Mirowski argues that neoliberalism is best seen not as an ideology that aims at “free markets” – that is, at getting government out of the regulatory game, but rather as a system in which the government sets up markets that favor capital over labor. By contrast, Konczal argues that neoliberalism is better seen as class warfare, tout court.
I don’t find the term neoliberalism useful, especially not the way that it is used in works such as David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism. But I am convinced that it reflects something. To know what that is, we need a definition of neoliberalism, not the conceptual mess that currently exists. I have settled on the following:
Neoliberalism is an ideology that rests on the assumption that individualized, arms-length market exchange can serve as a metaphor for all forms of human interaction.
I find this definition clarifying for several reasons. First off, it tells us what class of things to which neoliberalism belongs: it is an ideology, not a policy or an outcome. As a consequence, neoliberalism is applies to people, not countries or systems (or universities or academic literatures; I’m looking at you, political economy).
Second, it tells us what neoliberalism is not. Neoliberalism is not the same as capitalism, or privatization, or even the Washington consensus. Additionally, contra both Konczal and Mirowski, it is not class warfare, nor an attempt to get government out of the way of free markets. Those are things that might follow from acting on behalf of a neoliberal ideology, but they are not themselves neoliberalism.
Third, and following from above, it allows neoliberalism to be a cause. Collections of people who subscribe to neoliberal ideas may adopt what we call neoliberal policies, but it is the ideology that is neoliberal rather than the policies that follow. Neoliberalism can be identified separately from what might follow from it.
Fourth, it also allows neoliberalism not to be a cause. For example, one may favor the privatization of state-owned enterprises, or regulatory forbearance, or abolishing anti-competitive policies, all without subscribing to neoliberalism. Some of the sloppiness in the usage of neoliberalism comes down to the tendency to consider neoliberalism as an uber-cause of anything that an author associates with it. I want to live in a world in which our terminology does not allow us to attribute everything that we find distasteful to an abstraction.
Fifth, because neoliberalism is an ideology, it is subject to the same well-studied phenomena that apply to any ideology; here, I am thinking especially of contestation, exploitation, and false consciousness. I am part of this right now by contesting the use of neoliberalism by people who have political objectives. This is also where I part with many “critics of critics of neoliberalism,” for my definition certainly makes clear that neoliberalism can be used to maintain hegemony. The running example in my mind is the ways that personal responsibility becomes a dominant narrative in felon rehabilitation, following Lerman and Weaver’s important new book on crime control and citizenship. And I can even go further: one may quite literally be a neoliberal without knowing it.
Sixth, it captures (to me at least) the essence of why neoliberalism is seen by many as troubling: it entails the extension of logic of market exchange outside of that domain, and it is reasonable to object to that. So education reform is neoliberal just so far as it conceptualizes the appropriate state of education as a market in which students and parents consume a product sold by educators who are the agents of education companies, not because it’s reform that some people don’t support. Neoliberalism also entails that the abstract notion of individualized, arms-length market exchange is valid even within the domain of markets, something to which many careful analysts of the structure and function of complex economic systems object as well.
Finally, this definition tells us what the “hard core” of neoliberalism is: an assumption. Take away the assumption that arms-length exchange can serve as a metaphor for other human interactions, and neoliberalism no longer coheres as an ideology.
So there we have it: a definition of neoliberalism that is clear, specific, and distinct from related concepts. What did I miss?