The arc of neoliberalism is long, but it bends toward the rich

Neoliberals pitted the deserving poor against the undeserving poor in order to abolish welfare.

Neoliberals pitted third-world workers against American workers in order to pass NAFTA.

Neoliberals pit black Democrats against white Democrats in order to elect Hillary Clinton.

In each instance, neoliberals claim to be speaking on behalf of a group at the bottom or near bottom in order to pursue a politics that benefits those at the top.


  1. Iris Waters March 30, 2016 at 3:58 pm | #


    People keep using that word.
    It does not mean what you think it means.
    You are thinking ‘New Democrat’. Neoliberal comes from economics, and references classical liberalism. Adam Smith style. Only more. Think Murray Rothbard, Von Mises and Say. In terms of politicians, think Thatcher/Reagan.

    • Corey Robin March 30, 2016 at 4:33 pm | #

      You’re wrong. The word neoliberal has a long lineage, beginning in late 1930s Europe. (Say, by the way, was a late 18th/early 19th century thinker, so not part of the Mises or Rothbard cohort). In the US, in the 1970s, a group of liberals emerged who were called “neoliberals.” Randall Rothenberg even wrote a book about them. It was was called “The Neoliberals.” They eventually formed part of what became the New Democrats in the late 1980s/early 1990s. The style of thinking that believes markets are the best way to achieve social ends valued by some on the left is often called neoliberalism.

      • Benedict@Large March 30, 2016 at 11:10 pm | #

        Given that neoliberalism is the belief that markets are the best way to achieve social ends, when has neoliberalism ever worked?

        • John Brownlow March 31, 2016 at 10:18 am | #

          Lots of examples in developing countries where the emergence of a middle class has driven social change and democratic reforms. That’s the sweet spot. Unfortunately it doesn’t stop there.

        • toyuniverses01 April 3, 2016 at 7:05 pm | #

          China. A billion people lifted out of wretched poverty over the past generation by what started as commercial exploitation. A world much safer trading with them than fighting them. When has good intentions ever had much impact on third world poverty, by comparison?

          • Philippa April 4, 2016 at 7:14 am | #

            Actually, it’s 600 million people, many of whom were lifted only just above that $1.25 per day (still sounds pretty wretched to me). Also, if they had done it more with more market regulation, they might be wearing less masks on the sidewalks of major Chinese cities today.

      • Philippa March 31, 2016 at 1:25 am | #

        As you mention Europe, I have to agree with Iris Waters above, and disagree with Corey Robin’s answer to Iris. Regardless of whatever historical books and the like you can quote, nowadays in Europe, neoliberal is shorthand for naked destructive unrestrained market forces, also shorthand for everything the left stands against. NO ONE on the left in Europe values neoliberalism.
        As a result of which (and again from a European perspective) I agree with all of your blog, except the last sentence. From a European perspective, no person claiming to speak for the bottom or near bottom of society could ever be called a Neoliberal (and vice versa: no Neoliberal would ever claim to be speaking… etc etc)

      • toyuniverses01 April 3, 2016 at 7:28 pm | #

        There’s nothing inherently wrong with markets as a mechanism for social change, as long as the government works hard to level the playing field, avoid externalities, promote long-term incentives, and help those who can’t participate or who lose out to the greater good.

        Those who have faith in unregulated markets should not be concerned if their bodies are consumed by unregulated cell growth.

  2. wahoofive March 30, 2016 at 3:59 pm | #

    Who are these shady conspirators you speak of? It’s easy to make generalizations with no names, no quotes, no evidence.

    I’m not saying you’re wrong, mind you, but these vague generalizations offer about as much credibility as Trump’s accusations about Mexicans.

  3. escottnyc March 30, 2016 at 4:11 pm | #

    wow, that’s direct and pointed
    How is the second sentence about pitting third-world workers against American workers strictly accurate? Rather, it seems enough Americans reasoned NAFTA would lead to prosperity for all, convinced by ideas long seeded and overgrown of more sustaining ideas.
    Third world workers didn’t do any pitting, though they benefit, like beggars gathering the crumbs falling from a feast.
    otherwise, terrific

  4. David Jacobs March 30, 2016 at 4:37 pm | #

    Here is Clinton explaining Clintonism, with self consciousness but little social consciousness. Nothing about NAFTA or other sources of peril for the poor and working class.

