was dominant in Western thinking from Plato to the 17th century.

From the 18th century onwards, reform underwent something of a reversal, since it now typically implied forming something new. But since the associated worldview was now one of progress, the assumption remained that reform entailed change for the better.

From the 18th century to the 1970s, the term reform was typically used to describe policies favored by the moderate left, in opposition to advocates of revolutionary change on one side and of conservatism and reaction on the other. From the 1970s to the end of the 20th century, though, the direction of policy change was reversed, with the rise of neoliberalism. However, the term reform continued to be used, even when the policies it described consisted of the dismantling of earlier reforms.

As a result, critics of neoliberal policies have frequently resorted to the use of “scare quotes”, as in my recent reference to ‘workplace reform’, or to similar alerts like “so-called”. While the automatic assumption prevails that the term reform applies only to desirable changes, such devices are necessary.

Where it’s feasible though, the best approach is to define reform as “any program of systematic change in policies or institutions” and make it clear that there is no implication of approval or disapproval.

Soccer or Football

Over at Crooked Timber, Kieran Healy raises the vexed question of “Soccer or Football”. I’m firmly in the camp of soccer, or, if you want to get prissy about it, “Association Football”. The various football codes are roughly contemporaneous, and the term football has always been used generically (also to refer to particular codes when there is no great danger of confusion).

If the argument is based on majority usage, the relevant majority for me is among English-speakers in some community of which I am a member. Whether I define this as narrowly as possible (say, people I personally speak to) or as broadly as possible (all English speakers in the world) I don’t get a majority of people using the term “football” to mean “soccer”. I think a claim of this kind is about as justifiable as if the martial arts renamed themselves as just plain “arts” and demanded that the term “art” be used consistently with this.

Quibbles about how much different codes use the feet don’t seem to me to valid, and in any case would not particularly privilege soccer (where the head and hands are used a lot), compared to say, Australian Rules. And the fact that people in non-English speaking countries mainly play soccer and therefore use terms meaning or sounding like football to refer to it cut no ice at all.

Peter Beinart wants to reclaim “reform”

In this TNR piece (not sure if subscription required), Peter Beinart laments the Republican (mis)appropriation of the word “reform”, saying

“Reform,” in today’s Washington, has come to mean “change I like.” Which is to say, it means almost nothing at all.

However, he doesn’t really make it clear what alternative definition he proposes, and concedes, later on “today’s conservatives are reformers of the most fundamental kind”.

In fact, the whole set of ideas surrounding the terms “reform” and “progressive” are bound up with historicist assumptions that can no longer be sustained, namely that history is moving in a particular (liberal/social democratic/socialist) direction, and that any deviation from this path is bound to be short-lived and self-defeating. Reform is change that is consistent with this direction. But once you have, as Beinart notes, a decade or more of “reforms” that consist mainly of the repeal of earlier reforms, none of these assumptions works.

I’ve tried all sorts of devices, such as the use of scare quotes and phrases like “so-called reform�, before concluding that the best thing is just to define reform as “any program of systematic change in policies or institutions� and make it clear that there is no necessary implication of approval or disapproval, or of consistency with any particular political direction.
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Re-form

Robert Samelson argues that we should stop using the word ‘reform’. I’ve grappled with this question for a long term, having been generally critical of the neoliberal policies generally referred to as “microeconomic reform”. I’ve tried all sorts of devices, such as the use of scare quotes and phrases like “so-called reform”, before concluding that the best thing is just to use the word in ways that make it obvious that I am not attaching positive connotations to it.

Over the fold is an old post on the subject (I needed to repost to fix broken links).
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Word for Wednesday: contrarian

At the suggestion of James Farrell, I’m reviving this regular feature, beginning with a word I’ve used critically on a couple of recent occasions. The following is an extract from my review of Cristopher Hitchens’ Letters to a Young Contrarian You can read the whole thing, including a review of Mark Lilla’s Misadventures of Reckless Minds here

Of all the awkward squad, none is more awkward than Christopher Hitchens. His recent Letters to a Young Contrarian sets out his credo

Hitchens reflects both the best and the worst of the Socratic gadfly. On the one hand, there is the temptation to cynical sneering and the desire to epater le bourgeois. It is almost impossible for a contrarian to avoid this temptation completely, particular since it is often necessary to treat the conventional wisdom with derision. Hitchens himself concedes that he is particularly prone to this vice, noting that ‘a beloved friend once confided to me that my lip — I think he said the upper one — often has a ludicrious and sneering look, and my wife added that it takes on this appearance just when I seem to be least aware of it’. This unattractive tendency also mars the writing of Gore Vidal, whose contribution to the blurb of Unacknowledged Legislators nominates Hitchens as his ‘successor, inheritor, dauphin or delfino.’. But anyone who contributes more to the public debate than reiteration of one of other of Orwell’s ‘smelly orthodoxies’ will recognise this fault in themselves to some extent or other.

A more serious version of the same fault is found in the tendency to pursue intellectual vendettas. One does not need to be an admirer of Bill Clinton to feel that Hitchens’ attacks on him (and Hillary) went way over the top. Clinton may have been venal and sleazy, but he was far from being America’s worst president and he ended up on the right side of most of the issues Hitchens cares about, notably including Bosnia and Kosovo.

On the other hand, the great Socratic virtue is the unwillingness to accept easy answers. Hitchens rightly denounces, for example, the evasions with which many supposed advocates of free speech responded to the Iranian fatwa against Salman Rushdie. The same insistence on hard truths, is evident in a fascinating essay, originally presented as a Raymond Williams Memorial Lecture, defending George Orwell against the attacks made on him Williams. Since Hitchens clearly admires both men, it would have been easy for him, not to mention his audience, to pass over this topic in a few sentences, and devote his time to aspects of Williams’ work for which he felt more sympathy.

The popularity in Australia and elsewhere of the term ‘pseudo-intellectual’ echoes the ancient frustration of the Athenian courts that condemned Socrates. Like the Athenian demos, the talkback commentators of today are aware that intellectuals are important, and are keen to find examples of the genus worthy of their respect. All that they want in return is that they should not be asked to think.

Socrates would have been a pain to live with, and it is difficult not to feel that his allegedly shrewish wife Xantippe had the worst of the bargain. Nevertheless, as these books show, we need Socratic gadflies to protect us both from bourgeois complacency and from the pretensions of Platonic philosopher-kings.

Coming out of this, I have a question as to the best collective term for critics of the global warming hypothesis. I used “sceptic” for a while, but decided it was inappropriate since, with a handful of exceptions, the people I’m talking about are anything but sceptical when it comes to anything that supports their preconceived views. Then I switched to “contrarian”, but that suffers from many of the same problems. I toyed with “denialist”, but that comes too close to a violation of Godwin’s Law for my liking. I suppose I could just say “critics of the global warming hypothesis”, but that seems clumsy and “global warming critics” means something else altogether. Any suggestions?