Why the Left Gets Neoliberalism Wrong: It’s the Feudalism, Stupid!

Margaret ThatcherLeft critics of neoliberalism—or just plain old unregulated capitalism—often cite Margaret Thatcher’s famous declaration “There is no such thing as society” as evidence of neoliberalism’s hostility to all things collective. Neoliberalism, the story goes, unleashes the individual to fend for herself, denying her the supports of society (government, neighborhood solidarity, etc.) so that she can prove her mettle in the marketplace.

But these critics often ignore the fine print of what Thatcher actually said in that famous 1987 interview with, of all things, Woman’s OwnHere’s the buildup to that infamous quote:

Who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families…

It’s that last phrase (“and there are families”) that’s crucial.  Contrary to popular (or at least leftist) myth, neoliberals are not untrammeled individualists. In many ways, they’re not that different from traditional conservatives: that is, they see individuals embedded in social institutions like the church or the family or schools—all institutions, it should be said, that are hierarchical and undemocratic.

Thatcher isn’t alone in this.  For all their individualist bluster, libertarians—particularly those market-oriented libertarians who are rightly viewed as the leading theoreticians of neoliberalism—often make the same claim.  When these libertarians look out at society, they don’t always see isolated or autonomous individuals; they’re just as likely to see private hierarchies like the family or the workplace, where a father governs his family and an owner his employees.  And that, I suspect (though further research is certainly necessary), is what they think of and like about society: that it’s an archipelago of private governments.

Milton FriedmanHere’s Milton Friedman in Capitalism and Freedom:

The ultimate operative unit in our society is the family, not the individual. (32; also see 13)

And here’s Richard Epstein in a piece called “Libertarianism and Character” from a collection of essays about conservatism, edited by Peter Berkowitz:

It would be a mistake of major proportions to assume that legal rules are a dominant force in shaping individual character; family, school, and church are much more likely to be powerful influences.  The people who run these institutions will use their influence to advance whatever conception of the good they hold, no matter what the state of the law.

I’ve been thinking a lot about these texts as the boys debate neoliberalism versus social democracy, and what neoliberalism is all about.  What often gets lost in these debates is what I think is the real, or at least a main, thrust of neoliberalism, according to some of its most interesting and important theoreticians (and its actual practice): not to liberate the individual or to deregulate the marketplace, but to shift power from government (or at least those sectors of government like the legislature that make some claim to or pretense of democratic legitimacy; at a later point I plan to talk about Hayek’s brief on behalf of an unelected, unaccountable judiciary, which bears all the trappings of medieval judges applying the common law, similar to the “belated feudalism” of the 19th century American state, so brilliantly analyzed by Karen Orren here) to the private authority of fathers and owners.


  1. Seth Ackerman July 20, 2011 at 1:37 am | #

    This is a good point, but it’s complicated. Certainly the practical *effect* of neoliberalism/libertarianism is to throw people onto the mercy of private hierarchies. And – as you point out – many libertarians will often advertise the heightened role of the family/church/community as they plug their ideology. But I think libertarians are both conflicted (at the individual level) and divided (among themselves) on this stuff. Many would like to have it both ways. To appease those who object to atomization and anomie, they flack Gemeinschaft. To appeal to those seeking liberation and adventure, they flack the sovereign individual. Some are consistent, others inconsistent (Friedman is probably inconsistent). It’s the inconsistency and vacillation that’s interesting.

  2. lx July 20, 2011 at 3:58 am | #

    neoliberalism as neofeudalism is totally unconvincing I’m afraid, although your quotes are illuminating about the nefarious ideology that plunged us into the Great Recession – feudalism is the opposite of individualism – i’d rather quote Hayek: between democracy and the market, I choose the market – meaning that neoliberalism is an ideology of capitalist oligarchy – anyway cool to be able to be reading you more often – alex

    • Aaron M Dellutri (@AaronMDellutri) April 9, 2013 at 7:13 pm | #

      “feudalism is the opposite of individualism”

      Not really. For the feudal elite it is the perfect expression of their individualism.