  5. Roquentin March 30, 2016 at 5:36 pm | #

    Neoliberalism supports whoever benefits accelerating the accumulation of capital at that time and casts them aside as soon as it doesn’t, regardless if that support was genuine in the first place or not. Capital accumulation is kind of like gravity, pulling everything into an ever smaller place, increasing density. It isn’t immoral so much as amoral, not unlike a physical force.

    The candidacy of HRC (I fight off the urge to call her Shillary on a daily basis. The dollar sign $hillary version is extra crass, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t make me smile) will do untold damage to identity politics in the US for a long, long time. Maybe it’s deserved, that kind of of corporate friendly identity based, hyper-PC, constantly feigning outrage and offense, politics frankly deserves to go..

  6. L.M. Dorsey March 30, 2016 at 5:51 pm | #

    Out of every one, a many — for whatever can be divided can be leveraged, arbitraged, reduced, repackaged, bamboozled and dissolved into the only whole that is the empire of liberty:

    Should we bar people from improving a very bad economic lot because it requires a deprivation of their personhood? Justice may not be “served by a ban on desperate exchanges” as, for example, selling human organs…An immediate reaction might well be to let each individual decide what is essential to his or her self-constitution and act accordingly…To put the matter another way, who is to decide what is essential to the constitution of the self other than the self? [Kenneth Arrow, quoted by Mirowski, Never Let A Serious Crisis Go To Waste, 148]

  7. Glenn March 30, 2016 at 5:56 pm | #

    Liberals see an economic depression (austerity) as a symptom.

    Neoliberals see an economic depression (austerity) as a cure.

  8. Ra March 30, 2016 at 10:59 pm | #
  9. Benedict@Large March 30, 2016 at 11:13 pm | #

    Actually, it is the Austrians who see a depression as a cure.

  10. kevin March 31, 2016 at 12:34 am | #

    Congratulations! The first learned-sounding Bernie Bro I’ve heard speak!! Historical references and everything!!! But, a Bernie Bro post nonetheless.

    I guess Mr. Robin has decided that Trump/Cruz cannot win no matter how many Democrats fail to vote for the Democratic nominee (something i think is profoundly foolish to bank on 7+ months before the election). Or, maybe, he maybe decided that Clinton is so evil, a Trump/Cruz is better than a Clinton presidency (something i think is profoundly juvenile/stupid/selfish). True colors displayed, finally, maybe?

    Have not been impressed by Mr. Robin’s in-moment political judgment as a blogger. Makes me wonder whether his judgment as an historian and author can be trusted, unfortunately. And that is too bad, i have enjoyed and been impressed with his books so far.

    • Glenn April 1, 2016 at 2:17 pm | #

      The “Bernie Bro” language implies a sexist anti-woman position that does not exist in Sanders’ policy positions.

      As if Hillary’s genitals told a more substantive story than does melanin in the case of Obama.

      This is just another shameless pander by Hillary campaigners.

  11. Paul Yamada March 31, 2016 at 2:55 pm | #

    Mr Robin, have you read Phil Mirowski’s works and essays?

  12. Jason Bowden March 31, 2016 at 9:06 pm | #

    Liberalism, a creature of the Enlightenment, goes hand-in with a disenchanted, hardboiled, Machiavellian, realist, anti-Romantic view of the world. Knowledge is power. There is no sin, but ignorance. Technique for the sake of technique. In fiction, liberalism is personified as Frank and Claire Underwood. In real life, Bill and Hillary Clinton.

    We can’t say that all politicians exemplify this flavor of corruption. Obama and Bush, despite their hardball politics, were reasonably ethical and had a genuine loyalty for their own country. The Clintons? They’re completely unprincipled, out for themselves, and everyone knows it. If it would benefit them to sell state secrets to a foreign government, one gets the feeling they would do it.

    If the Clintons exemplify corruption, we must ask, is not liberalism fundamentally corrupt? A Balzacian dystopia filled with virtue exhibitionism, status signaling, image management, reputation-seeking, back-stabbing, better-than-thou social climbing? Heidegger, a reactionary like Balzac, hated liberalism for the same reason — no authenticity, everyone is getting worked by everyone else all of the time. One has to ask, what is the point of all of this?

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