We all know how contorted the use of the term “liberalism” has been for decades. Liberalism once upon a time (before 1970) meant free competition and meritocracy without discrimination. But ever since then liberalism has meant affirmation action quotas and dumbed-down standards to achieve radical homogeneity in “representativeness.” Liberalism once favored eliminating the use of gender, racial and ethnic group membership as a criterion for advancement, whereas these days liberals almost unanimously endorse subordination of all advancement to such things. Liberalism once meant removing obstacles to competition and elimination of measures that simply protect special interests. These days liberals favor retaining as many such obstacles as possible. Liberals once favored reining in government and preventing subordination of markets to bureaucratic whims and political allegiances. Today the very essence of liberalism is to favor such things.
Nineteenth century liberalism was essentially the belief in free-market economics in most markets. This means that a nineteenth century liberal differs little from a 21st century conservative.
All this is highly confusing. When someone calls himself a liberal these days, we always need to clarify if he means that he believes in the 19th century’s classical liberalism, that of David Ricardo and John Stuart Mill, or the 21st century liberalism of Rev Al, Obamacare, and MSNBC, or perhaps even the hardcore Stalinism “in the name of liberalism” of people like Noam Chomsky and the writers at “Counterpunch.”
As if the uses of “liberalism” had not muddied the waters sufficiently, along comes the even worse rhetorical invention of “neoliberalism.” Whatever it may have meant in the past, these days “neoliberalism” is the nonsense word of choice used by Marxists to refer to anyone who rejects communism. A more honest pejorative by such people should have been “anti-communist,” but that word has lost its ability to shock and trigger goosestepping and line-toeing by wannabe fellow travelers.
The simple fact of the matter is that anyone using the word “neoliberal” these days is a Marxist or at least someone who thinks that markets should never be allowed to operate freely. Anti-neoliberals favor nationalization and state controls.
The term “neoliberalism” was originally coined in the 1930s to refer to the general favoring of free international trade. We need to distinguish between the original neoliberalism and the contemporary 21st century misuse of the term. The current trendiness originated in the 1980s. While some centrist liberals at the time used the word to describe themselves, it increasingly turned into a term of disparagement and mocking by radicals. Ironically, radicals these days seem to be using the word as a substitution for the earlier terms of disparagement: “neoconservatives” and “paleoconservatives.” Those derisions are a bit stale.
The “neoliberal” word was long used by the Left and especially by Marxists to dismiss the saner writers and columnists from Left of Center, particularly those associated with the New Republic and Washington Monthly. David Brooks used it in his NY Times essay “The Vanishing Neoliberal.” Google and Yahoo list thousands of pages in which the Stalinist web magazine “Counterpunch” has used the term. “The Nation” is not far behind.
Writing in the NY Times a few years back, Stanley Fish describes the emergence of the term:
I’ve been asking colleagues in several departments and disciplines whether they’ve ever come across the term “neoliberalism” and whether they know what it means. A small number acknowledged having heard the word; a very much smaller number ventured a tentative definition.
I was asking because I had been reading essays in which the adjective neoliberal was routinely invoked as an accusation, and I had only a sketchy notion of what was intended by it….
What I’ve learned (and what some readers of this column no doubt already knew) is that neoliberalism is a pejorative way of referring to a set of economic/political policies based on a strong faith in the beneficent effects of free markets.
As an example of neoliberalism, he provides this:
In a neoliberal world, for example, tort questions — questions of negligence law — are thought of not as ethical questions of blame and restitution (who did the injury and how can the injured party be made whole?), but as economic questions about the value to someone of an injury-producing action relative to the cost to someone else adversely affected by that same action. It may be the case that run-off from my factory kills the fish in your stream; but rather than asking the government to stop my polluting activity (which would involve the loss of jobs and the diminishing of the number of market transactions), why don’t you and I sit down and figure out if more wealth is created by my factory’s operations than is lost as a consequence of their effects?
Stanley Fish later cites one of his critics as saying that neoliberalism, like neoconservatism, is “an opaque catchphrase coined by wannabe pundits” that does not “refer to anything.”
These days the main function of the word “neoliberalism” is to reveal that the person using it is a Marxist. The Marxist jihadists against neoliberalism, along with quasi-marxists who kvetch against it, are using the word to dismiss anyone who thinks that markets sometimes work better than People’s Kommissars. “Neoliberals” according to the Left are people who oppose all forms of regulation of markets and all measures that boost equality. But in most cases, those neoliberal offenders being dismissed are not libertarian absolutists at all, just mainstream people who understand that regulation is one, but not necessarily the automatic first instrument for legitimate economic policy. If you reject the idea that every market must be nationalized and controlled by the vanguard party representing the interests of the “people,” then you just may be a neoliberal. The vanguard party, by the way, knows just what the “people” (or sometimes the working class) need, based on their having read Marx and not by means of asking the people (or workers) what they want.
Anti-neoliberals have an enraged bee in their bonnet when it comes to international trade. This is ironic because if there is one idea that enjoys universal support across the entire spectrum of economic thought and ideologies, it is that international trade always benefits people. It benefits small countries more than large countries. It benefits poor and undeveloped countries more than developed countries. But international trade smacks of “globalization” in the minds of anti-neoliberals, and so must be fought, although none of them can say just why. Globalization benefits the US and so it must be evil, and never mind if it also benefits sub-Saharan Africa. The anti-neoliberals are little different from the violent anti-globalization rioters and the “Occupy Wall Street” hordes. Their dream is for the world to adopt the autarky-to-the-death policies of North Korea, where countries should seek “independence” by means of disruption of international trade and impoverishment of their populations.
The Left’s reversion to the snooty dismissal of liberals, neo or otherwise, is itself enlightening. While conservatives long mocked them by saying that socialists are merely liberals in a hurry, there was an underlying revulsion towards liberals among real radicals. Liberals tended to be too touchy-feely, non-violent, defending the need for freedom of speech, appreciative of middle class standards of living and wealth, and too anxious to get their kids into good colleges. Radicals wanted violence and class warfare, and were more than willing to forego bourgeois niceties like freedom of speech and the rule of law in order to seize power. While willing to play along with their assigned theater roles as “liberals in a hurry,” especially when this allowed them to manipulate “popular front” broad coalitions, the radicals felt nothing but disdain toward the non-Marxists. That pretense has now been dropped.
A gentler and kinder person these days would conclude from hearing anyone toss out the term “neoliberal” that the speaker is an idiot who has nothing of value to say about anything at all. Someone less kind will understand that the speaker is a communist.
Anti-neoliberalism is emerging as the most acute intellectual disease of the 21st century. I think only Jeff Foxworth could do the term justice. If he is listening, here are a few modest suggestions for a new Foxworthy shtick:
* If you believe that the same government that cannot deliver the mail must serve as the single health care provider, then you just might be an anti-neoliberal.
* If you believe that true communism has never yet been tested or tried, then you just might be an anti-neoliberal.
* If you believe that the rioters who trashed Seattle in the anti-globalization protests really care about people, then you just might be an anti-neoliberal.
* If you believe that the “Occupy Wall Street” urchins really represent 99% of the public, then you just might be an anti-neoliberal.
* If you believe that the US was attacked by al-Qaeda on 9-11 because America is such a racist, selfish place, then you just might be an anti-neoliberal.
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