A Durable Concept

A Durable Concept

Nothing has replaced neoliberalism as a better descriptor for the political-economic order we inhabit.

Jacqueline and John F. Kennedy address the audience at La Morita Resettlement Project in Venezuela, part of an Alliance for Progress visit in December 1961. (Cecil Stoughton/Wikimedia Commons)

After a long journey through the academy and into public discourse, neoliberalism has finally been widely accepted as a description of post-1970s economic reality. But recent political developments, especially since the pandemic, have generated discussion about the possibility that something new is emerging.

We asked three historians whether we are witnessing the end of neoliberalism. Gary Gerstle and Julia Ott also responded.


Predictions of neoliberalism’s demise date at least to the late 1990s—the days of the Asian financial crisis and the indictment of Augusto Pinochet. Since then, they have recurred every few years, with the Argentine default in 2001, the rise of the Pink Tide in Latin America, the global financial crisis of 2008, the birth of Occupy in 2011, the ascent of Syriza in Greece, the election of Donald Trump, and the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2008, I remember feeling a distinct sense of déjà vu while reading the economist José Antonio Ocampo announce the death of neoliberalism in the Colombian press.

One reason that it’s long been difficult to say whether neoliberalism is reaching its end is that, as a political-economic order, it contains practices that predate and may well survive it. If we look back at the welfare, developmental, and socialist states of the twentieth century, it is no great struggle to find within them things that we regard today as characteristic features of neoliberalism: state decentralization, delegation of state functions to for-profit entities, austere systems of social-welfare provision, precarious and informal labor, technocratic governance, systems of self-help, household-level supervised credit programs, coercive international debt relations, public-private partnerships, ideological celebrations of entrepreneurship, and public policies that shore up the capitalist firm and the patriarchal family as guarantors of human welfare. The list could go on.

What, then, should we make of something like the “de-risking” state much discussed today? Daniela Gabor and other political economists have brilliantly critiqued governments that pursue development and green-energy transitions not through direct public investment and regulation, but through policies that reduce the risk of investing in key sectors, particularly for large institutional investors. Seen historically, “de-risking” bears more than a passing resemblance to mid-twentieth-century developmentalist practices in many capitalist economies. The earliest critique of de-risking depicted it as a retreat from older forms of development aid in the Global South, but development prescriptions were never limited to aid. The Eisenhower administration infamously rebuffed calls for a Marshall Plan in Latin America, telling governments that they needed to develop by making their countries attractive to foreign investors. During these same years, on the U.S. mainland, Sunbelt cities and Native American reservations pursued industrial development by competing to attract private capital with public subsidies.  Even when the Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations offered foreign aid, their policies functioned to reduce the risk of private investment in the United States and abroad, whether by guaranteeing markets for U.S. capital or subsidizing the operations of capitalist firms. Marshall Plan funds came with strings attached: recipient countries used the money to buy U.S. exports. The Alliance for Progress, a Kennedy-era development program for Latin America, provided lucrative opportunities to private capital, enlisting corporations and business associations to channel and receive development funds. The New Deal and the War on Poverty did much the same at home with urban and rural spending and anti-poverty funds.

Then, as now, private capital was no mere instrument or beneficiary of the state. Businessmen formally directed public spending. Contractors possessed capacities that government agencies lacked, and they used their positions within welfare and developmentalist projects to accrue political power and legitimacy. Then, as now, policymakers, businessmen, and economists waxed lyrical about the social value of attracting and generating capital, making it difficult to disentangle corporate interests from the public interest.

Gabor is absolutely right to highlight one key difference between these eras: today, finance capital rather than industrial capital is the primary beneficiary of “de-risking” policies. But capital’s parasitic relationship to the state, and its enthronement as an agent of progressive transformation, is nothing new. That is the reason that Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act can be interpreted as both one more permutation of neoliberal public policy and as the resurrection of developmentalist industrial planning.

Given all that midcentury and neoliberal political economies share, a few life-altering distinctions mark the last half-century as a new era. The rising power of finance capital and the repression of labor and revolutionary movements decisively shifted the balance of power in political and economic life. We continue to live in a world structured by those facts. The current wave of labor organizing and strikes in the United States, the historically high level of public support for unions, and the rebirth of socialism as a living tradition in this country all represent important shifts. But the fundamentally hostile structure of U.S. labor law, the ability of employers to exploit it, and unions’ reliance on political and shareholder power in the absence of real freedom of association have remained defining features of our political-economic order since the 1980s. What we are witnessing today is an extraordinary, high-profile mobilization against all odds—a critical fight on what continues to be an unlevel playing field. The future is unwritten, of course. If this mobilization can force the passage of labor legislation that genuinely protects the right to organize and extends it to all workers, we may well be turning a new page in the history of U.S. political economy.

The elements of the neoliberal order that have proven more fragile have been ideological. Today, no politician in the United States can get anywhere by presenting free trade as an expression of freedom. The concept of freedom has been so tarnished and divorced from the idea of economic liberalization that what once seemed a significant ideological dimension of neoliberalism is largely superfluous today.

To the extent that neoliberalism functions in the world as a meaningful epithet—a label for a political-economic era and a set of practices that its critics seek to destroy—then the concept may well survive even as its referent changes. Liberalism, conservatism, and socialism have had long such careers as concepts, serving to organize political conflict not despite but because of their layered and changing meanings and the political identifications they inspire. For at least three decades, left-wing analyses of neoliberalism—many of them articulated in moments of crisis and anticipated rupture—have given a name, a stylized origin story, and a certain coherence to a many-headed hydra. They have inspired mobilizations of great value and consequence. Some of the problems conventionally categorized as neoliberal could be politicized differently, as longstanding features of capitalism requiring a more thoroughgoing challenge. But today, I see no concept on offer that has the ability to replace neoliberalism as a politically meaningful, mobilizing descriptor for the political-economic order we inhabit. When the term dies as an organizing concept, that will be a new chapter of its own.

Amy C. Offner is associate professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Sorting Out the Mixed Economy: The Rise and Fall of Welfare and Developmental States in the Americas.

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