I once saw a strange movie about a woman who made up a fictitious son and convinced everyone in her village that he existed. She tells anecdotes about him all the time, so vividly that in the minds of those around her, he becomes ‘alive’. They totally forget that they have never actually seen this child.

Sounds unrealistic? Not really. As an undergraduate student, I experienced something similar, and on a much larger scale. At university there was constant talk of ‘the neoliberals’. ‘The neoliberals’ were not just economic liberals. They were people who wanted to replace all social relations by commercial ones, and subordinate each and every aspect of life to the profit motive. You never saw these people, of course. But they were the subject of countless conversations, workshops, panel discussions, demonstrations, books, articles, leaflets and graffiti. Clearly, you did not need to meet one of them in person to know that they must be everywhere.

Until today, I have never met a single person who holds views remotely similar to the ones that people in my area ascribed to ‘the neoliberals’. It is fascinating how much anger and indignation was directed against positions which nobody holds.

But what, then, is neoliberalism? Naomi Klein’s wide definition doesn’t leave us any wiser:


“the ideology is a shape-shifter, forever changing its name and switching identities. Friedman called himself a ‘liberal,’ but his U.S. followers […] tended to identify as ‘conservatives,’ ‘classical economists,’ ‘free marketers’ and, later, as believers in ‘Reaganomics’ or ‘laissez-faire.’ In most of the world, their orthodoxy is known as ‘neo-liberalism,’ but it is often called ‘free trade’ or simply ‘globalization’. “

Originally, the term ‘neoliberalism’ referred to a German school of economic thought, more commonly known as ‘ordoliberalism’. Neoliberals like Walter Eucken and Wilhelm Röpke differed from classical liberals in so far as they wanted to give the state wide remits in competition policy. Classical liberals would criticise neoliberals for an exaggerated faith in cartel authorities. They would appreciate the neoliberals’ sound critique of state interventionism, but would ask why they exempted activist competition policies from this.

So curiously, within the liberal family, the neoliberals were not an ‘extremist fringe’. They would actually cede wider competences to the state than many of their intellectual relatives.

8 thoughts on “The spectre of “neoliberalism””

  1. Posted 21/12/2009 at 11:31 | Permalink

    One particularly absurd definition I read once claimed that neo-liberalism was a form of neo-conservatism. It didn’t seem to occur to the writer that neo-conservatives might not feel the need to use an alternative label. The really interesting thing about the term ‘neo-liberal’ however is that it also used by others as a mode of criticism, but never as something anyone described themselves as. It is really just a lazy catch-all for people like Klein who find thinking difficult.

  2. Posted 21/12/2009 at 11:43 | Permalink

    Good post which raises a number of issues. Assuming Klein’s comments are in context, she obviously finds nuances difficult. One reason why labels change is because socialists “steal” them from us. Another reason is because different people do actually think differently (a concept that a socialist might find difficult to handle). Of course, a liberal believes that people should be free – including being free to reject all commercial relationships in favour of subsistence. And there will be differences as to how freedom should be limited by government for very particular reasons. More importantly, of course, the neo-liberalism that is held to have (for example) caused the crash is an invention.

  3. Posted 21/12/2009 at 11:58 | Permalink

    I wonder whether classical liberals are similarly guilty of submerging the nuances of socialist thinking under catch-all labels. There are significant differences between, say, Leninists and Trotskyites, but how many of us have taken the time to examine these perspectives in detail?

  4. Posted 21/12/2009 at 14:15 | Permalink

    Richard, I was at a seminar last week with someone who proclaimed himself to be a post-marxist social constructionist. Being post-marxist apparently doesn’t mean he rejects Marx, but thinks that he’ll steal the ‘good’ bits and leave all the bits about historical inevitability. I find one way to annoy people on the left is to use the blanket term ‘Trot’ to describe them all.

  5. Posted 23/12/2009 at 11:02 | Permalink

    One of the really ironic things at present is the number of books written by left-wing academics foretelling the collapse of capitalism – search for books on capitalism by publication date on Amazon and you come up with lots of works due for publication next year. The irony, of course, is that it is an area that publishers think will be rather profitable. There is clearly a market for books on the end of the market!

  6. Posted 23/12/2009 at 12:19 | Permalink

    “Naomi Klein’s wide definition doesn’t leave us any wiser.”

    To be fair, I don’t think that Naomi Klein has ever left anybody any the wiser!

    Yes, Friedman called himself (accurately) a liberal, and many of his adherents (sometimes also accurately) called themselves conservative. The American bastardisation of the term “liberal” has been the subject of litres of (virtual) ink, and is a problem old enough that Mises was obliged to subtitle his book on the subject Liberalism in the Classical tradition.

  7. Posted 23/12/2009 at 12:22 | Permalink

    Interestingly, the New Liberalism was the term given to the interventionist, Liberal Socialism preached by Hobhouse and practiced by Lloyd George – a parallel of your German example.

    I’ve noted before that, to my mind, Neo-Liberals believe in state intervention in (for example) competition policy and – crucially – the money supply. Friedman and the monetarists are Neo-Liberals whereas Hayek and the whigs were Classical Liberals.

    Naiomi Klein, by comparison, is a Socialist. She therefore probably thinks that she should be called a “Liberal” (no qualification). She is wrong.

  8. Posted 13/07/2012 at 11:27 | Permalink

    I am not surprised that neoliberals would deny they are neoliberals. Neoliberalism is NOT an intellectual movement, it is a plan of action and an outcome: minimise the state to maximise corporate profits. The trappings of an ideology are then woven to justify this goal.

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