Neoliberalism is an eminently contentious term. Interestingly, most characterizations of what it happens to be have come from self-described opponents of neoliberal ideology. Many of alleged neoliberals-from F.A Hayek to Milton Friedman-have rejected the label; often preferring to be associated with more traditional labels such as “liberal.” Part of this may be due to the invariably strong pejorative connotations given to the term by its opponents. Neoliberalism has been characterized as a distinct economic philosophy formulated in the work of an international cabal of figures emerging from schools of thought in Vienna, Chicago, and Geneva. Is has been characterized as a “logic” of governance by Marxists such as David Harvey, a “political rationality” by democrats such as Wendy Brown, and a way of producing certain kinds of subjects by innumerable Foucaultians. It is only in recent years that the term has been accepted by proponents of neoliberal project, with many coming out of the closet to profess there adherence to neoliberal creeds. Part of this may be due to the intractable ubiquity of the term. Like post-modernism (or existentialism before it), neoliberalism has become such a popular term in political discourse that many simply feel there is little point in rejecting it any longer.
But I think the deeper reason, as demonstrated by the increasingly manic defense of the international status quo by its free market defenders, is that neoliberalism is increasingly under assault from all sides of the political spectrum. This is no surprise coming from the political left. Progressives have been unfailing in their intellectual attacks against aspects of neoliberal thinking and practice: philosophy of the subject has been condemned as atomistic and economistic; its account of the economy ridiculed as immaterialist; the politics of neoliberalism dismissed as abetting authoritarianism (or at least quashing democratic mobilization); and its policies characterized as destroying local cultures and replacing them with one dimensional individualistic consumers. There is something to many of these criticisms, but it worth noting that few of them were able to generate enough influence to do more than slow down the progress of neoliberal reforms prior to the 2008 financial crisis.
A large part of this can be chalked up to the fact that neoliberals have long been able to count on the support, or at least the tolerance, of centrist liberals and traditionalist neoconservatives in many powerful Western countries. This was vital as neoliberal proposals began to have a real and global impact in the late 1970s, before becoming hegemonic as the century drew to a close. It was crucial to the neoliberal agenda that the reforms and ideological shift enacted by Thatcher, Reagan, Mulroney, and the collapse of the Soviet Union not be rolled back through subsequent democratic efforts. Centrists and neoconservatives happily obliged. As Slavoj Zizek has endlessly pointed out, third way style compromise was actually far more consequential in solidifying the hold of neoliberalism than the efforts of Margaret Thatcher and her ilk. It indicated that the ideological possibility of change now seemed permanently foreclosed. Centrist liberals, including Tony Blair, Angela Merkel, Jean Chretien, and of course Bill Clinton, may have pushed against some aspects of neoliberalization. But there was no grand retrenchment of the welfare state, no return to Johnson or Trudeauesque rhetoric about the “great” or “just” society. Conservatives such as George W Bush, Stephen Harper, David Cameron, and Atal Vajpayee were even more acquiescent. They occasionally flirted with traditionalist language, and were of course far more vocal in pushing for the advancement of ethno-cultural projects. But by and large globalization carried on unabated, liberalization of culture advanced with increasing rapidity, and nationalist rhetoric fell by the wayside next to waves of immigration. Both centrists and neoconservatives accepted neoliberal governance as an accomplished fact which even wealthy states could do little to change. Thatcher’s dictum that “there is no alternative” seemed to become conventional wisdom.
Yet in the post Recessionary climate, this alliance began to fracture at its seams. And the heaviest blows came not from the political left, as many expected. Progressives did win some ground in putting inequality back on the political map, and various Occupy Movements gained considerable traction. But it was the political right that began to drift away from neoliberalism and towards new kinds of nationalism, identity politics, and denunciations of internationalism and globalization. This might have been a transient problem, but the power of this drift was suddenly and dramatically demonstrated in 2016 when Britain withdrew from the European Union, stunning its neoliberal Prime Minister David Cameron and leading to the complete shakeup of his Conservative party. This was followed by the rise of post-modern conservatives such as Donald Trump, who promised to implement immense protectionist measures cutting the world’s largest economy off from global markets. This would be a precursor to the abandonment or renegotiation of agreements-from NAFTA to the TTP, that had bordered on holy writ for many neoliberals. This was consistent with the efforts of other far right post-modern conservatives across Europe. While figures like Viktor Orban occasionally introduced fiscally conservative measures consistent with neoliberal ideology, such as the institution of a flat tax, other policies such as withdrawing from the European Banking system, proposing an “internet tax,” immigration restrictions, and growing Euroscepticism, indicated that things were moving in the wrong direction. Even the international institutions designed to insulate neoliberal markets from political pressures, including the WTO and the IMF, began moderating their tune in response to populist criticism and pressure.
I suspect it was these developments, more than any other, which led proponents of neoliberalism to increasingly embrace the term. The goal of instituting a background of institutions and laws which would transcend politics and insulate the global capitalist system from interference, the dream of Hayek and others, was increasingly faltering. The ambition was always in a sense paradoxical: it was a conscious political project to remove the capitalist economy from the sphere of politics. Many neoliberals were aware of how problematic this would be, and so sought to develop a set of global institutions which would insulate markets from democratic interference while largely operating behind the scenes so as not to attract civic attention. In the aftermath of catastrophes such as the 2008 Recession and its subsequent bailouts, and the imposition of financial austerity upon Greece in 2015, the secret was out. The capacity of neoliberal institutions and laws to overrule the will of the people became radically transparent. As a result, people became increasingly impatient with their governments, who seemed beholden to neoliberal technocrats and elites who apparently had the power to dictate policy for allegedly sovereign nation states.
This pushback forced neoliberals to come out the closet to do political battle with a growing number of increasingly determined ideological opponents. Most worryingly, this included opponents on the nationalist political right, even from parties such as the Republicans who had long been neoliberalism’s staunchest advocates. Interestingly, the need to counter the rise of right wing nationalism has led to some Faustian bargains and makeovers with progressives who once seemed intractable enemies of the neoliberal system, but who now face the even more frightening specter of post-modern conservative nationalism taking over. This includes Jeremy Corbyn, who has emerged as a soft proponent of the European common market, and Emmanuel Macron, whose political odyssey led from the Socialist party to becoming a stalwart defender of neoliberal institutions and policies.
So everyone now seems to admit that neoliberalism is a distinct ideology, right down to neoliberals who once rejected the term emphatically. Leftists continue to view neoliberalism with disdain, though many are increasingly willing to compromise with neoliberals in order to strategically block the emergence of post-modern conservative nationalists. Those same far right nationalists have developed their own terminology to describe neoliberals, often deploying rhetoric far harsher than critics on the left. Neoliberals are condemned as elites, rootless cosmopolitans, disloyal, out of touch and so on. Sadly, much of this vitriol has proven appealing to large swathes of the population who see post-modern conservative nationalism as a way to fight against the undemocratic and anti-egalitarian logic characteristic of the neoliberal ideology. As Slavoj Zizek has observed, we need to recognize that these desires have a great deal of legitimacy, while at the same time recognizing that right wing nationalism offers false and vulgar solutions to the problems they diagnose. One of the tasks of progressive thought is to conceive of better solutions.