Neoliberalism: A Quick Follow-up

My post on neoliberalism is getting a fair amount of attention on social media. Jonathan Chait, whose original tweet prompted the post, responded to it with a series of four tweets:

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The four tweets are even odder than the original tweet.

First, Chait claims I confuse two different things: Charles Peters-style neoliberalism and “the Marxist epithet for open capitalist economies.” Well, no, I don’t confuse those things at all. I quite clearly state at the outset of my post that neoliberalism has a great many meanings—one of which is the epithet that leftists hurl against people like Chait—but that there was a moment in American history when a group of political and intellectual actors, under the aegis of Peters, took on the name “neoliberal” for themselves. That’s who I was talking about in my post.

Second, contrary to Chait, Peters did not in fact invent the term “neoliberal” or “neoliberalism” in 1983. The term was coined by a group of mostly conservative free market intellectuals, meeting in Paris in 1938 at the Colloque Walter Lippmann, in order to counter the rise of democratic socialism and welfare-state liberalism in Western Europe and the United States. Eventually, that group would coalesce after World War II as the Mont Pelerin Society, with Friedrich Hayek at the intellectual helm.

Third, the reason that earlier coinage matters, and isn’t just a point of scholarly pedantry, is that while some scholars will challenge what I’m about to say, the program that that original group of neoliberals set out at Mont Pelerin does in fact bear a resemblance to the word “neoliberalism” that often gets bandied around by the left today. Insofar as that was a program to rollback the welfare state and social democracy, to revalorize capital and the capitalist as a moral good, to proclaim the ideological supremacy of the market over the state (the practice is more complicated), “neoliberal” is in fact a useful term to describe a political program that has gained increasing traction around the globe in the last half-century.

It’s important to distinguish neoliberalism in this sense—that is, neoliberalism as a political program—from neoliberalism as a system of political economy. Scholars and activists on the left disagree, fundamentally, about the latter, with some claiming that what we call neoliberalism as a form of political economy is merely capitalism. I’m deliberately side-stepping that debate in order to focus on neoliberalism as a political and ideological program.

(It’s also important to acknowledge that one of the reasons the term “neoliberalism” can be confusing is that outside of the United States, particularly in Europe, liberal has often meant support for free markets and a critique of the welfare state and social democracy. Inside the United States, liberal, at least throughout most of the 20th century, meant support for the welfare state and state intervention in the economy. Get into a discussion about neoliberalism on Twitter, and you inevitably find yourself crashing on a beachhead of this confusion. Personally, I think it’s about as interesting and relevant as that Founding Fathers fanboy who’ll periodically pop up in a discussion thread claiming that the United States is a republic, not a democracy. I merely note it here in order to acknowledge the point and move on.)

Fourth, insofar as Peters and his group of neoliberals in the United States declared the fundamentals of their political program to be: a) opposition to unions; b) opposition to big government (except for the military); and c) support for big business, I find the term “neoliberal” to be useful not only for describing Peters and his crew but also for relating that crew to the overall program of neoliberalism, which I noted in point 3 above, and which today characterizes a good part of the Democratic Party. In other words, while I deliberately did not conflate Peters’s neoliberalism with the leftist epithet for Democrats that Chait objects to, there is in fact a relationship between Peters’s neoliberalism and today’s Democrats (more on this below).

(Incidentally, if you think I was being unfair to Peters-style neoliberalism, I urge you to read this interview Peters gave to Ezra Klein back in 2007, where he reiterates the basics of the program as I outline them here and in my post, and says, forthrightly, “I think in many, many areas, the neoliberals, in effect, won.” That is, they changed liberalism (again, more on this below.) The only plank of the original program that Peters thinks needs to be pursued more forcefully is crushing teachers’ unions and means testing mass entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare.)

Fifth, the inspiration for my post, as I said, was a tweet from Chait in which he takes particular delight in professing an impish disbelief in the term “neoliberal,” as if it were a made-up word of paranoid leftists used to abuse liberals like Chait. And in this series of tweets, he doubles down on that disbelief, claiming that Peters-style neoliberalism had at best a shadowy half-life in the magazine world; it “barely existed,” tweets Chait, “then died.” No one’s used the word in ages.

In my post, I claimed that one of the reasons contemporary writers like Chait write from this state of amnesiac euphoria—where they fail to recognize the distance they’ve traveled from the midcentury world of labor liberalism—is that they’ve so completely absorbed the neoliberal critique, almost unconsciously, that they can’t even remember a time when liberals thought otherwise.

