On the other side of the Pacific, bloggers are arguing over something called ‘left neoliberalism’. What began as a dispute over monetary policy between Yglesias and Doug Henwood quickly widened into a debate over political philosophy and strategies to rebuild the American left. But what is ‘left neoliberalism’?
Recently Yglesias’ left leaning readers have been complaining about his shift to the right. Freddie DeBoer says Yglesias was once his favourite blogger but now he has capitulated to the establishment: "He is now one of the most vocal of the neoliberal scolds, forever ready to define the ‘neoliberal consensus’ as the truth of man and to ignore left-wing criticism."
Other readers feel the same way: "Yglesias, both in substance and tone, has become much, much less left wing and much more neo-liberal and rightwing", writes Derek. "I stopped reading him regularly last winter and stopped reading him altogether about 2 months ago", says TR Donoghue, "he had, in my mind, become completely a creature of his privileged background and Washington bubble."
Last year Yglesias gave in and accepted the ‘neoliberal’ tag. But he refuses to accept that his views are right wing. In response to DeBoer he hit back : "while I’ll cop to being a ‘neoliberal’ I don’t acknowledge that I have critics to the ‘left’ of me."
So what does it mean to be a left neoliberal? According to Yglesias, it’s about maintaining egalitarian values while embracing free market policies usually championed by the right. As he wrote last year:
What you see around the world is that policies of economic “neoliberalism”—fiscal discipline, controlled inflation, private ownership of businesses, openness to trade and investment—succeed in producing growth. In principle, this growth can make everyone better off. But what leaders like Lula, or the post-Pinochet leftwing governments of Chile, or Bill Clinton, or the Blair and Brown governments in the UK bring to the table is to actually deliver on that promise through tax and welfare policies that ensure growth is broadly shared.
Yglesias major concerns are not about redressing the power imbalance between labour and capital or curbing the power of multi-national corporations. He’s not even that interested in debating the size of government. In March last year he wrote:
… progressive efforts to expand the size of the welfare state are basically done. There are big items still on the progressive agenda. But they don’t really involve substantial new expenditures. Instead, you’re looking at carbon pricing, financial regulatory reform, and immigration reform as the medium-term agenda. Most broadly, questions about how to boost growth, how to deliver public services effectively, and about the appropriate balance of social investment between children and the elderly will take center stage.
What’s left are technocratic debates about particular policies. It’s an approach that leans heavily on economics. And that’s what the dispute over monetary policy was about. Asked to nominate the single best thing Washington could do to jumpstart job creation, Yglesias suggested the Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee should "announce a plan to target inflation at 3 or 4 percent."
When some liberals argued that the left should join the struggle against greed and materialism Yglesias huffed : "Anti-materialism on the left tends to reflect, I think, a kind of moral vanity." His own position is simple and unashamedly materialistic. In a 2005 piece for the American Prospect he wrote:
I like Depression-era Congressman Maury Maverick’s definition of liberalism as “freedom plus groceries.” Not just groceries, of course, but stuff—material goods—in general. The genius of liberalism as freedom plus groceries is that it identifies the doctrine with things people like. Generally speaking, people want to be free to do what they want. But mere freedom—in the sense of absence of coercion from the government—often isn’t good enough. Someone with no money is allowed to do all kinds of things, but he or she can’t actually do them. Hence the desire for more stuff, which is exactly what liberalism—at its best—aims to provide.
With this kind of blunt, no nonsense approach to freedom you might think that Yglesias has little time for political philosophy. And in a way that’s true. He adheres to philosopher Richard Rorty’s "first projects, then principles" approach to politics. It’s difficult for people who haven’t studied philosophy to understand what Rorty is up to. But when it comes to politics, he insisted that one thing the American left did not need more of was philosophy. What he thought the left really needed was a set of concrete projects would unite the left in a campaign against inequality. Yglesias writes: "I was sufficiently influenced by Rorty’s thinking to decide that even though I really enjoyed taking philosophy classes, I didn’t really think ‘doing philosophy’ was a worthwhile activity."
Quick links: What is ‘left neo-liberalism’, and is it politically viable? Matt Cowgill, We are all dead
A debate has broken out across various left-leaning policy blogs about the virtues of a technocratic view of politics versus one that revolves around mobilising organised interests. It’s a fascinating discussion about the means and ends of progressive politics.
The problem with “left” neoliberalism. Chris Bertram, Crooked Timber
I think that something like Yglesias’s general stance would be justifiable if you believed in two things: (1) prioritarianism in the Parfit sense and (2) that real (that is, inflation adjusted) income levels reliably indicate real levels of well-being, at least roughly.
Towards a Liberal Critique of Left Neo-Liberalism Policy. Mike Konczal, Rortybomb
… we should provide a reference to define neoliberalism. For academic purposes, I like Foucault’s definition, taken from the 1978-1979 “The Birth of Biopolitics” lectures given at the Collège de France. Here neoliberalism “does not ask the state what freedom it will leave to the economy, but asks the economy how its freedom can have a state-creating function and role, in the sense that it will really make possible the foundation of the state’s legitimacy.”
Left neoliberalism? David Ruccio, Ocassional links & commentary
For me, the neoliberalism in “left neoliberalism” is taking for granted the idea of neoliberal governmentality (as articulated by, among others, Wendy Brown [pdf]): that the state responds to the needs of the market, that the state itself is governed by a market rationality, and that individual subjects are constructed as entrepreneurial actors.
Liberalism and its Discontents. Kevin Drum, Mother Jones
Back in the 90s, if you’d asked me what my political persuasion was, I probably would have said I was sort of a neoliberal (in the American, Charlie Peters-ish sense of the word). My political leanings are liberal, but my temperament is technocratic and market oriented, and that made me a pretty good fit for the neoliberal team.
Neoliberalism’ – The ideology of pragmatism, Don Arthur, Club Troppo
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 ideology that dare not speak its name. John Quiggin, Crooked Timber
The set of ideas that has dominated public policy around the world for the last thirty years has been given a variety of names – neoliberalism, economic rationalism, the Washington Consensus, Reaganism and Thatcherism being the most prominent. Broadly speaking, this set of ideas combines support for free market (or freer market) economic policies with agnosticism about both political liberalism and the relative merits of democracy and autocracy.
The origins of neoliberalism. Don Arthur, Club Troppo
Andrew Norton wonders how the term ‘neoliberalism’ came to Australia. After searching the literature, he thinks it "probably started in Latin America, and came to Australia via US academia".
The Freiburg Boys. Don Arthur, Club Troppo
What if we decide to give the ‘Freiburg Boys‘ equal status with the Chicago Boys? What if we decide that West Germany really was an example of neoliberal reform and not some aberration? Much of the argument against neoliberalism hinges on the decision that Chile is a better example than West Germany.