Academic journal article Capital & Class

Against Neoliberalism as a Concept

Academic journal article Capital & Class

Against Neoliberalism as a Concept

Article excerpt

Introduction

This article argues that the left should abandon the concept of neoliberalism. As such, it contributes to a growing discontent with the term but makes a specific argument about its use by those opposed to what they characterise as neoliberal, those on the political left, who gain little by invoking it. The term is not recognised by our opponents, whom it fails to challenge, and it provides little help identifying strategic tasks for the left, muddying rather than clarifying political choices.

As the next section elaborates, neoliberalism has been understood in diverse ways to characterise a huge range of social practices. Often writers are talking about similar things, but there is no essential core meaning and in at least some cases rival interpretations become something close to opposites. This conceptual sprawl is well documented elsewhere. Here, brief illustrations merely demonstrate the range of practices claimed as neoliberal and two particularly striking antinomies: in idealist and materialist interpretations and in depictions of neoliberalism alternatively as state retreat and as a policy of strong states. It is suggested that while the social change and the social complexity underlying the diverse characterisations are real, the blanket term becomes an obstacle to critical social scientists' efforts to identify the relations between different social practices and the main drivers of change. Social science cannot be precise and many concepts are contested, but here the diversity of usage is particularly great with as yet little indication even of any movement towards establishing means of adjudicating between rival interpretations. This discussion is substantially unoriginal but provides a necessary background for the second part of the article, which asks why and for whom the term is being used.

This second section argues that neoliberalism is almost exclusively a term of the left, which gains no advantage by invoking it. It is used by opponents, mainly elite or academic opponents, of the phenomena it claims to characterise. This builds barriers rather than bridges to a dialogue with our intellectual opponents. Nor does the term help to orient political strategy. Taken literally, neoliberalism tends to exaggerate the novelty and liberal character of many contemporary social practices, while the sheer diversity of phenomena to which it has been applied obstructs rather than helps to identify strategic priorities. A tendency to mirror a libertarian binary, which posits the state and market as bad and good, is particularly unhelpful.

A few preliminary disclaimers are probably in order. First, with well over 400,000 academic publications having now used the term, it is impossible to engage with more than a tiny fraction of even the most influential sources. There have been some heroic efforts to review the literature as a whole, but these risk simultaneously oversimplifying the work with which they do engage and ignoring vast swathes of material. No such a comprehensive appraisal is attempted here. Second, this should underline that the criticisms here are not directed against any and every particular interpretation of neoliberalism. Many authors are internally consistent in their usage and unambiguous in the political practices towards which they point. The problem remains that if other accounts, including many of the most influential, use the term in a different way, the cogency of such particular interpretations might be better understood as emerging despite, rather than because of, the invocation of the term. Third, it should therefore be clear that no attempt is made to assert yet another, new and improved, interpretation of neoliberalism. That would merely add to the confusion. Fourth, this is not an argument that 'it' does not exist. The different accounts can point to real social phenomena; the criticism is directed purely at the designation. Fifth, objections to the use of the term should not somehow be taken to imply an approval of the numerous practices identified as neoliberal. …

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