  3. Agog July 20, 2011 at 8:17 am | #

    I’m not sure the first-generation neoliberals (meaning Hayek and his contemporaries) can be pinned with those kinds of label. The stated aims of the Mont Pelerin Society are basically pro-market and anti-totalitarian, including talk of “the diffused power and initiative associated” with “private property and the competitive market.” So more a form of liberal utopianism, if you take them at face value, and not oligarchic in intention.

    The later generations face up to the realities of inequality in market-obsessed societies in interesting ways. Witness DeLong trying to post-rationalise Summers:

    “The financial rich are overwhelmingly the patient risk-bearers. The financial poor are those who sought safety, or who were unwilling or unable to hold their positions and wait for fundamentals to reassert themselves. Leverage then becomes a way of taking the money of the risk-averse of whom the market has too many–for that is what low long-term returns on “safe” portfolios tell us–and putting it too work in the hands of the too-few who will use it to take the long-term risks that the market, historically, has always handsomely rewarded. And financial sophistication becomes a way of concentrating and amplifying the rewards of risk-bearing to call forth additional risk-bearing capital to bolster the numbers of the too-few.

    The argument is bullet-proof and correct–as long as Greenspanism is true doctrine, as long as the Federal Reserve does in fact have the policy tools, the risk management skills, and the incentives to firewall the real economy from financial dislocations, and to clean up whatever financial messes were left behind.

    Here it is worth stressing that these intellectual commitments are not the result of being hypnotized by the princes of Wall Street. They are the result of disciplined and concentrated analysis of the historical patterns of asset prices and returns. They are the result of confidence in the intellectual power of the discipline of monetary economics as applied through the policy instrumentality of the Federal Reserve. And they are the result of the economists’ insight that whenever there is an area of economic activity that pays huge, outsized rewards the odds are that we need more of it done.”

    • Min July 24, 2011 at 11:52 pm | #

      DeLong: “And they are the result of the economists’ insight that whenever there is an area of economic activity that pays huge, outsized rewards the odds are that we need more of it done.”

      Maybe so. But maybe that area involves exploitation of externalities that are negative for others and requires regulation or outlawing. Or maybe it involves gov’t subsidy and requires a reduction of oligarchy or plutocracy.

  4. Shane Taylor July 20, 2011 at 1:52 pm | #

    As a kind of reciprocity between unequals? And nested hierarchies, like one vassal’s lord being another lord’s vassal? The atrophy of democratic rights (now “entitlements”), replaced by homage and fealty to the “wealth creators”?

  5. partisan July 20, 2011 at 10:05 pm | #

    An important point to remember, especially when you consider how little attention “libertarians” pay attention to feminism. I know little about Novick’s own libertarianism, and Ayn Rand had no interest in any institution where she wasn’t an absolute leader. It’s hard to imagine her being a mother, so I suspect she never mentioned the family doing the work denied a democratic state.

    This brings us to the question of “liberal fascism.” Naturally Jonah Goldberg’s silly book never mentions Ludwig von Mises’ praise of Mussolini or his role as the consigliere of the Dolfuss dictatorship. The irony is obvious, since von Mises and von Hayek are the sort of liberals National Review praises and blames the New Deal for supplanting. (William Leuchtenburg’s book on the New Deal mentions Henry Hazlitt supporting an authoritarian regime before the New Deal.) Actually I am even more curiouis about Brest-Litovsk. Von Hayek was only a teenager during the first world war, but von Mises was in his thirties when it was imposed on Russia. Aside from the fact that war is a major reason for the expansion of the state, the first world war was caused, ultimately, by an act of Austrian aggression. Moreover, Brest-Litovsk was not only a vicious act of conquest, which ensured a hard Allied line at the end of 1918, but the defeat and economic disaster it entailed did much to ensure a bitter civil war war and Soviet regime. So what von Mises thought of it says much about his “liberal” opinions.