It turns out that that wasn’t quite fair. There was a journalist back in 2013 who recognized precisely what I was talking about. Here’s what this writer said about the impact of neoliberal magazines on traditional Democratic Party liberalism (h/t the guy whose Twitter handle is HTML Mencken):

Those magazines once critiqued Democrats from the right, advocating a policy loosely called “neoliberalism,” and now stand in general ideological concord.

Why? I’d say it’s because the neoliberal project succeeded in weaning the Democrats of the wrong turn they took during the 1960s and 1970s. The Democrats under Bill Clinton — and Obama, whose domestic policy is crafted almost entirely by Clinton veterans — has internalized the neoliberal critique.

The name of that writer was Jonathan Chait.

Update (6:30 pm)

I was just re-reading the introduction to The Road from Mont Pelerin, which I link to above (and which I highly recommend), and the authors claim that the first usage of “neoliberal” along the lines of what I mention above was actually by a Swiss economist in 1925 (there was actually a 1898 usage as well, but they claim it was rather different). In the 1930s, neoliberal took off as a term, particularly in France, culminating in that 1938 meeting that I mention above. As the Cornell historian Larry Glickman pointed out to me in a Facebook thread, the term neoliberal was also used by anti-New Dealers in the United States in the 1930s, only their point was to stress that FDR had transformed liberalism from its 19th century understanding (an understanding that was much more sympathetic to markets) into a “neoliberalism” that was too critical of the market and indulgent of the state’s intervention. According to the authors of the introduction to The Road to Mont Pelerin, Frank Knight, a close associate of Milton Friedman and George Stigler at the University of Chicago, wrote an essay criticizing the New Deal in the 1930s along these lines.

Update (9 pm)

Jonathan Chait has a longer response on his Facebook page. It’s kind of a non-response response that I’m posting here merely for the sake of, whatever. More amusing to me is how Damon Linker—think of him as Mark Lilla’s Mini-Me—shows up faithfully in the comments section, like one of the Super Friends in response to a summons from the Bat Signal. Anyway, here’s Chait:

I wrote a tweet a few days ago complaining about the use of “neoliberal” as a term of abuse on the left against liberals. “What if every use of ‘neoliberal’ was replaced with, simply, ‘liberal’? Would any non-propagandistic meaning be lost?,” I wrote. My meaning is that no current group of people defines itself as “neoliberal.” The term is simply used by leftists, usually of the Marxist and/or socialist variety, to denigrate liberals.

Corey Robin has fired back in two posts. None of them, however, answer my question. The first post focuses on a small sect on intellectuals called “neoliberals,” a term that was invented by Washington Monthly editor Charles Peters in the early 1980s. Neoliberalism was not really an ideology (though Peters sort-of tried to flesh it out into it) but a collection of Peters hobbyhorses that mostly revolved around streamlining the functioning of the federal government. Some writers tried to take other aspects of moderate liberalism and call it “neoliberalism.” But the main point is that the label died years ago, and nobody uses it any more as a form of self-identification. Importantly, even though elements of its ideas made their way into the Democratic Party, the label also never attracted any real following in the Democratic mainstream. Bill Clinton, probably the closest thing to an ally neoliberals would have found, called himself a “New Democrat.”

I was never a fan of the “neoliberal” label, for reasons that were persuasively explained to me by Paul Starr when I worked at the American Prospect out of college. Neoliberal writers called their farther-left counterparts “paleoliberals.” As Starr told me, the terms were an attempt to win an argument by using an epithet — “neo” implying that its side had already won the future, and “paleo” implying the other was consigned to the past.

That debate was consigned to a handful of writers (most of them baby boomer men from the Washington Monthly and the New Republic of the 1980s) who passed from the scene or lost interest in it. Modern liberals are all just liberals, though of course we have internal differences. Robin does not refute my point that no current faction uses the label to describe itself. Instead, in his follow-up post, he notes that some right-wingers also used the phrase in the 1930s to oppose the New Deal. To a leftists like Robin, this proves that the ideology is all one and the same. “Insofar as that was a program to rollback the welfare state and social democracy, to revalorize capital and the capitalist as a moral good, to proclaim the ideological supremacy of the market over the state (the practice is more complicated), “neoliberal” is in fact a useful term to describe a political program that has gained increasing traction around the globe in the last half-century,” he writes.

And, yes, if you believe that Charles Peters took his inspiration from the anti-New Deal right, and the modern Democratic Party took its inspiration from Peters, then that is an important connection. But the first connection is preposterous. Peters was a New Dealer who worshipped Roosevelt. He did not see himself as an heir to the 1930s Old Right. Peters was much less a statist than Robin, but clearly belonged on the left half of the political spectrum throughout his career.

