Book: Liberalism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

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The neoliberal offensive

As alluded to in earlier chapters, one of the most prominent misrepresentations of liberalism has been the introduction of the term ‘neoliberalism’. In this case an ideological variant dons the mantle of a rival in order to clothe itself in rhetorical respectability and even to wrest ground, deliberately or unwittingly, away from established liberal versions. Neoliberals tend to see the world as an immense and potentially unencumbered global market, in which the exchange of goods for profit overrides other aspects of cross-national relations. Individual understandings of neoliberalism will of course differ. But in general terms, being a liberal is understood by neoliberals to characterize the free individual agent, alone or in conjunction with others, as being above all economically assertive. The defining features of that assertiveness are to maintain and develop the economic power inherent in capitalist production and transactions, to open up new areas for investment, and to benefit from the plethora of goods available for consumption. Neoliberals subordinate social, political, and cultural spheres to a professed self-regulating economic market and their principles are supposed to inspire the ways all social activities are run.

In terms of liberal morphology, neoliberals confine the core liberal concept of rationality to maximizing economic advantage. They do away with any idea of natural sociability and minimize mention of human individuality as the end of social progress. State power is mainly marshalled to guaranteeing trade and commerce, not to creating the conditions for human flourishing and well-being. Instead the unfettered power of the market is unleashed, so that the liberal concept of constrained and accountable power is circumvented. It is retained mainly to protect entrepreneurs in going about their business, while sidestepping the aim of a genuinely free market that could unlock the economic energy and inventiveness held to be intrinsic to all individuals. In its most recent forms, neoliberalism champions a world in which huge multinational corporations and mega-banks increasingly control and dictate the way we live, fostering an imposed and conformist managerialism. Instead of regarding economic intercourse as a means to the furthering of political ends such as peace and international solidarity, it sees political institutions as a framework arrangement for securing the efficiency and financial prosperity of the private sector. Liberal universalism has been replaced with neoliberal globalism; the ethical permeation of individuals has been supplanted by the economic ingestion of territory. Even governments themselves are predominantly recast as investors and facilitators of trade, rather than deliverers of welfare or social justice. Only when financial crises erupt do governments make efforts to regulate the world of banking, but that is done with a relatively light touch.

In promoting the notion of a self-regulating market, neoliberals approach conservative terrain. One of conservatism’s key features is a belief in the extra-human origins of the social order, reflecting sets of rules that derive from the divine, the historical, the economic, or the ‘natural’. Neoliberals provide a self-assured economic version of the naturally balanced system. In that version, attempts to direct and coordinate human effort can trigger catastrophic intervention when ‘natural’ economic rules are flouted. Hayek’s inspiration is evident on this point. In terms of liberalism’s layers, neoliberalism has been decoupled from its closest antecedent, layer two market liberalism, which nourished a moral vision of markets as a part of a civilizing endeavour, emphasizing individual talent not corporate power. There are few vestiges of an ethical mission towards a fair society among neoliberals—instead, levels of social inequality have been rising under neoliberal policies. And there is little commitment to engaging the engines of progress in the quest for human self-improvement. The welfare-state role of layer four is whittled away or handed over to private organizations. The constitutional arrangements of layer one, with their safeguarding of individual space and liberation from tyranny, are retained but effectively redirected towards free competition among powerful and vastly unequal economic players. In sum, neoliberals do not possess the minimum kit to be located squarely at the heart of 21st century liberalism. Put more forcefully, the complex morphology of liberalism is shattered and becomes barely recognizable.

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