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.

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Brandon Richard is a member of NC Piedmont DSA.

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