Of course, it is convenient for Robin to lump the center-left, with figures like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, in with the far right. This was all Robin’s ideological foes, those who stand for somewhat higher taxes and more generous social spending and decarbonization and regulation of finance can be lumped together with the conservatives who wish to roll all those things back.

So obviously Robin and many of his allies will continue to use the term “neoliberal” to describe liberals, because it serves an important propagandistic function for them. But it will continue to be used only by those people to describe current politics, and by nobody else, because it is not a neutral term or a fair-minded attempt to describe the world.


  1. troy grant April 29, 2016 at 5:00 pm | #

    A neoliberal is a former liberal who got rich.


    A neoliberal is a conservative that smokes pot.

    • Patrick Crowley April 30, 2016 at 9:21 am | #

      That’s awesome.

  2. Carolyn Porter April 29, 2016 at 6:24 pm | #

    Well done, Corey Robin.

    • simon April 30, 2016 at 7:11 pm | #

      Yeah, he has a new fan in me. Subscribed.

  3. Will G-R April 29, 2016 at 6:58 pm | #

    Corey, I know you’ve seen The Smug Style in American Liberalism, but the author also recently went back and forth with Chait on Twitter re: Chait’s dyed-in-the-wool neoliberal ideology of “I ain’t got no ideology, just Facts ‘n’ Logic”, and published a wonderful take on it here. Seems like the two of you are pretty much standing shoulder to shoulder here.

  4. John Maher April 29, 2016 at 7:25 pm | #

    What is the difference between a Jonathan Chait and a Nicholas Kristoff anyway? One was born earlier but the meaning and subsequent usage is confused.

  5. stephen laudig April 29, 2016 at 8:30 pm | #

    time to demand a twit-retract it seems. cheers. keep up the “Lord’s” work.

  6. jackhlandry April 29, 2016 at 9:25 pm | #

    I think *functionally* Chait is right here, neoliberal is just used as an ad-hominem attack that substitutes for actual argument.

    • Bubgy April 30, 2016 at 9:34 am | #

      Someone has a shaky understanding of “ad hominem.” If the ideological shoe “functionally” fits, that is an actual argument, not an irrelevant insult based on character.

    • Stephen Zielinski April 30, 2016 at 10:30 am | #

      Or, the term is a marker that refers to a political disposition. Since some — many? — believe the disposition to be wrongheaded and vicious, their attitudes make credible the claim that the term is one of abuse. Yet, it remains descriptively accurate in the American context.

      • simon April 30, 2016 at 7:12 pm | #

        Nailed it.

  7. twitter communist April 29, 2016 at 10:47 pm | #

    i like how he completely skipped over the whole mont pelerin thing

  8. I. M. Flaud April 30, 2016 at 1:07 pm | #

    How is it that “A Brief History of Neoliberalism” by your colleague David Harvey manages not to be mentioned in this exchange?

  9. Roqeuntin May 1, 2016 at 7:54 am | #

    I’d never heard to Chait before this and the recent article in Jacobin about him, and truth be told I kind of wish I hadn’t. I find him worse than say, David Brooks, who at least never even gives off the pretense of being anything but a right winger. I still don’t agree with him, obviously, but on some level he is open about what he is. These attempts to cloak the same program under a veil of liberalism are far more insidious.

    There’s something that really, really rubs me the wrong way about how his overarching project is to make the rightward turn in the Democratic party, personified in the Clintons and Obama (aka any Democrat since Reagan), as the correct path and wholly and completely justified. It reminds me of when someone criticized Sanders for not even being a “real Democrat.” As if that were a bad thing. When I heard that, all at once it hit me. There are actually people for whom participating in this neoliberal capitalist, sham-left organization is a badge of honor, something to be proud of.

    Either way, good work.

  10. patrick May 2, 2016 at 11:17 am | #

    I will never again support the democratic politicians who support Hillary Kissinger. They support their party first and foremost. Why would Al Franken, just one example, support Clinton? Is she a better candidate then Sanders? The answer is NO and I think most of her supporters know it. Explain Kissinger, TPP, fracking, sub standard min wage, IMO her stands on war and peace make me wonder whats between her legs. And then there are the pundits, Chait, Krugman, the MSNBC/FOX/CNN clown shows. Partisanship masquerading as seriousness. A monopolist owns the WaPO and another one, Bill Gates, knows whats best for our Public schools. BULL! Gates graduated from the most expensive private (secular) High School in the state of Washington. If he had not been born well off we would never have heard of him. He’s a privatizer. One more thing, no white person will ever grasp the positive significance of our first black president for most black americans. That said, history won’t have much good to say about Obama. For instance, are black Americans better off now? Only if you are a member of the Black mis-leadership class! Recovery my ass!

