What (Exactly) Is Neoliberalism?

Dissent magazine is currently hosting a forum on the meaning of neoliberalism—an oft-abused term in leftist circles. Historian Daniel Rodgers kicks off the discussion by arguing that the term is an unproductive conflation of disparate forces.  As variously used, it may represent: i) a description of the global economic situation; ii) a strain of economic theory; iii) the machinations of so-called disaster capitalists; or iv) an all-embracing cultural logic.  Rodgers opposes this conceptual indeterminacy because, he claims, it makes it more difficult to identify potential avenues of resistance.  Of course, what “neoliberalism” means will depend on the context in which it is deployed.  I want to suggest, though, that for those in the humanities (like myself) the term is useful precisely because it is all-encompassing.  In short, it’s a concept capable of tying together the global and the local, the economic (definitions i, ii & iii) and the cultural (definition iv).  As such, it’s useful for reminding us of our embeddedness.

To illustrate my point, I’d like to present some empirical observations.  All of the following points, I’d argue, represent verifiable facts about the nature of life in Western society.  What’s the connection?

  1. In 1950 there were 2,500 private, in-ground swimming pools in the United States.  In 2009 there were 5.2 million (see City Observatory).
  2. When I first enrolled at the University of Kansas in 1998, my tuition was about $1200 a year.  As of 2016, tuition at KU was about $11,000.
  3. Throughout the 20th century, marijuana, gambling and pornography were all, to varying degrees, prohibited by law in the United States.  As of 2018, all these “vices” are tolerated, if not outright legal.
  4. Throughout the 20th century, by and large, claims that a person had the right or privilege to select their own gender were met with hostility or derision.  As of 2018, a wide segment of the US population believes that people do—or at least should—have such a right.
  5. Throughout the 20th century, it was possible for a criminal defendant to escape incarceration on the grounds that he or she was not guilty “by reason of insanity.”  As of 2018, this defense is rarely successfully.  If a defendant is held to be insane, the result is typically long-term commitment indistinguishable from incarceration.

At first glance these observations might seem like a jumble, devoid of any pattern that can be charted.  To make sense of them, we need a meta-category, a cultural logic.  This is what neoliberalism provides. It’s a thread we can use to unite changes in physical environs (1), resources allocation (2), law and policy (3 & 5), and values and mores (4).

So what’s the connection?  Following Stuart Hall and Michel Foucault, I understand neoliberalism as the interjection of the market into every facet of the lifeworld.  Under neoliberalism, people are conceived of as rational economic actors.  They are expected to weigh cost and benefits, to become profit-maximizing “entrepreneurs of the self.”  To facilitate profit maximization, control is decentralized.  Normativity is less strictly enforced as to allow each private entrepreneur to seek profit opportunities invisible to the “powers that be.”  In such a world, if you want to swim, you need to build the pool.  If you want a college education, you need to pay (a lot) for it.  If you have the funds, though, there are more socially valid consumption choices than ever before (weed, porn).  Identity categories also proliferate.  If you feel like a woman, or a transwoman, or a Hijra, you can become one, because, of course, the customer is always right.  Just don’t step out of line.  As a (supposed) profit-maximizer, you will be held responsible for your actions, whether structurally disadvantaged (E.G. insane) or not.

Rodgers would likely criticize my understanding of “neoliberalism” as lacking precision.  He identifies neoliberalism-as-cultural-logic as “the saddest and most totalizing scenario… in which the horizons of all other meanings and purposes shrink and submit to those of market capitalism.”  He sees this way of thinking as leading to despair.  I simply disagree.  Yes, market logic and the demands of global finance dominate our lifeworld.  No, this doesn’t mean human flourishing is foreclosed.

Rodgers, like many on the left, seems to view a binary sort of resistance to the demands of capital as the highest ethical impulse.  For him, the idea that the market structures our ever move is depressing because we can only do good at a remove from market forces.  My claim, I suppose, is that there is no remove.  We are all (human) capital.  And that’s OK.  An objective assessment of the past fifty years indicates both obstacles to human flourishing (the dismantling of the welfare state in the US and UK, no more public pools) and massive progress (a billion Chinese peasants lifted out of poverty, gay rights).  Neoliberalism as an all-encompassing cultural logic allows us to capture this duality.  In doing so, it helps us to better understand ourselves.  It asks us to consider whether, from a perch as an emeritus professor at Princeton, for example, we can really be said to oppose market logic.  Or whether, all along, we’ve just been working within the system to mitigate its worse tendencies.

So, while noting Rodgers concerns, I will keep using “neoliberalism” in an expansive sense.  Yes, mine is an admittedly reductive narrative, and of course you could identify cultural currents which contradict the story I tell.  I think, though, as a writer and teacher (and human) it’s useful to have a broad cultural narrative within which to frame one’s existence.  It doesn’t directly answer any questions, but it allows you to better go about answering questions in your particular domain.  And if broad enough, in a way, it keeps you honest.  It reminds you that however much you want to be, you are almost certainly not outside the system.

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