  6. Corey Robin July 21, 2011 at 9:28 am | #

    Let me take a second crack at this. Just some random thoughts, hopefully to be pulled together later in a more concerted way.

    1. I don’t think the non-individualist side of libertarianism is simply or strictly a strategic concession to the gemeinschaftists (sort of Seth’s point) or something that arises later (Agog’s point). Nor do I think it is a practical consequence of an otherwise pristine theory (sort of, again, Seth’s point; I realize Seth you’re being more subtle than that but I want to restate the case more strongly). If you go back to Hayek, for example, you won’t find a very strong individualism there at all (he’s not Friedman or Nozick, in that regard). Collectivity runs throughout his entire theory of knowledge, of how the market disperses knowledge, of how progress and improvement happen in a society. In many ways, his theory of historical development is an awful lot like Dewey’s, which makes a certain amount of sense. Anyway, I think the social/collective dimensions of libertarianism are far more intrinsic than people on the left realize (also see Mises in this regard; not as sophisticated as Hayek but still relevant; has a whole chapter early on in “On Socialism” on the role and centrality of the family). Of course, just being collectivist/social in orientation hardly makes one feudal, but I think it’s important that we see that the social dimension in neoliberalism, or libertarian thought, is quite prominent. And if you take seriously Susan Okin’s critique of Nozick (basically his theory of ownership through labor would mean women would own their children), which I do, there is at best an unexamined blindness about the family, and patriarchy, in even the most individualist modes of libertarianism.

    2. I think we get hung up on the feudalism charge b/c we assume that things like private property, markets, or wage labor didn’t exist under feudalism. They did. And in fact, as Orren shows, the whole law of master/servant (and not, as people like Horwitz and others have argued, the law of contract), which structured employment relations in the US until the 20th century, is rooted in the Middle Ages, when wage labor emerges, admittedly on a smaller scale. So part of what’s necessary here is to reexamine what feudalism was about. Also, Agog’s point re “diffused power” as the basis of Hayek’s thought. Of course the dispersion of power has a long lineage in feudalism. Montesquieu, who was one of its earliest and most important theoreticians in the modern era, took many of his ideas about that from feudalism. While I wouldn’t say it’s simply a feudal idea, it does have feudal resonances and overtones. Remember, it was Tocqueville’s critique of the French Revolution that it merely mimicked the centralizing tendencies of the monarchy, which were themselves being directed at a previous feudal formation that was (allegedly) much more plural and involved much more dispersed power.

    3. In terms of what’s feudal today, I think there’s two things. First, as Shane rightly suggests, it’s the nested hierarchy of unequals, though I’d say there isn’t that much reciprocity. As I’ve tried to argue elsewhere, these are intensely personal relations of domination, in the workplace, that are not at all abstract or individualistic (contra Alex Foti’s point above). There might be a rhetoric of individualism that hovers over them, but the reality is otherwise (and I think you can see some of that reality in the theory of neoliberalism itself; check out Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty on wealth-makers and taste-makers). Second, and more important for my point, is that neoliberal theoreticians like Hayek aren’t anti-state at all. They want — and this becomes really clear in Hayek’s Law, Legislation, and Liberty, Vol. 1 — a state in which the legislature has a very small role but judges have a very big role. And not judges applying or construing statutory law, but judges applying some kind of common law, invoking its “spirit” to overturn anything in statutory law that they believe contradicts the eternal order of the law (individual parts of the law may evolve and change, but the larger order must remain). If you read Orren, you’ll see that that the notion of the judiciary governing the nexus of workplace relations through its construing of common law — and totally impervious to either the legislature or even the Constitution — that’s the essence of “belated feudalism” in America.

    Acc. to Orren, that is what the labor movement and the Wagner Act were meant to overturn. I see neoliberalism as primarily an effort to return to that kind of belated feudalism.

    • Ellis Goldberg July 9, 2017 at 5:27 pm | #

      Without ignoring the role of the judiciary I recall the point of Karen Orren’s book to have been that the courts ensured the unrestricted power–including police power–of the patriarchal owner over the workplace which could include factories as extensive as Ford and GM. This seems closer to the point you began with about society as a web of private hierarchies than to a point about the judiciary as such.

