‘Neoliberalism’

It’s absolutely obvious that any engagement with the most prominent current version of accelerationist thinking — or indeed with any left-dominated discussion today — is going to encounter the term ‘neoliberalism‘ as an omnipresent reference. Sheer irritability won’t serve as a response for long.

Why irritation at all? Most immediately, because the reference of this term is a sprawling mess. It is employed ambiguously to describe an epoch, and an ideology. The evident duplicity of this lies in the tacit assumption that the ideology defines the epoch — a vast historical and political claim, as well as an implausible one — which evades systematic interrogation through terminological sleaziness.

Worse still, the characteristics of the ‘neoliberal’ ideology are themselves pasted together, primarily by a mish-mash of theoretically-impoverished anti-capitalist polemics from around the world, with the consequence that its only consistent feature is the mere fact of having a leftist opposition (somewhere). As the Wikipedia explanation (linked above) makes clear, any economic policy anywhere that is not positively hostile to the market, and which finds itself talked about antagonistically by the left, is ‘neoliberal’.

When all of these compounding fuzz factors are taken into consideration, it is easy to see why the meaning of ‘neoliberal’ can range — at the very least — from marginally market-reformist Keynesianism (Clinton), through autocratic capitalism (Pinochet), to extreme libertarian ‘hyper-capitalism’ (in our dreams). Its global application, to include — for instance — the ethnic-Chinese dominated Pacific Rim (and post Reform-and-Opening Mainland China), is more carelessly gestural still. If Lenin’s 1921 New Economic Policy wasn’t ‘neoliberal’ it’s hard to see why — unless the absence of a left opposition suffices as an explanation. A word this sloppy — traditionally rooted in Latin American anti-market demagoguery, but since adopted generally as the linguistic equivalent of a Che Guevara T-shirt — has no serious analytical use.

Fashion is unpredictable, but it seems very unlikely that this word is going anywhere. Its totemic meaning within tribal leftism is enough to ensure its persistence — which is to say that SWPL radical chic signalling would be significantly inconvenienced without it. Might it then be possible to rigorize it?

That would require delimitation, which is to say: specificity. Given the political utility of the word, there are few grounds for optimism in this respect. David Harvey, for instance, who has devoted a book to the ‘topic’ (A Brief History of Neoliberalism, 2005), produces no clear definition beyond resurgent capitalism, as it occurred with the partial recession of central planning from the late 1970s. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the more classically liberal policy becomes, the more ‘neoliberal’ it is too. The ‘neo-‘, in the end, signifies no more than an infuriated “you’re supposed to be dead, goddammit.” Neoliberalism is then a capitalistic orientation that has outlived expectation, and since the expectation has been sunk into immovable foundations, it is the outliving that requires explicit designation.

Whatever slight (and strictly polemical) coherence might be drawn from Harvey is thrown back into chaos by Benjamin Noys’ paper ‘The Grammar of Neoliberalism’ (2010). Far from describing the partial reversion to market-oriented economic arrangements in the wake of hegemonic Social Democratic assumptions, Noys identifies ‘neoliberalism’ with the state-supervised capitalism introduced in the 1920s-30s, i.e. exactly that economic order which Harvey’s ‘neoliberalism’ overthrows.

Taken in its own terms — rather than as a defense of an intrinsically misleading word — Noys’ argument is highly interesting. Its general direction is captured in the following passage [citation marks subtracted]:

What is the precise nature, then, of neo-liberalism? Of course, the obvious objection to the ‘anti-state’ vision of neo-liberalism is that neo-liberalism itself is a continual form of state intervention, usually summarised in the phrase ‘socialism for the rich, capitalism for the poor’. Foucault notes that neo-liberalism concedes this: ‘neo-liberal government intervention is no less dense, frequent, active, and continuous than in any other system.’ The difference, however, is the point of application. It intervenes on society ‘so that competitive mechanisms can play a regulatory role at every moment and every point in society and by intervening in this way its objective will become possible, that is to say, a general regulation of society by the market.’ Therefore, we miss the point if we simply leave a critique of neo-liberalism at the point of saying ‘neo-liberalism is as statist as other governmental forms’. Instead, the necessity is to analyse how neo-liberalism creates a new form of governmentality in which the state performs a different function: permeating society to subject it to the economic.

Setting aside the question of this argument’s persuasiveness (for another time), the essential thing to note is that it represents a contest over the mindlessly shambling term ‘neoliberalism’ which Noys has little realistic chance of winning — ‘winning’, that is, with sufficient comprehensiveness to salvage the word. If ‘neoliberalism’ generally meant a highly statist variant of ‘capitalist’ organization, first originating in the era of high-modernism, in which — in contrast to the statism of the left — the role of the state was specifically directed to imposing an administrative simulacrum of catallactic social order, it would become a valuable, theoretically-functional word. This would be so even if the theory itself were criticized, amended, or rejected — and in fact the very possibility of such engagement presupposes that ‘neoliberalism’ becomes a locally intelligible concept (local, that is, to Noys’ argument and whatever halo it has managed to extend beyond itself).

Even here on the Outer Right, almost all terminological irritability would immediately subside if the expression repeatedly encountered was — even implicitly — Neoliberalism in the Noysean sense. It would then be a term with relatively precise limits, clarifying more than it obscured. Consequently, it would mark a limit on the right as well as the left, distinguishing anti-statist or laissez-faire capitalism — with its model in Hong Kong — from the dominant political-economic formation of our age. For that reason alone, it can be confidently anticipated that ‘neoliberalism’ will not be permitted to mean any such thing.

ADDED: Complete PDF of David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism.

8 thoughts on “‘Neoliberalism’

  1. I disagree. There is a lot of very interesting new analysis of the term, which has every chance of salvaging the concept. Foucault’s Birth of Biopolitics (trans 2008) made a start, and Dardot & Laval’s The New Way of the World (trans 2014) specify what kind of state power neoliberalism implies and requires. The analysis of the ‘man-enterprise’ (Dardot & Laval) or ‘entrepreneur of the self’ (Foucault) is particularly instructive. Dardot & Laval explicitly point out that Marxism isn’t adequate to grasp what is going on here, and consequently what form of state or government is required. Perhaps the Outer Right will find something to learn and celebrate in this reading of Austro-Americans.

    • It’s not the absence of “interesting new analysis of the term” that’s the problem, but its overloading with political agendas and signalling requirements (destroying any possibility of consistent meaning).

      Thanks for the Dardot & Laval reference — I’ll follow it up.

  2. Is there an -ism that isn’t plagued by a similar degree of elasticicity to the point of irritable uselessness (without precise qualification to root it in a specific text, place, time, etc.)?

    • That seems reasonable — which is why those employing such terms need to ask themselves whether they’re thinking, or wearing a badge.

  3. Hi Nick,

    I love your writing. Some eggs you laid in me last summer (Thirst for Annihilation) are starting to hatch, and I feel all wriggly.

    Check out Psycho-Pass: if anything is worthy of “neoliberalism” it’s the AI government portrayed in that series.

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