How Neoliberalism Became a Pejorative

 

Neoliberal’s have gotten a touch defensive lately.

Recently, New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait tweeted, “What if every use of ‘neoliberal’ was replaced with, simply, ‘liberal’? Would any non-propagandistic meaning be lost?”

Neoliberalism is the generally accepted name for the socially atomizing, inequality-generating, environmentally destructive version of late capitalism practiced by the US and promoted throughout the world through the Washington Consensus.

Corey Robin’s new article at Jacobin, examines why neoliberal’s, like Chait, are so defensive, and for clues looks at the early history of American neoliberalism in the 1970’s.

American neoliberal’s came from the Democratic Party, but were hostile to earlier New Deal programs. Unlike the classical liberalism of the 18th century or libertarianism, “neoliberalism—though an anti-democracy project—nonetheless seeks to use the state rather than destroy it.” But despite its reliance on state power, it’s markedly different from Keynesianism, which sought to assure full employment and attempted to temper capitalism. Neoliberals don’t see corporate power or inequality as problems to be checked through state intervention.

According to Robin, what bothered neoliberal’s was unions. “The problems with unions were many: they protected their members’ interests (no mention of how important unions were to getting and protecting Social Security and Medicare); they drove up costs, both in the private and the public sector; they defended lazy, incompetent workers (“we want a government that can fire people who can’t or won’t do the job”).”

Robin says that neoliberal’s, by attacking unions, were employing divide and rule tactics for their wealthy donor class, and were essentially acting no different than Republicans in their defense of capital.

“In the hands of neoliberalism, it became fashionable to pit the interests of the poor not against the power of the wealthy but against the unionized working class. (We still see that kind of talk among today’s Democrats, particularly in debates around free trade, where it is always the unionized worker — never the well-paid journalist or economist or corporate CEO — who is expected to make sacrifices on behalf of the global poor. Or among Hillary Clinton supporters, who leverage the interests of African American voters against the interests of white working-class voters, but never against the interests of capital.)”

In my opinion, this antipathy towards unions clearly demonstrates the class bias held by neoliberal’s and Democrats. After all, what are unions except a means for working-class people to associate and protect their interests? In case you haven’t noticed, corporations allow the wealthy to associate and coordinate their activities and in the process amass prodigious amounts of wealth and power. Neoliberal’s don’t seem to have a problem with corporations.

What neoliberal’s desire, above all else, is competition in the sacred market. Neoliberal’s fervently believe in a free-market ideology, that views humans as Homo economicus, making “rational” decisions based on a narrow, relatively short-term cost/benefit analysis and pursuing their self-interests relentlessly at the near exclusion of all other factors. That they as a privileged class is protected from the savagery of this dystopian world seems to not bother them.

The presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders has shone a light on neoliberalism and exposed its key role in creating the savage inequality and economic malaise we can witness around us. For neoliberal’s, used to operating in the shadows, this attention is most unwelcome.

This defensiveness extends to the neoliberal-in-chief, Barak Obama, who in a recent interview, defended his economic record. “Engaging in those hard changes that we need to make to create a more nimble, dynamic economy doesn’t yield immediate benefits and can seem like a distraction or an effort to undermine a bygone era that doesn’t exist,” the president told Sorkin. “And that then feeds, both on the left and the right, a temptation to say, ‘If we could just go back to an era in which our borders were closed,’ or ‘If we could just go back to a time when everybody had a defined-benefit plan,’ or ‘We could just go back to a time when there wasn’t any immigrant that was taking my job, things would be OK.’”

This kind of talk by neoliberal’s infuriates me. Obama talks as if all these economic policies came out of thin air and there’s nothing we can do about it. That there’s no alternative.

I have to call bullshit.

The dirty little secret of neoliberalism is that unlike small-government conservatives, neoliberal’s see government as an essential  tool in creating the kind of savage market structure  we have today. Society and markets are constructed through regulation. They are not self-organizing and they do not occur without government intervention and some established rule of law.  As sociologist Loïc Wacquant puts it, the neo in neoliberalism is “the remaking and redeployment of the state as the core agency that actively fabricates the subjectivities, social relations and collective representations suited to making the fiction of markets real and consequential.”

In other words, rather than forces outside of their control, the policies we have today are the result of political decisions made by Obama and neoliberal Democrats.

The Democratic Party, presently, is the home for organized labor, social activists that struggle for racial and social equality, environmentalists, and anti-imperialists. Democrats can therefore do what the Republicans cannot–sell their liberal constituents out to their wealthy donor class–the 1%. This is what the Democrats are politically skillful at. Enacting genuine policies that aid the 99%, not so much.

Therefore, the Democratic party, run by neoliberal’s, is more dangerous than the Republicans.

This reality is why I’ve been so focused on neoliberalism, and why I believe that we need to work to destroy the Democratic party as it exists presently.

Update: Hillary is also a neoconservative, but that’s another story.

 

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