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Once more into the (neoliberal) breach

by Matthew Ryan on January 12, 2016

What do we mean when we call an idea or policy ‘neoliberal’? Does the term signify anything other than trends which are simply embedded in the process of capitalist development? Is it at all useful? That’s right – yet another article trying to figure out exactly what this ‘neoliberalism’ thing is all about. ‘Why bother?’ one might ask. After all, this debate has been ongoing for at least twenty years; each intervention aiming to clarify meaning seems only to add to the cacophony.

As messy as it might be, I believe this is an important discussion to have – and to keep having – as it speaks to some of the most pressing theoretical and practical challenges of our modern age: theoretically, it pushes us to justify the fundamental task of periodising capitalism, as well as challenging us to really think through the implications of ‘interdisciplinarity’; practically, it highlights ongoing strategic disagreement on the ‘left’, both in terms of how best to attack our capitalistic foes, while also speaking to the choice between reformation or revolution.

One of the many common criticisms of the term is that ‘no-one self-identifies as neoliberal’ – if those who are labelled ‘neoliberal’ reject the term, of what strategic use could the label be? Well firstly, that claim is not entirely true. Milton Friedman, the ‘ideal-typical’ neoliberal, briefly recognised the concept in a 1951 article, ‘Neoliberalism and its Prospects’.  Generally speaking, however, it is true that the concept is rarely used for self-description. Indeed, ‘neoliberals’ line up to denounce the concept: from Austrian economists, to Blairites, to Australia’s own Institute of Public Affairs. The confusion around the meaning of ‘neoliberalism’ is used by these groups to declare that ‘neoliberalism’ is merely a ‘secret handshake’ used among those who harbour a general dislike of markets, and is indicative of pervasive intellectual laziness.

It is interesting to note that this need for specificity, so often used to denounce neoliberalism, can be seen to be resultant from the ‘scientistic’ epistemology which characterises neoliberalism. Foucauldian analyses of neoliberalism often note the epistemological imperialism of neoclassical economics (and positivism more generally), as part of neoliberal ‘governmentality’. That is, dismissing the term on the grounds of ‘non-specificity’ actually shows the pervasiveness of neoliberal epistemologies. This defence of ‘neoliberalism’ was made recently by Will Davies, who went on to point out the ridiculousness of purging all imprecise concepts from the humanities and social sciences. While perhaps not ‘pithy’ enough for this online-blog format, it is worth quoting Davies at length:

Since Jeremy Bentham, the English tradition of positivism has rested on the notion that only acutely defined terms are politically valid – a premise that can quickly flip into the idea that if I don’t know exactly what you mean, then you are talking nonsense. Benthamite utilitarianism has been slowly subsumed by welfare economics since the end of the 19th century, to the point where policy wonks can argue that esoteric terms such as ‘price elasticity’ or ‘market failure’ mean something, but ‘neoliberalism’ doesn’t. This implies that terminology is something to be overseen by HM Treasury (for example in its Green Book), which would be a surprising position for any devotee of George Orwell to find him or herself in.

And so the criticism that ‘neoliberalism is too vague’ is rejected. But does that mean we are to throw the flood gates wide open, and embrace complete, anarchic plurality of meaning? (Perhaps these conceptions will be able to compete via research funding, with a pseudo-market finding the ‘correct’ definition?) No, some limits must be drawn.

In particular – as I have argued in the latest issue of the Journal of Australian Political Economy – conceptions of neoliberalism which see ‘free’ markets and ‘small’ states as characteristic of neoliberal practice must be refocused. While these ‘ideals’ are certainly evident in rhetoric and ideology, too many ostensibly progressive actors and intellectuals – including Kevin Rudd, Waleed Aly, and even Benjamin Kunkel – assume a direct link between ideas, and the policies enacted under those ideas. This assertion follows from the work of several historical materialists, such as Neil Brenner, Nik Theodore, Jamie Peck, Adam Tickell, and most recently (and most powerfully), Damien Cahill. These scholars have all forwarded ‘actually existing neoliberalism’ as a more-useful conception of the term, particularly in contrast with the widespread ‘free-market neoliberalism’ of authors such as Rudd.

