At Larvatus Prodeo, Kim writes about The great American neoliberal liberal blog kerfuffle where blogger Freddie deBoer claims that "almost anything resembling an actual left wing has been systematically written out of the conversation within the political blogosphere".
According to deBoer "the nominal left of the blogosphere is almost exclusively neoliberal". But Australian readers shouldn’t assume they know what this means. The term ‘neoliberal’ has a peculiar history in the United States where it often refers to a precursor to the Third Way.
The liberalism that’s being reinvented by this neoliberalism is not the classical liberalism of Adam Smith and John Locke as revived and reinterpreted by thinkers like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. Instead it’s the American liberalism of Franklin D Roosevelt and Lyndon B Johnson subjected to an extreme make-over by journalists at the Washington Monthly and the New Republic.
Here’s how the Washington Monthly‘s Charles Peters described the movement in 1983:
If neoconservatives are liberals who took a critical look at liberalism and decided to become conservatives, we are liberals who took the same look and decided to retain our goals but abandon some of our prejudices. We still believe in liberty and justice and a fair chance for all, in mercy for the afflicted and help for the down and out. But we no longer automatically favor unions and big government or oppose the military and big business. Indeed, in our search for solutions that work, we have come to distrust all automatic responses, liberal or conservative.
As Ezra Klein notes, neoliberalism often looks more like a positioning device than an honest critique of American liberalism. When Ronald Reagan came to office in 1981, liberalism had become a dirty word. So the neoliberals tried to strip away the most objectionable features of post 1960s liberalism — the perception that it was soft on crime, welfare dependency and national security. And they went on to attack what they saw as the Reaganites’ Achilles heel — the ideological claim that every problem could be solved by cutting taxes and reducing the size and scope of government.
As Nicholas Lenmann put it, neoliberals needed to remind voters that government wasn’t meeting its most basic obligations : "It doesn’t provide every child with a decent free education. It doesn’t adequately protect the environment. It doesn’t keep cities free of crime. It doesn’t maintain the roads and keep the military in a state of readiness."
Neoliberals marketed themselves as post-ideological problem solvers. The movement’s was style was a kind of non-nonsense wonkishness. If public opinion constrained policy choices then this was just another aspect of reality that needed to be dealt with. If privatisation and competition produced better outcomes than state ownership and control then public sector unions needed to be dealt with. In the end, it wasn’t about left versus right, it was about what worked and what didn’t.
By the early 1990s, the neoliberal style had become mainstream. With the economy mired in recession, George Bush struggled in the polls — not even victory against Iraq could save him. Bill Clinton swept into office and the Reagan/Bush era was over. In a 2005 piece for the American Prospect, Matt Yglesias summed up the difference between liberals and conservatives:
The New Republic‘s Jonathan Chait had an interesting proposal: Liberals don’t really need philosophy. That’s because we’re pragmatic empiricists who want to know what works. There’s some truth to that, and I think it does a lot to explain why conservatives tend, broadly speaking, to be more philosophical. On economic matters, in particular, conservative policies are drawn together by a broad principle: Small government is good, regulation should be light, and taxes should be low. Liberals don’t really accept the reverse of those propositions. While the right thinks taxes should be as low as possible, liberals don’t think they should be as high as possible. We think that should be high enough. But high enough for what? High enough to pay for spending on programs that work well.
But Yglesias went on to ask what "working well" meant. What were liberals trying to achieve? And that’s where the post-ideological image breaks down. Some on the left see the rising tide of materialism as the problem while Yglesias favours Depression-era Congressman Maury Maverick’s definition of liberalism as "freedom plus groceries." Yglesias favours the liberal idea that it’s up to each individual to decide what kind of life they want to live while the anti-materialists worry that the system makes people want the wrong kinds of lives.
But deBoer’s problem isn’t just that he disagrees with mainstream liberal bloggers about ends — he disagrees about means. Most liberals today believe that the tools of socialism have failed to achieve socialist ends. And more than anything, the heirs of neoliberalism don’t want to give their conservative opponents an excuse to label them moderate communists. DeBoer, on the other hand, maintains his faith in socialism and the idea of a workers’ movement. He believes they can work.
Meanwhile, Mike Konczal at Rortybomb suggests that "neoliberal governance techniques can be divorced from their current distributional mechanisms and turned towards progressive policy ends". And that’s an interesting idea. But when Konczal talks about moving to a ‘Foucauldian politics’ all separate senses of the term neoliberalism blend into one. So maybe nobody should ever assume they know what neoliberalism means.