What’s so Liberal about Neoliberalism? An homage to my sister’s father-in-law*

My apologies for the light posting over the past three weeks. I’ve been on vacation and am now at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association in lovely Seattle. Next week will probably see some light posting as well: it’s the first week of preschool for my daughter, which involves a delicately orchestrated four days of “transition” in which I have to be either onsite or on call throughout the day. So much for school taking children off the hands of their parents…

While I take up residence in toddlerville, here’s something to chew on.

The National Labor Relations Board has issued a new rule stipulating that employers have to post notices in their workplaces informing workers of their right to unionize under the National Labor Relations Act. The government will provide the modestly sized posters for free. Even so, the bosses—and the conservatives who speak for them—are furious.

Here are some of the reactions:

“Just when we thought we had seen it all from the NLRB, it has reached a new low in its zeal to punish small-business owners.”

“Out of control.”

“Arbitrary” and “capricious.”

Some Republicans are using this latest outrage to push for defunding the NLRB.

Remember: this is just a rule requiring employers to inform employees of their legal rights. When I say that the last 40 years of conservative politics is about the restoration of feudalism, this is what I’m talking about.

Too often, leftists and radicals agree with conservatives that the promotion of free-market capitalism is about promoting liberal individualism and individual rights. Conservatives are supposed to like that, leftists not so much.

But capitalists and the conservatives who speak for them have nothing but hostility for the exercise of those rights. After all, what is the right to join a union but a concatenation of the classic 1st Amendment rights: freedom of assembly and freedom of speech, and the implicit freedom of association that goes with those rights? It also has happens to be one of the rights set out in Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Capital does recognize one right: its right to control the hearts, minds, and bodies of labor, which it calls the right of property but which I prefer to call by its proper name: feudalism. Or neo-feudalism if you want to get fancy about it.

As always, Karen Orren’s Belated Feudalism is the indispensable text. Though also check out this new book, Feudal America: Elements of the Middle Ages in Contemporary Society by Vladimir Shlapentokh and Joshua Woods, just released by Penn State University Press. It examines a far wider range of feudal practices in contemporary America: gated communites, private security firms, and the like.

* * * * *

* Sam Lerner, father of my brother-in-law Bennett and a reader of this blog, asked in response to an earlier post, “Whence the label neoliberal? Not sure I like diluting the coin of the proressive realm. Offers solace to free market capitalists who would like to believe they are social democrats at heart.” I replied:

It’s kind of a term of art which probably has a lot more resonance in Europe than here. As you probably know liberalism has a very different meaning in Europe than in the US. It arose in the 19th century and was very much allied with the free market and classical economics. Left-wing critics of the market in Europe took some variety of the socialist banner, and there were a fair number of critics on the right as well. So liberalism remained permanently allied with the idea of the free market there. Then when the free market got a new lease on life during the 1970s, it took the name neoliberal. It has an odd ring in the US, I realize, but it’s somewhat accurate if you’re trying to speak across the borders of one country. Because even in the US there was a movement in the 1970s of people called neoliberals who were members of the Democratic Party (Gary Hart, Bruce Babbitt, Robert Reich in fact) and were pushing the party to be more receptive to markets and less focused on the state. Some called them “Atari Democrats.” They were also critical in pushing for deregulation (in fact, Teddy Kennedy — along with Stephen Breyer, of Supreme Court fame, and Ralph Nader — pushed for deregulation in Congress as early as 1975). So the term is not completely unhelpful.

But I take the force of Sam’s point, and, as I argue above, there’s a basic animus against fundamental liberal principles in neoliberalism that needs to be confronted.


  1. Agog September 3, 2011 at 8:01 am | #

    I’m continually frustrated by the modern left’s blindness to the anti-egalitarian consequences of their pro-market attitudes. Markets operate basically according to a ‘might-is-right’ sort of principle – your possible outcome is weighted by your market power at the beginning. So of course decreasing regulation, selling public assets and so on tends to result in a more polarized society over time. Those privatized assets are inexorably raised up the wealth distribution as if upon an invisible palm.

  2. Shane Taylor September 3, 2011 at 8:47 am | #

    According to Philip Mirowski in The Road from Mont Pelerin, “neoliberalism” was an early self-description that was later dropped by the movement. In a 1951 survey of his comrade’s efforts, Milton Friedman wrote of “Neo-liberalism and Its Prospects.” The term had been in use since the 1930s by participants in the Colloque Walter Lippmann. (That was a French conference organized around Walter Lippmann’s book The Good Society.) Yet by the time Barry Goldwater was campaigning for the Presidency, the prefix had been dropped. They decided it was better, for agitprop, to suggest, with less than full honesty, that no break had been made with the laissez-faire of old.

    • Corey Robin September 14, 2011 at 12:14 am | #

      One of these days I’m going to get that Mirowski book, Shane. You’ve definitely whetted my interest in it.

  3. Andrew September 30, 2011 at 12:30 am | #

    If unions were simply trade associations — groups of people with a common interest working together for a mutual benefit, then you would be absolutely right that they would be covered by freedom of speech and association, and that would be that. So then, why are there so many laws for the benefit of unions? Because unions aren’t simply voluntary associations. There are laws that make it illegal for a worker to take certain jobs in certain places unless they pay dues to the union. A peasant isn’t employed by a feudal lord; he farms for himself, or works for others, but he owes the lord his allegiance, and part of his income, simply for being allowed to operate in the lord’s domain. Who operates that way today? Unions and welfare states.

    • Marcus Nestor February 20, 2012 at 5:54 pm | #

      Your selective specificity, is becoming your rectionary disease of the soul. Your ” certain Place”, being only that specific place where a majority of workers (excercising thier legal rights ) voted to unionize, and that workplace is unionized. Any worker who chooses to work there then must agree to belong to the union, thats the whole point of unions. You people make me sick with your twisting facts to suit your warped and bitter “ideology” of greed, fear and spite.

    • Marcus Nestor February 20, 2012 at 6:10 pm | #

      I would also like to add, that the reactionary’s knee jerk hatred of Democracy is plain in your factually warped description of Unions. The only “right” a reactionary recognizes WRT the workplace, is the “right” to restrict the democratic organization of workers by unions. You do not, and WOULD not make the same kind of accusation against owners and bosses who collude to keep wages low, or who hire (illegal) “consultants” to train bosses and owners in the most effective (illegal) methods of wrecking unionizing efforts. A reactionary is an idealist whos ideology is so very pure and refined it can be reduced to this simple principle: That the combined rights of every single other human being on the planet are less than the reactionary’s precious,precious, more sacred to them than life itself, property rights. This is the narcissistic “liberalism” of the neoliberal, Robert Reich., etal.

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