We often hear the term Neoliberal being thrown about, sometimes as description, more often demeaning, but hardly ever used as a term of self-identification.
Before we go further, it is important that we make a distinction here between ‘Leftists’ and ‘Liberals.’ By Liberals I’m speaking of the broad portion of the political spectrum from the Right-of-Centre to the Social Democrats on the Left, who value Equality and Liberty, and believe in the compatibility or even the necessity of the Free-Market and Laissez-faire economics to achieving these ends.
By the Left I’ll be referring to all those left of the Social Democrats, who primarily value equality, who believe that Laissez-faire economics are harmful to this end and that alternate economic systems are needed, these vary from increased tax-and-spend and greater central planning, to turning all firms into democratic workers’ collectives. In other words, Marxists, Socialists, and Left-wing Anarchists of all stripes.
One could say there is no such thing as Neoliberalism, in the sense that there are very few who identify with the term, and virtually no active political movements who will brand themselves with it either. In another sense however, it is very much real, granted how widespread and frequent the term has become over that past half-century.
Originally the term was coined in the pre-WW2 years to describe various schools of economists that emerged to propose a modified version of the Liberal model to oppose central state planning, which was ascendant at the time. The Classical Liberal was in decline, with people feeling that the Wall Street Crash had discredited it.
The new thinkers were attempting to offer a different solution to the economic problems of the day, and stave off the rising totalitarian tide, in both its left-wing communist and Right-wing fascist forms. Keynesianism and FDR’s New Deal are key examples here.
The second wave of change to gain the label of Neoliberal, and perhaps the most lasting, was almost an inverse of the former. In the later stages of the Cold War many of the Keynesian economies would find themselves being turned back to the original Classical Liberal system, Thatcher and Reagan are the most prominent examples.
Interestingly the term would actually filter into the English-speaking world from the Spanish-speaking world at this time, due largely to dictatorships such as Pinochet’s, which were both countering communist revolutions and implementing more Laissez-faire economic systems.
By the 90s the old Left was in decline, for all its problems it had been accompanied by increased prosperity in the West and the burgeoning middle-class was no longer keen on paying its old high tax rates. The Cold War had been won, and it almost seemed as though history itself was at an end. Enter Blair.
While the middle class wasn’t keen to pay higher taxes, it wasn’t keen to admit it either, hence the ‘Shy Tory Factor’ which brought John Major to a surprise victory in 1990 despite the polls. Blair would then try to give the best of both worlds to his voters. Taxes would not be raised, but there would be greater social spending. There would be greater effort towards Left-wing goals in the Social-Cultural space, but the Capitalist system would be left untouched, the Left-wing economic policies essentially scrapped.
The model would be effectively followed by Clinton, who would put out a strong Left-wing appearance, but in the economic realm would pursue Liberal policies that would’ve put old Ronald Reagan into an ecstasy. Blair’s own hypocrisy would be shown up when Clinton’s successor would have him pull the UK into the Iraq War. Yet the Left-Liberalism, where Social Leftism is promoted over economic Leftism, established by the Neoliberal wave would remain strong. It is only the last few years that we have begun to see it collapse.
So then, it must be asked, can we still say the term means anything, considering that each iteration of it has referred to something different and even contradictory? First it was a movement that promoted greater government expenditure for higher taxes, then one that lowers taxes and shrinks government for greater economic growth, then one that seeks to fuse Left and Liberal by pursuing Social Leftism while dropping economic Leftism.
One thing is common to all these mutations. The term indicates a change in the direction of the Liberals that disadvantages the Left.
Neoliberalism isn’t really real, in the sense no one identifies with the label. Instead it is a phenomenon in which social Liberals, or Libertines, accept free market policies and privatisation for prosperity. It angers the Leftists as it embodies the very issue which has been killing their movement for the past century, whereby potential revolutionary classes abandon the movement as soon as prosperity pokes its head around the corner.
In the 30s and 40s, an angered and mobilised Working class was taken from the Left by Keynesian policies, in some cases it was taken from the extreme Left by the more moderate Left. In the 70s what economic Leftism there was in the establishment was done away with by the Reagan-Thatcherite wave. In the 90s their economic policy was virtually binned altogether, while their Social views were pursued, although this was satisfactory for many on the Left for these past decades as their social goals became more important than their economic ones.
Now however, as Social Leftism is showing its cracks and its unsustainability, the ever-mercurial Leftist is falling back on the formerly binned economic form of his ideology and trying to scapegoat the Right’s Social-Cultural critique onto the Liberal economic system, and so once more we hear the term ‘Neoliberal’ being bandied about.
In many senses, the Leftists are incredulous that their positions are co-opted with such ease by the Capitalist system. It is proof in the praxis that there is no inevitable dialectical materialist path for history, but that history is dynamic and even chaotic, and therefore less predictable and more malleable than many ever imagined.