Newspaper article The Canadian Press

What Exactly Is Neoliberalism?

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

What Exactly Is Neoliberalism?

Article excerpt

What exactly is neoliberalism?


This article was originally published on The Conversation, an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts. Disclosure information is available on the original site.


Author: Kean Birch, Associate Professor, York University, Canada

I struggle with neoliberalism - as a problematic economic system we might want to change - and as an analytical term people increasingly use to describe that system.

I've been reading and writing about the concept for more than a decade. But the more I read, the more I think that neoliberalism is losing its analytical edge.

As a result of its growing popularity in academia, media and popular discussions, it's crucial to understand neoliberalism as a concept. We need to know its origins and its definition in order to understand our current political and economic mess, including the rise of nativism that played a part in Brexit and Donald Trump's election a year ago.

Neoliberalism is regularly used in popular debate around the world to define the last 40 years. It's used to refer to an economic system in which the "free" market is extended to every part of our public and personal worlds. The transformation of the state from a provider of public welfare to a promoter of markets and competition helps to enable this shift.

Neoliberalism is generally associated with policies like cutting trade tariffs and barriers. Its influence has liberalized the international movement of capital, and limited the power of trade unions. It's broken up state-owned enterprises, sold off public assets and generally opened up our lives to dominance by market thinking.

As a term, neoliberalism is increasingly used across popular media, including The New York Times, The Times (of London) and The Daily Mail. It's also used within international institutions like the World Economic Forum, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the International Monetary Fund.

Neoliberalism a Trump antidote?

Neoliberalism is criticized for giving markets too much power over our lives. Yet in light of the rise of Donald Trump and other nativist, anti-trade populists, there is a growing chorus of people extolling the virtues of neoliberalism.

What's most evident from this growing popular debate about neoliberalism - whether from left-leaning critics or right-leaning advocates - is that there are many different views of neoliberalism; not just what it means politically, but just as critically, what it means analytically.

This raises an important question: How do we use a term like "neoliberalism" when so many people have such different understandings of what it means?

I wrestled with this question when writing my book, A Research Agenda for Neoliberalism, in which I examine the intellectual history of neoliberalism. I do so in order to examine the different conceptions of the term and to expose the contradictions underlying our daily use of it.

The term "neoliberalism" has a fascinating intellectual history. It appears as long ago as 1884 in an article by R.A. Armstrong for The Modern Review in which he defined liberals who promoted state intervention in the economy as "neo-liberal" -- almost the exact opposite meaning from its popular and academic use today.

Another early appearance is in an 1898 article for The Economic Journal by Charles Gide in which he used the term to refer to an Italian economist, Maffeo Pantaleoni, who argued that we need to promote a "hedonistic world ... in which free competition will reign absolutely" -- somewhat closer to our current conception.

Adopted by liberal thinkers

As the 20th century dawned and the world moved through one World War and onto the next, the term was appropriated by a range of liberal thinkers who felt sidelined by the ascendance of state planning and socialism.

The conventional narrative is that "neo-liberalism" was first proposed as a term to describe a rebooted liberalism in the 1930s after the so-called Walter Lippman Colloquium held in Paris in 1938. …

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