Defining Neoliberalism

There is a nice post at Small Precautions (HT Saideman) noting a disagreement between Mike Konczal and Philip Mirowski about how to think about neoliberalism conceptually. Put plainly:

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?

Comments 7

  1. Matthew Adam Kocher December 4, 2013

    Not so sure about the “metaphor” part. Might it be better to define it as a normative stance advocating the re-organization of all forms of human interaction as individualized, arms-length, market exchange? This is a bit tricky, because often people assume that the deep logic of many forms of human interaction is already individualized, arms-length, market exchange, but this is distorted by the failure to correctly understand this fundamental nature. Usually, I think the positive and normative stances go hand-in-hand: once we recognize the deep nature of some area of human interaction, then we can weed out the distortions to make interactions function in a more frictionless, market-ish way. But, the main point I would make is that I don’t think neoliberals think of this as a metaphor. Just as orthodox Marxists really believe that world history is the history of the class struggle, neoliberals really believe that the logic of the market governs most or all forms of human interaction.

    • tompepinsky December 4, 2013

      Thanks Matt, and I think I might agree with you (it accords well with Ed Aspinall’s FB comment). The point is not that it’s a metaphor, it is a description of reality as it actually can be. I was using metaphor in the sense of being a template or model, against which actual practices can be seen as being at variance.

      So in that sense, my disagreement is slight but important: I want to define neoliberalism as an ideology that holds that the logic of the market *can* govern all forms of human interaction.

  2. Daniel Taghioff December 5, 2013

    This is very interesting, Tom. It reminds me on work as to why “Informationalism” the tendency to see social relations in terms of their informational content, as well as “capital-ism” that is to see all things in terms of being little reified chunks of capital are very much of a piece with Neo-liberalism.

    These are all ontologies of sorts, over-extended metaphors drawing from strands in the dominant practices of current market exchange arrangements, which extend an alienated mode of social interaction beyond it’s original scope, in a way that many may find highly undesirable, but would have trouble arguing with because of the naturalism embedded in the metaphors deployed.

    • tompepinsky December 5, 2013

      Thanks for reading, Daniel. I like your reference to “the naturalism embedded in the metaphors deployed,” it gets at exactly my point.

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