Unease with Neoliberalism

I often come across academic publications that contain the word “neoliberal”. It makes me uneasy because I have some problems with the way that this term is generally used.

There was a trend in the 1980s among conservatives to move away from centralised control (which had been favoured during WW2) and the term neoliberalism was coined to describe this trend. For example, a book by Graham and Clarke (1986) titled The New Enlightenment: the rebirth of liberalism which celebrates the “death of socialism” and Austrian economics particularly Hayek, is typical of that way of thinking at that time.

However, the term is used nowadays much more broadly than it was in its original, historically specific, circumstances. For example, if you were to describe a particular policy now as ‘neoliberal’, it would not, to my mind, have any meaning. My concern is that it is not possible to say when something (anything) is neoliberal and when it is not and, therefore, neoliberalism presents itself as a precise technical term when it really isn’t one.

It seems to me that it has become a term of abuse used, in Grid-Group terms (Thompson 2008), in egalitarian thinking to describe individualist thinking. This means that it has become a term that is used, usually unconsciously, as a means of censure or coercion. That is, if a policy, idea or activity is labelled neoliberal then anyone who has anything to say in its favour must be a selfish capitalist with dubious morals. This kind of Trojan horse value, which is based on an unexamined assumption, is not good for academic enquiry or debate.

Barnett (2005) has identified the problem and commented on how lack of questioning of the assumptions behind the usual use of the term is obstructing potentially fruitful enquiry:

Theories of neoliberalism provide a consoling image of how the world works, and in their simplistic reiteration of the idea that liberalism privileges the market and individual self-interest, they provide little assistance in thinking about how best to balance equally compelling imperatives to respect pluralistic difference and enable effective collective action.

It seems to me that the root of the problem of the current theorisation of neoliberalism is that most scholars in the field are working with a critical realist paradigm which assumes that there are individuals who precede the institutions of which they are members. In this way some individuals become victims of “the system” while others manoeuvre themselves into positions of power and force everyone else to dance to their tune. As Barnett points out, this is rather a crude model when it comes to explaining present day social relationships and Foucault’s model of generative power seems to have more to offer.

I agree with Latour (2005) that much academic enquiry is hampered by what he calls ‘the sociological fallacy’; that is, the habit that sociologists have of sticking labels on things and then proceeding in their enquiries as though the label has explained something, when in fact it is nothing more than an empty term. In these cases it would have been more fruitful to dig deeper under the label to find out what is really happening. The terms class, culture, society, capitalism and neoliberalism are all good examples of this phenomenon. By employing Foucault’s model of power for deeper analysis more progress might be made.

References

Barnett, C. (2005). The Consolations of Neoliberalism, Geoforum, 36(1), pp.7-12.
Graham, D. and Clarke, P. (1986). The New Enlightenment: the rebirth of liberalism, London: Macmillan.
Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the Social: an introduction to actor-network theory, Oxford: OUP.
Thompson, M. (2008). Organising and Disorganising, Axminster: Triarchy Press.

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