‘Actually existing neoliberalism’ emphasises the stark disjuncture between neoliberal ideas and practices; rather than being characterised by receding state involvement in the economy, the neoliberal state is actually extensively involved in creating and extending markets. While ‘actually existing neoliberalism’ is marked by policies – such as deregulation, privatisation, and/or marketisation – which seem to conform to classic neoliberal modalities, in fact it extends or reconfigures the role of the state in facilitating new market arrangements which have particular class-distributional effects.

This is where we arrive at the problematic of periodising capitalism. Those otherwise-friendly scholars who criticise the explanatory power of neoliberalism from within critical thought – often of a Marxist bent – often do so by arguing that ‘everything that happens under neoliberalism happens under capitalism’. I agree. But does that mean that no significant changes have occurred in the global (or local) political economy? Of course not. Even if all ‘neoliberalism’ means is ‘the particular (shifting) crystalisation of class structures, social movements, and relative power of capital since the decline of Keynesianism’ – though I think it means more than that – it is still a worthwhile term to have in our vocabulary. These voices which push us to constantly (re)consider ‘what is ‘neo’ in neoliberalism?’ challenge us to constantly justify our periodisation, which is important. But this should not lead to abandoning the term.

While this short piece has in no way concluded the debate around neoliberalism, I hope that it has at least presented something of a case for the relevance and necessity of that debate. So where to now? If neoliberalism is indeed a lens which highlights significant trends and tendencies within the current context, what exactly is that lens showing us? Some of the most interesting research within the field of neoliberalism studies at the moment is considering the relationship between neoliberalism, the state, and democracy – recent experiences of austerity being constitutionalised and embedded in supra-national institutional frameworks illustrate this. In this space, ‘authoritarian neoliberalism’ is emerging as a powerful framework. But whether one is considering the anti-democratic structure of the European Union, or the gendered impact of neoliberal financialisation, one thing is clear: the study of neoliberalism in these areas – as opposed to ‘free-market caricatures – is anything but ‘intellectual laziness’.

Matthew Ryan
Matthew Ryan holds postgraduate degrees in Political Economy, and in Economic and Social History, from the University of Sydney and the University of Cambridge respectively. His research has focused on neoliberalism and its manifestations in Australian fiscal policy, as well as contributed to debates around ‘authoritarian neoliberalism’. Most recently Matthew’s research has considered the origins of coal mining in colonial Australia, looking to inform contemporary debates regarding the historical roots of global ecological crises, and probe alternative futures.
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  • George
    January 12, 2016 at 9:09 pm

    bloody good bit of scritch here gaffer, I might have to go invest in one of them books with words all in them though

  • January 13, 2016 at 7:04 am

    Thanks Matthew, have to read your article now!

    On one front, the “no one calls themselves neoliberal” / “neoliberalism is too vague” critique is also about the proliferation of analytical conceptions of neoliberalism. If we have a growing number of different conceptual definitions – and I would argue there are at least six broad conceptions – then can they all be right? Especially when many are simply incompatible, analytically speaking. It seems that someone needs to do a lot of analytical work to create a meta-concept of neoliberalism, or we all end up treading off down our own paths.

    • Matthew Ryan
      January 13, 2016 at 10:38 am

      Thanks for the feedback Kean.

      In short, I think you’re right – work must continue to be done, challenging those various conceptions, interrogating which actually hold. The main thing I was out to say in this short piece was simply that multiplicity of meaning does not make the debate redundant, as so many on both the left and right have argued; that it is worthwhile continuing to drill down. As you’ll see in my article, I’ve engaged with three conceptions, argued one is wrongheaded, that a second is limited but useful. and that a third – ‘actually existing’ neoliberalism – is the most useful frame. The task then is surely to continue and extend such comparative work.

      Looking forward to your Handbook on the subject!

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