  7. Shane Taylor July 21, 2011 at 10:22 am | #

    Ah, thank you, Corey. Much, much clearer now. Also, Raymond Plant’s book The Neoliberal State begins with and centers on the neoliberal definition of of the “rule of law.” It is essential, for the reasons you gave: judges, common law, etc. are given a greater role vis-a-vis legislatures.

  8. Agog July 21, 2011 at 12:45 pm | #

    OK. I think I’m getting towards the point of ‘belated feudalism’ now. I would label Hayek et al (despite the ‘von’) as representing a bourgeois view. And I would normally contrast the bourgeois against the old feudal nobility. But the bourgeois still kept maids right up to 1914 (where I live – my great-grandparents were fairly humble businesspeople, but had a housekeeper at the time of the 1911 census). Hayek’s generation, in Europe, were the people who lost all that (or gained…).

    • Corey Robin July 21, 2011 at 3:17 pm | #

      I think that’s the problem, which we’ve inherited from Marxist and other modes of social thought, of how we think about history: we go from feudalism to capitalism to whatever. But as Schumpeter argued — and Arno Mayer demonstrates in his *Persistence of the Old Regime* [Shane: how did you do italics in these comments; I can’t seem to] — these categories are far more malleable than we realize. Lots of aristocrats adapt to and adopt capitalism, lots of bourgeois folks epater l’aristocratie.

      • Shane Taylor July 21, 2011 at 3:27 pm | #

        I marked it up with EM tags (I meant to use two sets above, but didn’t close the first one properly). Specifics here.

      • Jon July 27, 2011 at 2:39 am | #

        We should spend less time over-analyzing and categorizing the elite’s political ideology. It is much less complex than many academics make it out to be–and far less intellectual.

        The government failures have their roots in crony capitalism and a wide variety of white collar crimes, disinformation campaigns, public ignorance, and election fraud.

        The recurrence of evil–whether it be in physical or economic capacity–never fails to surprise us with its lack of originality, if not its sheer banality. It is rarely elegant or complex, but merely dull and ignorant–a brutish force–self-centered, animalistic,cruel, and merciless. Beneath the surface, the madness lurks in dark places and hardened hearts, awaiting its time to rise once again.

        The recent, ongoing “debt crisis” is one of those times. It’s time to stop giving the elites more credit than is due–feudalism and capitalism are one and the same–nothing more than economic policies designed to transfer wealth from masses to the few (think debtors to creditors)..

        The violence/coercion under unfettered state capitalism is not much different than feudalism, but what has changed is how we describe the process. Those who endure the brutality of capitalism will not claim much difference–it is only us intellectuals that do.

  9. critic February 23, 2012 at 6:38 pm | #

    Your web page’s text is rendered in #7A7A7A (gray) on #FFFFFF (white). This is hard for people with normal vision to read. Please consider changing this to #000000 (black) on white.

    • Min April 8, 2013 at 9:33 pm | #

      Second that! 🙂

  10. federico February 24, 2012 at 1:59 pm | #

    I think Emma Goldman had it right essentially when she called anarchism (and I’m paraphrasing here) the final case of the individual vs. the collective. All emancipation to me is the emancipation of the individual. The political left justifies itself, not in preaching some collectivist ethic of charity or altruism, but in offering a broad critique of power structures and disparities in all possible forms (the state, the family, the church, etc.). The case for socialism is to be made on the grounds that horizontal and participatory institutions guarrantee genuine freedom.

  11. Antonio Fontana April 13, 2012 at 6:07 pm | #

    I think it is also important to look at the similarities Hayek’s conceptions of society have with those of Edmund Burke, the father of political conservatism. Burke also had a corporatist view of society, and accused the French Revolutionaries of destroying the organicism of the Ancien Regime, which resulted in the creation of rootless, atomized individuals-the supposed stock-in-trade of conservatism and libertarianism. It would also be intere
    sting to look at Hayek’s anti- Christian views. For example, in the second volume of Law, Legislation and Liberty, Hayek’s crtitique of the egalitarian tendencies of Christianity are remarkably similar to those of Nietzsche’s.

