WTF Is Neoliberalism?


By Brandon Richard

Neoliberalism is inescapable. Yet as frequently as the term is used, there’s a remarkable amount of disagreement about its usefulness – and sometimes its very meaning. Some argue that the word should be abandoned as jargon, or a meaningless term of abuse. Others protest that it is politically confusing, since it describes Reaganomics and Thatcherism just as easily as Clintonism and Blairism. Nevertheless, the term is too important and too widely used to be jettisoned. So let’s nail it down: What actually is neoliberalism?

Perhaps the shortest and most useful definition of neoliberalism emphasizes its four D’s. As DSA member Joseph Schwartz has expressed it,  "Neoliberalism is a form of capitalism in which the state deregulates the economy, destroys unions, decreases taxes on the rich and corporations, and defunds public goods, while repressing and policing the poor, particularly people of color."

Neoliberalism isn’t simply a bare, unregulated version of capitalism—it goes much further, deforming politics, law, and society so that they actively favor big business interests and the wealthy. Neoliberalism removes the protections of labor law, dramatically amplifying the power of capital. It guts the welfare state, eliminating social services, turning police power and imprisonment into the main instruments of social policy. It promulgates free trade economic policies that empower multi-national corporations to seek cheap labor and resources with minimal resistance. It does all of this while wielding military force aggressively to repress opposition abroad as well as at home.

The economic ideals that underpin neoliberalism emerged as a reaction against Depression-era and post-WWII Keynesian economic planning. Bankrolled by anti-union business interests, figures like Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Milton Friedman formed the Mont Pelerin Society and spread their core ideas among economists, academics, and policy-makers. Neoliberal acolytes populated institutions like the Chicago School of Economics, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, where what would become known as the “Washington Consensus” took root. Neoliberal governance came into its own in Pinochet’s Chile after 1974, in New York City after the 1975 default crisis, and practically everywhere else from the 1980s on.

The neoliberalism of the 1980s is primarily remembered as the creation of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and the political right. Yet Democrats quickly embraced not only the policies of the right, through the ascendence of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) in the mid 1980s, but even the word “neoliberalism” itself, with Charles Peters’s “A Neoliberal’s Manifesto,” printed in The Washington Monthly in 1983. In the years that followed, a business-friendly, free-trade, law-and-order consensus came to dominate both right and center-left. Bill Clinton’s repressive welfare reform and crime bills, George W. Bush’s attempts to turn Iraq and New Orleans into case studies in privatization, and Barack Obama’s fetish for “market-friendly” reforms represent just a few of the low points of the neoliberal era.

Donald Trump’s administration forms an odd coda to three decades of neoliberal rule. Trump won election by binding together appeals to racial animus and islamophobia with denunciations of neoliberal free-trade policies such as TPP and NAFTA. Amidst the shock of his election, critics like Cornel West described Trump’s victory as marking the end of the neoliberal era with “a neofascist bang.”

But neoliberalism is far from over. The Trump administration has, if anything, sharpened the repressive edges of the prevailing system, doubling down on the anti-labor, deregulationist, carceral agenda that typifies neoliberalism at its worst. Meanwhile, the Democratic establishment leadership has remained befogged by a neoliberal hangover. Its power brokers have eschewed a more populist reinvention in favor of playing defense, sprucing up the venerable centrist nostrums of the Obama years with a gloss of Russophobia, and little more.

Yet outside of the mainstream Democratic leadership, an upsurge of resistance against neoliberalism has mounted. The Latin American left led the way in the 1990s, followed by anti-globalization protests in the US and elsewhere. A mass movement against neoliberalism exploded in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, through Occupy in the US, the Indignados in Spain, and the Corbyn phenomenon in the UK, cresting in the form of the Sanders campaign in 2016. In early 2017, Sanders supporters nearly succeeded in electing the relatively left-leaning Keith Ellison DNC chair, and it is all but assured that insurgent candidates will seek to appeal to this constituency in 2018 and beyond.

To beat back the right, and to empower the unapologetic left, it’s crucial that organizers remain clear-eyed about the policies that are at fault. The root problem is and remains capitalism, but the system by which capital has preserved itself, its profits, and its power since the 1970s is neoliberalism. Let’s fight it by calling it by its name.

For further reading:

Brandon Richard is a member of NC Piedmont DSA.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.


Introduction to Socialist Feminism Call

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May 02, 2017
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Practice talking about socialism in plain language. Create your own short rap. Prepare for those conversations about socialism that happen when you table in public.

Join us for our latest organizing training for democratic socialist activists: DSA’s (Virtual) Little Red Schoolhouse.

This training is at 9:00pm Eastern, 8:00pm Central, 7:00pm Mountain, 6:00pm Pacific, 5:00pm Alaska, and 3:00pm Hawaii Time. Please RSVP.


Steve Max, DSA Vice Chair and one of the founders of the legendary community organizing school, The Midwest Academy

In Talking About Socialism you will learn to:

  • Have a quick response ready to go next time someone asks you about democratic socialism.
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  • Use your personal experience and story to explain democratic socialism.
  • Think through the most important ideas you want to convey about democratic socialism.
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Training Details

  • This workshop is for those who have already had an introduction to democratic socialism, whether from DSA's webinar or from other sources.
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Film Discussion: The Free State of Jones

June 11, 2017
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Join Victoria Bynum, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History, Texas State University, San Marcos, to discuss The Free State of Jones. STX Entertainment bought the film rights to Bynum's book of the same title. She also served as a consultant and appears in a cameo scene. What was the Free State of Jones? During the Civil War, an armed band of deserters led by Newt Knight, a non-slaveholding white farmer, took to the swamps of southeastern Mississippi and battled against the Confederacy in an uprising popularly known as “The Free State of Jones.” Joining Newt in this rebellion was Rachel, a slave. From their relationship, there developed a controversial mixed-race community that endured long after the Civil War had ended. View the film here for $6 before the discussion. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.