Drew Milne: The Jargon of Neoliberalism

Image Credit: Anton Lefterov – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

How useful is the term ‘neoliberalism’? A small number of economists think of themselves as neoliberals. But most of the politicians routinely described as neoliberal scarcely understand the arguments. Beyond journalistic fluff, neoliberalism has very little traction in the ideology of common sense arguments. It appears to most people more like a woolly piece of leftist jargon. Worse still, it makes it sound like there might be something a bit liberal going on amid the messiness of capitalism. Jargon and theoretical short-hand can be helpful, but this jargon gets in the way and needs to be replaced.

This jargon has an intellectual history. David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005) offers one influential account of neoliberalism as a political project. The conventional view understands neoliberalism as ‘the’ economic doctrine shaping western capitalism. The 1980s buzzword was ‘monetarism’, used loosely to describe the control of the money supply as a tool in class struggle. Out of monetarism, the usual cluster of neoliberal policies includes: privatisation of everything; deregulation of any thing that gets in the way of capitalist profits; reduction in government spending; and the imposition of market forces on pretty much everything. Neoliberalism is also usually taken to involve free trade and economic globalization. In short, neoliberalism has been the sharp edge of anti-social capitalism since the Thatcher-Reagan years. The problem is that actually-existing neoliberalism has never been that neoliberal.

There have been massive shifts of power and assets into the hands of private capital, but the politics of the neoliberal project also involve strong military and police state formations to secure capitalist power. Neoliberalism represents only one rather idealised tendency within the contradictions of contemporary capitalism. Indeed, many capitalists have only ever paid lip service to neoliberalism, while pursuing profits any way they can.

In the political moment of Brexit and Trump the jargon of neoliberalism appears particularly empty. Consider how little clarification is offered by ‘neoliberal’ in the following question. Is leaving the European Union a kick in the teeth for a major neoliberal institution, or a neoliberal opportunity for UK capital once ‘freed’ from the shackles of European regulation? The either/or is false here. The answer is neither, because, just for starters, it is simplistic and a contradiction in terms to describe the EU as a neoliberal ‘institution’, while Brexit negotiations make clear that free trade always involves some kind of regulation. Try another question: Does Trump’s election mark the end of electoral support for neoliberal politicians or a continuation of neoliberal politics under the flag of xenophobic nationalism? Again the answer is neither: among other reasons, there isn’t much evidence that politicians were ever supported for their neoliberalism, and there isn’t yet any sign that Trump will challenge the dominance of finance capitalism. In both questions, the rhetoric of neoliberalism gets in the way of more concrete political questions.

The concept of neoliberalism isn’t what it is cracked up to be. It misdirects its critics into believing that there is something ideologically coherent that could be called neoliberalism. This ascribes an illusory coherence to the contradictory social relations and forces of contemporary capitalism. Arguments within the proponents of neoliberalism may be of interest to intellectual historians, but such arguments have largely served as distracting window-dressing.

Meanwhile, finance capitalism has been getting on winning its class struggles under a variety of pseudonyms. The supposed primacy of market forces disguises capitalist entrenchment in and around the privatised state. The supposed deregulated freedoms of neoliberalism disguise a pervasive shift towards regulated supremacy for private capital. And so on.

So when commentators announce that Brexit or Trump marks the end of neoliberalism, we should beg to differ. It is important to say that actually-existing neoliberalism was never that neoliberal. We are faced by deeper continuities within the continuing contradictions of capitalism.

There is, in reality, no central or organised agency to neoliberalism. It works more as a concept that gets in the way of understanding how contemporary capitalism works. Moreover, the jargon of neoliberalism has the ideological advantage of making critics of neoliberalism look academic and out of touch with capitalist reality. Journalists like talking about neoliberalism because it is a quick way of making a discussion of what’s going on sound more high brow, while evading the need to tackle what capitalism is up to. Neoliberalism has even been described as making profits out of the financial crisis of 2008-9 that it brought upon itself, as if neoliberalism were ‘bulletproof’.

Criticism of neoliberalism is merely jargon to the extent that the term conflates and abstracts the forces and relations of capitalism, forces and relations that can be more accurately described and fought by other terms and means. For most purposes, neoliberalism is used morally as political short-hand to mean something like the anti-social forms of capitalism that have been powerful since Thatcher and Reagan. It might be easier to understand what is going on if you replace the term ‘neoliberalism’ with ‘anti-social capitalism’ or just ‘capitalism’.

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