    • Mara October 22, 2012 at 7:55 pm | #

      Would you consider or agree that the Left gets “neoliberalism” wrong because there were decades of mediations and strategies–now congealed into models–to move liberals and lefties first into rightward techniques and policies, and then into a conservative consensus? (The old soc mov observation: Active engagement generally precedes theoretical transformation.) Here I’m leaving trusty old structuralist Marxism (Which only disallows the constitutive coexistence of feudalism, slavery and capitalism in its bowdlerized permutations; but certainly not in Marx.) at the door.

      In what I study, it’s more useful to talk about that collective *transitioning* activity (from liberalism and socialism to conservatism) as neoliberalism. The elite movement’s theoreticians’ and strategists’ *goal*, as well as its underlying assumptions, are conservative.

      So for one example, a lefty-liberal political party faced with a conservative consensus around how you improve education will adopt the neoliberal model, including its tacit underlying assumption, eg. The major problem with education is that workers (teachers) have too much liberty, which they will waste, given workers are by definition natural wastrels languishing to be mobilized into constructive use by their owners, the master caste (and its aspirants).

      It doesn’t seem to long to me before the left-liberal party soon discovers that its neoliberal approach effectively, broadly, thoroughly undermines its capacity to claim to be a party of leaders, even as it has helped cement a conservative consensus about who are leaders. The end game is the restoration of conservatism. And yet for a transition period, its neoliberal period, the party is seduced by seeming to be strategically following a model that everywhere purports to cover both left and right territory.

      • poormanshayek April 8, 2013 at 6:41 pm | #

        What’s so repulsive about your thesis is that it starts with a supposition, “the lefty liberal party” making a “choice”, faced with the majority, presumably with whom they have equal power or over whom they rule as a government.

        What lefty liberal government has been in power anywhere, since the rise of liberalism.

        If you want to say that the democrats or other similar parties are lefty, then your thesis holds. Their adoption of neoliberalism is a compromise against ultra right corporatism.

        But, then, what the hell are you talking about, that you can call neoliberal/traditionalist parties who just favor abortion rights and some healthcare, ‘lefty liberal’ ?

        To over-historicize it in a pseudo intellectual way is to state that this has been a slow, gradual, progress towards rightwing neoliberalism. It smoothes out the bumps of history.
        Reagan was a phenomenon while nixon was merely a symptom.
        Clinton realized Reaganism, not decades of build up.

        So much of describing the history of the conservative mind is a misleading and therefore inevitably error prone discussion. There are bumps. There is no “the” conservative mind. That’s just a marketing phrase for the book. Burke’s conservatism is different from modern conservatism because its traditional love is overt. While modern conservatism (or fascism) is based on a delusion of proving that traditional love can make it in competition with new things.

        The better question is not why has the left moved to the right but how is it that conservative policy didn’t dare, because it assumed there was a left. We’re all quite conservative in the contemporary sense. Any cursory glance at continued support for the democrats should prove that people who id as the left, are actually as enamored of traditional patriarchy and as fearful of change as any conservative.
        MLK’s fight was won in part because it appealed to traditional equality: honor people as members of honor based social order. The racial identity is in fact problematic for traditional notions of the family and other institutions. All the other lefty stuff he said was totally, utterly, abysmally unsuccessful. If that stuff hadn’t been ignored by history and the times, he would’ve been a red demon to contemporary mccarthyite voices. Most people who support MLK have no idea about his lefty, anti-conservative, anti-traditional, communist/socialist pacifist ideology.

        If you spoke to a common citizen, not only would they have zero knowledge of Hayek et al, but they would have zero discourse on the principles and zero concept of capitalism. Their conservative institution is a fear driven mouthing of the platitudes of the father who beat them: family matters first, follow the law, damn n******/foreigners/polaks are ruining us. That slut is asking for it. Wah-wah, I’m scared of life.

