What does the word “Neoliberal” mean?

May 28th, 2015 | By | Category: Articles

This is a rough draft for a presentation to be given at the start of a Panel Discussion at the Left Forum and hosted by the Marxist-Humanist Initiative. The panel will be on Sunday at 12:00 noon (Session 6) in Rm. 1.71 and is entitled Anti-Neoliberalism vs. Anti-Capitalism and will also feature Kostas Demetriou, Alex Papadopoulos, Andrew Kliman, and Anne Jaclard.
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It's hard to pin down what neoliberalism is precisely or what the word “neoliberal” means. It's like any other swear word in that the meaning of the word changes depending on the intent of the speaker and the context in which the word is used. Still, the most common definition for the word “neoliberal” when used as an adjective would be something like “having the intent to help rich people make more money by screwing the poor.” The agenda of neoliberalism would be to make the rich richer and also, and this is significant, to make the poor poorer. Neoliberalism isn't the same as greed or an agenda to accumulate as much as one can, because neoliberalism is also characterized as an attack on the working class. Neoliberalism is accumulation through the impoverishment of others. Get rich and, along the way, make sure that the poor are so poor that they can't do anything about it. That's what people are talking about when they use the word “neoliberalism" on public radio or in communication departments. As a colloquial definition, it's perfectly adequate, but there is a more refined meaning for the word.
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For instance, at the Platypus Affiliated Society discussion on neoliberalism and the Left held in April of this year professor Walter Benn Michaels described how neoliberalism might accept or even champion gay marriage or anti-racist legislation and attitudes because these things don't impede its overall aim, and can even help it reach its goal of accumulation. However, labor unions were a problem for neoliberals. He said:

Labor unions, unlike marital unions, are problem for capital, or at least they were.The graphs below show that downward-trending union density in the private sector over the last century mirrors the upward-trending percentage of income going to the top 10% of the population. Workers’ productivity has risen even though workers’ wages have declined or remained stagnant. Corporate profits have risen as—and partly because of the fact that—workers’ wages have declined.

At this point you might be wondering what I'm doing because Michaels doesn't use the word “neoliberal” here, but the word “capital.” However, he does use the word “neoliberal” in the next paragraph. He says, “Unions are the way in which workers can organize themselves to fight against the competitive market in labor that neoliberalism seeks to universalize.” Now, for a long time, really up until Thatcher I guess, it wasn't neoliberalism that wanted to universalize a competitive labor market, but Capitalism. Googling about this I find that Karl Marx and Engles wrote about the competitive labor market back in 1847, back before Thatcher and Reagan, in a pamphlet entitled “Wage Labour and Capital.” They wrote about how it is that “if capital grows rapidly, competition among the workers grows with even greater rapidity.”
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What Michaels did was use the word neoliberalism in its technical sense and used technically “neoliberalism” is another word for capitalism. It's the word for capitalism that's used from a certain kind of socialist stance. That is, when the word “neoliberalism” is used instead of the word “capitalism” certain assumptions about “capitalism” are made. In Michaels' talk we can see that “neoliberalism” is used as he reduces the concept of capitalism to the level of a political project. If you compare Michaels' talk to Marx's pamphlet, for instance, you'll find that while Marx discusses the necessary results of the capitalist system, results that obtain regardless of the intentions of the various players, Michaels only discusses political projects and attitudes. That is, Michaels posits that the conscious decisions of human beings direct, for instance, the rate of profit. Marx would turn that around. For Marx it would be the rate of profit that sets up the options for the decisions conscious human beings make.
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“Neoliberalism” as a term presupposes that Capitalism can be managed, that it is in fact just how we manage a rather opaque realm of work, distribution, leisure, and so on. It's a term that, when deployed, obscures deeper reflection on that arena. You say the word “neoliberalism” instead of “capitalism” because saying capitalism requires a lot more work and is more depressing. If you say “capitalism” you have to figure out and explain what the economy really is, just how it works. If you're a leftist or socialist that means tackling difficult books, there are at least four volumes to consider. It also means accepting a revolutionary political project, a project that comes with no guarantee of success, no clear road map, and no immediate social reward.

There is more to say about neoliberalism. It would be worth investigating how the term has been picked up by cultural critics, but I'll leave it there.

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One Comment to “What does the word “Neoliberal” mean?”

  1. I think (very tentatively) that you’re missing this: Neoliberalism is a subset of capitalism, a manifestation of capitalism that replaced liberalism. It could’ve as easily been called Postliberalism because it seems very Postmodern to me in the way it jumbles the past to create a new present that initially only seems like a shinier present. It may be that when people use the word, they’re focusing on this aspect of capitalism rather than capitalism per se. But since we get sloppy in speech, it may be that we also use it interchangeably. But even when we do, that doesn’t deny its specific meaning.

    I recommend David Harvey’s book.

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