Stretching the word “neoliberal” to cover people as different as Deng Xiaoping and Donald Trump has turned it into an absurdity.
Geoffrey M. Hodgson
Once upon a time, the word neoliberalism might have been confined to an extreme form of individualism that eschews state regulation, promotes economic austerity and a minimal state, opposes trade unions and vaunts unrestrained markets as the solution to all major politico-economic problems.
But today the usage of the word neoliberalism is no longer so restricted. I have been told more than once that anyone who is not a socialist is automatically a neoliberal. Any defence of the existence of markets now risks quick rejection with an angry neoliberal stamp upon it.
More frequently these days, a wide range of politicians, from Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan at one extreme, to Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Emmanuel Macron and Tony Blair at the other limit, are all described as neoliberals, despite, for example, hugely varied policies on taxation, government expenditure and the role of the state.
In their book on Neoliberalism, Damien Cahill and Martijn Konings describe the US President Donald Trump as a neoliberal. Yet he is a supporter of protectionism and he has imposed import tariffs: he does not believe in free trade. The word neoliberal is now stretched beyond credence and coherence.
Sneaky Deng Xiaoping was a neoliberal
Guardians of socialist purity have described some errant Marxist or socialists as neoliberals. In his Brief History of Neoliberalism, Marxist academic David Harvey described revisionist-Marxist Deng Xiaoping as a neoliberal.
From 1978, Deng supported the reintroduction of markets into the Chinese economy. But he still proposed a strong guiding hand by the state, including centralized management of the macro-economy and the financial system.
Harvey admitted that Deng’s policies led to strong economic growth and “rising standards of living for a significant proportion of the population” but he passed quickly over this ellipsis.
In fact, Deng’s Marxist-revisionist “neoliberal” reforms lifted more than half a billion people out of extreme poverty, albeit unevenly and at the cost of greater inequality. That was about one-twelfth of the entire world population in 2000. With this development, China halved the global level of extreme poverty. The bulk of the poverty reduction in China came from rural areas.
This achievement is unprecedented in human experience. If China’s extension of markets is neoliberalism, then neoliberalism is the most beneficial economic policy in history.
Vladimir Lenin and Josip Tito as neoliberals
But earlier contenders for the title of “the first neoliberals” can be found. In her book on Markets in the Name of Socialism: The Left-Wing Origins of Neoliberalism, the sociologist Johanna Bockman found roots of neoliberalism in the experiments in so-called “market socialism” in Josip Tito’s Yugoslavia from the 1950s and in Hungary from the 1960s.
There is no stopping this neoliberal treachery – infiltrating socialism as well as capitalism!
Adopting the methodology of Harvey and Bockman, I would like to nominate Vladimir Ilyich Lenin as the first neoliberal, for his betrayal of socialist central planning and his introduction of the New Economic Policy (NEP) in Soviet Russia in 1921. In this admitted “retreat” from socialism, Lenin re-introduced markets and profit-seeking private firms.
Crucially, in support of this nomination, there is evidence that Deng’s post-1978 reforms drew a strong inspiration from Lenin.
“A brainless synonym for modern capitalism”
Of course, I am being ironic. My point is that, thanks to Harvey and others, neoliberalism as a term has become virtually useless. As Philip Mirowski and Dieter Plehwe put it, neoliberalism for some has become “a brainless synonym for modern capitalism.”
Mirowski also complained that opponents “often bandy about attributions of ‘neoliberalism’ as a portmanteau term of abuse”. But Mirowski did not drop the term.
Geoffrey Hodgson & Philip Mirowski
In his superb history of the Mont Pèlerin Society, Angus Burgin commented critically on the term neoliberalism:
“It is extremely difficult to treat in a sophisticated manner a concept that cannot be firmly identified or defined.”
The word is no longer sound currency. Bad usage has driven out the good. It has become a swear-word rather than a scientific term.
Neoliberalism as a ruling class strategy
Part of the impetus behind the excessive and ultimately destructive use of the word neoliberal is the Marxist belief, expressed by David Harvey among others, that neoliberalism is a strategy serving the interests of the capitalist class.
Following the post-war settlement of 1945-1970, which conceded greater power and shares of income to organized labour, rising neoliberalism allegedly rescued the capitalist class.
Their evidence is that in several major countries from the 1970s, trade unionism declined in strength and the shares of national incomes going to the top five per cent increased.
Second, in several countries, including most dramatically in China, standards of living have increased, even for the lower income deciles. While for many people in the US, real wages have stagnated, this has not been the case in several other countries, particularly prior to the 2008 crash.
Third, the argument may exaggerate the degree to which the capitalist class is united, in terms of their real interests or of their perceptions of them.
Fourth, it is questionable that capitalist interests are best served by declines in real wages, given the powerful Keynesian argument that capitalist prosperity depends on effective demand in the economy as a whole. Higher real wages can increase prosperity across the board, and serve the interests of capitalists and capitalism.
Fifth, there are other, possibility more effective, strategies for countering the power of organized labour and reducing the incomes of many people in favour of the top five per cent. These alternatives include economic nationalism, which can take the extreme form of fascism. Generally these are not free-market, small-state approaches. If they are all labelled neoliberal, and regarded as the grand global strategy of the bourgeoisie, then the analysis becomes dangerously insensitive to the increasingly probable threats of economic nationalism and fascism.