    • charles brown April 9, 2013 at 4:44 pm | #

      For example, in the second volume of Law, Legislation and Liberty, Hayek’s crtitique of the egalitarian tendencies of Christianity are remarkably similar to those of Nietzsche’s.////////

      /////Which is not surprising because they are both anti-working class/pro-ruling class. Nietzsche idolizes the ruling class down through history. He denounced the Paris Commune. He was a rightwinger, pace all his modern fans in academe.

      • Ben Jozefowicz July 11, 2014 at 12:33 pm | #

        I believe your understandings of Nietzsche are far to simplistic and commonplace. His thought was far more nuanced, complex and difficult to categorize than most readers understand or desire, as it typically confounds their theory of him and his thoughts.

  12. Daniel Latorre (@danlatorre) April 8, 2013 at 7:49 pm | #

    Make’s me think of George Lakoff’s thoughts about the centrality of the father figure among conservatives, in his book “Whose Freedom.” The reason why so many elite liberals don’t get the conservative philosophies is because they are often coming from a techno-rational education resulting in a low literacy levels for the philosophy and spirituality behind strong forms of religion. David Nierwert’s work on proto-fascism is also relevant here, see his “Rush, Newspeak and Fascism: An exegesis”, and “In God’s Country: The Patriot Movement and the Pacific Northwest.”

  13. Milo April 8, 2013 at 7:56 pm | #

    Yes – also linked to inheritance and those small fascist like cells that once were families. A conversation:
    ‘I’ve worked hard all my life – and yes, my children are more important than any other children – and I have every right to choose who I leave my hard-earned money to. I’m not having any one else choose for me. Of course my children are more important than any one else’s. Of course I’ll leave my money to them.’
    ‘But they aren’t more important are they? Reallly? Really?’
    ‘… Well, you dont know what it’s like to have kids…’
    ‘Ha! So I’ll never meet the most deserving and most important people in the world! Maybe that’s what makes me a lasting socialist.’

  14. James April 9, 2013 at 7:19 am | #

    I wrote something partially in response (or at least informed by) this, here: http://dandelionscrews.tumblr.com/post/47461101145/thatcher-and-feminism

  15. charles brown April 9, 2013 at 4:37 pm | #

    The most direct answer to Thatcher and the others is that “the Market” is society, a major part of it in capitalism. Margaret Thatcher’s family didn’t make those clothes she was wearing; didn’t build the house she lived in; didn’t grow the food she ate. They didn’t teach her in school. etc.,etc. Capitalist society is a giant world wide web of interdependent people , of labor and production and distribution,including the family and way beyond. Marx termed the libertarian-bourgeois illusions of this type “Robinsonades”; _Robinson Crusoe_ is fiction, a myth. Humans are highly social animals, including in capitalism. Individuals have the biggest social networks in the history of humanity under capitalism. Capitalism is super-social, and the bourgeois Robinsonades of old and new are a bigger illusions in capitalism than in an other mode of production.

  16. McMike April 11, 2013 at 10:59 am | #

    hmm. So, neolibs see feudal societies as the optimal end-point? Ancestral dynasties, with regional monopolies on resources and labor, and shifting power structures of marital and military alliances – dependent on heavy taxation of labor, brutal repression, conscription, and mercenaries to maintain their hold on power? Pretty much a living Shakespeare play.

    It would have been nice if they had pointed that out more explicitly in advance.

    In truth, that is pretty much what we got, except replace Lord with CEOs.

  17. Paul Westlake August 19, 2013 at 3:14 pm | #

    Corporate feudalism, neo-feudalism or neo-monarchy are all appropriate terms to describe the pecking order in contemporary Western culture.


  18. Bright Smith July 8, 2017 at 12:01 pm | #

    Neoliberalism as techno-feudalism is exactly what neoreaction thinkers such as Nick Land are arguing.

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