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Weekend read – Neoliberal angst?

Summary:
From Peter Radford I wonder why it is that neoliberals so reject the label we have given them.  Is it because they’e embarrassed?  I don’t think so.  They all seem very proud of their attachment to the old order.  Every so often one of them will surface and proclaim bitterly that they are misunderstood and they they don’t deserve the opprobrium piled on them by those nasty “leftists” who want to sully the pristine reputations of people like Mises and Hayek.  Poor dears.  Are we to feel sympathy for a group of thinkers who, collectively, opened the door to regression and decline?  All in the name of some misty eyed nostalgia for ideas that had been overwhelmed by history in the early part of the twentieth century? I recently came across this problem at a much narrower and personal

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from Peter Radford

I wonder why it is that neoliberals so reject the label we have given them.  Is it because they’e embarrassed?  I don’t think so.  They all seem very proud of their attachment to the old order.  Every so often one of them will surface and proclaim bitterly that they are misunderstood and they they don’t deserve the opprobrium piled on them by those nasty “leftists” who want to sully the pristine reputations of people like Mises and Hayek.  Poor dears.  Are we to feel sympathy for a group of thinkers who, collectively, opened the door to regression and decline?  All in the name of some misty eyed nostalgia for ideas that had been overwhelmed by history in the early part of the twentieth century?

I recently came across this problem at a much narrower and personal level.  A correspondent engaged in an short investigation into what neoliberalism is and determined that  “there is no single definition”.  It is thus a meaningless concept.

No it isn’t.

But why do proponents of neoliberal ideas have to take this tack?  Why is it necessary for them to go underground and conduct an anonymous campaign rather than defend neoliberalism from behind the recognizable ramparts its originators erected for themselves?  Why do they relish the notion of being underdogs engaged in a struggle against the oppression of government and tyranny?

Because neoliberalism failed.

The enterprise that Mises, Hayek, and the others pursued was the undoing of the progress made in the first decades of the twentieth century towards a more democratic and less rigid, inflexible, and inhuman conception of our political economy.  The real anathema to the neoliberals was the mitigation of the outcomes of laissez-faire capitalism by the injection of democratic ideas into the mix of social governance.  That mitigation was seen as an occlusion of “liberty”.  So something like the New Deal here in America was cast by neoliberal thinkers as the first ugly step on the road to serfdom.  That it appeared to be popular and that it worked as a policy set in the depths of depression were of no consequence.

Popularity was seen as the dead hand of ignorance.  How could ordinary voters, riven through as they are with narrow self-interest and lack of awareness, possibly be relied upon to see the benefits of economic liberty?  Especially economic liberty for the wealthy folk and large corporations whose generosity supported the academic work of the early neoliberals.  No.  Popularity was a bad thing.  Very bad.  As expressed in democracy it was particularly bad.  Being opposed to democratic governance became a feature of neoliberals.  They didn’t emphasize it too much because of the obvious ramifications — they were in a minority, especially during the Cold War when America was loudly proclaiming the virtues of democracy hither and yon.  Being anti-democratic in an era of burgeoning democracy is not, dare I say it, popular.  Which is, perhaps, why neoliberals cast themselves as defenders of freedom instead of democracy.  It keeps them within the framework of American ideology.

Policy is another matter.  Keynesian ideas seemed to work.  This was even more anathema to the neoliberals who proselytize the efficacy of pure market solutions to every problem known to mankind.  Interference in “the market”, whatever that is, is pure tyranny.  It is also a restriction on the liberties of the wealthy and large corporations whose generosity supported the academic work of the early neoliberals — sorry: I am repeating myself.  That slippery slope towards serfdom has many entrances.  Neoliberals are stalwart in their ability to identify and defend against the foul contamination of the free market by the evil forces of the state.  Especially, it turns out, in democracies.

Perhaps the sensitivity of the neoliberals to being so-called is that they want simply to be “liberals”.  Their problem being that the word liberal has many interpretations, as is, perhaps, normal for an idea that has been in current in politics for so long.  Meanings mutate as context changes.  Meanings mutate as different minds wrap themselves around an idea and bend it to a particular circumstance.

Liberalism has always been a contentious idea.