Neoliberalism and the Mont Pèlerin Society
Perhaps the most well-informed and intelligent attempt to give neoliberalism a distinctive meaning is by Philip Mirowski, who associates it, more or less, with the Mont Pèlerin Society.
But the Mont Pèlerin Society changed to a degree, in substance and direction. It began under a different name in the 1930s and was first convened under its current name in 1947. It was then an attempt to convene different kinds of liberals in defence of a liberal market economy, just after the defeat of fascist tyranny, during an expansion of Communist totalitarianism, and while witnessing the rise of statist socialist ideas in Western Europe and elsewhere. Liberalism broadly was on the rocks: it needed its defenders.
As a measure of the relative inclusivity and internal diversity of the Mont Pèlerin Society, consider the testimony of the philosopher Karl Popper, who was a friend of Hayek and a prominent Mont Pèlerin member in the early years. Popper wrote to Hayek in 1947 that his aim was “always to try of a reconciliation of liberals and socialists”.
Michael Polanyi and Wilhelm Röpke
Michael Polanyi – the brother of Karl Polanyi – was a founder member of the Mont Pèlerin Society. He advocated Keynesian macroeconomics in a market economy, alongside a radical redistribution of income and wealth. He rejected a universal reliance on market solutions, seeing it as a mirror image of the socialist panacea of planning and public ownership. He did not mince his words against this “crude Liberalism”:
“For a Liberalism which believes in preserving every evil consequence of free trading, and objects in principle to every sort of State enterprise, is contrary to the very principles of civilization. … The protection given to barbarous anarchy in the illusion of vindicating freedom, as demanded by the doctrine of laissez faire, has been most effective in bringing contempt on the name of freedom …”
Polanyi had drifted away from the Mont Pèlerin Society by 1955, stressing its inadequate solutions to the problem of unemployment and its promotion of a narrow view of liberty as the absence of coercion, neglecting the need to prioritize human self-realization and development.
In its early years, the Mont Pèlerin Society hosted debates on the possible role of the state in promoting welfare, on financial stability, on economic justice, and on the moral limits to markets. Like Polanyi and other early members of the society, Wilhelm Röpke argued that the state was necessary to sustain the institutional infrastructure of a market economy. The state should serve as a rule-maker, enforcer of competition, and provider of basic social security. Röpke’s ideas were highly influential for those laying the foundations of the post war West German economy.
While they received a more sympathy from Hayek, Ludwig Mises regarded Röpke’s views as “outright interventionist”. Mises once became so frustrated with these ongoing arguments in favour of a major role for the state that he stormed out of a Mont Pèlerin Society meeting shouting: “You’re all a bunch of socialists.”
The rise of Milton Friedman
Angus Burgin’s history of the society shows how its early period of relative inclusivity was followed by schisms, departures, and a narrowing of opinion. People like Polanyi and Röpke became inactive. Eventually the primary locus of the Mont Pèlerin Society shifted to the US, with greatly increased corporate funding under the rising intellectual leadership of Milton Friedman.
Hence the Mont Pèlerin Society evolved from a broad liberal forum to one focused on promoting a narrow version of liberalism that is more redolent of Herbert Spencer than of Adam Smith, Thomas Paine or John Stuart Mill.
This ultra-individualist liberalism entailed a narrow definition of liberty as the absence of coercion, it relegated the goal of democracy, it neglected economic inequality, it overlooked the limits to markets, it saw very limited grounds for state welfare provision and intervention in financial markets, and it stressed self-interest rather than moral motivation.
Perhaps Friedman was a neoliberal. Perhaps Hayek too. But if we add Lenin, Tito, Deng or Trump to the list, then we are in the realms of absurdity – the term becomes useless.
1 June 2018
This book elaborates on the issues raised in this blog:
Published by University of Chicago Press in January 2018
Bockman, Johanna (2011) Markets in the Name of Socialism: The Left-Wing Origins of Neoliberalism (Stanford: Stanford University Press).
Burgin, Angus (2012) The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets since the Depression (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press). See esp. pp. 57, 80-86, 116, 121.
Cahill, Damien and Konings, Martijn (2017) Neoliberalism (Cambridge UK and Medford MA: Polity Press). See esp. pp. 144-5.
Harvey, David (2005) A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press). See esp. pp. 1-3, 120-22.
Jacobs, Struan and Mullins, Phil (2016) ‘Friedrich Hayek and Michael Polanyi in Correspondence’, History of European Ideas, 42(1), pp. 107-30.
Mirowski, Philip (2013) Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown (London and New York: Verso). See esp. pp. 29, 71.
Mirowski, Philip and Plehwe, Dieter (eds) (2009) The Road from Mont Pèlerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press). See esp. p. xvii.
Pantsov, Alexander and Levine, Steven I. (2015) Deng Xiaoping: A Revolutionary Life (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press). See esp. p. 373.
Polanyi, Michael (1940) The Contempt of Freedom: The Russian Experiment and After (London: Watts). See esp. pp. 35 ff., 57-58.
Ravallion, Martin, and Shaohua Chen (2005) ‘China’s (Uneven) Progress against Poverty’, Journal of Development Economics, 82(1), pp. 1-42.