On Neoliberalism. Again.

I’m a bit late to this article, but back in July, the Cornell historian Larry Glickman offered a fascinating periodization of the term of “neoliberalism.”

Initially, Glickman argues, in the 1930s, the word was a term of abuse wielded by conservative free marketeers against New Deal liberals. The free markeeters accused the New Deal liberals of betraying the real meaning of the term “liberal” by embracing the state, constraining the market, and so on. So, said these free marketeers, the New Dealers were “neoliberal” while they, the free marketeers, were the true liberals.

Phase 2, we move to Europe and the Mont Pelerin Society, where the term takes on a positive meaning among free market intellectuals like Hayek and, for a time, back in the US, Milton Friedman. That proves to be short-lived, as Friedman ultimately opts for other words to describe the formation.

Phase 3, we’re in the late 1970s and 1980s, and Charles Peters and his little merry band of techno dudes embrace the term as a way of reforming (or gutting, take your pick) New Deal liberalism. They call themselves neoliberals. Also proves to be short-lived. (I wrote about them back in April.)

Phase 4 is where we are today: with the term largely used by the left as a term of art or criticism against, well, the shit around us.

All-around, Glickman’s is a very useful, Daniel Rodgers-style, account of the shifting meaning of the term.

Also, though this wasn’t Larry’s point, it occurred to me that the free marketeers sort of had a legitimate beef in the 1930s.

I mean, think about it this way. The term liberal—though ahistorical people like to use it as an epithet or approbation for everyone from John Locke to Hillary Clinton—didn’t come into political usage until the 19th century, where it was often associated with the cultivation of trade and markets. These liberal arguments about the market and commerce were complicated—often quite different from the simplistic, pro-market arguments you hear today, in so many ways—but from the sheer standpoint of historical experience and memory: you can imagine why it would have seemed like a shock to free market folks in the 1930s to hear this term, which had for its relatively short life span (and with the possible exception of the New Liberals in the late 19th and early 20th century Britain) been associated with a positive embrace of markets and commerce and the like, suddenly come to be associated with the state’s assault on those markets. I can see why that would have been a source of some consternation.


  1. John Maher August 14, 2016 at 11:03 pm | #

    I will posit an imaginary history of the term: after Ricardian economics allowed sufficient wealth accumulation and stratification in the US and UK, the First World War occurred, suddenly globalization was more than nascent. Trade barriers started to go into a decades long death spiral while nationalism gasped its last. Capital markets became no longer local and a supply of commodities was needed cheaply by the main accreters of wealth, hence free trade and neoliberak economics. Hayek merely observed what was happening around him in Mittel Europa. Beware Hilary and the TPP and TAFTA, She loves them as blank minded policy and will backstab us all with free trade. May even use Hamilton to justify free trade and the neoliberal continuum.

    • Bill Michtom August 15, 2016 at 1:20 pm | #

      “May even use Hamilton to justify free trade and the neoliberal continuum.”

      The man or the show? 😉

  2. David Nichols August 14, 2016 at 11:23 pm | #

    I think you mean the Second World War; high tariffs and economic autarky were quite fashionable in the industrial countries in the 1930s.

    My understanding is that the prefix “neo” is affixed to a pre-existing ideology to indicate that that ideology is now for sale.

    • John Maher August 15, 2016 at 10:11 am | #

      Nope. I trace the rise of neoliberalism to post WW I international trade disputes and a growing transatlantc merchant bank influence guided by Ricardian economics and the doctrine of comparative advantage.

  3. mark August 15, 2016 at 4:27 am | #

    Doing a Goggle ngram of ‘neoliberal’ for American English and British English only sees the term beginning its rapid ascent in the late 1970s US and early 1980s UK.

    The size of the state in the UK was always going to rise in the early 20th century because of the impact of the Boar War (1899-1902), in which about 60% of recruits were turned away as unfit for service due to health, height, and weight.

    Martin Daunton in his ‘Trusting Leviathan’ has it that it was from the 1890s when the Peel-Gladstone state came under sustained pressure: from imperial defence costs, from naval spending, from the Boer war, and from the pressure of organised labour for welfare spending, especially from unskilled workers.

  4. J. Otto Pohl August 15, 2016 at 7:32 am | #

    In the former second and third worlds the term neo-liberal is used to decribe the basically united policies of the US, EU, WB, IMF, and WTO to impose the Washington Consensus upon the rest of the world. In Ghana where I lived until recently this meant in practice the government had to eliminate protective tarriffs, consumer subsidies, and other statist intervention in the economy in order to get foreign aid and loans. This led to such things as almost all rice and chicken being imported into an agriculturally rich country and almost all textiles imported into a country that had well established cotton cloth production at one time. Ghana isn’t unique in neo-liberalis policies seeking to eliminate economic self sufficieny and replace it with a complete reliance upon imports funded by loans and commodity exports.

