What Was the "Neoliberal?" Was It Anything?
the weird recent history of a contested term nobody wants
This is not any kind of formal academic gloss on one of the most contested and considered terms in contemporary political history, neoliberal. I’m not qualified to write one of those. This is an attempt to convey what a lot of people mean when they use the term “neoliberal” in the context of 21st century progressive politics and what it meant in the recent past. This is a scribbling about my perception of how a contested term rose and fell and changed over time. I will leave the meaning of neoliberalism to others. But “neoliberalism” meant something in left-of-center political debates ten or fifteen years ago, and it was used like a comma, and now it means something different or less and I think about it a lot.
Traditionally neoliberalism had much more to do with conservatism than liberalism. It was Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher who brought us a neoliberal revolution in the 1970s and 80s, after all. But you can read history books about that. In 2021 “neoliberal” as a pejorative tends to mean those who support traditionally progressive ends through the traditionally libertarian means of minimal intervention into the economy. Those ends include recognizably liberal or progressive ones such as shared prosperity and minimal standards of material security and comfort for all people as actualized in (for example) universal health coverage. Those means include recognizably libertarian or classically liberal ones such as free trade in the form of the elimination of tariff walls and other impediments to trade across borders, deep resistance to regulation, and a general embrace of a hands-off approach to economics that sees creative destruction as a necessary aspect of a healthy capitalist economy.
Neoliberalism is fundamentally an economic orientation and the term itself typically has little to say about an adherent's views on social or foreign policy. Almost universally, those called neoliberals are supportive of typically liberal views on social issues, such as gay marriage, but there is no existential reason for this orientation other than the fact that people with any socially conservative views simply are regarded as conservatives in our political culture. The reason arises in part from neoliberalism's former place as a reformist current within conventional American liberalism; neoliberalism was/is the dominant orthodoxy among American liberals writ large and controlled the Democratic party almost without challenge from the first Clinton administration to the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign. Whether it still does is a question for another time.