  11. Stephen May 2, 2016 at 1:21 pm | #

    Thanks for this followup article, as I had strong objections to the rather too narrow definition of neoliberal in the first piece. The term must be recognized first as applying to economic policy. But of course the neo part of neoliberalism was the philosophy behind the economics. This is best seen as an evolution of Laissez-faire ideas, and as reaction to democratic socialism (which the first neoliberals viewed as the road to serfdom).

    One critical component to the philosophy that you didn’t mention is the then radical notion that there is no such thing as the public good. Many of the intellectuals behind the movement regarded all claims of public good as levers for personal gain – very cynical, and based upon now discredited game theory. But the idea remains deeply embedded in the mindset, often discussed using phrases like the market-knows-best, or let-the-market-decide.

  12. Kristin Lee May 4, 2016 at 8:10 am | #

    Thank you, Corey Robin! The rise of Technocracy coincides with the bipartisan right-leaning neoliberal agenda of the past forty years in particular. These upcoming “trade deals” are designed to eventually replace the democratic structure of protective laws and rights with a technocratic, unelected officials’ global governance over nations. The current state of Honduras is the would-be state of a corporate-controlled world.

    “To allow the market mechanism to be the sole director of the fate of human beings and their natural environment …would result in the demolition of society.” ~ Karl Polanyi, 1944

    “In 1945 or 1950 if you had seriously proposed any of the ideas and policies in today’s standard neo-liberal toolkit, you would have been laughed off the stage or sent off to the insane asylum.” ~ Susan George, political scientist

    “The financial elite and oligarchs despise democracy since they know that neoliberalism is the antithesis of real democracy because it feeds on inequality; it feeds on privilege, it feeds on massive divisiveness, and it revels in producing a theater of cruelty. All you have to do is look at the way it enshrines a kind of rabid individualism. It believes that privatization is the essence of all relationships. It works very hard to eliminate any investment in public values, in public trust. It believes that democracy is something that doesn’t work, and we hear and see this increasingly from the bankers, anti-public intellectuals and other cheerleaders for neoliberal policies.” ~ Henry Giroux

    “The Road to Neoliberalization: A bi-partisan not-for-profit Think Tank called ”The Neoliberal War on Democracy Foundation”

    They don’t want you to know their name, much less to speak it. They don’t want you to know they exist, much less to join them. They don’t want your participation, they don’t want your suggestions, because quite simply put, they don’t want you.

    The Neoliberal Party isn’t about “democracy”; it’s about the illusion of democracy and the absolute control that the illusion creates. Therefore, the less you know about them, the better off they are and the happier you will be in your self-sustained cocoon of blissful ignorance.

    But we can no longer afford the luxury of hiding in our chrysalis with our heads buried in the sand. It’s time for a political and ideological metamorphosis on a national scale.”

    Neoliberalism is the defining political economic paradigm of our time — it refers to the policies and processes whereby a relative handful of private interests are permitted to control as much as possible of social life in order to maximize their personal profit. Associated initially with Reagan and Thatcher, for the past two decades neoliberalism has been the dominant global political economic trend adopted by political parties of the center and much of the traditional left as well as the right. These parties and the policies they enact represent the immediate interests of extremely wealthy investors and less than one thousand large corporations.

    Harvard Educational Review Vol. 72 No. 4 Winter 2002 Copyright © by the President and Fellows of Harvard College
    — Robert W. McChesney

    Neoliberalism is just a nice word for economic fascism:

    “I said in my previous article about “economic fascism”… you have a system where the government supports the interests of “big business” at the expense of everyone else, especially the “left wing” interests, such as the unions and employee rights in general. Given this lifeboat by the government, this system encourages inefficiency, irresponsibility and corruption in those corporations themselves, which are necessarily economically supported by the government when the need arises. In other words, you have a system where profit is private, and debt is public – the corporations take the profits, and the government (the taxpayer) absorbs corporate losses.

    This system reinforces a corporate oligarchy that is economically supported by the government; the taxpayers/electorate can do little about this if the major parties in the country all support this system. Corporate sponsorship of those parties also encourages political patronage, as do the necessary “connections” (another form of corruption) that political parties need from corporations in order to gain financial support.”

    • simon May 8, 2016 at 12:45 am | #

      Excellent comment. It could be it’s own piece.

  13. Paul Yamada May 4, 2016 at 2:34 pm | #

    I guess you have begun to read something related to the writing of P Mirowski.

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