  5. Bart August 15, 2016 at 8:38 am | #

    It seems to be a highly vexed term in need of replacement.

    • Zach Braff August 15, 2016 at 9:58 am | #

      In Glickman’s article, he points out the through-line for each stage is its opposition to New Deal -style governance, in favor of de-regulation, non-intervention, “market-centered” utopianism (my word, not his). I think that’s a great corrective to claims that, on the one hand, “neoliberal” means precisely nothing and, on the other, Left-er hand, that it’s just a synonym for capitalism we should abandon, to name capitalism more clearly the culprit (for that argument, see a great white paper by Sarah Brouilette, arguing “neoliberalism” is a word for privileged people like professors to describe the encroachment of same-old-same-old capitalism into spheres where they used to be safer from it, like education).

      Ultimately, his point is that we should not be afraid to re-claim the word Liberal, which I’m less sure about, at least in an American context.

      • John Maher August 15, 2016 at 10:14 am | #

        I believe that the point Corey has made throughout years of blogging is that neoliberalism is not “same old” but the .imposition of a rigid new structural constraint which devours everything

  6. J. Montgomery August 15, 2016 at 10:29 am | #

    This misses the definition related to the who neo-liberalism/neo-realism debate in political science, which is how the term has typically been used in our discipline. International politics based on the assumption of mutual gain through economic cooperation and institutionalization rather than IR based on the zero sum measure of power and assumption of inherent conflict in anarchy. Rather an important piece of the definition with regard to international relations.

    • Corey Robin August 15, 2016 at 11:15 am | #

      I’m not missing anything. I’m simply less interested, at least in this post, in the term’s relevance for one subfield of political science than I am in the term’s usage in actual politics.

    • LFC August 15, 2016 at 5:22 pm | #

      @J. Montgomery
      That particular debate in IR theory was always rather parochial and is sort of pass&ecaute; now, isn’t it? Not sure it wd be covered today the same way, if at all, in a contemp. theory seminar as it was, say, 20 yrs ago. Anyway it’s a very particular/confined/academic use of the word ‘neoliberal’ and that usage means basically nothing to anyone outside of IR and pol sci.

  7. jonnybutter August 15, 2016 at 10:42 am | #

    Zack has it just right, IMHO. The new structures and rigidities being imposed in our neo liberal era are not new *kinds* of structures; they are indeed the extension of the same old forces. CR’s point that 19th c liberalism was more nuanced than today’s simple minded market fundamentalism (or ‘utopianism’, even better), is not material to this.

    It is fitting that the word ‘liberalism’ is so slippery, so hard to nail down. It is a kind of MacGuffin. Here’s Hitchcock telling the supposed original MacGuffin story:

    It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men on a train. One man says, “What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?” And the other answers, “Oh, that’s a MacGuffin”. The first one asks, “What’s a MacGuffin?” “Well,” the other man says, “it’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.” The first man says, “But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,” and the other one answers, “Well then, that’s no MacGuffin!” So you see that a MacGuffin is actually nothing at all.

  8. Jonnybutter August 15, 2016 at 1:16 pm | #

    i don’t mean to say that the term liberalism means ‘nothing at all’. Just that it is a pretty darned vague term at times. I mean, Hollande in France’s not being much of a socialist doesn’t make the term itself meaningless. But ‘liberalism” seems inherently vague – a politics which pretends to be no politics. Kind of like capitalism itself.

  9. Leonard Williams August 15, 2016 at 9:50 pm | #

    Foucault uses neo-liberalism in the late 1970s. He uses the term to focus on the pervasiveness of economic or market-based perspectives, drawn from Hayek and popularized later by Thatcherites and Reaganites. See his lectures published as The Birth of Biopolitics.

    • Paul O'Sullivan August 16, 2016 at 8:01 am | #

      FWIW that is roughly the way I occasionally use the term. Also Wendy Brown’s ‘Undoing The Demos’ was a book I enjoyed and which takes Foucault’s lectures as a starting point.

      Also, from the archives of Naked Capitalism, this has a take and discussion on Harvey’s view (another book I enjoyed, though i have learnt a good deal and therefor become far less certain than I was in those days)


  10. John Emerson August 16, 2016 at 8:51 am | #

    Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms was the rhetoric by which he jammed welfare considerations into liberalism. In 19th c. liberalism there was no Freedom from Want. Quite the opposite, most 19th c. liberals were famously hard-hearted or even Social Darwinist. (I’m not a historian and I’m sure that were exceptions, but the general run were hard hearted).

    Even MLK’s “Free at Last” was a way of defining what was really justice or equality as freedom. That’s just the way things are done in the U.S.

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