Technocratic elites and their apologists once justified their social standing by claiming simply to know more about the things that matter than everybody else. Maybe it was even a better time. But now it’s gone, and ignorance is power.
A ruling class, dizzying itself with the simultaneous beliefs that most people are fundamentally stupid and don’t know what’s good for them, and that one can exert influence by appealing to the vague cultural markers ordinary people like, has decided to become vigorously, monumentally stupid. You can see this process play out whenever one of its leading journalists is forced to reckon with the word “neoliberalism.”
The same people who love to dream up strange and senseless new conceptual systems, who pore over the minor details of insurance law with a philatelist’s perverse giddiness, who think that “innovation” or “aspiration” are good and worthwhile concepts, will suddenly slacken their jaws and cross their eyes, and insist that one of the most studied and documented concepts in modern sociology simply has no meaning. Do you really expect ordinary people to know what you mean if you start talking about something as dry and academic as neoliberalism? Do you really think you could use it to “to strike up a conversation with some strangers in a bowling alley in Toledo”?
That line belongs to New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait, who recently penned a diatribe titled “How ‘Neoliberalism’ Became the Left’s Favorite Insult of Liberals.” He claims that “neoliberal” has become a term of abuse, by which socialists try to distinguish themselves from good moderate liberals. It’s a meaningless term, he claims, entirely useless “as an analytic tool.” But by using this epithet, the left can pretend that the Democratic Party was once the home of a robust New Deal social democracy, but has been hijacked by right-leaning forces. Exactly how all this happened is never actually discussed.
As a political columnist, Chait has his admirable qualities. His output is prodigious: on an average day, he’ll pump out around three articles for the magazine, which is certainly more Jonathan Chait than any reader could possibly handle. But this creates its own problems. He tends to repeat himself, as with a series of virtually identical screeds insisting that socialism is both entirely irrelevant and a mortal danger, or a similarly monotonous current on the evils of political correctness. Or sometimes, he’ll be forced to write about things he doesn’t really understand. And Jonathan Chait simply does not understand neoliberalism.
As a comrade pointed out to me, “where most pundits simply rip off Wikipedia for their pieces, Chait doesn’t even bother to check it.” The name Milton Friedman does not appear once in Chait’s discussion of neoliberalism. Neither do Friedrich von Hayek, James M Buchanan, Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan. He also conveniently omits mention of Augusto Pinochet. (Chile seems to be a particular blind spot for Chait—in his most recent anti-socialist column, he writes that “every Marxist government in history has monopolized power,” which is not just nakedly false, but happily conceals what his friends in Washington tend to do to those socialist governments that don’t monopolize power.) Instead, Chait decides to spend the opening chunk of his essay talking about how a few fellow journalists decided to start using the word “neoliberalism” to refer to their own “moderately liberal” opinions.
I don’t doubt that they did, but the neoliberalism of Chait and his Washington Monthly pals is not the one that despoiled the globe or crushed working-class solidarity or restructured social consciousness; it’s not the ideology that anyone who calls Chait a neoliberal now is talking about. The fact that Chait thought the term was coined in the 1980s, when its general sense was already in use (Friedman’s “Neo-Liberalism and Its Prospects” was published in 1951), only shows that his cluelessness hasn’t come on with age. Instead of “neoliberalism” denoting a specific set of economic and social practices that affect everyone, Chait uses it as a signifier for the strange, nameless feeling of hurt and frustration he experiences whenever someone lobs the descriptor at him.
Here is how Chait defines neoliberalism. He notes, at one point, that “the widely publicized influence of neoconservatives within the Bush administration changed the connotation of ‘neo'” and that “by the end of Bush’s term, it became an intensifier.” “Neo” means bad, and liberalism means liberalism. A neoliberal, then, is a liberal who is more right-wing. But it also refers to capitalism as such. Chait writes:
“‘Neoliberal’ means capitalist, as distinguished from socialist. That meaning has rarely had much application in American politics, because liberals and conservatives both believe (to starkly differing degrees) in capitalism. If ‘neoliberal’ simply describes a belief in some role for market forces, then it is literally true that liberals and conservatives are both ‘neoliberal.'”
He adds, “It is strange, though, to apply a single term to opposing combatants in America’s increasingly bitter partisan struggle.”
Except that it’s not.
Neoliberalism is not particularly hard to define. It’s not only an ideology or a set of principles; it’s a system of practices, and an era, the one we’re living in now. What it means, over and above everything, is untrammeled ruling-class power, an end to the class-collaborationism of the post-war years and a vicious assault of the rich against the poor. This is achieved through market mechanisms, fiscal austerity and the penetration of capitalist relations into every possible facet of human life. It doesn’t mean that the role of the state vanishes—an essential precondition for neoliberalism is the destruction of working-class power and collective bargaining, and this has to be achieved, often brutally, through laws and their enforcement. There isn’t just “some role for market forces” either, but their invasion into every fathomable social situation.
Warehouse workers are electronically monitored and made to compete against each other in efficiency rankings? This is neoliberalism. The young and unemployed are encouraged to build a “personal brand” and sell themselves as a product? This is neoliberalism. If you don’t like any of this, you’re encouraged to shop ethically, reduce your personal carbon footprint and consume vaguely antagonistic culture-commodities. This is neoliberalism.
The result of all this is that our society has become atomized: we see all our relations as essentially competitive, and the people around us as rivals for scarce goods; we are all, socially and existentially, alone. Everything we do is turned into a market transaction, a form of buying and selling. And this is because the free and unfettered market isn’t a neutral system for processing human interactions, but an instrument of class power.
It’s true that, as Chait points out, the term “neoliberal” can describe much of the broad spectrum of American politics. This isn’t a bad thing. It’s important to be able to give a name to the awful totality that surrounds us. Once it can be fixed as an object, something of which we have a shared perception, we can start to think outside of it. It was not always like this; once, capitalism took other forms. Without a concept that points out the grim sameness that seeps through a corroding politics, you end up like Jonathan Chait: obsessing over the differences between two parties, as one gives the rich their foot-bath and the other gently nuzzles at their scalps; being confronted with a well-developed theory of political and social conditions, and deciding that it must somehow exist only as an insult against you.