The literature is replete with both adoration and scorn of liberality.  It is a hydra like concept.  And its various strands are inconsistent.  Indeed, they often contradict themselves.  The issue is that each step along the road towards liberality limits the scope of the prior steps.  So the first gains in civic justice were limited by the expansion of political justice.  That’s where the neoliberal hatred of democracy begins.  How can someone be free and then have to give up some of that freedom within a commonweal?  And if that community is expressed through the construct of the state, how is that different from the oppression of authority under the ancient systems that civic justice was supposed to eliminate?

Even more recently the progress towards political justice has been, itself, limited by the search for social justice.  Liberalism has introduced into itself another limitation.  Equalities of various sorts appear to contradict what appeared to be earlier achievements.

There’s no need to explicate this progression here other than to note that those who gained from the first steps towards liberality have seen those gains reduced subsequently as others claimed their own right to progress.  Neoliberals are defending the early gainers against the later followers.  They cast themselves as in possession of an absolute definition of liberality when, in fact, they represent a moment in time.  Their beliefs are contingent on a social and political arrangement that subsequent liberal moments have rendered obsolete.  Their purity implies a negation of that subsequent history.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with representing the past.  There is virtue in all of us remembering the route we have taken.  There was an awful lot of hard work and blood spilled along the path we have taken into modernity.  The project is not yet complete, as the current battles over social justice demonstrate.  Liberalism is not a static idea.  It twists and bends as contexts change.  As it always has.

And some of its offshoots are left behind as failed experiments.  There is, within the urge towards liberality, always the complication that when it fails it leads us back to subjugation.  Regression is as likely as progression when we lose the sense of balance needed to build upon past progress rather than uproot it.  We are, I think, in such a moment.

Which is why confronting the neoliberals is essential.  Their definition and beliefs are not liberal in today’s context.  They fail to account for the rise of popular self-governance which they still see through the lens of the inter-war chaos that so distorted the views of both Mises and Hayek.  Inter-war Austria was hardly an archetype of modern democracy, and yet both of those early neoliberals used its chaos as demonstrative of the inevitability of regression in the face of popular self-governance.  They thus utterly failed to adapt to modern democracy.  Modern libertarians remain stuck in that same intellectual space.

On consequence of this inability to progress is the narrative that neoliberals have had to create to explain the origins of “the market”.  In their telling markets are natural phenomenon.  They can only be restricted and not enabled by the state.  History tells us otherwise.  But to side with history is to align with the state as a beneficial and not malign actor.

This is, perhaps, our biggest problem of engagement with neoliberals.  Not only are they defending an anachronistic view of society — one long swept away by the very forces they so adore, after all the division of labor is now so extensive that the consequent complexity has eliminated the possibility of simple interpretations of “the market”.  But they are reduced to defending, through denial of its existence, the power and status of this who benefitted from the early achievements of liberality.  They have to tolerate the concentration of political and economic power because to argue otherwise introduces the state as a distributive agent.

Did I mention the gratitude of their wealthy and large corporate supporters?

So we arrive at the apparent upset that defenders of neoliberalism have when called neoliberal.    They call the word an epithet hurled at them by, gasp, leftists who want to restrict freedom and do all sorts of harm to the liberties attributed to “free markets”.

But, there never were such free markets.  So there never were the associated liberties.

And that is their underlying problem.

Nostalgia is often a veil over an illusion.  Our memories fail us too often.  The trajectory of what Balibar has called, aptly, “equaliberty” is a difficult one.  Liberty in the neoliberal sense emerged first from the old order because it was something that a rising newly powerful group sought.  They carved it out from the old way of life to their own benefit.  The equality part that has been fought over since, and which the neoliberals attempt to disparage and reduce, is a natural consequence of that first step.  It implies a struggle for power between that first liberated power group and those who want to follow in its footsteps.

Neoliberalism is an entirely appropriate word to describe the effort to prevent that second step. Neoliberals are dedicated the the jealous guardianship of the power amassed by the first to achieve liberty.  No wonder they see power-sharing as tyranny.  Their entire intellectual edifice is a construct to preserve power within a constrained group.

That they reject such an interpretation of their efforts as being a leftist epithet simply means that they feel vulnerable.  Of course they do.  Their project has been exposed over the past few decades as a power grab by the wealthy and large corporations who generously support their academic work.   How hard is it for neoliberals too understand the term “follow the money”?

Isn’t following money something they applaud?  Are they damned by their own ideas?

Peter Radford
Peter Radford is publisher of The Radford Free Press, worked as an analyst for banks over fifteen years and has degrees from the London School of Economics and Harvard Business School.

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